On the underdetermination of ‘neoliberalism’ by evidence

stopDialogues in Human Geography has a debate forum discussing the relevance of the concept of neoliberalism, revolving around a piece by Sally Weller and Phil O’Neill titled ‘An argument with neoliberalism: Australia’s place in a global imaginary‘. They call into question attempts to refine the concept of neoliberalism/ization in terms of ‘variegation’ and related notions, suggesting that it might just be better to think with different concepts entirely. In the course of the debate, I discovered that I have apparently invented a new genre, called ‘neoliberalism in denial‘. Who knew! Does this make me the Bob Dylan of neoliberal studies? (and if so, does it mean that Noel Castree, who apparently followed my lead, is the Donovan of neoliberal studies?). I wonder if social science theories are the sorts of knowledge-formations that you can actually properly be ‘in denial‘ about – they aren’t quite of the same order as explanations of climate change or the etiology of AIDS, are they?

Anyway, the Weller and O’Neill piece is well worth the read, here is the abstract:

“This article argues that the uncritical application of the lens of neoliberalism closes off opportunities for more rigorous analysis of actually existing socio-economic change. We ask whether Australia’s developmental trajectory over the last three decades can be described as neoliberalization and whether the outcome is a variety of neoliberalism. Instead of stitching together a story about variegated neoliberalism, we find an alternative narrative based around the notion of a developmental project more compelling. We document the spatial and political realities that have inhibited the roll-out of neoliberal ideas and practices in the Australian context. We think that instead of expanding the varieties of variegated neoliberalism to accommodate all manner of events and processes in all sorts of places, our task should be to recognize those instances where social, political, cultural or economic changes settle capitalism’s contradictions in ways that diverge from neoliberal frameworks and expectations. Our central point is that the role of academic research is to explain the lived world and to develop abstractions to aid that explanation, rather than to design an abstraction (neoliberalism) and then fit the lived world to its contours.”

 

 

 

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