Reply: Fault Lines

Reply: Fault Lines

Words gain political traction when they resonate with immediate experience. “Neoliberalism” does not.

Words gain political traction when they resonate with immediate experience. "Neoliberalism" does not (Photo: R. Barraez D’Lucca)

This reply concludes a forum discussion on the uses and abuses of “neoliberalism,” responding to Daniel Rodgers’s essay in our Winter 2018 issue. Read the preceding responses—by Julia Ott, Mike Konczal, N. D. B. Connolly, and Timothy Shenk—here.

What’s wrong with the word “neoliberalism?” A lot, if these responses are to be believed. Used casually “neoliberalism” bundles, abstracts, and totalizes. It masks vagueness under faux precision. It imputes a trajectory to history that is overdetermined and simplistic. It smears; it conjures up witches. It cranks up the heat under the left’s internal ideological differences without shedding corresponding light. It lures us into anthropomorphizing “neoliberalism” as itself a historical actor. Even Mike Konczal, who defends its use, worries that it “generally confuses more than it enlightens.”

Worse, N. D. B. Connolly writes, it “suppresses” alternative histories of our times and how we got to our current condition. It “erases” even as it constructs. Like other theories of history that have thrived on the left, it presents the history of the white, economically developed West as a universal narrative for the world. It struggles to explain the tsunamis of nativism, racism, and xenophobia that are everywhere disrupting politics except as bastard side-effects of global market liberalization and economic transformation. Connolly makes the case for the weakness of “neoliberalism” as a totalizing term for understanding the recent history of the United States. The anthropologist James Ferguson has written acutely about the limitations of its application to contemporary Africa. With criticisms like these, caution is in order.

What’s right with the term “neoliberalism?” It opens up the possibility of analytical vocabularies beyond the mid-twentieth century liberal/conservative antonyms that have now outlasted their utility. It restores economy to the forefront of critical analysis after decades when it tended to slip away behind even vaguer and more totalizing notions of “culture” or “power.” Above all its asset lies in its capaciousness. “Neoliberalism,” writes Julia Ott, “references much of what distinguishes our contemporary moment in history, both in this country and around the world.” It “acknowledges the deep connections between a great many (certainly not all) of our most pressing challenges.”

My aim in cautioning against overreliance on the term “neoliberalism” was not to downplay these interconnections. In suggesting the need for deeper reflection on how the term came into being, what work it does, and what confusions it may conceal, I was not proposing that we “silo” off its elements into mutually independent pieces. Nor was I suggesting that the phenomena it links together under the tent of a single word have no mutual “repercussions” on each other. My goal was to encourage a deeper discussion about how those elements of power, ideas, structures, and culture actually interact.

The phenomenon we call “neoliberalism” rose from multiple sources, not from any single one. How its libertarian public face and its actual encouragement of the reaccumulation of wealth and power were made to fit together is an empirical question that the term in itself cannot explain. How state action was publicly devalued as a threat to freedom, even as state power was being enlisted by institutional actors who ostensibly decried it, can’t be answered by a noun, no matter how elastic or capacious. Analysis that only disconnects leaves us merely with fragments. We must study “how [neoliberalism’s] social relations develop,” Ott writes. We need to see the ways its faces overlap and the “interplay” between them, Konczal argues. I agree. We need, above all, a clearer sense of the “actually existing relationships” between the elements that the umbrella term embraces, I wrote. But without first asking what exactly is being linked together, and through what shifting combinations of actors, institutions, structures, and contingencies those conjunctions have been formed, those relationships can get blurred even in analysis as lucid as Ott’s.

A single omnibus noun can’t tell us what we urgently need to know about the vulnerabilities within the cluster of intersecting and overlapping things we call “neoliberalism.” It can’t help us see more clearly the fault lines it contains or the multiple points of historical inflection that gave it shape. It can’t identify the points of reinforcement, highlight the regions of strain and contradiction, or sort out the contingent relationships from the more enduring ones. Politically, the very bagginess and capaciousness of the term “neoliberalism” weakens its ability to spell out for us neoliberalism’s alternatives, or the ideas and projects that might effectively counter the forces it identifies.

It is in concrete cases like the Citizens United decision, or the bankruptcy crises that overwhelmed New York City in the 1970s and Detroit in the 1910s, or the dramatically told stories in Matthew Desmond’s Evicted (2016), that the ground beneath the abstractions of “neoliberalism” become visible. Of course, instances like these must be generalized and connected. Mid-level analytical terms need to be sharpened and deployed. Larger vectors of economic, cultural, and institutional power must be spelled out. But is it too trite to remind ourselves that disaggregation and integration are both crucially important to serious analysis?

The problem is not the term “neoliberalism” itself but the danger of its overuse, its potential crowding out of other terms, and our expectation that it do more for us than any covering noun can do. We are at a new moment in left-intellectual circles of high conceptual aggregation. Is it a sign of strength? A whisper of despair? A mark of faddishness? Or is it an occasion when we might recalibrate the amount of stock we place in our neologism of the moment?

“What kind of political work do we expect from words?” Ott writes. Not everything that politics requires, of course. Politics needs ideas, policies, projects, and agendas. But it needs the power of language as well. Words name and analyze. They make alliances possible. Historically, words that gain political traction have drawn heavily on immediate experience. Freedom is a seat at a lunch counter where your kind of people have never been allowed to sit before. Injustice is the blow of the cop’s truncheon on your head or his bullet through your unresisting body. Fairness is a better wage when the monopolists’ and stock holders’ returns are swelling over the troughs. When political words work, they aggregate these instances into larger claims and causes. They integrate experience with causal explanations and practical programs. They create larger words that can impel loyalty, action, even love. The “neoliberal” right is full of words that hold for its followers magical powers like these: freedom, choice, responsibility, dignity, self-reliance, innovation, flexibility. Many were stolen from the left, but they now shape the political word-space of the right with powerful effects.

Neoliberal is not that sort of word. It came into its current currency as a word of analysis rather than mobilization, Tim Shenk reminds us. But analytical words that gain political traction need powerful, visualizable, and experientially graspable legs, too. The “deep state” honeycombed with self-interested bureaucrats, the dangers of “job-killing” regulation, the “free riders” in our economic midst: these were brilliant linguistic creations, many of them invented in economics faculty seminars, that were simultaneously analytical and experiential. In the arena of day-to-day politics, Shenk writes, the word “neoliberal” can help activists on the left identify their enemies. But, frankly, almost any word can be made to do that work. If, resisting the pressures to bundle everything that matters into the term “neoliberalism,” the twitter threads, the podcasts, and the discussion boards are full of experiments with analytically acute but more experientially resonant language for the left than that, more power to them.


Daniel Rodgers is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. His book, Age of Fracture (Harvard University Press), was a winner of the Bancroft Prize in 2012.

Read the prior responses in this forum—by Julia Ott, Mike Konczal, N. D. B. Connolly, and Timothy Shenk—here.


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