If you’re at all interested in the debate on “neoliberalism”, which we’ve looked at a few times recently (see here, here and here), don’t miss a piece from the weekend by New York magazine’s Jon Chait.

Chait’s thesis – which I think is basically correct – is that “neoliberal” is now being used as an insult by the hard left in a way that simply erases the whole category of liberal-centrist or moderate-social-democratic thought, effectively forcing people to choose between authoritarianism and socialism.

I should say first that my understanding of “liberalism” is rather different from Chait’s. His is very much that of modern American “liberals”: not actually socialist, but sceptical about the free market and supportive of a powerful interventionist government. Mine is more the European usage (or “classical liberal”, although that term has its own problems), in which support for the free market is central.

But unlike many partisans on both sides of that linguistic debate, I acknowledge that the two are related: they share a common pedigree and a large area of common ground. In the actual political situation of today, where authoritarianism of right and left is on the march, the differences within the liberal family seem relatively unimportant. We need to stress the values that unite us rather than the specific policy questions that divide us.

With that background, Chait’s history of liberalism in the United States is instructive. He argues that it has always represented a middle ground between socialism on the left and a reactionary capitalism on the right, and that although somewhat amorphous (a “broad church”, as we might say) it has retained a degree of ideological consistency down to the present day.

On the left, however, where critics would once have unashamedly attacked liberalism, the rhetorical strategy has changed. In explaining this, Chait makes a point that I was dimly aware of but have never seen made explicit:

[T]he widely publicized influence of neoconservatives within the Bush administration changed the connotation of “neo.” Whereas the prefix had once softened the term it modified — the neoconservatives were once seen as the intellectually evolved wing of the right, in contrast to the Buchananite knuckle-draggers — by the end of Bush’s term, it became an intensifier. A neoconservative was a conservative, but an even scarier one.

So “neoliberal” went the same way, being used by people who were actually opposed to liberalism to move the debate onto more favorable terrain. (In Australia, lacking direct awareness of the American intellectual origins of the terms,  this trend was even more pronounced: “neoconservative”, for example, got applied to topics that had nothing whatever to do with the original differences between conservatives and neoconservatives.)

“Neoliberalism” therefore “frames the political debate in a way that perfectly suits the messaging needs of left-wing critics of liberalism.” Liberalism itself simply drops out as a category. The options are reduced to authoritarian nativism à la Donald Trump, an only slightly less authoritarian “neoliberalism” or crony capitalism, and the left’s preferred model of unreconstructed socialism.

That’s the choice offered by Bhaskar Sunkara last month in the New York Times. As Chait puts it:

Sunkara omits from his choices any liberal mixed economy of the kind that exists in Western Europe and Scandinavia and that American liberals would like to build here. … He excludes the more moderate brand of social democracy from the menu because he believes too many people would choose it. The whole trick is to bracket the center-left together with the right as “neoliberal,” and then force progressives to choose between that and socialism.

The three-way choice is somewhat reminiscent of that outlined last year by John Quiggin, which I commented on here. But Quiggin’s leftism seems more liberal in its aspirations than anything we’re likely to get from, say, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

I do think Chait goes too far when he denies that American liberals underwent any significant shift in the 1980s and ’90s (Mike Conczal pulls him up on that point). Although it doesn’t show up in his Poole-Rosenthal scores, I think there was a real movement there away from the reflexive distrust of the market that was common in the 1960s and towards a readiness to embrace such options as deregulation and privatisation. Jimmy Carter’s deregulation of the airline market in 1978 was an obvious milestone.

But to my mind that shift was less of a philosophical revolution and more of a pragmatic awakening to some aspects of economic reality. And no doubt it also brought with it some of the cronyism and plutocracy that critics of “neoliberalism” have seized on. But Chait is surely right to say that most of the blame for the latter should attach to the forces of the right, acting from their own illiberal motives.

As I said last year, “It’s time for leftists and liberals, ‘neo’ or not, to stop fighting each other and draw the wagons in a circle.”

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