It suddenly occurred to me. Why do we call it “neoliberalism” and not hypercapitalism? Is it just a convention? And, yes, it has a pedigree in political theory, except that it’s slightly confusing. As defined at the Colloque Walter Lippmann, the focus on state intervention into economic policy was intended as a contrast to the old, classical liberalism of laissez faire capitalism. I think this is true also of West German ordoliberalism, but not true of the Mont Pelerin Society organized by Hayek, or the crowd over at the University of Chicago. Since then, neoliberalism has come to mean what it means, a descriptor for the old form of 19thC. paleo-capitalism.
What interests me is the affective load it carries, the sheer snarky animus with which people spit the word out. I’m guessing my friends and others on the left-left use it to bash the liberal center, by harnessing liberalism to something that’s no longer liberal in any recognizable form. It’s a kind of name calling, a making of “enemies,” which misses its mark. It’s “expressive,” but not “effective.” Because by “liberalism” I would think one might mean not classical laissez faire liberalism, but rather the twinning of rights liberalism with the social welfare liberalism of FDR and the New Deal and Johnson and the Great Society. I suppose the point behind the use of neoliberalism is to preclude all that, and in doing so, radicalize political thought and practice. But to what effective end, it’s hard to see.
Here’s why I don’t think the term is too terribly effective. I’m still always befuddled by the term. Someone spits out the world “neoliberalism,” and I scratch my head. What’s “liberal” about the exploitation of labor or the privatization of education or all of things that that “neolibealism” is used to designate? And then I realize that, oh, what they mean is laissez faire capitalism. And then I conclude, that that’s not liberal, what they are talking about. And then the thought sputters out, because I am unable to work up the rage that the use of the term is meant to generate, mostly because I don’t see a better alternative to some form of liberalism.
The only part of it that I understand is the term’s use-value to link the economic order advanced and abetted by liberals like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama with the depredations of global capitalism. But even here, I think the conversation tends to get twitchy. It’s supposed to sound clinical, but to me it sounds self-righteous, if only because I don’t know how to solve these kinds of problems, short of the imposition of tariffs and immigration control or an international regulatory regime run by whom? And then, again, it’s hard to argue with the fact that global markets probably have something to do with the lifting of a quarter or half a billion people in China out of the crushing poverty that people suffered for decades out in the countryside. And what about India, or Bangladesh? I simply don’t know, and I know that most of my friends don’t know either.
What I do know is more local. I can see the damage caused by the force of global capitalism and the monetization of the social sphere in terms of health, housing, and education. About economics and policy, I have to depend upon people who know about this stuff. And the people I tend to trust happen to be liberals, not conservatives and not left-left radicals.
But again, how is the monetization of social life “neoliberal,” when liberal theorists usually advocate the separation of spheres. Obviously, money is sloshy stuff, a liquid thing that leaks under and across the lines meant to hold it in check. I’m pretty sure that’s something that old-school modern liberals fail to conceptualize. What all this means is that we are in uncharted economic, moral, and political terrain.
I almost never use the term “neoliberalism” because I find it confused and confusing. I think “hypercapitalism” would be the better term. “Capitalism” would put the focus on an economic order, whereas “hyper” speaks to its hideous mutations under the conditions of hydra-headed postmodernism.