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On Recent Developments in the New Historiography of (Neo)Liberalism

  • Iain Stewart (a1)


Over the last twenty years or so several new waves of research on the history of liberalism have emerged. The novelty of this should not be exaggerated as broad scholarly interest in liberalism has in fact been increasing at a remarkable rate since the 1980s. Nevertheless, it is clear that the historiography of liberalism has broken much new ground since around the turn of the century. This has been driven partly by the influence of larger developments in the humanities and social sciences. The global and post-colonial turns, for instance, have helped to reshape the historiography of liberalism by provoking debates over the extent of its complicity in slavery and colonialism, while also drawing attention to the contribution of theorists from the global south. But even much of this ‘normal’ innovation has been driven at least indirectly by a growing sense that liberalism is in crisis. The War on Terror, the financial meltdown of 2008 and the global rise of populist authoritarianism are the obvious staging posts in liberalism's journey from post-Cold War triumphalism to contemporary fears for its imminent demise. And it is not a coincidence that the end of the end of history has seen the beginning of a new historiography of liberalism. Since the early 2000s the emergence of new sub-fields like the histories of ‘Cold War liberalism’, human rights and neoliberalism can all be seen in different ways as responding to liberalism's unfolding crisis.


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1 The catalogue of the British Library is not totally comprehensive but is sufficiently representative to indicate the general trend towards an expansion of publications on liberalism. It lists 216 items with the word liberalism in their title or subject matter, including in languages other than English, published during the 1970s. In the 1980s the equivalent figure is 574. This rises to 999 in the 1990s and to 1,314 in the 2000s. As of late March 2019 the figure for the 2010s is 1,059. This indicates a decline on the previous decade, although this is compensated by a large increase in publications on neoliberalism in this decade. An equivalent search for ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘neo-liberalism’ returns no results for the 1970s, eight for the 1980s (of which six are in Spanish), forty-five for the 1990s, 303 for the 2000s and 870 for the 2010s.

2 Among the many important works on these themes see, for example, Arneil, Barbara, John Locke and America: The Defence of English Colonialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Mehta, Uday Singh, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999); Pitts, Jennifer, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton NJ.: Princeton University Press, 2005); Bayly, C. A., Recovering Liberties: Indian Political Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Sartori, Andrew, Liberalism in Empire: An Alternative History (Oakland CA.: University of California Press, 2014).

3 Chabal, Emile, ‘The Agonies of Liberalism’, Contemporary European History, 25, 4 (2016), 162–3.

4 See most recently Jan-Werner Müller, ‘What Cold War Liberalism can Teach us Today’, The New York Times Review of Books: NYR Daily, 26 Nov. 2018: [accessed 26 Feb. 2019]. For a contrasting take on this subject see Moyn, Samuel, ‘Before – and Beyond – The Liberalism of Fear’, in Ashenden, Samantha and Hess, Andreas, eds., Between Utopianism and Realism: The Political Thought of Judith Shklar (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 2019).

5 Snyder, Timothy, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons for the Twenty-First Century (London: The Bodley Head, 2017); Jan Zielonka, ‘Liberal Europe Must Retrieve its Moral Compass’, Prospect, 2 Feb. 2018. [accessed 26 Feb. 2019]. For a critique of the influence of Cold War liberalism in the recent literature on the contemporary crisis of democracy see Jedediah Purdy, ‘Normcore’, Dissent (Summer 2018): [accessed 4 Apr. 2019].

6 Rosenblatt, Helena, The Lost History of Liberalism from Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton NJ.: Princeton University Press, 2018), 4.

7 Rosenblatt, Lost History, 3–5, 9.

8 For liberalism and republicanism see e.g. Kalyvas, Andreas and Katznelson, Ira, Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); for an emphasis on liberalism's European history see e.g. Fawcett, Edmund, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (Princeton NJ.: Princeton University Press, 2014); for liberalism and Christianity see e.g. Siedentop, Larry, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (London: Penguin, 2014).

9 Rosenblatt, Lost History, 3.

10 Ibid. This refusal to define liberalism is somewhat surprising in light of Rosenblatt's apparently contrary stance on this question as recently as 2017. See Rosenblatt, Helena, ‘What is Liberalism?’, Politics, Religion and Ideology, 18, 3 (2017), 331–3.

11 Rosenblatt, Lost History, 9.

12 Bell, Duncan, Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire (Princeton NJ.: Princeton University Press 2016), 6290; Moyn, ‘Before – and Beyond – the Liberalism of Fear’.

13 Rosenblatt, Lost History, 268.

14 Ibid., 266.

15 Leshem, Dotan, The Origins of Neoliberalism: Modelling the Economy from Jesus to Foucault (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 6.

16 Leshem, Origins of Neoliberalism, 16.

17 There is not space here to cover Leshem's fascinating and persuasive commentary on the works of Arendt, Agamben and Foucault, for instance, but anyone with an interest in these thinkers will benefit from reading this book.

18 Leshem, Origins of Neoliberalism, 168.

19 Gauchet, Marcel, L'avénement de la démocratie, tome IV: Le nouveau monde (Paris: Gallimard, 2017), 17–8.

20 For a more detailed overview of this argument see the review by Michael C. Behrent, ‘Age of Emancipation’, Dissent (Winter 2018). [accessed 26 Feb. 2019]

21 Gauchet, Marcel, Le désenchantement du monde: une histoire politique de la religion (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), ii.

22 Gauchet, Le nouveau monde, 145–200.

23 On ‘everyday neoliberalism’ see Mirowski, Philip, Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (London: Verso, 2014), 89156.

24 Ban, Cornel, Ruling Ideas: How Global Neoliberalism Goes Local (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 5.

25 Ibid., 4.

26 Ibid., 12–7.

27 Here Ban cites Boix, Carles, Political Parties, Growth and Equality: Conservative and Social Democratic Economic Strategies in the World Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 108.

28 Slobodian, Quinn, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge MA.: Harvard University Press, 2018), 2.

29 Ibid., 12.

30 Ibid., 7–8.

31 Ibid., 5.

32 Ibid., 269.

33 On the relatively underdeveloped state of scholarship on the history of Asian neoliberalism see Chabal, ‘The Agonies of Liberalism’, 172.

34 Slobodian, Globalists, 264.

35 For an enlightening recent discussion of these issues see Dissent magazine's forum on Daniel Rodgers, ‘The Uses and Abuses of “Neoliberalism”’, Dissent (Winter 2018). [accessed 3 July 2019]

On Recent Developments in the New Historiography of (Neo)Liberalism

  • Iain Stewart (a1)


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