Politics

So which of these politicians is a neoliberal? Not one of them | Nick Cohen


No one admits to being a “neoliberal”. You cannot vote for the Neoliberal party or join a neoliberal club. Like 21st-century fascism and religious fundamentalism, neoliberalism is a movement without declared adherents.

If you call opponents “fascist” or a “fundamentalist”, however, at least your audience knows you are condemning them. A “neoliberal” though? Most people won’t know what you are talking about, but will guess that it doesn’t sound such a bad thing to be. The exceptions will be the minority immersed in leftwing thought. They alone are primed to shudder at the sound of the word.

Insults that only the initiated comprehend are closer to a secret code than an open argument. Like the changes in approved terms for disadvantage – don’t say “able-bodied”, say “non-disabled” – the effect, if not the intention, is to belittle ordinary people and make them feel they are gauche or worse for not keeping up with the latest linguistic fashions. Given that losing is the standard experience of the centre-left, throwing out language that excludes the majority of the population strikes me as an overdue necessity. The more so when a new collection of essays by modern historians suggests that supposed insiders may not understand what neoliberalism means either. The Neoliberal Age? Britain since the 1970s is well worth reading and not only because the generous publishers allow you to download it free.

Although most of the contributors agree that the rise to power of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher represented a break with the past, they contest everything else. Were they really preceded by a social democratic golden age? (The movements to empower women, ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians did not think so.) Were changes we explain by looking at political decisions the result of shifts in ideology or the shift from manufacturing to service economies that affected every developed nation, regardless of who was in power?

The doctrines of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek are meant to be distinct from traditional apologetics for unrestrained capitalism. Nineteenth-century economic liberals wanted a minimal state. But the neoliberals of the 20th century wanted to empower the state to create and uphold markets and competition. As history, this is tediously sentimental. The British state presided over the world’s first capitalist economy. It used its empire as a captive market and went to war with China to allow the free trade in drugs to flourish. You can call it many things but it was not a minimal state. In the 1960s, during the supposed Trente Glorieuses of the social democratic age, the Bank of England and the Foreign Office enabled the creation of tax havens that allowed plutocrats, corporations and criminals to hoard their money with disastrous and enduring consequences for humanity.

I could go on, but the cliquey language remains my main concern: not just for what it conceals, but for what it unwittingly reveals. Like so much insider jargon, neoliberal is a pathetically weak term. To take an everyday example: since Thatcher’s government privatised the water industry in 1989, managers and shareholders have exploited their monopoly power to take almost £60bn in profit. In 2020, the companies spent 3.1m hours dumping sewage into rivers. So great has been their failure to reinvest even a small portion of the money they take, south-east England may soon face water shortages.

I accept that no mid-20th-century government would have contemplated handing over water companies to negligent profiteers. But to call today’s politicians and regulatory authorities, who sit back while monopolists cover the countryside in excrement, “neoliberals” is to let them off lightly. Russians would never use such a mild term of the men Vladimir Putin has let loose. They capture the banditry of crony capitalism by talking of robbers, looters and frauds.

I can’t speak for academia, but in politics I know that the cry “neoliberal” is a certain sign that I am in the presence of the far left. It must maintain there is no difference between Tony Blair’s Labour government and any government Keir Starmer may lead, and the Tories. I once believed that, but the brutality of David Cameron’s actual Conservative government made me think again. So, too, did the arguments for apathy or despair behind apparently radical sloganising.

Only moderate centre-left parties have won elections in western countries and their victories are rare enough. If you insist that they are as much a part of a neoliberal conspiracy as the right, then there is no point in fighting to remove the right from power.

As seriously, a belief in neoliberal hegemony ducks the question whether it makes sense to think of today’s right as neoliberal. I can see the idea’s appeal. Boris Johnson and his wife are openly for sale. Whether they want new wallpaper or home-delivered dinners, their first instinct is to sponge off rich donors, who may well entertain the hope that their favours will be returned.

None of his personal corruptions, however, can hide the truth that Johnson is a nationalist, who appeals to deep chauvinist sentiments rather than class interests. No economic liberal, neo or otherwise, would pull the UK out of the world’s richest single market. Conservatives fooled themselves that Brexit would bring a deregulated society. But we should pay more attention to the world as it is than to the fantasies of the delusional and see that, instead of a Singapore-on-Thames, they have undermined exporters and brought tax to its highest level since the 1960s, an era the Thatcher revolution supposedly finished off.

Far from being a spur to entrepreneurial dynamism, the Conservative party is the party of the people who have stopped working, rather than the party of businesses and their workers. Johnson and ministers stroke the prejudices of his core pensioner vote and put their economic interests first. I cannot imagine the ghost of Friedman applauding a government that raises taxes on employers and employees to protect the property of wealthy retirees.

You won’t beat them with obscurantist labels voters don’t understand and you may well not understand either. You won’t beat them until you understand them and when you do you will realise that whatever else they are they are not neoliberals.

Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist



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