Neoliberals and Neocons: What’s the difference, and why should I care?

Too often in the world of social justice, we assume ours is the only movement at work. But there are always opposing movements, organizing and strategizing to advance right wing worldviews. When we don’t pay attention, we fail to see the power of these movements until it’s too late, in the “end-debates” of policy change when we’re in a defensive scramble.

In 1996 President Clinton enacted sweeping and punitive changes to welfare laws. In doing so, he fulfilled one of the core goals of the Contract With America. For those who don’t remember, that was the conservative agenda touted by Newt Gingrich during the 1994 congressional elections, halfway through Clinton’s first term. The policy ideas it contained came from the Heritage Foundation, one of the foremost right wing think tanks. How did a Democratic president end up enacting right wing policy? That’s the potency of right wing movements. Over the last 50 years they have successfully pulled the political spectrum further and further rightward, so much that both Presidents Clinton and Obama have implemented policies that are firmly part of right wing ideology. And as my partner Scot has described so well in Race Files, the right has repeatedly used racial politics as an effective lever for their projects.

The strategy behind the Contract with America ended up sweeping in a Republican majority in both the House and Senate in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, by capitalizing on white racial resentment. Like the Southern Strategy of the 1960s, which appealed to racism to flip the South from Democratic to Republican, the Contract with America relied on the view that government programs like welfare benefited African Americans at the expense of a backsliding white middle class.

Clinton’s passage of welfare reform reflected this general rightward drift, which has taken a huge toll on communities of color both in the United States and in the Global South. He also expanded the prison system, enacted damaging free trade policies, and created the harshest immigration policies since the era of exclusion acts. Understanding where these right wing ideas came from, and how they got mainstreamed and embraced by Democratic leadership, is a key part of our challenge as racial justice activists.

The Oxford online dictionary defines ideology as “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.” Last summer, I boned up on right wing ideology, and on the history of race and empire. One of the things I struggled with was the difference between neoliberals and neoconservatives. It’s not easy, because both political camps are so dominant that there’s less and less room to name and challenge their ideas. Both have used race and the politics of whiteness to expand American Empire, and both have deeply shaped people’s everyday lives within and beyond the United States. Here’s what I learned:

Neoliberalism is a descendant of liberal ideas, but not the way you might think. It gets presented as a kind of “new” liberalism, because liberalism as a theory was about small government and individual freedoms. Most of us forgot that, and tend to think of liberalism as state intervention to ensure widespread economic security. Neoliberalism was in fact a class backlash against what we think of as liberal policies like the welfare and public works programs that were created in response to the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted “New Deal” programs in the 1930s to provide relief for the poor, to stimulate the economy, and to reform the financial sector to avoid another depression. The New Deal was a kind of class compromise – economic growth through free trade, but constrained by government programs and regulations. By the end of WWII, the share of national income by the top 1% had fallen, and it remained stagnant for a while. With strong growth, it didn’t matter much. But once growth collapsed and inflation soared in the 1970s, the share of wealth by the top 1% plunged from about 35% in 1965 to 20% in 1975. And then the 1% rallied. This is where neoliberalism comes from. Neoliberals argue that the surest path to widespread prosperity is to free capital from government constraints. In other words, privatize everything, absolutely – healthcare, land, water, prisons, communications, food production… you name it. For the 1%, it has worked smashingly. The ratio of median compensation for workers to CEO salaries went from 30:1 in 1970 to more than 500:1 in 2000.

Neoliberalism manipulates ideas like human dignity and individual freedom. Don’t be fooled. Neoliberals tout these as “the central values of civilization” – in opposition to fascism, dictatorships, communism, and all things bad, including all forms of state intervention. Their logic claims that state intervention threatens freedom by substituting collective decisions for individual choice. But what do they mean by freedom? In reality, neoliberals have undermined structures for democratic decision-making, even challenging state sovereignty. Corporations, for example, can now challenge health and environmental regulations as trade barriers. Neoliberalism has also done profound damage to families, social safety nets, indigenous attachments to the land, and as economist David Harvey puts it, “habits of the heart” world over. It seeks to bring all human action and interaction into the domain of the market, all in the name of freedom.

Neoconservatives descend from liberals. Again, their ideas get presented as a “new” form of conservativism. While it’s true that they are part of the political right, it’s important to realize that there are sectors much further to the right of them that claim that they are the true conservatives. “Neocons” as they’re affectionately called, were once liberals who in the 1950s and ‘60s supported the Civil Rights Movement and racial integration, but who opposed the Soviet Union. Unlike neoliberals, they generally supported New Deal policies but felt that the expansion of those programs under President Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as the more radical politics that emerged as part of the New Left in the 1960s, went too far. The antiwar, Black Power and Third World liberation movements all needed to be contained, for fear of “mob rule”. In the ‘70s, in the Democratic Party, some of today’s neocons backed Henry “Scoop” Jackson instead of anti-war candidate George McGovern. Jackson supported liberal social policies, but favored increased military spending and a hard line against the USSR. Among those who worked for Jackson was future neocon and Undersecretary of Defense under the Bush-Cheney administration, Paul Wolfowitz. His legacy is largely responsible for today’s post-9/11 War on Terror and U.S. foreign policy line. This includes the idea of preemptive attack, that the United States has the right to attack governments that pose potential threats to U.S. security, even if those threats aren’t immediate. Neocons are responsible for today’s state of permanent war. They are interventionists, particularly when it comes to Middle East policy, and are often Islamophobic. Like neoliberals, they use the language of freedom and democracy to rationalize their actions.

Neoliberal and neoconservative agendas sometimes overlap. In 2003, Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq under the neoconservative Bush-Cheney administration, imposed a set of orders to apply to all areas of the Iraqi economy, including public services, the media, manufacturing, services, transportation, finance, and construction. The orders he gave reflected how neoliberals and neocons overlap: “the full privatization of public enterprises, full ownership rights by foreign firms of Iraqi businesses, full repatriation of foreign profits… the opening of Iraq’s banks to foreign control, national treatment for foreign companies and… the elimination of nearly all trade barriers.” This is what is meant by “freedom” – the freedom of corporations and individuals to profit limitlessly, and the freedom of the U.S. government to create these conditions through military force.

Both neoliberals and neocons have used race to achieve their ends. One way to understand this is to think about who’s considered a criminal. The criminalization of Blackness was cemented in the 1970s by Nixon’s war on crime, which fabricated a moral panic over public safety by casting African Americans, especially those involved in radical political struggle, as inherently criminal and violent. The neocons attached themselves to Nixon not because of his racial politics, but because they favored the war in Vietnam and opposed the Soviet Union. But the criminalization of Blackness was a precursor to today’s criminalization of Islam, of certain immigrants, and of entire nation-states. That’s the connection between neocons, neoliberals, and the legacy of U.S. racism. Race is ever shifting. Today’s ideas of criminality draw the color line between those who deserve to benefit from vs. those who need to be punished in the interests of American Empire. It has swept up entire communities of people, both within and outside of the United States, into concepts of unlawfulness that have their roots in anti-Black racism.

If we are morally opposed to the prison industrial complex, to war, to the dismantling of social programs, to the privatization of education, to attacks on reproductive health, then we have to contend with neoliberal and neoconservative ideas. We have to wrest the language of freedom and democracy from the grip of the political right. How do we imagine our way out of the cages of neoliberal and neoconservative ideas? I once heard scholar and activist Ruth W. Gilmore say, “Life is precious where life is precious.” I think the answer lies somewhere therein.  How do we imagine an economy, a political system, and a way of living that allows for our full and collective humanity?


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By Soya Jung

Soya has been active in the progressive movement for over 30 years. During the 1990s she worked as a reporter at the International Examiner, communications and policy staff for the WA State House Democratic Caucus, and executive director of the Washington Alliance for Immigrant and Refugee Justice. She was the founding chair of the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition, which formed in 1996 to restore food and cash assistance for low-income immigrants and refugees in Washington State. During the 2000s she worked at the Social Justice Fund, a public foundation supporting progressive organizations in the Northwest, and consulted for various institutions like the Western States Center, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, the Nonprofit Assistance Center, the City of Seattle, and the Washington State Budget & Policy Center.

At ChangeLab Soya has authored two research reports: "Left or Right of the Color Line: Asian Americans and the Racial Justice Movement" and "The Importance of Asian Americans? It’s Not What You Think", and co-authored the Asian American Racial Justice Toolkit. She has convened numerous public events uniting scholars with social movement activists to explore race, gender, war/empire, and Asian American identity. Her writing has been published in Othering & Belonging: Expanding the Circle of Human Concern, and cited in places like the Routledge Companion to Asian American Media, ColorLines, and The Guardian.

10 replies on “Neoliberals and Neocons: What’s the difference, and why should I care?”

Wow, where did you find all of this stuff? I’d be interested to know where I can read more on the history presented here.

Thanks for reading. I’d recommend David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Ruth W. Gilmore’s “Globalisation and U.S. Prison Growth: From Military Keynesianism to Post-Keynesian Militarism,” and Racial Formation in the 21st Century, edited by Danial HoSang, Oneka LaBennett, and Laura Pulido, particularly the pieces by Nikhil Singh and by Michael Omi and Howard Winant.

There’s a great documentary on films for action called the “power of nightmares” which traces the history of neoconservatism and compares it with Islamic militancy

Hi Michele, yes I would call Hillary Clinton a neoliberal. Neoliberalism is the current “common sense” of the Democratic Party. It’s being challenged right now by Bernie Sanders’ candidacy and base, but I think it’s still unclear what an alternative model would be for that base. A “kinder” liberalism would maintain the deserving v. undeserving logic, and therefore the problem of the color line.

So basically you got your far lefty- Bernie Sanders, your Neolib- Hillary Clinton, your Neocons- Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio and your right winger- Donald Trump.
I personally find the Neo-Either’s, the “moderates” to be absolute cancer.

Really well written and amazing to see it was 3-4 years ago and yet makes perfect sense today and here you are commenting. Keep it up, excited to check out some of your other stuff!

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