[VIDEO] What is Neoliberalism?
Truman Chen

17 March 2017


"Neoliberalism" is one of those terms tossed around by both those who know what they're talking about and those who have absolutely no idea. It certainly feels good to say, whether in derision or in earnest deployment, and it's also something powerfully descriptive. But like any other complex concept, the definition of neoliberalism is often in contestation.

As the Stanford anthropologist James Ferguson wrote in his essay, "Uses of Neoliberalism," there is this "huge variation" in the way that the term is used. But he offers some helpful pointers:

In perhaps the strictest sense, neoliberalism refers to a macroeconomic doctrine (and is, in this sense, a true '-ism'). The key elements of the doctrine are variously described, but always include a valorization of private enterprise and suspicion of the state, along with what is sometimes called 'free-market fetishism' and the advocacy of tariff elimination, currency deregulation, and deployment of 'enterprise models' that would allow the state itself to be 'run like a business.'

Alternatively, but relatedley, it can be also used to refer to "a regime of policies and practices" to forward these interests, that is, what the anthropologist David Harvey has called "a class project" designed to further enrich the "holders of capital," a project inaugurated perhaps in the inaugurations of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In a time of unconscionable wealth inequality, tax cuts for the rich, and the dismantling of public services, among other things, it's hard to resist the idea it's getting at something here.

Recently neoliberalism has made headlines again as the subject of a popular article in The Guardian, identifiying it as the root of all our problems. Historians, anthropologists, political theorists, and the like, have made valuable contributions to our understanding of the term and this historical situation of political and economic dismay. Does philosophy have something more to add? 

For starters, check out the interview above on neoliberalism with George Monbiot, author of How Did We Get Into This Mess? (Verso Books), in which he calls neoliberalism a "self-serving racket."