06 June 2007

Liberalism, neoliberalism and neocons

Since electronic communication made it possible to communicate regularly and frequently with people in other continents I've discovered that many Americans seem to regard "classical liberalism" and neoliberalism as the same thing.

For most of my life I've regarded myself as a Liberal, and was for a time a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party until it was forced to disband by the Prohibition of Improper Interference Act.

But I was (and am) a political liberal, not an economic liberal. I had always thought that "classical liberalism" was primarily political liberalism, and though there was sometimes a connection with laissez faire economics, it was not a necessary connection. Neoliberalism refered to economic liberalism, pure and simple.

A recent post by Dionysius Stoned, on Foucault, Governmentality and Neoliberalism, has, however, helped to clarify things for me. In this post Dionysius Stoned says:
Lemke points out that Foucault’s lectures suggest two key points of disjuncture between classical liberalism and neoliberalism. The first concerns the relation between the state and the economy. Here Foucault points out that if classic liberalism, resting on “the historical experience of an overtly powerful and absolutist state”, had seen in the latter the role of ‘defining’ and ‘monitoring’ market freedom, this conception is “inverted” under the neoliberal model. Here, rather than the “state supervising the market,” the market becomes the organising principle underlying the state…[n]eoliberalism removes the limiting external principle and puts a regulatory and inner principle [of the market] in its place”. The second difference relates to the basis of government. Arguing that neoliberalisim takes as its “central point of reference and support” the figure of homo economicus, Foucault discussion goes on to show how this conception nevertheless departs from that of classic liberalism. Following off from the prior shift that recodes the social as the economic, neoliberalism enables the extension of economic precepts, “cost benefit calculations and market criteria”, to a whole spectrum of human practice. This conception of homo economicus - honing in on an image of an economically motivated individual who always makes decisions on the basis sound (“rational”) cost benefit analysis - no longer resembles that of the classic liberal philosophers. If the latter, moving from a reductive conception “man’s nature,” had believed that the “freedom of the individual is the technical precondition of rational government” - which government could not constrain without calling into question its own foundation - neoliberalism would no longer take as its point of reference “some pregiven human nature.” Lemke explains:
Neoliberalism no longer locates the rational principle for regulating and limiting the action of government in a natural freedom that we should all respect, but instead it posits an artificially arranged liberty: in the entrepreneurial and competitive behaviours of economic-rational individuals. Whereas in the classic liberal conception, homo oeconomiscus forms an external limits and the inviolable core of governmental action, in the neo-liberal thought of the Chicago school he becomes a behavioristically manipulable being and the correlative of a governmentality which systematically changes the variable “environment” and can rightly expects that individuals are characterised by “rational choice”

Now I'm not an economist and some of Foucault's terminology is way beyond me (I can form no clear conception of a "discursive field"). But translating it into the terms of a discipline closer to home -- theology -- that tends to confirm what I have long thought: that neoliberalism is idolatry, because it seeks to make man bow down and worship economic forces and give them rule. It pretends not to do this, of course, by using the rhetoric of "rational choice", but tends to assume that a "rational" choice is one governed by economic values and considerations.

Then there is another blog post, by "The Antidote", on the subject of South Africa's neoCon spin factory, from which it appears that neocons are practically indistinguishable from neoliberals. As with classical liberalism and laissez faire economics, I am not sure that there is a necessary connection between neocons and neoliberalism, but they seem to coincide most of the time.

And if you remove the "neo" it seems to make little difference either. American "liberals" and "conservatives" alike seem to have a penchant for bombing countries where the name of the capital city begins with B.


Anonymous said...

interesting post steve. I'm glad you found my 'governmentality' blog useful. I'll post a more detailed response some time over the coming week. DS

Magotty Man said...


Little difference between "neocon" and "neoliberal" - I liked that insight. Basically, they are just marketing themselves to different customers, I mean voters - some on the left, others on the right.

I like the economic insights of old school, Christian and classical liberalism - ie distributivism etc. But I guess I could be called culturally conservative, seeing as I'm a christian that is orthodox in theology.

What am I called?

Documentaries said...

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