Accepted version. Please cite as:
Hendrikse R (2018) Neo-illiberalism. Geoforum 95: 169-172
Cosmopolis: Centre for Urban Research, Department of Geography, Vrije Universiteit Brussel,
Pleinlaan 2, 1050 Brussels, Belgium
A B S T R A C T
This review brings together a set of trends to rethink neoliberalism. Decades of
neoliberalization have transformed western political economies, and although the
financial crisis debunked the ideology for a fraud, the practices have simply refused to
die since. Instead, neoliberalism assumed an authoritarian character, feeding popular
resistance. Although leftist challenges failed to break its spell, Brexit and Trump
bulldozed right-wing populism into the mainstream of the neoliberal heartlands. Where
these events have conventionally been presented as ruptures to the status quo, this
review argues that they herald the next neoliberal wave shaping global capitalism. This
phase is described as neo-illiberalism, signifying the illiberal mutation and restoration of
transatlantic neoliberalism, marked by brazen attacks on constitutional checks, balances
and rights across vast neoliberalized landscapes. These are executed by neoliberal elites
working with and/or adopting nativist narratives and policies of the radical right,
unevenly adapting western neoliberalism to a nascent neo-illiberal world order.
Keywords: Brexit; illiberalism; neoliberalism; populism; Trump
1. Introduction: neoliberalism’s illiberal reawakening
Across the western world, neoliberal globalization appears under attack. Conventional
wisdom has it that the votes for Brexit and Trump were nationalist ruptures to the status
quo, taking global elites by surprise. But why is it that global media conglomerates
instrumental to the rise of neoliberalism continue to play leading roles in these ruptures,
pushing nationalist narratives supposedly fighting “the corporate elite” (The Sun 2016)?
And why does Donald Trump continue to recruit Goldman Sachs bankers whilst enacting
financial deregulation and tax cuts, much like his predecessors? This review advances a
counter perspective, highlighting the mounting fusion of neoliberalism and radical-right
populism exercising government power, thereby sketching the contours of a mutating
transatlantic neoliberalism – an emergent neo-illiberalism.
The death of neoliberalism has often been proclaimed, not least following the
transatlantic financial crisis of 2007-08, which debunked the ideology for a fraud.
However, besides engaging with the prospect of post-neoliberalism (Peck et al 2009;
Springer 2015), scholars were quickly taken aback by the sheer endurance and
mutability of neoliberal practices (Crouch 2011; Peck 2010b). Where the neoliberal
project appeared to collapse, it resurged out of the ashes (Aalbers 2013; Hendrikse and
Sidaway 2010), revealing a cunning ability ‘to exploit threats to its survival as
opportunities for expansion’ (Jessop 2016: 417; see Peck 2010a).
The crisis did annihilate consensual neoliberal rule, seeing post-crisis
neoliberalism assume more authoritarian (Bruff 2013) and punitive (Davies 2016) traits,
galvanizing resistance. The center left was particularly punished for their neoliberal
cooptation, and by the mid-2010s leftist challengers had emerged across the west.
Crucially, Greece’s Syriza did not undo themselves from Eurozone technocrats, as much
as Bernie Sanders failed to break the consensus among US Democrats. Each time,
neoliberal resistance was curtailed, leaving resentment in its wake.
Neoliberalism has always sought allies to reproduce itself: where centre left and
right have formed neoliberalism’s “extreme centre” (Ali 2015), the mid-2010s witnessed
a growing alliance between extreme centre and radical-cum-extreme right, the latter
covering their feathers under labels such as Alt-right to seduce “the wordless, formless
rage of the people neoliberalism left behind” (Penny 2016). In redirecting rage from
bankers to minorities, the progressive elements underpinning neoliberalism (Fraser
2017), along with the actual left, became targets of the self-proclaimed resistance.
important degree, the votes for Brexit and Trump have been realized upon this shift,
with global elite factions utilizing neoliberal failure as fuel for expansion.
2. Emergent properties
Cass Mudde (2004) brought the term ‘illiberal democracy’ (see Zakaria 2003) into the
debate on populism, which studies the ‘clash’ between ‘undemocratic liberalism’ (a
euphemism for neoliberalism) and illiberal democracy (a spectrum of regimes among
which populism constitutes one form). Crucially, this debate exhibits numerous blind
spots. For example, some argue that populists “seek to drive a wedge between
In Europe, the 2015 refugee ‘crisis’ played a key role in redirecting popular frustration. Right-
wing populists gained popularity, not only due to online deceit or ‘the Russians’, but also because
established media embraced nativist narratives. In Dutch media, for example, the European
Union (EU) was no longer a neoliberal vortex, but was instead depicted as a globalist project run
by ‘politically correct’ elites. These narratives discursively transformed the neoliberal order into a
leftist project, which could henceforth only be undone by right-wing nationalists.
democracy and liberalism” (Galston 2018: 5), neglecting how neoliberalism ignited
undemocratization (Crouch 2004; Slobodian 2018a). Others argue that liberal
democracy “has a tendency to deteriorate into one or the other of its perversions”
(Rodrik 2018b), neglecting how liberal democracies might be subject to both
illiberalization and undemocratization. In this regard, the term illiberal democracy is a
misnomer, for it too exhibits undemocratic tendencies (Mueller 2018a), arguably
supplementing neoliberalism’s democratic shortcomings.
Building on this debate, it is argued that a new synthesis is currently
mainstreaming throughout the western world: call it undemocratic illiberalism, or neo-
Where preceding waves of neoliberalization (Peck and Tickell 2002) fueled
the undemocratization of liberal democracies, the rise of the radical right threatens to
illiberalize the neoliberalized heartlands. Crucially, instead of undoing neoliberal
globalization, (the threat of) political illiberalization might equally shield the economic
core of the neoliberal project from popular resistance, effectively functioning as its toxic
protective coating. Contrasting perspectives pinpointing a rupture, the ascent of neo-
illiberalism – that is the illiberal mutation and restoration of transatlantic neoliberalism –
might well prove the next neoliberal wave shaping global capitalism.
Signaling a process of political change, the rise of the nationalist and nativist
radical right is increasingly fueling brazen attacks on the various institutions, rights and
values undergritting constitutional liberalism across the west. Amongst others, these
include attacks on checks and balances, where legislatures and judiciaries are subject to
a power-hungry executive branches, along with wider societal counterpowers, including
independent academia and media. To exercise the ‘will of the people’, moreover,
individual basic rights, including free speech and association, and related civil, human
and minority rights, are equally prone to attacks. Admittedly, this development
resembles general populist attacks on liberal democracy, whereby notions of popular
sovereignty and democracy are accepted, provided they are understood as majoritarian
power, whilst constitutionalism and liberal rights are rejected. Yet (the threat of)
political illiberalization unfolds in a specific context of advanced neoliberalization, where
(as of writing) economic ruptures remain mundane. What is foremost observed is the
rise of political – not economic – populism (Rodrik 2018a) across the west.
Both neoliberals and populists effectively take power away from liberal democracies, arguing
that ‘there is no alternative’ to either technocratic rule or the unrestrained will of the people:
where neoliberals insulate economic domains from democratic decision-making, illiberals take
away restraints limiting the exercise of political power. Logically, in undoing constitutional rights
it becomes all the harder for citizens to challenge neoliberalism.
The term neo-illiberalism has been coined by Aiyar (2011, 2016). Other scholars have advanced
notions such as ‘liberal illiberalism’ (e.g. Moffitt 2017), or focus on neoliberalism in relation to
illiberalism (e.g. Berezin 2009).
Behind the ever-apparent threat of protectionism, it should be remembered that
the neoliberal infrastructure undergritting global capitalism remains broadly intact: key
remain in place, with the World Trade Organization (WTO)
widely considered the backstop to manage trade relations. Where the US might
unilaterally seek to rewire multilateral trade in bilateral fashion, insiders note that
investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clauses will remain key features (Freshfields
2018), continuing the transfer of power from states to corporations. The financial picture
is more remarkable, as central bank independence (Rogoff 2018), the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) (Mayeda 2018) and the larger “new international financial
architecture” (Soederberg 2004) undergritting global financialized capitalism remain
unchallenged, seeing tech-driven financial markets (Hendrikse et al 2018) reign over
society and state (Hendrikse 2015).
Added up, despite all the spectacle, thus far the
economic rupture foremost constitutes a change in style rather than substance, with
policy objectives like America first merely accelerating the race to the bottom.
3. Variegated expressions
Beyond advancing the rule of markets, neoliberalism is regarded “a rascal concept –
promiscuously pervasive, yet inconsistently defined, empirically imprecise and frequently
contested” (Brenner et al 2009, emphasis original). Where neoliberalism typically
spreads in hybrid assemblages, neo-illiberalism is by definition an amalgam of neoliberal
and illiberal operating systems, producing variegated neo-illiberalization across space.
Importantly, it should be noted that periodization is a thorny question (Hendrikse and
Sidaway 2010), and many expressions have long been visible along the fringes – the
difference is that they are now mainstreaming into power.
Epitomizing the western breakthrough of neo-illiberalism, the Trump presidency
is comprised of globalist (neoliberal) and nationalist (illiberal) factions allegedly vying
for power (Wolff 2018). Amongst others, Trump’s illiberal rhetoric aims to target
indignant electorates on an emotional level.
But there is more method to the madness,
Trump cancelled the multilateral Transpacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement as one of
his first acts in office, but has indicated that he is willing to restart negotiations.
The exception is the Eurozone architecture, having taken neoliberal undemocratization to its
extremes. Yet here too there is much populist barking but little biting.
Manipulating emotions of Facebook users was the science behind Cambridge Analytica – the
recently liquidated firm which through its parent company Strategic Communications Services
(SCL) has been born out of the neoliberal privatization of military interventions in Afghanistan
and Iraq, with strong ties to intelligence, military and political elites in the US and UK (Ramsay
2018; O’Hare 2018). In general, it is ironic that the nationalist resurgence is taking place online –
the most globalized space ever – where basic rights to privacy have evaporated.
as illiberal narratives and policies typically assume frontstage in news cycles: for
example, Steve Bannon’s ethnonationalist crusade and Trump’s Twitter rants have
overshadowed ongoing financial deregulation, tax cuts, and the corporate takeover of
government – “neoliberalism’s final frontier” (Klein 2017). In general, illiberal tales are
cultural, defining economics out of existence, effectively functioning as rhetorical
sanctuaries to hide the material failures of neoliberal globalization.
Established neoliberal constellations of political parties and media conglomerates
have increasingly embraced illiberal nativism and populist tactics to channel resentment
and conceal non-change. For example, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, instrumental
to the (re) making of neoliberalism, played a key role in the votes for Brexit and Trump.
Such constellations infused Britain (but also The Netherlands, Catalonia/Spain, and
elsewhere) with majoritarianism via divisive referenda, fueling attacks on legislatures
and judiciaries to “crush the saboteurs” (Daily Mail 2017), with established political
parties habitually absorbing mounting ‘anti-establishment’ energy, seeing neoliberal
insiders synthetically transform themselves into populist outsiders.
In Europe, this makeover has been pioneered by Hungary’s Victor Orbán and his
Fidesz party: having led Hungary on the path to neoliberalization, opening up the
country to foreign investment and EU funding, Orbán subsequently reinvented himself as
a self-proclaimed illiberal democrat, anticipating popular frustration. Although taking
control over the judiciary and media through cronies (Mueller 2018b), this shift has not
vitally altered Hungary’s neoliberalized economy. In variegated guises, Orbán’s illiberal
virus is currently spreading across Europe – requiring “no coherent ideology”, just
“imaginary enemies” (Cvijić 2018) – with the European Peope’s Party (EPP) accepting the
illiberal rot in their neoliberal midst. This is not wholly surprising: where Angela Merkel
was praised as ‘leader of the free world’ following Trump’s election, these accounts forget
how Germany captains a larger political-economic project of extreme neoliberalization.
As noted by Yanis Varoufakis, reflecting on his meetings with Eurozone technocrats as
Greek finance minister, “something other than liberalism, or even neoliberalism, had
taken over the establishment without anyone noticing” (2017: 480).
Meanwhile, in the opposite direction there are neoliberal mutations and
penchants within populist parties. In Italy, right-wing populists have lubricated
neoliberalism since the 1990s, seeing them mutate into neoliberal government (Verbeek
and Zaslove 2016), making way for new populists. Another lubricating strategy is
practiced by Dutch populist Geert Wilders: escaping the People’s Party for Freedom and
Democracy (VVD) to found his Party for Freedom (PVV) in the mid-2000s, Wilders has
since principally voted in line with the VVD’s neoliberal rule, despite selling illiberal
narratives. It is therefore perhaps little surprising that the intellectual roots of the radical
right reveal a fondness of Friedrich Hayek.
Given these and other penchants, it is argued
that populists of Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ)
have “emerged within neoliberalism, not in opposition to it” (Slobodian 2018b, emphasis
original). In any case, in sight of power populist parties often tone down their rhetoric,
and recent history shows that financial markets (and central banks) are very capable
knock unwilling populists into their neoliberal place. The populist government of Italy,
for example, has promised to stay in the euro to reassure financial markets, focusing its
fury on immigrants instead. Here too, the outcome is neo-illiberalism.
4. Geopolitical implications
Across the globe, democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been re-
elected or reaffirmed through referenda, are routinely ignoring constitutional
limits on their power and depriving citizens of basic rights. This disturbing
phenomenon … could be called “illiberal democracy” (Zakaria 2003)
During the early 2000s, Fareed Zakaria praised constitutional liberalism to insulate non-
western states from the woes of illiberal rule, and instead plug these territories into the
institutional infrastructures of neoliberal globalization. Yet although neoliberalism
spread across the globe, into societies more or less illiberal and democratic, the non-
western world did not commence on the ‘western path’ to liberal democracy.
Where non-western states witnessed the infusion of neoliberal policies over the
latter decades – what Ong identifies as neoliberalism as exception – western state are
today increasingly subject to illiberal “exceptions to neoliberalism” (2006: 3). Non-
western neoliberalization is typified by illiberal China, and can be tentatively be
extended across Russia and the global south. Fittingly, Indian economist Aiyar (2011,
2016) coined the term neo-illiberalism to describe the state of the Indian economy
where Narenda Modi features as one of many neo-illiberal strongmen worldwide. In
contrast, the illiberalization of the west is typified by Trumpism, stretching across the
Atlantic to Brexitland, Europe and wider global north. This double movement –
variegated neoliberalization across illiberal ‘peripheries’, followed by the uneven
illiberalization the neoliberal ‘core’ – suggests of a process of reglobalization recalibrating
global north to south. This brings us back to the financial crisis, where the creation the
Group of Twenty (G20) – expanding the Group of Seven (G7) to include major non-
Early 2018 Donald Trump’s former illiberal ideologue Steve Bannon also invoked the teachings
of Fredrich Hayek at a rally of Marine Le Pen’s National Front.
Aiyar particularly criticizes India’s overtly bureaucratic and corrupt state: “Leftist critics accuse
India of going down the path of neoliberalism. The actual process could better be called neo-
illiberalism” (2016: 11).
western economies in the world’s leading forum on global governance – arguably
marked the ascent of a new global order (Tooze 2018). A decade onwards, its contours
are gradually beginning to emerge.
Now, what has already happened in Russia is what might happen in America and
Europe: the stabilisation of massive inequality, the displacement of policy
by propaganda, the shift from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity
How different were expectations during the 1990s (Fukuyama 1992)
, when liberal
democracy was assumed universally victorious? Unfortunately, from a longue durée
perspective the ascent of neo-illiberalism is hardly an outlier. The modern history of
liberalism is a mixed bag at best, with liberal pretensions often cloaking illiberal
practices, producing spaces of elite emancipation amidst mass exclusion, often
rationalized by religious and racist ideologies (Losurdo 2011). Likewise, the short history
of neoliberalism is not unfamiliar to the troubling present, for the very implementation
of neoliberalism has been realized via illiberal means – first at gunpoint in Chile, then via
authoritarian populism in the neoliberal heartlands (Hall 1985). Added up, the
‘progressive’ neoliberal moment (Fraser 2017) might be more of an outlier to liberal rule
than the present, with liberalism’s ugly face merely coming home to roost.
To get off the neo-illiberal road to serfdom, conventional perspectives portraying
neoliberals and radical-right populists (or globalists and nationalists) as opposing forces
need to be challenged, for such frames make both elements co-constituting the neo-
illiberal beast stronger, as they tend to define meaningful resistance away. As argued, “it
is more accurate to think of neoliberalism and right-wing populism as closely bound
together” (Kundnani 2018), as a two-headed monster that needs to be caged, ideally
before the preachers of inevitability fully redeem their claims for eternity.
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