After the financial crash of 2007-2008 caused an economic collapse, and after it became clear that the Bush and Obama administrations were unwilling to actually investigate, prosecute and incarcerate financial and banking executives for the crimes committed, many politically active people in USA and other countries began to dig deep into the philosophy of political economy that had allowed the financial industry to occupy such an overwhelming position of dominance over the rest of the economy.
The philosophical wreckage they have been excavating has generally come to be called "neoliberalism." It is a word which confuses many people, because it serves as a name for a set of economic beliefs and policies which are more easily recognized as being associated with political conservatism and libertarianism: the opening of the Wikipedia entry on "neoliberalism" is accurate enough on these economic beliefs and policies, which "include extensive economic liberalization policies such as privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy." Generally, neoliberals believe that markets with untrammeled pricing mechanisms are a much fairer and more efficient means of allocating society's resources than any level of government oversight and intervention.
Neoliberals themselves actively seek to add to the confusion by denying they have a shared, coherent philosophy. A good, recent example—and from someone who is a self-professed "liberal" not a conservative—was this comment on DailyKos this past week: “Neoliberalism is not actually a thing.” It is exactly what neo-liberals themselves say. It is a smokescreen, intended to confuse and stymie inquiry. Philip Mirowski, a historian of economic thought at Notre Dame, and co-editor of one of the best expositions of neo-liberalism (The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective, Harvard University Press, 2009; now available in paperback), took on this deception earlier this year in a paper entitled, The Political Movement that Dared not Speak its own Name.
Mirowski’s response to the severe reaction of neoliberals to his paper was posted to Naked Capitalism in April 2016: Philip Mirowski: This is Water, or Is It the Neoliberal Thought Collective?
I do not recommend anyone go read the above links right now, unless you are already familiar with the debate over neoliberalism and are prepared for some hefty intellectual lifting. For those people unfamiliar with the term “neoliberalism” and seeking to understand how it differs from liberalism, I recommend this excellent review of another book, including many of the comments in the thread, on
Naked Capitalism in March 2015: Comments on David Harvey’s “A Brief History of Neoliberalism”.
These are all excellent discussions and expositions of neoliberalism. Also excellent is the work of Corey Robin. See, for example, When Neoliberalism Was Young: A Lookback on Clintonism before Clinton, from April 2016, and Robin's response to critics. Robin puts his finger on a diseased main artery in our political discourse today, when he writes neoliberals, even those, such as Barack Obama and the Clintons, who refuse to call themselves neoliberals,
would recoil in horror at the policies and programs of mid-century liberals like Walter Reuther or John Kenneth Galbraith or even Arthur Schlesinger, who claimed that “class conflict is essential if freedom is to be preserved, because it is the only barrier against class domination.”My own conclusion thus far is that much confusion will persist until neoliberalism is understood in the historical context of USA political economy, along with three other terms crucial to understanding this history: