The Role of Liberals in the Neoliberal Turn

Historians in the News
tags: neoliberalism, political history, urban history

Claire Dunning, assistant professor of public policy and history at the University of Maryland, College Park, is the author of Nonprofit Neighborhoods: An Urban History of Inequality and the American State (University of Chicago Press, Spring 2022). 

Holtzman, Benjamin. The Long Crisis: New York and the Path to Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Reviewed by Claire Dunning


The notion of “crisis” may feel overplayed these days but remains pertinent when upheavals related to climate, democracy, health, and white supremacy continue to go unchecked. As governments respond too slowly or not at all, we have witnessed acts of creativity and courage by communities stepping in and neighbors caring for one another. Such stories warm our hearts and improve the lives of some but also, Benjamin Holtzman warns in The Long Crisis, should give us pause. 

The Long Crisis looks to another era of uncertainty and precarity, tracing how New Yorkers navigated the fiscal crisis and the consequences of those choices. Holtzman neither celebrates nor discounts efforts of people organized into neighborhood patrols, renovating abandoned housing, and cleaning up neighborhood parks, and instead presents these community-based efforts to “address alarming conditions affecting the city’s livable environment” as contributing to the “ascent of marketization during the final decades of the twentieth century.” Holtzman thus joins voices—past and present—who recognize(d) simultaneously the value and inadequacy of community action to meet structural challenges, and contributes careful analysis of how political pressures, fiscal constraints, and policy processes absorbed and then mutated calls for sustained state support into justifications for its continued retreat. 

What if instead of in corporate board rooms or academic ivory towers, the origins of neoliberalism lay in the residential neighborhoods of New York City and in the actions of people who themselves would not have identified as neoliberals but whose experimental, local actions ultimately “transformed the political economy from the ground up”? In asking—and persuasively answering—this question, The Long Crisis looks where few have and builds on work by N.D.B. Connolly, Lily Geismer, and others in identifying the role of liberals and Democrats in the neoliberal turn.[1] Holtzman adds that the embrace of marketization functioned “not as an explicit rejection of liberalism,” but rather “to assist officials in securing the conditions that liberalism had long promised to maintain.” Such discussions highlight the slipperiness of “neoliberalism” as a term and its evolution as a practice and ideology, underscoring the need for the kind of interrogation Holtzman provides.

Read entire article at The Metropole