Let’s run a thought experiment.
E. D. Hirsch Junior, Daniel Wild of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and an education academic are in the pub.
Hirsch argues the case for a strong national curriculum full of the kind of knowledge that allows people to read and understand quality sources of information such as broadsheet newspapers. He argues that this is necessary to level the playing-field between the rich and the poor and marginalised.
Daniel Wild scoffs at Hirsch’s idea:
“Government should be looking at vouchers, more decentralisation and whether we even need a national curriculum. That should be up to schools. The state should not be responsible for curriculum.”
The education academic sits there, puzzled. Who should he call a ‘neoliberal‘?
On the one hand, Wild seems to have a neoliberal concern for a small state and for allowing markets as much free-reign as possible. And yet a key feature distinguishing neoliberalism from libertarianism (and some interpretations of classical liberalism) is that it is not completely laissez-faire. To neoliberals, the state has a role in setting standards and for regulating markets – let’s call it the ‘European Community’ model of neoliberalism. Hirsch’s national curriculum could be seen as such a list of standards. Perhaps government might be tempted to centrally mandate a set of assessments against these standards. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is big state social democracy, even if it’s legislated by a left-of-centre political party, because standardised testing is, you’ve guessed it, neoliberal.
So you could argue it any way you want. The key point is that both Hirsch’s and Wild’s positions are ones that the academic is likely to disagree with. So if you find something you don’t like, you can call it ‘neoliberal’ and your position is essentially unfalsifiable.
And so the neat idea of neoliberalism rushed like a grass fire through the literature.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump then turned up with a fire truck. Whatever neoliberalism is, it has always been associated with the classical liberalism of free trade and globalisation, something that Trump, with his tariffs and trade wars, has set himself against. But Trump is really bad so surely we can call him a neoliberal? Apparently not.
Despite faltering on Trump, and despite the failure to be clear about exactly what neoliberalism is, sociologists have found it useful to construct the concept of the ‘neoliberal imaginary‘. This is a kind of thought world that neoliberals and even wider society are trapped within, unable to perceive alternative truths or realities. The extent to which you believe that there are multiple alternative social truths depends on your commitment to relativism. What is clear is that whether the neoliberal imaginary represents a mistaken set of ideas, or whether it represents an alternative set of truths, it is bad. Real bad.
A neoliberal imaginary made up of imaginary neoliberals. A sociological conspiracy theory for our time.