From this point of view, we can see that neoliberalism as a political philosophy and programme which is unusually ‘maximalist’ in its attitude to capitalism. Whereas historically liberals, conservatives and social democrats, while all being, basically in favour of capitalism, had assumed that there were various areas of social life which ought to be organised along lines not entirely dictated by the drive for capital accumulation. The neoliberals are distinctive in opposing this view. They think that capitalist conditions should be extended as far as possible into every domain of social life, by force if necessary. The language they usually use is one of ‘markets’ being good things. But in practice they never simply mean ‘markets’ – they always mean ‘markets in which large corporations are able to dominate because they are unregulated and unopposed by any countervailing social forces’.
It’s important to be clear here that in theory you can be pro-market and anti-capitalist. You could have a society in which there are strict limits on capital accumulation, but everything from education to water to sexual services is treated as a freely-exhchangeable commodity. This is the kind of world which some of the people on the wilder fringes of the libertarian, ‘anarcho-capitalist’ Right seem to think they want. The trouble is, because they don’t understand anything about how capitalism actually works, they don’t understand that without powerful government or other social institutions, there is no way to prevent such a situation quickly turning into one in which large corporations lord it over everyone else.
All this does create a situation in which it’s very difficult to differentiate between capitalism and neoliberalism, because neoliberalism is the most fanatically pro-capitalist ideology ever, and because it has become the default ideology of almost all actual capitalists, and certainly of almost all pro-capitalist political parties
Still, it is important to differentiate them because they are not only not the same thing – they are not the same KIND of thing. Capitalism is an economic practice. Neoliberalism is a philosophy about how societies in which that practice prevails should be managed, and a programme which is at least nominally informed that philosophy, or looks like it is.