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‘We can’t be content with running alternative coffee shops, while leaving the global financial system to our opponents’

Funded by their sympathisers in business and corporations, the neoliberals worked at promoting that programme, slowly but surely, to people in a position to put it into practice. Lots of people feel helpless and powerless in the face of neoliberalism because they are helpless and powerless.


Coffee shop in Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons/Bachrach44. Public domain.

The “Neoliberalism and the World System” conference, held at York in July 2013, has provided an intense focus on a set of pressing contemporary issues. Neoliberalism raises most academics' temperature, not just because they are opposed to its main claims about the causes of progress and prosperity but also because it is personal.


Coffee shop in Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons/Bachrach44. Public domain.

The “Neoliberalism and the World System” conference, held at York in July 2013, has provided an intense focus on a set of pressing contemporary issues. Neoliberalism raises most academics' temperature, not just because they are opposed to its main claims about the causes of progress and prosperity but also because it is personal.

Neoliberalism now governs the academy in the UK. Its tenets underpin everything, from undergraduate recruitment to promotions, and the often–heated event in York led me, like others, to ponder its many facets. However, not all of the conclusions I have reached reflect well on the academy, in the sense that they diverge from the ones I think most academics would like us to reach.

For such a focused event, the York conference was big. Around 150 people attended in a genuinely interdisciplinary atmosphere, with people from geography, history, sociology, social policy, and English departments, to name just a few. My thoughts are an impressionistic take on a wide range of scholars. While I enjoyed some of the ideas that were put forward, I also witnessed a type of group mentality – a collective centre of intellectual gravity, if you will – that transport us back to the origins of neoliberalism. Yet the historical narrative that links the origins of neoliberalism with its current success, and, conversely, its opponents’ current failure, was surprisingly absent from most of the conference.

As a number of scholars, including Daniel Stedman Jones, Agus Burgin, and Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, have recently shown, neoliberalism has roots that go back much further than 1979. The pre-Thatcher and Reagan history of neoliberalism is important because it's crucial to understanding how neoliberalism has been so successful so quickly during the past thirty years. By 1979 neoliberalism was a fully formed project that had been put together by people like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman in places like the Mont Pelerin Society over the course of almost 30 years (though the ideas themselves date back at least another 20 years). In this respect, the project took the left by surprise because it developed out of their sight and was ready to be implemented as soon as the neoliberals saw their moment in the late 70s and early 80s.

The fact that the left and other opponents of neoliberalism didn't see it coming is important. Why not? To cut a long story short, and with some key exceptions, such as departments in Chicago and Virginia, Hayek and others developed neoliberalism outside of the academy. They gave up on large swathes of the university system, particularly in Europe, because they saw it as mired in planning and leftism and therefore a lost cause.

However, by the late 1940s, when the Mont Pelerin Society was founded, those swathes of academia had successfully captured the attentions of western governments, which found ideas about social planning and welfarism attractive after the economic experiences of the 1920s and 30s. In this respect, the people we now call neoliberals effectively lost the original version of the argument we are having now during the mid-twentieth century.

What the neoliberals took from that loss, though, was the conviction that ideas matter because they, more than people, can transform institutions. The neoliberals therefore set up their own organisations, particularly think tanks with often bland names, which set about developing their own programme. Funded by their sympathisers in business and corporations, the neoliberals then worked at promoting that programme, slowly but surely, to people who might be in a position to put it into practice at some point in the future. In the process, they established a whole network that eventually shaped the world as we know it.

The key point about that process is that Hayek and others understood themselves to be learning a lesson from their opponents – the people who would today have been gathered at the neoliberalism conference in York.

I was thinking about this throughout the meeting for all kinds of reasons. But one reason in particular stood out: the complete failure of most of those present to understand the nature of the problem that confronts them and the kinds of solutions that are required to break neoliberalism’s hold on the political classes.

This criticism has a number of different levels. One is that I don't think most academic critics of neoliberalism appreciate neoliberalism's long historical gestation or understand how it got to be so dominant. Typically, opponents of neoliberalism identify it with Reagan and Thatcher, but doing so simplifies the argument in unhelpful but admittedly attractive ways. The kind of dominance neoliberalism has achieved could never be down to just a single individual.

Another aspect of the criticism, however, is that the kinds of things that opponents talk about as alternatives to neoliberalism, or at least significant challenges to it, fall completely short of what is required to overthrow such a system. “Occupy” was one movement that was frequently name-checked at the conference. I am not a fan of Occupy, not because I think resistance (whatever that might actually mean) to neoliberalism is a bad thing but because I struggle to understand what it has to offer beyond the brute idea of resistance.

Whatever we might think about neoliberalism, and regardless of how slippery the concept is, neoliberals seem to have a clear message about what the good life and society is. Occupy certainly talks a good game in response – self-organising networks and other slightly intangible but intuitively appealing concepts feature prominently – but its diverse and centre-less supporters do not offer an alternative vision of the world that is coherent or likely to make things happen.

Indeed, at the anarchistic end of the Occupy spectrum, the language and concepts used is not sufficiently different from the language around neoliberalism or its classical liberalism predecessors, such as Herbert Spencer, which few people at the York conference are likely to advocate as an alternative.

What the academics buying into Occupy and everything round it are largely promoting is a hazy, ill-defined, right-on bundle of ideas that are a form of libertarianism combined with the bits of lit-crit cultural theory relativism that people call socialism but are in reality a problematic form of identity politics.

The fact of the matter is that lots of academics feel helpless and powerless in the face of neoliberalism because they are helpless and powerless. Neoliberals have cut them out of the loop and the effect has been to create a group of academics who talk about completely different things, using a completely different language, to those with power.

Jamie Peck articulated this point in his closing keynote address when he argued that part of the problem was that opponents of neoliberalism had surrendered the areas where power is actually exercised in favour of places where naval gazing can take place without anyone else looking.

As he put it, "we can't content ourselves with running alternative coffee shops, while leaving the global financial system to our opponents." I agree completely with that sentiment. What is needed is a genuine alternative programme that articulates how power will be used to achieve particular aims in definite areas. What does working towards that goal entail? There are lots of things one might say about this issue but I have three points that I would raise as the most important.

An alternative programme

The first is that academic opponents of neoliberalism could do much worse than reconnecting with neoliberalism’s early and mid-twentieth-century origins. Why? Because Hayek and his supporters saw a group of academics, not politicians, as the problem. Those academics were economists and social scientists – people like William Beveridge, David Glass, and Alexander Carr-Saunders – who were developing empirically robust research programmes, linked to wider visions of the good society. Academics have a very loose grasp on the work those people produced. We could do worse than look at it again and try to understand how they became so successful before the decline of the worldview they helped create during the mid-1970s.

The second is, that in reconnecting with those mid-twentieth-century opponents of neoliberalism we will come to appreciate a number of different and underappreciated points about it. One, and possibly the most uncomfortable, is that there was a great deal of common ground between neoliberals and those they labelled “planners” and “socialists” (who were in reality often technocratic liberals) than we often realise.

This point goes both ways. While many of the early neoliberals were prepared to reconcile their ideas with things like welfarism, their opponents were quite comfortable with the idea of individuals being located in a competitive social order. Part of the reason the neoliberals originally lost the argument around those issues, however, is that they didn’t seem to be in tune with the forces of post-Great Depression modernity.

They were, of course, subsequently able to do so in the 1980s and the reasons they were successful are worth thinking about. For instance, and taking an example close to home, while the REF is an often brutal tool that needs refining, it has been successful in breaking up an old-boys network that would have prevented many of us getting academic jobs until relatively recently.

Strange as it might seem, such ideas are not that far removed from the post-war British social scientists who championed social mobility as the answer to the country’s problems.

The third and final point is that opponents of neoliberalism need to learn from neoliberals a lesson they might not associate with a group they associate with extreme individualism: how to be organised. Opponents of neoliberalism need their own groups to establish a programme, tuned into modernity, that a large enough group of people can get behind. That programme needs to be practical and focused on complex issues, such as the reform of the financial system.

And, most importantly, opponents of neoliberalism need to think long-term. They need to realise that 1979 was at least 30 years in the making for neoliberalism and that their own solutions might take that long to be realised. But during that time opponents of neoliberalism need to engage with the powerful and chip away slowly at the problem by convincing them that their ideas are solutions. Bit by bit, the ideas will be embedded in a new system, just as neoliberalism has been. If opponents of neoliberalism are serious then these lessons should not be hard to learn. After all, they taught them to neoliberals in the first place.

This article is part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and the Centre for Modern Studies at the University of York. It was funded by the University of York's Pump Priming Fund, the British Academy, and York's Centre for Modern Studies.

About the author

Chris Renwick is lecturer in modern history at the University of York and works the history of the biological and social sciences since the mid-nineteenth century. He received the American Forum for the History of the Human Science's John C. Burnham Early Career Award in 2012 and his first book, British Sociology's Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), was shortlisted for the British Sociological Association's Philip Abrams Memorial Prize in 2013.

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