Yesterday the former New Labour SpAd, Theo Bertram, took to Twitter to muse on the subject of neoliberalism, and to express mystification about what the term actually means.

Bertram’s tweets have, inevitably, attracted abuse from those who purport to understand precisely what it means and are positively shocked that anybody else might question that certainty. However, I have to confess that – speaking as someone who wrote a PhD on neoliberal political thought – I have a lot of sympathy with Bertram’s position.

There is no doubt that the term is used to explain an awful lot. During my time working on the subject I have seen phenomena as diverse as lad culture, loneliness, ecological collapse, work, Oprah Winfrey, feminism, misogyny, microfinance, romantic comedies, architecture, religious charity, the decline of the Somerset town of Frome, bodybuilding, the European Union, the opponents of the European Union, The Hunger Games trilogy, the gender pay gap, university management, and Labour MPs all be described as ‘neoliberal’ or attributed to ‘neoliberalism’ in some way.

One might, of course, make the case that any and all – or none – of these phenomena might be legitimately explained by neoliberalism in any one of a variety of ways. Citing these examples is not intended to imply that the analysis in any particular case is necessarily faulty (though in many cases I believe it is). The point is that the promiscuous use of ‘neoliberal’ necessarily raises confusion about the meaning of the term, and has also led some to question whether ‘neoliberalism’ has any meaning at all. Plenty of people have argued that the term has become stretched beyond conceptual usefulness. Would the patterns of thought, the policies, the phenomena which we have come to describe as ‘neoliberal’ not equally well be described or explained through a more conventional and more settled ideological language?

The suspicion that the term ‘neoliberalism’ may, in fact, be an empty vessel is not helped by the often tautological way in which the term is defined. Paul Mason once described neoliberalism thus:

By neoliberalism I mean the global capitalist system shaped around a core of neoliberal practices and institutions, themselves guided by a widespread and spontaneously reproduced ideology, and ruled by an elite which acts in a neoliberal way, whatever conflciting [sic] and moderating ideas it holds in its head.

Neoliberalism, according to Mason, is whatever neoliberals do or think. As definitions go, this is not particularly helpful.

There is also the point, made increasingly frequently nowadays, that it is actually very difficult to find anyone who self-identifies as a neoliberal. This is actually far less true than it was – those associated with the Adam Smith Institute, in particular, have begun to embrace the term, often in quite colourful ways – but it remains the case that the thinkers most often associated with neoliberalism rarely, if ever, described themselves as neoliberals. It therefore remains the case that ‘neoliberal’ is a label which is applied more often than it is chosen, and, moreover, often applied pejoratively. Some have therefore come to describe neoliberalism as a form of ‘political swearword’.

These objections are quite reasonable, and for all these reasons I resisted the term for most of the period I was working on my PhD thesis. Why did I embrace it in the end? Well, in part because everybody else uses the term, and it felt (and still feels) that if I wanted my work to be understood then I would need to speak the same language as my peers. That language might be profoundly imperfect, but given the choice between being understood or not, I will take being understood every time.

The other consideration, and actually the more powerful one, was that the alternatives I tried to employ were equally problematic. I persisted for a long time with ‘economic liberalism’, but eventually abandoned this on the grounds that I did not feel it adequately captured the depth or complexity of the ideas I was dealing with. Terms like ‘free market liberalism’ fail for the same reason. Others have suggested ‘classical liberalism’, but this terms fails to acknowledge the extent to which twentieth-century neoliberalism represented a conscious departure from nineteenth-century liberalism (and, at the same time, that term caricatures nineteenth-century liberalism in unhelpful and inaccurate ways).

Colin Talbot has asked, not unreasonably, whether the term ‘New Right’ might not be employed in place of ‘neoliberal’. This was, after all, the term which was used to refer to the resurgence of conservative politics in Britain and the United States at the end of the 1970s, and which was far less ambiguous in its meaning. However, there are two reasons why ‘New Right’ does not suffice. First, because the New Right in Britain and the United States advanced a socially conservative politics which is not a necessary part of (though is often allied to) neoliberal policies. Second, because in other parts of the world – and specifically in Australia and New Zealand – neoliberal policies were implemented by parties of the left, not parties of the right. If we want to think about neoliberalism on the global scale, linking it exclusively to the right is unhelpful.

So, that leaves us stuck with a profoundly problematic term. What do I think ‘neoliberal’ actually means? That will be the subject of future posts in this series…