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, Mike Konczal, and N. D. B. Connolly—here.
The time has arrived, Daniel Rodgers believes, to put neoliberalism in its place. By lumping together everything from the financialization of the economy to the marketizing of culture, Rodgers believes, talk of neoliberalism has given us confusion instead of clarity, and despair instead of hope. Rodgers develops his taxonomy of neoliberalism with the acuity that has made him one of our greatest historians, but he has also left out one of its defining roles: clickbait.
According to Rodgers, an academic conceit has escaped from the faculty lounge and now threatens to provide further evidence that progressives are intellectual elitists cut off from the real world. However valid the concern, his warning is too late. After headlining viral articles and trending on Twitter, neoliberalism has seized a place in the public discourse. The battle Rodgers wants to fight has already been lost.
Neoliberalism’s victory has come, to use a fitting metaphor, at a price. Rodgers is right that the word too easily becomes a generalized term of abuse for whatever the speaker happens to dislike about the modern world. Scholars, in particular, should be cautious about what they ascribe to neoliberalism.
But there is more to life than intellectual precision. Politics needs useful simplifications that help distinguish friends from adversaries and highlight problems that could otherwise remain obscure. Rodgers himself relies on some of the squishiest of these generalizations—“capitalism,” for example, which is even fuzzier than neoliberalism, and “progressive,” whose genealogy he devoted a brilliant essay to examining. As Rodgers observed in Contested Truths, his classic study of American political thought, “With words minds are changed, votes acquired, enemies labeled, alliances secured, unpopular programs made palatable, the status quo suddenly unveiled as unjust and intolerable.” If talk of neoliberalism didn’t perform these functions, the concept never would have made it outside the academy. To understand the ubiquity of references to neoliberalism, we have to ask why it can be so readily invoked today.
A generational shift in popular discourse is part of the explanation. College-educated millennials are close enough to their undergraduate days to retain fluency in the language of the professoriate, and they’re savvy enough to repurpose it for their own ends. A cohort that has made intersectionality a touchstone and Judith Butler an icon knows how to take what it needs from academia. Neoliberalism isn’t just a shibboleth in seminar rooms; it’s a staple of Weird Twitter; it has its own subreddit and an entry on Know Your Meme. Leftwing activists may hate what they believe neoliberalism has wrought, but leftwing editors love the traffic that articles on the subject generate.
Adeptness with jargon doesn’t explain why neoliberalism has spread while the more exact terms Rodgers prefers, such as “commodified selves” or “disaster capitalism,” have lagged behind. An inconvenient fact for skeptics of neoliberalism is that some of the key figures in the narrative they’re out to debunk insisted on calling themselves neoliberals. Rodgers is too good a historian to ignore this point, and he notes that in the 1980s self-described neoliberals sought to temper the Democratic Party’s commitment to labor unions and welfare entitlements. Much of this agenda would be realized in the 1990s, though by then its advocates preferred to style themselves as New Democrats.
What Rodgers does not remark upon—perhaps because he has written about it so astutely elsewhere—is that this history began earlier than the 1980s and reached far beyond the United States. The attempt to break the New Deal’s hold on the Democratic Party goes back to Franklin Roosevelt’s own administration. John Kennedy put a presidential seal on this effort in 1962. “Some conversations I have heard in our own country sound like old records, long-playing, left over from the middle thirties,” he lamented. “It is our responsibility today,” he announced, “to live in our own world.”
By the time Bill Clinton made his first campaign for the White House, Democratic Party elites had concluded that nothing they could do would resurrect FDR’s America. They were part of an international shift among leaders of parties on the center-left struggling to compensate for losses with a dwindling industrial working class by boosting their support from the middle class. Remaking liberalism became a consuming passion for some of the Democratic Party’s shrewdest tacticians, and more than a few hacks. Nothing prompted an establishment Democrat’s scorn quicker than an unreconstructed New Dealer. Joseph Klein channeled this disdain in Primary Colors, his thinly fictionalized account of the 1992 race. “It was like running against a museum,” a staffer for the stand-in Clinton campaign observes of a rival candidate “offering Franklin Roosevelt’s jobs program (forestry, road-building) to out-of-work computer jockeys.” Today, it’s the remnants of the New Democrats unknowingly angling for their exhibit in the Smithsonian, alongside the displays on dial-up modems, OJ’s glove, and other relics of the nineties.
Take another look at the topics Rodgers believes loose talk about neoliberalism homogenizes: financialization, market fundamentalism, draconian austerity measures, and the glorification of homo oeconomicus. Yes, each of these four horsemen in the not-exactly-neoliberal apocalypse has a separate history. But a faction of the Democratic Party fought to advance each of these causes, and they were supported by center-left parties around the world. They did not, with Thatcher, maintain that there was no alternative. In calmer tones, they merely insisted that there was no rational alternative—especially if you wanted to win an election.
Which brings us, inevitably, to Donald Trump. Rodgers attributes part of Trump’s success to his mastery of a straightforward vernacular that progressives have forgotten how to speak. Yet style alone cannot explain Trump’s victory. He had a message, and it resonated with millions of Americans who were willing to overlook his countless lies because he was honest about a few big things—about a rigged economy, an arrogant elite, and the people who had been left behind.
Trump didn’t call this system neoliberal. But there’s a reason the term continues to appear on the podcasts, Twitter threads, and discussion boards where activists are working out a political vocabulary of their own. Denunciations of neoliberalism cannot explain the world that has given us a Trump presidency, but attacking neoliberals can focus attention on figures who deserve at least some of the blame, and help the rest of us figure out where to go next.
Timothy Shenk is a Carnegie Fellow at New America and co-book review editor at Dissent. He is the author of Maurice Dobb: Political Economist.
Read other responses in this forum—by Julia Ott, Mike Konczal, and N. D. B. Connolly—here.