This article takes as its starting point the observation that neoliberalism is a concept that is ‘oft-invoked but ill-defined’. It provides a taxonomy of uses of the term neoliberalism to include: (1) an all-purpose denunciatory category; (2) ‘the way things are’; (3) an institutional framework characterizing particular forms of national capitalism, most notably the Anglo-American ones; (4) a dominant ideology of global capitalism; (5) a form of governmentality and hegemony; and (6) a variant within the broad framework of liberalism as both theory and policy discourse. It is argued that this sprawling set of definitions are not mutually compatible, and that uses of the term need to be dramatically narrowed from its current association with anything and everything that a particular author may find objectionable. In particular, it is argued that the uses of the term by Michel Foucault in his 1978–9 lectures, found in The Birth of Biopolitics, are not particularly compatible with its more recent status as a variant of dominant ideology or hegemony theories.It instead proposes understanding neoliberalism in terms of historical institutionalism, with Foucault’s account of historical change complementing Max Weber’s work identifying the distinctive economic sociology of national capitalisms.
There can be little doubt about the take-off in the use of the term neoliberalism. From being a term that was rarely used prior to the early 1990s, it has become a ubiquitous concept in critical discourse. Data from the Google ‘culturomics’ app – which undertook lexical analysis of the 15 million-plus books that had been scanned into the Google library in 2012 – identified a nine-fold increase in identification of the word ‘neoliberalism’ in its collection between 1990 and 2007 (see Figure 1). This is easily confirmed byany database search: a keyword search of my own university’s electronic databases drewme to 28,126 results: articles in question referred to ‘enjoying neoliberalism’ (Dean2008); ‘burying neoliberalism’ (Andrews 2009); ‘narrating neoliberalism’ (McNeill2005); ‘magical neoliberalism’ (Fuguet 2001); ‘neoliberalism and literary discourse’(Costa 2010); ‘neoliberalism, performativity, and research’ (Roberts 2007); ‘queering Chineseness, unthinking neoliberalism’ (Wong 2008); ‘The Soul of Neoliberalism’(Moreton 2007); ‘the end of neoliberalism’ (Grantham and Miller 2009), and much more. The range of academic journals and disciplinary bases from which such articles appear is also highly eclectic. While neoliberalism as a concept has its origins in economics, its contemporary influence has extended far and wide across the humanities and social sciences (cf. Kipnis 2007; Mudge 2008; Boas and Gans-Morse 2009). It is the inclusiveness and apparent interdisciplinarity of the term neoliberalism that accounts for part of its appeal. The extent to which it has displaced earlier terms can be seen from Figure 1 in the relationship of the term to the term ‘monetarism’. As the figure indicates, monetarism was a widely used term in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly associated with critiques of the policies of the Thatcher government in the UK and the Reagan administration in the US. Yet the use of the term declined in the 1990s, and its decline coincided with the rise of neoliberalism as a common term. One of the difficulties with a concept such as monetarism was that, at some level, it does require an understanding of technical aspects of economic theory (particularly in the relationship it posits between the money supply and interest rates) that is unlikely to be possessed outside of the economics discipline. By contrast, a working understanding of what neoliberalism is seems to have developed in a range of disciplines, with a surprisingly strong degree of confidence about what the concept means. The term ‘neoliberalism’ has been able to move easily through the arts and humanities disciplines, in ways thatterms grounded more specifically in economics, such as monetarism, or politics, such asthe ‘new right’, cannot.
In this paper, I attempt to give some order and coherence to these many and varied used of the term neoliberalism. I will begin by noting that much of the usage of the term is intellectually unsustainable, particularly where it functions as an all-purpose denunciatory category or where it is simply invoked as ‘the way things are’. I will then consider two more sustainable uses of the term: as a technique of government prevalent in the Anglo-American economies, and as the currently prevalent form of the dominant ideology. I draw attention to debates about dominant ideology theories before considering an approach derived from the work of Michel Foucault, but which grounds his work more specifically in a Marxist approach (Marxist-Foucauldians), alongside some more specific observations on Foucault’s The Birth of Biopolitics itself (Foucault 2008). In order to retain any utility, it is argued that uses of the term neoliberalism have to be,as Mitchell Dean (2010: 1) has noted, ‘circumscribed to a limited range of schools or forms of thought and . . . practices and policies concerned with the construction of market and market-like relations’ in the political-economic space. Foucault’s account of neoliberalism provides an interesting case study of the relationship between ideas and institutional change, developed along what I would describe as more Weberian than Marxist lines. It points towards a historical institutionalism that enables important comparative analysis of political-economic formations to be undertaken. In using the term in this way, however, a strong implication is that it needs to be steered away from using it as a synonym for neo-Marxist hegemony theory, or as the dominant ideology of global capitalism. If it is simply a synonym of this sort, then it is a term best abandoned as having had its intellectual currency devalued through excessive use.