Neoliberals: doing good

Peter K. peterk at
Sat Apr 22 00:58:31 PDT 2000

[Something I found in _Prepared for the Worst_ (Hill and Wang, 1998). Who could have predicted that ten years later we'd have Clintonism? His mentioning of The Big Chill brought to mind that scene in the new John Cusack movie High Fidelity where the record store employees are discussing what would be good rock songs for a funeral and the Stones' Can't Always Get You Want is disqualified because of its association with The Big Chill. ]

First appeared in The Nation, Nov. 5, 1983

Doing Good: Neoliberals Christopher Hitchens

It's all too easy to sneer at neoliberals. But it is, I'm afraid, all too necessary. The movement that bears this smart little title has been in some danger of being taken too seriously. And, though its 1983 conference in Washington did something to deplete that seriousness, there is an evident need to say a few words before the memory fades.

First, what is neoliberalism? Its adherents beam with false modest when they are asked. They will not be so dogmatic as to attempt a definition. But I think I know what it is. In the November 1983 issue of The Washington Monthly, which sponsored the conference and which serves as the calendar and notice board of the movement, there appears a review by Charles Peters, who is founder and mentor of both. The review concerns the new book _Vietnam_, by Stanley Karnow, which is a companion to the series now running on PBS. It's a short notice, and it reads, in its entirety, thus:

Everyone, right and left, will find fault with this book, but there is nothing better available now. It is unique in its understanding of the cultural differences between South and North Vietnam and China that might have served our legitimate ends much more effectively and humanely than bombing by B-52s and invasion by 500,000 troops.

Here is the essence of the neoliberal style. First comes the smarmy evenhandedness ("right and left" are, of course ideologies, and therefore untrustworthy). Then the vague but seductive idea that "cultural differences" can substitute for a definition of conflict. Then the invocation of "our legitimate ends," which are assumed. Finally, there is the criticism of military and bureaucratic ineptitude - with all the moral and political courage that such a stand requires.

Neoliberals are like that. They have a sort of pious earnestness. They hold opinions rather than convictions. They wear their lightness learnedly. The are easily disappointed by the efforts and the antics of common people. They have a slightly feigned nostalgia for the times of FDR and JFK. They practice risk-free iconoclasm. Their idea of bravery is to speak the unsayable, shocking thing. For example: "I know it's not fashionable to say this, but a lot of people really do cheat on welfare." Some of them actually want Ernest Hollings to be President. To spend a weekend with them was like living through, rather than sitting through, _The Big Chill_.

Cynics have compared the neoliberal tendency to the neoconservative one. I think that comparison must be counted as unfair. For one thing, neoconservatives are much more rigorous. For another, they are much more interesting. Neoconservatives believe in orginal sin, while neoliberals believe in the enervating effect of public spending programs. Neoconservatives are keenly interested in foreign policy, with its emphasis on tough choices, while neoliberals are oddly diffident about it. Neoconservatives have a sense of class struggle and know which side they are on. Neoliberals wish the word "class" had never been discovered and agree not to use it at all, ever, except when attacking radicals for being out of touch with what "ordinary people" want. Neoconservatism could occur in any country. Neoliberalism could, really, only occur in a country like America, which combines abundance with angst and has a vast population of overqualified graduate students, some of whom wish they had, after all, served in Vietnam.

In what I suppose I must call his keynote address, Peters laid out a testing agenda for this bright-eyed group, mugged as they are by unreality. We must be flexible on welfare and crime, he said, and not automatically oppose the Right. We must be ready to denounce trade unions. We must invigilate and audit the big spenders. We must beware "the special interests" (I was touched to hear a panelist describe women as one such). Nor is equality forgotten - the neoliberals, in their only egalitarian proposal, would collectivize young Americans by means of the draft.

There is, true, a striking coincidence between these points and the "ideas" of the President. There's also a coincidence in method (when Peters calls for educational reform, he does so because he believes it will make the United States able to "compete economically with other technologically advanced countries.") But neoliberals cannot help the time they live in, and I believe even they are a little embarrassed by these convergences. Still, it's partly their own fault. If you go around mouthing Chamber of Commerce cliches like (Peters again): "In Japan, auto workers think about how they can improve their products; in America, they think about filing grievances," you have earned your resemblance to the Great Purveyor of reactionary common sense.

The neoliberal style is a smartass one, and not without its effectiveness. The core of it is a species of gutless irony. You think public spending helps the poor? Check out Mike's coruscating piece in ________. You still think aid to the Third World has a point? Get a load of Nick in ________. Disarmament would be less risky than the arms race? Where have you been? Read Jim in ________. Neoliberals like to puncture illusions, and one wishes them luck in that enterprise. But they never take aim at the huge, gaseous balloon that supports their own basket.

A perpetual theme at the conference was the reinstatement of family values, or at least the rescue of those values from the crass, coercive stress placed upon them by the Christian Right. There was much talk of responsibility and parenthood as the common thing, even the model thing. In fact, neoliberals seem to see the United States as a sort of family. They employ the word *we* a lot, as in "our" industry, "our" military, and "our" political process. As I was moved to say at their conference, a family is collectivist as a society and socialist as an economy. It reveres the individual but it operates, approximately, on the principle "from each according to his or her ability and to each according to his or her need." If these socialist values are good enough for the rearing of American children, why are they not good enough for American society? The fact that no panelist answered my tiny question suggests to me that neoliberals have, at best, only the cowardice of their convictions.

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