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Taking Stock of Neoliberalism

by David Primrose on August 7, 2018

In a famous passage in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, the following exchange takes place between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all’ (Carroll, 1871: Ch. 6).

This passage raises a profound philosophical question: to what extent is the meaning of language controlled by its users rather than dependant on the meaning of the words used, independent of the wishes of its user? In other words, are we the master of language, or is it to master us? On the one hand, language is a social creation: it was clearly not discovered ready-made to be put-to-use by humans. On the other hand, all humans are inevitably born into some form of linguistic community which informs our basic conceptual categories and, in turn, how we understand the world.

Humpty Dumpty’s intervention in this debate suggests that individuals are masters of how language is used. In turn, it is possible for him to use words in a manner which is indifferent to their commonly accepted meanings. Since Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, in particular, scholars have tended to reject such a logic of ‘private language’ (1953: §243-315) in favour of a more social conception of language in which words acquire their meanings from how they are employed by communities of language users. Hence, we have dictionaries.

Conversely, Humpty Dumpty’s articulation highlights a practical problem arising in contemporary neoliberalism studies: the multitude of meanings and nuances attributed to the concept of ‘neoliberalism’, depending on who is using it and in what context. Utilisation of the term has proliferated rapidly in the last five years or so, migrating from the far corners of critical political economy to colonise disciplines as diverse as cultural studies, anthropology, science and technology studies, and critical public health studies. In addition, its use has become increasingly common in both the popular media and political debate, particularly since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2007/08 (e.g. Hamilton, 2018). This burgeoning literature is now exploring the complex relations between neoliberalism and phenomena from ‘cities to citizenship, sexuality to subjectivity, and development to discourse to name but a few’ (Springer 2012: 135).

Scholarly analysis of neoliberalism is now characterised by myriad conceptual approaches, primarily differentiated according to their methodological commitments, as well as their particular understandings of power and processes of social and economic transformation. In this respect, Kean Birch has identified no less than seven distinct approaches to understanding neoliberalism: 1) a Foucauldian approach, which understands neoliberalism as a historically specific form of governmentality; 2) a Marxist approach, which focuses on neoliberalism as a hegemonic or class-based project benefitting capital at the expense of labour; 3) an ideational analysis, which views neoliberalism as the product of normative neoliberal doctrines expounded by think-tanks and intellectuals, including Hayek, Friedman, Becker and Buchanan; 4) a history and philosophy of economics approach, which examines neoliberalism through detailed analysis of the evolution of particular strands of liberal economic thought and the organisational forms developed to proselytise them; 5) an institutional approach, which takes institutions as the key variables which determine the form that neoliberalism has taken in different locales; 6) a regulation theory approach, which views neoliberalism as the institutional ensemble which cohered after the economic crisis of the 1970s and which, over time, came to facilitate capital accumulation up to the ‘Great Recession’ from 2008 to the present; 7) a geographical approach, which understands neoliberalism as an always emerging and contested process, and focuses on its inherent unevenness and variegation.

Despite their shared use of the term ‘neoliberalism’, however, there is little commonality among these competing approaches in how the concept is deployed. Beyond examining the increasing salience of markets since the late twentieth century, and the ideas of a select intellectual coterie who, from the mid-twentieth century, sought to ‘rescue’ capitalism from the rise of economic planning through a critique of both collectivism and laissez-faire, the internal diversity of neoliberal studies has led to the concept becoming an ‘oft-invoked but ill-defined concept’ (Mudge, 2008: 703). Notwithstanding its original deployment by those seeking to shape state power to impose a competitive market order, it is nowadays used almost exclusively by its critics. Consequently, there is a tendency for neoliberalism to be used as a signifier for the bête noir of individual authors or, as Jamie Peck (2011: 14) notes, ‘neoliberalism seems often to be used as a sort of stand in term for the political-economic zeitgeist, as a no-more-than approximate proxy for a specific analysis of the mechanisms or relations of social power, domination, exploitation, or alienation’.

In turn, the proliferation of the term to cover a diverse variety of phenomena is that it has become increasingly reified and left undefined in scholarly analysis, thereby occluding more than it reveals. Conceptualisations of the effects of neoliberalism have, in many cases, become so totalising and monolithic that it has progressively been imbued with its own causal properties – ‘that is, it becomes the “it” which does the explaining, rather than the political phenomenon that needs to be explained’ (Phelan, 2007: 328). Thus, Boas and Gans-Morse (2009: 138-9) are right in arguing that ‘neoliberalism is often left undefined in empirical research, even by those who employ it as a key independent or dependent variable … the term is effectively used in many different ways, such that its appearance in any given article offers little clues as to what it actually means’. In the absence of an inherent, inalienable meaning accepted by all scholars of neoliberalism, an astonishing array of diverse, often contradictory phenomena have thus come to be classified as ‘neoliberal’.

For some, such as Bill Dunn (also here), the implication is that the term should be discarded, while others (e.g. Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho) posit that the concept needs to be specified more tightly. Yet, others still (e.g. Kean Birch and Will Davies) demonstrate that the very nature of neoliberalism renders such a task inherently problematic. While Peck (2010: 31) argues that neoliberalism needs ‘to be more than a placeholder term … [t]he word must have content’, he simultaneously recognises that ‘crisply unambiguous, essentialist definitions of neoliberalism have proved to be incredibly elusive’ (Peck, 2011: 8). For Peck, this difficulty is deeply embedded within the constitutive features of neoliberalism itself, which they view as characterised by ongoing and highly variegated processes of market construction, which in turn generate feedback loops and contradictions, prompting further responses by policy makers and elites, thus rendering neoliberalism effectively indeterminate as a political project. Indeed, the foregrounding of variation, difference and a critique of ‘master narratives’ of neoliberalism has been a feature of recent scholarship (e.g., Ong, 2006). However, this often leaves unspecified the core around which variation occurs.

While it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a high degree of incommensurability between these different understandings of neoliberalism, more noteworthy is that there has been little direct engagement between them. It is in this context that my colleagues, Damien Cahill, Melinda Cooper, Martijn Konings, and I are proud to have edited the recently-published SAGE Handbook of Neoliberalism. Spread across forty-eight chapters and 720 pages, the book is a weighty tome to say the least! Indeed, upon hearing how thick the Handbook is, a student asked whether I had considered a particular marketing strategy: offering the opportunity to carry the volume for short periods as an alternative to gym membership. While this particular objective is not yet in the pipeline, we hope that the Handbook may productively represent the diversity of scholarly perspectives on this proliferating concept and present the ‘state of the art’ of research within the field as a means to understand better the meaning, practice, and influence of neoliberalism.

More specifically, one of the central goals of the book as a whole, if not to bring the myriad perspectives on the concept into dialogue, is at least to present them side-by-side and allow readers to reflect upon the variegated approaches to understanding neoliberalism. With so many different takes on the meaning, practice and influence of neoliberalism, it is a germane moment for critics to take heed of Bruno Latour’s (2004: 231) call to think critically about critique by doing ‘what every good military officer, at regular periods, would do: retest the linkages between the new threats he or she has to face and the equipment and training he or she should have in order to meet them.’ That is, in order to offer the most effective challenge possible to neoliberalism, it is time to take stock of our conceptual arsenal to ensure that it operates as we assume and does what we intend it to do. We thus aim not to present a particular interpretation of neoliberalism, but rather to reflect the breadth of contemporary scholarship on this contested concept. Through the inclusion of a diversity of perspectives on the phenomenon from across the social sciences, the Handbook seeks to take a step back and avoid adopting the term ceteris paribus, instead intending to stimulate deliberation over its properties, applicability and ongoing epistemological utility.

Of course, my co-editors and I each have our own distinct understanding of the nature of neoliberalism and our positions within the aforementioned debates. However, criticisms of the concept notwithstanding, we also continue to view neoliberalism as a useful descriptor of real-world phenomena. While no concept can hope to capture the full complexity of actual social processes, the strength of the term ‘neoliberalism’ is that it effectively identifies a new set of ideas that rose to prominence across the capitalist world from the 1970s onwards. It also serves as a means to comprehend a particular set of institutional transformations over the same period, which can be rendered at least partially legible through an engagement with neoliberal ideas.

In this respect, consideration of the myriad class, ideological and public policy dimensions of neoliberalism remains especially pertinent in the contemporary context as a means to conceptualise transformations in democracy and potential challenges to the global political economic status quo. The publication of the Handbook comes at a time of transition and uncertainty in the global political economy. With the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections and bellicose, xenophobic agenda of his regime, the ‘no’ vote that led to Brexit and the rise of far-right movements around the world – from France, Italy, and Greece to Austria, Hungary, Turkey and the Philippines – there is a palpable sense that we are now definitively departing the ‘great moderation’ of the neoliberal era to enter new and uncharted waters. For anyone who has followed the intellectual convulsions of the past few years, this experience has something of the déjà vu about it. After all, many critical thinkers responded to the global financial crisis of 2007 by sounding the death knell of neoliberalism. Remarkably, most of these pall-bearers seemed to assume that the anti-capitalist left would be the chief beneficiary of neoliberalism’s demise. Over the last few years, this assumption has slowly come undone, and nowhere more painfully than in Greece, where Syriza – one of the most capable and pragmatic of far-left movements in the face of neoliberal austerity – was brutally defeated by the Troika. While not wanting to write off the future or discount the organisational powers of the left in years to come, events in the current conjuncture suggest that the far-right – not the far-left – has thus far most clearly benefited from the global crisis of neoliberal capitalism.

The response of the Troika to the sovereign debt crisis of the European peripheries has generated a burgeoning literature on the relationship between neoliberalism and democracy, as many question whether there might be some elective affinity between neoliberalism and authoritarian rule (Ayers and Saad-Filho, 2015; Biebricher, 2015; Brown, 2015). Historians of neoliberalism would perhaps want to remind us that the lesson should have been obvious from the start. After all, the incompatibility between political freedom and neoliberalism was made abundantly clear in the Chilean coup of 1973, which brought General Pinochet to power with the help of Friedman’s Chicago boys, and has been rehearsed many times over in the global South and former Soviet Union, where endless rounds of structural adjustment have divested the state of any power to represent or redistribute. Economic freedom and so-called ‘state failure’ have long been partners in crime; and the so-called failed state is more often than not a purely authoritarian, police state. When asked to comment on the seeming contradiction between the dictatorial powers of General Pinochet and the neoliberal rhetoric of freedom, Friedrich von Hayek (1981) proffered the opinion that ‘it is possible for a dictator to govern in a liberal way’ and ‘it is also possible for a democracy to govern with a total lack of liberalism’ before concluding that ‘a liberal dictator’ was preferable to a ‘democratic government lacking liberalism’.

Hayek’s reflections cast an interesting light on early neoliberal debates at the Mont Pèlerin Society which, after all, was born out of a critique of fascist ‘totalitarianism’ and its’ supposed twin, welfare state capitalism. Is authoritarianism only problematic when it overrides the rules of the free market order, as the Nazis did when they abandoned the gold standard regime of classical liberalism? And what can we expect of the far-right movements that are on the rise across Europe, North America and Turkey, movements which seem to oscillate between neoliberal and protectionist authoritarianism? In the contemporary context, where resilient neoliberal regimes appear to coincide with the resurgence of far-right movements across the globe, such questions are especially pertinent once again.

Yet, rather than implying that neoliberalism may be largely equated with authoritarianism (e.g. Couldry, 2010: 47), the individual contributions to the Handbook collectively draw attention to the complex dynamics between these two phenomena. For instance, João Rodrigues’ detailed comparison of the political economic contributions of Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek presents these authors as representing a tradition of neoliberal theorists largely positing the supplementation of market coordination in place of democratic procedures. In contrast, the contributions of Brigitte Young on the relevance of ordoliberalism and Virginia school neoliberalism to explaining the political economic crisis in Europe, and Erik Swyngedouw on the post-politicisation of climate change governance, each evaluate whether neoliberalism may also be compatible with a restriction of democracy. They consider how such hindrances may by articulated through the configuration of largely undemocratic decision-making procedures and institutions ranging from constitutional amendments to technocratic management, problem-fixing governance structures and populist discursive regimes. Thus, rather than positing ‘neoliberalism’ as a cohesive phenomenon characterised by uniform political propositions and stable spatial and temporal effects, any critical examination must first recognise its multiplicity of forms – both in theory and in practice – in order to engage in penetrating critiques of its specific theoretical tenets and normative implications (Peck, 2011).

Such reflections on the inherent complexity of neoliberalism also have political implications beyond those associated with academic deliberation. For the past four decades, neoliberalism has promulgated a radical restructuring and reorganisation of the economy, politics, society, culture and the environment. Within this context, as Owen Worth’s contribution illustrates, the materialisation and promulgation of myriad social movements across the political spectrum – ranging from ‘anti-globalisation’ and ‘Occupy’ to the re-emergence of the far-right and Trumpism – constitute an important field within which to identify the thinking behind the action. For Antonio Gramsci (1971: 365), questions of theory and practice are raised particularly when the ‘movement of historical transformation is at its most rapid.’ The point of such questioning, according to this line of thought, is to make the ‘political forces unleashed’ more ‘efficient and expansive’, while concomitantly making the ‘theoretical programmes’ more realistically justified. Following this line of reasoning, the chapters comprising the Handbook also collectively contribute insights to analysing and responding to changes in the neoliberal era, both within and beyond this status quo.

More specifically, the variegated and multifarious accounts of neoliberalism presented in the Handbook demonstrate that this phenomenon cannot be reduced to a collection of policies, which would imply that the transformations wrought over the last four decades could be reversed or transcended through implementation of alternative policy initiatives and programs alone. While necessary, the capacity for such initiatives to engender fundamental change are limited by the political channels open to opponents of neoliberalism and the ability of coalition forces to utilise them. This is particularly so in light of the extensive transformations in production and reproduction processes, the state, ideology and society propagated during the neoliberal era (Fine and Saad-Filho, 2016).

Consider, for instance, the demonstrations that took place in Seattle in 1999. Myriad trade unionists, indigenous groups, environmentalists, farmers, women’s organisations and faith-based groupings marched in a bid to halt the World Trade Organisation talks. This, in turn, gave rise to the ‘alter-globalisation’ movement in the early twenty-first century. Despite garnering impressive levels of attention to and public action against the uneven effects of globalisation and its enabling institutions, the movement largely failed to articulate collective resistance transcending multiple spatial scales and gradually faded away following its role in inaugurating demonstrations against the Iraq War in 2003. This was primarily due to the persistence of extant antagonisms amongst its constitutive activists and organisations across lines of national and social oppression, in conjunction with its inability to construct a cohesive global political economic program or suite of collective demands (Prashad, 2013). Assessment of the potential effectiveness of such resistance measures and their contemporary manifestations thus requires consideration of their organisational character, in conjunction with analysis of how the systemic operation of neoliberalism has wrought transformations in class relations, ideology and institutions and processes of economic, social and cultural reproduction.

Following the GFC, the renewal of diverse forms of resistance to neoliberalism – from socialist, anarchist, feminist, environmentalist and anti-racist organisations to far-right nationalist and populist movements – suggests that consideration of such factors is timely once again. In this context, the contributions to the Handbook demonstrate how progressive corrosion of the ideological foundations of neoliberalism, its persistent political economic contradictions and rigidity of its underlying regulatory institutions have produced a complex state of affairs in which the system is resistant to change, yet increasingly vulnerable to myriad political challenges. On one hand, Erik Swyngedouw’s account details the ‘post-political’ framing of climate change under the neoliberal mode of governmentality. This has sought to foreclose politicisation and evacuate dissent over market-based socio-economic organisation of the issue through a regime of environmental governance centred on consensus and technocratic management. Such an example reflects the broader trend toward depoliticisation under neoliberalism. In many cases, the scope and ambition to express collective objectives and dissenting opinions, and thereby construct programs seeking to transcend the status quo, have been systematically hindered by transformations in institutions, structures of political representation and processes of socio-economic (re)production over the past four decades (Wilson and Swyngedouw, 2014).

On the other hand, as detailed in the chapters by Simon Springer, Owen Worth and David Bailey, the effects of these same neoliberal developments have simultaneously stoked new forms of dissent and calls for emancipatory struggle. This has particularly been so as the efficacy of markets to secure a range of socio-ecological objectives and widening gap between rich and poor have received increasing scrutiny in light of the GFC and pervasive imposition of austerity measures (McNally, 2011). Progressive movements such as Occupy, the Spanish indignados and the myriad groups driving the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia have sought to openly challenge the material and ideological foundations of neoliberalism – as embodied in the slogan ‘we are the 99%’, which has come to symbolise an emerging global challenge to the excesses of neoliberalism. As present, however, such struggles have yet to extend beyond defensive actions to pose a more comprehensive alternative to neoliberalism. Concurrently, the material changes wrought over the last four decades and growing crisis in their legitimacy have also produced conditions ripe for the cultivation of populism. Reactionary sentiments of nationalism, racism, sexism and anti-intellectualism have been seized upon and fostered by the political Right to buttress a new protectionist agenda and a new monetary sovereignty while leaving largely untouched the systemic inequalities created by decades of neoliberal rule.

As demonstrated across the chapters in the Handbook, the tenacity of neoliberalism and its capacity for adjustment at the margins has been repeatedly evident, at both the level of theory and in practice, throughout its evolution. In this respect, there is no inevitability that persistent contradictions in its material and ideational foundations will instigate the transcendence of neoliberalism. Nevertheless, its persistent contradictions and crises have, at least, re-opened an opportunity for diverse movements to collectively work to delegitimise neoliberalism and envision the emergence of multiple alternatives. Through reflecting on the complexity of its theoretical underpinnings and multiplicity of its political implications, it is hoped that this book will productively contribute to such struggles.

This post is an adapted version of the editorial introduction appearing in the SAGE Handbook of Neoliberalism, co-written with Damien Cahill, Malinda Cooper and Martijn Konings.

David Primrose
David Primrose is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. His research examines the relationship between behavioural economics, neoliberalism and post-political representations of social processes. He has previously published on the political economy of behavioural economics, health, inequality, biodiversity and infrastructure, and is also exploring issues relating to contemporary agri-food reform, development, technoscience, economic theory, Marxism, poststructuralism and neoliberalism.

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