By Deane Barker tags: politics

This term has a long historical context, first being used in France in the 1800s. It seems to have switched sides many times, and been flexed and twisted to mean a lot of different things.

In contemporary Western politics, it mainly refers to the resurgence of conservative (yes, conservative) politics in the late 20th century. These politics involved policies like deregulation, economic austerity, privatization, etc. – anything that acknowledged and enabled the supremacy of the free market.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are the most representative neoliberals, and the ones with whom the label is most associated.

So, where did the name come from? If it’s associated with the word “liberal,” it’s odd that it refers to conservative politics. This page has a lot of history of the term (although, with a conservative slant).

From my reading, I don’t see any absolute agreement on the etymology of the term. Does the “liberal” part refer to a political position, or the idea of “liberty”? Or does it mean a “new liberal,” meaning a liberal who has changed positions? Or does it mean “new liberty”?

(This is further complicated by the existence of the term “classic liberalism,” which is essentially the opposite of what we consider a “liberal” in contemporary politics.)

This page acknowledges the confusion by quoting an author:

[Neoliberal] is now widely acknowledged in the literature as a controversial, incoherent, and crisis-ridden term, even by many of its most influential deployers.

Why I Looked It Up

I had heard the term often, and I knew it was somehow associated with Reagan, but the juxtaposition of his politics and the term “liberal” confused me.

(It still does. I don’t know that I have a clear answer to this.)


Added on

From The Good-Enough Life:

Virtue ethics attempted to solve the neoliberal problem having economic value define everything…


Added on

Mentioned in The Deepest Map:

Until recently, that mean the highest achievers in the military and scientific worlds. But after decades of neoliberal capitalism, hobbled government agencies, and the wealthiest people and corporations paying little or no tax…


Added on

In an article about Boeing:

Like most neoliberal institutions, Boeing had come under the spell of a seductive new theory of “knowledge” that essentially reduced the whole concept to a combination of intellectual property, trade secrets, and data, discarding “thought” and “understanding” and “complex reasoning” possessed by a skilled and experienced workforce as essentially not worth the increased health care costs.

They seem to be used “neoliberal” here to mean an organization obsessed with financial performance to the exclusion of everything else.

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