How Ideology Works

How Ideology Works

Any successful political project binds together ideas, actors, and power. "Neoliberalism" helps us understand how these fit together (Photo: R. Barraez D’Lucca)

This article is part of forum discussion on the uses and abuses of “neoliberalism,” responding to Daniel Rodgers’s essay in our Winter 2018 issue. Read the other responses—by Julia Ott, N. D. B. Connolly, and Timothy Shenk—here.

Like Daniel Rodgers, I find that the term neoliberalism generally confuses more than it enlightens. I prefer when people just refer directly to what they are criticizing, be it the expansion of the marketplace into our everyday lives or the Democrats’ turn away from the New Deal. Although I think this is less of an issue outside the academy, the persistent and totalizing nature of the way neoliberalism is analyzed can overwhelm and weaken political action rather than bolster it. And though it is amusing to imagine speechwriters trying to work references to governmentality into stump speeches, thankfully Democrats aren’t running against neoliberalism in 2017 but instead against corruption, plutocratic tax giveaways, and defunded health care.

Yet I think the way Rodgers calls for splitting neoliberalism into its component parts, to examine and challenge each on their own terms, moves us in the wrong direction. It doesn’t solve the problems we are worried about. It has also been tried in recent decades, to disappointing results. There’s a reason you have to look at the whole, and the best research is combining the pieces rather than trying to silo them off.

There’s a good reason the term has become popular. During the 1970s something changed in the nature of capitalism. Rodgers, in recent work, has described the intellectual history of the past several decades as an age of “fracture.” Yet from the point of view of capital it’s been an age of coagulation. Income has pooled in the top 1 percent, which has doubled its share. Corporations haven’t become more disintermediated but have instead come more firmly under the control of its small number of shareholders. Industries aren’t getting divided up but are instead becoming far more concentrated, with new business formations collapsing amid wave after wave of corporate mergers. Stable and secure work has become fractured and precarious, but that experience is just the consequence of the increasing clot at the top. This has changed through interlocking revolutions in law, enforcement, policy, institutions, and culture, an ideological shift now commonly described as “neoliberalism.”

Rodgers would like to see the term neoliberalism replaced with several that each split the phenomenon into distinct parts. He would like to use the term “finance capitalism” to describe the changes in the economy itself, “market fundamentalism” to describe the views of elites in understanding the workings of the market, “disaster capitalism” to describe the policy entrepreneurs and institutions that execute plans, and “commodified selves” for the way the self has been reworked. By tackling each on their own we can point “toward tangible institutions, real world alternatives, and realizable politics,” and make it so “the linkages between analysis and action are explicit and direct.”

I think this takes us in the wrong direction. At a baseline, it reproduces many of the problems Rodgers identifies in neoliberalism as a concept. Who describes themselves as “disaster capitalists”? Whatever one thinks of the concept of commodified selves, it is no less jargony and abstract from a political organizing point of view than neoliberalism. But I think we lose something deeper by taking apart each of the individual elements without seeing them as a whole. Any successful hegemonic political project requires all three: the power source, the ideas animating them, and the actors carrying them out. Together, they form an ideology, which gives neoliberalism its strength.

Look at any successful neoliberal project and you’ll see all three. Take the Citizens United case that dismantled campaign finance laws. You have big-money interests looking to influence elections by any means necessary. But you also have an intellectual project that views all elections as simply another form of market activity, the argument that ultimately won the Supreme Court. You also have the numerous political and public-sphere actors, writing white papers and opinion pieces to fill in the gaps between these two forces. Taken together you have an ideological project. You can’t fully understand what happened unless you see the way these elements empower each other. Rodgers’s call to take them piece by piece gets us further away from seeing this.

The best new work on neoliberalism explores precisely these overlaps. Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City looks at how New York City’s 1970s fiscal crisis empowered both financial capital and a new policy-expert regime while changing what people believe they are entitled to as citizens of a city. Jennifer Silva’s Coming Up Short examines the way young people embrace an individualized, therapeutic self in the context of the Great Recession and changing economic institutions. Many go further and tie these elements to broader political developments; Melinda Cooper’s Family Values connects a resurgent cultural conservatism and its focus on the nuclear family to the broader trends of neoliberalism. Their analytical strength comes from their ability to maintain rigor with ambitious depth across all the elements.

Liberals have tried to push back against each of these pieces in isolation. Yet without an overlapping ideological project, these efforts fall flat. In response to the conservative 1980s numerous liberals went and got PhD in economics, using the best evidence and tools to show why aggressive social policy is necessary. Yet they find themselves boxed in by neoliberal ideological constructs such as human capital, and when the Great Recession hit they were forced to use new macroeconomic tools not up to the task. There was a big push from liberals in the early aughts to understand the network of Republican think tanks, leading Democratic heavyweights to launch their own. Yet they too often were playing defense, fighting on the terms of their enemies rather than changing them.

It would be a good thing if neoliberalism could be broken down into parts and each handled on its own. But like any project, it is far bigger than the sum of its parts. Though it contains contradictions and vulnerabilities, those show themselves most powerfully in the interplay between the pieces. Taking on the challenges we face will require tackling all these elements together, rather than trying to split them apart.


Mike Konczal is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and a contributing editor at Dissent.

Read other responses in this forum—by Julia Ott, N. D. B. Connolly, and Timothy Shenk—here.