It would be fair to say that the world of politics seems to be dominated by an ideology that we in the UK call liberalism and which argues for the primacy of freedom and the pursuit of individual happiness. This is an influential theory; but one that is full of paradoxes and perversities.

The most obvious is that we can’t even agree what to call it.

On the other side of the Atlantic liberalism means, roughly, what we would call Left-wing.

On this side of the Atlantic we use the term either to describe the thoughts of the centrist political party we now call the Liberal Democrats, or the entirely different theoretical tradition championed by sections of the Conservative Party – which is also sometimes called Thatcherism.

How confusing!

Many on the Left now call it neoliberalism – although I’ve never been able to distinguish ‘new liberalism’ from ‘old liberalism’. Perhaps neoliberalism is just code for the version of completely batty extreme Right-wing liberalism that nobody could believe in.

Usually, if someone is talking about neoliberalism they refer to Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. But when I studied this very interesting book I got the sense that the author himself didn’t really believe his own theory. The whole thing is an elegant reductio ad absurdam of his own position. It seemed to be designed half in jest; moreover a few years later he outlined a very different theory in The Examined Life.

Even those radical Republicans who use liberal arguments are only half serious. Take for instance the Republican satirist, P J O’Rourke, who summarises his position thus:

The other secret to balancing the budget is to remember that all tax revenue is the result of holding a gun to somebody’s head. Not paying taxes is against the law. If you don’t pay your taxes, you’ll be fined. If you don’t pay the fine you’ll be jailed. If you try to escape from jail, you’ll be shot. Thus, I – in my role as citizen and voter – am going to shoot you – in your role as taxpayer and ripe suck – if you do not pay your share of the national tab. Therefore, every time the government spends money on anything, you have to ask yourself, “Would I kill my kindly, gray haired mother for this?” In the case of defence spending, the argument is simple: “Come on Ma, everybody’s in this together. If those Canadian hordes come down over the border, we’ll all be dead meat. Pony up.” In the case of helping cripples, orphans and blind people, the argument is almost as persuasive: “Mother, I know you don’t know these people from Adam, but we’ve got five thousand years of Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist-Hindu-Confucian-animist-jungle-God morality going here. Fork over the dough.” But day care doesn’t fly: ”You’re paying the next-door neighbour’s baby-sitter, or its curtains for you, Mom.” 

P J O’Rourke, Parliament of Whores, p.100

In other words, neoliberalism is secondary to “Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist-Hindu-Confucian-animist-jungle-God morality” which is another way of saying that there are much more important and truthful ideas than liberalism.

The point is that even many of the extreme advocates of neoliberalism don’t really pretend to take their own theory that seriously. Nobody but a lunatic would think that just pursuing your own selfish goals is a sensible way to think about your own purpose or about the well-being of society.

So if neoliberals don’t believe in neoliberalism, who does?

I think the paradoxical answer is that only the opponents of neoliberalism really believe in neoliberalism – but they believe in it negatively. It serves the same rhetorical purpose on the Left as a term like communist does on the Right. It is also socially helpful; if you are of the Left then you are united by your opposition to neoliberalism. It is not so much a straw man as a straw enemy.

Now I need to be careful here.

I am not suggesting that there are not plenty of greedy or self-interested people in the world. There are plenty. There are also corporate bodies that behave in ways that are motivated by avarice and which are profoundly damaging to our society.

Greed is real and greed is not good. Corruption is very real.

And I know that there are a few people who believe in the ravings of Ayn Rand or the musings of Robert Nozick. Although I don’t think these people are the ones we really have to worry about.

In my view neoliberalism has never been a coherent or attractive theory. What it is, is a bag of rhetorical devices that can be deployed to protect the interests of powerful elites. It offers rhetorical tropes – phrases and concepts – which if unexamined – lend depth to the self-serving policies of the powerful. But these devices not really rooted in liberalism – instead they take genuine moral concepts but twist them into narrow concepts in order serve their own selfish ends:

  • Our desire for freedom is whittled down to consumerism
  • Citizenship loses its meaning and is reduced to vain individualism
  • Virtue is emptied of real content and just becomes responsibility – looking after your own
  • Community becomes a market, and a particularly uninteresting kind of market
  • Government becomes the state, not something we do together, just an external device to keep us all in order

The rhetorical device works because it is starts with in something valuable. But the valuable concepts are not the concepts of liberalism. Something good is being suggested; yet by the time we find out what the liberal means by freedom, citizenship or virtue we are left with something toxic.

In practice the rhetoric of liberalism is useful to those who use it because it encourages people to leave well alone:

  • Why would you want to rule yourselves? Leave that to us.
  • Why would you want a community or public goods? Private goods are good enough for you.
  • Don’t worry about freedom. Why not go shopping instead?
  • Don’t worry about virtue. Just pay your taxes; we’ll do the rest.

Don’t worry leave it to us, leave it to the market, leave it to our contractors – we know just the man for the job.

Neoliberalism is not neutral – it turns out there are a whole class of people who get the job of running the minimal state, the markets and the corporations.

Perhaps I should join in the attack on neoliberalism. I have certainly had lots of good people telling me that I am foolish for not understanding its power or the threat that it presents. Perhaps it is naive of me to think that I shouldn’t have to attack a stupid theory – one in which no one but a fool would believe.

But I can’t believe attacking straw enemies is good for us. It seems to me that we run the risk of giving life to a monster – wasting our energy fighting something which does not really exist. And gross enemies sometimes get in the way of really examining what we are fighting for.

Meanwhile we fail to notice the way in which power and control is centralised in the hands of political and commercial elites – not because they believe in neoliberalism – but because they are greedy and arrogant – and because we have let them get away with it.