In a recent column in Dissent, the historian Daniel T. Rodgers takes issue with how the word “neoliberalism” has become “a linguistic omnivore” in present-day scholarship. Deeming its success “a measure of its substantive hollowness,” he untangles its various meanings (“market fundamentalism,” “commodification of the self,” “finance capitalism,” and so on) and appeals for a return to a descriptive language closer to social reality. I argue the contrary here. Neoliberalism owes its success to its distinct ideological shape, which functions thanks to, not in spite of, its paradoxes and contradictions. Although the original agenda of neoliberalism has been revised many times over, its scope and reach have steadily increased. Its commonly overlooked scientific dynamism, sponsored by private individuals and foundations, relayed by think tanks, and embedded in a growing, yet problematic “marketplace of ideas,” remains at the very heart of the neoliberal project today.
No matter how clear the exposition of the principles may be [in a lecture], no matter how fresh and striking the illustrations, it still remains that the student is relieved by the instructor from carrying on the mental processes which he ought to conduct for himself.