Rethinking Latin America and Hegemony
Understanding Crises

Where in the World Does Neoliberalism Come From?

by Elizabeth Humphrys on August 29, 2014
Journal Club

Only days after her ‘official’ retirement Raewyn Connell was back in the Merewether building to speak to the Political Economy Research Students’ Journal Club, the location she first worked from at the University of Sydney. The article up for discussion was her recent publication (co-authored with Nour Dados) titled ‘Where in the World Does Neoliberalism Come From: The Market Agenda in Southern Perspective’. This paper was my choice – we take it in turns to select an article – as it argues a crucial point about how the literature on neoliberalism privileges the experiences of certain locations to construct an ‘origin’ story.

In their article Connell and Dados argue that mainstream theoretical work on the emergence and transmission of neoliberalism is dominated by two narratives: 1) that neoliberalism is about the spread of certain ideas amongst a network of right-wing intellectuals (based in Europe and the United States); or 2) that it is a mutation of capitalism resulting from a crisis of profitability. As a result, the story of neoliberalism in mainstream theory is of a phenomenon arising in the global North (and the US & UK in particular) and later exported to the global South. Such an interpretation places the global North at the centre of the account of the development of neoliberalism and, they argue, eschews the experience of the global South. Moreover, and as Raewyn emphasised in the discussion, it fails to emphasise that neoliberalism was a global process from the start.

The article (published in Theory & Society this year) mobilises both the experience of the global South and the analysis of Southern theorists, to argue that in those locations neoliberalism should be understood as a development strategy – and as a new development strategy supplanting those pursued prior to the 1970s. By placing the global South at the centre of their analysis, Connell and Dados then identify a set of issues fundamental to neoliberalism in those locations: the formative role of the state and military; the expansion of world commodity trade and mineral extraction; and agriculture, informality, and the transformation of rural society.

It is not that a Southern perspective on neoliberalism needs to supplant a Northern one (even if a common Southern perspective was possible), they argue, but that understanding neoliberalism can be enhanced when the experience of the South and the work of Southern theorists is taken seriously. In the paper they discuss the profound exclusion of work by Southern theorists:

Database searches show that papers explicitly referencing “neoliberalism” became a substantial literature in English-language social science journals between 1992 and 1996. This literature mainly concerned privatisation, de-industrialisation, welfare state rollback, and their consequences — clearly addressing the Thatcher/Reagan agenda. There had been, in fact, an earlier literature about neoliberalism in the global South (e.g. Norman Bailey’s 1965 article on neoliberalism in Latin America published in Review of Politics), which was focused on markedly different themes. Of 73 studies on neoliberalism published between 1980 and 1989, 27 were about Latin America, with a significant portion focused on agriculture (e.g. Patricio Silva’s work including his article on the state, politics and peasant unions in Chile published in Journal of Latin American Studies). These earlier publications were not referenced when the Northern critical research emerged in the 1990s.

The fact that two decades’ worth of intellectual work on market agendas could be so easily omitted from accounts produced after 1990 requires some careful reflection on knowledge production on a world scale.

Raewyn spoke to the content of the paper by discussing the trajectory of her academic work. She noted how this recent work fitted within a longer term project of destabilising the Northern bias in mainstream social science (an aside: her 1997 article ‘Why is classical theory classical?’ is well worth reading in this regard). She challenged those in the room, through detailing what she described as her slowness to come to terms with her own Euro/Anglo-centrism in her research, to question what is taught and published and ask about what remains hidden. It was a very gentle way of pressing us, as research students and scholars, to ‘do better’.

While Raewyn’s original office at the University of Sydney had an inauspicious view across the Merewether Building car park, she is today one of Australia’s leading social theorists both at home and abroad. Her work is diverse, and has made key contributions in areas including class and Australia, masculinities, gender, and Southern theory. For my own research it is her earlier work on class (see Ruling Class, Ruling Culture, 1977, and Class Structure in Australian History, 1980), and her latest work on neoliberalism, which is most relevant in terms of content. Yet her comments in the journal club on the need for us all to destabilise the Northern bias in mainstream social science, has most stuck with me since.

Elizabeth Humphrys
Elizabeth is a Scholarly Teaching Fellow in Social & Political Sciences, within the Communications program, based in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, at the University of Technology Sydney.
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  • October 8, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Thank you for this really thought provoking piece. I sent it to the students in my graduate “Rethinking Neoliberalism” class at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York to read along with your other piece on David Harvey’s theorisation of neoliberalism, and Harvey’s book on neoliberalism. We thought that your insights were really profound and gave us a lot to think about. So thank you. I look forward to seeing more posts by you!

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