During the last twenty-five years, much of the Left’s economic agenda has been organized around the critique of, and struggle against, neoliberalism. Research in political economy has the opportunity to inform and aid this struggle by exposing the alignment of forces behind the neoliberal turn and its persistence in the face of economic crisis and political challenge. Increasingly that research has pointed its finger at the role of neoliberal ideas, and the experts and intellectuals that promulgate them, as that driving force. The dismantling of the state apparatuses in place to protect society’s most vulnerable, the privileging of capital over labor, and the ever-upward flow of money to the peak of the income distribution are, according to this newer, idea-centered political economy, explained by the outsized influence that economic experts and libertarian political theorists now play in setting political agendas and making policy.
This essay advances two central claims about the idea-centered turn in the study of neoliberalism’s rise and persistence. First, that while it has produced rich, detailed studies of important dimensions of the neoliberal project, all of that rich detail has obscured as much as it has illuminated about the forces behind the neoliberal turn. Scholars working in this vein argue that we need to pay attention to ideas because only in so doing will we fully understand the forces behind the neoliberal turn. But given that no serious scholar would dispute the claim that ideas matter, in order to give their work the necessary scholarly gravitas that the social sciences demand, this work goes one step further and argues that ideas are not only a causal force distinct from material factors, they are the primary force behind the neoliberal turn. Trying to understand the power of ideas outside of the balance of material forces prevents us from properly understanding the nature of neoliberalism’s rise and resiliency. This ultimately obscures the relationship between material and ideational forces that have tilted the balance of political forces towards neoliberal ends.
Second, focusing attention on ideas, experts, and intellectuals is politically disarming; it not only diminishes the Left’s capacity to provide a critical analysis of neoliberalism, it makes neoliberalism more resilient by obscuring the material power asymmetries that are at its core. The underlying premise of idea-centered critiques of neoliberalism is that all of its pernicious consequences — the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many, the dismantling of public social protections, the dehumanization of our lived experience — are the result of bad ideas. It then follows that good ideas are the solution. This thought might be appealing to some academic critics of neoliberalism, as it offers the chance to undo the damage caused by one set of intellectuals with another, progressive set of intellectuals. However, in reality, studying political economy through an idea-centered lens weakens the anti-neoliberal challenge by obscuring institutional and structural dynamics that have given neoliberal ideas a material base to stand on and flourish, and by reinforcing neoliberalism’s pernicious elitism, replacing one kind of intellectual savior with another.
The academic scholarship on neoliberalism, even just the scholarship produced from a cultural or ideational framework, is a mountain of books, essays, and research articles too big to map in a single essay.1 To advance these claims, this essay focuses on a handful of some of the key book-length works advancing ideational accounts of neoliberalism’s rise, consolidation, and potential transformation, that have been published over the last twenty or so years. While this survey is not exhaustive, it is a fair representation of idea-centered political economy’s major themes and arguments.