Engaging neoliberalism When it first emerged, neoliberalism seemed to be able to be defined relatively easily and uncontroversially. In the economic arena, the contrast could be made with Keynesianism and emphasis placed on perfectly working markets. A correspondingly distinctive stance could be made over the role of the state as corrupt, rent-seeking and inefficient as opposed to benevolent and progressive. Ideologically, the individual pursuit of self-interest as the means to freedom was offered in contrast to collectivism. And, politically, Reaganism and Thatcherism came to the fore. It is also significant that neoliberalism should emerge soon after the post-war boom came to an end, together with the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. This is all 30 or more years ago and, whilst neoliberalism has entered the scholarly if not popular lexicon, it is now debatable whether it is now or, indeed, ever was clearly defined. How does it fare alongside globalisation, the new world order, and the new imperialism, for example, as descriptors of contemporary capitalism. Does each of these refer to a similar understanding but with different terms and emphasis? And how do we situate neoliberalism in relation to Third Wayism, the social market, and so on, whose politicians, theorists and ideo logues would pride themselves as departing from neoliberalism but who, in their politics and policies, seem at least in part to have been captured by it (and even vice versa in some instances)? These conundrums in the understanding and nature of neoliberalism have been highlighted by James Ferguson (2007) who reveals how what would traditionally be termed progressive policies (a basic income grant for example) have been rationalised through neoliberal discourse. At the very least, he closes, ‘We will also need a fresh analytic approach that is not trapped within the tired “neoliberalism versus welfare state” frame that has until now obscured many of the key issues from view’. The tensions within the notion of neoliberalism have also drawn the attention of human geographers, not least because of their sensitivity to how a general and abstract term should allow for differences in time and place (or context) even to the point of inconsistency and, thereby, undermining itself. In surveying the literature, Castree (2006: 6) concludes,

‘neoliberalism’ will remain a necessary illusion for those on the geographical left: something we know does not exist as such, but the idea of whose existence allows our ‘local’ research finding to connect to a much bigger and apparently important conversation (emphasis added).