A Primer on Neoliberalism
Author and Page information
- This page: https://www.globalissues.org/article/39/a-primer-on-neoliberalism.
- To print all information (e.g. expanded side notes, shows alternative links), use the print version:
Neoliberalism is promoted as the mechanism for global trade and investment supposedly for all nations to prosper and develop fairly and equitably. Margaret Thatcher’s TINA acronym suggested that There Is No Alternative to this. But what is neoliberalism, anyway?
This section attempts to provide an overview. First, a distinction is made between political and economic liberalism. Then, neoliberalism as an ideology for how to best structure economies is explained. Lastly, for important context, there is a quick historical overview as to how this ideology developed.
On this page:
- Political versus Economic Liberalism
- Neoliberalism is...
- Brief overview of Neoliberalism’s History: How did it develop?
- Going bust? The Global Financial Crisis Shakes Confidence
- More Information
Political versus Economic Liberalism
There is an important difference between liberal politics and liberal economics. But this distinction is usually not articulated in the mainstream.
As summarized here by Elizabeth Martinez and Arnoldo Garcia:
The web site, Political Compass, also highlights these differences very well.
They show Left and Right as an economic scale, with Authoritarian and Libertarian making up the political scale, crossing the economic scale resulting in quadrants:
In addition, they note that,
despite popular perceptions, the opposite of fascism is not communism but anarchism (ie liberal socialism), and that the opposite of communism (i.e. an entirely state-planned economy) is neo-liberalism (i.e. extreme deregulated economy). This is made clear by another chart they have:
A few other charts of theirs are of interest:
1) The positions of some well-known political figures in the world
(In the above, it is interesting to note how most of the world’s influential leaders, from the wealthiest and most poweful countries all fall into the area of authoritarian-right.)
2) A look at English political parties and how they fair (even the
3) It is also interesting to see how the three main British political parties have changed over time, as Political Compass shows:
4) The last US elections (2004) show the political spectrum between John Kerry and George W. Bush was note that wide:
They also make a distinction about neo-conservatives and neoliberals:
What the above highlights then, is that in some countries, discourse on these topics may appear to fit into left-right balance, but when looked at a more global scale, the range of discourse may be narrow. Economic issues such as globalization, especially as it affects third world countries as well as those in the first world, require a broader range of discussion.
Neoliberalism, in theory, is essentially about making trade between nations easier. It is about freer movement of goods, resources and enterprises in a bid to always find cheaper resources, to maximize profits and efficiency.
To help accomplish this, neoliberalism requires the removal of various controls deemed as barriers to free trade, such as:
- Certain standards, laws, legislation and regulatory measures
- Restrictions on capital flows and investment
The goal is to be able to to allow the free market to naturally balance itself via the pressures of market demands; a key to successful market-based economies.
As summarized from What is
Neo-Liberalism? A brief definition for activists by Elizabeth Martinez and Arnoldo Garcia from Corporate Watch, the main points of neoliberalism includes:
- The rule of the market — freedom for capital, goods and services, where the market is self-regulating allowing the
trickle downnotion of wealth distribution. It also includes the deunionizing of labor forces and removals of any impediments to capital mobility, such as regulations. The freedom is from the state, or government.
- Reducing public expenditure for social services, such as health and education, by the government
- Deregulation, to allow market forces to act as a self-regulating mechanism
- Privatization of public enterprise (things from water to even the internet)
- Changing perceptions of public and community good to individualism and individual responsibility.
Overlapping the above is also what Richard Robbins, in his book, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), summarizes (p.100) about some of the guiding principles behind this ideology of neoliberalism:
- Sustained economic growth is the way to human progress
- Free markets without government
interferencewould be the most efficient and socially optimal allocation of resources
- Economic globalization would be beneficial to everyone
- Privatization removes inefficiencies of public sector
- Governments should mainly function to provide the infrastructure to advance the rule of law with respect to property rights and contracts.
At the international level then we see that this additionally translates to:
- Freedom of trade in goods and services
- Freer circulation of capital
- Freer ability to invest
The underlying assumption then is that the free markets are a good thing. They may well be, but unfortunately, reality seems different from theory. For many economists who believe in it strongly the ideology almost takes on the form of a theology. However, less discussed is the the issue of power and how that can seriously affect, influence and manipulate trade for certain interests. One would then need to ask if free trade is really possible.
From a power perspective,
free trade in reality is seen by many around the world as a continuation of those old policies of plunder, whether it is intended to be or not. However, we do not usually hear such discussions in the mainstream media, even though thousands have protested around the world for decades.
Today then, neoliberal policies are seeing positives and negatives. Under free enterprise, there have been many innovative products. Growth and development for some have been immense. Unfortunately, for most people in the world there has been an increase in poverty and the innovation and growth has not been designed to meet immediate needs for many of the world’s people. Global inequalities on various indicators are sharp. For example,
- Some 3 billion people — or half of humanity — live on under 2 dollars a day
- 86 percent of the world’s resources are consumed by the world’s wealthiest 20 percent
- (See this site’s page on poverty facts for many more examples.)
Joseph Stiglitz, former World Bank Chief Economist (1997 to 2000), Nobel Laureate in Economics and now strong opponent of the ideology pushed by the IMF and of the current forms of globalization, notes that economic globalization in its current form risks exacerbating poverty and increasing violence if not checked, because it is impossible to separate economic issues from social and political issues.
And as J.W. Smith has argued:
Issues such as the criticisms of
free trade, of protests around the world, and many others angles are discussed on this section’s subsequent pages.
The history of neoliberalism and how it has come about is worth looking at first, however, to get some crucial context, and to understand why so many people around the world criticize it.
Brief overview of Neoliberalism’s History: How did it develop?
Free Markets Were Not Natural. They Were Enforced
The modern system of free trade, free enterprise and market-based economies, actually emerged around 200 years ago, as one of the main engines of development for the Industrial Revolution.
In 1776, British economist Adam Smith published his book, The Wealth of Nations. Adam Smith, who some regard as the father of modern free market capitalism and this very influential book, suggested that for maximum efficiency, all forms of government interventions in economic issues should be removed and that there should be no restrictions or tariffs on manufacturing and commerce within a nation for it to develop.
For this to work, social traditions had to be transformed. Free markets were not inevitable, naturally occurring processes. They had to be forced upon people. John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, a prominent conservative political thinker and an influence on Margaret Thatcher and the New Right in Britain in the 1980s, notes:
A detailed insight into this process of transformation is revealed by Michael Perelman, Professor of Economics at California State University. In his book The Invention of Capitalism (Duke University Press, 2000), he details how peasants did not willingly abandon their self-sufficient lifestyle to go work in factories.
- Instead they had to be forced with the active support of thinkers and economists of the time, including the famous originators of classical political economy, such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, James Steuart and others.
- Contradicting themselves, as if it were, they argued for government policies that deprived the peasants their way of life of self-provision, to coerce them into waged labor.
- Separating the rural peasantry from their land was successful because of
ideological vigorfrom people like Adam Smith, and because of a
revision of historythat created an impression of a humanitarian heritage of political economy; an inevitability to be celebrated.
- This revision, he also noted has evidently
Rooted in Mercantilism
Adam Smith’s work did, however, expose the previous fraud that was the mercantilist system, which enriched the imperial powers at the expense of others. This mercantilism had its roots in the Middle and Dark Ages of Europe, many hundreds of years earlier and also parallels various methods used by empires throughout history (including today) to control their peripheries and appropriate wealth accordingly. Furthermore, as J.W. Smith argues, even though it is claimed to be Adam Smith free trade, neoliberalism was and is mercantilism dressed up with more friendly rhetoric, while the reality remains the same as the mercantilist processes over the last several hundred years:
Colonialism and Imperialism Needed To Succeed
Free trade formed the basis of free enterprise for capitalists and up until the Great Depression of the 1930s was the primary economic theory followed in the United States and Britain. But from a global perspective, this free trade was accompanied by geopolitics making it look more like mercantilism. For both these nations (as well as others) to succeeded and remain competitive in the international arena, they had a strong foundation of imperialism, colonialism and subjugation of others in order to have access to the resources required to produce such vast wealth. As J.W. Smith notes above, this was hardly the free trade that Adam Smith suggested and it seemed like a continuation of mercantilist policies.
However, even during its prevalent times before the Second World War, neoliberalism had already started to show signs of increasing disparities between rich and poor.
Because of the Great Depression in the 1930s, an economist, John Maynard Keynes, suggested that regulation and government intervention was actually needed in order to provide more equity in development. This led to the
Keynesian model of development and after World War II formed the foundation for the rebuilding of the U.S-European-centered international economic system. The Marshall Plan for Europe helped reconstruct it and the European nations saw the benefits of social provisions such as health, education and so on, as did the U.S. under President Roosevelt’s New Deal.
In fact, the Bretton Woods Institutions (the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank) were actually designed with Keynesian policies in mind; to help provide international regulation and control of capital. As Susan George notes,
when these institutions were created at Bretton Woods in 1944, their mandate was to help prevent future conflicts by lending for reconstruction and development and by smoothing out temporary balance of payments problems. They had no control over individual government’s economic decisions nor did their mandate include a license to intervene in national policy. This is very different from what they are doing today.
However, as elites and corporations saw their profits diminish with this equalizing effect, economic liberalism was revived, hence the term
neoliberalism. Except, that this new form was not just limited to national boundaries, but instead was to apply to international economics as well. Starting from the University of Chicago with the philosopher-economist Friedrich von Hayek and his students such as Milton Friedman, the ideology of neoliberalism was pushed very thoroughly around the world.
Even before this though, there were indications that the world economic order was headed this way: the majority of wars throughout history have had economics, trade and resources at their core. The want for access to cheap resources to continue creating vast wealth and power allowed the imperial empires to justify military action, imperialism and colonialism in the name of
humanitarian intervention and so on. In fact, as J.W. Smith notes:
As European and American economies grew, they needed to continue expansion to maintain the high standards of living that some elites were attaining in those days. This required holding on to, and expanding colonial territories in order to gain further access to the raw materials and resources, as well exploiting cheap labor. Those who resisted were often met with brutal repression or military interventions. This is not a controversial perception. Even U.S. President Woodrow Wilson recognized this in the early part of the 20th century:
Richard Robbins, Professor of Anthropology and author of Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism is also worth quoting at length:
World War I was, in effect, a resource war as Imperial centers battled over themselves for control of the rest of the world. World War II was another such battle, perhaps the ultimate one. However, the former imperial nations realized that to fight like this is not the way, and became more cooperative instead.
Unfortunately, that cooperation was not for all the world’s interests primarily, but their own. The Soviet attempt of an independent path to development (flawed that it was, because of its centralized, paranoid and totalitarian perspectives), was a threat to these centers of capital because their own colonies might
get the wrong idea and also try for an independent path to their development.
Because World War II left the empires weak, the colonized countries started to break free. In some places, where countries had the potential to bring more democratic processes into place and maybe even provide an example for their neighbors to follow it threatened multinational corporations and their imperial (or former imperial) states (for example, by reducing access to cheap resources). As a result, their influence, power and control was also threatened. Often then, military actions were sanctioned. To the home populations, the fear of communism was touted, even if it was not the case, in order to gain support.
The net effect was that everyone fell into line, as if it were, allowing a form of globalization that suited the big businesses and elite classes mainly of the former imperial powers. (Hence, there is no surprise that some of the main World War II rivals, USA, Germany and Japan as well as other European nations are so prosperous, while the former colonial countries are still so poor; the economic booms of those wealthy nations have been at the expense of most people around the world.) Thus, to ensure this unequal success, power, and advantage globalization was backed up with military might (and still is).
Hence, even with what seemed like the end of imperialism and colonialism at the end of World War II, and the promotion of Adam Smith free trade and free markets, mercantilist policies still continued. (Adam Smith exposed the previous system as mercantilist and unjust. He then proposed free market capitalism as the alternative. Yet, a reading of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations would reveal that today is a far cry from the free market capitalism he suggested, and instead could still be considered monopoly capitalism, or the age-old mercantilism that he had exposed! More about this in the next section on this site.) And so, a belief system had to accompany the political objectives:
The Reagan and Thatcher era in particular, saw neoliberalism pushed to most parts of the globe, almost demonizing anything that was publicly owned, encouraging the privatization of anything it could, using military interventions if needed. Structural Adjustment policies were used to open up economies of poorer countries so that big businesses from the rich countries could own or access many resources cheaply.
Lori Wallach, Director of Global Trade Watch, also describes in a video clip (4:30 minutes, transcript) how even the term free
trade is misleading, for the free trade agenda pushed through the World Trade Organization includes many non-trade issues, such that trade is just one small part:
The belief in free markets (or the version being promoted) was very ideological:
As former World Bank Chief Economist Josepth Stiglitz notes, it is a simplistic ideology which most developed nations have resisted themselves:
Activist and academic Raj Patel explains that prices do not accurately reflect the value of commodities due to so many externalities (a $4 hamburger should cost $200 for example if some environmental aspects are factored in, for example), and also notes that various leading proponents of neoliberalism are now admitting it too, in the wake of the financial crash in 2008. Furthermore, markets aren’t separate from social and political contexts in which they function, yet, business leaders and governments were all too willing to go for the simpler soundbites:
Since the Cold War has ended, it is almost no surprise that today’s globalization has come in the form we see it — that is where it would have been had the Cold War not got
in the way. The World Wars were about rival powers fighting amongst themselves to the spoils of the rest of the world; maintaining their empires and influence over the terms of world trade, commerce and, ultimately, power.
John Gray, mentioned above, notes that the same processes to force the peasantry off their lands and into waged labor, and to socially engineer a transformation to free markets is also taking place today in the third world:
Gray also notes how this western view of the world is not necessarily compatible with the views of other cultures and this imposition for a western view of civilization may not be accepted by everyone. Ironically then, using terms like
liberty, etc, which is common in such discourse, as Gray notes, results in conformity, almost totalitarian in nature.
Going bust? The Global Financial Crisis Shakes Confidence
Around mid-2008 a financial crisis, starting in the US, spread around the world into a global financial crisis, and then into a more general economic crisis, which, as of writing this, the world has still not recovered from.
The crisis has been so severe, criticisms of market fundamentalism and neoliberalism are more widespread than before.
Raj Patel argues that the markets in their current shape have created a convoluted idea of value;
value meals are cheap but unhealthy whereas fruit and veg are often more expensive; rainforests are hardly valued whereas felling trees adds to the economy.
Flawed assumptions about the underlying economic systems contributed to this problem and had been building up for a long time, the current financial crisis being one of its eventualities.
This problem could have been averted (in theory) as people had been pointing to these issues for decades. Yet, of course, during periods of boom no-one (let alone the financial institutions and their supporting ideologues and politicians largely believed to be responsible for the bulk of the problems) would want to hear of caution and even thoughts of the kind of regulation that many are now advocating. To suggest anything would be anti-capitalism or socialism or some other label that could effectively shut up even the most prominent of economists raising concerns.
Of course, the irony that those same institutions would now themselves agree that those
anti-capitalist regulations are required is of course barely noted. Such options now being considered are not anti-capitalist. However, they could be described as more regulatory or managed rather than completely free or laissez faire capitalism, which critics of regulation have often preferred. But a regulatory capitalist economy is very different to a state-based command economy, the style of which the Soviet Union was known for. The points is that there are various forms of capitalism, not just the black-and-white capitalism and communism. And at the same time, the most extreme forms of capitalism can also lead to the bigger bubbles and the bigger busts.
In that context, the financial crisis, as severe as it was, led to key architects of the system admitting to flaws in key aspects of the ideology.
At the end of 2008, Alan Greenspan was summoned to the U.S. Congress to testify about the financial crisis. His tenure at the Federal Reserve had been long and lauded, and Congress wanted to know what had gone wrong. Henry Waxman questioned him:
Quoting Stiglitz again, he captures the sentiments of a number of people:
Some of these regulatory measures have been easy to get around for various reasons. Some reasons for weak regulation that entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth describes include that regulators
- Are poorly paid or are not the best talent
- Often lack true independence (or are corrupted by industries lobbying for favors)
- May lack teeth or courage in face of hostile industries and a politically hostile climate to regulation.
Given its crucial role, it is extremely important to invest in it too, Shuttleworth stresses.
However, this crisis wasted almost a generation of talent:
Paul Krugman also notes the wasted talent, at the expense of other areas in much need:
British economist John Maynard Keynes, is considered one of the most influential economists of the 20th century and one of the fathers of modern macroeconomics. He advocated an interventionist form of government policy believing markets left to their own measure (i.e. completely
freed) could be destructive leading to cycles of recessions, depressions and booms. To mitigate against the worst effects of these cycles, he supported the idea that governments could use various fiscal and monetary measures. His ideas helped rebuild after World War II, until the 1970s when his ideas were abandoned for freer market systems.
Keynes’ biographer, professor Robert Skidelsky, argues that free markets have undermined democracy and led to this crisis in the first place:
Furthermore, he argues that the democratic process has been abused and manipulated to allow a concentration of power that is actually against the idea of free markets and real capitalism:
Despite Keynesian economics getting a bad press from free market advocates for many years, many are now turning to his policies and ideas to help weather the economic crisis.
Some of the world’s top financiers and officials are reluctantly accepting that the version of capitalism that has long favored them may not be good for everyone.
Stiglitz observed this remarkable resignation at the annual Davos forum, usually a meeting place of rich world leaders and the corporate elite, who usually together reassert ways to go full steam ahead with a form of corporate globalization that has benefited those at the top. This time, however, Stiglitz noted that
Some at the top, however, have tried to play the role of victim:
And as much as this crisis affects wealthier nations, the poorest will suffer most in the long run:
In effect, the globalization project, an ideal that sounded appealing for many around the world, was flawed by politics and greed; the inter-connectedness it created meant that as any flaws revealed themselves, the unraveling of such a system would have far greater reach and consequences, especially upon people who had nothing to do with its creation in the first place.
The above may seem long, but many volumes could be written to expand on the above themes. Until I can get to do something like that, the following are links to some useful resources to help understand neoliberalism and its historical and current context:
- A Short History of Neo-Liberalism: Twenty Years of Elite Economics and Emerging Opportunities for Structural Change by Susan George, from a conference on Economic Sovereignty in a Globalising World, Bangkok, 24-26 March 1999
- What is
Neo-Liberalism? A brief definition for activists by Elizabeth Martinez and Arnoldo Garcia, National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, January 1, 1997 (posted at CorpWatch.org)
- Has Globalisation Really Made Nations Redundant? The States We are Still In, by Noelle Burgi and Philip S. Golub, Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2000.
- The Essence of Neoliberalism by Pierre Bordieu, Le Monde Diplomatique, December 1998
- The Institute for Economic Democracy has a wealth of information.
- Program on Corporations Law & Democracy looks at the creation and development of English commercial corporations and the abolition of democratic control over their behavior. From UK-based Corporate Watch (not related to the above-mentioned US-based organization of the same name!)
- This web site’s look at projecting power introduces the link between geopolitics and economics; of the use of military to back up trade objectives.
- The Citizens’ Guide to Trade, Environment and Sustainability from Friends of the Earth gives an overview of the world trade system, the ideology, the impact on society, environment, etc.
- Neoliberalism: origins, theory, definition is a detailed look by Paul Treanor, a political thinker and writer.
- The Luckiest Nut In The World is an 8 minute video (sorry, no transcript available, as far as I know), produced by Emily James. It is a useful and light way of explaining some of the issues around free trade (in its current form) and its impact on poorer countries. Under their license, it has been reposted here. (Please note the license of this video is not covered by this site’s own license).
Back to top