Yes, These Centre Right Politicians Are Neoliberals

Writing in The Times Tim Montgomerie assures us the targets of some of Paul Mason’s ire in his recent book Postcapitalism are mistaken. No neoliberal state is concerned with employing riot squads and the secret police to enforce market rule.

No, a whole list of centre-right politicians are pragmatists not neoliberals.

I want to examine one figure chosen at random from Tim Montgomerie’s list of centre-right politicians and simply show that a decent case can be made that they are neoliberal. I chose the Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, partly because until a day or so ago I was largely ignorant of him and his policies. I really don’t know much about the Canadian political scene. I do know a lot about neoliberalism. I wondered if with no prior knowledge I could connect the dots with a couple of evenings research.

Now it is certainly the case that one could point to Harper’s policies as distinctively neoliberal, I am going to instead prove my case by linking Harper directly to one of the characteristic aspects of neoliberalism: the way in which neoliberals sought to propagate their ideas and their characteristic institution for doing so — the advocacy think tank.

In terms of overall strategy here the neoliberals borrowed from the left. Hayek had noted that the left had managed to make the cause of socialist politics broadly popular by placing intellectuals in significant positions and influencing the general climate of public opinion so that socialist policies simply appeared common sense. To promote neoliberalism, therefore, whar was needed was not simply policies but an inspiring and exciting overarching utopian vision:

The main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and therefore an influence on public opinion which is daily making possible what only recently seemed utterly remote. Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this had rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide.

To spread these ideas, as is now well documented, on the 1st of April 1947 Hayek founded the Mont Pèlerin Society, the ur-think tank of think tanks. Friedrich Hayek’s explicit model was The Fabian Society. The idea was to develop neoliberalism and propagate these ideas outwards through the various contacts and institutions the international members of the society had access to, generating the “professional secondhand dealers in ideas” for neoliberalism that Hayek believed had been so successful in pressing the case for the socialism.

One of the first successes was the establishment of the Institute of Economic Affairs by Antony Fisher, a battery farm magnate, under the direct tutelage of Hayek in 1955. The size and success of these networks is comprehensive and there have been attempts to map their size. Their decisive impact on government policies, especially in the United Kingdom under Thatcher, has been extensively documented. While non-neoliberal think tanks exist and the whole concept preceded the Mont Pèlerin Society, the success and power of the networks Hayek began constructing is undeniable.

So, what about Stephen Harper. Can we relate him to any neoliberal think tanks and organs of policy? Well, it just so happens, that we can and pretty easily. In 1997 Stephen Harper resigned as a member of parliament and joined the National Citizen Coalition, which he became president of in 1998, only to leave in 2002 to seek leadership of the Canadian Alliance.

Is the National Citizen Coalition a neoliberal think tank? Founded in 1967 by Colin M. Brown, its first direct aim was to oppose publically provided healthcare in favour of private medical insurance (Brown was in insurance). Harper Index lists that the National Citizen Coalition has been involved in the following:

campaigns to “de-unionize” the workforce;
opposition to fair tax reform;
privatization and/or elimination of public sector services;
discredit any activity carried out through the public sector such as education or health care;
court challenges to social unionism;
“closed shop” provisions in Canadian labour law;
lobbying campaign to have “right-to-work” legislation implemented in Alberta;
legal and advertising support for challenges to Canadian Wheat Board;
court challenge to annul election of BC NDP government, advertising campaigns against targeted politicians and parties;
media campaign attacking MP pensions;
court challenges to electoral laws that would limit third party spending;
media campaign attacking grants for the arts, advocacy organizations, and social science research;
attacks on public funding for what it calls “interest groups” such as human rights or women’s groups.

In the 1980s, Brown took a delightful turn in using the National Citizen Coalition to encourage the Government of Canada not to take in 50,000 Asian refugees from the Vietnam war by publishing a series of ads. This was the same point Stephen Harper signed up as a member.

Taken as a piece, this policy advocacy makes for a convincing case for putting the National Citizen Coalition in the neoliberal bracket Twenty years after his death in 1987, the son of the founder of the National Citizen Coalition, Colin T. Brown, writes:

The National Citizens Coalition remains an important voice for more freedom and less government in Canada. A former president of the NCC is now Prime Minister of Canada. And the NCC is not alone. Today many organizations give compelling arguments for the small-c conservative cause — The Fraser Institute, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Dominion Institute to name a few. Media has changed too, with major publications like the Western Standard, Macleans, and the National Post proud to present and champion the conservative viewpoint.

This desire to change the climate of public opinion could be straight out of Hayek’s own mouth.

Regarding the think tank company the National Citizens Coalition keeps we can certainly draw links direct to the Mont Pèlerin Society: Brian Lee Crowley from the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, Michel Kelly-Gagnon from the Montreal Economic Institute, Peter Holle, from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and Michael Walker from The Fraser Institute.

Celebrating their 40th anniversary in 2007 Peter Coleman writes:

we have said that as an organization we do not believe that big government and big unions have all the answers. We still believe in that today…we look forward to many more years of standing up for the little guy as we continue to push for more freedom through less government.

Well, is Stephen Harper personally acquainted with the work and ideas of the neoliberals? Studying at the University of Calagary for a masters degree, Harper’s biographers recount him reading Friedrich Hayek varacuously. His thesis concerned how governments intervene in the economic sphere for short term electorial gain to the determinent of long term economic health, a perenial neoliberal theme that could have been extracted direct from Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Indeed, Harper met Hayek during his time there.

I could go further. Donald Gutstein has written a book length work, Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada, the extracts from which many of the above facts regarding him and the Canadian think tank scene are drawn.

So is Stephen Harper a neoliberal? Well, if he spent a good portion of his time directly advocating as president of a neoliberal think tank, I think the case speaks for itself. Whatever compromises that may have occurred during his tenure as prime minister, this “pragmatism” is set against the background a series of assumptions and general views about the political world that are best described as neoliberal. The same goes for David Cameron, Angela Merkel or Tony Abbott. And certainly the US republican presidential candidates. Indeed it is plausible to be a neoliberal first and a pragmatist second. For example, in examining the influence of ordoliberalism (one species of the larger family of neoliberalism) on German reactions to the Eurozone crisis three researchers from the Walter Eucken Institute (named after a founding ordoliberal) find that some of Germany’s policies are distinctively ordoliberal and some were pragmatic. However, when one considers some of the terms offered in the recent agree with Greece, the neoliberalism is stronger now than it was when their analysis was performed. In particular on can think of the 12th of July statement by the Euro summit on Greece calling for the “de-politicizing the Greek administration” — the depoliticising of the political and then the use of the strong state to pursue sweeping market reform.

Neoliberalism can be a slippery term and is often used meaninglessly to mean “something I don’t like”. This is why it is important to render neoliberalism as a historical movement, grounded in the texts of it actors, network analysis of their relationships and considerations of the institutional forms it takes. Using the term fast and loosely is neither analytically nor politically useful. It is important also, as with any political movement, to analyse the times at which its parameters were in flux and the differences between neoliberalism in theory and its actualisation in practice. Over the last few years we have come a long way in understanding it though.

Philip Mirowski’s essay “The Political Movement that Dared not Speak its own Name: The Neoliberal Thought Collective Under Erasure” has a great treatment of the methodological problems of taking neoliberalism as an object of historical study. It does well to expose the timidity of those even at the cutting edge of research, seemingly unable to call a spade a hegemonic spade, drawing micro-distinctions where substantial agreement and considerable evidence exists. I am indebted to its methodological insights here. Its bibliography updates Will Davies only slightly older summary and bibliographic review of material. This podcast with Davies is also instructive if you have a spare hour.

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