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Mutant Neoliberalism and the Politics of Culture


Corinne Blalock (@corinneblalock) is the Executive Director of the Law & Political Economy Project.

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


As 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. mutant neolib image

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.

Critical work is not only invaluable for diagnosing the problem, it is crucial to the project of dismantling it.

Just because the lines are no longer clear, doesn’t mean that neoliberalism is dead, or that the concept is no longer useful. And yet, that is too often the knee-jerk response. We have seen it play out over the past few weeks with regard to the COVID-19 response. First came the concern that the Democrats were being outflanked on anti-austerity by the GOP, leading to proclamations about the end of neoliberalism. Then the stimulus was revealed to be in fact largely corporate welfare, even failing to properly fund existing social programs. Then, a week later, politicians were openly talking about sacrificing the lives of millions of Americans for the sake of the economy – a horrifying literalization of what Wendy Brown calls “sacrificial citizenship,” where economic growth is the highest civic and moral good, and the individual’s true test is whether, when self-reliance fails, they are willing to be sacrificed.

And with that, the death knell of neoliberalism once again receded as quickly as it arose. As David Grewal has mentioned, Melinda Cooper’s contribution in this volume gives us historical context for this push and pull between anti-austerity on the left and on the right by tracing the anti-austerity programs on the far-right from the Third Reich through to the rise of Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini. Quinn Slobodian and Dieter Plehwe’s essay complicates the bright-line story about neoliberalism from the other side, by examining how neoliberals in the EU “have themselves joined (ethno-) nationalist, identitarian, and Alt-Right alliances in order to better achieve their programmatic aims.” Under a mutant framework of neoliberalism, to ignore the interaction of neoliberalism and right political formations is not only to fail to account for this moment but to mischaracterize neoliberalism itself.

Critical work is not only invaluable for diagnosing the problem, it is crucial to the project of dismantling it. Specifically, and moving to my second point, critical analysis of neoliberalism must look beyond the ideas and movement of elite actors to the popular understandings that give it power. By recognizing the constantly mutating nature of neoliberalism, it becomes clear that “the resistance must be as radical and adaptable as the world it seeks to change.” This idea comes straight from Stuart Hall, who traced the ways in which the terrain of politics shifted under Thatcher, and how neoliberalism ascended through the transformation of key narratives and popular understanding rather than purely economic or even strictly political projects. But Hall also presented this critique as inextricable from the painful and difficult task of rebuilding the Left in Britain in a moment of crisis and defeat.

The essays in Mutant Neoliberalism reinforce something that law and political economy scholars know but are at risk of losing sight of: narrative and popular understanding must be central to building alternative structures. This idea is developed most explicitly in Soren Brande’s contribution, in which he analyzes Milton Friedman’s 10-episode PBS docuseries, “Free to Choose” (1980). According to Brandes, the mere fact of this long-forgotten television program undermines the story often told about neoliberalism as a technocratic, top-down, elite and stealth discourse. The essay examines in particular how neoliberal ideology was visually coded to connect to the viewing public—how the market was consistently represented by “a street market where everyday people bargained with one another on the same (street) level by exchanging vegetables, trousers, and other mundane things,” and the government was represented as “massive grey high-rise buildings” to reinforce its vastness and removal from the concerns of “the people.”

In critiquing neoliberalism’s obsession with efficiency and technocracy, LPE scholars risk losing sight of how strategically the ideology of the market was framed as common sense and connected to issues of dignity, self-rule, and pessimism about the ability of a distant government to understand individual struggles. Despite the explicit emphasis on individualism, Brandes shows how these presentations of neoliberal thought tapped into the collective imaginary by recasting the market as a collective of “the people.” We must not forget that neoliberalism’s power draws on some of the same core values that the left champions, including equality and fairness.

The importance of popular understandings is often used to argue against the value of theoretical engagement. But engagement with the popular does not entail an abandonment of theory. Instead it means connecting theoretical ideas to the everyday struggles and lived realities of the working class. Stuart Hall is the perfect example— a thinker deeply committed to the relationship between theory and praxis. Hall’s identification of popular culture as an important terrain of struggle led him to create his own series of made-for-TV documentaries, including one on Marx.

Stuart Hall’s work reminds us of the importance of changing “the attitudes and values of the people … who simply, in ordinary life, have to calculate how to survive, how to look after those who are closest to them” in building up an alternative to neoliberalism. Praxis is not strictly about policy proposals or even concrete plans—though those are important. It can also mean, and should mean, creating narratives and stories that connect theory to people’s lives and foster identification and solidarity. Neoliberalism did not win political victories primarily because of its policy proposals but its ability to shape “some of the core and root social ideas in the population.”

Engaging with neoliberalism and its mutations, offers us a way to think about the complexity and struggle of the way forward. Like Hall, Callison and Manfredi’s collection refuses to offer guarantees about the end of neoliberalism, or even the end of the beginning. But, also like Hall, this collection offers critical insights about how to strategize and struggle against it.