Neoliberalism and regression

Clara Figueiredo, body research, digital photomontage, 2020


For the political language of neoliberalism, interested in updating, and not just restoring, a liberalism that is distrustful and averse to democracy

Neoliberalism has always been a regressive response to the crisis of the liberal tradition and the hegemony of the US State. In this broad historical sense, it is nonsense to speak of a “progressive neoliberalism”.

It's at The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, by Eric Hobsbawn, the acute diagnosis that, on the eve of the Second World War, liberalism, as a tradition, found itself isolated in its English and North American citadels. It would be necessary to specify this diagnosis: even there, in these two countries, the liberal tradition was facing deep political impasses and was on the defensive in relation to its classic postulates.

These impasses were, certainly, organic to capitalism as the dominant civilization in Modernity. The 1914 World War, with its repertoire of barbarism, had forever called into question a unilinear notion of progress, typical of liberal utilitarianism. The Russian Revolution of 1917, a strong seismic shock in the capitalist order whose international developments have not yet ceased, indicated an alternative path of rupture and emancipation.

The 1929 crisis called into question the entire classical liberal economic science and its notion of a self-regulated equilibrium of the capitalist system. More than ever, the notion of state planning, previously used in war economies, gained legitimacy. Finally, the rise of fascism and Nazism called liberal democracy itself into question, besieged by reform and revolution movements.

This issue – the crisis of liberalism as a tradition – is the great challenge that gives rise to and unifies cosmopolitan thoughts – from Austria, Germany, the USA, England, Switzerland and France – which will converge to the foundation of neoliberalism. The production of a plural field of responses to this crisis of liberalism, as shown by T. Briebrichter in The political theory of neoliberalism, is a historical and conceptual way of telling your story.


internal enemy

The fundamental sign of identity that forms the meaning of neoliberalism's historical response to the crisis of the liberal tradition is the central notion that there is an enemy within. That is, that the so-called social liberalism or Keynesian liberalism would be a dissolving current of the very classical identity of liberalism, a defensive response to the rising tide of labor and labor movements, which articulated the conquest of political rights with the struggle for social justice. More than that, this social liberalism, driving new fields of action and regulation by the State, would lead, like the regimes of Communism and Nazism, to totalitarianism.

Perhaps the first formulation of this combat thesis, a true rallying cry within the liberal tradition itself, is in An inquiry into the principles of the good society (1937), by Walter Lippmann, the leading intellectual critic of the New Deal In the USA. In the work, Lippmann states that "in a free society, the State does not manage men's affairs. He administers justice among them, who conduct their own affairs.” According to the author, the policy then conducted by the Democratic Party would gradually lead to collectivism; he saw classical liberalism in rapid decline and urged an effort to rescue and revive it. It was this book that gave rise to the Walter Lippmann Seminar in 1938, in Paris, considered by the authors of the intellectual history of neoliberalism as its first platform, interrupted, however, by the Second World War.

But it is in the work of Friedrich Hayek that a systematic thought about the historical crisis of liberalism will be constituted. hosted at London School of Economics, closely following the crisis of English liberalism, he will produce a long-term narrative of this crisis.

Thus, for Friedrich Hayek, the crisis of liberalism actually dates from the mid-nineteenth century and would already be expressed in the utilitarian attempt of Jeremy Bentham and, mainly, of John Stuart Mill, to reconcile freedom and some reformist and egalitarian sense.

With the extension of electoral suffrage in England, the loss of bases of the Liberal Party (Whig), the rise of the Labor Party and its polarization with the Conservative Party, the liberal theories typical of the time of English hegemony were undergoing a process of mutation and adaptation, whose most salient intellectual expressions would be Hobhause and TH Green. This new liberalism, in fusion with labor reformisms, in fact meant a moment of decentering of the classical liberal tradition.


Polarization and regression

The criticism of the so-called social liberalism is, in fact, a call to combat a true internal enemy. Neoliberalism produced a second "cold war" within the "Cold War" that opposed, in the twentieth century, liberalism and socialism.

With the crisis of English liberalism already installed at the end of the XNUMXth century, it would be the North American constitutional tradition of self-limitation of democracy that would represent the new seat of the liberal tradition. Friedrich Hayek, against the republican tradition of Thomas Jefferson, would value above all the theory of James Madson, the main theorist of the North American Constitution, which foresees a series of countermajoritarian mechanisms in the sense of neutralizing the full principle of popular sovereignty. It is this liberal tradition of countermajoritarian democracy that Hayek, like Lippmann, sees threatened with death by the rise of the Roosevelt era.

In the self-critical examination of the evolution of the liberal tradition, in order to exorcise the internal roots of its crisis, neoliberals will, at the same time, criticize the theories of laissez faire, of market self-regulation, and the theories of social liberalism that emerged and that would be dominant in the post-war period until the end of the seventies of the last century. The capitalist market, conceived as the realm of freedom, would need a strong state order, capable of creating permanent conditions for its reproduction.

When Donald Trump accuses members or supporters of the Democratic Party, or even when Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters even accuse the PSDB of being at the service of socialism, they are not exactly formulating a diagnosis outside of neoliberal language. Neoliberalism does indeed produce a radical language of political and social polarization. It is part of their “cold war” to attack liberals who are “traitors” or who reconcile with socialism.

In this broad historical sense, there is no reason to characterize the phenomenon of the so-called Third Way, of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, as “progressive neoliberalism”. To the extent that they are part of the democratic counter-revolution that is neoliberalism, what is topically or symbolically progressive is swallowed up by the anti-popular, colonialist and anti-democratic vortex of neoliberalism. If it is right and necessary to distinguish more or less conservative, regressive or anti-democratic currents within the great historical convergence of neoliberalism, it seems a paradox to call such a profoundly regressive historical program "progressive".

For the political language of neoliberalism, interested in updating, and not just restoring, a distrustful liberalism that is averse to democracy, all achievements and the very notion of universalization of human rights are in question. Neoliberalism is, in this broad historical sense, a strong proposal for civilizing regression.

*Juarez Guimaraes is a professor of political science at UFMG. Author, among other books, of Democracy and Marxism: Criticism of Liberal Reason (Shaman).

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