Is this what neoliberalism is all about?

In a recent post on whether this post is “mine,” I puzzled the apparent devolution by the “Sovereign” (people, nation, state) of some of its political controls onto alternate “non-governmental” agencies, such as Corporations instituting Policies over their “Employees” (rather than laws over their citizens).

Is this what people who rant against “neoliberalism” intuit (even when they use the word simply as the kind of generalized insult where my generation used “capitalism”)?

Most people actually rant against a few politicians (Reagan, Thatcher, Pinochet) and a few university professors (Hayek, Friedman, etc.) who, as it is told, destroyed an earlier world to the profit of a very few.  That professors might be so influential, or even so useful for whatever purpose, is flattering to one among them.  But there has to be more.

I have another history for neoliberalism in which the economic actually yields to the political in the never ending deliberations about what to do about the catastrophic consequences of earlier political deliberations.  Thus, greatly to caricature, the glorification of the “people” and its “nation” typical of the 19th century leads to the 20th century 30 Year War (1914-45) that starts with four Sovereigns and ends with a version of man-made global devastation human beings should work not to reproduce.

This is a fast summary of the history I learned, though I was not quite taught it in school: France, Germany and Great Britain had greatly misbehaved themselves and their sovereignty, that is the sovereignty of their people as it can be manipulated by local (“national”) forces, should be reigned in.  I continue to admire Jean Monet (and de Gaulle and Adenauer) for having started a political process that involved manipulating the economic to produce massive political change: the end of France (and Germany, etc.)!  Monet succeeded in getting French and German politicians to create the “European Coal and Steel Community,” a supranational organization to which was devolved a small piece of national sovereignty.  This would lead to the founding of the Common Market, more devolution, and then the European Community and the Euro.  Half-a-billion people now find themselves in an unprecented political entity: an empire with a huge bureaucracy of policy-makers, and no emperor!

Two points here: 1) in 1950, the general population did not care about coal and steel, few saw where it might lead, and there was no serious political opposition to the subsequent devolution of sovereignty—until recently; 2) this devolution opened new opportunities for many interests that may or may not have been hampered by national sovereignty—particularly multinational corporations that could now operate more broadly around Europe and then the globe by using supranational organizations and policies as weapons against national organization and their politics.  If this is correct, then Thatcher, General Motors, Apple did not produce a current order that was a political response to a political problem.

Many critics in Europe do not think this is correct.  The more vociferous European critics of neoliberalism and globalization argue all this is the product of American imperialism (Zemmour 2014).  Whether the American generals and others who led all international meetings in the 1940s could foresee all this, may be besides the point.  The devolution of the national State to Supranational organizations (including, of course, the IMF, the World Bank, but also the ever multiplying “Non-Government Organizations,” big ones and small ones who now mediate much effort to make the world a better place) has been good to the United States (not to mention China, etc.).

It has also been good to the huge number of people who were able to move across the globe to fend for themselves whatever new difficulties they might encounter when they settled among more or less welcoming populations.  As one of this number, I appreciate the “freedom” (that is partial release from some constraints) that has allowed me to make a career and family in America.

So, I remain skeptical about any simple rant against neoliberalism that does not take into account the conditions within which its production has made sense.  Still, seventy-five years into what morphed, for much of the globe, into what might be called the post-nation-state era, the exact mechanisms of this era cannot just be imagined.  They must be investigated at the local levels dear to anthropologists.

What are the constraints (and possibilities) that ongoing cultural production of the devolved state, make real, concrete, and factual over future action?

In my locality, in an American College, I keep wondering—as I have been doing in several of these posts (4/18/2013, 4/23/2014).  Anthropology, some anthropologists like to say, was the handmaid of the national colonial State.  What if this State has faded? Who should support anthropology materially?  To be crass, who should pay for it and on what basis?  Is academic anthropology, after all, (intellectual) “property” (human capital) to be evaluated in the market place (for example on the basis of the willingness of young people to indebt themselves to pay tuition?)?  As I put it the first time I actively engaged with the issue does a College have a value? Or is it a price? (Varenne 2000)

Zemmour, Eric
2014     Le suicide français. Paris: Albin Michel.

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One thought on “Is this what neoliberalism is all about?”

  1. I really appreciate the questions and thoughts raised in this post and I also found it echoes and offers important additions to some of the things in the Annual Review of Anthropology’s 2014 “Neoliberalism” piece.

    Particularly the question, “if neoliberalism explains and describes all contemporary socio-political-economic-cultural phenomena, then does it have any utility as an analytical category?”

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