Law & Neoliberalism

David Singh Grewal and Jedediah Purdy –

Neoliberalism is an indispensable term for making sense of the legal, political, and ideological conflicts of the moment, and also one of the most maligned. Liberals who feel criticized by it have insisted so often and so loudly on its uselessness that even those on the left who use it often seem compelled to apologize as they do so, to distance themselves from all its other uses and users. People thus use the term in the very conditions it should work to criticize: isolated, idiosyncratic, mutually mistrustful, and “entrepreneurial.”

The term matters because it names key strategies in one of the major conflicts of the time: the struggle between democratic claims on economic life, usually on behalf of the security and autonomy of workers and other “ordinary” people, and the claims of capital and management: for higher profit, greater capital mobility, the subjection of non-market practices to market logic (from childrearing to universities to the professions), and “freedom to manage” through “labor flexibility.” To use the term, in the early twenty-first century, is generally to acknowledge the lines of this conflict, and often to take sides. For this reason, it is often discomforting to anyone whose view of the social and legal worlds is fundamentally conciliatory – Make the pie bigger through overall efficiency! – or organized by a different division, such as good Democrats versus wicked Republicans, or responsible conservatives versus heedless liberals.

If you are looking to identify neoliberal forms of argument, look first for four overlapping kinds of claims. The first and simplest is an efficiency-based view, sometimes called (by its critics) “market fundamentalism,” holding that strong property rights and private contracting are the best means to increase overall welfare, and that law should promote these except when it intervenes to “correct market failures.” Second is a more explicitly moral line of argument (though of course promoting overall welfare is an intensely moral project) that property and markets best protect the freedom and dignity of individuals, so a market society is the most decent social order possible. The third line of argument adopts a tragic register to deny that democratic politics and public institutions can ever successfully discipline and shape economic life. This pessimistic position tends to serve as a backstop when it is clear that market arrangements are failing to deliver overall welfare – because of intermittent crises and runaway inequality, let us say. “That may be so,” the neoliberal argument now runs, “but the alternatives are always worse – corruption, abuse of power, utopian tyrannies.” The last line of argument is the subtlest, often implicit, and also often the most important: the exclusion of certain kinds of ideas and proposals from any place at the table. Continue reading