Neoliberalism as radical political economy

118In the intellectual world I grew up in and to a large extent still inhabit, the phrase ‘political economy’ is often just another way of saying ‘Marxism’. I’m not sure if it’s ‘ironic’ that this tradition of work has come to be so focussed on the conceptual object ‘dubbed’ neoliberalism, which is theorised as the real world realization of ideas emanating from the post-WW2 revival of ‘political economy’ of a different sort. The status of neoliberal ideas as variants of political economy is often overlooked, primarily because of the investments in simple state/market dualisms that shape critical conceptualizations of neoliberalization.

One of the founding figures of contemporary political economy is James Buchanan, who died last week. Buchanan is one of the unsung heroes/villains of neoliberalism, if there is such a thing – above all through helping to invent public choice theory, a framework for applying certain sorts of economic ideas to the analysis of state actors, bureaucracies, and other organisations. More broadly, Buchanan illustrates the degree to which ideas about the rule of law, constitutionalism, rule-following, and the like provide a positive theory of the state and the public realm rather than simply a straightforward preference for the market over the state (like other thinkers associated with the canon of neoliberal ideas, perhaps with the exception of Richard Posner, Buchanan took the financial crisis of the last five years as largely confirming his own views). Buchanan is as good a place as any to start the task of understanding how states and markets have been reconfigured around new models of public value, rather than by a straightforward shift simply from good public values to bad private ones. Stephen Collier has elaborated on Buchanan’s importance as a ‘minor’ figure in the genealogy of neoliberal practice, in ways which suggest a need to rethink the conventional framework for the critical analysis of neoliberalism more generally.

Buchanan is famous for the line about thinking about ‘politics without romance‘, which rapidly devolved into a deeply cynical view of public actors as rent-seeking parasites. It’s interesting to read the appreciations of Buchanan in places like the FT, The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Bloomberg News, The Daily Telegraph over the last week – you can glean a sense of how public choice theory supports a certain sort of right-wing insurgent self-image, speaking in the name of democratic choice (as revealed preference) against the usurping inclinations of elites. It reminded me of the argument made by John Dryzek some time ago now, in which he argued that public choice theory did indeed share some important affinities with Frankfurt School-style critical theory.

Appreciating Buchanan’s work is important not least because, whisper it, belonging as it does to a tradition of thought that is embedded in particular understandings of democracy, it does address difficult issues of collective action, institutional design, and accountability that conventional left social theory struggles with, oscillating as it does between proto-anarchistic suspicion of ‘the state’ and nostalgia for stale social democratic settlements of the public good. Disentangling and differentiating accounts of ‘rationality’ might be an imperative to rethinking the democratic potentials of emergent forms of contemporary public action – and being able to tell the different in the political valence between Buchanan, say, and Mancur Olson, or Kenneth Arrow, or Amartya Sen, or Jon Elster, or Elinor Ostrom, seems an important task along this road (the differences turn on the degree to which theories are able to account for the rationalities of co-operation as something more than merely aggregation or secondary). Not all styles of rational choice theory are equally pathological, perhaps.

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’.