Neoliberalism: A Useful Concept?

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin .... No. 1518 .... December 1, 2017
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Neoliberalism: A Useful Concept?

Damien Cahill and Martijn Konings

It is only over the past decade-and-a-half or so that scholars have begun to explore in greater depth the ideological roots of the neoliberal project. Such contributions tend to focus on the emergence of a distinctly neoliberal critique of ‘collectivism’ (especially as expressed in the post-war welfare state and the state-planned economies like the Soviet Union until the end of the 1980s) during the interwar period, the way this was elaborated through various strands of thinking during the next decades, and how it came to have a crucial influence on political transformations. They tend to describe the transition from the post-war order to the neoliberal era by emphasising the intentions, ideas and interests of elite actors... and their ability to purposefully coordinate their actions and implement their political strategies. Examples of such approaches include well-known books -- written by authors who otherwise differ significantly in theoretical and political commitments -- such as David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (2008) and Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste (2013).

To a significant extent, it is this wave of scholarship that propelled the concept of neoliberalism to its current status as a key concept for understanding the contours of modern life. Until the early years of the twenty-first century, neoliberalism was perhaps more a ‘word’ than a ‘concept’ -- just a term used to refer to the general shift from the social-democratic era, to policies and institutions that were more concerned to promote market mechanisms and were more friendly to capital. As such, the word was used mostly as an adjective in major debates that were focused on related but different questions (such as globalisation, industrial restructuring, and deregulation). The word certainly had a somewhat critical connotation and was unlikely to be used by those (e.g. many orthodox economists) who would typically view economic processes as being primarily about neutral measures of economic efficiency and growth. Otherwise, however, the term was not the focal point of scholarly competition to define the character of contemporary capitalism.

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