In 2001 I wrote an article for Quadrant tracking the changing terminology used to describe the Australian Right, in which I noted that ‘neoliberalism’ was starting to replace ‘economic rationalism’ as the favourite term of the left for the free-market right (with ‘economic rationalism’ having itself largely displaced ‘New Right’.)
I’d tracked down uses of ‘neoliberalism’ to 1989 and 1990 in Australia, but beyond noting its global academic use not worked out where it started internationally. I now think that this incarnation of ‘neoliberalism’ (there are other earlier ‘neoliberalisms’ that I doubt are connected) probably started in Latin America, and came to Australia via US academia.
My main evidence for this is an examination of book titles in the Library of Congress catalogue and article titles in JSTOR, an academic articles database.
Because the Library of Congress gets a lot of Latin American books, we can see that the early books with ‘neoliberalism’ in the title are largely in Spanish and about Latin America. JSTOR is English-language only, but again ‘neoliberalism’ is used largely in the context of Latin America (though there was one 1974 article on University of Chicago economist Frank Knight that used ‘neoliberal’ in its current meaning, though I think this was just an isolated instance of what drives this more generally – people seeing or wanting some change in the prevailing liberalism just add ‘neo’ to it).
This raises the question of whether Spanish-speaking ‘neoliberals’ use this term or whether, as here, it has been thrust upon them. A 1992 article in the journal Latin American Perspectives (from JSTOR) suggets the latter. It says
Neoliberalism, or as its propagandists dub it, “free-market economics”, makes claims to being a new, realistic, practical approach to Latin America’s problems. (emphasis added)
So while this point needs exploring further, it seems that the preferred self-description may have been some variation on “free market”. It’s still a little puzzling that academics around the world refuse to use the same terminology as the people they are writing about. It adds considerably to the sum of human confusion (not least among the academics themselves). But I think we are getting clearer on the origins of this latest ‘neoliberalism’.