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Dissecting the Buzzwords of Neoliberalism

by Matthew Eagleton-Pierce on June 27, 2016
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Neoliberalism has become a popular but troubled term to characterise our age. Since the 1980s, within many fields of the social sciences, but also extending into public debates, this expression has been called upon to symbolise, clarify or, through normative inflections, denounce a whole host of things. When surveying this vast and expanding literature – of which political economists have made significant contributions – it can sometimes appear as if neoliberalism is a kind of conceptual Swiss Army knife which can unpick and cut through any argument concerning the modern world. One finds this term deployed for explaining the power of Wall Street banks; the growth of inequality and austerity; and even the making of reality-based television shows such as The Apprentice, Donald Trump’s gift to the world.

NeoliberalismIn a new book, I try to approach neoliberalism anew, but resist the urge to engage in a definitional exercise of the concept itself which has, in the words of the anthropologist Daniel Goldstein, become a kind of ‘explanatory catholicon’. Rather, my aim is to dissect and interrogate a range of histories, meanings, and practices that have clustered around this pervasive label. Neoliberalism: The Key Concepts is designed to shed light on 44 terms that are rarely out of the news. The words themselves are, in most cases, in common use and they have a long and often contested history, such as ‘markets’, ‘freedom’, and ‘development’. Some have specialist senses which reflect particular debates in academic disciplines, as is the case with ‘competition’, ‘growth’, and ‘risk’. Other terms, such as ‘welfare’, ‘stakeholder’, and ‘diversity’, have been strongly shaped by actors within political and business circles.

Underlying all these words is a deeper and at times troubling conceptual framework which the book seeks to analyse and make sense of. How is it that such terms, the language of the tribe, used across a variety of places and spaces, sometimes defensively, sometimes aggressively, at once unite and divide us? How is it that at times their political baggage remains unnoticed or, somehow perhaps, deliberately hollowed out? And how do all these expressions come together under the historical umbrella of what we might call ‘neoliberalism’? These are the kinds of questions the book seeks to address to students and researchers working in many areas including, but not restricted to, politics, economics, sociology, geography, anthropology, development studies, management, and cultural studies.

When asked by others to describe this book, I sometimes cite Raymond Williams’ Keywords (1976) as a source of inspiration behind the research. More commonly, however, often for the purpose of quicker communication, I suggest that Neoliberalism: The Key Concepts could be viewed as a critical guide to modern ‘buzzwords’ or, specifically in several instances, ‘management speak’ or ‘corporate jargon’. As the OED defines it, a buzzword is ‘a term used more to impress than to inform’. The words discussed in this book are clearly in vogue, or of the moment, and often foreground the role of business in shaping the collective imagination of many fields beyond itself. Moreover, from a normative perspective, such labels tap into a well of popular frustration regarding how business discourse is often marked by circumlocution and spectacle. At the same time, however, there is a risk of treating the entries in this book as mere buzzwords, in the style that takes on a pejorative tone, even to the point of flippant or humorous dismissal. What I seek to accomplish is something different: to maintain a critical and wary disposition – to reconsider or, as Marx would put it, to ‘doubt everything’ – but to be open to the difficult process of understanding why such terms take their objectified forms. Even buzzwords are not empty of meaning.

To this end, my argument offers three main contributions. First, the book provides an explanatory resource for students and researchers who are puzzled by the common words associated with neoliberalism. Each entry features an etymological sketch, an unpacking of meanings surrounding the term, the degree to which such meanings have changed, and the critiques engendered. Second, Neoliberalism: The Key Concepts engages in an exercise of decoding. All the featured terms display forms of ambiguity and imprecision. On one level, there is nothing unusual about such characteristics in language. What matters is to uncover how the particular interests of actors – be they commercial, national, or otherwise – are tied to the use of such terms. In this regard, the uncertainty of language may facilitate space for manoeuvring, contestation, or even obfuscation. For instance, when concepts such as ‘reform’, ‘responsibility’, or ‘stability’ are deployed in policy debates they frequently carry a shine of neutrality, yet a closer reading reveals how certain meanings and material outcomes tend to overshadow others. Third, the study of neoliberal vocabulary matters for explaining associated patterns of group-making, social struggle, and material outcomes. Such relations do not need to entail deep institutional bonds or zealous forms of loyalty, although patterns of that kind do exist, but could also include a kind of unthinking gravitation to whatever are the ‘received ideas’ of the moment. The neoliberal lexicon is therefore a kind of social glue whose function is as much about the mobilisation of populations as it is about the legitimation of things such as ‘free markets’.

Although the book has the definite article in its title, I make no claim to have captured every potential neoliberal concept, nor to have traced the galaxy of interpretations, translations, and revisions across the world. Rather, the research represents an effort to further sensitise readers to this complex lexicon, whilst opening space for fresh dialogues on the meaning of capitalist modernity.

Matthew Eagleton-Pierce

Matthew Eagleton-Pierce is a Lecturer in International Political Economy at SOAS University of London. His research interests are within many areas of political economy, but particularly: 1) the history and contemporary forms of neoliberalism; and 2) the politics of world trade. His first monograph, Symbolic Power in the World Trade Organization, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 and he is the author of Neoliberalism: The Key Concepts published by Routledge in 2016.

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