What Does 'Neoliberalism' Really Mean?

Author:Magness, Phillip W.
Position:BOOKS - Quinn Slobodian's "Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism" - Book review

THE WORD NEOLIBERAL is academia's most reviled poltergeist. The term's definition is notoriously fluid, though it usually involves a litany of tropes about globalization and "market ideology" leaving a destructive trail of exploitation and inequality around the world. The scholarly literature on neoliberalism is as vast as it is vacuous, typically deploying its subject as a pejorative stand-in for free market economics. But neoliberalism isn't much more than a ghost of an ideology--or at least it doesn't have many claimants. There are no self-identified neoliberal schools of thought today, excluding minor attempts to appropriate the phrase.

A small group of academics, among them Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek, did briefly bat the term around in the late 1930s as they tried to carve out a place for free market ideas amid the Depression and Europe's growing clouds of illiberalism. The name never really stuck, though. Its closest cousin today comes not from Mises or Hayek but from the lesser-known German "ordoliberal" school that developed after the war--essentially a rule-based blend of market principles, conservative central banking, and a fiscally disciplined social safety net. Yet for reasons of both intellectual interest and ideology, modern theorists point to the Mises-Hayek group as an origin story for their poltergeist.

Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism is a thoroughgoing attempt to develop a historical link between the classical liberal economists of the interwar period and the posited ascendance of neoliberalism in our time. The author, Wellesley historian Quinn Slobodian, contends that the "neoliberal" institutions of today--by which he means the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank, and an assortment of international trade conventions--are the progeny of the aforementioned classical liberals of the early 20th century. The twist, Slobodian contends, is that maintaining an international capitalist norm requires deviation from the precepts of laissez faire. Thus we arrive at a neoliberal institutional structure today that trumps not only national sovereignty but alleged manifestations of popular will, particularly those that might "collectively" appropriate private wealth.

Several elements of this book are impressive. Slobodian digs deep into the archives to map out his subjects' intellectual network, dubbing them the "Geneva School" in the process. But his excavations are processed from a...

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