'Neoliberalism'? They Mean Capitalism!

Last year George Monbiot, that personification of a Guardianista, (independent school, Oxford, then the Leftist establishment), wrote an article about the unadulterated evil that is capitalism. However, he never once uses the word 'capitalism' in the piece. Instead, he uses the words "neoliberal" and "neoliberalism". The article itself is titled 'If you think we're done with neoliberalism, think again'.

George Monbiot's piece is full of bogus statistics (not outright lies; just dissimulations) and ill-defined concepts (such as "recession") which are simply used as subtle ways to fire-up his fellow naïve, "anti-capitalist" Guardianistas. In fact the article is more or less a paean to (democratic) communism; or, at the very least, a paean to greened-up socialism/collectivism. But as with "capitalism" earlier, Monbiot never uses the word "socialism" either (not even "green socialism").

Take the following lines. They could have come straight out of the Communist Manifesto; except for the fact that the anti-capitalist language has been updated with references to the environment and "sustainability." And, of course, the word "capitalism" is substituted with "neoliberalism". So here we go:

"... [neoliberalism] brought the west to its knees.... The policies that made the global monarchs so rich... the neoliberals claimed, would be that economic efficiency and investment would rise, enriching everyone... The neoliberals also insisted that unrestrained inequality in incomes and flexible wages would reduce unemployment... I have no dog in this race, except a belief that no one.... should have to be poor."

Only Words

Part of the problem is that the word "neoliberalism" -- or "neoliberal" -- has become no more than a soundbite or a simple term of abuse. (Not unlike the word "neo-con" just before, during and after the 2003 Iraq war.) That's not surprising. According to a study by Taylor C. Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse of 148 journal articles, the word 'neoliberalism' is hardly ever -- if at all -- defined. That's partly because it would be hard to define: it has a fairly long history and many variants. In addition, just as with the word "capitalism" itself, keeping the word "neoliberalism" vague and rhetorical is precisely how many Leftists like their political words. If such words were specified or defined, then some of the fire would be dampened down. And then the student Leftists -- and the older ones too -- who use them would find their little minds going all into a tizzy. So it's best use the word "neoliberal" -- as with "neo-con" and "Zionist" -- as a simple word-weapon with virtually no meaning. You see, if the word were to be defined in any way, then it would lose its bluntness and therefore its political power.

Basically, most Leftists simply mean capitalism when they use the word "neoliberalism." Or, more precisely and in the Marxist jargon, they are really arguing against "the private ownership of the means of production". Such "progressives" (as many Trotskyists and communists have started calling themselves) are constantly trying to update old-fashioned Marxist ideas about capitalism; and they often do so with neologisms. The same was true with the word "neo-cons" a few years back. Most Leftists simply meant capitalists who have an interest in foreign policy; which of course ties in with the shopworn and ancient late 19th-century Marxist theories of neocolonialism or imperialism.

This is not to say that "neoliberalism" is a synonym of "capitalism." In non-semantic terms, it's not to say that capitalism and neoliberalism are identical either. Of course they aren't. There are, for example, many differences, for example, between what Adam Smith believed and theorized about and what some of the people who've been classed as "neo-liberals" have believed and theorized about.

Despite that, when people says that neoliberalism is all about "the liberalisation of the economy, free trade, open markets, privatization and deregulation," isn't that precisely what they said about capitalism in the 1980s (i.e., before the term "neoliberalism" became so fashionable)? Indeed didn't leftists describe capitalism is these ways in the 1930s and indeed in the 1880s? Well, not entirely.

In the 1880s capitalism, in large parts of the West, didn't need to be liberalized; free trade was taken for granted; markets were expected to be open; and you couldn't privatize or deregulate that which was already private or deregulated. So, as a consequence of that, the sin of neoliberalism, at least to unhistorical Leftists, seems to be its desire to get back to a purer kind of capitalism.

This simple fusion of capitalism and neoliberalism is true of some neoliberals too. For example, Alexander Rustov, the guy who coined the term "neoliberalism" in 1938, talked at that time about "the priority of the price mechanism, free enterprise, the system of competition." That too simply sounds like a description of capitalism. Yet he was specifically talking about the new "neoliberalism" of the late 1930s (at the Colloque Walter Lippmann). Actually, it wasn't a pure or laissez-faire capitalism he was talking about because the neoliberals of his day firmly believed in state intervention. That is, many brands of neoliberalism, at least from the 1930s onwards, actually accepted a sometimes large role for the state; as well as for what they called "political and social fairness."
All this complicates things further for the mindless Leftist. And, as I said, I detect very little complexity or subtlety 99% of the times I hear the word "neoliberalism."

Capitalism, Neoliberalism & the State

And what about Professor Francis Fox Piven's "hyper-capitalism"? Here again, all she is essentially talking about is capitalism. Or, more accurately, a capitalism which is largely free of the state.

Now capitalism just is -- at least in a theoretical sense -- separate from the state. (This is not necessarily the same as saying that it should be separate.) So talking about "hyper-capitalism" is to talk, again, about a capitalism which is largely free of the state. This is not an argument for "market fundamentalism" either. It's just to say that capitalism (in theory at least), and the state (in theory at least), are autonomous entities. Whether or not that has ever actually been the historical reality is another question entirely.

So on that question: yes, there has always been a connection between the state and capitalism because of such things as property rights, the rule of law, legislation against fraud/deception, and the protection of private property. Nonetheless, even then there is no necessary connection between the state and capitalism. One reason for that -- taking the last point about the protection of private property only -- is that businessmen and landowners could quite easily protect their their property and land by employing armed security men (or even militia) to do so. In fact, this has happened in history and it still occurs today.

And that brings us to yet another newish term: "market fundamentalism." This has also come on the market fairly recently; though I don't think it's quite as fashionable as the word "neoliberalism" itself.

Of course there are "market fundamentalists" and indeed neoliberal fundamentalists. But that's simply because you can make a fundamentalism out of anything: be that the fundamentalism of much anti-racist activism or even anti-neoliberalism fundamentalism. In other words, some of the people who use the term "fundamentalist" will be as fundamentalist as the people they criticise.

Back to neoliberalism and its own attitude towards the state.

Even a hip philosopher like Michel Foucault realized that neoliberalism was far from being a doctrine of hardcore laissez-faire capitalism. He said that "[n]eo-liberalism is not Adam Smith; neo-liberalism is not market society". (Then again, some commentators have said that Adam Smith wasn't a "capitalist fundamentalist" either.)

However, the neoliberals of the 1930s -- and beyond -- were wrong to claim "humanistic and social values" for themselves. They were also wrong to claim that such things were rejected by laissez-faire capitalists.

Capitalists, whether theorists or practitioners, have no more or no less rejected social values and humanism than anyone else. What they believe is that such values shouldn't -- or couldn't -- be defined and imposed by the state or by any central authority. Allowing the state to take care of values -- such as today's many politically-correct values/diktats and even of morality itself -- is a disastrous move; as we are seeing at present in the UK and U.S. We can also see it in Iran and Saudi Arabia and, before that, in the various Communists/Leftist states of the 20th century.

Take also the value that is equality. You never simply have equality in the abstract. Firstly, the state will have to decide that equality is a primary goal of society and the nation. Secondly, it will need to decide what an equalitarian society actually looks like. And thirdly, it will have to sacrifice all the other values which, of necessity, will conflict with equalitarianism or at least with the massive state experiment which will be required in order to be bring about a supposedly equal society.

Now even though many people may vote for an equalitarian party; once in power, that party will be in almost complete control of the equalitarian agenda for the next five years or so. Now that's a lot of power. That's a lot of control.