Neoliberalism: Kim Phillips-Fein and Tracy Neumann Unpack the Knotty Realities and History of the Ubiquitous Term

We close out the Metropole’s coverage of the new edited volume, Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century with a discussion of neoliberalism and its importance in thinking about urban history. Working backwards, Maryland historian David M.P. Freund explores economic policy notably the government’s role as “monetary sovereign,” in our third entry.  While for our second installment we interviewed  University of Virginia historian Andrew Kharl regarding the impact of property taxes of black homeowners. Finally, you can check out our general over view of the volume here in our first essay on the book.  

If you’ve ever doddered about online, and particularly if you encounter economists like Scottie Lincicome who lean to the right, you’ll see plenty of tweeting about what my grandfather might call “the neoliberalism”:

To his credit, Lincicome carries about with humor, civility, and good faith arguments. Yet he serves as one small example of the significant support that “neoliberalism,” sometimes called “the politics of austerity” by its critics, enjoys. Unfortunately, no amount of positivity can erase the dubious impact that its policy prescriptions enacted on urban America beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s; not the stuff of high comedy, but rather Greek tragedy.

The consequences continue to play out today, and the new edited volume Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century reckons with this history—most notably in Pulitzer Prize nominee and New York University historian Kim Phillips-Fein’s contribution: “The History of Neoliberalism.” In a compact, cogent 15 pages, Phillips-Fein delves into the concept’s knotty roots, explains historians’ initial reluctance to adopt the term within the field’s lexicon, and argues for neoliberalism’s value as a “way of thinking about the recent past that emerged out of a range of problems that are both intellectual and political in scope, and … speaks to the need to find a way of describing in broad terms the distinctive dilemmas of the present.”[1]

41lj9sNoDNL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Wayne State historian Tracy Neumann can relate. In her 2016 book Remaking the Rust Belt (which is referenced in more detail within the interview), she explored the transformation of Pittsburgh, PA and Hamilton, Ontario along with the rise of mayors like Pittsburgh’s Pete Flaherty. Once securing office, Flaherty proceeded to reestablish ties with the famed corporate elite driven Allegheny Conference while also pushing low tax, austerity friendly policies.[2]

Neumann and Phillips-Fein discussed their overlapping interest in neoliberalism over email, the results of which you can read below – it is the final installment of The Metropole’s series highlighting Shaped by the State.

 Tracy Neumann: In your essay, you suggest neoliberalism is a useful alternative to the “declension narrative” that for many years has dominated postwar US political historiography. You argue that neoliberalism links late-twentieth century political and economic shifts in a way that other frameworks (the rise of the right, financialization) do not. But U.S. historians, as you point out, have long avoided the term or adopted it only “with some trepidation.” They seem to view neoliberalism as totalizing and teleological: they aren’t sure whom to describe as neoliberal, when neoliberalism began, or how to delineate between liberal and neoliberal policy instruments and ideological orientations.

Yet historians of other regions have been much more open to the term, and our colleagues in other disciplines have long theorized, used, and engaged it. In short, for more than a decade neoliberalism has provided a shared language that allows scholars to talk to each other across disciplinary boundaries and geographical specializations—and U.S. historians have largely absented themselves from that conversation. So, I’d like to open with a question that goes beyond the scope of your essay, which like the volume in which it appears is focused on twentieth-century US political history: As Americanists become more willing to engage with neoliberalism as an analytical category, how do you think this might shape the kinds of histories we write, the questions we ask, the scales at which we operate, and the extent to which we engage—or not—beyond national and disciplinary boundaries?

1980s Pittsburgh, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Kim Phillips-Fein: The idea of neoliberalism points to power relationships, ideas and political sensibilities that do not divide along partisan lines, and so its main categories would seem to be different from those of elections and party competition—the staples of American political history. It is certainly true that some of the best new historical work engaging the question of neoliberalism is explicitly transnational. I’m thinking of Quinn Slobodian’s study of neoliberalism, which foregrounds the origins of the idea in an international intellectual community. Angus Burgin has written an excellent (as yet unpublished) “concept history” of the idea of neoliberalism, exploring it in the context of a history of ideas that moves between geography, anthropology, politics and sociology, and Gary Gerstle’s recent essay framing the past forty years as a “neoliberal age” looks at neoliberalism as analogous to the “New Deal order.”

But I suspect that one of the larger reasons that historians have been wary of the idea is really because of the politics of the word. Neoliberalism has gained prominence not only as an academic term or as a mode of theoretical engagement, but as a way of critiquing political and economic inequality. The term is widely used by activists and journalists who have deployed it to criticize the power of economic elites and the role that free-market ideas have played in justifying cuts to the welfare state and attacks on labor unions.

This very mode of critique may have been alienating to historians who have not wanted to see their work in those terms. What I wonder is whether the use of “neoliberalism” by historians will continue to have this critical edge, or whether the word will evolve, eventually becoming a more neutral descriptive device—a way of characterizing a political and intellectual position, or of denoting the post-1970s epoch in American history, that does not imply a radical politics.

New York City skyline, Thomas O’Halloran, 1975, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

TN: I think that’s an excellent segue into talking about cities, since they are so often where political positions and the definitional issues around them are worked out. Urban historians, I think, are in a unique position to clarify the analytical contours of neoliberalism—something that Suleiman Osman also gestures toward in his contribution to Shaped by the State. Osman writes (p. 252) that “diplomatic, global, and international historians who analyze the history of globalization, and urban historians who examine the plethora of localist and neighborhood based African American, Latinos, Native American, LGBT, environmentalist, and women’s protest in cities and suburbs of the 1970s” have produced some of the most useful studies of “glocalization.” Similarly. cities are central to the claims of much of the social scientific literature on neoliberalism, and sociologists and geographers describe cities as testing grounds for neoliberal policy experiments. In the past three years, at least three monographs have been published on the history of neoliberal urbanization: Andrew Diamond’s Chicago On the Make, Timothy Weaver’s Blazing the Neoliberal Trail (about Philadelphia and London), and mine—Remaking the Rust Belt (about Pittsburgh and Hamilton, Ontario). We wrote about similar cities in countries with similar political trajectories, and perhaps unsurprisingly arrived at some similar conclusions: neoliberalism is, in fact, a useful category of analysis for the postwar city; to understand it, we must examine neoliberalization as a process with a much longer history than most of the literature has thus far suggested; that the roots of urban neoliberalism lie in the urban renewal projects of the 1950s; that grassroots activists helped legitimate urban policies based on volunteerism, individual choice, local control, and market-driven reform; and that not everyone who contributed to neoliberalization was ideologically neoliberal.

But we disagreed on the essential characteristic of neoliberal urbanization: for Tim, it was enterprise zones; for me, it was public-private partnerships; and for Andrew, it was racial politics. So, while there was a great deal of analytical coherence between our projects, our empirical research suggested different local histories of neoliberalism, none of which looked exactly like New York’s experience in the 1970s. Since your latest book is about New York City’s fiscal crisis—one of the events David Harvey, in his influential book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, cites as evidence of the ascendance of a neoliberal political project—I’d like to hear your thoughts on how urban historians might help define the nature and chronology of neoliberalism in the United States.

Aerial view of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

KP-F: My approach in Fear City is a bit different. For me, part of the importance of the fiscal crisis of the 1970s in New York was the the role it played in national politics. Not simply how it reconfigured the city, but the way that the fiscal crisis became scripted into national political debates and used to attack the Great Society, the welfare state, and the whole idea of collective action for the common good.

One of the elements of neoliberalism that has sometimes made me uncomfortable is the sense of it as a seamless approach to society, something that permeates from top to bottom. I think when we look at the 1970s and 1980s, one of the main things to keep in mind is just how intensely contested many of the ideas about the primacy of the free market really were. It is not as though any of them were easily won or accepted. There was a fierce struggle between different ways of understanding society, of looking at the world.

John Hancock Center, Chicago, photograph by James Karales, 1971, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

This is certainly what I saw in New York in the 1970s. Neoliberalism seemed a very incomplete intellectual formation at that moment. When I began working on the project, I thought I would find much more theoretical coherence among the elite than I did. Instead, I saw a lot of intellectual and political conflicts, and a sense of panic that surprised me. And on the ground, the project of austerity met with a lot of resistance. If anything, the idea of neoliberalism crystallized out of the crisis, instead of existing beforehand to be implemented then.

That said, I think cities are interesting, promising and perhaps also complex places to look at the development of neoliberalism. On the one hand, cities in the late twentieth century are the front lines of any antipoverty politics, struggle for racial justice, or conflict over the shape of social policy and the welfare state. This is why the effort to reshape local government to be more responsive to private interests is so important. But cities are also places that embody a distinctive relationship between the private and the public sector. Real estate, in particular, is a part of the urban economy that is critically dependent on government in ways that make it a bit different from manufacturing or financial companies. Local civic boosters long have sought to win infrastructure improvements and to encourage city governments to respond to their needs. Cities and urban governance have always blurred the lines between public and private—well before the era of neoliberalism.

The housing struggle in crisis, National Tenants Organization, 1973, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

TN: Your point that we can’t think of neoliberalism simply as a top-down political project imposed wholesale by elites is so important, and it underscores the historical and contemporary significance of cities as sites of political action and policy formation. But it also takes us back to something you emphasized in your essay: that historians’ unease with the term “neoliberalism” stems in part from not knowing whom to classify as neoliberal. Are neoliberals people who actually called themselves neoliberals? Are they self-described liberals who sought to undo the welfare state? Are they self-described conservatives who promoted free-market politics? What’s your answer? If you were writing a field guide to neoliberalism in the United States, what would your taxonomy of actually existing neoliberals look like?

BN-TB747_bkrvfe_JV_20170421140317.jpgKP-F: This is a great question, and here I have to say something that I didn’t really say in the Shaped by the State piece. I see myself as a political historian first and foremost, and what I mean by this is that I want to write about people’s efforts to shape their society—both the attempts to do this by people with evident social and economic power, and those without access to those traditional levers. So for me, the labeling matters: what people call themselves is important. What they think they are doing and how they articulate their political agendas matters. After all, part of what I am interested in is what people are consciously trying to do to accomplish their ends and transform their society.

So for this reason, in my own work I would use “neoliberal” as closely as possible: primarily to describe New Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s, people who think of themselves as liberals and who remain committed to some vision of using the state to ameliorate social problems, but who are also skeptical of unions, the welfare state, and, in a way, the whole project of collective action and social democracy. Some of these people did call themselves neoliberals, others didn’t, but I think the word is most useful for describing this group. And we need some word to talk about them!

View of construction of the World Trade Center, NYC, photograph by Thomas O’Halloran, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I do find “neoliberalism” useful as a word as well—as a way of talking about an overall approach to social policy, a way of using the rhetoric of the market to justify and expand the economic power of elites. But I think it is important to always call attention to the fractures within the framework. Precisely because the intellectual vision of neoliberalism is so far-reaching, I think it matters to point out all the ways that the world—that history—operates differently.

Featured image: Skyline view of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 1990, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

[1] Kim Phillips-Fein, “The History of Neoliberalism,” in Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 348-349.

[2] Tracy Neumann, Remaking the Rust Belt: The Post Industrial Transformation of North America, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 48.

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