On October 1, the Cultural Studies Student Organizing Committee hosted the 10th annual Critiquing Culture Conference. It featured six paper panels with contributors from around the U.S. and Canada and a photographic exhibition on “Oppression and Structural Violence” by students and alumni of the American University graduate photography program. It concluded with a panel discussion on “The Uses and Abuses of Neoliberalism,” which featured program faculty Denise Albanese, Johanna Bockman, and Paul Smith. Another member of the Cultural Studies faculty, Craig Willse, moderated the discussion. He began the afternoon by asking the panelists to speak about how they define neoliberalism and how they have engaged with it in their work.
Please find highlights from the panel discussion below.
Paul Smith: I'm not really working with the term neoliberalism any more than I can possibly help, so I can't really answer that part of the demand. In fact, I'm trying to get out of using the word if I possibly can, for all kinds of reasons. Maybe some of them will become clear as I say a few words. I was trying to think about when I first really heard the term and what context that was in and why it was important. It was in 1999. I and the very well known political theorist, Ernesto Laclau, were the external examiners for a PhD by a young scholar in Britain who was writing about contemporary political theory and culture. He kept using this term, "neoliberal," all over the place. I imagine Ernesto knew better than I did what he was talking about, but it was new to me—even though I had just published a book, Millennial Dreams, that recounts some of the beginnings of neoliberalism in Britain, Germany and the USA. One reason I was thinking about that moment is because this young man was the subject of an email I got today, sent to me by the publisher, Lawrence & Wishart, advertising a new book Neoliberal Culture, edited by Jeremy Gilbert. What's interesting to me is the blurb in here about neoliberalism. It says "the book argues that possible ways to understand neoliberalism include: viewing it as a discursive formation, an ideology, a governmental program, a hegemonic project, an assemblage of ideas techniques and technologies and what Deleuze and Guattari calls an abstract machine." There, it seems to me to be precisely the problem with the notion of neoliberalism at this point. Yes, it could be any of those and it could be many of those things all at once, and it probably is. One of the main issues that the discussion of the term in pretty much any field or discipline comes up against is exactly the way in which neoliberalism is actually a series of overlapping projects in various different parts of our political economic, cultural, and social world--which may or may not have any real cooperation amongst them, which may or may not have, indeed, any knowledge of each other. Such that we have an overdetermined, precisely, social totality for which analysis is in a way always already challenged because of the structures of overdetermination that are in front of us. It’s apparent if you look at most political economists talking about neoliberalism at this point. They'll say, it's a problem because it’s a term that crosses sociology and economics. And you look at the political theorists and they'll say it's a problem because it’s a term that crosses political theory and culture. Look at a cultural studies person and they'll say it crosses all of the above, and you throw up your hands in despair.
So that's where I am at with the term and I don't really expect to have an effect on people using it but maybe after this conversation people might have had enough. I want to very quickly add one way of possibly wiping out the term by replacing it with this one: “arithmomorphism.” It is a neologism that I first heard from Joshua Clover, I admit. It's a riff on really the glibbest definition of neoliberalism that I've come across--an old one from Pierre Bourdieu who described it as "the vision of accountants….that the new belief system presents as the supreme form of human accomplishment.”[i]
Johanna Bockman: I come at this topic from my research on neoclassical economists. I originally started in Hungary and the former Yugoslavia and Italy and then the United States and I looked at the connections between these different economists and I came to understand that neoclassical economics was different than neoliberal economics. When people use the word neoliberal they usually mean neoliberal policies. When I was looking at the economics part of neoclassical economics, I asked, what do professional economists do if they're neoclassical? Those economists from my research have worked in socialism and capitalism and they've been diehard Communist Party members and members of the Republican Party but they all share the same practices of neoclassical economics. There are certain people that are neoliberal but aren't neoclassical economists. Friedrich von Hayek is not a neoclassical economist. He was in his very early stages, but left very quickly and became sort of a philosopher. Ludwig von Mises is also not a neoclassical economist either. Milton Friedman is a neoclassical economist and also neoliberal. So in my thinking about this, I came to the idea that some neoclassical economists could have neoliberal tendencies if they had four qualities: one is if they believed in competitive markets; if they were supportive of hierarchical firms or hierarchical corporations; if they were into authoritarian states, especially states that protect private property with quite a strong police state; and also if they believed in capitalism. Those would be neoliberals. There were many neoclassical economists that really liked competitive markets but they also liked workers power and they wanted to have radical economic democracies such as in the former Yugoslavia. So the practices that they were looking at were radically democratic; they were working in the economy and they were hoping to bring these ideas into the political realm.
The second thing: when I think about neoliberalism it’s more about its reality. When I talk about economists, it’s about their ideas. So when I talk about other forms of neoliberalism, I think about the reality. A reality that I find very important comes from research about the non-aligned movement, which was trying to create a series of commons around the world and other public things, is that neoliberalism takes those things--"appropriation by dispossession"--it takes the commons, and uses them as sources for the renewal of capitalism. The creation of these commons and public institutions weren't intended to be capitalist; they were intended to be socialist or revolutionary and then they're were taken up by capital. I think about Nancy Fraser has a good example of this when she describes how feminist ideas were used as neoliberal capitalist ideas against every intention of the feminists. So I think about both neoliberal ideas and neoliberal practices.
Denise Albanese: I have three things I want to stipulate about neoliberalism when it comes to the way I engage the term. One is that I often, as many people do, use it as a period marker. It's precisely the thing that allowed David Harvey to move from the condition of postmodernity to neoliberalism while talking about the same kinds of economic transformations, without any sense of a disjuncture between the two of them. So quite often the term neoliberalism merely operates as a period marker and a way we contextualize by means of a very vague gesture--I'll admit to the occasional vagueness of it in my own work--to a particular historical moment and a particular set of conjunctures, depending on which way you want to go with them. From here, I think I could move into a somewhat more rigorous definition of it that asks us to think about neoliberalism in relation to its antecedent form of liberalism. However, before we might go there, I want to talk about the second way I use neoliberalism--and that is as a way to evoke or to describe the destination for a set of structures of feeling that are themselves precipitate among subjects, but not to be found definitively in any one particular instantiation. This second sense is emerging out of affect theory, although it also abuts on aesthetics. I'm thinking particularly of the work of Kathleen Stewart, who, in order precisely to avoid the risk of what Paul has coined “arithmomorphism,” decides to strategize about the question of experience by providing a bunch of anecdotes that do not sum up to anything in particular but that she hopes converge on a sense of what it's like to live at this moment without heavy-handedly invoking the pre-determined term “neoliberalism” as a point of reference. Despite her refusal to invoke the term, though, this is inevitably a moment conditioned, though not entirely defined, by economic relations that are themselves premised on certain things that my fellow panelists have already talked about or that we walked in here already understanding: the ideological dominance of the entrepreneurial subject (whose prominence obscures the historically proximate subject of precarity). Naturally, it also includes the way in which everything seems to be subject increasingly to a market logic, in which ideas of the commons, which themselves are always vexed, are nevertheless put beyond the range of hard utopian thinking because of the ways in which they become resources for capitalization. So when I think about neoliberalism in the work I do on Shakespeare and Affect, one of the things I consider is the extent to which thinking about the experience of something, whether read, viewed, or witnessed as performance, can give you information about the time you live in, because your experience is characteristic of your subject formation at a particular moment, and that cannot but depend on the social and economic relations of capital.
Then finally there's a third way that I think about neoliberalism and this will be the thing that comes out wooliest and that has to do with what, for me, is in Foucault's Birth of Biopolitics, a complete disjuncture between the aims of the biopolitical and his fascination with discussions of ordoliberalism and neoliberal policies, all of which converge on a notion of an entrepreneurial self, human capital. Biopolitics, however, takes into account populations, and populations don't readily sum from individuals--or at least he doesn't make the analytical moves that enable one to do that. So what do we do with the fact that one of our most important resources for thinking about neoliberalism, Foucault's Birth of Biopolitics, does not in fact tell you how to get from the neoliberal to the biopolitical? I've begun to think that the answer lies in the way in which we think about population; how it is modeled; how it was modeled at one time; and how it might be remodeled by new mathematical dominants emerging out of complex systems theory. And that's all I'll say about that for now.
[i] Pierre Bourdieu, “L’essence du néolibéralisme,” Le Monde Diplomatique, mars 1998, p.3
November 11, 2016