What Kind of Thing Is 'Neoliberalism' ?

By Gilbert, Jeremy | New Formations, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

What Kind of Thing Is 'Neoliberalism' ?


Gilbert, Jeremy, New Formations


Abstract This essay introduces the special double issue (80/81) of New Formations, Neoliberal Culture. It situates the eleven other contributions to the volume in the context of the wider field of debate over the existence and nature of 'neoliberalism' as a specifiable and analysable phenomenon. In particular it considers the conceptual status of neoliberalism as a discursive formation, a governmental programme, an ideology, a hegemonic project, a technical assemblage, and an abstract machine.

Keywords neoliberalism, discursive formation, government, ideology, hegemony, technical assemblage, abstract machine

The term 'neoliberalism' is believed to have originated in the 1930s with the work of Arthur Rüstow and the Colloque Walter Lippmann, an international meeting of liberal theorists including Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. This is the origin attributed by Foucault in his now famous lectures at the Collége de France.1 Broadly speaking, most critical scholarship on neoliberalism either follows the career of the set of theses developed by these thinkers and their followers - as they emerged from obscurity to become the ruling dogma of advanced capitalism at the end of the twentieth century - or else stresses the history of neoliberalism as an actual enacted programme of government, beginning with Pinochet's coup in Chile in 1971. The pivotal point of relay between these two histories was, of course, the 'Chicago School' of economics centred on Milton Friedman, students of whom devised Pinochet's programme of privatisation and union repression.2

The approaches taken by the contributors to this special double issue of New Formations encompass the best of both of these traditions while also innovating beyond and between them, in the process exploring a number of different interpretations of the meaning and significance of 'neoliberalism'. Within the broad family of ideas normally designated 'neoliberal' there are obviously a range of positions on and approaches to the core issues of economic policy, public sector governance and market management; each of these in turn is potentially compatible with a range of opinions and approaches to social policy, cultural practice and public administration, while nonetheless retaining a high degree of internal consistency and expressing a strong set of connecting themes. This fact has confused some commentators, leading in some cases to the claim that 'neoliberalism' as such is an incoherent concept with no objective referent.3 The denial of the very existence of neoliberalism as a potential object of analysis tends to go along with the rejection of related concepts like ideology, capitalism and hegemony. Such positions arguably tend to be predicated on a rather simplistic understanding of the concepts being rejected: assuming, for example, that 'neoliberalism' could only be a meaningful term if it referred to a wholly uniform and explicit doctrine, manifested in a homogenous and discrete policy programme.

This issue of New Formations is clearly predicated on the assumption that there is such a thing as neoliberalism, but the challenge, which the 'neoliberal deniers' present to any such body of work, remains a serious one. It is clearly the case that there have been marked practical and conceptual differences between many of the ideas, programmes and policies to have been labelled 'neoliberal' by commentators, while the very notion of 'neoliberal culture' assumes a set of connections between these and many other elements of contemporary social life which must be demonstrated rather than assumed. The basic question which this problem raises is: what kind of a thing is 'neoliberalism'? In this introductory essay I will consider a range of possible answers to the question, considering the status of neoliberalism as an aggregation of ideas, a discursive formation, an over-arching ideology, a governmental programme, the manifestation of a set of interests, a hegemonic project, an assemblage of techniques and technologies, and what Deleuze and Guattari call an 'abstract machine'. …

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