February 16, 2014


Spontaneous Order: Looking Back at Neoliberalism (Tim Barker, Winter 2014, Dissent)

In Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics, Daniel Stedman Jones charts the rise of neoliberalism, which he defines as the "coherent, if loose, body of ideas" that underwrite our contemporary "market-driven society." He begins with the intellectual biographies of three exiled Central European thinkers--Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Karl Popper--who challenged the industrial West's consensus around social welfare programs, full employment, labor unions, and state intervention. This first, émigré generation (joined by kindred Americans and West Germans) were "neoliberal" in their opposition to central planning, but also "neoliberal" because they sought a reformed liberalism for the middle of the twentieth century, not a simple return to the laissez-faire of the nineteenth. Hayek's Road to Serfdom, for example, countenanced significant departures from laissez-faire, including universal health care. [...]

[A]s Stedman Jones himself shows, center-leftists were always implicated in neoliberalism: Carter appointed Paul Volcker and initiated deregulation, while Bill Clinton "ended welfare as we have come to know it" and enthusiastically signed the Glass-Steagall repeal. [...]

Bockman argues that conflating the market and capitalism is an ahistorical mistake and an ideological mystification. A strict dichotomy between capitalist markets and socialist planning obscures the fact that the presence or absence of markets is only one dimension of political economy. Just as important as the property question is the institutional question: will markets exist for worker-owned cooperatives, hierarchical corporations, state industry, or individual entrepreneurs? Neoliberal ideology forces us to see the advantages of the market as coeval with capitalism; Bockman suggests that we imagine, as many others have, a way of combining the egalitarian values of socialism with the advantages of market mechanisms. Her argument implicates scholars like Stedman Jones--centrists who define neoliberalism simply as advocacy of "the free market" and propose a balance of "markets" against statism. Such "third way" thinking assumes that the ideal is a bit of capitalism mixed with a bit of socialism. Bockman suggests a more novel hybrid: not markets in spite of socialism, but markets because of socialism.

Of course, as described above, neoliberalism, centrism, the Third Way and even socialism are all the same thing.  Each just hates the other because, while they they arrive at the same terminus, they originate from different stations.    It's why our politics are so partisan in modern times.  Bereft of disagreements over public policy all we have left is the petty personal.

Meanwhile, especially in the Anglosphere and Scandinavia, we are all headed in the same direction: a universal social safety net put on a more stable funding basis by using personal accounts invested in markets or, Second Way ends via First Way means.  The stop/start nature of these reforms is a function of the two sides dealing with the fact that even their political victories are ideological defeats and vice versa.  It's understandably disorienting.  

Posted by at February 16, 2014 8:28 AM

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