I once saw a strange movie about a woman who made up a fictitious son and convinced everyone in her village that he existed. She tells anecdotes about him all the time, so vividly that in the minds of those around her, he becomes ‘alive’. They totally forget that they have never actually seen this child.
Sounds unrealistic? Not really. As an undergraduate student, I experienced something similar, and on a much larger scale. At university there was constant talk of ‘the neoliberals’. ‘The neoliberals’ were not just economic liberals. They were people who wanted to replace all social relations by commercial ones, and subordinate each and every aspect of life to the profit motive. You never saw these people, of course. But they were the subject of countless conversations, workshops, panel discussions, demonstrations, books, articles, leaflets and graffiti. Clearly, you did not need to meet one of them in person to know that they must be everywhere.
Until today, I have never met a single person who holds views remotely similar to the ones that people in my area ascribed to ‘the neoliberals’. It is fascinating how much anger and indignation was directed against positions which nobody holds.
“the ideology is a shape-shifter, forever changing its name and switching identities. Friedman called himself a ‘liberal,’ but his U.S. followers [...] tended to identify as ‘conservatives,’ ‘classical economists,’ ‘free marketers’ and, later, as believers in ‘Reaganomics’ or ‘laissez-faire.’ In most of the world, their orthodoxy is known as ‘neo-liberalism,’ but it is often called ‘free trade’ or simply ‘globalization’. “
Originally, the term ‘neoliberalism’ referred to a German school of economic thought, more commonly known as ‘ordoliberalism’. Neoliberals like Walter Eucken and Wilhelm Röpke differed from classical liberals in so far as they wanted to give the state wide remits in competition policy. Classical liberals would criticise neoliberals for an exaggerated faith in cartel authorities. They would appreciate the neoliberals’ sound critique of state interventionism, but would ask why they exempted activist competition policies from this.
So curiously, within the liberal family, the neoliberals were not an ‘extremist fringe’. They would actually cede wider competences to the state than many of their intellectual relatives.