The Case for “Neoliberal Ideology”
Central Research Question: What is “neoliberal ideology”?
Key Words: Neoliberalism, ideology, markets, democracy, subject, postmodernity
This is a proposed investigation into the dominant form of contemporary ideology, which I refer to as “neoliberalism”, and how it has come to occupy a paradoxical role of hegemony that does not acknowledge itself. I hypothesise that, contrary to mainstream critiques, neoliberalism represents a new ideological compass, more attuned to the postmodern turn across the Anglo-American imaginary and, partially as a result of this [re]configuration, one that has been denied a thorough mapping not delimited by positivist economism, nor absolute emphasis on cultural exchange.
The imprecision and so unworkability of “neoliberalism” as a term has become a truism shared across the political spectrum (Jessop, 2013). The degrading of neoliberalism’s discursive efficacy – dismissed by some mainstream commentators as a pejorative lacking in academic rigor – has resulted in, rather than a unifying, critical device of radicalism/opposition, a shared confusion over the term’s contours. For example, is neoliberalism simply an extension of class conflict, or does it denote a new kind of subjectivation entirely? Further still, are these mutually exclusive interpretations?
This pointed ambivalence with which “neoliberalism” is treated is mirrored in mainstream understandings of the role of ideology, which has also had its plausibility called into question (Žižek, 2012). An influential, Fukuyaman “vision of a New Man who has left behind all the old ideological baggage” (ibid. p38) claims that, religious and ethnic difference aside, there has been a “collapse” of speculative “ideas and consciousness” (ibid.) marking the end of ideologies. This denial of alternatives has not hindered a proliferation of the term itself, which has been used in increasingly disparate contexts. For instance, the austerity policies imposed by so many post- financial crisis governments have regularly been deemed “ideological” in their gestation and application, underlining a widespread misunderstanding of the neoliberal propensity to operate against typical neoclassical economics principles.
This uncertainty of neoliberalism and ideology invites further exploration. I hypothesise that, contrary to the above, neoliberalism is comprehensible as an ideological [re-]configuration of competing and unstable impulses. Further, neoliberalism denotes a new ideology, one deeply inflected by the “cultural turn” of the 1980s and the epistemic freedoms afforded by postmodernity. In acknowledging what is new about neoliberalism, presumed social understandings and practices (e.g. engagement in democratic procedures) can be re-examined, allowing us to find in contemporary phenomena alternative diagnoses not only of what neoliberalism “looks like” but also how it is reproduced. How I plan to approach this investigation is detailed below.
- Neoliberalism and Postmodernity
Neoliberalism is the quintessential ideology of capitalist postmodernity. Arguing this position will be the focus of the first chapter of this project. There is an immediate historical link between the schools of neoliberalism and postmodernity; both share a lineage of thought that predates their simultaneous crossover into political office (in the case of the former) and the academy (the latter). Furthermore, the opportunistic and hybridised tendencies of neoliberalism share with postmodern perspectives a celebration, and crucially utilisation, of the heterogeneity that its own perspective unearths.
After the supposed death of grand narratives, the “unleashed multitude” of postmodernity has often been interpreted in only two, broad ways. Firstly, the chaotic potential of exploded hierarchies, exposed relations of power and control in previously seemingly stable constructs (e.g. the family unit) evokes a powerlessness and fear of complete disorder, or paralogical thinking which, in its very [potential] radicalism, has had the effect of dismissal and depoliticisation. A cursory glance at the heartlands of neoliberalism suffices in proving however that there would appear to be no immediate absence of control, or breakdown in systems of power/control. How then is neoliberalism shaped by postmodernity? The alternative interpretation considers enforced homogeneity to be the only possible, non-chaotic outcome. In a twist on the Fukuyaman vision of an eternal, global liberal-capitalist order, this approach is epitomised in the re-framing of postmodernism as itself a grand narrative, and so not so much a breakaway from the ideals of the Enlightenment and the modernist era as its continuation (Gane & Gane, 2007: 128-131).
My proposal rejects both interpretations of political postmodernity, and instead seeks to incorporate the postmodern complication of the locations and interactions of power with a circuitous understanding of neoliberalism. I suggest instead that neoliberal praxis operates from a postmodern perspective; with no grand narrative to emulate or serve as a guide, the space for neoliberalism’s reproduction is precisely in the uncertainties and “chaos” of its epistemology. This is not to say that power has been democratised or even radically overhauled in this period, but its transformation under the ideological dominance of neoliberalism is reason enough to rebuff the suggestion that neoliberalism – and indeed the “postmodern turn” – is simply the continuation of previous relations.
- Neoliberalism and markets
The relationship between neoliberalism and postmodernity, in which the latter serves as a lens or perspective incorporated within neoliberal modes of reproduction, provides the toolkit from which I will draw new analyses of how institutions of [neoliberal] power combine in a new ideological formulation to transform environments. The second chapter will concentrate on the neoliberal market. The unison of state and big business, in their operation, staffing and regulation, has been co-ordinated especially aggressively over the last thirty years. Government initiatives (e.g. the Reagan antitrust initiative) which expressly facilitate and/or maintain industry monopolisation demonstrate not only a new normativity in governance, they also hint towards a profoundly new conceptualisation of how the individual relates to market exchange: Why shouldn’t government run on the principles of efficiency and value for money? It’s what you would do yourself.
It is this latter inference that is at the crux of [postmodern] neoliberal ideology and its ramifications on social understandings of the market. As Foucault (1979/2010) noted and, arguably, reinforced, the conceptual market – the realm of exchange – has become a primary “site of truth” in the neoliberal world. In conjunction with the emphasis on deterritorialised capitals (e.g. cultural/financial) we have observed “an accountable and financial subjectivation… generating a relationship of the individual subject to him- or herself that is homologous to the relationship of capital to itself… human capital to be indefinitely increased” (Dardot & Laval, 2013: 15). In other words, market exchange has by some accounts become the essential measurement of life itself. If we accept that “The market is in human nature… [that it is the] proposition that cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged. It is the most crucial terrain of ideological struggle” (Jameson, 1994: 281) then it stands that any exploration of contemporary ideology must look closely at how “the self” has been marketised. In doing so, we come closer to an understanding of neoliberalism as a transversal, “new spirit of capitalism” (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2007) and more than purely an economic or cultural transformation.
- Neoliberalism and democracy
The credibility of liberal democracy as a cornerstone of Fukuyama’s “eternal present”, as well as an ultimate justification for state policy, has been critiqued anew since the global financial crisis. The declining voter turnout and consistent drop in party membership predate 2007 by decades, but an enclosed “politics of the possible” after 2007 demonstrated state acquiescence to the demands of the financial markets, rejuvenating claims that the West operates as “post-democracy” (Crouch, 2011). The subtleties of this thesis speak directly to an understanding of neoliberal ideology as a postmodernist phenomenon, for instance in the continued salience of the democratic event as a humanising and legitimising symbol.
This I suggest is an important introduction in how neoliberal ideology manifests as both a material and discursive device, and employs its own contradictions as a source of reproduction. When the usually astute Jodi Dean (2011) writes that “Claims for post-politics are childishly petulant… Leftists assume that our lack of good political ideas means the end of politics as such… If the game isn’t played on our terms, we aren’t going to play at all” she misses the great reveal of the post-democracy thesis. Political conflict patently endures, and calls for voter abstention, despite the many well-known stymies of liberal democracy, have been met lukewarmly by Right and Left alike. My alternative diagnosis will address the successes that neoliberalism has had in shutting out challenges to its own directives, and the relocation of power away from the ballot box.
This fracture of power is another indication of neoliberalism’s imbrication in postmodernity. The paradoxical and unstable relocation of that power, in the marketization-subjectivation and accountability of the self, but also in increasingly “offshore” directives, aligns with what Jameson (1991) calls postmodern schizophrenia, and the delinking of “unrelated presents in time” (27). This will take my analysis past democratic procedures per se, and towards the co-optation of progressive movements in the neoliberal age. As cultural theorists of the 1980s who centered the question “Who am I? Where am I from?” (Hall et al, 1997) as a rebuttal to the economism of the New Right would attest, the extraordinary achievement of neoliberalism is to provide within its own perpetual, directional transformation a plethora of answers.
With this project I hope to add to an emerging debate, which questions both the significance of ideology, particularly in the post- Cold War West, and the comprehensibility of neoliberalism as a specific ideological form (see Davies, 2014; Dardot & Laval, 2013). As Mirowski (2013) points out, the neoliberal “thought collective” has from its beginning been a deliberately multi-scalar pursuit of transforming knowledges. Crucially then, I shall endeavour to compose a thesis that acknowledges the insight of multiple disciplines; radical geography (Springer, 2012), critical theory (Baudrillard, 1983), cultural theory (Hall et al, 1997) and so on. The task is not to homogenise these perspectives, but to take from them the problematisations which best highlight my central thesis: neoliberalism as postmodern ideology.
An undertaking such as this is to some degree speculative. However it would be misleading to conclude that this approach is not already being pursued by critical writers in the field. Re-visioning neoliberalism as an ideology which “captures” its own antagonisms, and then uses their inculcation as a springboard for reproduction, has been engaged in with real success by feminist writers exploring the fate of second- (and third-) wave feminist praxis (Fraser, 2013). In fully acknowledging this dynamic of reproduction, I intend to avoid cherry picking the social empowerment/capitalisation that neoliberalism has afforded and setting them aside as a brief marriage between it and postmodernity. Instead, I posit that neoliberalism ought to be understood as a form of ideology that functions primarily as a hybridised process alongside the transformative potential of postmodernity.
The question of methodology in a paper such as this, which sets out explicitly as an investigation drawing on multiple bodies of knowledge, and addressing what I suggest is a postmodern ideology, is potentially awkward. Indeed ensuring a consistent methodological approach is the primary obstacle I foresee in completing my thesis. There are several facets to my proposal which I hope will guard against this tension becoming detrimental. Firstly, there is a flexibility afforded by a paper engaging creatively with existing theory. A hermeneutic approach between disciplines, held together by the initial argument “neoliberalism as postmodern ideology”, is consistent with Springer’s (2012) contention that a thorough mapping of neoliberalism must be flexible enough in its methodology to reflect not simply a “bottom-up” or “top-down” dichotomy, but its immanent hybridisation.
Secondly, my proposal’s inclination towards anti-positivism corresponds with an area I intend to spend time on in the second chapter: methodologies of neoliberalism. The embedding of market rationalities within the self – and the subject – is epitomised in the misapplication of evolutionary science with sociology more generally, such as the common misunderstandings of “social Darwinism” which apply the “survival of the fittest” mantra to ideational progress. This observation informs my own methodology, initially as a warning not to expect any empirical “answers” or “explanations” for neoliberalism; Mirowski (2013) has written at length about “agnotology” and the production of misinformation in neoliberal times. More than this, if my assertion of “neoliberalism as postmodern ideology” is serious, it ought not be surprising that fluidity – or inconsistency – will have to serve, not as obstacles but as catalysts, for this new understanding of contemporary ideology.
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