In an effort to get away from the simply pejorative use of the term neoliberalism, which can be attached indiscriminately to various forms of anti-democratic or pro-corporate power, the more historicist approach to the concept highlights its fluidity and contingent development. However, this approach also risks lapsing into pure historical description, without critique or an account of how ideas translate into policies and strategies. Others apply a more sociological and critical method, which aims to examine which aspects of neoliberalism are at work amongst elites and governments today. This poses the question of precisely how much of neoliberalism has survived the global financial crisis, and through what means this survival has been achieved.
Definitions of neoliberalism across these literatures are various. But they tend to share four things:
- Victorian liberalism is viewed as an inspiration for neoliberalism, but not a model. Neoliberalism is an inventive, constructivist, modernizing force, which aims to produce a new social and political model, and not to recover an old one. Neoliberalism is not a conservative or nostalgic project.
- Following this, neoliberal policy targets institutions and activities which lie outside of the market, such as universities, households, public administrations and trade unions. This may be so as to bring them inside the market, through acts of privatization; or to reinvent them in a ‘market-like’ way; or simply to neutralize or disband them.
- To do this, the state must be an active force, and cannot simply rely on ‘market forces’. This is where the distinction from Victorian liberalism is greatest. Neoliberal states are required to produce and reproduce the rules of institutions and individual conduct, in ways that accord with a certain ethical and political vision.
- This ethical and political vision is dominated by an idea of competitive activity, that is, the production of inequality. Competition and inequality are valued positively under neoliberalism, as a non-socialist principle for society in general, through which value and scientific knowledge can best be pursued.