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: 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.

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’.