Writing last year, Terry Flew inveighs against neo-liberalism as a shibboleth in academic discourse, signalling a distaste for markets but vague in meaning. Flew appears particularly exercised about its use in cultural studies, arguing that it is a lazy term of art used to project vague distaste onto such objects as reality television.
I don’t read a lot of cultural studies literature, so I can’t comment on that, but there is some force in the critique. That there is was evident in comments on my post on Margaret Thatcher and neo-liberal sovereignty. In retrospect, I may have taken too much for granted, and should have defined the concept more rigorously.
Can we define neo-liberalism rigorously?
The critique of neo-liberalism as a catchword for critique is not uncommon.
For instance, Neil Brenner, Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore, in a paper in Global Networks in 2010, say:
Across the broad field of heterodox political economy, ‘neoliberalism’ appears to have become a rascal concept – promiscuously pervasive, yet inconsistently defined, empirically imprecise and frequently contested.
In his keynote at the 2012 TASA (The Australian Sociological Association) Conference, French sociologist Loïc Wacquant said:
This kind of plenary address provides an opportunity to tackle the ‘big picture’ and venture beyond the boundaries of established knowledge. This is what I propose to do before you, under the title ‘Desperately seeking neoliberalism – a sociological catch’: I’m going to try to construct a specifically sociological concept of that woolly, shifty, difficult-to-catch entity called neoliberalism. This is a notion that is presently used mostly as a rhetorical device or a term of polemic, being that it is uneasily suspended between political dispute and scientific debate, partaking at once of the idiom of radical activism – especially anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation mobilisation – and of the technical language of the social sciences. I want to turn it into a robust analytic construct that can be deployed to characterise and probe the epochal sociohistorical transformation that we are both undergoing and witnessing. Essentially, I will argue that neoliberalism is not the coming of King Market, as the ideology of neoliberalism would have us believe, but the building of a particular kind of state. Following Max Weber, neoliberalism is best defined not by its end but by its means. For it is not primarily an economic venture, as classical liberalism was: it is a political project of market-conforming state-crafting.
The analysis outlined in this address (the excerpt from which repays reading) is not a new theme for Wacquant.
Ideology and forms of governing – not the same thing
Before outlining Wacquant’s specification of the concept, it’s important to make a distinction between ideology and forms of government or governing.
In my view, a lot of the confusion around the concept of neo-liberalism comes from a failure to grasp this distinction, and an incorrect understanding of what ideology is for.
Ideology fulfills two purposes for political parties and movements:
(a) It provides a vision of a desirable form of relationship between state and citizens and a framework for policy;
(b) It unifies adherents and divides them from their political adversaries.
Any political project is always simply that – it cannot cover the field (even in the most totalitarian of state formations). The political can never completely govern the social, cultural and natural. It’s probably better to think of ideologies processually, of socialisation rather than socialism and following Jamie Peck, of neo-liberalisation rather than neo-liberalism.
We need also to remember that the institutions of the state – the permanent bureaucracy, the military, judiciary and so on – have their own ideology or ideologies. If you think back to events of the 1970s – for instance the dismissal of the Whitlam Government or the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile – the potential dissonance between political and institutional ideology appears starkly. But the difficulty (and it’s a real one) Ministers in any Australian government have in fully bending the governmental machine to their will (or even deciding if they have a political will – a lot don’t) shows it in its routine form.
A form of governing – for example, liberal democracy, has its own meta-ideology which provides a field for contestation and manoeuvre by various political forces and institutional actors. Consider the different strategies Communist or neo-Fascist parties have needed to take within liberal democratic polities and ones where democracy lacks solid legitimacy.
At the same time, in any polity, the force of institutional, professional and social norms has enormous inertia built into it, as do the desires of citizens. Threshold expectations cannot be disregarded over night. Hence, Margaret Thatcher, the inspiration for our discussion, did not “take on” the National Health Service with the alacrity with which she took on the miners.
Neo-liberalism is not about shrinking the state
Those who say neo-liberalism does not exist often point to the dissonance between the continued growth in or relative stability of the size of the state and the precepts of proponents of neo-liberalism such as Friedrich Von Hayek. But there are two errors here, which should be evident from the above analysis. The first is the confusion between ideological thought and actual governing. The second is that practical neo-liberalism requires a strong state in some ways, particularly the apparatus of prisons, police and defence. That is costly.
This is where Wacquant’s analysis comes into its own.
If neoliberalization, for Bourdieu, entailed the contradictory translation of an austere utopian vision into a political program, steered and consolidated by the machine-like rationality of the market, the social workers, school-teachers, and street-level bureaucrats of the ‘left arm’ of the state were, at the time, among its least cooperative functionaries. In fact, he speculated that this lumpen class of social-state bureaucrats might even be driven to insurrection against its economically rationalist superiors, the new mandarins of market rationality and their technocratic aides, since ‘the left hand of the state has the sense that the right hand no longer knows, or worse, no longer really wants to know what the left hand does’ (Bourdieu, 1998 : 2).
Wacquant, who was a participant in Bourdieu’s major research studies during the 1980s, updates this analysis by suggesting that the last few decades have seen the right hand of the state colonise the left hand: “…residual, left arm (or social state) functions have been profoundly transformed through the workfarist logics of behavioural modification and market subordination”.
So, what is neo-liberalism?
I’ll now try to specify what I mean by neo-liberalism, as a form of government:
(a) Neo-liberalism as a political project of governing takes for granted neo-liberal economics; it seeks to reverse decommodification and reinstate the money form as sole arbiter of value through the construction and governance of markets;
(b) Neo-liberalism divides the social field into subjects who can assume responsibility for their own self-management and those who cannot; the latter are separated out through forms of imprisonment and behavioural modification, which increasingly takes the place of ‘welfare’; similarly the form of political and social engagement (including by non-state actors) increasingly is through an individualised market form of choice.
(c) Neo-liberalism seeks to capture the totality of the field of government institutions and state functions;
(d) Neo-liberalism restricts the possibility of the articulation of alternatives to a narrow field.
This conceptualisation builds on Wacquant’s work, but is not the same as his conceptualisation. It is empirically testable, and all four points have been empirically tested.
I don’t offer all this as a polemic – I am not saying this is ‘all bad’, but rather as an exercise in the scientific description and analysis of what is, which is a necessary prolegomenon to any critique. The first step for the left is to understand, not to decry.
Point (d) seems in the previous comments thread to have attracted most dissent, so I’m happy to expand on it and defend it in another post. I don’t want to make this one any longer than it already is, but if anyone would like to have me talk further about any of what I’ve written in this one, I’ll definitely take that on board.