Neoliberalism and the Crisis of Liberalism

This post was co-authored by Daria Prokhorova and Elena Borzenkova. 

On Monday October 30th, the NYU Jordan Center hosted a conference, entitled “Neoliberalism and the Crisis of Liberalism,” which brought together scholars from various disciplines to discuss the political and economic aspects of liberalism. The event was funded by the NYU-PSL Global Alliance, and co-sponsored by the NYU Department of History. Yanni Kotsonis, Professor of History, Russian and Slavic Studies at NYU, introduced and moderated the workshop.

Kotsonis initiated the panel by reflecting on the precarious period that we find ourselves in, following the 2016 election. While the political and the economic can theoretically be divided into two separate spheres, on some level, “economics are political”, as Kotsonis argued. The goals of this conference would be to investigate the various roots of neoliberalism and to distinguish between economic and political liberalism.

The first panel, “Moments I” combined the works of Alexia Blin of EHESS Paris, Gaurav Garg of NYU, and Andrew Sartori of NYU. The papers commonly addressed the changing ties between market and state in several cultural contexts and the role of labor within neoliberalism. Blin’s work discussed the role of cooperatives in Wisconsin during the period of 1870s-1930s. The functioning of such cooperatives suggested a sense of disconnect between ownership and labor; producer co-ops, which were run by farmers for their own consumption, were dominant in the 1930s. As the size of co-ops grew, there arose a debate regarding what some viewed as “degeneration into plain corporations.” Labor rights laws also represented a point of contention for cooperatives. Blin discussed the view of many during this period that co-op owners should be kind to workers. This issue was largely resolved through the emphasis of co-ops as a “community” or “protect[ed] family structures”, which allowed owners to justify the “subordination relationship” between themselves and workers. Garg’s project considered alternate meanings that neoliberalism took in Calcutta in the 1960s. Garg discussed the region’s attempts to build large urban coalitions supporting economic development, what he referred to as “neoliberal urbanism.” Within this process there occurred a shifting dynamic in the relationship between the state and big business, in which markets were aligning to the agenda of big businesses. Finally, Sartori’s paper addressed Bengal’s post-colonial period, starting in 1793, during which the question of the allocation of conditional property rights was dominant. On the one hand, the state-centered approach granted permanent rights to landowners in their estates. Further, the descendants of said landowners, who themselves also cultivated the soil, were “endowed with political rights while also [functioning as the] engine of economic growth.” However, a complication arose in considering the people whose labor does not produce property – how do they exist in a liberal polity? This issue resulted in a shift to contractual agreements.      

The second panel, “Moments II”, combined the works of Nicolas Barreyre of EHESS Paris, Jean-Christian Vinel and Romain Huret of EHESS Paris, and Andrew Needham of NYU. Barreyre’s paper compared and contrasted liberalism and neoliberalism through exploration of the public debt in the U.S. in the late nineteenth-century. By “denaturalizing” the market into specific economic (and political) actors, a set of state actions, tools, and practices, the author concluded that although nineteenth- century liberalism simply wanted the state to keep out of the market, twentieth-century neoliberalism, in contrast, wanted the state to submit to the market.  Vinel and Huret provided an insight into how the social question and inequality were dealt with during the New Deal order. Offering the critique to Piketty’s Le Capital, the authors stated that although the New Deal order was a battle to provide security to America’s middle class, all efforts to cope with structural inequality were insufficient. Needham contributed to the discussion by examining the history of the interchanging public and private infrastructure projects that shaped the emergence of the neoliberal structure of the networks that “constitute modern life.” He posited that for private actors, public service has come to mean providing “choice,” with access limited to the consumer ability to pay, and for public sector actors, it has come to mean “technical competence, engineering and maintaining systems that function efficiently.”

The third panel, “Origins”, featured Alexander Arnold, Stephen Gross, and Troy Vettese, all of NYU. Arnold started the panel with a paper examining the epistemological origins of neoliberalism through the 1930s debate between Lionel Robbins, Ludwig von Mises and Raymond Aron about the priorities and fissures of neoliberalism, and the true scope of economics. Mises’ and Hayek’s views of neoliberalism were based on narrower definitions of the importance of economics, while Aron believed that this “epistemologized neoliberalism” could bring about devastating consequences when used as justifications for political decisions. Gross explored Ordoliberalism (structured Liberalism), which was the founding economic doctrine of West Germany. Representing a combination of a weak state and a concentration of economic power, it ultimately led to the rise of National Socialism and even determined the pattern of West Germany’s postwar political economy. Vettese followed the Canadian roots of the neo-liberal innovation in dealing with environmental crisis. Carbon credits and pollution permits emerged from the neo-liberal approach to private property, which perceived it as the “right to use something in prescribed ways”, rather than absolute control. The Canadian government therefore was able to sell the right to pollute lakes and rivers which they owned, a practice later adopted by the American government.