Does size matter? Beyond ‘neoliberalism’

I attended a day-long seminar this week honouring the work of my colleague at the OU, Janet Newman. One theme of the day was how to understand the new political context in the UK, one of impending public expenditure cuts, lots of talk of ‘The Big Society’, and the coalition stoking ‘blame the poor’ rhetoric to justify fundamental restructuring of welfare regimes. What struck me over the course of the day was how the task of grasping this new political ‘conjuncture’ remains horribly constrained by the inherited academic conceptualisation of ‘neoliberalism’ that has held such sway over the last decade amongst critically-inclined, lefty social scientists [and critical theories of neoliberalism and neoliberalization are very much a product of the 2000s, something which itself seems worth reflecting on – as simple descriptive term, ‘neoliberalism’ has been around a long time, and we all know what it means – but the formalization of grand explanatory theories around this name seems a much more recent phenomenon].

Amongst those who pioneered the development of theories of ‘hegemonic neoliberalism’, the new situation post-2008 has already been dubbed ‘postneoliberalism’. This is hilarious in its own way, but it is in line with a longer tradition in this neo-Gramscian strand of thought of always ensuring that any awkward real-world facts are rapidly taken to confirm the basic understanding of neoliberalization as involving a straightforward shift from ‘state’ to ‘market’. My favourite example of this theoretical sleight of hand is the conceptual distinction between roll-back and roll-out neoliberalism, as a way of suggesting that even when states were being expanded into new areas and government expenditure was growing, this was all still an expression of logics to reduce the state and expand markets – I have discussed the ways in which strand of theory retreats from serious social theory in an essay on publics and markets published earlier this year. Postneoliberalism as a term seems to acknowledge that something might have changed in modes of economic governance over the last couple of years, but that ‘post’ ensures that the basic understanding of neoliberalization in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s remain intact. Perhaps we should just describe what we are about to experience in the UK as ‘roll-back-again neoliberalism’.

One notable thing about these Marxist accounts of neoliberalization is the way in which they hold to the same zero-sum understanding of the relationship between markets and states that one can find in classic right-wing, conservative and monetarist thinking. Aditya Chakrabortty noticed in The Guardian this week how George Osborne’s account of the deficit crisis revolves around the rhetoric of public sector borrowing ‘crowding out‘ private sector activity, in a direct echo of high monetarist theories of the 1970s and 1980s. But what is noticeable about debates which revolve around the size of the state, shrinking public spending, or the Big-ness or not of Society is precisely how they all revolve around the idea that it is the size of the state relative to markets and ‘civil society’ that most matters. But as Raymond Plant observes in his new book on The Neo-liberal State (Oxford University Press, 2010),  if it makes sense to talk of a neo-liberal political philosophy then not only should this be seen as first and foremost a theory of the state [one which privileges a particular account of the rule of law], not a theory of markets as preferable to the state, but in this strand of thought [in which Oakeshott is as important as Hayek, and Friedmann hardly figures], it is not the size of the state that really matters. It is the character of the state, specifically with regard to the attitude to pursuing putative common goals, that matters most.

The point of all this is to suggest that in large part, the politics of deficit reduction, public sector austerity, and welfore reform under politically conservative regimes, now as in the 1980s, in so far as it does indeed revolve around understandings of the optimal size of the state, is probably not best seen as a simple projection of a single coherent ‘neo-liberal’ programme of the sort imagined by Marxist theorists. Of course those same theorists would acknowledge all this under the sign of ‘contradiction’, but this is really just a cover for the intellectual blinkers which enable any and all counter-evidence to be subsumed into a morally coherent but empirically immunized narrative of neoliberal ‘hegemony’.

One cost of the hegemony of these theories of neoliberal hegemony amongst leftist academics is an inability to think seriously about what markets might be good for, two decades after the flourishing of debates about ‘market socialism’. Of course, there is plenty of interesting work, mainly from economic sociologists, which provides much more pluralist accounts of the intellectual agendas often subsumed beneath the term neoliberalism – Marion Fourcade‘s work on professional economics, for example; or Viviana Zelizer’s challenge to the anti-market moralism of Polanyi, which is so important to critical theories of neoliberalism (see Phillipe Steiner in Theory and Society, (2009) Volume 38, Number 1, pp, 97-110). But this work does not, of itself, challenge the chilling effect that Marxist accounts of neoliberalism have, certainly in the academic fields I have been circulating in over the last decade, which continue to press any and all signs of pluralism and multiplicity into a singular narrative of complicity or selling-out.

What is most surprising about the continuing credulity extended to these critical theories of neoliberalism and neoliberalization is these approaches actually display such a limited view of ‘politics’. Of course, these theories stake their primary claim on understanding neoliberalism as a political process, and also on uncovering this fact as itself a political gesture in itself. But this really just means that for these theories, ‘the state’  acts directly to secure the interests of Capital – either through policy and governance initiatives, in neo-Gramscian versions, or as purveyor of ‘ideology’ in David Harvey’s version. These theories of neoliberalism, which as I say flourished in the 2000s, are pale echoes of the analysis of ‘Thatcherism’ developed by Stuart Hall amidst debates of the 1980s – this account was just one part of an extended attempt to grasp political change as embedded in broader socio-cultural as well as economic transformations. It was Michael Foot who once argued that the real author of the ‘neoliberal’ transformations wrought on  the British economy and British society in the 1980s was not Thatcher, Hayek, or Friedman, but Enoch Powell (Foot’s good friend), principled defender of sound money and fiscal prudence as well as populist race-baiter. Powell hardly features in the narratives of neoliberalization developed by Marxist and Foucauldian theorists, and not the least reason for this is that these approaches have little feel for the contingencies of political process: they either present policy-centric visions of the unfolding of neoliberal logics, or stress the contingent outcomes of technological devices and assemblages. Neither has any feel for the broad sense of social change one finds, for example, in Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive, or Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out. These aren’t ‘theory’ books of course, but in reconstructing the turbulent crossings of conservative, radical, individualistic, anti-authoritarian cultural politics in the 1970s, they succeed in unsettling critical narratives of neoliberalization. At the very least, they suggest the need to think more seriously about the possibility of popular neoliberalism, with all the unsettling implications this notion has.

Theories of neoliberalism have, indeed, had a chilling effect on critical social theory over the last decade, ensuring that attempts to acknowledge the determinate effects of other processes in shaping political outcomes and possibilities is always swamped within a discourse of complicity and hegemony. Notions of ‘postneoliberalism’ are just the latest efforts to maintain this grip by seeming to acknowledge change while putting beyond criticism previous formulations of neoliberalism and neoliberalization. Perhaps it’s time to recognise that one reason it is so difficult to think about the politics of the current conjuncture is precisely because this style of thinking, which continues to serve as the horizon for these efforts, has never been able to think seriously about politics in anything other than highly scholastic terms: as an effect of policy, an expression of intellectual programmes, or as a process of ideology.