Neoliberalism

Recently the word “neoliberalism” has been catching my eye. Two weeks ago I attended a panel discussion about contemporary labor movements, and one of the panelists used the term pejoratively to describe modern liberals who aren’t strong supporters of labor unions. A few nights ago someone stenciled graffiti along the sidewalk in my neighborhood (the Mission District) with the slogan “Neoliberals Cause Gentrification In San Francisco”. This message was apparently written by the same genius tagging “Queers Hate Techies” and similar slogans around my neighborhood. And if you do a Google search for the word “neoliberalism”, you’ll find all manner of opinion pieces using the term in a pejorative way. The implication of the word is that you’re not a real liberal: you’re a neoliberal. The affix is there to highlight that a neoliberal isn’t the real thing: it’s as if neoliberalism is some lowly derivative of true liberalism.

Google gives this definition of the word:

neoliberalism: a modified form of liberalism tending to favor free-market capitalism.

Ostensibly the idea is that a neoliberal is a person who embraces progressive, liberal social and political policies, but also favors free market economics. The contrasting philosophy is commonly called “classical liberalism”.

Is neoliberalism actually different from classic liberalism? It’s hard to say definitively, but I would answer in the negative. Classic liberal ideas were primarily formulated in the 19th century, at a time when there were a lot more laissez-faire economic policies than today. The unfettered industrialism of that era led to some of the most extreme wealth disparities in history. In fact, the phrase “free market capitalism” is in the first sentence of the Wikipedia page describing classical liberalism. It’s absurd to argue that free market economic policies are somehow a recent adaptation of liberalism, as the prefix neo implies. Historically, it’s much more accurate to point out that liberalism, including so-called neoliberalism, embraces capitalism insofar as more recent collectivist philosophies like socialism or Marxism don’t embrace capitalism.

I view the term as an example of a weasel word: a vacuous word whose usage is devoid of precise meaning, yet used by the speaker to give an air of authority and intellect. It’s an epithet used by liberals to disparage other liberals they don’t like. It encourages the listener to stop thinking and categorically dismiss the word’s target. We should avoid this word, and strive for more meaningful and descriptive language.