Can the term neoliberalism be turned into a useful analytic tool?

Given my interest in how language interacts with perception, I enjoyed reading an overview, in Status Update (2013), of the history of neoliberalism.

Boas and Gans-Morse (2009)

In her discussion of neoliberalism in Status Update (2013), Alice E. Marwick cites a 2009 journal article by Taylor C. Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse entitled Neo liberalism: From New Liberal Philosophy to Anti-Liberal Slogan. The source is: Studies in Comparative International Development, June 2009, Volume 44, Issue 2, pp 137-161.

She also cites another article, but I haven’t  accessed it, given that it’s not readily available – that is, without cost – online. It may also be an interesting article.

This post will summarize the Boas and Gans-Morse article, which focuses on 148 journal articles, from 1990 to 2004, that the authors have selected for analysis of the history of how the term “neoliberalism” has changed with the passage of time.

Tables 5 and 6 in the article summarize the authors’ key points. Rather than reproducing the tables in this post, I will describe their content in the text that follows.

Table 6: Neoliberalism and terminological contestation

I will highlight Table 6, entitled “Neoliberalism and terminological contestation,” first, because it outlines key conclusions of interest to me.

The table addresses neoliberalism in terms of three categories:

(a) Free market policy
(b) Free market ideology
(c) Free market paradigm

For each of the above-noted categories, according to the authors, the associated negative term is the word “neoliberal.”

The associated positive term for (a) free market policy is “orthodox.”

The associated positive term for (b) free market ideology is “liberal.”

The associated positive term for (c) free market paradigm is “neoclassical.”

Q: Are each of the three concepts – free market policy; free market ideology; free market paradigm – contested terms?

A: Yes, all three are contested terms.

Q: For each of the above-noted concepts, is there a contested normative valance? [That is, based on my understanding, which may be limited, do different people hold the concept markedly in greater esteem, or markedly in lower esteem, than others?]

A: Yes, all three have a contested normative valence.

According to Table 6, however, there is no contestation regarding either intension or extension related to the above-noted three concepts. Instead, the table notes, in bold, capitalized letters, that contested intention is BLOCKED, and contested extension is BLOCKED as well.

I enjoy the use of bolded, capitalized text, in this table, as a means to bring attention to the concept of blockage in contestation.

Table 5 : The four levels of contestation

Table 5 addresses three concepts or categories: Democracy; Fascism; and Marxism.

With regard to contested terms:

Q: Is Democracy a contested term?

A: No.

Q: Is Fascism a contested term?

A: No.

Q: Is Marxism a contested term?

A: No.

With regard to contested normative valence:

Q: Is Democracy the subject of contestation with regard to normative valence?

A: No.

Q: Is Fascism subjected to contestation with regard to normative valence?

A: No.

Q: Is Marxism subjected to contestation with regard to normative valence?

A: In the case of Marxism, the answer is Yes.

Q: Are Democracy. Fascism, and Marxism the subject of contested intension?

A: For all three concepts, the answer is Yes.

Q: Are Democracy, Fascism, and Marxism the subject of contested extension?

A: For all three concepts, the answer is Yes.

Can the term “neoliberalism” be transformed into a more useful analytic tool?

The authors note that scholars are accustomed to addressing the problems associated with “essentially contested” concepts like democracy, and are accustomed to justifying their preferred definitions, whatever their preferences may be. The meaning of neoliberalism, in contrast, according to Boas and Gans-Morse, is not currently debated.

To be of analytic value, they argue, neoliberalism needs to regain an agreed-upon substantive meaning. In the 1930s, the term had such a meaning, as the authors outline in their overview of the history of the term – the historical discussion is in the article, in the event the topic interests you – but such a meaning no longer exists.

The authors don’t advocate a return to the original view of the German Freiberg School, which was moderate in relation to classical liberalism – moderate, given that it rejected laissez-faire and emphasized humanitarian values. They note that the present-day usage of “neoliberalism” is clearly associated with a characteristic radicalism. They argue that a new definition of a “new liberalism” would need to build upon such a radicalism, where appropriate.

For such a definition to take root, they add, the kind of debate that is currently lacking – that is currently blocked – would need to emerge. The authors seeks to initiate such a debate by suggesting three ways in which neoliberalism could be redefined.

A first potential application of the term concerns, in their view, the unique characteristics that distinguish modern capitalism from previous models of development.

A second application would focus on how the expansion of free markets in the developing world has set them apart from those of advanced industrialized countries.

A third application would focus on a distinct type of market economy that includes countries from both the developed and developing world.

The authors conclude that it’s highly important for scholars to debate whether free markets are good or bad for society.

The contribution of scholars, they argue, should be to bring forward facts and reasoned arguments, as opposed to politically charged language.

A first step, they argue, involves changing of the term “neoliberalism” into one “that conveys a common substantive meaning rather than a common ideological orientation, and is used by all parties to this debate.”

Springer logo

Table 5 and 6, in the printout of the PDf version of the article, is in each case accompanied by the Springer logo, a chess piece knight. Springer is the publisher of the 2009 article by Boas and Gans-Morse. That is, each of the two tables (Tables 5 and 6, as discusses above in text format) are located at the bottom of a page, and thus appear close to the Springer logo, which is used as a footer on each page. The article is published with open access at I’ve downloaded the logo from a Springer Twitter account.

I like the reference to the horse, which in military history served to advance the technology of warfare. As noted in a previous post, in medieval times, the Crusader’s advantage over native warriors derived from the professionalism of their warrior class and their superior military technology. The technology incuded the crossbow, the catapult, and the armoured knight on horseback, which has been described as the equivalent of the tank in later warfare.

Open Source

The article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.


The article is highly valuable, from my perspective.

I believe there’s tremendous value in finding ways to discuss things with the intention of sharing a wide range of perspectives, with a focus on open debate as contrasted to making a judgement. With regard to not making a judgement, I’m reminded of the definition of mindfulness noted in an article, by Daphne M. Davis and Jeffrey A. Hayes, entitled “What are the Benefits of Mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research,” originally published in 2011.

Taylor C. Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse, as well as Alice E. Marwick, Richard J. Evans, James A. Tyner,, Donald J. Savoie, Peter Burke, and many others, exemplify (in my mind) an engaging, insightful, evidence-based, non-judgemental approach toward scholarship – or an approach in some way synonymous or analogous to such an approach. In the preface to The Coming of the Third Reich (2004), Evans discusses the matter of judgement as it relates to the writing of history. He prefers to focus on the presentation of historical narrative, based on the available historical evidence, and to leave the judging of the story to the reader.


In the Introduction to Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream (2013), Sherry B. Ortner provides a valuable overview of deindustrialization, neoliberalism, and related topics. For Ortner, neoliberalism is a useful analytic tool, period.

An April 22, 2015 ThinkProgress article is entitled: “This Is What Poverty In Jamestown, Tennessee Looks Like.”

The following post adds background to the discussion:

Voter anger explained – in one chart – March 15, 2016 Brookings Institution article


1 reply
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    I’ve received a message objecting to language such as “contested normative valance.”

    My comment would be that it’s understandable that some readers will find some of the terminology in this blog post objectionable.


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