The strange new death of neoliberalism?

Is neoliberalism dying?

Neoliberalism has been a much debated topic in sociology and other disciplines in recent years. It has been applied to a wide array of topics with claims of neo-liberalisation of education, healthcare and young academics.

There is a growing sense, however, that neo-liberalism may be coming to an end. If not yet in practice then at least perhaps in its forebear, political rhetoric. Both of the UK’s major political parties seem to advocating a stronger state. Theresa May presenting a vision of stronger state security and investment and Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnel offering a new “entrpreneurial state” built on intervention and investment with an end to that footsoldier of neo-liberalism, austerity.

The vote to leave the European Union and (at least the perception of) a desire by some sectors of the British public for stronger border controls, less market integration and greater isolation seems to legitimize this new stronger state.

Of course we should be cautious of any grand claims to the death of an economic philosophy which has proved highly resilient in the past.

Jason Cowley writing in the New Statesman, in conversation with Martin Jacques, suggests this return of the state is due to the inequalities wrought by globalisation. Donald Trump and Nigel Farage have both played on the insecurity and sense of being “left behind” felt by many people in areas of USA and UK which have seen declines in living standards since their industrial heydays.

Increased fear of terrorist activity in the last two decades has also contributed to an increased appetite for, or acceptance of, stronger state security (or state surveillance and repression).

Neoliberalism was never simply an economic project but was (at least for a time) associated with a more general liberal freedom. However, outside of western Europe, USA, Australia and a few other places this failed pretty quickly. Russia returned to autocratic style leaders, repression of marginalised groups, propaganda and warmongering. Although China embraced a marketisation of some kind it has always been a sort of state capitalism with the retention of strong state controls over economic planning, media, etc.

I wonder how sociologists will react to this. Neoliberalism has become one of the “go to” concepts which sociologists pull out of their bag of tricks to explain all kinds of “bad stuff” in society. Some scholars have dismissed neoliberalism as a useful category partly because it has been applied to so many things that it starts to become meaningless. I do think it retains some analytical power when used in certain ways, at least.

The way I understand neoliberalism is strongly influenced by Michel Foucault and is, I think, fairly straightforward with two main aspects :

  • The spread of market principles to previously non-marketised areas – what Foucault referred to as “the application of the economic grid to a field […] defined in opposition to the economy, or at any rate, as complementary to the economy” (Foucault, 2008: 240)
  • Government which is always cautious of governing too much – or what Foucault referred to as “state phobia”(Foucault, 2008: 75-6).

For me these two aspects are intertwined and of equal significance. Neoliberalism is not simply the reduction of state activity and the privatisation of everything. As Foucault made clear, neo-liberalism requires the state in order to enable the spread of market principles and to define the rules of the game.

For instance, it is accurate to discuss a neoliberalisation of UK universities even if most of them are non-profit making charities. They can be considered as becoming more neo-liberal because they are increasingly managed according to market principles.

Within universities the departments are often run as individual services who act as “service users” or “service providers” for one another. Academics are under pressure to compete against one another for research funding and have the importance of self-promotion thrust upon them. Teaching staff are subject to student feedback which most resembles customer satisfaction surveys rather than meaningful academic engagement with their work.

Universities also compete with one another for higher places in league tables which has become even more important since the government lifted the cap on the amount of students each course could take (when the burden of fees shifted entirely from the state onto the individual). Soon this competition will be intensified when the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is introduced with a state sanctioned system of measurement and the awarding of Bronze, Silver and Gold medals to universities to indicate their “quality”. A similar system of research assessment, the REF (Research Excellence Framework), is well-established with departments being required to demonstrate the quantity and quality of their “research outputs” in order to compete for a central pot of money provided by Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

Much of the money sloshing around the university system is public, either direct funding from central government (HEFCE), via government funded research bodies (eg. ESRC, AHRC), or indirectly through student fees (which are mostly paid for through government loans the vast majority of which will never be repaid). So it would be wholly inaccurate to describe this as a privatised system, however, it has been substantially marketised. But this market system has been imposed by government “reform” and is managed and administered by state bodies. Markets are considered, by the government, to be ideologically preferable but they are aware that markets will not develop spontaneously; they must be created.

What some people take issue with, I think, is the use of neoliberal to refer to individual and identity-level phenomena. For instance, some people might consider the kind of self-promotion common to social media to be a kind of neoliberal identity. Perhaps the notion of the ‘entrepreneurial self’, as extensively outlined and analysed by Ulrich Bröckling, is more useful in this context.

So does this seeming resurgence of the state signal a decline for neoliberalism? I don’t think market principles will be disappearing from universities, criminal justice or healthcare and many other areas of public life any time soon. Marketisation is too much of an effective disciplinary tool for it to be given up easily. Nor can I imagine a conservative government (or centre-right Labour government should one re-emerge) giving up its cosy relationship with big business, especially with the notorious “revolving door” between Westminster and the boardroom.

However, it is possible that governments might abandon their hand wringing over “governing too much”. They might be less coy about imposing markets, especially given there seems to be a new desire for strong, authoritarian leaders and states. If this is how things spin then would that mean an end to neoliberalism? Perhaps this would be something more along the lines of a “state marketisation”?

How will sociologists respond to this?

Foucault, M. (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


Categories: Social Theory, Uncategorized

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2 replies »

  1. I think people are rediscovering the wheel – neoliberalism involves a strong state, that is not news. As for Theresa May’s Milibandian speeches, I would not get excited just yet. She is the strong state, for sure, but Home Office and hedge funds, not Mazzucato.

  2. Good stuff. I agree with Cowley (or at least your gloss of Cowley). The one place I do think neoliberalism is still going strong is the EU. In some sense, the EU just IS neoliberalism. With the recent election in France, that’s still the case. However, unless Macron is successful, I think France will turn away from the EU, effectively bringing it to an end.

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