Is neoliberalism even a thing? This is the question posed by Ed Conway, who claims it is “not an ideology but an insult.” I half agree.
I agree that the economic system we have is “hardly the result of a guiding ideology” and more the result of “happenstance”.
I say this because neoliberalism is NOT the same as the sort of free market ideology proposed by Friedman and Hayek. If this were the case, it would have died on 13 October 2008 when the government bailed out RBS. In fact, though, as Will Davies and Adam Curtis have said, neoliberalism entails the use of an active state. A big part of neoliberalism is the use of the state to increase the power and profits of the 1% - capitalists and top managers. Increased managerialism, crony capitalism and tough benefit sanctions are all features of neoliberalism. In this respect, the EU’s treatment of Greece was neoliberal – ensuring that banks got paid at the expense of ordinary people.
I suspect, though, that measures such as these were, as Ed says, not so much part of a single ideology as uncoordinated events. Tax cuts for the rich, public sector outsourcing and target culture, for example, were mostly justified by appeals to efficiency, and were not regarded even by their advocates as parts of a unified theory. To believe otherwise would be to subscribe to a conspiracy theory which gives too much credit to Thatcher and her epigones.
In this sense, I mostly agree with Paull Mason:
Neoliberalism is a time-limited global system sustained by coercive imposition of competitive behaviour, parasitic finance & privatisation.
I'm not sure about that word “system”. Maybe it attributes too much systematization to neoliberals: perhaps unplanned order would be a better phrase. But it's better to think of neoliberalism as a bunch of arrangements ("system" if you remove connotations of design) rather than as an ideology. Ed has a point when he says that almost nobody fully subscribes to “neoliberal ideology”: free market supporters, for example, don’t defend crony capitalism.
And it’s useful to have words for economic systems. Just as we speak of “post-war Keynesianism” to mean a bundle of policies and institutions of which Keynesian fiscal policy was only a small part, so we can speak of “neoliberalism” to describe our current arrangement. It’s a better description than the horribly question-begging “late capitalism”.
This isn’t to say that “neoliberalism” has a precise meaning. There are varieties of it, just as there were of post-war Keynesianism. Think of the word as like “purple”. There are shades of purple, we’ll not agree when exactly purple turns into blue, and we’ll struggle to define the word (especially to someone who is colour-blind). But “purple” is nevertheless a useful word, and we know it when we see it.
If neoliberalism is a system rather than an ideology, what role does ideology play?
I suspect it’s that of post-fact justification.
Put it this way. In the mid-80s nobody argued that the share of GDP going to the top 1% should double. Of course, many advocated policies which, it turns out, had this effect. Some of them intended this. But those policies were justified on other grounds, often sincerely. Instead, the belief that the top 1% “deserve” 15% of total incomes rather than 7-8% has mostly followed them getting 15%, not led it. A host of cognitive biases – the just world illusion, anchoring effect and status quo bias underpin an ideology which defends inequality. John Jost calls this system justification (pdf). You can gather all these biases under the umbrella term “neoliberal ideology” if you want. But it follows economic events rather than is the creator of them.
So, I half agree with Ed that neoliberalism isn’t a guiding ideology. But I also agree with Paul, that it is a way of describing a particular economic system.
I don’t, however, want to get hung up on words: I’d rather leave such pedantry to the worst sort of academic. What’s more important than language is the brute fact that productivity and hence real incomes for most of us have stagnated for years. In this sense, our existing economic system has failed the majority of people. And this is true whatever name you give it.