Liberalism is a mighty big tent
Before I get to it, can I just say that I find the endless posturing about the term “neoliberal” tiring and a dodge? The various poses that the term is meaningless, that the people called it don’t know what it means, or that it is a uniquely unhelpful word for making distinctions are just that, poses. Yes, the term is imperfect. Yes, it is imprecise. It shares that quality with absolutely every other term for broad political movements and ideologies that’s used in conventional discourse. Yes, we all imagine that we are unique political snowflakes who cannot be pinned down to reductive terms, most certainly including me. And, indeed we are, after a fashion. These terms persist because we need them. To say that neoliberal is any less demonstrative than, say, conservative, a term that somehow applies to Daniel Larison, Pamela Geller, Andrew Sullivan, and Maggie Gallagher, seems to me to be absurd on its face. But look, if the various bloggers involved in this discussion will agree to abandon progressive, a weasel word if I ever heard one, or even worse, “classical liberal,” a self-imposed title of nobility, I’ll drop neoliberal.
The thing about labels is that people use them in two different ways. On the one hand, people use them to describe their own views. On the other, people use them to describe other people’s views. So in a sense, when we label our own political views we do so in a way meant to strengthen and protect ourselves intellectually. Or we do it because we want to belong (or not to belong) to a particular team. This is why some people are not only liberals but also Democrats and why Tea Partiers are conservatives but not necessarily Republicans. These labels give us meaning and membership.
But they can also give our opponents power over us, either by twisting self-identification into jokes (Teabaggers, for instance) or through guilt-by-association (likening modern progressives to the very different breed of progressive of the early 20th century) or by simply designing a term to lay at your opponents’ feet and hoping that it sticks, such as ‘neoliberal’. It’s no wonder, really, that people who don’t self-describe as ‘neoliberal’ don’t particularly like the term, since it has been used almost universally as a pejorative.
I suppose I’ve come to the point where I would rather just call people by their own labels. If Freddie doesn’t like progressive, I won’t call him one. I’ll call him a leftist because I think that’s what he self-describes as (he can correct me if I’m wrong). I’ll call Matt Yglesias a classical liberal because not only do I not find it a ‘self-imposed title of nobility’ I actually think it is pretty accurate from a political-science standpoint. I will call Jason Kuznicki a ‘libertarian’ and Andrew Sullivan a ‘conservative’ even though at any point you could probably find a reason why all these people were not exactly this or that.
But even once we get past all of that, I think the labels leave much to be desired. The left flank keeps calling neoliberals ‘technocratic’ but I really see no way in which they are any more or less technocratic than anyone else on the left. And while I sympathize with neoliberalism or whatever you want to call it, I personally prefer a much less technocratic approach to policy-making if and when possible. But there will always be someone more or less technocratic, more or less ‘statist’ or ‘anarchistic’ or what-have-you. In the left/neoliberal debate it’s largely come down to support for unions. Even there I fail to see how this is really an issue of technocrats vs. non-technocrats. Perhaps if the debate were between libertarians and neoliberals the issue of who is more technocratic would be more relevant. On the issue of education reform, which is at the center of Freddie’s post, the actual dividing lines between various groups are far more complex than any neoliberal/left divide. Much of that debate does focus on the unions, but even there I suspect that the actual sentiments are quite a lot less black and white than our little blog spats would have us suspect.
Then we have foreign policy, healthcare policy, war-on-drugs, civil liberties, and on and on and on the many, many issues which some on each side agree or disagree on. Not every leftist is anti-war. Not every neoliberal is a civil libertarian. More clear divides come between those on the left who are adamant Democrats, staunchly loyal to the president regardless, and the, ahem, ‘professional left’. (On this last point, please read this excellent Op/Ed by Ta-Nehisi Coates who really, truly deserves a permanent spot at the gray lady).
But the fact is, liberalism is a big tent. It has room for neoliberals and leftists (and I think libertarians, too), I think, though I may be naive in thinking so.
Next up…open-source unionism.