Neoliberalism: What is it anyway?

When I arrived on the Puget Sound campus over two years ago, I experienced a bit of a culture shock. Originally hailing from Southern California, an area typified by strict political conservatives, I always felt out of place as the token democrat. Arriving at Puget Sound, I was astonished by the diversity of ideas, scholarship, and beliefs that have come to characterize this school for me. During my first few weeks at the school, I befriended more then a few Cultural Marxists who introduced me to the canonical literature of the field. My quiver of critical theory terminology quickly expanded, with many words that don’t find their way out of the complex and highly-theoretical field of post-modernist cultural criticism. One term that came up again and again was the term ‘neoliberal/neoliberalism.’ Naturally, I inquired about the meaning of the term, as it seemed to be used in a variety of contexts. Based off of several conversations I’d had with professors, students, and friends from back home, the general basis of the term revolves around how free markets provision not just goods but also creates epistemological frameworks for social spaces and social activity. This definition however, is highly contended particularly amongst the more materialist fields of academia, whom the term often times critiques. I figured it was time to get to the bottom of this case and survey faculty members from a variety of disciplines, both social sciences and humanities, to see what they thought. Here’s what they had to say:

Dr. Pierre Ly (International Political Economy)
“Being French, I noticed early in life that calling someone “neoliberal” was kind of the ultimate insult from a left-wing person to someone who just seems to be a little too enthusiastic about markets and not supportive enough of the role of government. My current, youthful President, Emmanuel Macron, is regularly called “neoliberal” by its critics, who may even consider his reforms violent and oppressive. In French, the term sounds quite pejorative, so much that those who hold these beliefs don’t use it to describe themselves. They’ll prefer just “liberal.” It doesn’t take much to be labeled “neoliberal” in France, whatever the term means. Heck, in my economics grad school in Toulouse, several professors I adored, like Jean Tirole or Jean-Jacques Laffont, were considered the world’s authorities on efficient regulation, and how the government could provide market actors incentives that align better with the public interest. And still, I had friends from very different kinds of economics programs (the kind that, now that I think about it, probably looked more like, hum, the IPE program, ha!) who considered I was being indoctrinated in “neoliberal” economics. And in my urban skating crowd, galaxies away from scholars, I remember one friend who was almost mad at me for enrolling in economics as an undergrad after high school! Because, you know, neoliberal neoliberal, neoliberaaaal! One last thing, fun fact: the picture for the Wikipedia entry for “neoliberalism” in English is a supply and demand diagram representing the welfare analysis of an import tariff. But the picture for the entry in French is… a picture of the World Bank’s headquarters, which, in my previous life, would have made for a great Halloweeen decoration.”

Dr. Richard Anderson-Connolly (Sociology)
“Neoliberalism is the belief that largely unregulated markets should be the primary mechanism for organizing society. In contrast to libertarianism, neoliberalism recognizes greater legitimate functions of the state in the economy. Nonetheless it calls for increasing market “flexibility” through weak unions, low minimum wages, free trade, and limited regulations on health, the environment, and working conditions. It stands in opposition not merely to socialism (which is no longer seen as a viable alternative) but above all to Keynesian and social democratic models of capitalism.”

Dr. Brendan Lanctot (Latin American Studies)
“As someone who studies literature, film, and other forms of cultural production, I understand neoliberalism as something more than a set of ideas regarding the unfettered movement of capital in a globalized market (deregulation, privatization, flexibilization of labor, etc.). Indeed, I would argue that neoliberalism is a now-hegemonic way of thinking our world from and through economic activity as the common denominator for all dimensions of our social existence. This is why, for example, humanities programs and, more generally, liberal arts colleges must “translate” and justify their basic mission in business-speak, in terms of “return on investment,” “employability,” “experiential learning,” etc. Crucially, though, I’d also encourage us to think of neoliberalism not simply as something imposed top-down, or by impersonal market forces but also as a lived experience in which our habits, behaviors, and cultural expressions adopt and potentially reconfigure (as well as resist) the neoliberal logic of quantification, data, “convertability,” etc., as Verónica Gago has argued.”

Dr. Lisa Nunn (Economics)
“I think the piece by Tucker on the historical origins of the term was fascinating.  From its origins neoliberalism is exactly the modern, Keynesian liberalism which dominates economic policymaking in the U.S. — not the “markets are always right” liberalism which is how the term tends to be applied. When others use the term, I hear it mostly as a pejorative — a way to denote a fanatical liberalist agenda.  That’s why I don’t use the term — it has too much baggage.”

Dr. Jennifer Utrata (Sociology)
“An ideology as well as a form of modern governance and power, neoliberalism encourages decentralized responsibility and the personal cultivation of autonomy and discipline.” (This is a partial definition)

Dr. Monica DeHart (Anthropology)
“Anthropologists invoke the idea of neoliberalism to refer to the political economic policies of liberalization, privatization, and decentralization associated with Washington Consensus principles enacted primarily in the 1980s. However, rather than just a technical term associated with particular political regimes (e.g., Reagan, Thatcher, Pinochet) or economic policies, anthropologists often use the term to describe a global hegemonic project that promotes the marketization of everyday life and the call for individuals and institutions to “enterprise” themselves to mitigate the retreat of state supports and to claim rights. Therefore, when I use the term, I’m speaking to a specific political economic logic and/or package of policies that have been deployed in different combinations around the world (i.e., can we speak of neoliberalism in an illiberal, socialist country like China?), while also drawing attention to how these policies have transformed social relations, privileged new cultural forms and identities, and offered new “answers” to the problem of inequality and development.”

Dr. Priti Joshi (English)
“My quick definition of neoliberalism is that it is the iEconomy.  I’m a literature professor so I’ll elaborate by way of analogy.  Neoliberalism is when a person can be cajoled into buying organic food because it is “good for my health,” not because it is good for the environment or planet.  If liberalism emphasized, above all else, the individual to the detriment of the social networks and communities that form and shape (even deform) us, neoliberalism is liberalism on steroids, a celebration of the individual to an extreme, isolationist extent. Evidence of such extreme individualism – of neoliberalism – is everywhere around us: Facebook invests in an extensive network of shuttles around the Bay Area rather than in a public transit system that serves a boarder community; individuals invest hours and dollars into our bodies and health, feeding the illusion that we can control our health and stave off the many environmental toxins that are the most likely cause of cancers and such; convenience to the individual is valued over commitment to communities and local ties ( over the local store).  Neoliberalism is economics, but cultural in its manifestations.”

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