I left this comment on Dan O’Brien’s piece in today’s Irish Times titled ‘‘Neoliberalism’ is being used as a straw man to close down reasonable debate on policies’. In it, he claimed that ‘in a world that is increasingly complex, reason and evidence are, thankfully, triumphing’, against ‘reactionaries on the right’ and ‘reactionaries on the left’. The latter, in Ireland, are ‘seeking to close down debate’ through ‘name-calling’, which ‘happens even though no political party, grouping or individual in Ireland describes itself/himself/herself as “neoliberal”.’
Pro-tip: if you’re going to attack straw men and emerge with respect, it’s always better to refrain from erecting 300ft straw men of your own. Dan O’Brien contradicts the supposedly ‘reactionary’ conception of neoliberalism with the following claims:
a) that there is a contradiction between neoliberalism and ‘the combination of the state, its agencies, market mechanisms and private business’;
b) that neoliberalism means diminished state involvement;
c) that neoliberalism means lower levels of regulation on the whole;
But none of these things are characteristics of neoliberalism according to scholarly definitions. The neoliberal state is by no means a smaller state. David Harvey, in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, a well-known text on the subject, writes that:
‘In the event of a conflict, the typical neoliberal state will tend to side with a good business climate as opposed to either the collective rights (and quality of life) of labour or the capacity of the environment to regenerate itself’;
‘In the event of a conflict, neoliberal states typically favour the integrity of the financial system and the solvency of financial institutions over the well-being of the population or environmental concerns’.
‘the neoliberal state cannot tolerate any massive financial defaults even when it is the financial institutions that have made the bad decisions’.
Not applicable to Ireland, of course.
None of these things mean a smaller state; on the contrary, they require a far greater degree of regulation –in particular, of ‘the collective rights (and quality of life) of labour’ – with greater surveillance, bureaucracy, segregation and marketisation brought to bear on access to resources previously considered as public. Neoliberalism thus defined is a project for a restoration of class power, not a political identity, as O’Brien claims.
As for the claim that the term ‘neoliberalism’ shuts down public debate: it is dismally serendipitous that this article (published in a country with no left-wing newspapers) should be published the day after the Greek public broadcaster was shut down as a consequence of a State seeking to maintain the integrity of the financial system over the democratic life of the population.