I’m trying to write a literature review, or part of a literature review, under the title of “neoliberalism”. Unsurprisingly, the scope of this project is expanding like a blocked toilet, and giving me an equivalent anxiety. It has quickly become obvious that neoliberalism, which I’m a firm believer in, requires some sort of framework if it is to be communicated in everyday conversation, let alone as a term for political organisation. I hypothesize that this elasticity is a characteristic – one of many, sure – that allows for its ubiquity to reproduce so quietly. Not quietly as in “without violence”, but quietly in “without being termed”. Quietly as in, the political blast-holes of 2016 (Brexit, Trump, Syria, murder in the Mediterranean Sea, continued breakdown of NH Services etc.) are very much now “given” gaps, and yet are not treated in much academia as symptomatic of a coherent ideological worldview. When the “faux” outrage about how people spend their benefits continues in spite of a collapsed center, having conversations on behalf of an un/deserving poor like it’s 2009, or 1981, you’ve got to ponder if Fukuyama was right, and we really are existing as the “end of history”. The last great financial crisis was nearly a decade ago, but moralising still carries purchase.
For the record no, I do not think we are living as the end of history. Neoliberalism remains an historically contingent, and so surpass-able entity. No, its one-time ubiquity as a leftist slang synonym for “anything bad” does not corrupt its efficacy, or rather the necessity of naming contemporary ideology. For what the record is worth, the real contemporary ubiquity is a droning mantra/rebuttal to any question that uses neoliberalism as its object: “There Is No Ideology!” (TINI!). In the same way that we “must” go through these conversations about benefit scroungers, we “must” fight just to acknowledge that ideology still plays a role in our institutions, our politics and our subjectivities.
I’m going to use this page to put more rough drafts out, with the intention to develop a usable definition of neoliberalism. Currently I am most persuaded by the insights of Michel Foucault, Philip Mirowski, Dean (Jodi), Dean (Jonathan), Sara Ahmed, Stuart Hall, Judith Butler and Colin Crouch. Hopefully this list will expand over the year.
This is my rough draft of the rough drafts:
Neoliberalism as thought collective
Neoliberalism as capitalist iteration
Neoliberalism as subjectivity
Neoliberalism as political project
The crucial thing here is what neoliberal is not:
I want to avoid reducing it to some sort of epiphenomenon of capitalist reproduction (though it certainly informs economic policymaking and institutional organisation);
I want to avoid neoliberalism as a conspirational cabal of elite-level actors (though the Mont Pelerin Society and subsequent networks of think-tanks certainly share neoliberal characteristics)
I want to avoid neoliberalism as simply a dumbing down of discourse into “post-truth” (though agnotology, the deliberate production of misinformation, is a political strategy consistent with neoliberalism, and certainly has impacts on local cultures)
And finally, I want to avoid neoliberalism as being simply the extension of homo economicus to all spheres of public life (though the arguments of classical liberalism are regularly deployed in favour of neoliberal policymaking).
Oh, and all politics leeches to identity, for better and/or for worse. Don’t you forget it.