Neoliberalism: The History and Future of a Word

AHA Session 116
Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Continental A (Hilton Chicago, Lobby Level)
Kenneth Pomeranz, University of Chicago
Leslie M. Harris, Northwestern University
James Livingston, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Teresa A. Meade, Union College

Session Abstract

This roundtable will assess neoliberalism as a category of analysis, one that has come to frame a school of historical inquiry, and that describes national and global free market economic policies ascendant since the 1970s. Originating in histories of economic development, capitalism and public policy, it has become more popular among historians since the early 1990s as a framework for studying intellectual, cultural and social history as well. Among scholars, neoliberalism is currently associated with market-based thought that includes: public policies that seek to privatize the public sphere; the return of social policy to the realm of church, family and community; the imposition of austerity on struggling economies, and the lifting of barriers to international trade. Yet “neoliberalism,” a term that arose in the 1930s in economics to describe adherence to 19th century laissez-faire economic models, is seen by some historians as having become a catchword, a term that calls on a long and complex history but often fails to explain the contradictions of the dynamic it invokes. Neoliberalism has, for example, been simultaneously invoked to describe progressive impulses like gay marriage and international micro-lending, as well as pro-corporate policies like prison privatization, for-profit education, and the corporate ownership and development of critical local resources like water.

Participants will discuss the following questions: is neoliberalism a useful term of historical analysis -- why, and when? Under what conditions do historians need to take account of the strengths and weaknesses of neoliberal theory in other fields? What other forms of analysis might an emphasis on the rise of neoliberalism as a governing assumption conceal?

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