Mutant Neoliberalism and the Politics of Culture

This post is part of our symposium on Mutant Neoliberalism. You can find the full symposium here

Corinne Blalock –

mutant neolib imageAs other contributors to this symposium have noted, Mutant Neoliberalism effectively illustrates that neoliberalism cannot be reduced to neoclassical economics or the Washington Consensus, but instead must be understood as a constantly mutating cultural and political formation. What I want to address in this piece is the methodological lessons this volume offers those working in LPE. I see two central ones. First, if neoliberalism is ever-evolving, it requires an historicized and iterative practice of critique to understand how to challenge it—critique is not a stage in the process we get past. Second, narrative and popular consciousness are vital to both comprehending neoliberalism’s power and to any hope of constructing an alternative. It’s important not only to get neoliberalism right as a theoretical and descriptive matter, but also to understand that the stakes of that debate are not academic. The debate sets the terms by which we can begin to dismantle neoliberalism. In particular, Mutant Neoliberalism encourages us to follow the lead of Stuart Hall, by looking beyond the formal, elite record of neoliberalism’s ascendance to the popular culture that undergirds its power.

The volume begins by answering one of the most common objections to the concept of neoliberalism—its lack of coherent meaning—by providing a framework that theorizes the disagreement over meaning (rather than merely rehearsing it!). In this way, the collection builds on geographer Jamie Peck’s insight that the complexity and contradictions in our understanding of neoliberalism are not flaws in the critical accounts but symptoms of the fact that the ontology of neoliberalism itself is “an evolving web of relays, routines, and relations.” Peck traces this ontological incoherence and dynamism back to the interdisciplinary origins and mission of the Mont Pèlerin Society. Callison and Manfredi, by contrast, use the framework of the mutant to focus our attention on the ever-evolving nature of actually existing neoliberalism—the way neoliberalism is entwined with and shaped by other social and political formations. In short, mutant neoliberalism makes divergences in actual existing neoliberalism something to be explained, rather than something to be explained away.

And because neoliberalism is constantly evolving, we cannot assume we know what neoliberalism looks like, or how law functions under it, based on prior critiques or earlier political frameworks. As Stuart Hall admonished, we must resist the “easy transfer of generalizations from one conjuncture, nation or epoch to another.” The left-right dichotomy in particular is, on Callison and Manfredi’s account, “increasingly inadequate to map the relationship between neoliberalism and new political forces.” Almost every essay in Mutant Neoliberalism addresses a different mutation formed through the combination of what we readily recognize as core elements of neoliberalism with other political formations. In collecting these varied accounts, Mutant Neoliberalism clearly illustrates that—from Trump to Bolsonaro—elements we had assigned to “far-right” extremism are now inextricable from policies we had previously attributed to “Third Way” regimes.

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