Defining an ideology for the 21st century
Welcome to Our Neoliberal World
In recent weeks, our comments section has been filled with request to define a term we use constantly on this show: neoliberalism. For people who like buzzwords parsed and spelled out, this hour’s for you.
There are countless avenues that neoliberalism can lead us through: from the dismal science of efficiency and austerity to the dismal politics in Washington on both sides of the aisle. In our neighborhoods, neoliberalism may mean the defunding of our public schools as well as the deregulation of our public services. It’s driving impulse may be the ruthless privatization of everything in existence: from parking meters to prisons. It’s affective influence can transform our personal relationships, both intimate and platonic; gamifying our everyday relationships and turning the dating pool into a competitive market. Through the co-option of feminist and anti-racist struggle, it can disguise class enemies as “woke” allies. Through the commercialization of our artistic works and the corruption of our scientific research, it can convert our greatest human achievements into metrics on a spreadsheet.
So, instead of pursuing a single definition in this show, we’ve enlisted an all-star cast of public thinkers to discuss where they see neoliberalism creeping into their daily life and work.
Corey Robin—professor of political science at CUNY, author of The Reactionary Mind and a formidable blogger on the left—sees a specific evolutionary chain in the American political system. Against journos like Jonathan Chait, Robin has argued that neoliberalism is not just a pejorative synonym for “liberalism.” Its political use, in the U.S. at least, refers to a specific transformation within the Democratic party elite as well as their allied beltway outlets. The formal outlines of neoliberalism were drafted in the pages of the Washington Monthly—most notably Charles Peters’s 1983 “Neo-Liberal Manifesto,” but its influence extended well beyond this journalistic clique. Free-market friendly policies of the so-called “Atari Democrats” culminated in Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, but its deregulating drive began, as Robin reminds us, with the administration of Jimmy Carter:
Writer, editor, and queer activist Yasmin Nair—reporting from the grounds of American neoliberalism’s birthplace and de facto capital: Hyde Park, Chicago —tracks the ideological revolution through trends in mainstream feminist writing. From Lena Dunham to Arianna Huffington, Nair sees a rhetoric of therapy and inclusivity for elite women displaying analysis of class and power for the mass majority. The defining symbol of neoliberal feminism, Nair suggests, may be the bronze-casted “Fearless Girl” statue now staring down the bull on Wall Street. For the State Street Global Advisors, the Wall Street who funded the metal girl’s construction, the artwork was “intended to highlight efforts to get more women on corporate boards.” For Nair, it’s a cynical testament to elite striving and the desire to be recognized symbolically without resisting materially.
Greg Lindsay is the super-smart, MIT Media Lab-affiliated urbanist and technologist who has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg BusinessWeek. He’s looking at neoliberalism’s effect in the global city, where innovation and corporate cash flows in while families and working people are pushed out.
Moira Weigel, our favorite chronicler of love in the time of capitalism and the editor of the new tech magazine Logic, grapples with the interpersonal implications of neoliberalism in a digital world—one which profoundly alters our approach to friendship, courtship, and sex. She’s joined by Yarden Katz, our local biosystems whiz at Harvard, who argues that “neoliberalism reorders
If you’re still trying to nail down a definition, here are a few helpful guidelines sent in by our friends and our correspondents over email. Put your own definition in the comments!
George Scialabba, essayist and author of Low Dishonest Decades: 1980-2015:
I’d say neoliberalism is essentially the extension of market dominance to all spheres of social life, fostered and enforced by the state. In economic policy, this means deregulation and privatization. In culture, it means untrammeled marketing and the commoditization of everyday life, including the intimate sphere. In law, it means consumer sovereignty, non-discrimination (which is after all economically irrational), and a restrictive conception of the public interest. In education, it means the replacement of public by private (i.e., business) support for schools, universities, and research, with a concomitant shift of influence over curriculum and research topics. In civil society, it means private control over the media and private funding of political parties, with the resultant control of both by business. In international relations, it means investor rights agreements masquerading as “free trade” and constraining the rights of governments to protect their own workers, environments, and currencies.
Bonnie Honig, Professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University and author of Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair:
Talking about public things is THE way, in my view. And also, as I say in my book, Public Things, it is always key to notice the ideological character of the privatization claims of neo liberals, who say prefer markets to the state but always — nonetheless — enlist the state (policing, resources, etc) while claiming to have “privatized”.
In my work the primary way that I conceptualize neoliberalism is as a particular relationship between state and market, but my own perspective differs from the conventional relationship that is supposed between the two. Neoliberalism is often touted as laissez-faire, free markets, and ‘getting rid of the state’. In my view (and those of others in my field who work on this) this characterization is misleading. It is more analytically useful to see neoliberalism as a particular mode of economic governance by the state. That is, neoliberalism refers to the imposition to particular rules by the state (laws/regulations, policies, etc.) that (re)structure markets in ways that are held to be more efficient as well as to guarantee freedom of choice.
Jill Lepore, historian at Harvard and New Yorker writer:
Neoliberals prefer numbers to facts and data to numbers. They are now among those decrying the fall of the fact, but they have had a real hand in that.
David Bromwich, Yale professor of English:
Seven or eight years ago, I was walking to lunch with a friend, a former dean of the law school, who mentioned he’d been “talking at the reunion to Bob Rubin, who said, you know, America is getting to be a less and less desirable place to live, it might be time to think about living elsewhere.” This was conveyed in a neutral tone – as a curious and maybe perceptive remark, anyway interesting considering from whom it came! I didn’t react neutrally. But it has occurred to me that neoliberals act with something like the presumptive authority of absentee landlords between the time of the elder Pitt and Gladstone. Now the world is their Ireland and it is no more supposed to know how to run itself than the average smallholder or tenant-at-will.
Neoliberalism is all the rhetoric you hear in advertising and the media that assumes that our chief goals are to become more productive and competitive, to optimize ourselves like machines with apps and gadgets and “life-hacks” and lists of the 13.8 habits of highly workaholic individuals. The emergence of the word “creativity” as the great desideratum for individuals and corporations. Because it isn’t about self-expression or making art; it’s about creativity understood as a business good: “innovation” and so forth.
Illustration by Susan Coyne
writer, and activist based in Chicago, a co-founder of the queer radical editorial collective Against Equality and an editor-at-large for Current Affairs
departmental fellow in Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School and fellow at Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society
Urbanist, technologist, and author of Aerotropolis
"Neoliberalism, of course, can mean a great many things, many of them associated with the Right. But one of its meanings—arguably, in the United States, the most historically accurat —is the name that a small group of journalists, intellectuals, and politicians on the Left gave to themselves in the late 1970s in order to register their distance from the traditional liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society."
"Feminist principles are not, ultimately, simply about making things better for women. They are about paying attention to gender in order to think about policies that make things better for everyone. So, for instance, a feminism that is simply about ensuring that women at the top get bathrooms with diaper-changing stations means nothing if the women and men who are cleaning those bathrooms — and presumably wiping baby shit from the walls — get neither time off nor the ability to place their children in care while at work. A policy that ensures that female professors get to take a year off after having their babies is useless if the system continues to simply hire adjuncts of all genders — who get no such benefits, no matter how well paid they are — to fill in for them."
"This is education in the age of neoliberalism. Call it Reaganism or Thatcherism, economism or market fundamentalism, neoliberalism is an ideology that reduces all values to money values. The worth of a thing is the price of the thing. The worth of a person is the wealth of the person. Neoliberalism tells you that you are valuable exclusively in terms of your activity in the marketplace — in Wordsworth’s phrase, your getting and spending."
"No industry has played a larger role in evangelizing the neoliberal faith than Silicon Valley. Its entrepreneurs are constantly coming up with new ways to make more of our lives into markets. A couple of decades ago, staying in touch with friends wasn’t a source of economic value – now it’s the basis for a $350bn company. Our photo albums, dating preferences, porn habits, and most random and banal thoughts have all become profitable data sets, mined for advertising revenue. We are encouraged to see ourselves as pieces of human capital that must ceaselessly enhance our value – optimizing our feeds and profiles, hustling for follows and likes and swipes."
"Neoliberalism means many things to many people but the one trait by which it is always distinguished is its approval of the opt-out and a willingness to turn a blind eye to the hidden costs of such a choice. Everything is optional for the neoliberal; this is how neoliberalism defines freedom. Neoliberals opt out of any collective thing they can afford to opt out of. They believe everyone should be free to send their children to private or charter schools, to live in private gated communities, to hire private transport rather than take the school bus, and so on. “Choice” is their watchword (except when it comes to pregnancy) and choice is synonymous with freedom."
"Neo-liberalism is a terrible name for an interesting, if embryonic, movement. As the sole culprit at the christening, I hereby attest to the innocence of the rest of the faithful. They deserve something better, because they are a remarkable group of people. The best known are three promising senators: Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Gary Hart of Colorado and Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. The ones I know best are my fellow journalists, including James Fallows and Gregg Easterbrook of The Atlantic, Michael Kinsley and Robert M. Kaus of Harper's, Nicholas Lemann and Joseph Nocera of Texas Monthly, and Randall Rothenberg of New Jersey Monthly. But there are many others, ranging from an academic economist like MIT's Lester Thurow to a mayor like Houston's Kathy Whitmire to a governor like Arizona's Bruce Babbitt. There's even a cell over at that citadel of traditional liberalism, The New Republic."