What I Mean When I Say Neoliberalism, Part 1

Naming the Problem

Part 1 of this article was originally posted February 23, 2018. I have made edits based on the helpful feedback of friends. In part 2 I discuss the history of neoliberalism, and what the Left has been doing that is not working. Part 3, not yet written, I will argue that neoliberalism necessitates government intervention, and begin to discuss the strategic direction the Left should be headed.

Even when the Left wins, it loses. It has been losing ground for decades because it has not known what it is fighting. It has been fighting an ideology called “neoliberalism,” though it has not known it. It has largely bought into neoliberalism, not realizing it was ceding ground to it. If we are going to prevent a future in which a tiny group of billionaires own most of the wealth, while the rest of us are at war over limited natural resources as the climate melts down, we have to know what we are fighting, and develop a strategy that can take it down.

My goal for writing, on a larger scale, is to focus on strategy. It is not to convince the world that neoliberalism is what I claim it is. Many other people, who have done a lot more research on the subject, have already written great books on the subject. In this article I will make many unsubstantiated claims, assuming that if you want to know more information, you will follow up on the links I offer, or do your own research. If I am way off, please let me know, but do not expect that I will give the strongest case for my position. I am writing it as a starting place. The left needs a strategy that will win the hearts and minds. Any strategy that will win must understand the history of neoliberalism. I am writing this article to state explicitly some of the most important realities the left must respond to if it is going to return to power. I will write in the future primarily on strategies the left should explore.

Let me take one step backwards. I fully recognize that “neoliberalism” is an abused, amorphous term. Perhaps it is not the best word to use. Perhaps there is a better word, or a new word, that we should be using. I am using this term because I am trying to understand the enemy, and there is a substantial group of thinkers that understand the enemy, and they have their reasons for using the term “neoliberalism” (for example, Naomi Klein, David Harvey, Paul Mason, Adam Kotsko, George Monbiot, each who also have, or will have books on the subject). They use it as a term to describe a hegemonic movement that destroyed the strength of the Left, not only by breaking unions, but making the Left play by its rules. Capitalism is always shifting, and neoliberalism is its most recent and most successful form, destroying all alternatives.

In Part 1 I will define it, and offer some examples. In Part 2 I will describe how we got here, what the Left has been doing that is not working, and the strategic direction we should be headed.


If there is any phrase that captures the essence of neoliberalism, it is “The market is the only thing that will save us.”

Republicans argue that Democrats try to solve everything with government intervention, such as welfare and regulation. They say that while giving poor mothers food stamps, and preventing evil corporations from doing bad things sounds nice, it always comes with unintended consequences. They say the market can always solve the problem more efficiently and effectively. Government can do no good Government is always the problem, and can never be the solution. While it may sound counter-intuitive, they say, we must cut taxes for the wealthy, and let them do whatever they want. In the end, they say, there is no alternative. It is the only way to actually help the marginalized and the oppressed.

If neoliberalism’s primary value is the free market, it follows that it must destroy any resistance to the market. (In Part 2 we will discuss the fact that neoliberalism is actually entirely dependent upon government intervention. SPOILER: Neoliberalism is a tool of oppression used by the wealthy to gain and hold power. They may believe their ideology, but their ideology is shamefully self-interested, and simultaneously detrimental to freedom and democracy.) In the twentieth century there were two massive forces that restricted the market in the West: the governments and the unions. Neoliberalism is an ideology that made the case, through every part of society, against government and unions. It infiltrated economics departments and argued against Keynesianism (which I will discuss in more detail in Part 2). It took political power through Reagan and the Republican party first, then through Clinton in the Democratic party, and it pushed fringe, radical libertarian ideas into the mainstream, and forced out utopian dreams of a better world. It transformed ethics, limiting us to market solutions for social justice. It reduced the bandwidth of perspectives and topics the media considers reasonable, recently made visible by the unquestioned dismissal of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign or any non-neoliberal third party candidate, and the decades of silence on poverty in America. Neoliberalism spread itself through fiction, primarily through the militant atheist Ayn Rand, and through American Christianity, leveraging theology of individual responsibility.

At each of these levels there was a cultural shift that crippled the Left by undermining its greatest resources: the government and the unions. Neoliberalism is not a rigorous, coherent philosophical doctrine. There are many heated disagreements within neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is an amorphous doctrine, made stronger, harder to kill, by the fact that it is so hard to see, and the fact that it has permeated our culture on so many levels.

Every president from Reagan to Trump, including Clinton and Obama, has been neoliberal. Today we expect the purest form of neoliberalism from the Republicans, but this was not always the case. President Nixon, with all of his flaws, under pressure from unions, was actually largely responsible for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Consumer Product Safety Act. They are all important regulations that protect lives to this day. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, making it easier for corporations to close union-operated factories in America when they went on strike, replacing them with cheap, fragmented labor in China. Obama pushed and pushed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement for a new generation, must worse than the last. It is important to recognize that Republicans were not always neoliberals, and it is important to recognize that the Democratic party today is very neoliberal. This is a cultural shift that transformed both political parties.

Neoliberalism at Work: 70,000 Structurally Deficient Bridges

Before talking about the origins of neoliberalism, we can understand the contrast between neoliberalism with what came before it. Let us look at infrastructure.

This shift occurred under Reagan. A line can be drawn from Reagan to today. “Government is not a solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” We can see it in debates over the 2008 housing loan crisis, net neutrality, climate change, and the student loan crisis. Investment in infrastructure is essential for a country to succeed economically into the future. In the twentieth century America saw tremendous expansion of infrastructure from the Works Progress Administration as part of the New Deal, to Eisenhower’s National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Americans expected important infrastructure to be owned, supported, and distributed by the government. Infrastructure was for all to use, not just those who could afford to pay, especially when they were natural monopolies such as electricity, telecommunications, roads, etc.

Today publicly financed project are frowned upon. Nationalizing natural monopolies like the internet, Facebook or Google is unimaginable. The internet is essential for doing business, but the Republicans keep trying, and have finally succeeded, to kill net neutrality. Rather than treating it as a public utility necessary for freedom and economic development, they want the market to drive growth and technological development. We see neoliberalism driving the privatization of public utilities and public institutions across the board.

Under neoliberalism, America has neglected its infrastructure, including interstate highways, public transportation, water treatment, and 70,000 bridges categorized as structurally deficient. It is past time to take care of them. They must be repaired and upgraded. Trump has proposed a plan, but it is a neoliberal plan. It relies on private industry to help pay. This means corporations will have to see the possibility of future revenue in for them to bother investing. We have more toll bridges in urban areas, and fewer bridges in rural areas. This is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. The wealthy have benefited tremendously from the system. Neoliberalism refuses to accept the fact that making the wealthy pay for the system is not only reasonable, but it is also the only sustainable option. Instead, the wealthy avoid paying taxes move their money into offshore tax havens. If we play by their rules, no country will ever have enough money to pay for infrastructure.

In part 2 I discuss the history of neoliberalism, and what the Left has been doing that is not working. Part 3 will argue that neoliberalism necessitates government intervention, and begin to discuss the strategic direction the Left should be headed.



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The Working Class Intelligentsia

The Working Class Intelligentsia


Elton L.K. is a writer and a worker. He says “Billionaires? No, thank you.”