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The Silliest Use of “Neoliberal” As A Vacuous Pejorative


[Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and the Koch brothers glance at each other, then start laughing uproariously]

If you missed it this weekend, you should read Simon’s superb post about Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates, since I’m just litigating an annoying side issue here.

As Adam Serwer observes, there’s one really obvious problem with designating Coates a “neoliberal,” which is his complete lack of neoliberalism. The fact that West incorrectly (and how!) saw Trump’s election as a revolt that ended “neoliberalism” makes it even worse:

Coates doesn’t support any of the policies — privatization, upper-class tax cuts, a smaller welfare state, austerity — associated with “neoliberalism.” Calling him a “neoliberal” would seem to be the classic use of the term as an empty pejorative. Essentially, the con is to deny the possibility of left-liberalism by dividing people into two camps, “socialist (in precisely the same why I am, which you will never be)” and “Thatcherite (although, OK, maybe you support civil rights, although this is actually bad because it prevents the class solidarity that American history teaches us is as inevitable as the tides as long as the claims of oppressed minorities are not centered.)” That this way of using the term is useless is self-evident.

And yet with Coates, there’s something else going on here:

Ah, so if you redefine “neoliberalism” to be “not treating it as an established fact that Bernie woulda won because economic populism can never lose,” then Coates is a “neoliberal.” OK.

Atkins’s argument is not very strong on its own terms. Trump, since assuming office, has delivered all of the racism he promised and none of the “populism” he sometimes gestured at (while also promising massive upper-class tax cuts, making it clear that policy would be fully delegated to fiery economic populists Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, etc.), and yet has mostly hung on to his white working class base, with most of the bleeding from his coalition coming from educated whites. Shouldn’t this give you a little pause, at least? But, anyway, whether Coates is right or wrong this has nothing to do with “neoliberalism.” Refusing to believe ahistorical fairy tales that racial and gender division can be easily surmounted with appeals to “economic populism” doesn’t make you a “neoliberal.” It just doesn’t. Using the term here is nothing more than a means to preempt the debate, to avoid engagement with Coates’s argument because you want easy answers to difficult questions.

And as Erik has said more than once, using “neoliberalism” as a mere insult with no content is causing something important to be lost. We need a vocabulary that can describe, say, Rahm Emmanuel subcontracting bus passes to a private company and making riders pay needless fees for bad service. But if “neoliberalism” is going to be defined as “disagrees with me about any tactical question” or “refuses to tell happy just-so stories about American politics,” it will cease to mean anything, which is unfortunate. And if your takeaway from Trump winning was that neoliberalism is over, you really needed to read Coates more carefully.

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