Left neoliberalism?

Posted: 21 July 2011 in Uncategorized
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John Ledger, "The Logic of Neo-Liberalism" (2010)

I must admit, I quite like the term: left neoliberalism. It does a good job capturing the position of many participants in the current debate about jobs (and economic policy more generally)—and distinguishes their position both from right-wing neoliberalism and the non- or anti-neoliberal Left.

The term itself was invented in a debate on policy and politics that began with an exchange between Doug Henwood and Matthew Yglesias and that has been raging (if it’s possible for a debate to rage in a little liberal/left-wing corner of the blogosphere) in recent days (Mike Konczal has a list of some of the main contributions, along with an important contribution to the debate in its own right.)

The problem started when the best Yglesias could come up with in response to the question “What is the single best thing Washington can do to jumpstart job creation?” was for the Fed to adopt a higher inflation target. Huh?! That barely even qualifies as a mainstream liberal idea, let alone something from the Left. And Henwood, justifiably, jumped all over him.

Then, the debate took off. I don’t want to reprise the debate (I suggest readers check out Konczal’s list) but I do want to add a couple of quick comments.

1. For me, the neoliberalism in “left neoliberalism” is taking for granted the idea of neoliberal governmentality (as articulated by, among others, Wendy Brown [pdf]): that the state responds to the needs of the market, that the state itself is governed by a market rationality, and that individual subjects are constructed as entrepreneurial actors. The left in “left neoliberalism” is the idea that the state actually can do something about things like jobs, as against those who adhere to right-wing neoliberalism, for whom the state needs to get out of the way and let markets operate freely. Both groups share the basic presumptions of neoliberalism but they differ about how much the state should be involved in providing a safety net and a set of incentives for economic actors to arrive at the appropriate outcomes (for themselves and for society as a whole). That’s why, in this debate, left neoliberals are often described as technocrats.

2. The anti- or non-neoliberal Left rejects neoliberal governmentality, at the level of both economics and politics. In terms of economics, it rejects the idea that the fundamental choice (for example, in the debate about jobs) is between monetary or fiscal policy in order to encourage capitalist enterprises to hire more workers. It puts on the table the possibility of creating other, noncapitalist institutions—the state capturing some of the surplus and directly hiring workers, the setting-up of worker-owned enterprises, and so on—in order to solve the jobs crisis. When it comes to politics, it inserts two issues into the discussion that neoliberals, on both the Right and the Left, seem not to want to talk about: class and hegemony. Class is a way of understanding how current politics are structured (as a form of class struggle) as well as a way of changing the current political situation (by organizing people as class actors). Hegemony serves a useful role precisely by making sense of the hegemony of neoliberal ideas—on both the Right and, beginning with Clinton, the Left—and, then, by putting on the agenda the possibility of challenging the existing hegemony. And, of course, all the intellectual and organizational work necessary to produce an alternative hegemony.

That, at least, is how I see some of the issues of policy and politics that have erupted in the current debt about left neoliberalism.

  1. Peter Fosl says:

    Excellent. I’m reposting on our Kentucky Labor Institute blog.

  2. […] 2013 (and in a series of other posts), I have argued that neoliberalism (including so-called “left neoliberalism,” as espoused by Hillary Clinton and her new runnning-mate Tim Kaine) is not a unified period […]

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