Neoliberalism after governmentality

A good crisis is usually bad news for rigorous thinking, and so it seems as the term ‘neoliberalism’ ossifies into a catch-all popular phrase to describe all the things that right-minded lefties don’t like and blame for current troubles. Oh well. I suspect the systematic mis-representation of the past 40 years or so of politics, policy and economics which the ‘critical conventional wisdom’ on neoliberalism sustains (in both Marxoid and Foucault-inflected variants) is a hindrance to the development of creative alternative visions of democracy and economic life. The ‘critical conventional wisdom’ line is from a new book by Stephen Collier, Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics. Collier is an anthropologist, and has developed a similar line of critical thinking about ‘neoliberalism’ and the use of Foucault to that of James Ferguson – Collier has an excellent 2009 paper in Theory, Culture and Society on the need to move beyond analyses of governmentality that just extend old-style models of ‘power’ (on a related note, Michael Warner’s recent piece on the past and future of queer theory is another reminder of the degree to which political readings of Foucault tend to rush over the problems of thinking about normativity, towards simpler ideas of the power of ‘norms’; or, to put it another way, conventional accounts of governmenality and neoliberalism are remarkably ‘straight’ in the ways in which they think about subjectivity, power, and the like).

The book is a detailed empirical analysis of the restructuring of ordinary spatial infrastructures in Russia over the last two decades, but one which seeks to challenge a series of settled understandings about The Washington Consensus, neoliberalization, and the like. It’s very ‘geographical’, partly in its focus on urban and regional scale issues, but it also has a much more interesting line on how to think about the geographies of ‘neoliberal technologies’ than the standard diffusionist line peddled by many geographers. There are various notable features of Collier’s analysis:

– it looks at ordinary practices of governance, how they arise as problems in specific situations, rather than tracking circulations of policy discourse;

– related to this, he focuses (at last, someone has, one might think), on a set of ‘neoliberal’ thinkers beyond Hayek, Friedman, etc – in this case, James Buchanan and George Stigler; theorists of government, law, regulation, the state, institutions, not ‘markets’; as I have suggested here before, the insistence on thinking of ‘neoliberalism’ as a theory of markets-against-the-state is factually wrong and analytically short-sighted;

– he insists on thinking of neoliberalism as a precise range of ideas and practices, in line with the quite restrictive sense that Foucault deployed in his 1978-79 lectures on biopolitics, and resists the ‘hegemonic’ interpretation which insists that everywhere neoliberalism turns up it must and does become the dominant dynamic (i.e. neoliberalism might not be the most important thing that has been going on, always, and everywhere, once one stops calling all sorts of things ‘neoliberal’);

– and he develops the intriguing thoughts of Foucault on socialist governmentality, focussing ‘methodologically’ on thinking about socialist biopolitics from back in the 1920s, and in terms of the analysis of ‘problematizations’ rather than coherent systems of ‘governmentality’.

The thinking that Collier, Ferguson and others are doing about these issues strikes me as really important – it’s not just ’empirical’, but cuts to the heart of some prevalent ways of doing theory which have arisen around topics such as neoliberalism, concepts such as governmentality and biopolitics, and imperatives for academics to be ‘critical’.

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