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There is nothing wrong with neoliberalism… as a word

October 16, 2019 - 6:53pm

A tweet from Ezra Klein, co-founder of Vox Media:

No, sir, it would not. ‘Neoliberalism’ is not the loveliest of words, but it is a useful one — referring to a particular era of capitalism, i.e. the one we’re living through now.

One can debate precise definitions, but neoliberalism is what replaced the post-war model of capitalism — in which government was heavily involved in the productive side of the economy. In the 1980s and 90s, a wave of privatisation and deregulation rolled back the frontiers of the state — but not all the way. The welfare state, despite some reforms, stayed very much in place.

That’s what makes neoliberalism ‘neo’ and not ‘retro’. As with the laissez-faire era of the 19th century, the private sector is mostly left alone to make money; but very much unlike the Victorian age, the public sector continues to spend a great big chunk of it.

Replacing neoliberalism with ‘marketism’ would suggest there’s something uniquely market-focused about the times we live in. But markets are old. Older than capitalism. Older than money itself.

A lot of neoliberals don’t like the word neoliberalism. That may be because it’s used pejoratively and pretentiously by contemporary anti-capitalists. But I suspect, there’s also some defensiveness at work here. Naming particular eras of capitalism allows comparisons to be made between them, which aren’t always comfortable for defenders of the status quo — especially not when it comes to the rate of economic growth and productivity improvement (which used to be a lot higher).

There’s also the inconvenient implication that a shift to a different model of capitalism is possible — and, indeed, overdue.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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