One secondary effect of the blow-up over Jack Halberstam’s trigger warning essay is the widening skepticism of the term “neoliberal” as a sort of empty buzzword. Because I just finished teaching a grad seminar whose main objective was to figure out what the hell we mean when we say “neoliberalism” (here is the tumblr for the class), I thought I might be of some assistance here. I think the term “neoliberalism” can mean something useful and specific if we’re more cognizant of its use.
It seems to me that a lot of the confusion around the term is that it is used in (at least) two senses: one indicates a period in time, and one indicates an ideology. Just as “the Cold War” or “modernity” can refer to both a historical time-frame and a dominant ideology that shaped that historical period, “neoliberal” can mean both “now” and the ideology that informs this “now.”
Sometimes, “neoliberalism” is used as a historical marker: our era is the “neoliberal” one. Generally, people use the term “neoliberal” to denote things they don’t like about our historical situation. It’s a kind of shorthand for “contemporary society” with a “which sucks” inflection. This shorthand sense is where all the looseness and imprecision comes in. As Hegel said, “now” can be narrowly particular because it can mean any particular point in time. So, “neoliberal” gets used to mean “now,” which means something specific because it can refer to any specific thing.
But things suck for a reason. This reason lies in the deeper sense of “neoliberalism,” the useful sense. As an ideology, “neoliberalism” is a very specific epistemology/ontology (or, more precisely, it’s an ideology in which epistemology and ontology collapse into one another, an epistemontology) : neoliberals think everything in the universe works like a deregulated, competitive, financialized capitalist market.  Many scholars from all over the map seem to agree on this basic definition of neoliberalism. For example:
- David Harvey: “Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices which proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by the maximization of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional framework characterized by private property rights, individual liberty, free markets, and free trade” (145); “The corporatization, commodification, and privatization of hitherto public assets has been a signal feature of the neoliberal project. Its primary aim has been to open up new fields of capital accumulation in domains hitherto regarded off-limits to the calculus of profitability” (153).
- Stuart Hall: “Political ideas of ‘liberty’ became harnessed to economic ideas of the free market: one of liberalism’s intersecting fault-lines which re-emerges with neoliberalism” (13); “Neoliberalism, then, evolves. It borrows and appropriates extensively form classic liberal ideas; but each is given a further ‘market’ inflexion and conceptual revamp” (15).
- Lester Spence: “What distinguishes neoliberal governmentality from other forms is its attempt to simultaneously shape individual desires and behaviors and institutional practices according to market principles, while simultaneously CREATING the market through those individual and institutional desires and behaviors” (12).
A lot follows from this epistemontology: human capital, big data (the generalization of financialization as both episteme and medium), post-identity politics, globalization, creative destruction, resilience, sustainability, privatization, biopolitics, relational aesthetics…We can call all these things “neoliberal” because they are manifestations or elaborations of its underlying epistemic/ontological project. A rigorous understanding of this epistemontological project is a necessary first step in analyzing, critiquing, and working with and against all of its mundane manifestations. The concept of “neoliberalism” can be really helpful if we account for why it seems to apply nearly indiscriminately to everything.
RIght now, though, I want to hone in on one tiny aspect of neoliberalism’s epistemology. As Foucault explains in Birth of Biopolitics, “the essential epistemological transformation of these neoliberal analyses is their claim to change what constituted in fact the object, or domain of objects, the general field of reference of economic analysis” (222). This “field of reference” is whatever phenomena we observe to measure and model “the market.” Instead of analyzing the means of production, making them the object of economic analysis, neoliberalism analyzes the choices capitalists make: “it adopts the task of analyzing a form of human behavior and the internal rationality of this human behavior” (223; emphasis mine). (The important missing assumption here is that for neoliberals, we’re all capitalists, entrepreneurs of ourself, owners of the human capital that resides in our bodies, our social status, etc.)  Economic analysis, neoliberalism’s epistemontological foundation, is the attribution of a logos, a logic, a rationality to “free choice.”
Just as a market can be modeled mathematically, according to various statistical and computational methods, everyone’s behavior can be modeled according to its “internal rationality.” This presumes, of course, that all (freely chosen) behavior, even the most superficially irrational behavior, has a deeper, inner logic. According to neoliberal epistemontology, all genuinely free human behavior “reacts to reality in a non-random way” and “responds systematically to modifications in the variables of the environment” (Foucault, sumarizing Becker, 269; emphasis mine). Human behavior is systematic because it’s dynamic: it is the predictable pattern of responses to determinate variables. The object of neoliberal economic analysis is the “calculation” (223) of the program, protocol, indeed, the algorithm that makes apparently incoherent choices cohere into a model that can then be used to predict that individual’s future choices. Economic analysis finds the signal in the noise.
What I’m arguing is this: Foucault’s analysis of the role of ‘choice’ in neoliberal epistemology/ontology shows us why algorithms are so central to contemporary capitalism, media, and science.
If each individual is modeled as an algorithm (which is not too far-fetched a claim: big data and the government model individual users’ behavior in this way), how do these individual algorithms interact? I think Foucault’s work is particularly helpful on this count. As he reads the American neoliberals (Becker, the Chicago School, etc.), they think an individual makes choices in “pursu[it of] his own interest” (270); “interest” is the metaphor for the overarching logic or rationality that systematizes discrete choices. And, as I’ve just shown above, that rationality can be modeled algorithmically. Thinking about interest algorithmically, that is, as wave-form shaped probability functions, helps us understand what Foucault means when he says that neoliberals think individual interest “converges spontaneously with the interest of others” (270). What does it mean to “converge spontaneously”? Well, if we take individual interests as wave-forms, these wave forms will have their own periodicity, their own frequency. In general, individual periods will be out of phase. But, if left to run independently over time, individual frequencies will synch up and fall in phase, like windshield wipers on a bus. These individual frequencies will converge spontaneously with one another. Phase convergence is how contemporary acoustics understands harmony: when tones and their overtones fall in phase, we hear consonances; when tones and overtones are too significantly out of phase, we hear dissonances. “The will of each harmonizes spontaneously with the will and interest of others” (275) because like sound waves, algorithmically-modeled individual behaviors will fall in phase and out of phase with one another.  Though seemingly spontaneous, the phasing isn’t random–it’s the effect of predictable responses to material conditions (just as, for example, the two tapes in Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” slide in and out of phase because of minute differences in the materiality of the tape players and the tapes themselves).
So, this long tangent about algorithms and social harmony is both an example of the benefits of having a precise definition of neoliberalism. This specific definition of neoliberalism helped me draw correlations among neoliberal epistemontology–everything is a deregulated, financialized market–and the increasing centrality of algorithms to contemporary society. Moreover, Foucault’s language of harmonization helps me fill what Kate Crawford has called the “metaphor gap” in understanding/theorizing how algorithmic media/culture industries work.
 As Foucault explains in Birth of Biopolitics: “Liberalism in America is a whole way of being and thinking” (218).
 As Stuart Hall notes, “Actual markets do not work that way” (20). Neoliberalism (like classical liberalism) is an ideal theory: this “free market” is an ideal-as-idealized model, a top-down picture of how things ought to work in perfect conditions. It is not a bottom-up description of how markets actually work in imperfect conditions.
 As Foucault explains, this market-thinking “means taking this social fabric and arranging things so that it can be broken down, subdivided, and reduced, not according to the grain of individuals, but according to the grain of enterprises…the framework of a multiplicity of diverse enterprises connected up to and entangled with each other” (241).
 This point is too technical to really develop in this venue, but it’s something I’m working on for my next book: this model of social harmony is very different from the classically liberal model of social harmony. Neoliberal social ‘harmony’ doesn’t eliminate dissonance; rather, it understands out-of-phaseness/dissonance as pervasive. It’s only “spontaneously” and by chance that consonant convergences occur. The point is to find phenomena that are predictably in (and out) of phase. Classically liberal theories of social harmony treats dissonance as something that must be assimilated and/or eliminated (Susan McClary’s work on tonality here is important; see also my Philosophy Today piece on Kristeva’s interpretation of Don Giovanni). All this is to say that theories of social harmony track musical understandings of harmony–you could almost say neoliberalism offers a post-tonal theory of social harmony (perhaps to match its post-identity politics).