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. You can find the full symposium here.
Mutant 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.
On the one hand, the pandemic appears to have placed even greater pressure on political and economic orders that were already in crisis when the volume was both conceived and published. The combined public health catastrophe and economic fallout of global lockdowns has revealed in dramatic fashion the deep structural inequalities produced by decades of neoliberal reforms; the state failures that results from underfunded, means-tested welfare programs and intentionally arduous unemployment schemes; the indispensable labor of low-wage frontline service and care workers who are indeed “essential” for everyday social reproduction (and who are currently organizing against unsafe and unfair working conditions across the country); the disaster of marketized and profit-driven healthcare systems inadequate to cover the most basic needs; the cruelty of criminal justice, mass incarceration and immigration detention systems whose expansion has been driven by privatization; the structural racism against and profit-driven exclusions of minority populations from social systems of care; and the libertarian myth of individual meritocracy that makes market contingencies into matters of personal responsibility and indebtedness into a guilt-ridden feature of privatized life. Against the background of horrors laid bare by the virus, alternative arrangements of economic and social organization appear as imperative as any time in recent memory.
On the other hand, early responses to the crisis also give us reason to doubt whether the pandemic will finally vanquish neoliberalism, as some commentators seem to suggest. While some point to allegedly “socialist” aspects of state-led responses like in the United States – from provisional UBI cash payments and public coverage of testing costs to massive central bank interventions and yet another gigantic corporate and financial bailout with the CARES Act stimulus (which indeed belies the recurrent question “how will you pay for this?”) – it is far from obvious that such policies constitute a definitive repudiation of neoliberal reason or that they will endure beyond the context of crisis management.
After all, we are simultaneously witnessing “disaster capitalism” at its purest, including almost immediate attempts to eliminate environmental regulations on corporate pollution; privatize the US Postal Service; restrict voting rights; and bolster the power of already dominant firms like BlackRock, Amazon, Wal-Mart, Big Tech monopolies in Silicon Valley, and the extractivist giants of the natural resource industry. When compared to previous crises and placed in a longer timeline, as Adam Tooze has reminded us, alarmist calls for austerity are right around the corner. Like the “inverted Keynesianism” of a decade ago, which socialized losses and privatized gains, those at the bottom will almost certainly bear the brunt of this crisis while those at the top will enjoy the expanded powers of a consolidated monopoly capitalism. Along these lines, the public health and economic crises are already devastating countries in the Global South and ballooning sovereign debt, with the shadow of the IMF looming large once again – potentially as the provider of much-needed debt relief, though almost certainly as the familiar enforcer of austerity.
Although the US presidential election seems poised to renew a battle between “zombie” and “mutant” forms of neoliberalism, with each propagating different fantasies of a “return to normal,” the nationalist and authoritarian trends that preceded the pandemic seem just as likely to shape the future. It is important to recall that, though neoliberalism developed through globalization and financialization, it is far from antithetical to the logics of populism, borders and state repression. In both theory and practice, neoliberalism has long embraced a “strong state” dedicated to securing the competitive market order, rather than the “minimal” one with which some associate it. Indeed, authoritarian statecraft may prove essential to ensuring that the long-term future of market society is not disrupted by either democratic political demands or by the crisis-inducing instabilities of global pandemics and financial markets. It remains to be seen whether present calamities will displace neoliberal reason with novel ideological and institutional structures, or simply produce adaptive, mutant iterations that prop up a resilient capitalist system with new and old techniques of government. “Crises are moments of potential change,” Stuart Hall observed, “but the nature of their resolution is not given.”
The volume contributes to the task of understanding and working through the current impasse in light of both neoliberalism’s ongoing mutations and the ever-longed for possibility of its downfall. Chapters by Wendy Brown and Sören Brandes reflect on the legacies of neoliberalism in relation to the rise of authoritarianism and populism, while Julia Elyachar and Etienne Balibar examine the specters of socialism and fascism haunting neoliberal or – in Balibar’s terms – “absolute” capitalism. Megan Moodie and Lisa Rofel advance insights from feminist theory to analyze the role of the state in driving “profitization” (as opposed to “privatization”) in “post-socialist” China and India. Leslie Salzinger tracks neoliberalism’s gendered construction of homo oeconomicus from financial traders in Mexico City and New York City to ostensibly feminist interventions blaming the 2008 financial crisis on an overabundance of testosterone. Chris Newfield explores “innovation discourse” and the political economy of universities, which have responded to crisis after crisis with ever more neoliberalism. Michel Feher theorizes the logic of “creditworthiness” that adjudicates who is and is not worth saving when racialized metrices of human capital determine one’s value to economy, culture and nation. Finally, Quinn Slobodian and Dieter Plehwe’s study of pro-austerity Eurosceptic neoliberals, on the one hand, and Melinda Cooper’s interrogation of anti-austerity rightwing nationalists, on the other hand, show how competing approaches to our post-crisis future have germinated in the past several decades.
We would like to thank the LPE Blog for organizing this symposium to further the conversation occasioned by the volume. We would also like to express our gratitude to symposium’s contributors Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, Corinne Blalock, Will Davies, Verónica Gago, and David Grewal for their insightful responses to particular chapters and themes in the book.