Everyone Hates Neoliberals, So We Talked to Some

I asked neoliberals about their political ideology and the tremendous backlash it's received from all over the place lately—especially since Trump won.
July 19, 2017, 9:36pm
Image by author via Getty Images/Wikimedia Commons

If I've learned anything from having my eyes glued to politics Twitter and the punditry it inevitably spawns for 12 hours a day, it's that I am ruining my life and desperately need help. But more to the point, I've also learned that in leftist circles, getting deemed a neoliberal hack is the kiss of death.

The label of "neoliberal shill" is often lobbed at mainstream Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, along with French president Emmanuel Macron and Canadian heartthrob Justin Trudeau. But it also gets chucked at pundits like New York's Jonathan Chait, Vox founders Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, and the New York Times's Thomas Friedman, as well as celebrity activists like brand-loving Black Lives Matter advocate and education reformer DeRay McKesson.


I'm guilty of this name-calling myself. Perusing my own election-era tweets, turns out I took great joy in labeling Hillary Clinton supporters "neoliberal sycophants" and blaming Trump's victory on those damn "idiot neoliberals."

On Sunday, New York published Chait's "How 'Neoliberalism' Became the Left's Favorite Insult of Liberals," a piece in which he argues, "The 'neoliberal' accusation is a synecdoche for the American left's renewed offensive against the center-left and a touchstone in the struggle to define progressivism after Barack Obama."

In classic Chait fashion, his essay triggered a tidal wave of somewhat outraged responses on Twitter and beyond. "Why are neoliberals such big babies?" Paul Blest mused on the Outline. "'Neoliberalism' isn't an empty epithet. It's a real, powerful set of ideas," wrote Mike Konczal on Vox.

But for all the talk about neoliberalism, people seem awfully confused about what it even means. And understandably so! Language is elastic; the definition of an ideology changes over time, and in the case of neoliberalism, has different meanings depending on where you are. The term originated in the late 1930s as a reaction to old-school liberalism and socialism, but became increasingly mainstream as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan rose to power. In the words of writer George Monbiot, they stood for "massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatization, outsourcing and competition in public services."


Over the phone, Chait—who, by the way, does not identify as a neoliberal—explained to me that internationally, the term is used to "sharply delineate socialist versus non-socialist, or socialist versus capitalist." The way he understands it, in the United States, "the major weakness in the term 'neoliberal' is that it encompasses the majority of all sides in a political debate." In other words, it's become so broadly defined that it arguably describes both of the major political parties in America.

One of neoliberalism's more strident critics, Open Markets fellow at New America and former congressional staffer Matt Stoller, recently wrote that neoliberalism "involves moving power from public institutions to private institutions, and allowing governance to happen through concentrated financial power… Financial markets flourish, real markets morph into mass distribution middlemen like Walmart or Amazon."

But I wanted to understand contemporary neoliberalism from the people who are actually cool with being described that way. Despite the myriad of leftist voices speaking out against the ideology on Twitter, there are still pockets of the internet celebrating it defiantly. Just open up Reddit and peruse the r/neoliberal community to find tons of folks so enthusiastic about the ideology; they even have their own genre of memes.

When I put out a call looking for proud neoliberals to interview for this article, I was surprised to see my inbox rapidly fill up with upward of 80 messages, mostly from college-educated men in their early 20s who recently began identifying as neoliberals, thirsting to defend their new ideology. (Two women responded to my inquiry, too.) "Neoliberal with his hand up," read one subject line. "I'm a neoliberal sellout," another sarcastically noted. "Neoliberal AND PROUD," read a third.


Of the dozens of responses I received, here are six that best capture what it means to be a proud neoliberal in modern America.

James, 22, recent college graduate, Maryland

VICE: How do you define "neoliberalism"?
James: The prized balance between individual freedom and allowing markets to work, while having a government that can effectively safeguard the freedoms of its peoples, both positive and negative freedoms, is tough. I genuinely believe it can be achieved through neoliberal policies. I used to be a communist—in high school and my first few weeks of college, forgive me—and I very much thought that government could provide for the complete welfare of its citizens and residents. This is absolutely not the case, as I now know.

When did you start identifying as a neoliberal?
In the wake of the 2016 election. I was frustrated. I did not want to go hard left with Bernie, and the idea of going hard right with Trump was less appealing than eating my own toenails. The dissatisfaction in the American political climate has prompted a massive mistrust in institutions, in norms, and in a (mostly) working-class status quo in the new age of globalization… Unsound policies like a $15/hr minimum wage or "canceling" student debt with Quantitative Easing have put me off from going further left. [Author's note: Quantitative Easing for student loan relief was one of Jill Stein's 2016 election platforms, but is not one generally accepted by the left.] I feel alone in the idea that, while I genuinely believe that the left wants to help poor and under-served communities, I'm also confident that they do not know the best ways to actually serve those communities.


How do you understand the difference between neoliberalism and liberalism?
Generally, there isn't a huge difference between what people think of "liberals" today and the idea of "neoliberalism." Most standard liberals generally support a lot of neoliberal policies without knowing it.

In a conversation I had with Marxist writer Roqayah Chamseddine, she defined "neoliberalism" as "the concentration of power into wealthy hands under the thin veneer of using 'free' markets as a way to organize all of society. The logic of neoliberalism, for instance, sees healthcare not as a basic human necessity but a business opportunity." Do you agree with this?
That leftist's definition of "neoliberalism" is accurate in face, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Economics should be used as a method of organizing society and making everyone's welfare better off—we can go all the way back to The Wealth of Nations to see that, generally, this is what economics does. I disagree with the latter half of the definition, though: A government ought to provide a basic level of welfare for all of its citizens (and by extension, residents). This includes public provisions for healthcare, childcare, education, and shelter.

Is the hatred that neoliberals get from the left justified?
From their perspective, we represent a failed status quo that did nothing to change financial institutions after the 2008 recession, did nothing to cushion communities during the loss of manufacturing jobs in the 21st century, did nothing to combat systemic social issues domestically, and failed to push back against two disastrous wars and continued intervention in the Middle East. I understand their frustration—and it's easy to pin it on the neoliberal boogeyman, but they don't really understand what the tenets of neoliberalism aim to do.

"We believe free markets and commercial capitalism are the tools of social justice, rather than the enemy."—Samuel Hammond

Aryeh Cohen-Wade, 34, copywriter and editor at the University of Rochester, New York

VICE: When did you start identifying as a neoliberal?
Aryeh Cohen-Wade: I read a lot of Matt Yglesias and Jon Chait in my 20s. Would identify more as an "Obama-ist," if that's a thing. I embrace neoliberalism because socialism has failed everywhere it has been tried—I have cousins who live on a kibbutz in Israel, and they've almost completely abandoned all their socialist tenets. Market capitalism is an inevitable outgrowth of human nature. [But] I believe the state should reign in capitalism's excesses and provide a safety net for all citizens, including universal health care.

How do you understand the difference between neoliberalism and liberalism?
Neoliberalism is more accepting of markets—I think that's about it.


How do you feel about the hatred neoliberals get from the left? Do you think it's justified?
I think it's foolhardy and counterproductive. Trump-ism is a five-alarm fire that everyone on the left (defined broadly) should be uniting to oppose. Chapo Trap House–ism is convincing lefties that their true enemies are the people who agree with them 75 percent instead of the people who disagree with them 100 percent. If fighting Trump can't unite the left, nothing will.

"I understand the hate… I get ticked off whenever Bernie Sanders speaks so it's probably the same on their side."—Brian Croarkin

Samuel Hammond, 25, welfare and poverty policy analyst for the Niskanen Center, Washington, DC

VICE: How do you define "neoliberalism"?
Samuel Hammond: "Neoliberalism" refers to a set of overlapping political and philosophical commitments, rather than a precise ideology. As modern Whigs, we are free market globalists, and evangelists of the amazing power of trade liberalization to create wealth, eliminate disease, lift hundreds of millions of people from poverty, and end the pre-conditions for war. At the same time, we are more pragmatic and consequentialist than our utopian and deontological libertarian counterparts… We believe free markets and commercial capitalism are the tools of social justice, rather than the enemy.

Are most of your friends/colleagues neoliberal?
Neoliberals have a history as being a "third way," something that is neither left nor right wing. And as globalists, we tend to be quite anti-tribal by nature… Strangely, there are a lot of neoliberal people named Sam—enough for us to form a private Facebook group called "Neoliberal Sams." Take that for what it's worth.


What's your favorite neoliberal meme?

Brian Croarkin, 26, accountant

VICE: How do you define "neoliberalism"?
Brian Croarkin: "Neoliberalism" is the idea that you can be pro-business and pro-poor [people] and be socially liberal—all at the same time.

When did you start identifying as a neoliberal?
I started identifying as neoliberal during the 2016 Democratic primary because both candidates were a bit too far left for my taste, and I wanted a different label for myself.

Basically none of my friends identify as one. My co-workers mostly voted for Trump and think I'm a communist, and my friends are super liberal and think I'm a MAGA hat-wearing conservative. I think that neoliberal has weirdly become a pejorative all over the political spectrum.

How do you feel about the hatred neoliberals get from the left? Do you think it's justified?
I understand the hate. People are very polarized right now and have strong opinions so I get why middle-of-the-road ideologies tick people off. I get ticked off whenever Bernie Sanders speaks, so it's probably the same on their side.

What's the biggest misconception about neoliberalism?
That neoliberals are basically conservatives. Conservatives believe that free markets are an end in-and-of themselves, and neoliberals believe you start with a free market to avoid inefficiency and then have government correct some of the bad effects of an unregulated market, like inequality.


What's your favorite neoliberal meme?

Jimmy Vu, 31, software engineer, San Francisco

VICE: How do you define "neoliberalism"?
Jimmy Vu: It's fairly close to the Establishment Democratic Party's approach, as led by President Obama. In Europe, it can be interpreted to include figures of the center-right like Angela Merkel and centrists like Emanuel Macron

When did you start identifying as a neoliberal?
I started identifying as neoliberal as a result of the San Francisco housing debates of the past eight years. It was a common slur used by leftist activists against people who supported new market-rate housing development, and I embraced it partially because I found these people and the way they conducted debate to be so objectionable. To me, it seemed that their approach to politics was to identify their class enemies (usually whoever was friendlier to commercial activity) and engage in character assassination, accusing whoever argued against them as being compromised sellouts.

Facts were manipulated and twisted to fit their preexisting biases. All the evidence in the world could not convince the leftists that their policies were harming everyone, including the poor and middle class, because they saw everything in terms of the character flaws of their opponents.

How has your identity has shaped your understanding of neoliberalism?
My parents are Vietnamese immigrants who fled communism and then mostly worked blue-collar manufacturing jobs until they retired. We were working class and didn't have many luxuries, but I didn't feel deprived in any way. My two sisters and I all went to majority-immigrant suburban public schools. Relying on public institutions and growing up as a gay racial minority impressed upon me the value of tolerance and cultural liberalism, and that the government could play an important role in expanding opportunity.


How do you feel about the hatred neoliberals get from the left? Do you think it's justified?
The hatred comes from the left's failure to win elections, even within center-left parties in far-left jurisdictions. This failure is attributed to the corrupting influence of finance and corporations and so forth. I'm certainly not getting any cash from corporations or housing developers, except insofar as my job and housing depend on the continuing existence of our society and whatnot.

Dan B., 35, software engineer, New York

VICE: How do you define "neoliberalism"?
Dan B.: Ugh, I feel like it's just been defined for me by people staking out other claims. So, let me say what I believe:

-Society is awesomest when people can live their best lives and achieve their potential.
-Government should help people do this, by stopping bullies.
-Markets are a pretty great way to let people make their choices to live their best lives.
-Except when they fuck up (healthcare, monopolies, etc.)

When did you start identifying as a neoliberal?
In the last year, as I saw DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) and Bernie fans come out. I was real surprised. I like solid policy that has clear goals and numbers that add up. I think the world is complicated, and governing is hard and complicated and requires balancing just OMG-so-much.

Are most of your friends neoliberal? Colleagues?
Hrm, if I had to guess, something like:
-15 percent I'm with Her
-10 percent I'm with Her, but saying it will get me harassed
-25 percent Democrat
-25 percent DSA/Bernie Would Have Won
-20 percent I'm Fiscally Conservative, but Socially Liberal
-5 percent MAGA


So I'd group the first three buckets as neoliberal?

What's the biggest common misconception about neoliberalism? Do you have a favorite neoliberal meme?
It's not a photo meme, but I think it's important: Capitalism has lifted billions out of poverty. There's never been fewer people in poverty than now.

I think capitalism has failed a lot recently in developed economies, and I'm fucking mad about it. Healthcare is fucked; student loans are bonkers. Economic inequality is growing. I want to fix it, but I think the way is fixing, not totally changing.

Another misconception: I see this tweet a lot.

It's hilarious, but the argument is more, "If we had organizations that were more representative, we might change their structure and norms so we have fewer atrocities." Of course, Marines are going to rape women and share revenge porn when it's run by men who've been hazed. If we change the Marines, we'll have a military we can be proud of that might think, "Hey, killing people isn't working; let's stop."

I worry now that I might not be as "identifying neoliberal" as you want.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.