The one thing that you can be sure of when delving into the vast literature on neoliberalism is that the definition of the term will be contested. It seems that no two authors define neoliberalism in exactly the same way, which makes discussions of the concept and its history difficult, at best. “Neoliberalism is anything but a succinct, clearly defined political philosophy” (Plehwe 2009: 1). (See Rodgers 2018 for a discussion of the difficulties involved in defining neoliberalism.)

In his new book, Gary Gerstle attempts to cut through the layers of disagreement and cross-talk to offer a definitive political history of neoliberalism in the United States. The key to Gerstle's approach is to examine what he terms the “neoliberal political order” (emphasis added). Gerstle and his coeditor Steve Fraser (Fraser and Gerstle 1989) pioneered the use of the concept of a “political order” to study how a political philosophy actually works in practice by applying it to the “New Deal order.” As Gerstle writes in his new book,

The phrase “political order” is meant to connote a constellation of ideologies, policies, and constituencies that shape American politics in ways that endure beyond the two-, four-, and six-year election cycles. In the last hundred years, America has had two political orders: The New Deal order that arose in the 1930s and 1940s, crested in the 1950s and 1960s and fell in the 1970s; and the neoliberal order that arose in the 1970s and 1980s, crested in the 1990s and 2000s, and fell in the 2010s. (2)

Not only does this approach deemphasize the definition of neoliberal by focusing on political history; it also limits its focus to American political history. Suddenly the definition of neoliberalism is primarily a matter of what emerges from American electoral politics and interest groups.

The advantage of Gerstle's approach is that it creates a smooth narrative line. His approach builds easily on recognizable events and the everyday experiences of most American readers. Franklin Roosevelt did usher in an expanded welfare state and greater union power after 1932; the world defined by his New Deal was dominant in the 1940s through the 1970s, when it collapsed under the weight of stagflation. Ronald Reagan did sweep to power in 1980 on a popular defense of “probusiness” policies, arguing that government regulation and high taxes were holding back the economy and limiting “freedom.” Likewise, one can easily see the sense in Gerstle's account of the similar roles played by Dwight Eisenhower (New Deal) and Bill Clinton (neoliberal) in consolidating a political order through their embrace of policies that their party would have “normally” opposed.

On the one hand, then, Gerstle's smooth narrative line creates a clear picture of neoliberalism in practice. Unsure of what neoliberalism is? Read Gerstle and you'll see how politicians, donors, lobbyists, think tanks, and corporations created a political order for which neoliberal is a convenient label. Gerstle does not so much define neoliberalism as show you what it was. After all, wading into the literature on neoliberalism can feel like walking up to a crime scene at night. Sirens cry in the night and red and blue flashers punctuate the dark like strobe lights; you can see the yellow tape marking off the site, but you can't see clearly what has happened. It seems that perhaps the crime site falls within several jurisdictions, since different authorities have quite different ideas about exactly what crime has been committed and who is responsible. Amid this confusion, Gerstle's account is like a well-lit documentary film with recognizable film clips of characters you already know well. The confusion of the flashing lights and sirens falls away as the documentary unfolds.

On the other hand, Gerstle's documentary approach raises many puzzles in intellectual history, especially the intellectual history of liberalism. It is de rigueur in any history of neoliberalism to explain that it is either an effort to return to classical liberalism or an effort to create a new alternative to classical liberalism. This is not surprising, given the role of the Colloque Walter Lippmann and the Mont Pelerin Society in the early history of neoliberalism (see, e.g., Burgin 2012). Gerstle, however, takes a somewhat more complex approach, following Jamie Peck, who wrote, “Finding neoliberalism is . . . not about locating some essential center from which all else flows; it is about following flows, back flows, and undercurrents across and between . . . ideational, ideological, and institutional moments, over time and between places” (Peck 2010: xiii).

In this “flow” analysis, Peck and Gerstle are, in turn, following Michel Foucault in his argument that neoliberalism is “many sided, ambiguous” (Foucault 2008: 218). It is, perhaps, less important from this point of view to state exactly what neoliberal thinkers sought to achieve than it is to observe the “back flows” and “undercurrents” that defined the dominant political culture. Many readers will be surprised, for instance, to learn that the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were important players in helping to establish the neoliberal political order (99–100). Their famous Port Huron Statement (1962), which argued, among other things, against corporate liberalism and social conformity, demonstrates a key point that Gerstle emphasizes as a central factor in the rise of the neoliberal political order: the cultural value of “emancipatory” individualism (93). Gerstle identifies the advocacy for such a free-spirited individualism as having its roots in classical liberalism and its full flowering in Goldwater, Reagan, and the SDS.

Gerstle's focus on the role of “emancipatory” individualism in the political rise of (American) neoliberalism will give some readers pause, and not without good reason. And yet, it is an excellent example of the unexpected ways that popular culture can underpin politics. It is also an excellent example of how complicated the history of liberalism is. This is especially true for Gerstle, since his analytical framework requires him to deal not only with the legacy of classical liberalism but with the reality that several of his key players (e.g., Goldwater and Reagan) never identified themselves as any kind of liberal whatsoever, but rather as conservatives (4–12). For instance, Gerstle never mentions the centrality of banning abortion to the electoral success of what he labels the neoliberal political order, much less attempting to explain how the opposition to abortion rights can be classified as “emancipatory” individualism. Back flows and undercurrents, indeed.

Gerstle does acknowledge a deep cultural split between two groups of Americans who supported the neoliberal political order, one group that he labels the “neo-Victorians” (e.g., Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb) and another that he labels the “cosmopolitans” (e.g., Bill Clinton and Steve Jobs). But here intellectual history becomes more about electoral politics and “strange bedfellows” than about the “arc of liberalism itself” (75).

This propensity to foreshorten the arc of the intellectual history of liberalism by explaining it in terms of American electoral politics is perhaps most clear in Gerstle's denial that the New Deal deserves in any way to be labeled as liberal, or as he puts it, “the theft of the liberal label by the Rooseveltian New Dealers” (105). This supposed theft, according to Gerstle, “qualifies as one of history's great terminological heists” (105). Unfortunately, this interpretation of American liberalism elides much of the actual history of how liberalism unfolded in America. It relies on a very narrow conception of liberalism.

Nineteenth-century American liberalism was conflicted and protean. In the decades following the Civil War, a new set of liberal ideas evolved to deal with the reality of the vertical integration of industry and the rise of wage labor as the predominant mode of employment (Ross 1991; Cohen 2002). The antebellum commitment to markets was founded on the existence of abundant land, independent farmers, and a mercantile class of small-shop owners; with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and a large industrial working class, something had to give if liberalism was to continue as a vital part of American political culture. Among other things, this involved developing the administrative state to help control the power of the corporation and redefining workers' rights and the legitimacy of labor market regulation (Dorfman 1949; Furner 2018).

Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson drew on this new American liberalism, as did Franklin Roosevelt. Thus, in no way did FDR steal the label liberal. His usage draws on decades of evolution and adaptation in American liberalism. If a theft has taken place in the landscape that Gerstle surveys, it is the neoliberal theft of the long-standing concerns for equality of status and the limits of corporate power from the definition of American liberalism.

Nor is the neglect of the complex nature of late nineteenth-century American liberalism the only lacuna in Gerstle's story. The classical liberalism that he places at the center of his story also contained many internal tensions that were playing out in late nineteenth-century Britain. Donald Winch (2009), for instance, has discussed the many ways that classical liberalism was adapted, by liberals, at the end of the nineteenth century to warrant state intervention. And Keith Tribe (2009) has pointed out that the standard neoliberal treatment of classical liberalism neglects the fact that British liberalism, once elected to political power, created the seeds of its own destruction by, among other things, extending the franchise to laborers. Thus, at the very least, Gerstle misses the opportunity to critically examine his desire to anchor neoliberalism in classical liberalism.

In fairness to Gerstle, he did not set out to write an intellectual history of neoliberalism, or even an intellectual history of the “arc of liberalism itself.” His task was to write a political history of the neoliberal political order in America, and he has done that. For historians of political economy, however, a political history is not necessarily an intellectual history. Gerstle's history provides the script for a nice documentary, but it leaves many important questions unanswered or unexplored.

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