No True Neoliberal
December 15, 2011

At the beginning of his famous 2005 graduation speech to Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace tells a joke that goes like this:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

In DFW’s speech, “water” is a metaphor for the ineffable mystery and wonder of being alive. My intention in telling the same joke — with apologies to fellow DFW fans — is not quite so lovely. Instead, I would ask you to think of the two young fish as members of America’s political elite, and the water as neoliberalism.

Thinking in those terms might help clarify the reasoning between the perennial progressive assertion that there’s not really any such thing as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, the argument goes, is just a label that unreconstructed lefties stick to any policy with which they disagree. And when you ask those lefties to define it, they articulate a philosophical position that nobody anywhere on the political spectrum actually believes.

I was thinking about that argument when I read Elias Isquith’s pithy explanation of the logic undergirding Paul Ryan and Ron Wyden’s bipartisan Medicare plan:

It’s rare that you hear a politician or a respectable wonk or a think tank spokesperson discuss these kinds of plans in terms that aren’t loaded-up with jargon, for one; but even if the conversation is being carried out with plain language, there’s rarely if ever a focus on how the actual plan would work for real human beings, rather than abstract Consumers.

The disconnect Digby’s pointing out here is born from a larger ideological blind-spot of this era’s political class: they cannot see the world without the language and logic of the market. The wide swathes of the population who may not be able — or may not want— to adopt the mindset of the holy Rational Consumer might as well not exist; they’re square circles. To say that people can be quite real and quite valuable while, at the same time, not really being Consumers? Imagine telling a Medieval monk that the world can’t be divided between saints and sinners. It just doesn’t register.

See, nobody actually believes that all levels of society should be ordered around consumer-producer market relationships. It’s just that whenever we get to debating matters of public policy, the implicit framing of the debate assumes that we’re trying to determine the optimal form of a particular consumer-producer arrangement. But hey, how else would you engineer state and society? That’s not neoliberalism — it’s just the way the world is. What the hell is water?

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