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The Slipperiness of Neoliberalism

by Gorkem Altinors on August 14, 2018
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“Neoliberalism is a slippery concept, meaning different things to different people” (p. 1). Simon Springer, Kean Birch and Julie MacLeavy’s excellently-edited volume The Handbook of Neoliberalism starts its mission with this nailing definition. Neoliberalism has become one of the concepts that one cannot avoid mentioning it in analysing recent development in social sciences. It is safe to argue that, neoliberalism is now a term that is overly used even in partly overlapping and partly contradictory ways, as James Ferguson argues. There is not any easy way of defining what neoliberalism is. Is it a state form, or a policy, or a version of governmentality, or an ideology? Or simply, is it an epistemology? Perhaps, because of this nuisance, no scholar has attempted to provide an overview of this powerful but amorphous concept in a volume that engages with multiple registers in which the concept has evolved. However, as the editors of this volume argue, neoliberalism is in need of unpacking because it serves as a way of understanding the transformation of society with new political, economic and social arrangements that emphasise market relations, re-tasking the role of state, and individual responsibility in the last few decades (p. 2). This volume represents the first attempt that contributes to the existing knowledge with an interdisciplinary and global perspective by advancing established and emergent debates around the concept.

Springer, Birch and MacLeavy’s volume successfully collects fifty-three contributions plus one introductory chapter written by sixty-eight contributors from a variety of disciplines. The book is organised around seven intertwined themes: Origins, Political Implications, Social Tensions, Knowledge Productions, Spaces, Nature and Environments, and Aftermaths. The book is aimed at mostly academic circles, especially scholars and students. Hopefully, the reader of this review will understand the fact that it is an almost impossible task to compile all fundamental arguments, approaches that are adopted, topics, countries, cases that the volume analyses and then to critically engage with every one of them in a book review; in which case the volume consists of fifty-four chapters written by sixty-eight contributors within seven themes, especially on a nebulous concept like neoliberalism. Notwithstanding the fact that the editors have already suggested to readers not to read this volume cover to cover, instead the purpose is to read the most striking bits and then to chart a unique path across chapters to provoke new ideas to come up with. Perhaps, this idea serves the fundamental purpose of a handbook.

In this review, I will first give an overview and critical assessment of seven themes, instead of chapters, and then I will critically evaluate the volume as a whole. The first theme is constructed around the origins of neoliberalism. This section investigates how the concept of neoliberalism came to define an epistemology across a diverse range of economic matrices, social contexts, policy environments, and institutional settings (p. 4). Chapters in this section focus on neoliberalism as an ideology, its engagement with the Chicago School and Mont Pelerin Society, the emergence of a transnational capitalist class and the development of capitalist internationalism, the diversity of approaches to theorising neoliberalism, neoliberalism as a discourse and as an hegemony, poststructuralist political economy and governmentality, the ability of neoliberalism to go beyond dull academic arguments, and neoliberalism as a multifaceted social fact. This section successfully incorporates eight chapters in explaining and analysing the origins and the emergence of neoliberalism as a concept. It is particularly explicit in the way the chapters in this section historically dismantle neoliberalism in its epistemological, transnational, theoretical, hegemonic, discursive, geographical, varied but undifferentiated, conceptual and even semantic contexts. The section as a whole provides fascinating knowledge on the origins of neoliberalism and it is noteworthy in theory. A minor criticism could be made about the fact that the section overwhelmingly focuses on the Western origins of neoliberalism. The section on its own reads neoliberalism as a Western phenomenon. However, it is equally crucial to focus on the non-Western origins of neoliberalism as it is not plausible to argue that the emergence of neoliberalism as a global phenomenon is merely a Western project that is imposed on the non-West. Neoliberalism also has origins in the non-West.

The second section is based on the theme political implications. This section examines the impact of neoliberal economic policies on the political arena. Eight chapters, in this section, focus on authoritarian neoliberalism and state-directed coercion, citizenship, development, free-trade and the limits of democracy, neoliberalism as a form of violence, bio-politics, hegemonic and neoliberal structures of power, and resilience. The second section is highly satisfactory in its ability to incorporate multifaceted political impacts of neoliberalism into a variety of concepts like coercive state apparatuses, sovereignty and the nation-state, everyday life, freedom, othering and the state of exception, neoliberal capitalist subjectivity, surveillance and media convergence, and sustainability in a historical context. This section skillfully covers various political implications derived from neoliberalisation. The lack of engagement with the neoliberalisation of international law and legislation could be the only quibble.

Social tensions are the theme of the third section. In this section, the editors acknowledge the fact that it leads to a false dichotomy to separate the social from the political. However, they argue that trying to tease out societal strains as distinct from political effects provides a useful organisation (p. 6). This section on social tensions consists of eight chapters that provide insights from race, gender, sexuality, health, welfare, class, commons, and social reproduction. It is safe to argue that this section is a noteworthy contribution to the knowledge of the neoliberalisation of the social where it engages with neoliberalisation on the one hand; racism, immigration, vulnerability, heteronormativity, homonormativity, climate change, austerity, workfare, regulations, labour markets, trade unions, actuality, and the social economy on the other. This section exquisitely provides various aspects of the social and explores how they have become a subject of neoliberal transformation. An analysis of the convergence between neoliberalism and religion, and neoliberalism and arts/culture could have served the purpose of this section too. Despite this little criticism, this section succeeds the editors’ goal.

The editors of this volume dedicated the fourth section to the implications of neoliberalism to knowledge productions and neoliberalism as a particular epistemological order. The section mostly focuses on the neoliberalisation of education and pedagogy. There are eight chapters in this section exploring the implications of human capital theory to education, pedagogies of neoliberalism, financial economics and business schools, knowledge dissemination and policy transfer, science and innovation, performativity, the spatio-temporality and institutional dimension of knowledge and theory, and the production of ignorance. This section successfully analyses how neoliberalism has transformed the way knowledge is produced and reproduced by combining concepts like entrepreneurship, governmentality, pedagogy, market-centred order, corporate monopoly, mobile neoliberal policy, consent and coercion, radical reconnection, power, subject formation, fiscal restraint, austerity and the housing crisis. This section beautifully combines various aspects of the neoliberalisation of education, pedagogy, and knowledge production and dissemination.

The theme of ‘spaces’ represents the fifth theme of this volume. In the fifth section, the editors highlight the material implications of neoliberalism and how human geography has played a crucial role in articulating the critiques of neoliberalism. Seven chapters are combined in a way that the spatial patterns of neoliberalism are explored with topics around urbanisation, rural development, regulation and state-theoretical variegated capitalism, peripheries, geopolitics, transboundary mobility, and housing. The section performs perfectly in incorporating neoliberalisation into the spatial dimensions by highlighting concepts like urban neoliberalism and its ideological, geographical, and historical origins, the precariousness of labour, the plundering of agriculture, the food crisis, the austerity state, finance-dominated accumulation, resistance, peripheralisation, geoeconomics, whiteness, boundaries, and neoliberal governmentality. It is safe to argue that this section provides highly-rich material for those who research the spatial dimension of neoliberalisation.

The sixth section draws attention to the theme of ‘natures and environments’. The neoliberalisation of nature and the environment has recently come under scrutiny as “we are living through a geological era best described as the ‘Anthropocene’ – that is, an era shaped by human action, especially human industrial development” (p. 9). Seven chapters in this section focus on re-regulation framework, emissions trading, the political economy of energy, the neoliberalisation of water, the neoliberalisation of agriculture, bio-economy, and extractive industries. The sixth section thrivingly blends neoliberal doctrine with the Anthropocene through concepts around economic development, corporate voluntarism, climate change, the geography of privatism, privatisation, corporatisation, financialisation, marketisation, food regimes, agroecology, biobanking, and resource sovereignty. Undoubtedly, this section is noteworthy in the way that it engages with the neoliberalisation of nature and the environment.

Finally, the last section focuses on the ‘aftermaths’ of neoliberalism. This section seeks ways for an exit from orthodox political economic ideas towards more heterodox and alternative frameworks (p. 10). Seven chapters in this section focus on the crisis of neoliberalism, regulated deregulation, the reformulation of neoliberalism, post-neoliberalism, zombie neoliberalism, the latent energy for change, the utility of researching neoliberalism. Concepts and topics around historical prospects, electric power industry, local bus services, mortgage securitisation, resistance, neoliberal gothic and neurotic neoliberalism are perfectly articulated in a way that the section analyses what comes next after neoliberalism. In the final chapter of this section, Mark Purcell questions the very purpose of this volume and points out that Left scholars who are interested in neoliberalism are suffering from a serious illness, an obsession with negating neoliberalism (p. 613). However, “[w]hen we fixate on neoliberalism, on injustice, on inequality, on exploitation, on enclosure, he argues, we ignore justice, equality, free activity, and the common” (p. 11). Therefore, “we don’t need a Handbook of Neoliberalism”, instead “we need a Handbook of Care, a Handbook of Democracy, a Handbook of the Common” (p. 618). The editors seem to agree with Purcell and they highlight the fact that neoliberalism has already become a dominant discourse. Although it takes the reader by surprise to conclude a book that represents a major contribution to the literature of neoliberalism, it is equally fundamental to reconsider our engagement with this concept in academic works.

All in all, The Handbook of Neoliberalism is a cornerstone book in the study of this ‘slippery’ concept. In the beginning of this review, I addressed the difficulties of reviewing a book that contains seven themes, fifty-four chapters, and sixty-eight contributors. However, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is obviously a harder task to edit this volume and Springer, Birch and MacLeavy excellently succeed in this by incorporating every single contribution into the theme and the concept, and then assemble every one of them in a way that they read as a single piece. Despite some minor quibbles, there is a great deal to admire in this ambitious edited volume.

The Handbook of Neoliberalism will certainly serve as a primary resource for students and scholars from a variety of disciplines.

This review originally appeared in Capital & Class

Gorkem Altinors
Dr Gorkem Altinors is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, at Bilecik Seyh Edebali University, Turkey. His research interests extend from international relations to political theory. He is currently working on various publications on the relationship between Islam and capitalism.

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