There are plenty of books on neoliberalism, so why write another one? Indeed, each of us have written plenty about neoliberalism in the past – so write add to this already massive literature?
The answer is simple – because something important was missing from this literature. Not only is the literature on neoliberalism vast, it’s also very tangled and murky. It’s difficult to navigate one’s way through it, and it’s often difficult to get a clear sense of what neoliberalism is.
We wanted to write a book that made the concept of neoliberalism legible. Not only did we want to analyse neoliberalism as a concrete process of political economic transformation and as an intellectual movement, we also wanted to give due regard to the major conceptual frameworks through which it is commonly understood. The literature on neoliberalism is highly segmented into several distinct lines of inquiry, none of which really engage seriously with one another, except by way of caricature. For example, there’s an institutionalist analysis, an ideational analysis, a Foucaultian analysis and a Marxist analysis. But they rarely talk to one another. And, while we both work from a broadly Marxist tradition of analysis, each of us also sees considerable value in those other ways of approaching neoliberalism.
The brief we agreed on with Polity was to write a book that would speak to a wider public, including undergraduate students, but would still make its own distinctive contribution. This meant that at times the writing process sometimes felt a little like starting from scratch, revisiting concepts and assumptions that both of us might have taken for granted if we had produced a different, more academic kind of book or a series of journal articles.
That sense of “going back to basics” very much extended to the concept of neoliberalism itself. And that was given an additional twist as we noticed that at the very same time as the word neoliberalism has over the past few years become somewhat mainstream – in the sense that you find it in progressive newspapers or even the odd policy report – a sizeable and growing number of otherwise critical scholars seem increasingly uncomfortable with the concept. They see it as a concept that is too crude or essentializing – that it assumes there is a grand conspiracy logic behind the shape of the present, or that our era is so distinctive that we can grasp its character with just this one word. In the book we dialogue with this position, treating it as an invitation to make our own understanding of neoliberalism more specific.
One point we concede is that there are now quite a lot of books out there that go too far in the direction of seeing the real world of neoliberalism as a direct outcome of the strategies of neoliberal intellectuals or politicians. Clearly that’s not the case – the world we live in is more complex than that. But at the same time, to say that there isn’t something going on that is systemic – that it’s all just pragmatic decisions, complexity and unintended consequences – is clearly to miss the forest for the trees.
In the book we take up the idea of a specifically neoliberal rationality, a way of doing things, not by any means a grand strategy but more like a practical orientation that can be very subtle but nonetheless has very farreaching consequences. The concept comes from Michel Foucault and has played a large role in recent neoliberalism debates and in the book we give it a Marxist inflection.
One key aspect of this idea is that – even though it may at times be useful to criticize neoliberalism in terms of the retreat of the public sphere and the rise of free markets – neoliberalism is really much more than a return to classic liberalism. Neoliberals have often been aware that they need to work within a world where mass democracy is a fact of life that can perhaps be undermined but not straightforwardly rolled back to an imagined past. In the book we discuss the role that finance – credit and debt – plays in this regard and how it serves as a mechanism of socialization, giving enough people a stake in the system to make it work.
As the past decade has shown, this logic isn’t necessarily undone by the fact that neoliberalism generates crises. But even if the past decade has seen political and economic elites intensifying their commitment to neoliberal restructuring, we should remain alert to the openness that such moments of crises produce.
In some key ways, the very features of neoliberalism that facilitated a recovery of international capitalism after the economic crisis of the 1970s are now jeopardizing its stability. And this crisis has spilled over into the political arena. The election of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, the surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn and the British Labour Party can only properly be understood if one appreciates that we are living through a deep structural crisis of the neoliberal form of capitalism. Even architects of the neoliberal revolution, such as the IMF, are now recognising publicly that the economic inequalities generated by neoliberalism might be inconsistent with durable economic growth and can undermine the legitimacy of neoliberal regimes.
It is clear that there is currently a struggle going on to re-shape the global political economy: movements against neoliberalism are emerging on both the left and the right. There are signs of hope, but also signs of altogether more sinister forces at work. In this context, it is crucial to come to terms with the forces that are transforming our world, and to develop the conceptual weapons to help build a more just society. That is what understanding neoliberalism is about.
Damien Cahill is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. Martijn Konings is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.
Their new book Neoliberalism is now available from Polity. It is a valuable part of the Key Concepts series.