What is Neoliberalism?

I know what I mean when I (occasionally) use the term neoliberal. Neoliberalism is a political movement or ideology that hates ‘big’ government, dislikes any form of market interference by the state, favours business interests and opposes organised labour. The obvious response to this is why ‘neo’. In the European tradition we could perhaps define that collection as being the beliefs of a (market) liberal (although that would be misleading for reasons I give below). The main problem here is that in US discourse in particular the word ‘liberal’ has a very different meaning. As Corey Robin writes, neoliberals

would recoil in horror at the policies and programs of mid-century liberals like Walter Reuther or John Kenneth Galbraith or even Arthur Schlesinger, who claimed that “class conflict is essential if freedom is to be preserved, because it is the only barrier against class domination.”

This is why I do not think it is a problem that few today would describe themselves as neoliberal. Indeed that may be part of the greater problem as perceived on the left: neoliberal ideas have become so commonplace, not just on the right but also the centre of politics, that no self-identification by label is required. But there may be another reason why few call themselves neoliberal, and that is because if we try and regard it as a coherent and consistent set of beliefs it can very quickly be shown to be inadequate and confused. Commonly held beliefs do not have to be coherent and consistent.
This is where many accounts on the left go wrong. Rather than seeing ‘left to the market’ as a deliberately misleading shorthand for no state or union interference, they think neoliberalism involves a devotion to free markets, or worse still (see this piece by George Monbiot for example) they equate neoliberalism with unbridled competition. While that might have been true for some of those at Mont Pèlerin, it is no longer true of neoliberalism today.

The reason is obvious enough. Neoliberalism has been adopted and promoted by monied interests on the right, and that money often resulted from what we might call today crony capitalism. So, for example, there is a big difference between promoting competition within the NHS (which someresearch suggests works if done in the right context, such as fixed prices), and the privatisation of health contracts. Privatisation is neither necessary nor sufficient for competition. To describe the promotion of competition within the NHS as neoliberalism is confusing and alienating.