I’m in Crikey yesterday with a piece on Emmanuel Macron and “neoliberalism”, in which I argue that his victory represents a new stage in the evolution of that rather peculiar term. Long used just as a pejorative, and one whose content seemed to diminish as it became more widespread, it is now being more openly avowed.

In the course of that happening, its meaning seems to be shifting in two related ways: first by being associated with a more nuanced, pragmatic support of the market, rather than what was often called a “fundamentalist” outlook; secondly by embracing support for liberal social policies (on, for example, immigration), rather than being neutral or hostile to them.

Macron is a good representative of both these shifts:

And now comes Macron, who carries none of the right’s baggage on social issues. Of the leading candidates, he was clearly the most supportive of refugees and multiculturalism. He also shows no particular sympathy for cronyism, although his background as an investment banker gives ammunition to those who see the finance industry as the bogey lurking behind all pro-market policies.

But nor is he, by any reasonable standard, a market “fundamentalist”; he just holds the entirely reasonable view that the French economy suffers from over-regulation and over-bureaucratisation rather than the reverse. If this sort of traditional European liberal-centrist position is now our archetype of “neoliberal”, then clearly the meaning of the word has shifted.

I suggest that a liberal approach to the world’s many challenges is what we need, and that it’s particularly important to extend that beyond the range of the narrowly economic:

Perhaps the lesson of “neoliberalism” is that it’s easy for economic liberalisation to get co-opted and distorted as part of a repressive agenda. Macron seems to understand that danger and is working to avoid it. Let’s hope he succeeds.

Since then there have been two interesting developments. First, Macron has announced his ministerial lineup (full list here), in which he has continued his project of disrupting the existing party system. Key names include Bruno Le Maire, a stalwart of the centre-right Republicans (who are now expelling him as a result), as economy minister; veteran centrist leader François Bayrou at justice; Jean-Yves Le Drian, defence minister in the outgoing Socialist government, at foreign affairs; Gérard Collomb, another Socialist, at interior; and Nicolas Hulot, a popular environmentalist often mentioned as a presidential candidate, as ecology minister.

With the breadth of his coalition and the disarray he has caused in the established parties, it’s looking increasingly likely that Macron’s party, Republic on the Move (REM), will win a majority in next month’s parliamentary election – possibly a quite substantial one.

The second development is the publication (by the Foundation for Economic Education, a libertarian think-tank) of a piece on the same theme yesterday by Jeffrey Tucker, whom I cited last year on the possible transformation of America’s Libertarians into a more recognisably liberal political party.

Tucker reaches much the same conclusion as mine, but by a different route. He gives only a passing nod to the modern Latin American origins of the term, and none at all to its usage by American “New Democrats” in the 1980s. Instead he focuses on an earlier usage, expressed in the Walter Lippmann Colloquium of 1938, in which it referred to a modification of “classical” or “laissez-faire” liberalism to embrace Keynesian economics and the welfare state while holding on to the values of democracy and the open society.

Tucker has interesting things to say about this, and I think he’s basically right about the contrast with modern libertarianism. And it’s certainly interesting that the likes of Macron have now ended up at something resembling the Lippmann position, although Macron doesn’t strike me as that much of a Keynesian.

But the problem is that Tucker provides no evidence that this is anything more than a coincidence: he doesn’t cite anyone who has used the word “neoliberal” in the last thirty years with any consciousness of drawing on Lippmann’s ideas. It looks more as if the term has been coined independently on different occasions, which have then undergone a sort of limited convergence.

It’s tempting to believe that the “bad” neoliberalism of recent years – the “massive global presence, mostly embodied in international bodies, public bureaucracies, political establishments, media voices, and pretexts for every manner of foreign, domestic, and global action,” as Tucker puts it – stems from some 1930s Keynesians rather than from more modern (if confused) anti-Keynesians, but it strikes me as deeply unhistorical.

But words are living things, and no doubt “neoliberal” has yet more of a journey to travel.

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