This post is part of our symposium on Mutant Neoliberalism. You can find the full symposium here.
William Davies –
In my 2014 book The Limits of Neoliberalism, I offered a largely Weberian account of how the principle of competition provides the metaphysical ideas on which the authority of the neoliberal state depends. Crucially, I suggested, competition doesn’t just offer a single idea, but two conflicting ideas: a liberal ideal of fairness of the competitive ‘game’ (as witnessed in appeals to ‘meritocracy’ and a ‘level playing field’) and a Schmittian ideal of victory over one’s foes (as witnessed in the fields of business strategy or life coaching). There is a tension at the heart of the neoliberal state, between the ambition to install the market as a legally-mandated universal norm, and the ambition to nurture the most innovative, competitive and powerful firms and territories.
To explore the latter, I studied a discourse rarely associated with neoliberal thought, that of national competitiveness, that was developed via a network of Harvard Business School, The World Economic Forum and a handful of other think tanks and European business schools, starting in the late 1970s. This was seized enthusiastically by the European Commission during the 1990s, which saw it as a way to revitalise sluggish European economies, and a justification to cut regulation (especially employment protections) and tax.
But what fascinated me especially about this discourse (which I was studying around 2007-08, back when Lehman Brothers was a bank and Donald Trump the guy from The Apprentice) were the hints of mercantilism, nationalism and existential threat that lurked on its margins. European competitiveness was threatened by its ageing population; US competitiveness was threatened by the end of the Cold War, which had done so much to cultivate innovation. Japan and later China were a danger. If one reads Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists, surely this is not how neoliberalism is supposed to work. I encountered economists working for the European Commission, who confessed to me (off the record) that they were afraid that there was a protectionist and mercantilist substrate to the whole discourse. The reason for these recollections here is that I can now see, with the aid of William Callison and Zachary Manfredi’s superb volume, that there were hints of ‘mutant neoliberalism’ emerging on the edges of the competitiveness agenda. To use Callison and Manfredi’s suggestive metaphor, the economists’ fear was that the competitiveness ‘gene’ might ‘mutate’ into something illiberal.