Non-existent ‘neoliberals’ and ‘neoconservatives’?

1,201 people answered the Australian political identity survey question on which political philosophy they identified with. Of these, the single largest group (a third) regarded themselves as social democrats. Just over 20% called themselves classical liberals, 15% described themselves as libertarians, 8% saw themselves as greens, and conservatives made up 14% of the sample, 8% describing themselves as social conservatives and economic liberals and 6% simply as conservatives.

Another 9%, 106 respondents, did not find their own beliefs in the political labels I chose. The single most popular response among these was ‘socialist’ or some variant on that, with 16 socialist respondents and 1 Marxist. ‘Social liberal’ or some variant on that was the next most popular from 14 people, with a couple of small-l liberal responses as well. We also had people who wanted to be simply a liberal, a liberal conservative, and a liberal democrat.

Though academics and commentators routinely discuss ‘neoliberals’ and ‘neoconservatives’, not a single person used those labels to describe themselves. In my question on which political intellectuals respondents had read, the ‘neoconservative’ thinkers – Irving Kristol and Leo Strauss – were the least read. Even among self-described conservatives and social conservatives, only 14% had read anything by Kristol and just 8% had read anything by Strauss.

It raises again the question of whether labels like ‘neoliberal’ and ‘neoconservative’ have descriptive or analytical value. My own reading of work by local academics (eg here or here) suggests that the main effect of the labels is to lead them down the wrong path, importing global academic concepts (neoliberalism) or distinctively American political ideologies (neoconservatism) rather than trying to understand the local variants of liberalism and conservatism.

In the next post, I will look at what classical liberalism and libertarianism mean in the Australian context.

23 thoughts on “Non-existent ‘neoliberals’ and ‘neoconservatives’?

  1. Pete – ‘Left’ is a general term used by people on the left as well as the right, eg Lavartus Prodeo bills itself as coming from a left of centre perspective. ‘Neoliberalism’ and ‘neoconservativism’, though sometimes thrown about without any regard for meaning, are generally thought to refer to specific ideological views within the right – pro-market small state views in the case of neoliberalism, more recently pro-democratic foreign interventions in the case of neoconservatism. There were people who called themselves ‘neoconservatives’, just not in Australia.


    As reflected in Charles’ comment (#2), it is possible that the some people who might have called themselves “neoliberal” before the global financial crisis might no longer do so, out of embaressment, given recent attempts to pin the crisis on neoliberalism.
    Another possibility, of course, is that some people adhere to a neoliberal agenda but do not label themselves that way.
    With those theoretical possibilities acknowledged, I think the more likely reason that no-one self identified as neoliberal is the one Andrew points to – that very few if any people in Australia subscribe to a neoliberalism.
    There is a parallel here with “neoliberalism” and “economic rationalism” – the favoured pejorative used by the Left a decade or so ago. The fact that no economic rationalists, as defined (generally implicitly) by the Left, existed did not stop critics of mainstream economics doing a good job of taring them with the economic rationalist brush. The same thing is happening again now, with a new term. The technique remains simplistic and underhand, but that did not stop the Left from engaging in such behaviour previously.


  3. Tom, No doubt neo-liberal is a kind of strawman label like economic rationalist. But I also suspect that as Andrew says, terms like neoliberal and neoconservative are imported labels that do not really fit the Australian political environment. For example, Howard is regularly labelled as a neoliberal, when he himself (and the evidence would support him) described his philosophy as economic liberal and socially conservative (which about 8% said they were).

    As for neoconservative: I can’t think of anyone in Australian public life that would actually fit into that philosophy. We are too small a country with too small a military for that to make any sense whatsoever. At heart it isn’t really an economic philosophy. perhaps so few people have read Kristol et al as their philosophy has little application in Australia, beyond helping to understand what makes a lot of yanks tick.


  4. ‘Neoconservative’ is an American term operating in that context and has the value that a group of people did actually accept the term ‘neoconservative’ for themselves. The term has since got thoroughly bastardised, but it did have some reasonable content. I am not very surprised no-one identified as neoconservative in the survey.

    ‘Neoliberal’ has always been a term of (outside) abuse only ever accepted by “adherents” either ironically or temporary convenience. I am completely unsurprised no one identified as such.


  5. Tom – Except in the way described by Michael Warby at comment 9, I have never anywhere or at any time heard ‘neoliberal’ used in self-description. Classical liberal and libertarian are the self-description terms, and were well-established long before the academic left start using ‘neoliberal’, which did not take off until the 1990s and wasn’t the dominant term here until the 2000s.

    However, some people did use ‘economic rationalist’, indeed I co-edited a book called A Defence of Economic Rationalism, which came out in 1993 – not coincidentally in reaction to the last time market economics took a hit, the early 1990s recession.

    While the term was frequently misused, it did have some use in describing not a precise ideology but an issue movement which included people with a variety of different ideologies and interests. It was more like the environmental or women’s movements in having strongly overlapping policy agendas but little ideological coherence.


  6. Andrew Norton @4: “‘Left’ is a general term used by people on the left as well as the right”

    No argument there re “left”, but, the terms I mentioned were the hard Right’s use of the terms “leftisms” (to sound like a left-wing perspective is a disease or mental illness) and “leftists” (as if they’re guerrillas and terrorists). It’s an American hard-Right jargon thing you seem to have picked up.

    If you can find any genuine left-wing blogs or journals that use “leftisms” or “leftists” though when talking about their own side of politics, by all means cite ;).


  7. Pete – ‘Leftisms’ is so I can have one broad category for classifying posts that discuss left-wing ideas; a word search shows I have never used it otherwise. I do use ‘leftist’- a Google search on the term suggests it is used both by general media (including Fairfax, ABC, SBS) and right-wingers. It seems a perfectly sensible term for describing left-wing ideas or persons, and until you made this comment I had not noticed that it doesn’t seem to be used much by the left itself.


  8. “I am in any case not at all sure I could devise a survey that could pick up on differences within the left beyond social democrats”
    I don’t think it would be too hard for some groups:
    1) Immigration and population questions would split the socialist “greens” versus the “hardcore” greens.
    2) You could probably split the Clive Hamiltons and the John Quiggins of the world via economic questions that traded-off long term economic growth vs. “happiness” (I’ll call them the realistic and unrealistic left)
    3) You could probably split the we-love-Stalin crowd (e.g., Conroy) versus the liberal left.
    4) Probably similar to (3), but you could probably split the protectionist/nationalistic left from the liberal left by looking at various international issues.


  9. Interesting that Greg Sheridan in this weekend’s Oz basically called Obama a neo-conservative, saying that, “on all the big foreign policy questions, Obama has continued Bush’s policies.”


  10. Hi Andrew –
    “Neoliberal” I believe was originally used as a self-description in the US by those within the Democratic Party who wanted to indicate that they accepted market economics (and maybe a forceful foreign policy) but still considered themselves liberals – the sort of people who used to frequent the _New Republic_ (and still do, I guess). Wikipedia mentions Michael Kinsley, Robert Kaus, Mickey Kaus, and Randall Rothenberg. I can’t recall when I first heard it, but I’m guessing it was around 1990. Since then, as you point out, it’s been taken over by the anti-market left as a term of abuse.


  11. Charles – Confusingly, that is a separate ‘neoliberalism’, which seems roughly the American equivalent to the market-learning social democrats of the Hawke and Keating era here. The other version of ‘neoliberalism’ goes back at least 20 years. I traced some of the local history here, speculating that Chomsky may have been the main transmission source, but I don’t know where the term itself started.


  12. Thanks for that reference – I hadn’t seen that article of yours before; it’s very good. You seem to be saying there’s no connection between the original US Democrat meaning and the modern leftist-academic meaning – that two groups just independently came up with the same term. Is that your view? I guess someone needs to dig in the American archives.


  13. Charles – I don’t think there is a direct connection, but I can’t find much research on the origins of ‘neo-liberal’ in the current academic meaning.

    However, after inspecting the Library of Congress catalogue I have an hypothesis: in the 1980s, ‘neoliberal’ starts appearing frequently in the titles of Spanish-language books about Latin America, and indeed it appears to be only in the last six or seven years that it appears more frequently in the titles of English-language than Spanish-language books.

    This would help explain why the same word acquired two different meanings: it was being used in two different linguistic and political cultures. However, given the interest of left-wing academics in Latin American politics, it was picked up by American academics, and transmitted via them to global academia.


  14. No Charles, the insult “neoconservative” was adopted by the Soviet-faction of the American Left once they decided they wanted back inside the Democratic Party. The commies labelled those leftists who broke with Moscow decades earlier, “neoconservative’ so the commies could steal the moniker “liberal”.


  15. Andrew,

    We are all social democrats now. That is, the Left have won most of the economic policy debates over the Right. Tobin trumps Friedman.

    The only question that remains to be decided is whether we will be liberal or “corporal” social democrats in the cultural sphere. That is, given a welfare state, what kind of lawfare state will prevail?

    Are we going to be liberal social democrats or “corporal” social democrats. I opt for the latter because it is inevitable under accountability principles.

    If you live in my fiscal house you live by my corporal rules.

    The culture war is waged over whether a populist democracy will be able to relax or have to tighten social controls now that everyone (from bankers to single mothers) has their snout in the public trough. Particularly as multiculturalism and subculturalism ramp up the cultural diversity, undermining the Protestant values that founded old style liberalism.

    The old-style liberalism depended on old-fashioned citizenship. You know, citizens who looked out for one anothers kids, volunteered for military service and chided you if a four-letter word escaped your lips.

    THe social welfare function was provided by extended families, backed up by churches, friendly societies and guilds (or trade unions). But most people were averse to accepting charity or handouts, since this was a sign of lowered social status. (A ward of the state or some such.) No one wanted to be a burden.

    Also there is no longer any stigma associated in getting something for nothing (eg gambling, unearned income from asset trading or stimulus cheques).

    The problem for social democracy is that it tends to encourage moral hazard and adverse selection as everyone wants to bludge off the state. Also without social controls such people will run wild.

    So a more progressive welfare state entails a more authoritatitve lawfare state. See Changing Patterns in Social Fabric Test Netherlands’ Liberal Identity .

    anxieties are exacerbated by alarm over the international crime organizations that have infiltrated the country’s prostitution and drug trades, the increasing prevalence of trafficking in women and children across its borders, and dismay over the Netherlands’ image as an international tourist destination for drugs and sexual debauchery.

    “People in high political circles are saying it can’t be good to have a society so liberal that everything is allowed,” said Kranendonk, editor of Reformist Daily and an increasingly influential voice that resonates in the shifting mainstream of Dutch public opinion. “People are saying we should have values; people are asking for more and more rules in society.”

    The situation is worse than this par suggests. Its not just multiculturalism amongst unruly minorities that wrecks old-fashioned liberalism. Its also subculturalism that engenders unruliness amongst the majority eg drug fiends, sex maniacs,


  16. Jack – Apart from in the US, the welfare state was never seriously challenged, though as I have argued before I think there are distinctions between conservative and left-wing welfare states, with the former (such as Howard’s) being more focused on family handouts and trying to limit the social pathologies arising from welfare dependency. Even what looked promising in the early 1990s in superannuation is not going to come to much – the elderly will take their super and still plunder the state. I don’t think there is any fundamental shift happening in this sphere now; the differences between Rudd and Howard on this so far are conceptually negligible.

    Certainly we are headed backwards on economic liberalisation, particularly in the labour market, and there is an increase in corporate handouts, but except in the labour market I am not yet sure that there will be long-term and major rollback.

    We need to keep in mind too that social democrats still have little idea as to how to make government services work well (an impossible task, in my view) so the cycle will turn again.


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