In recent years, neoliberalism has become an academic catchphrase. Yet, in contrast to other prominent social science concepts such as democracy, the meaning and proper usage of neoliberalism curiously have elicited little scholarly debate. Based on a content analysis of 148 journal articles published from 1990 to 2004, we document three potentially problematic aspects of neoliberalism’s use: the term is often undefined; it is employed unevenly across ideological divides; and it is used to characterize an excessively broad variety of phenomena. To explain these characteristics, we trace the genesis and evolution of the term neoliberalism throughout several decades of political economy debates. We show that neoliberalism has undergone a striking transformation, from a positive label coined by the German Freiberg School to denote a moderate renovation of classical liberalism, to a normatively negative term associated with radical economic reforms in Pinochet’s Chile. We then present an extension of W. B. Gallie’s framework for analyzing essentially contested concepts to explain why the meaning of neoliberalism is so rarely debated, in contrast to other normatively and politically charged social science terms. We conclude by proposing several ways that the term can regain substantive meaning as a “new liberalism” and be transformed into a more useful analytic tool.
The contemporary use of neoliberalism is even more striking because scholars once employed the term nearly the opposite of how it is commonly used today. As we demonstrate in the second section, the term neoliberalism was first coined by the Freiberg School of German economists to denote a philosophy that was explicitly moderate in comparison to classical liberalism, both in its rejection of laissez-faire policies and its emphasis on humanistic values. These characteristics imbued neoliberalism with a common substantive meaning and a positive normative valence: it denoted a “new liberalism” that would improve upon its classical predecessor in specific ways. Only once the term had migrated to Latin America, and Chilean intellectuals starting using it to refer to radical economic reforms under the Pinochet dictatorship, did neoliberalism acquire negative normative connotations and cease to be used by market proponents.
Neoliberalism is not exclusively a bad word, but one rarely sees it used as a good word−as the term that an author chooses when emphasizing the positive aspects of a pro-market philosophy, development model, or reform policy. One compelling indicator of the term’s negative connotation is that virtually no one self-identifies as a neoliberal, even though scholars frequently associate others—politicians, economic advisors, and even fellow academics—with this term. While a fifth of the articles on neoliberalism in our sample referred prominently to other people as neoliberals, in all of our research, we did not uncover a single contemporary instance in which an author used the term self-descriptively, and only one—an article by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (1999)—in which it was applied to the author’s own policy recommendations.
Those who use the term neoliberalism find many occasions to do so, applying it to a wide range of economic, social, and political phenomena. We argue that there are at least four distinct and potentially overlapping ways how neoliberalism is used in the study of political economy: to denote a set of economic reform policies, a development model, a normative ideology, and an academic paradigm.
The most common use of neoliberalism refers to economic reform policies. Scholars typically characterize three sets of polices as being neoliberal: those that liberalize the economy, by eliminating price controls, deregulating capital markets, and lowering trade barriers; those that reduce the role of the state in the economy, most notably via privatization of state-owned enterprises; and those that contribute to fiscal austerity and macroeconomic stabilization, including tight control of the money supply, elimination of budget deficits, and curtailment of government subsidies (e.g., Wilson 1994: 165; Aminzade 2003: 48). We characterized the use of neoliberalism as falling into the “policy” category when authors consistently associated the term with one or more of these specific policies.
A second use of neoliberalism refers to a development model. A neoliberal model is a comprehensive development strategy with economic, social, and political implications. Rather than merely a technocratic list of solutions for economic ills, a model involves a set of economic theories linking disparate policies together into a coherent recipe for growth or modernization; prescriptions for the proper role of key actors such as labor unions, private enterprise, and the state; and an explicitly political project to carry out these prescriptions and ensure that actors play by the rules of the game. In this sense, the neoliberal model can be contrasted with its predecessor, the state-led development model, which implied very different political roles for labor, capital, and the state. Thus, many scholars maintain that the implementation of a neoliberal model involves a restructuring of state-society relations (e.g., Kurtz 1999: 414; Riethof 1999: 1050).
A third way that neoliberalism is used is to denote an ideology. When speaking of a neoliberal ideology, scholars refer to normative ideas about the proper role of individuals versus collectivities and a particular conception of freedom as an overarching social value. David Carruthers (2001: 345), for instance, argues that “neoliberal ideology seeks to restrict the state to a minimum and to maximise the scope of individual freedom…. Political leaders should not impose any single utopia; rather, individuals should be free to pursue their own, mediated by exchange relationships in the marketplace.” If a neoliberal development model is a specific plan for how a certain society will be organized, a neoliberal ideology is a more general statement about how society should be organized.
A final use of the term neoliberalism is to characterize an academic paradigm. Unlike a normative ideology, a neoliberal paradigm consists of positive assumptions about how markets operate; in this sense, it is often seen as closely related to neoclassical economic theory. John Brohman (1995: 136), for instance, argues that in the neoliberal approach, “the behaviour of individuals is predetermined by a set of universal rational rules that are deductively posited. Private producers and consumers are presupposed to be utility and profit maximisers who respond rationally and efficiently to correct market signals.” Some scholars also use the notion of a neoliberal paradigm in the context of more specific academic debates. Lawrence King (2002: 407) uses neoliberalism to refer not only to a policy package, but also to a framework for studying and evaluating countries’ transitions from socialism to capitalism.
polecam szczególnie rozdział: "The Historical Evolution of Neoliberalism: Explaining its Present-Day Characteristics". dobrze, że komuś przyszło do głowy napisać porządny artykuł analizujący kiedy i w jakim kontekście pojawił się termin neoliberalizm ("the economic philosophers of the German Freiberg School used the term in a positive and self-identifying sense and considered neoliberalism to be a moderate alternative to classical liberalism") i jakie przeszedł przeobrażenia.