If you have been following the academic research on the rise, spread, and persistence of neoliberalism over the last twenty five years you will have noticed an ever-growing stack of articles and books advancing the argument that neoliberalisms’ devastation has largely been brought about by ideas. In some accounts neoliberalism resists challenge by attaching its policy agenda to a quasi-religious faith in the infallibility of free markets. In other accounts it is the rise of economic and political ‘experts’ that explain the spread of the neoliberal agenda across the developing world as well as nominally center-left political parties’ adoption of neoliberal economic agendas across North America and Europe. The neoclassical economist, the World Bank technocrat, the libertarian political philosopher, the policy wonk, the hedge fund manager with the computer science degree–these are neoliberalism’s culprits revealed through idea-centered analysis.
Exposing neoliberalism’s ideological trappings is certainly important scholarly, intellectual and political work. Some of the earliest works that set the tone for the debate on neoliberalism placed ideas and ideology in the center of their analysis. John Williamson linked the spread of harsh austerity measures across the global south to the “Washington consensus,” a phrase that invokes a sense of shared ideas and values among Western elites. Others linked assaults on welfare states in the 1980s and 1990s to Reaganite and Thatcherite brands of conservatism and all the ideological trappings that came with them. No one then, and no one now, would dispute the claim that the march of neoliberalism is aided by an ideological supply line that includes, but is not limited to, the exaltation of the ‘free market’ and the hegemony of neoclassical economy theory.
The problem with the current trend of idea-centered scholarship on neoliberalism is that it seeks to isolate, and elevate the importance of ideas and experts, giving them a causal primacy that supposedly operate independently from materialist economic forces, the distribution of class power and the conduct of class struggle.
Academic research, particularly research in the social sciences from which much of the scholarship on neoliberalism emerges, privileges “theoretical interventions” (a phrase that only an academic could love) over rich description. Among those theoretical interventions, staking out a claim about causality is the most revered. To be able to say that this factor counted for more than that factor in producing some outcome is the height of academic achievement. There are, of course good reasons to pursue this goal. It helps to clarify our thinking and, when done well, can facilitate radical, transformative politics by informing strategy and tactics.
In this case, however, the incentive structure of academic publishing is not aiding the work of anti-neoliberal forces. One of the strengths of the better works advancing idea-centered accounts of neoliberalism is their historical and biographical richness. And yet, when they tell the story of neoliberalism’s rise and consolidation in specific times and places, they inevitably show how constellations of actors and institutions navigate shifting political contexts to give shape to policy agendas. It is clear that the power of experts, or their ideas, cannot be understood apart from them and it is therefore only through complicated analytical contortions that they can keep experts and their ideas front-and-center in the explanation.
Trying to understand the power of ideas outside of the balance of material forces prevents us from properly understanding the nature of neoliberalism’s rise and resiliency. It obscures the relationship between material and ideational forces that have tilted the balance of political forces towards neoliberal ends. Ultimately, it makes neoliberalism more resilient by obscuring the material power asymmetries that are at its core
This is a real, and significant limitation, but it is far less consequential than another. Focusing attention on ideas, experts, and intellectuals and diminishing the importance of politics, power and material forces is politically disarming. Idea-centered accounts don’t just focus on the latter, they actively work to minimize the significance of the former, with politically disastrous consequences. If the strength and resilience of the elitist, pro-capital, and dehumanizing policies and practices that are often summarized as “neoliberal” is reduced to, or primarily explained as, the impact of ideas and those ideas are not grounded in the balance of material forces that gives them shape and influence, then one can easily walk away with the impression that the solution to neoliberalism is found through intellectual debate and critique, and not what is really needed: political mobilization.
Ideas-centered accounts tell us that we fell into a deep financial crisis in 2008 because bankers and regulators were led astray by neoclassical economic theory and excessive faith in mathematical modeling. If we accept this version of events, then financial elites don’t need to be reined in, we just need to insist that they hire different analysts with Ph.Ds from more diverse economics programs.
Neoliberal ideology began as, and continues to be, the intellectual trappings that serve to justify and rationalize elite attacks on mobilized masses. The political and social consequences of neoliberalism are not the unintended by-products of a purely intellectual movement, they are the manifest intent of an elite political agenda.
Even John Maynard Keynes, whose means of engagement was academic publications and scholarly debate, recognized this. He understood that in order to protect societies from the barbarism of monetary orthodoxy, institutions needed to be built to check the power of financial interests. He proposed an International Clearing Union to manage the financial affairs of the postwar nations not because he thought it was based on sounder economic principles, but because it would cut the global financial elite off at the knees, stripping them of their power to impose austerity by withholding credit.
Neoliberalism’s ideological edifice needs to be dismantled and that work requires those of us engaged in the struggle against neoliberalism to take those ideas seriously, mount a strong intellectual critique of them, and articulate an alternative vision of a humane and just society. We need scholars and intellectuals to historicize, denaturalize, and complicate neoliberalism’s simplistic ideologies. But we also need analysis that links ideas to interests, and interests to institutions and material forces that amplify their voices and give weight to their claims. It is only then that the intellectual critique of neoliberal ideology can work in service of the political project to end the neoliberal agenda.
The recent wave of idea-centered scholarship is a problem not because it is incomplete, but because it works against the anti-neoliberal political project. Neoliberalism progresses and persists when its agents can insist that their agenda is not about the consolidation of political and economic power, it’s just about ideas: finding the ‘best’ solutions to complex problems. Stripping the politics of material struggle from the analysis of neoliberal ideology plays right into that agenda.
Aaron Major is associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany – SUNY. A longer version of this paper appeared as “Ideas without power” in Catalyst, vol. 2, no. 3, 2018.
Image: Jon Southcoasting (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Flickr