Neoliberalism is Not a Noun

Neoliberalism as a standalone noun is an inadequate and misleading term. When one uses the word, what they are really talking about is neoliberal capitalism; as in the neoliberal phase of capitalism. This common usage of the term as a stand-alone term removes its true status as an adjective describing a particularly vicious form of economy. This in turn suggests that neoliberalism is an independent phenomenon untethered from all history—economic, political and otherwise—when in fact it is merely the latest phase of the capitalist economy. Like previous phases of capitalism—from accumulation to monopoly to imperialism to Keynesianism—it is the result of historical, political and financial developments that came before. This does not mean that any of these phases would have occurred no matter what once capitalist economics began development. Indeed, if it weren’t for the machinations and manipulations of markets and governments by powerful and propertied men (mostly), the history of human political economy might very well read very differently.

However, humans are still the primary agents of history, despite the matrix of machinery, computers and the sheer momentum of events that can easily overwhelm us in this modern world. Whether those agents are those with billions of dollars worth of wealth, unparalleled armies and weapons of war or just us common folk, humans remain important in the ongoing narrative of human history. Indeed, not a day goes by that even a casual but cognizant observer would fail to acknowledge this.

Author Gary Gerstle reflects on all of these in his newly-published history The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order. Unlike many other books on the neolibral period of capitalism, Gerstle’s work spends most of its time examining the politics, the political movement and the politicians who made neoliberalism the political order of the later twentieth and early twenty-first century. By political order, Gerstle means something that has the “ability to organize the core ideas of political life.” It is his contention that the New Deal defined the political order of the mid-twentieth century and it was its failure to sustain its promise that ushered in the neoliberal order. Of course, as noted above, this transition was not pre-ordained, but was instead the result of political and eocnomic pressures by monied interests and those politicians that served them that bought this change about. Although many of those political pressures were of the domestic variety, Gerstle argues that the most important element in the last one hundred years was the Russian revolution and its aftermath—all the way to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

It was the inspiration and very real threat to world capitalism the 1917 October Revolution provided to the working people of the world that convinced a substantial number of the rich and powerful in the United States to go along with the social welfare initiatives in FDR’s New Deal. Likewise, it was the continued presence and strength of the Soviet Union and its worker-oriented state that convinced western politicians to support different versions of the welfare state model after World War Two. As Gerstle reminds the reader, even the United States (probably the most regressive of the capitalist states in terms of social welfare) has remnants of these New Deal liberalism projects that remain. This is in spite of the ongoing and often vicious attacks on those programs and the philosophy behind them since at least 1978, when Presidnet Jimmy Carter began dismantling them. Ronald Reagan amped up the process exponentially, while those rulers that followed, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, continued it.

It is that ongoing progression of the phenomenon of neoliberalism that transforms it from a political movement to a political order. Even if a Democratic president (Clinton and Obama, for example) had wanted to reinstate the social welfare and labor-friendly policies such as they were that Reagan had viciously dismantled, the fact of the neoliberal order’s total domination of the status quo would have prevented it. Bill Clinton seemed to be always be on board with neoliberalism’s essential elements: attacking the poor, support for so-called free trade agreements and a turn toward a greater police state. As a personality, his confidence man persona was perfect for selling the snake oil that neoliberal capitalism turned out to be.

In a similar way, his carefree if not necessarily licentious sexual behavior epitomized the amoral nature of capitalism, especially the neoliberal version of it. After all, this was an economic system that relied not on production but the buying and selling of other people’s money by big financial houses supported by governments all too willing to reform stock market laws for a share of the spoils. Of course, those who came up with these market manipulations knew the assiciated pitfalls and dangers to the regular bank customer, but the politicians who could have done something to minimize them did nothing. There was just too much money to be made. This was something almost every politician could agree on, no matter where they stood on the culture wars related to the privatization of everything the universalization of greed as a virtue. Gerstle’s discussion of this period and the names associated with it—Thatcher, Reagan, Gingrich, Bush, Friedman, et al.–can be a nauseating read.

The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order is a solid discussion of the politics of neoliberalism. By accepting and therefore placing its genesis and growth in the original defintion of liberalism—a man’s freedom begins and is defined by his right to own, buy and sell property—the author provides the basis for examining neoliberalism’s political nature. One might disagree with the text’s conclusion that the neoliberal order is in a fall, but they would be hard-pressed to deny the author’s well-argued contention that neoliberalism forever changed the nature of human relations during its heyday. This is an important text and one that hints at a future that is likely to be not only unpredictable but perhaps not even likely, precisely because of the damage that neoliberal capitalism has wrought.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com