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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Nationalism and Neoliberal Governance

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

William Davies –

mutant neolib imageIn 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.

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Mutant Neoliberalism, Originary Violence and Feminist Revolts in Latin America

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

Verónica Gago – 

mutant neolib imageIn an interview, Michel Foucault said that when “actually existing” socialism was put in scare quotes, as if it were not exactly “real,” the only thing the scare quotes revealed was the strength of an abstract ideal that theorists invariably used as a measuring stick to evaluate, and theoretically marginalize, whatever was actually happening on the ground. What if we were to apply such an ironic qualification to neoliberalism? Consider Latin America, for instance: Is there an “actually existing” neoliberalism in Latin America that fails the normative ideal of its theorists? Is this a geographically specific version of neoliberalism that has just been marginalized due to the region’s peripheral reality and unique history? It would seem, instead, that the opposite is true: The problematic feature of neoliberalism is its polymorphism, its capacity to combine and adapt. The thesis of this book points to precisely this capacity: neoliberalism’s mutant character.

With this thesis, the book seeks to answer a conjunctural question which I will also consider in this comment: Why is neoliberalism—in different geographies—allied with extreme conservatism, and even with fascism, today? The book also addresses a longstanding question which we have repeatedly posed in these years of permanent crisis: Is there any force that is capable of burying neoliberalism? Indeed, each new conjuncture only differently conjugates the question: Can the coronavirus pandemic annihilate neoliberalism? Following William Callison and Zachary Manfredi’s text on the notion of mutant neoliberalism and the possibility of its extinction, the chapters in the book respond to this series of questions with a complex answer: Even political conjunctures that seem to be animated by an opposition to neoliberal presuppositions can ultimately give them new impetus, reassembling and relaunching neoliberalism in ways that demonstrate its mutant cunning.

I would like to do two things in this comment. First, I will examine key aspects of recent Latin American developments in order to suggest a certain genealogy of neoliberalism. Second, I will address Etienne Balibar’s chapter in the book, linking it to the dynamics of generalized indebtedness in subaltern populations, and drawing connections with the recent cycle of feminist struggles.

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The Bourgeois Internationale, Part II

This post is Part II of David Grewal’s response to Mutant Neoliberalism, Part I is available here. You can find the full symposium here

David Grewal – 

mutant neolib imageAs I noted in my first post, it is possible that the COVID-19 pandemic will force a reckoning with the democratic deficit in the European Union and prompt a renewal of left-wing politics across the continent. However, the existing constitutional machinery of the five presidencies that make up the EU is both complex and considerably resistant to change, even (perhaps especially) in a crisis. In 2014, in a review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital, I wondered what we could expect from “today’s unhappy alliance between the remnants of the old workers’ parties of Western Europe and the Bundesbank?” It was mainly a rhetorical question: I expected very little from the political alliance behind “zombie” neoliberalism in Europe. But in light of what Callison and Manfredi term neoliberalism’s mutations, it is worth noting what has in fact come to pass since then: electoral defeat after electoral defeat for the left (and even center-left). This trend should give pause to those who think further federalization will provide the answer to Europe’s deep ordoliberal tendencies, and yet that seems to be the only path that many progressives in Europe can imagine (another TINA, but a teleological one).

Following Cooper’s cogent analysis, what we should expect is precisely what we have been seeing: stasis at the level of the institutions and far-right electoral strategies that leverage anti-austerity sentiment among ordinary voters by promising something that the straitjacketed parties of the mainstream center-left and even the far left have been mostly unwilling to offer: a break with neoliberalism and, if that agenda requires it, a break with ‘Europe.’ Again, the COVID-19 pandemic seems more likely to consolidate rather than repudiate this trend. It will not soon be forgotten that even pro-EU governments in France and Germany called a panicked halt to the export of medical equipment to a stricken Italy while national borders were raised again across the continent.

These events brings us to the second piece I want to discuss, Slobodian and Plehwe’s history of the rise of Eurosceptic neoliberalism, “Neoliberals against Europe,” which presents an important counter to any simplistic equation of the EU with neoliberalism (or ordoliberalism) and hence of Euroscepticism with anti-neoliberalism.

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Up or Out: Migration and Rated Governance

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

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian –

mutant neolib imageKen Loach’s 2016 film I Am Daniel Blake (2016) depicts post-crash austerity in all of its bleak barbarity. The plot revolves around the film’s protagonist, a middle-aged carpenter, who attempts to navigate the British welfare system after a heart attack makes it hard for him to work. The authorities don’t seem to agree with Blake’s cardiologist, who deems him unfit to work, so they send him down a rabbit hole of denied unemployment claims, rejected appeals, idiotic make-work and financial destitution. The message the system sends to our unlucky hero is that he is not worthy: of the state’s resources, of an employer’s goodwill, of anyone’s sympathy, of his own basic humanity. On Michel Feher’s assessment, we might add another shortcoming: he isn’t creditworthy, either.

There are thousands, if not millions, of Daniel Blakes struggling to get by in the world, many of whom have even less going for them than this fictional white man living in Newcastle. In his contribution to Manfredi and Callison’s Mutant Neoliberalism, Feher views these individual lives as the final domino in a decades-long cascade of policy decisions that made creditworthiness a prerequisite for getting by in the world—whether one is an individual, a company, or a country.

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The Bourgeois Internationale, Part I

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

David Grewal – 

mutant neolib imageMutant Neoliberalism is an excellent collection of essays canvassing what editors William Callison and Zachary Manfredi rightly diagnose as the changing face of neoliberalism – really, the multiplicity of national, transnational and post-national neoliberalisms – evolving in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Instead of a mortal wounding, the crisis generated the paradox, as several authors in the collection note, that neoliberalism’s failures led to more, not less, neoliberalism. Crises generated by neoliberal prescriptions (privatization, financialization, austerity, etc.) are said to be solvable using more of the same, while radical reform proposals face the usual assessment (TINA = “there is no alternative”). This fact led to the conception of neoliberalism after the crisis as a “zombie” formation, the onward march of the undead, but Callison and Manfredi rightly note that events around 2016 seem to have altered this diagnosis. Instead, neoliberalism now seems less “zombie” than what they term “mutant,” proliferating in new forms, and hybridizing with traditional and new right social and political movements, sometimes in spite of manifest ideological and programmatic differences between them and the “pure” form of post-war neoliberalism (of Hayek, Mont Pellerin, and so ).

All this seems right and interesting. I want to focus in this brief response on the place of the “international” in this diagnosis, particularly as it concerns debates in the European context. It seems to me that both the undead (“zombie”) and the hybridizing (“mutant”) aspects of contemporary neoliberalism are deeply interrelated and best understood in relation to the problem of international economic integration (a.k.a. “global capitalism”). I will focus therefore on two excellent contributions to the volume, one by Melinda Cooper (“Anti-Austerity on the Far Right”), which looks at the anti-neoliberal politics of far-right movements in Europe during the interwar rise of fascism, and then again from the 1970s to the present; and another by Quinn Slobodian and Dieter Plehwe (“Neoliberals against Europe”), which studies right-wing Euroscepticism in relation to a politics of national neoliberalisms.

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Dead Again? Mutant Neoliberalism and Crisis Reinvention

Editor’s note: Will the rise of new political forces and the explosion of global crises sound neoliberalism’s death knell? Or will ostensible challenges to existing political and economic orders instead catalyze new mutations in neoliberalism’s dynamic development? Mutant Neoliberalism, a recent edited collection, brings together leading scholars of neoliberalism—political theorists, historians, philosophers, anthropologists and sociologists—to rethink transformations in market rule and their relation to ongoing political ruptures. LPE blog is excited to host a symposium on this new and timely volume. Below is the first piece in the symposium series, an introduction by the volume’s editors William Callison and Zachary Manfredi. – LPE Blog

William Callison & Zachary Manfredi –

mutant neolib imageMutant Neoliberalism started as an attempt to wrestle with the complexities of a world transformed by the 2008 financial crisis. We both devoured the outpouring of critical commentary in the wake of that crisis, much of which alleged the demise of neoliberalism – “zombie neoliberalism” would soon give way to a new economic order and a new form of governance. With the political ruptures of the mid 2010s – the rise of far-right parties in Europe, the Brexit referendum, the Trump and Bolsonaro elections, along with ascendant authoritarianism in Turkey, the Philippines and elsewhere – we then witnessed another round of commentary predicting the “death” of neoliberalism. We were skeptical.

Neoliberalism wasn’t going to vanish, but it was changing – and it will change again. In our introduction to the edited collection, we synthesized the insights of the contributors into a broader theory of “mutant neoliberalism.” This was meant as a conceptual heuristic for interpreting different transformations of neoliberalism – whether understood as a form of institutional governance, a rationality of individual conduct, or an order of capitalist production. We sought to avoid reducing neoliberalism to a generic vituperative category, while also underscoring the manifold traditions of neoliberal thought and practice that emerged over the twentieth century. In proposing the metaphor of the “mutant” as an alternative to the “zombie,” we were not quarreling with projects that aim to abolish and replace neoliberalism with democratic and socialist alternatives. Rather, we hoped to challenge critiques that issue neoliberalism a premature death certificate. Chief among our concerns, in other words, was pushing back against narratives that a crisis of neoliberalism will serve as its own gravedigger: first the financial crisis of 2008, then the political ruptures of the mid-2010s, and now – perhaps – the fallout from the global pandemic of COVID-19.

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Are We Prisoners of Technological Fate?

This is the fourth post in our series discussing The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits. Click here to read all posts in the series. 

Daniel Markovits –

 The Meritocracy Trap’s account of the relationships among elite education, skill-biased technical change, and rising economic inequality is, in my mind, one of the book’s most important arguments, even as it is undoubtedly one of the least discussed. I’m therefore delighted and grateful that Gordon chose to focus his attention on these matters.

Gordon rightly emphasizes that The Meritocracy Trap combines two positions that are typically (but not by any necessary facts or logic) opposed—to embrace what Gordon calls a “materialist” theory of income inequality while rejecting what he calls a “determinist” theory of technological development. First, the book argues that, in Gordon’s words “technology has a predominant influence on social and economic structure.” Innovations have biased work in favor of a certain set of narrowly elite skills, and this bias accounts for the bulk of rising high-end economic inequality. And second, the book rejects what Gordon calls “the pervasive myth that technological change is natural, self-directing, or inevitable.” Rather, the innovations behind rising inequality are themselves produced by meritocracy, as the distribution of training influences the path of innovation and superordinate workers stimulate the demand for their own skills. This places policy that “guide[s] the course of technological change,” or as Gordon calls it, “industrial policy,” at the center of efforts to combat rising inequality.

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Are the Rich Rentiers or Superordinate Workers?

This is the third post in our series discussing The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits. Click here to read all posts in the series. 

Daniel Markovits –

I am grateful to the LPE Blog for hosting this exchange about The Meritocracy Trap. Today’s post will take up Hart’s and Steinbaum’s post and focus on facts, and tomorrow’s will turn to Gordon’s post and take up values.

Hart and Steinbaum claim that The Meritocracy Trap fails to recognize deep “differences between rich professionals and the ultra-wealthy capitalist class.” They also propose that the book exaggerates meritocratic inequality’s economic rationality, that “[i]t is not the meritocrats’ skills that bring in their high salaries.” In short, Hart and Steinbaum propose that the rich are not superordinate workers paid on account of their enormous productivity but rather are rentiers who exploit their capital to extract rents.

Hart and Steinbaum suggest that The Meritocracy Trap overemphasizes the rising labor incomes of the merely very rich and underemphasizes the exploding capital incomes of the super-rich. But in fact, although the past half-century has seen a shift of income against labor and in favor of capital, this shift is much too small to account for rising top income shares. Instead, rising economic inequality is principally caused by a shift of income within labor’s share, away from middle-class and towards superordinate workers.

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Guiding Innovation’s Hand: Industrial Policy Against Inequality

This is the second post in our series discussing The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits. Click here to read all posts in the series. 

Jeff Gordon – 

Most of the critical attention directed at Daniel Markovits’s The Meritocracy Trap has focused on its claim that well-off parents launder inequality through schooling. While Markovits brings masterfully comprehensive reams of data to bear on the concept of the “meritocratic inheritance,” the most original and provocative part of the book comes later, when Markovits offers his explanation of why educational sorting has come to matter so much: elite schooling leads to top jobs, and “[t]he top jobs pay so well because a raft of new technologies has fundamentally transformed work to make exceptional skills enormously more productive than they were at mid-century and ordinary skills relatively less productive.” This is provocative because it contradicts the pervasive myth that technological change is natural, self-directing, or inevitable. Few reviewers have remarked on this part of the book or reflected on what it suggests: that industrial policy will be vital to building a more equal economy.

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