Saturday, May 24, 2008


At the ICA conference today I attended an interesting interactive panel discussion on the future of television studies as the form of television changes - from out of the box to computers, phones, iPod etc.

One thing that struck me at this session, and indeed at other sessions, is how the term "neoliberalism" has become an all-purpose catch-all phrase for any development over the last 30 years about which the speaker disapproves.

While this wasn't what the panel did, it came up in one comment, where the speakers got up and said "The ideology of neoliberalism has permeated just about everything these days." In this case it was her daughter's cultivated ironic attitude to the TV programs she watches.

As I sat and listened, I did some mental time traveling. I took myself out of Le Sheraton in Montreal and put myself in a draughty classroom in a Polytechnic about 30 years ago - or perhaps my Honours year at Sydney Uni - where we could be sitting on formica chairs and having the same conversation, except it would have been "capitalism" rather than "neoliberalism".

In trying to think through what is wrong with this picture, I was reminded of the critiques that people like Ian Hunter made in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s of what he termed "reflection theory". All the rage in film and literary studies at the time, it would find in texts some reflection of an underlying schema of oppression e.g. Charles Dickens' novels reflect the brutalities of 19th century British industrial capitalism, Apocalypse Now reflects the crisis of American imperialism, ads for cleaning product reflect the oppression of women in the home etc.

Without going back over that old terrain, it strikes me that the term "neoliberalism" is a poor substitute if what you really want to say is capitalism, for three reasons:

  1. The term only really makes sense in the economic/public policy domain, where it might refer to economic policies such as monetarism, theories of policy such as public choice theory, and the 'Washington Consensus' that informed organizations such as the International Monetary Fund in the 1980s and 1990s. I don't think we are in those policy times at all at present. Certainly in the US, something like the $308 billion Farm Bill just passed by Congress is the antithesis of all of that, as are the various ideas floating around to act on rising fuel prices by giving people 'gas tax holidays' of one form or another.
  2. When people say "neo-liberalism", what is the other liberalism they refer to? Is it the philosophical liberalism of John Stuart Mill, the policy liberalism of Roosevelt and the "New Deal", policies of labour and social democratic governments in the 1960 and 1970s, or what? It seems to me that you can't create a "boo word" that's philosophically grounded without knowing something about philosophy, particularly political philosophy.
  3. Liberals are differently positioned in different places. Australia's conservatives are in the Liberal Party, while in the U.S. and Canada Liberals are on the centre-left. At any rate, social liberalism is on the rise in the U.S. coming into the 2008 Presidential elections, and this is a good thing. The comparative lack of hoo-ha about the legalisation of same-sex marriages in California - as compared to Massacheusetts four years ago - indicates how uninterested the Republicans are in going to the barricades on this issue this time. Someone like John McCain will speak against it, but will go on the Ellen show to do so, the wek after Ellen announced that she will use the occasion to marry Portia de Rossi. And being relaxed about same-sex marriages is pretty consistent with a world-view that has its origins in liberalism and 'freedom of the individual'.


Jason said...

Terry - I take your point about it being used extremely loosely as a term of abuse, but doesn't it originate as a self-descriptive term from those who hold a particular set of positions, as in "neoclassical liberalism"?

Not everything described as "neoliberal" at ICA will have much to do with this, granted, but is it warranted as a description of a kind of economic and policy orthodoxy from the mid-70s (which may be coming to a crossroads now, as you remark)?

I'd defer to your knowledge of economic history, but I didn't think it was completely without reference.

Glad to be getting these ICA reports on the blog, by the way.

Terry Flew said...

Thanks Jason - I think it is used in a similar way to how the term "economic rationalist" used to be used in Australian in the 90s, which tended to be a discussion-stopper for anyone who used an economic argument to reach a conclusion that someone disagreed with.

I just don't think it is a sensible term unless you relate it to liberalism as a political philosophy.