The terms neoliberal and neoliberalism have become ubiquitous in left-wing discourse of the past few years, ranging from discussions of government policy to critiques of mindfulness meditation. They merit a closer look.
Credit for the terms usually goes back to Michel Foucault, in his lectures collected as The Birth of Biopolitics. What is extraordinary about these lectures is that they took place in early 1979 – before Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would take office and implement the sweeping right-wing libertarian-capitalist economic reforms to which the term “neoliberal” is now most often applied. So while 21st-century writing about neoliberalism aims to describe an ideology that shapes the actions of government and social institutions, Foucault was merely writing about an ideology found in the writings of mid-20th-century German and American economists (most notably Friedrich Hayek). For this reason, Foucault now comes to look prescient – but his writing on the subject takes on a very different cast from 21st-century writers, since he is only describing a theory, and they aim to describe a practice.
There are many things to be said about the concept of neoliberalism. First off, it is an unfortunately confusing term, in the North American context at least. It probably makes sense in Australia, where the Liberal Party is the right-wing party. And the ideas and practices described as “neoliberal” do occur on both sides of the political spectrum. But the opposition to neoliberalism comes largely from people on the political left, people whom the vast majority of ordinary Americans and Canadians would still describe as – liberal.
Still, the term is in widespread use on the left now, and however confusing the term is, the bigger question is the phenomenon the term claims to describe: a phenomenon which is supposedly a new (neo) transformation of the market-oriented political ideas that have in the past gone under the name “liberal”. So we may ask of neoliberalism: is it liberal – at least in the broad sense in which Reaganite right-wingers are liberal? And is it neo – what about it is new?