“Neoliberalism” or “Hypercapitalism”

neolib

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.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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25 Responses to “Neoliberalism” or “Hypercapitalism”

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    Caveat Emptor • May Contain No Actual Liberalism

    I think it’s just a simple case of advertising doublespeak.

  2. Gail says:

    Neoliberalism, according to Aiwha Ong, is both an economic and ethical entity. “Neoliberalism,” she writes, “claims that the market is better than the state at distributing public resources,” and it also enacts and supports “a return to a ‘primitive form of individualism,’ one she describes as “‘competitive,’ ‘possessive,’ and construed often in terms of the doctrine of ‘consumer sovereignty.’” On the economic side, the priority of the market in distributing public resources is seen in economic changes such as the early 1970s shift of retirement funds from the pockets of employers to market-based 401Ks and 403Bs, the risk of which falls to the shoulders (and pockets) of individual workers. (Neoliberalism as Exception, 11).
    I don’t think this subordination of the state to the market can be equated to what you term a return to “19th century paleo-capitalism.”
    But talk about affective load: your animus against the term is snarkier than any use I’ve heard of it. Foucault was using the term and analyzing its dynamics in the mid-1970s. It’s not new.

    • zjb says:

      thanks, Gail. but again and as always, i don’t see the liberalism in the kind hyper-capitalism identified by Ong, but designated as neoliberalism. so again, i wonder what use the desgination serves apart from constituting a kind of fighting word with which to rally and radicalize the left-left against the soft liberal center. my own animus which you recognize does not emerge from out of nowhere, and as you know, i’ve never understood what gets served by these kinds of battle lines between liberalism and “socialism,” which by now is term as quaint as liberalism, having given way to more hard biting forms of Marxism and Marxianism. i’m pretty sure i’m too stuck in the 20th C.

      • Gail says:

        The differences lie precisely in the role, and hopes, given to markets (on the one hand) and individuals (on the other). That you continue not to see this difference only underscores the divide, in my humble and socialist-leaning opinion.
        Regardless, I love it that you push on both positions and vocabularies, my friend.

      • zjb says:

        thanks, Gail, but i’m wondering. i think you are mistaking my variant of liberalism (which is more akin to Walzer, and more steeped in “communities,” “societies” and other structures) with one more invested in the individual. it could be that, at the end of the day, i’m not a “liberal” but a social democrat, but to me that’s a pretty squishy line, so i’m happy to call myself a liberal. at any rate, what i understand by “liberalism” is more social and less individualizing than what usually goes by the name. let me know, seriously, if i’m still not getting it. but to me, the notion that liberalism or liberal enlightenment is steeped in a kind of atomizing was addressed a long time ago by Cassirer in The Philosophy of Enlightenment. note here that his model was the German Enl., not the English or Scottish one. as always, i think we are closer on the substance of these things than not –if you’ll pardon the liberal sentiment.

  3. Jon Awbrey says:

    Camouflage and deceptive coloration find as much utility in (Anti-) Social (Pseudo-) Darwinism as they ever did in genuine natural evolution, and this is just a semantic variant on that theme, exploiting all the euro-trashiness of the fact “Liberal” always meant very nearly the opposite in the Old World as it came to mean in the New.

  4. evanstonjew says:

    There are a bunch of terms being bandied about these days, depending which aspect of the current situation is being stressed. Neoliberalism, casino capitalism, zombie capitalism are imo all useful. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/World/WOR-01-260413.html For example some people are stressed by the lack of a secure foundation to the monetary system…shriek! its all a system of signifiers. This Austrian- gold bug crowd have been freaked since the development of credit. The next guy hates derivatives on top of derivatives..it’s all so fast. I hear this a lot from older pit traders who can’t get used to black box trading. A third is worried if the banks marked down their paper to market the financial system would be bankrupt. They have been fighting the stock market from 2009 and watched it double. I am impressed by the effects of globalization and outsourcing on the job market and the Jewish community. Industry is long since gone. The professions are now in danger; fields like systems analysts, radiologists, college professors. More than half of the good jobs now come from sweet talking, aka schmoozing , networking, signaling, socializing, all ‘luft menschen’. Instead of ‘my son the doctor’ we have ’my son the consultant, the venture capitalist, the marketer, the HR manager, the motivational speaker.’ The voluminous writing of Deidre McCloskey are helpful in understanding this new aspect of capitalism.

  5. efmooney says:

    An aspect of the attack on liberalism you note, Zak, is not only a chance to pummel the ‘soft center’ that is left of Fox news or CNN — maybe PBS or West WING –but also a pernicious, anti-democratic side-effect. The current war against liberalism, commenced by Bill Buckley (not by lefties, though there’s a similar scorn for any brand of liberalism) is very effective, and has been for decades, in depriving some would-be left-leaning polemicists and their sympathizers — people who pick Walzer and Dissent over Rawls and the NYTimes — of any banner to fly in support off their issues. I my case, as someone who attended the trials of bus-riding and beaten civil rights activists in Mississippi in the early 60s, and who thought Johnson (and others) had guts in noticing that ‘the middle class’ was in fact the middle, and that there were poor people who suffered, and who thought it worth joining marches against the war in Vietnam, what was being battled for, as you say, was “the twinning of rights liberalism with the social welfare liberalism of FDR and the New Deal and Johnson and the Great Society.” Now say you were a 60s activist and avoided jail and mental breakdown and wanted to identify with that sort of 60s program — say a revamped war on poverty. Would you agree that you weren’t a liberal? But to the test, what are you, if not that dastardly weak-kneed grasping individualist type? You could reel off all the hip and hyped positions afloat in a fast-changing ideological swirl as things you definitely weren’t. But apart from a mini-lecture or interview, there’s no way in the current panoply of hats or labels or banners to declare your commitments in shorthand. And in an age of sound-bites and text-message shorthand, you’re effectively disenfranchised, silenced, filed in a box with no label, on the way to the trash. FDR on social security, progressive income tax, and WPA can be defended because — all agree — that’s liberalism (shame, shame). The stage is fully occupied by others. With much sound and fury.

    • efmooney says:

      Wow! Speak of typos !!
      [ . . . in support OF their issues . . .]
      [. . .BUT What Are You (not ‘but to the test what are you’]
      [WPA CAN’T be defended]

  6. Gregory Kaplan says:

    All of the abstraction above leaves me confused. I have a simple question of labeling (which I generally distrust implicitly). I always thought of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as neoliberal. I think of Hayek and Friedman, with whom for some inexplicable reason to me the label neoliberal is associated, as conservative or at most libertarian. Can anyone offer some — non-theoretical — clarification? As for theory, I don’t see why any “liberal” would replace the state (government) with the market to distribute resources. Why not just call it libertarian? Anyway, I already confessed to detesting labels, so feel free to ignore the latter question.

    • zjb says:

      hi greg: maybe i’ll just add to the confusion, but here goes. By neoliberalism, theorists often mean predatory hyper-capitalism. Clinton and Blaire are neoliberal to the degree to which they contributed to global capitalism, but liberal to the degree that they sought to preserve (sort of?) the welfare state. Hayek and Freidman are called neoliberal, but I prefer to call them conservative-libertarian. I don’t think it is the market’s job to distribute or redistribute social goods like health, social security and education, or military or penal “services.” That’s the job of a strong interventionist state. Does this make any sense?

  7. efmooney says:

    We should be suspicious of this string of labels, as you say, Gregory, because they are shifting in sense, decade by decade, year by year, and communicate usefully in one hermetic context while not in another. In cocktail parties or among grad students we fling these around to some effect, but the NYTimes everyday reporter would obviously duck them. They are tools of battle and inuendo, so calling Bill Clinton and Tony Blair “neoliberal” is never a neutral tag. You can think of Hayek and Friedman as conservatives, 19th century neanderthals, liberals, libertarians, or neo-liberals as suits your fancy and the context of discourse — maybe an academic here and there will try to fix meanings. But there is no ‘non-theoritical’ — that is, context-less — way to get at their impacts and designations. If a nice analysis fixes meanings for a moment, that’s rare, and the fixative lasts only a short while. To my mind, what matters is your stand on civil rights or imperialism or unions or poverty programs or WPA or globalism or drugs — not the banner under which you sail, for those shift and scatter like the wind. Yesterday’s liberals are now conservatives, today’s marxians are yesterday’s fellow travellers, country-club liberals aren’t underground weathermen, and neither will talk to red-diaper babies or libertarians . . .

    • Gregory Kaplan says:

      Thank you. Well put. I agree with your point about theory and context. But then you get to seemingly less abstract political “what matters” as if they were decidable. Are they? I’m not convinced that they are. Not because I stand in the squishy middle like Zak. But because I live on an undecidable knife-edge, what Buber called the narrow ridge of dialogue. I should clarify that I’m not opposed to theory, which I think sloughs off labels, but I am thoroughly disheartened by academics! (Nothing personal, of course.)

      • efmooney says:

        I don’t think ‘what matters’ is decidable in any academic way, yet we can clarify where we stand through dialogue — Buber’s narrow ridge. That’s fruitful where endless academic disputation gets scholastic and out of touch with the heart and soul we’re here to sustain, in and out of the polis. Thanks, Gregory.

      • zjb says:

        Greg: What’s with the knife edge. Life in this day and age is far more liquid!! as always, yours.

    • zjb says:

      as always thanks, Ed. but i actually think political labels are very helpful.

      • efmooney says:

        Well, this discussion has become very helpful, and I think it’s because a sense for the labels gradually emerged — at least for my ears — which is a great thing. Blog-as-roundtable (or is that image not liquid enough . . .) Thanks for hosting, Zak

      • zjb says:

        Rawls in Political Libealism makes the distinction between “political liberalism” as the principle of social order that includes all kinds of different “comprehensive communities,” including religious ones, and also Conservative ones and Liberal ones. this is very helpful as Liberals and Conservatives inhabit a “liberal” poltical system. –or am i just repeating myself?

      • efmooney says:

        No, that’s a good distinction. The blackboard’s getting filled, though. Let’s start at the top and clean up the chart . . .

  8. Gregory Kaplan says:

    Sorry, Zak, I’m just not as into the hip lingo and labels as you are;-) I’m not so fixated on using the “right” metaphors, as if they were “helpful.” We’re different in that way. I like my thinking canonical, and self-critical. So, yes, Bauman is cool and all. But still I prefer Plato and Zhuangzi.

    Also, in your last post above you posit (paraphrasing Rawls) Hegel’s identity of identity and difference. It sounds all neat on paper. But then you need to vote, or buy products, or teach students, or support the Communist Party of China, or oppose it — and it kind of falls apart.

  9. Gregory Kaplan says:

    I guess I’m wondering as I sit here in China, is there really such thing as “life in this day and age”? Isn’t it rather, as you once told me, all geography? Ugh, your dialectics are hard for me to follow! But I do love you, my brother.

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