The End of the End of History?   /   Fall 2017   /    The End Of The End Of History?

Technocratic Vistas

The Long Con of Neoliberalism

Jackson Lears

THR photo illustration.

If we are moving away from liberal democracy, toward what are headed?

Liberal democracy is one of those formulaic terms that all too easily evaporate into the realm of grand abstractions: the American Dream, the Free World, the Right Side of History. Yet those two words succinctly capture the tension between individual freedom and communal well-being that has animated American politics since the nation’s founding. Various ways of balancing that tension have surfaced throughout US history: legal principles and practices, lists of inalienable rights, government structures and procedures, legislation in response to civil war and social upheaval.

Since World War II and the Cold War, liberal democracy has described the package of balances most appealing to transatlantic elites. The term has served as an authentic conceptual counter to the spurious “people’s democracies” spawned by dictatorships of right and left, as well as a handy label for the kind of society anyone would (allegedly) want, if given the opportunity—pluralistic, formally democratic, open for business. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union only reinforced the common assumption among foreign policy elites that longings for liberal democracy were universal and irresistible.11xA graphic representation of publications using the term liberal democracy may be found in Google Books’ Ngram Viewer at The graph clearly shows that appearances of the term increased steadily throughout the second half of the twentieth century, and especially sharply in its last several decades. I am grateful to my research assistant Michael Van Unen for locating this information for me.

By now, most Americans know how mistaken that assumption turned out to be. The dream of a global liberal order is being challenged at every turn—not only by jihadists and white nationalists, but by libertarians, social democrats, and even democratic socialists. Liberal intellectuals have responded by assuming that the barbarians are at the gate—lumping Bernie Sanders with Marine Le Pen, Syriza with Brexit—striking a heroic posture, vowing their hatred of populism (which they conflate with fascism) and their fealty to freedom.22xFor an example of this posture, see Timothy Garton Ash’s review essay “Is Europe Disintegrating?,” New York Review of Books, January 29, 2017,

Sustaining this heroic liberal persona requires a refusal to recognize that what is called liberal democracy has taken a sharp and disturbing turn in recent decades. What many defenders of liberal democracy fail to realize is that they are no longer defending either liberalism or democracy; the forms of elite rule that provoke popular anger are merely the husk of liberal democracy. The once-vital discourse of liberal democracy has been hollowed out and transformed into a language of managerial technique—a technocratic jargon used to legitimate the spread of free-flowing capital. Within this discourse, freedom has been reduced to market behavior, citizenship to voting, efficiency for the public good to efficiency for profit. The rich civic culture that gave rise to popular American politics in the past—unions, churches, local party organizations—has been largely replaced, in both parties, by elites who have benefited from the technocratic turn.

Reviving liberal democracy requires remembering what preceded it: the melding of liberal and republican ideals that animated American civic culture at the local level, well into the twentieth century. The recovery of liberal democracy also requires recognizing that what calls itself liberal democracy these days is often a poor pretender to that title or—even worse—a diabolically thorough counterfeit.

Seeking Equipoise

Down to the 1910s or even later, liberal individualist ideals were counterbalanced less by a democratic rhetoric of equality than by a republican one of commonweal. Many Americans were democrats who remained attached to republican idioms. They often sought to negotiate conflicts between the liberal pursuit of private interest and the republican commitment to the public good; these terms dominated debate from the Jacksonian assault on the second Bank of the United States to the Populist critique of monopolistic corporate power. As the nineteenth century became the twentieth, the acquisition of overseas colonies combined with an unprecedented merger wave on Wall Street to create a new imperial state with a new public discourse, better suited to a dawning era of monopoly capital and overweening military power than to the mix of settler colonialism and entrepreneurial capitalism that had characterized the nineteenth century.

The liberal versus republican split began to seem outdated as the republic became an empire and liberal individualism appeared trapped in a corporate cage of its own making. “Every spirit makes its house,” Ralph Waldo Emerson had written prophetically in 1851, “but afterward the house confines the spirit.” William James and Mark Twain bemoaned the triumph of mere bigness and the tarted-up piracy of overseas land grabs, but to John Hay, Theodore Roosevelt, and other prophets of empire, imperial expansion was “the large policy” national greatness required.33xRalph Waldo Emerson, “Fate,” (1851), Arisbe: The Peirce Gateway, The best recent survey of the debate over American empire is Stephen Kinzer, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire (New York, NY: Henry Holt, 2017). During the early decades of the twentieth century, republican idioms gradually disappeared from polite conversation, surviving mainly in the speeches of conservative constitutionalists and Hoosier socialists; liberalism became a word less associated with economic than with civil liberty, especially after the Wilson administration’s suppression of dissent made protection of minority points of view seem more urgent.

The national conversation emerging in the United States in the early twentieth century was dominated by admiration, blustering or decorous, of imperial greatness. Still the unruly stepson democracy—the bumptious lad in knickers who always seemed to wandering in from a Frank Capra movie—was also allowed a place at the table of public discourse. Woodrow Wilson wanted to make the world safe for him; John Dewey wanted to permeate the workplace with his presence; Reinhold Niebuhr wanted Christians to abandon their pacifism to fight for him.

The rise of totalitarian states made democracy seem the only sane, humane alternative to misery and madness. World War II and the Cold War charged the very word democracy with unprecedented emotional urgency. Twice in a generation, Americans defined their polity against monstrous, implacable alternatives that also claimed to represent “the people.” In an era of people’s democracies and national socialism, terminological ambiguities abounded. Rhetoricians in the West needed concepts and categories that seemed as clear-cut as the morality of world war and cold war.

By midcentury, liberal democracy was beginning to fill the bill. It distinguished Western democracies, with their concern for individual rights, from dictatorial pretenders, left and right; it also exorcised the more diffuse specter of “the tyranny of the majority”44xAlexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835), vol. 1, ch. 15, that Tocqueville had warned against and that was reappearing in popular American journalism and social science, in a spate of postwar screeds against lonely crowds, organization men, and suburban captivity.

Liberal democracy was the perfect rhetorical trope to underwrite an emerging ideological consensus as elites sought equipoise after the ravages of depression and war. The word liberal vaccinated the polity against the plagues of totalitarian and majoritarian rule, protecting the vital freedoms of speech and religion; the word democracy applied balm to the wounds inflicted by capitalist individualism, tempering freedom with equality. This was the midcentury agenda of policy elites in the postwar Atlantic world: Besides countering communism abroad, they contained the rule of socially irresponsible capital at home by creating welfare states. Progressive taxation, strong unions, and social security all salved the abrasions of unregulated enterprise, helped create a broad middle class, and balanced the inherent conflict between liberalism and democracy.

The US welfare state was always a jury-rigged affair, committed to minimizing government oversight and preserving opportunities for private profit wherever possible; “liberal democracy” described the US system better than “social democracy,” with its Euro-style connotations of five-week vacations and midafternoon wine. But ultimately, on both sides of the Atlantic, the post–World War II decades were the moment of liberal democracy—the moment of equipoise, the ascendance of a “mixed economy” that appeared to have abolished the conflict between capital and labor, that led sociological soothsayers to announce, as Daniel Bell put it, “the end of ideology.”55xDaniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960).

Neoliberalism Rises

Reports of ideology’s death were greatly exaggerated. Since the 1970s we have seen a resurgent reactionary ideology used to justify the systematic dismantling of the welfare state—a process organized by right-wing elites who, for example, seek to enact policies that have the effect of defunding the public schools, then use allegations of incompetence as an excuse to privatize education. The assault on the public sector, the celebration of markets as the solution to all problems, the underwriting of free-market ideology by government policy—these tendencies reacquired legitimacy and centrality in the 1980s and have maintained their hegemony ever since. In less than four decades, the ship of state and the conversation on its bridge have steered away from the midcentury idiom of liberal democracy and toward…what? New times, alas, demand neologisms. The return of nineteenth-century slogans and pieties, combined with a twenty-first-century veneer of technocratic expertise, has inspired many observers to call this new ideological consensus “neoliberalism.”

The term grates on some ears. To civilians outside Fort Academe, it smacks of leftist jargon; to unreconstructed New Dealers, it associates a good thing (liberalism) with mean-spirited policies; to political historians, it resurrects a label briefly pinned on Bill Clinton, Gary Hart, and other technocratically minded Young Turks in the Democratic Party of the 1980s. None of these objections are mistaken, but none have stopped the use of the term. So far there is simply nothing else as succinct and precise to describe the seismic shift that has occurred in the world political economy since the 1970s.

Neoliberalism’s chief semantic competitor is globalization, which almost from its introduction into public discourse has been little more than a euphemism deployed by apologists for free-flowing capital. For examples, see almost any New York Times column written by Thomas Friedman since the 1990s. Globalization has been used to describe a process that is inevitable and beneficent: We are all going to love doing what we have to do anyway. In any case, we have no choice—the abstract, reified force of globalization has decreed the shape of our present and future. Devotees of globalization deliver deterministic homilies in a bland and upbeat tone, always implying the same conclusion: Resistance is futile. For Friedman and friends, there is simply no point in asking the fundamentally political question Is this what we want?—a question one would have thought central to liberal democracy. Globalization, in short, is a word that facilitates the forgetting of history and the end of politics—or at least of democratic politics, which depends on open debate and public choice.

Neoliberalism, by contrast, is a term grounded in historical contingency and human agency; it describes an ideology that is nothing if not political, created by specific human beings for specific purposes. The cover of David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism portrays a veritable rogues’ gallery: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Augusto Pinochet, and Deng Xiaoping—the founders of neoliberalism, whose successors came from both sides of the aisle: Republicans and Democrats, Tories and Labourites, the Clintons, the Bushes, Blair, Cameron, Obama. One could, of course, go on. The rise of neoliberal politics was neither an abstract project nor a secret one. Promoters of neoliberal policies were clear on what they were about—the end of welfare as we know it (in Bill Clinton’s words); the deregulation of capital; the transfer of political authority from government and other public entities to “free markets” or their representatives; and, at least in the United States, a commitment to policing the shambles created by “creative destruction” with an increasingly militarized carceral state.

The role of the state is a crucial part of the distinction between nineteenth-century liberalism and the version currently on offer. “Part of what makes neoliberalism ‘neo’ is that it depicts free markets, free trade, and entrepreneurial rationality as achieved and normative, as promulgated through law and through social and economic policy—not simply as occurring by dint of nature,” the political theorist Wendy Brown writes. The free-market rhetoric of the Republican right (and much of the center as well) conceals the interdependence of a supposedly free market and a state dedicated to promoting and serving it.66xWendy Brown, “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-democratization,” Political Theory 34 (2006): 690–714.

The electorate may be finally getting wise to this long con, as the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump suggest, but neoliberalism has survived thus far in part due to its exceptionally flexible, porous, and pervasive ideology—a mobilized worldview that redefines the self as “human capital.” This self has become the stuff of commencement oratory: “Each of you starts the next portion of your life’s journey with the tremendous benefit of a Cornell education. I hope that you’ll carry with you…a continuing commitment to build human capital so that more will have opportunities to pursue their dreams,” David Skorton, president of Cornell University, told the graduating class there in 2014.77xDavid Skorton quoted in Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2015), 175.

The sentimental language of “pursuing your dream” sugarcoats the neoliberal restructuring of the self. Redefined as “human capital,” each person becomes a little firm with assets, debts, and a credit score anxiously scrutinized for signs of success or failure, much as the Calvinist scrutinized his soul for evidence of salvation or damnation. The neoliberal self seeps instrumentalist market assumptions into every corner of human experience. Institutions like hospitals and schools that had been thought to serve the commonweal, and therefore to deserve public support and public access, are now routinely turned into profit-making ventures. The pricing of everyday life has been underway for centuries, as the historian Eli Cook has recently shown, but until quite recently it had been the domain of mavericks like Irving Fisher, who in 1910 priced a healthy newborn baby at $362 a pound. What was eccentric has now become mainstream. As Brown writes, “The vanquishing of homo politicus by contemporary neoliberal rationality, the insistence that there are only rational market actors in every sphere of human existence, is novel, indeed, revolutionary, in the history of the West.”88xEli Cook, The Pricing of Progress (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), and “The Neoclassical Club: Irving Fisher and the Progressive Origins of Neoliberalism,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 15 (2016), 246–62; Brown, Undoing the Demos, 99.

The Neoliberal Self and Its Rhetoric

The capitalization of the self has wide and deep impact. Consider the eagerness with which homebuyers embraced predatory mortgage schemes during the housing bubble of the early 2000s. For the new forms of indebtedness to work, Philip Mirowski speculates, “the personal identity of the consumer had to have been first turned topsy-turvy [so] that the grand sausage-grinder of securitization could have chewed up such a vast swath of individually-owned owner-occupied real estate.” By recasting the self as a firm, managing its own spending and borrowing to enhance its asset value, neoliberal ideologues popularized indebtedness as just another entrepreneurial venture. But the universal celebration of risk obscured a double standard: Borrowers inhabited a world of unsecured debt, while lenders regimented, reinterpreted, and repackaged that debt to ensure themselves dependable profits. Risk varied dramatically, dependent on power relations.99xPhilip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (London, England: Verso, 2013), 122.

The impact of the neoliberal self went far beyond promoting susceptibility to predatory lenders. An hour’s worth of sponsor advertising on National Public Radio suggests the emergence of a new model psyche, reflected in the current obsession with behavioral economics and neuroscience generally. The enterprises at its vanguard purport to point the way beyond old, static, rational-actor models while at the same time encouraging self-modification to conform to the ever more pervasive and relentless demands of market rationality. The cultivation of expertise becomes essential—not merely to the management of corporations and governments but also to the management of personal identity.

It remains to be seen how deeply these tendencies penetrate into the mentalities of most people, who have preserved various resources for resistance and have even begun to deploy them in protest movements of varying efficacy. Still, there is no denying the ideological power of neoliberal market worship, especially when there are so few alternatives in public debate—and when they are so easily caricatured and dismissed by custodians of conventional wisdom, as the Sanders and Trump campaigns were. This is not to imply any fundamental similarity between the social democrat Sanders and the demagogic mountebank Trump (except that they both embodied protest against the Washington consensus). It is, rather, to suggest how neoliberal ideologues have made their worldview our dominant discourse—by patrolling the boundaries of permissible dissent, trying to make any real challenge appear ridiculous. The resulting reign of “responsible opinion” has been catastrophic for liberal democracy.

Neoliberalism has impoverished fundamental conceptions of freedom by reducing them to market choice. The impoverishment is especially apparent in public discussions of higher education. The idea that a liberal arts education might provide the “priceless” opportunity to pose ultimate questions about oneself and one’s relation to the world is disappearing as college becomes reduced to job training. The “culture wars” that roiled higher education in the 1980s and ’90s have come to seem quaint today. In those days, conservatives and liberals shared a faith in the foundational importance of the humanities tradition; the debate was about how that tradition should be defined and who should be included in it—John Locke or Frantz Fanon, Ernest Hemingway or Toni Morrison (or all of the above). How times have changed. Now the “conservative” governors of Wisconsin and Florida want to abolish or at best marginalize humanities education altogether, while a “liberal” president (Obama—himself the beneficiary of a superb liberal arts education) mocked the uselessness of art history and promoted a database that allows prospective applicants to calculate the monetary value of various college degrees. Both sides, at the highest levels of mainstream partisan debate, now apparently agree that a college degree is little more than a meal ticket.

This narrowing of human horizons has political as well as educational effects. As humans become “human capital”—for themselves, for a firm, for a state—investment value trumps all other values; moral autonomy fades, and with it the very notion of a sovereign individual; citizenship shrivels to the mere ritual of casting a vote. Beneath the all-seeing gaze of the omnipotent market, the sovereignty of the state (like the sovereignty of the individual) shrinks to the vanishing point. Amid chants about freedom, the very basis of freedom (at least in the liberal and republican traditions)—individual and state sovereignty—is undermined and ultimately destroyed.

The consequences for democratic discourse are disastrous: “Public life is reduced to problem solving and program implementation, a casting that brackets or eliminates politics, conflict, and deliberation about values or ends,” Wendy Brown observes.1010xBrown, Undoing the Demos, 127. In lieu of substantive debate, we are left with the antipolitical language of open markets and open sources. Yet the rhetoric of openness obscures the actuality of a closed system, committed to market discipline as the primary mechanism for maintaining social order.

The neoliberal conception of politics is perfectly consistent with the clamor against “partisan bickering” that has echoed through official Washington and its media for decades. To be sure, partisanship can be mindless and can obstruct the business of government, but expertise is never neutral, efficiency is not always compatible with democracy, and bipartisan problem solving (when it occurs) invariably reaches neoliberal solutions—ignoring public sentiment in support of such programs as single-payer health care, starving whatever is left of the public sector by ever more stringent austerity. Such policies are justified with reference to expert consensus on the need for market solutions to social problems. The technocratic idiom makes profoundly political decisions appear to be neutral problem solving, adjustments to the reality of market discipline. Nothing could be more insidiously threatening to liberal democracy.

Still, in recent years, on both sides of the Atlantic, popular discontent with top-down governance by managerial elites has become impossible to ignore. Such protest occasionally takes grotesque form, but liberals make a profound mistake when they dismiss this unrest as childish antics (as they did with the Sanders campaign) or try to tar it with the brush of protofascism (as they did with Trump and Brexit). The pain beneath the protest is pervasive; the anger is rooted in real grievances against the technocratic consensus that rules Brussels as well as Washington. The crisis of liberal democracy can be met only by unmasking its neoliberal counterfeit.