Will Davies’s TCS Glossary entry on Neoliberalism

william davies photoNeoliberalism

Neoliberalism refers to the ideas, strategies and policies, which have been introduced by intellectuals and governments, in the hope of reinventing economic liberalism. In contrast to 19th century liberalism, neoliberalism is understood as being actively designed and enforced by the state (Foucault, 2008). The term is believed to have first been used at the Colloque Walter Lippmann, a conference organized in Paris in 1938 by intellectuals seeking an alternative to planned economies, Keynesianism and the New Deal, which were dominant at the time (Mirowski & Plehwe, 2009; Burgin, 2013). While the term itself was rarely used in the decades which followed, it describes the broadly pro-market intellectual movement which was assembled in the post-War era, which was coordinated via think tanks and international networks such as The Mont Pelerin Society. The Austrian philosopher and economist, Friedrich Von Hayek, was a central figure in pioneering neoliberal ideas and in initiating the coordination of the intellectual movement. The Chicago School of economics, led by Aaron Director during the 1950s and Milton Friedman during the 1960s and ‘70s, was a key institution in the development of a distinctly American strand of neoliberalism, more sympathetic to monopolies and suspicious of regulation than most of the European protagonists of neoliberal thought.

Following the crisis of Keynesian policy-making during the early 1970s, neoliberal ideas quickly gained greater intellectual and political legitimacy, especially in the United States and Britain. This led to a wave of neoliberal reforms, following the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which spread internationally during the 1990s via intergovernmental organisations such as the European Commission and the World Bank, along with think tanks such as The World Economic Forum. This ‘applied’ neoliberalism has been widely criticized as anti-democratic and driven by corporate or class interests (Harvey, 2005; Crouch, 2011). The global financial crisis which began in 2007 was initially believed to mark the end of this era of ‘applied’ neoliberalism, yet it may now be that it has only strengthened the neoliberal project (Mirowski, 2013).

William Davies


See our Glossary page for short explanations of many other theoretical concepts employed in our journal articles and books.


Further Reading


Nicholas Gane’s ‘The Emergence of Neoliberalism: Thinking Through and Beyond Michel Foucault’s Lectures on Biopolitics’:




William Davies’s ‘response’ to Nicholas Gane’s ‘The Emergence of Neoliberalism’

Full text of the Response on the TCS Website


Nicholas Gane’s ‘Review Article: Trajectories of Liberalism and Neoliberalism’:



William Davies’s ‘When is a market not a market?: ‘Exemption’, ‘Externality’ and ‘Exception’ in the case of European State Aid rules’:




You may also be interested in reading more about William Davies’s forthcoming TCS Book ‘The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition’


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