When Neoliberalism Negates Itself

27 January 2021

Review of William Callison and Zachary Manfredi, eds., Mutant Neoliberalism: Market Rule and Political Rupture (Fordham University Press, 2020).


Among its many intellectual repercussions, the current crisis in global politics has forced us to reassess neoliberalism, the ideology that, more than any other, has shaped our present. Despite its highly disruptive effects, neoliberalism had, until recently, seemed remarkably stable as an intellectual paradigm, as attested by such terms as “the Washington Consensus,” “there is no alternative,” and “la pensée unique. Sometime between the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, neoliberalism seemed to have achieved, in vulgar Hegelian terms, its moment of synthesis. 


The achievement of the essay collection Mutant Neoliberalism: Market Rule and Political Rupture is to make abundantly clear that this earlier assessment was off mark. In recent years, neoliberalism has been disfigured and complexified, in theory as well as in practice. Donald Trump, Brexit, populism, as well as the lingering effects of the 2008 financial meltdown constitute, to indulge in dialectical lingo, the negative phase of neoliberalism’s history. Previously, neoliberalism’s self-conception was simple and straightforward: market fundamentalism characterized by tax cuts, privatization, and trade deals. Henceforth, it must tarry with its apparent antonyms: ethnic nationalism, xenophobia, and backward-looking conservatism. While some of these tendencies may already have been latent in neoliberalism, the present throws them into sharper relief. Mutant Neoliberalism proposes, if not a theory, a rich and provocative survey of neoliberalism in its moment of self-negation. 


Many of Mutant Neoliberalism’s essays address neoliberalism’s relationship to phenomena that have occupied the center stage of American and European politics since 2016: populism, nationalism, hostility to globalization, and anti-immigration discourse. The commonsense understanding of neoliberalism sees it as rejecting these trends, which would seem to have deeper affinities with conservative and far-right politics. According to the consensus view, neoliberalism favors global integration through free markets, a cheap and elastic labor supply, and lean, fiscally responsible national governments. Informed by recent events, the volume’s authors show the complex ways in which neoliberalism has often become interwoven with political forces that, superficially, it would appear to oppose.


Sören Brandes, for instance, sheds light on the affinities between neoliberalism—particularly the work of Chicago School economist Milton Friedman—and populism. After the term entered mainstream political discussion around 2016, populism was frequently explained as an inchoate, knee-jerk reaction to decades of neoliberal policies. Friedman, in particular, has long been associated with his school’s connections to dictatorial rule in Chile, leading writers like Naomi Klein to argue that an authoritarian “shock doctrine” is an inherent component of the neoliberal playbook. Brandes (in “The Market’s People: Milton Friedman and the Making of Neoliberal Populism”) demonstrates, however, that a distinctly populist discourse played a crucial role in promoting Friedman’s ideas to the American public in the 1970s. He approaches Friedman from an unexpected angle, focusing not on his theoretical work, but on its cultural dissemination through a television series based on his ideas that aired on PBS in 1980. One of the central motifs of his series “Free to Choose” was a recurring set of images: the “government” was invariably represented by massive, austere office buildings, while “markets” were systematically associated with street life and neighborhoods—humane, face-to-face experiences in which ordinary people interact with one another to meet their needs. Through such imagery, Friedman did not so much reject the New Deal, as appropriate its political rhetoric for his own ends: in both instances, it was the elites vs. the people, only now it the market, rather than the government, appeared in tune with the popular will. The medium, moreover, shaped Friedman’s message: abandoning Friedman’s earlier considerations about the market’s moral superiority, the show emphasized the more accessible point that markets were on the side of the “little guy.” Drawing on Ernesto Laclau’s work, Brandes contends that “Free to Choose” demonstrates how neoliberal ideas can harmonize with populism—not only because they appropriate the political logic of a “people” at odds with “elites,” but also because the market can be invoked to further an “equivalential logic” that emphasizes commonalities: a “whole bouquet of interests or demands that originally seemed differential from one another come together in an idealized space, imagined as a street market.” According to Brandes, Donald Trump, in his call to drain the Washington “swamp,” has simply actualized a potentiality already lurking in Reagan-era neoliberalism and recast it as charismatic politics. 


Other essays explore neoliberalism’s porous boundary not with populism, but the New Right—that is, the far-right movements that have recently entered mainstream politics in Europe, such as Britain’s UKIP or Germany’s Alternativ für Deutchsland (AfD). In “Neoliberals against Europe,” Quinn Slobodian and Dieter Plehwe argue that the acceleration of European integration in the 1990s gave birth to a current of “Euroskeptic neoliberalism”—a “novel hybrid of libertarianism and anti-migrant xenophobia.” Galvanized by Margaret Thatcher’s early warnings that Europe was marching towards a supranational state, these European critics of integration formed a series of organizations and think tanks: the Bruges Group (1989), the Center for the New Europe (1999), and the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformers (2009). Slobodian and Plehwe portray this right-wing neoliberalism in all its complexity, as a movement whose ideology is rooted in nationalism yet that organizes itself transnationally, as a political force that capitalizes on neoliberalism’s disruptions—mass immigration and the decline of the welfare state—while embracing a reconstructed neoliberalism, anchored in the nation state. The lesson the authors draw is that it is usually “ill-advised …to seek a kind of ‘pure’ neoliberal doctrine from which one can draw conclusions about the world.” Rather, it must be understood that, like most ideologies, neoliberalism “is subject to processes of constant bifurcation and recombination.”


Michel Feher, too, shows how neoliberalism can venture into political territory usually associated with the far right, though he does so in a more oblique fashion. In “Disposing of the Discredited: A European Project,” Feher contends that “actually existing” neoliberalism” diverges significantly from its original, “utopian” aspirations: rather than incentivizing the profit-seeking entrepreneur, neoliberal society has primarily coddled the credit-seeking asset manager, along with the rentier class and rent-seeking culture they enable. Consequently, neoliberally-minded governments must marginalize the “discredited”: populations that weaken the collective credit-rating. Feher discusses several groups that are excluded in this way, concluding with immigrants, which, during the 2015 crisis, European governments worked hard to shut out of their territories. “Far from being a challenge to the hegemony of global finance,” Feher writes, “the resurgence of European nationalisms … is integral to its speculative logic.” 


Offering a decidedly different, if not necessarily contradictory, perspective on the relationship between neoliberalism and right-wing politics, Melinda Cooper examines how far-right and fascist-leaning parties in Europe have, in the wake of the 2008 crisis, emerged as some of the most plausible adversaries to austerity policies. In “Anti-Austerity on the Far Right,” Cooper compares Europe’s economic situation in the 1920s with the post-2008 period, noting that in both instances, the far right took one of the most coherent and distinctive positions against fiscal austerity and a tight monetary policy. Based on this comparison, she proposes a “minimal definition” of fascism as a “heterodox economic formation” that seeks to “overcome the threat of deflation without substantially threatening the existing distribution of wealth and income.” Cooper shows that while many of the most significant far-right parties—France’s National Front, Italy’s Northern League (later known simply as the Lega), and Germany’s AfD—once embraced neoliberal economics, they increasingly shifted, as European leaders proved unable to resolve the economic crisis, towards positions in line with Cooper’s economic definition of fascism. In this way, she concludes, “the national social far right … is most attuned to growing popular discontent with neoliberal elites.” To paraphrase Slobodian and Plehwe, a “pure” far-right ideology is just as elusive as “pure” neoliberalism: rather than seeking their essence, one must identify the circumstances, interests, and strategies that shape their respective configurations at any given juncture. 


Though the other essays are less focused on the far-right/free-market connection, they further the volume’s goal of complicating our understanding neoliberalism by probing its relations with its apparent antagonists. Of particular interest from this standpoint is Megan Moodie and Lisa Rofel’s “Feminist Theory Redux: Neoliberalism’s Public-Private Divide.” Adopting the feminist position that theoretical assumptions about the distinction between public and private spheres often assume what must be explained and applying this insight to the study of privatization in China and India, Moodie and Rofel reach a surprising conclusion: many policies in these countries that would appear to be straightforward instances of privatization are in fact bound up with these societies’ socialist pasts. It is one thing to integrate the far right into our conception of neoliberalism, but quite another to show that neoliberalism can accommodate socialism as well. In China and India, debates about private investment, the relative weight to be given to public and private interests, and shared responsibility express themselves in an idiom that demonstrates that “the socialist ‘past’ is not fully supplanted” by contemporary neoliberalism. 


In other essays, Julia Elyachar examines how debates originating in the Habsburg successors states about the rationality and irrationality of socialism and liberalism shaped the neoliberal episteme; Leslie Salzinger explores the deep connections between neoliberalism and masculinity, notably through fascinating anthropological fieldwork with foreign-exchange traders; and Christopher Newfield examines the problematic consequences of American research university’s infatuation with management theory’s concept of “disruptive innovation.”


The volume is bookended by two theoretical essays, by political theorist Wendy Brown (“Neoliberalism’s Scorpion Tail”) and philosopher Étienne Balibar (“Absolute Capitalism”). While these pieces are characteristically astute, one wonders if they do justice to the insights of the volume’s more (for want of a better term) empirical contributions. Invoking Nietzsche’s notion that “the highest values devaluate themselves,” Brown argues that, in recent years, the synthesis on which classic neoliberalism is premised—individual rights, traditional morality, and skepticism towards democracy—has become unwound. For example, “angry right-wing mobilizations and their demagogues in power” seem contrary to Hayek and Friedman’s vision of pacified, prosperous citizenries, integrated global markets, and minimal states. Neoliberalism, in short, has gone “awry.” Balibar, for his part, theorizes the existence of an “absolute capitalism” that has incorporated and superseded “historical capitalism”—a capitalism whose primary agents are no longer classes and nations and that no longer faces socialism as a formidable opponent. Yet many of the volume’s essays challenge the notion that neoliberalism is somehow debased or weakened by its ties to populism and the far right, as well as the view that capitalism has transcended its complex historic ties to nationalism and socialism. Brown sees contemporary neoliberalism as an inverted world, while Balibar views it as capitalism’s ultimate sublation. These are provocative claims. But for now, Minerva’s owl remains firmly on its perch. 


The real interest of Mutant Neoliberalism lies in its emphasis on a different moment in the dialectic—that of the negative. It shows us that while we still live in a time that completely saturated by neoliberalism, an immediate, unitary, and unreflective understanding of the term has lost its purchase. It is with a neoliberalism mediated by complexity and contradiction that we must now reckon. 


Photo Credit (post): Mutant Neoliberalism: Market Rule and Political Rupture [cover], Fordham University Press (2019), Fair Use.


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