[This book review was published in the Winter 2013 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 484-490.]
Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era
Peter A. Hall, Michelle Lamont, ed.s
Cambridge University Press, 2013
As readers open this book, their first question is almost certainly going to be, “what is ‘neoliberalism’”? It is a term that is almost never used in American political discussion and, to the extent it has been used by anyone, has had quite a few meanings. The Wikipedia entry on “neoliberalism” says “the meaning of neoliberalism has changed over time and come to mean different things to different groups. As a result, it is very hard to define.” The entry adds that “it has largely become a term of condemnation employed by leftist critics of liberalizing economic tendencies. And now it suggests a market fundamentalism closer to laissez-faire principles….” In this review, we will want to focus on what the contributors to this compendium of essays take it to mean. Before we examine the meaning they assign to it, however, it will help clarify things if we mention that “neoliberal” means something very different in the context of foreign policy and international relations than it does when, as here, it is speaking of economics. The two are unrelated.
The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) has for this volume brought together 21 contributors under the editorship of two Harvard professors for a cultural-sociology compendium. They come from a number of universities, including several in the United States but with a plurality from Canada. The Institute has been working on a “Building Strong Societies” theme, which includes a “Successful Societies Program.” Judging from the similarities of concept and semantic that run through the Introduction and twelve essays, the group’s professors have a lot in common, being in effect an encapsulated intellectual community of like thinkers. It is worth pointing this out because their unanimity may give a misleading impression that their use of “neoliberal” is in general circulation, understood by all. It is not.
In fact, there may not be a commonly accepted term for what they are describing, even though it is something that looms large in today’s world. By “neoliberal thought” they mean the assortment of market-idealizing concepts, such as “rational expectations” and “efficient markets” theory, that became so dominant within the economics profession in the decades immediately before the economic unraveling in 2007-8. Since then, there have been several books by supporters of a market economy decrying what they see as the “deformation” of capitalism, so the intellectual climate is no longer nearly so much under the sway of that pre-crisis consensus. We should add that, in any case, the consensus was never unanimously held.
“Thought,” of course, is not all there is to it. The world has changed in real terms. The result has been a globalized economy featuring giant multinational corporations, a world awash with an ocean of finance, global labor arbitrage causing an undercutting of labor in the advanced economies, free trade policies (although with more exceptions than free traders like to admit), vastly improved communications and transportation, non-labor-intensive technology and robotics, the cybernetic revolution, scientific advances in countless areas – and much more. All of this has brought an era of heightened capitalism, but one that differs significantly from the market economics of the past. It has its enthusiastic supporters, but there is reason to speak, as so many now do, of “crony capitalism” or “corrupted capitalism.” These disparaging references come from across the ideological spectrum, not just from the left. The more thoughtful commentators among those who have championed “the free market” in the past see a veritable crisis in the growing inequality, the decline of the middle class, the hollowing-out of industry as it is off-shored, the rise of long-term unemployment and part-employment, and the remarkable ethical collapse inherent in a narrowly self-regarding psychology. For its part, the book we are reviewing labels all of this as neoliberalism.
In attaching the “neo” to “liberalism,” the authors are using “liberalism” in the sense that has historically been customary in Europe, as the classical liberalism of individualism, limited government and a market economy. An important source of intellectual confusion about the whole semantic issue enters in, however, when this sort of liberalism is taken to have been a precursor to what has been called “liberalism” in the United States for the past century. It will be worthwhile to take a moment to clear it up. The second “liberalism” did not grow out of the first, but was rather an adversary to it. In the United States, the honorific label “liberal” was co-opted early in the twentieth century by the Left, and in the course of time continued to be used through the various phases of leftist thought, as reflected in the flagship journal The New Republic. These consisted of guild socialism in the late 19-teens and early 1920s, then an enthusiastic infatuation with Soviet Russia and with central planning, and eventually a shift after World War II to a focus on ethnic and sexual minorities as ideological and political allies.
It’s worth noting that two of the contributors to the book under review, Peter Evans and William Sewell, Jr., embrace the idea with which we disagree here. They see a continuum leading from classical liberalism to modern American liberalism and from there to the hyper-capitalism of today. To them, classical liberalism led into the later “liberalism” by finding it necessary to meet conditions that were unknown in the nineteenth century: the growth of giant business firms and of governments committed to social welfare. This thinking agrees with Eric Goldman, who argued along the same lines in his book Rendezvous With Destiny. We recall, however, that when in July 1946 Goldman authored an article to this effect in The New Republic it contrasted jarringly with the journal’s pro-Soviet vehemence that preceded it and for a time even followed it. To arrive at his analysis, Goldman had to ignore the decades of intensely anti-classical liberal alienation that meant that the two liberalisms were enemies with opposing, not similar, DNA.
This review of ideological nomenclature would be incomplete if we didn’t note that the merely social-democratic liberalism seen by Goldman (and now by Evans and Sewell) was not nearly leftist enough for the New Left’s revival of leftist radicalism in the 1960s-70s. Accordingly, this “liberalism” came to be excoriated from the Left as well as from the Right. Finding it prudent to fly from the word, American “liberals” have re-labelled themselves “progressives.”
Be all this as it may, many people in the United States today see the contemporary world economy as an extension of what they have long favored as “capitalism.” Indeed, the millions of Americans on the right continue to see the situation as almost identical to what it was in the 1950s, with the principal issues for them continuing to be “big government” and “high taxes.” This obliviousness to changed reality ill-serves, however, the classical liberalism to which they think they are being faithful. By contrast, we believe contemporary capitalism has so much changed from its classical liberal roots that it is something of a grotesque caricature of the earlier philosophy. That philosophy would not have countenanced a market system that no longer builds a massive middle class, but rather undercuts it and thereby deprives itself of its principal claim to legitimacy and runs the risk of losing the consumer base that is essential to capitalism; sees the lives of those who depend on remunerated employment for their living becoming increasingly precarious; and witnesses the corruption of both politics and business through a marriage of “big money” and government.
In Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era, the authors join us in seeing the deformation, but do so largely from the point of view of the social-democratic left. What they have set out to examine is how people can “bounce back from the trauma”; that is, be “resilient” in the face of “the challenges posed by a newly overriding emphasis on the market.” The answer? Oddly, they have far less that’s concrete to say about this than one might imagine. In their Introduction, the editors summarize that “we are skeptical about the efforts of some governments to find in individual resilience the solution….” Accordingly, what is mostly called for is more collective effort, more social democracy. Pointing to Canada, they say “Quebec has been most resilient, adopting a ‘social economy,’ with cooperatives, quasi-public organizations, collaborative interfirm relationships.” One of the contributors favors France’s policy of “sharply progressive taxes” to fund “robust social programs.” Another calls for various job-based initiatives such as “basic skill training” and income supplements such as the United States’ “Earned Income Tax Credit.” All of this is what thinkers of their persuasion have been calling for all along.
Readers will be surprised that even though the book was published in 2013, almost nothing is said that relates its discussion to the conditions created by the economic crisis that began with the housing collapse in 2007. Some of the essays may have been written before that year, although some cite later sources. The effect is to leave the impression that the intellectual constructs shared within the group are what’s most important to its members, passing loftily over the gritty realities on the ground below. Other than to preach what they have undoubtedly been preaching for many years, they have little to say. There are a number of authors, both left and right, who are seeing the need for far-reaching changes in the philosophy and structure of a market economy and of a society based on one, not to abandon capitalism but to assure its continued vitality and legitimacy. Several of these focus on a need for a society-wide system of income distribution. The contributors to this compendium, however, seem “behind the curve” on this and make no contribution to it, even though their overall orientation would indicate that they will not be averse to the new lines of thinking, which at least on certain critical issues bring together the concerned Right and the social-democratic Left.
An interest in the semantic issues involved with the use of “neoliberalism” is one reason for reading this book. Another comes if a reader will find it valuable to experience, if ever so briefly, the formalistic vacuity that inhabits so much of the “social science” of the past century. We mentioned earlier that the authors belong to an encapsulated intellectual circle, sharing the same mental categories and semantic. This is best illustrated by the Introduction written by the two Harvard professors who edited the volume. Fortunately, the later contributors speak a somewhat clearer tongue, although by no means departing from the bounds of their circle. Examples: from the Introduction: “…the fate of an important source of resilience at the micro level depends on meso- and macro-level processes…. We see the unfolding of neoliberalism as a syncretic social process… [that] took place in a multilayered social space replete with institutional frameworks and cultural repertoires…. At the macro level, there is room for further modeling of adjustments to shocks. At the meso level, we need a better understanding of how to keep institutions robust and cultural repertoires resonant. At the micro level, we need deeper explorations of the connections between cultural repertoires, institutional frameworks, and individual resilience….”
The later contributors are not, as we’ve said, completely free of such abstraction, as witness: [Discussing housing] “…ontological security is an indication of the extent to which the individual has bracketed existential questions…. A significant part of an individual’s basic security system is arguably the ability to construct meaning about one’s life, within the context of larger societal myths and cultural repertoires by means of the reflexive project of the self.” “…the extension of market logics into ever more spheres of the lifeworld.”
One of the more amusing features of such intellectual castle-building is the act, frequently indulged, of proving the obvious. An example: “Multiple literatures suggest that, in challenging situations, individuals turn to other people for support….”
We don’t wish to seem anti-intellectual in what we are saying. Where social science grapples with real issues in real terms, we are all for it. This reviewer has recently been reading Samuel Clemens’ Autobiography of Mark Twain, and commends it to the authors here as a splendid example of straight-forward, expressive, often profound speech.
Dwight D. Murphey