Neoliberalism: the latest news

Aditya Chakrabortty set off a bit of fuss by complaining recently that non-economist academics (he meant sociologists, poor souls, leave them alone) weren’t doing enough work on ‘the crisis’ – proving, mainly, that all journalists, irrespective of political stripe, have a standard article template which they roll out every so often complaining that academics work on absurd topics, talk only to themselves, and ignore things that really matter (my favourite recent version of this type of piece is a column by Nick Cohen last year, lambasting Judith Butler for being an obscurantist – it took him fully more than a decade to recycle the story about her ‘winning’ a bad writing contest, and then oddly presented this as if it were an ‘objective’ judgement of academic fact. Read the piece, it’s an exemplary case of the broader genre).

Anyway, I’m getting distracted – the Chakrabortty piece/debate made me think, again, of how pervasive the notion of ‘neoliberalism’ has become as the basis of the standard alternative discourse, the exception as it were that appears to prove the wider absence of a critical alternative analysis that he claims to identify.

In so far as this is the case – certainly in academic circles, the vocabulary and wider theoretical understanding shaped by more-or-less Marxist accounts of ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘neoliberalization’ have become widespread – then this seems to me to compound the problem that Chakrabortty discerns – of a lack of thought about the current conjuncture and its alternatives.

A couple of months ago, I posted one or two things about conceptualizations of neoliberalism and governmentality, biopolitics and the like – including a recommendation of a new book by Stephen Collier. Collier has a new piece in the journal Social Anthropology, a contribution to a ‘debate’ set off in the same journal by Loic Wacquant. It’s well worth a look if you are at all interested in finding ways out of the straightjacket of what currently passes as critical orthodoxy in geography, anthropology, urban studies and related fields.

What I like in particular about Collier’s piece is the way in which he identifies a particular tendency in ‘structural’ narratives of neoliberalism to expand the concept to include all sorts of things, once it is found that neoliberalism in a narrow sense (conventionally defined, rightly or wrongly, as a range of state-shrinking and/or market friendly policies) tends to be found alongside other processes and trends – state-sanctioned violence, or securitization, or counterintuitive extension of state provision in certain areas, and so on. He also has a nice critique of the geography variant of this methodological and conceptual trick, which is to affirm that neoliberalism is ‘variegated’, where that means any variation is only ever recognised as movement anchored to a static norm, combined with a convenient line about ‘contradictions’ and a flawed understanding of ‘family resemblances’.

Collier argues instead, briefly, but it’s the argument of his book on post-Soviet biopolitics too, that actually the concept of neoliberalism should be used much more restrictively, and he again appeals here to Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics and neoliberalism (or not) that have attracted so much attention. The basic point comes down to a suggestion that neoliberalism might not be all there is going on in the world, nor even the most important, most determinative thing, all the time, everywhere. And, a little more fundamentally, it’s an argument about the extent to which rather than presuming to know what ‘neoliberalism’ refers to, it might be fun to follow Foucault and keep open a sense of puzzlement about just what sort of ‘power’ a quite specific mutation in economic thought was and is an index of. 

Collier’s argument about the expansive tendency of neoliberalism-talk, whereby everything becomes a facet of neoliberalism that ever comes into contact with ‘it’, reminded me of a piece, also just published, by Matt Hannah on Foucault’s ‘German Moment’ (Matt sent me a copy of this paper around the time of those previous posts, I didn’t have time to read or respond back then – I’m doing so now, publicly, sort of, and  I’m not sure if this is rude or not). It’s an interesting piece about the context in which Foucault’s mid-1970s work developed, specifically his engagement with German politics around the time of the Red Army Faction, the German Autumn, etc. It provides really useful background to these debates, including some context to Foucault and Deleuze’s ‘falling out’. 

Hannah’s larger point is a claim about the significance of Foucault’s account of neoliberalism which emerged from this ‘German moment’, which included a strong emphasis on extra-legal state violence and securitization, compared to the more narrowly ‘economistic’ account of the 1979 lectures. Others have identified the same shift, but interpreted it differently (to cut a long story short, it all turns on how far one is prepared to think that all forms of state power are reducible to ‘fascism’). 

My thought is why this shift should be presented, as Hannah does, as a loss – why does the more narrow account of neoliberalism represent a retreat, rather than, say, a specification. Along with Collier (I like his argument, and not only ‘cos he cites me), it seems to me that the later and narrower focus on the ‘laissez-faire-ing’ of subjects as Mark Driscoll has put it, as a quite precise modality of power, is preferable to the expansive account which would insist on adding in some necessary relation between this modality and, say, securitization – to read the shift as a loss is to close down the question that Foucault seemed to open up in the 1979 lectures by narrowing the focus.   

Part of the scandal of the ‘late’ Foucault in his ever-changing incarnations has always been and remains the degree to which he ends up saying much less radical things than he is meant to be saying, given the construction of what ‘Foucault’ is meant to be saying as a central figure of the left-academic canon. What if less is more, when it comes to talking about neoliberalism – what if the term really should be used quite narrowly, and what if doing so might help prise open questions long since closed down – questions that can’t be asked by banging on about hybrid variations, or even articulations, for as long as these formulations maintain a happy consensus about what ‘it’ was and is in the first place. 

I’m rambling a bit now – read Collier, he’s more articulate than me.

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One thought on “Neoliberalism: the latest news

  1. Pingback: Neoliberalism | Thinking culture

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