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On socialism, liberalism, and neo-liberalism

Back in January “Johnson”, the language blog from The Economist, featured a post on the (mis)use of the words socialist and liberal in American political discourse.

Socialism is not “the government should provide healthcare” or “the rich should be taxed more” nor any of the other watery social-democratic positions that the American right likes to demonise by calling them “socialist”…. An awful lot of Americans have only the flimsiest grasp of what socialism is. And that, in a country that sent tens of thousands of men to die fighting socialism, is frankly an insult to those dead soldiers’ memories.

Whereas socialism gets over-applied to various left-of-center positions, the meaning of liberal in contemporary US politics is almost the reverse of where it started. Johnson again:

Americans are liberal at heart…. And yet “liberal” is almost a pejorative in America, tainted as it is with associations to that demon-word, “socialist”. When people here own up to being liberals, they have to do it with a certain defiance.

I agree. As I wrote elsewhere:

The concept of liberalism, which may be defined in general terms as a political philosophy favoring individual liberty, equality, and capitalism (Hartz 1955), has a long history and deep effect on Anglo-American thought. For example, the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that all men (sic) are created equal and endowed with life and liberty by their creator echoes John Locke’s suggestion that no person in a state of nature “ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker” (Locke [1690] 2005:4).

Locke’s version of liberalism resembles in some ways what contemporary US political discourse labels libertarianism, another term the “Johnson” post tackles.

The relationship between liberalism and small-r republicanism can also be difficult to disentangle when analyzing US political discourse. Quoting myself once more:

The challenge of defining liberal and republican is exacerbated by the fact that, in everyday political parlance in the United States, these words are used in ways nearly opposite to their definitions in the philosophical tradition sketched here. The Republican party, for example, is generally more associated with individual liberty and unfettered capitalism – that is, liberalism – than is its rival, the Democratic party. In turn, those Democrats who identify as Liberal may support constraints on private interests and the state to protect minority interests against domination, a view associated with republicanism.

(On reflection, I should add that many, though not all so-called “socially liberal” positions on civil rights, abortion, sexuality and the like are indeed liberal in Locke’s sense. The fact that both political philosophers and US politicians label these positions liberal may be due to historical accident, however.)

To this list of confusing terms I would like to add one more: neo-liberalism.

Neoliberalism is a hot topic in contemporary anthropology. Anthrosource shows more than 170 papers treating the topic between 2001 and 2011. Most of these — at least, most that I have read — are excellent, insightful analyses of the ways that discourses of “freedom” and “individuality” erase structural issues in a range of contemporary settings and may exacerbate inequalities and the social problems that result from them.

As with any trending topic, however, there are inevitably a few authors who feel pressured to fit their own analyses to the currently popular discourses. My own reflections on “liberalism”, in fact, were partially inspired by suggestions that I should engage more with “neoliberalism”.

As I said, there is much excellent and necessary work being written on neoliberalism as well as globalization and late modernity. But there is also some vague hand-waving in which the terms simply seem to mean “the way things are around me” without sufficient attempt to explain what that way is like.

In my experience, one way to spot the best work is to look for authors who take pains to define these terms. This is generally true in scholarly writing, but especially so as a topic or a term becomes widely used.  If “neoliberalism” is everything in contemporary societies, then it is nothing specific in an analysis. But if an analyst works to limit terms to specific (albeit sometimes nebulous) sets of practices and ideas, I generally find their work more insightful and more satisfying.

Related: Refreshingly careful definitions of “Socialism”

Cited references

Hartz, Louis (1955). The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution. New York: Harcourt.

Locke, John (2005). Second Treatise of Government. Project Gutenberg.

7 thoughts on “On socialism, liberalism, and neo-liberalism”

  1. Hi Chad…I agree with your analysis of the terminology here, especially about the idea that what many are talking about here is “the way things are around me” rather than some strictly analyzable phenomenon. It seems to me that most scholars use “neoliberalism” to indicate that there has been some sort of crisis in liberal ideology, such that state actors have to pursue ideologically liberal goals by only tenuously liberal means. By using “neoliberalism,” however, they also indicate that liberal ideology still survives in a rather strong form in spite of its attenuated realization in the practice of state actors.

    Overall, I find the term irksome–I wish most people would just analyze the sorts of contradictions they see in the articulation of liberal ideology (including its attenuation through the welfare state, but also its relationship to a more strictly construed libertarianism here in the US in particular).

    As someone who works on the former East Bloc, thought, the term I really dislike is “post-socialism.” Socialism as a political possibility can never be definitively assigned to the past unless it becomes clearly unimaginable that the state might own the means of production in some form or another–in which case, why would you want a term for such an unimaginable thing?! At least the “neo-” prefix makes sense of history as a complex, emergent process. The “post-” prefix (cf. postmodernism, post-industrial, etc.) is more likely to mislead.

    And btw, I don’t the Economist’s blogger is right even to define socialism so strictly. Clearly, health care has a commodity character–and so the NHS is a socialist institution. But are we comfortable with defining education as a commodity? If we are, then most “public” schools in the US are socialist institutions. The term “socialist” (and indeed the notion of “means of production”) only makes sense against the background of what is and what is not commodified.

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  4. The only “liberty” that today’s “liberal” believes in is this: the govt. can do whatever it wants.

  5. Let’s make the distinction between “state socialism” and “socialism”, why don’t we? In most American discourses, they are synonymous, which is strange since Marx’ version of socialism did not see the state as a long term component.

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