What do we mean by neoliberalism?


In the wake of Labour’s election defeat, the Blairite Right, and its intellectual outriders, have launched a sustained campaign against the Left and socialism. ‘The leadership’, ‘sectarianism’, ‘ideological purity’, and of course ‘anti-semitism’ are standard explanations of Labour’s defeat.

Part of this is a bad-tempered Observer article[1] by economist Will Hutton, in which he claims the word ‘neoliberal’ – applied to people or ideas – is just an ‘unthinking leftist insult’.

Will Hutton, it will be remembered, was the author of a sharp attack on Thatcherism, The State We’re In, published in 1996, and subsequently a strong advocate of Blairism.[2] He now claims the Left lost its battles against the Right in the last decade:

… because at bottom it has a fatal, divisive weakness. Lack of any agreement about what being liberal Left can and should mean creates a sectarianism that unless confronted consumes it, the Left defining itself as the custodian of the ‘socialist’ flame and everyone else, in varying degrees, as a traitorous ‘neoliberal’.


The very term ‘neoliberal’ has become a catch-all to indicate contempt for any policy position or political figure the Left considers to be departing from true ‘socialism’, which in turn must be based on the subordination of capitalism to the state rather than its reform… the passions aroused created a never-ending sectarian war. Making the compromises necessary to create a governing coalition that could exercise power is not on its agenda: the Left’s struggle is all about fighting for and delivering a particular definition of socialism – or nothing.[3]

Accusing the Left of being sectarian is pretty standard stuff, but Hutton’s article begs the question of whether neoliberalism actually exists, either as an ideology or as the dominant form of actually existing capitalism.[4] Because if it does so exist, then it is reasonable to suppose that certain ideas and individuals actually embody that ideology and propose policies to implement neoliberal nostrums. Obviously.

Just in passing, we might note that there’s a whole body of writing in the Observer’s stable-mate, the Guardian, which utilises the concept of neoliberalism and calls out its consequences.[5] Indeed, Guardian columnist George Monbiot argues that it is impossible to understand the world without the concept of neoliberalism.

He points out that among wide sectors of the population the idea is unknown. He says,

Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives [neoliberalism] has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug.[6]

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