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February 15, 2009



You're right that Andrew elides the terms too much, but the way "neoliberal" is used these days has nothing whatsoever to do with "the second generation of people who were previously liberals but were moving in the direction of conservatism". Think of "liberal" as in "liberalization of markets and regulations", etc. See David Harvey's Brief History of Neoliberalism (also his The New Imperialism) for a good primer.

(For my part, an American who has always--rightly--ignored The New Republic and its ilk, the term has always applied to economics.)


that should read, "elides the differences between the two terms", etc...

bianca steele

Surely the term is a political one, defining a group of politicians and thinkers in opposition to others (in this case, against Republicans and traditional liberals). As such, I don't see where your definition differs from mine, except in being focused on academia, and more specifically on economics. The book by Harvey you recommend does appear to be a reasonable introduction to the way the word has been used recently, for those who aren't familiar with what's been going on in academic economics in the past ten years.


Here's what Michaels says in "The Neoliberal Imagination":

...whereas Trilling, a half century ago, thought "there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation," it's tempting today to say just the opposite. Indeed, we might more plausibly describe contemporary politics and contemporary political argument as nothing but a dispute between our reactionaries and our conservatives. The reactionaries are the ones who attack diversity, the conservatives are the ones who defend it; the reactionaries are the ones who think our inequalities are justified, the conservatives are the ones who don't think we have anythey think our problem is the illusion of inequality, and that if we could just get rid of the illusion (racism, sexism, especially classism) we'd be fine...

Michaels, like Trilling, is pointing out a nearly monocultural consensus on the question of equality--everyone is saying that it's not a truly grave problem. To Michaels, we're all avoiding the same question, and the work that it takes to avoid that question produces the Neoliberal Imagination. Maybe I should have been consistent and used "neoliberal" throughout, but surely the point is more about the breadth of Michaels's critique than it is about a political spectrum analysis. In fact, using only neoliberal to describe Michaels's targets is (it seems to me) far too limiting--surely he doesn't just mean the Liebermans of the world are the only ones to blame. Liberals, moderates, Obamacons, New Republic readers, Atlantic Monthly readers, New Yorker readers--we're all neoliberals now (to him).


Virtually the entire political class is indeed neoliberal. (Which is to say, "neoliberals" are not opposed to Republicans as such. Bush was every bit the neoliberal Clinton was. The differences are methodological.) I see no value in throwing the word academic in the mix.

bianca steele

It seems once again I'm not understanding where you're coming from, and telling me to read Michaels and Harvey is not going to solve the problem. If your representation of Michaels is accurate, it's not immediately obvious to me how his argument might be applied to what I'm currently interested in. I do see two issues off the top of my head. First, to say everybody deep down has the same beliefs -- and faces the world in the same way -- is pretty strange. Second, the objective meaning of attacking "liberals" is to strengthen the Republican party, the objective meaning of attacking "neoliberals" is to strengthen left-liberals and progressives within the Democratic party -- very different effects that can't be equated in any reasonable way from any political point of view that I can think of.


I'm saying Michaels believes we're all neoliberals to the extent that we all try very hard to avoid class as a salient issue, and that yes, this is a problem. My original post was intended as a critique of his outlook, and the particular flaws one encounters when it is applied to literature. So, I'm not trying to attack liberals at all, and I'm certainly not trying to strengthen the Republican Party. I'm trying to re-focus on a liberal strength (the valuing of diversity) in a sharper context (the benefits of the kinds of literature Michaels denigrates).

However, if I were to criticize liberalism or liberals, I fail to see how I should keep absolutely silent in the fear of somehow aiding the Republican party. I think the value of self-examination and self-criticism well outweighs the possibility a conservative like D.G. Myers might read my post and smirk a little.

bianca steele

A Google search turned up a recent article by Michaels in the New Left Review. I didn't read it very closely but I think you're wrong. For one thing, it's impossible to think he's saying "we" are all neoliberals, even if that we are all neoliberals is what you yourself believe.



I do not believe that we are all neoliberals, and nothing I have said indicates this is what *I* myself believe. Every time I have introduced the idea of a neoliberal mono-culture, I have stressed that this is Michaels's idea, not mine: "I'm saying *Michaels* believes we're all neoliberals…" "we're all neoliberals now **(to him)**." Let me emphasize that I have been and still am presenting *his* view, and I have made sure I labeled it as such.

With regards to the New Left Review, I'm guessing you're talking about this? http://www.newleftreview.org/?view=2731

I think this essay actually does a great job of illustrating what I'm talking about--Michaels is extremely indiscriminate in using neoliberal as a term to designate *both* the economic-political arrangement of IMF-style globalized capitalism *and* the socioeconomic class that has generally approved of or at least not resisted such policies, a stance that spans the divisions of national political orientation (Democrat and Republican; Labour and Conservative). A perfect example is the following sentence:

"For neoliberals [the socioeconomic class I just described], what makes this a utopia is that discrimination would play no role in administering the inequality; what makes the utopia neoliberal [the economic/political arrangement I just described] is that the inequality would remain intact."

Furthermore, in the *very next paragraph,* Michaels abruptly switches to the term "liberal" to name the same socioeconomic class which he has, up to this point, referred to as neoliberal.

Michaels is being indifferent because he doesn't see a salient cultural distinction between liberals and neoliberals on this issue--whether to prioritize diversity or economic equality. People have different reasons, he believes, for choosing diversity first, but the same preference is expressed by virtually the entire political class.

I *do,* however, think that there is a very salient distinction between someone like Cornel West and someone like Lawrence Summers (to use a provocative pair). I do not share Michaels's summary judgment, and my disagreement with him is why I posted in the first place.

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