THR Web Features   /   October 6, 2015

The Other Neoliberals

Guest Blogger

Charles Peters, founding editor of Washington Monthly and president of Understanding Government, speaking at the presentation of the Prize for Preventive Journalism, September 30, 2008. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The University of Chicago historian William Sewell once observed that uses of the term “structure” in academic discourse far exceeded any attempts to define it. These days, it seems the same is true of neoliberalism.

For Norwegian political scientists Dag Einar Thorsen and Amund Lie, for example, neoliberalism is the notion that “the only legitimate purpose of the state is to safeguard individual, especially commercial, liberty, as well as strong private property rights,” but they also acknowledge that neoliberalism, as they see is, is only “loosely demarcated.” To political theorist Wendy Brown, it is “a governing rationality through which everything is ‘economized,’” “every entity (whether public or private, whether person, business or state) is governed as a firm,” and which “casts people as human capital who must constantly tend to their own present and future value.”

While there might be slight disagreements about what, exactly, the concept entails, the voluminous commentary implies a rough consensus that it involves heavy doses of deregulation, free trade, and privatization. Within the academy, particularly among members of the post-Marxist Left, the term has come to serve as the primary explanation for what is wrong with today’s global political economy. From Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics to Margaret Thatcher to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to—well, name just about any recent political leader apart from Raul Castro—it would seem that a global governing cabal is responsible for the neoliberal order that is ineluctably pauperizing all but an ever-narrowing elite in our precarious winner-take-all economy. Neoliberalism spans the oceans, from the United States and Australia to Chile and Egypt, and its influence is said to be overwhelming. For City University of New York anthropologist David Harvey, “neoliberalism has become a hegemonic discourse with pervasive effects on ways of thought and political-economic practices to the point where it is now part of the commonsense way we interpret, live in, and understand the world.”

It would seem, then, that journalist Randall Rothenberg’s 1984 assertion that “the future belongs to the neoliberals” was quite prescient. But the neoliberalism that Rothenberg had in mind was something slightly different, a related but distinct concept—and one that been has largely been lost in the current academic discourse of neoliberalism. In its heyday in the 1980s, this “other neoliberalism” was associated not with Reagan but with a subset of his Democratic political rivals. Its political and intellectual leader was Gary Hart, a senator from Colorado, with other prominent figures including Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, and journalists like Charles Peters of The Washington Monthly. In political terms, these other neoliberals argued for revisiting and modifying some of the ideological and methodological bases of postwar American liberalism—namely the use of federal government programs to assist in bringing about a more equitable distribution of wealth—while stopping well short of the free-market fervor advocated by the likes of Reagan and Thatcher. In this sense, it would be tempting to cast the other neoliberals as little more than watered-down versions of the “normal neoliberals.”

I would argue, however, that the most important distinction between the other neoliberals and those with whom we identify the neoliberal term today lies in the other neoliberals’ attention to the world beyond politics and economics, and especially to the consequences of the cultural strains in American life in the 1970s and 1980s. The other neoliberals looked skeptically upon the sort of unchecked individualism and private consumption that the dominant neoliberalism celebrates. Unlike contemporary neoliberals, the other neoliberals took seriously the precepts of the communitarian social thought of figures like George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni. Jimmy Carter, in many ways a forerunner of the other neoliberals, noted with sorrow in his 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech that “in a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.”

While today’s neoliberalism is excoriated for its contribution to inequality (particularly in economic terms), the other neoliberals demonstrated a fondness for compulsory national service and even a return to the military draft as a means to bridge divisions in our society. In a 1983 Washington Monthly article entitled “A Neoliberal’s Manifesto,” Charles Peters explained his support for a military draft in terms of fairness, noting that “all classes would share equally in the burdens and risks of military service.” He later added that “in the long run we hope a draft will not be needed. We want to see a rebirth of the spirit of service that motivates people to volunteer to give, without regard to financial reward, a few years of their lives to public service, including military service. But for now we realize that the fear of being a sucker, if not just plain selfishness, will keep the upper classes from volunteering.”

Rothenberg was similarly receptive to the idea of compulsory national service and took note of Milton Friedman’s opposition to it. Journalist James Fallows’s account of the manner in which he and his Harvard classmates used their cultural capital to avoid the draft, knowing that less privileged men would ultimately take their places on the battlefield, is the sort of inequality that the other neoliberals felt compulsory national service could combat.

Ultimately, however, compulsory military service was just a part of the other neoliberals’ concern for equality—a concern that went beyond the strictly economic to include cultural and social realms. In his aforementioned manifesto, Peters bemoaned the snobbery of traditional liberals, writing that "most damaging to liberalism is the liberal intellectuals’ contempt for religious, patriotic, and family values. Instead of scorning people who value family, country, and religion, neoliberals believe in reaching out to them to make clear that our programs are rooted in the same values.”

One might reasonably accuse Peters of misplaced optimism or inattention to the suffering of those who are excluded from dominant conceptions of “family values.” But what is worth considering—and what makes the other neoliberals worthy of remembering decades after their vogue—is their recognition of the role that social bonds can play in reinforcing the sense of unity and common obligation that today's neoliberalism wears away. That both groups share a name was not mere coincidence; they both argued for a need to alter the scope and manner of state engagement in the economy in response to the end of the post–World War II "Golden Era." But had the other neoliberals seen the success in implementing their vision that the currently reigning neoliberals now putatively enjoy, one wonders if the divide between the rich and poor in our society—in terms not merely of income but also of experiences, habitus, and moral orientation—would be quite as severe as it is today.

Matthew Braswell is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia.