Define liberal views
The title of this essay implies some definite answer – and thus more than can be delivered. Whatever neo-liberalism is, the economic, social, political, and ideological factors that constitute it are too complex to be adequately accounted for in one relatively short piece. This by itself would be a banal truism, were it not for the frequency with which the term is bandied about in contemporary political discourse – usually as one of denigration. Given the extent to which economics is now supposed to be governed by ‘neo-liberal’ ideas, and our political situation characterized by ‘the fact of neo-liberalism’, it is quite reasonable to want to know what this amounts to. Yet the label neo-liberal covers a bewildering range of ideas and happenings, usually coupled with yet more terms of putative clarity, which are in fact sources of confusion: ‘Anglo-Saxon model’, ‘monetarism’, ‘Reaganism’, ‘Thatcherism’, ‘globalization’, and so forth. Stipulating that we get clear on what neo-liberalism is threatens to plunge even honest and informed conversation into a miasma of confusion.
Nonetheless, what I want to do here is to try and better see what neoliberalism is by considering some of the things that it is not. This approach has very obvious limitations. But it is, I think, illuminating. In any case, the central contention I wish to make is that whatever neo-liberalism is, it is not the shift towards a world in which political actors give greater reign to free markets as compared to the recent past. This will likely come as a surprise. Most people, if asked to try and specify what neo-liberalism is, would likely put ‘more free market economics’ high up a list of factors. And this is quite understandable, given the rhetoric and policy-presentation that has come to dominate political discourse, in America and the UK especially, since the 1980s. Nonetheless, it is deeply misleading. What has changed is the way that politics interferes with economic exchanges under ‘neo-liberalism’, not the fact of interference itself.
Some recent work on the 2007-8 financial crisis and its aftermath is particularly illuminating in these regards. The crisis that brought the world economy to its knees – and continues to blight the living standards of millions, with no obvious hope of short- or medium-term improvement for the majority – had complex origins. But it was undoubtedly a financial crisis, and one that demonstrated how fragile the world of modern international finance is, and just how susceptible to its destabilising effects the ‘real’ economy is in turn. To some, this has been proof positive of the fundamental instability of neo-liberalism, where that is understood as a set of ongoing policies allowing ever more unregulated, i.e. free-market, transactions in financial services, which eventually imploded when the market failed.