Vanishing Neo-Liberals?

David Brooks is stealing my material — kind of. In a column titled, The Vanishing Neoliberal, Brooks argues that the good old days of the sharp-thinking neoliberal are vanishing in return for the bad old days of old liberalism. Oh, woe the demise of the neoliberals who, Brooks writes, “were liberal but not too liberal. They rejected interest-group politics and were suspcious of brain-dead unions. They tended to be hawkish on foreign policy, positive about capitalism,” and “reformist when it came to the welfare state.”* Yes, I remember those days, but I could have sworn neo-liberals were conservatives. Well, actually, I was always dumbfounded how “neo-liberals” were any kind of liberals at all.

I said Brooks was stealing my material. Two days ago at a philosophy meeting in South Carolina, I started off my talk as follows:

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Have you noticed that lately democracy is back in fashion? I mean, since the end of the Cold War? Prior to this new democratic era, the focus of theoretical and political debate was on things like socialism versus capitalism, free markets versus planned economies, negative versus positive liberty. Radicals were Marxists, liberals were progressives, progressives were communitarians, and conservatives were laissez-faire neo-liberals. The political spaces that seemed most important were governments and the economy. The idea of civil society was a throwback to Hegel, a quaint inconsequential idea of an inconsequential space.
But when the Wall fell, so too did the focus on government as the site where politics happens, for the curious thing about the end of the Cold War was that its seeds were in civil society, in organizations with names like “civic forum” in East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Of course, it helped that the Soviet Union was crumbling and had pulled its tanks out of Eastern Europe. But it was now obvious that the “legitimation crisis” that Habermas and others had warned about capitalism was a much more severe crisis in communism such that a “people’s” government could fall simply with a civic association calling its bluff.
Now we are all democrats. But not all democrats under anything like one flag. Marxists became radical democrats, some progressives became liberal democrats, others, along with some communitarians, became deliberative democrats, and neo-liberals became patriots, who now in our time so love democracy that they are willing to invade and tear apart foreign countries in order to “democratize” them.

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So now I’m thinking, never mind what kind of liberal you are, what kind of democrat are you?

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*For the flow of my argument I cut out the Brooks’ phrase in his lament for the good old neo-liberal days. To wit: when they were “urbane but not militant on feminism and other social issues.” That’s right, we hate to see liberals in combat boots.

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Categorized as democracy

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.