Thursday, July 9, 2009

What’s left of Neoliberalism?

Ashwin Desai and Michael Hardt

“Everything was forever till it was no more” (The title of Alexei Yurchak's 2005 book on the collapse of socialism)

“Another ideological god has failed. The assumptions that ruled policy and politics over three decades suddenly look as outdated as revolutionary socialism” (Martin Wolf, “Seeds of Its Own Destruction”, Financial Times, March 8 2009).

The fall of the socialist states in the early nineties has since been eclipsed by an equally dramatic collapse of financial markets, crumbling property values and wildly fluctuating commodity prices this past year. Does this collapse mark the end of neoliberalism? What (and why) is left behind? By attaching these questions to each other, the organizers of the JWTC lab have provoked us to think about the potentially productive effects of the current economic crisis, in the wake of what is left of politics.

Prishani Naidoo, lecturer at WITTS introduced the session’s panelists- John Comaroff, Michael Hardt and Ashwin Desai. Drawing on different scholarly traditions, the panelists comments consistently spanned the frictitious divides of political theory and practice. Through the session, it became clear that this commitment was shared not only by the panelists, but also by the audience.

As a visitor to Johannesburg, I have been particularly struck by the ways in which the JWTC Labs have been well attended and engaged with not only by academics and professional researchers but also wide range of others, including those from the city’s social movements such as the Youth Forum and Anti-Privatisation Forum. As self-identified activists and academics filled the room, the session provided a space for electric debate and discussion. For over two hours, we engaged with fiery presentations that invoked at least three kinds of Marx, two ideological impasses and an acerbic attack on the role and work of intellectuals in South Africa today. In what follows, I shall attempt to provide not so much a summary as raise a few key (and therefore limited) points that we engaged through the evening.

Neoliberal Departures

Is neoliberalism dead? Drawing on different incarnations of Marx,[i] Comaroff expressed a hesitation in talking about neoliberalism. The noun, he argued, reifies the concept and makes the program self-evident. Preferring instead to talk about it as a verb or adjective (neoliberal, neoliberalize), he argued that neoliberal tendencies persist despite the rather dramatic financial crisis of the previous year. These tendencies live on in the wake of neoliberalism- manifest through the court and its custodians, and in the proliferation of policies, left right and centre, to save capitalism.

Yet these initiatives, despite their apologies, excuses and rescues of the market nevertheless do betray the fact that neoliberalism- as a doctrine and a set of rationalities through which society is sought to be governed- has effectively been killed through the crisis. It was a point that Hardt would agree with. He argued, that even if we shall have to live with its ‘tendencies’ in the present, neoliberalism is dead, its program has no future. The challenge in practice, he suggested, is fighting its contemporary effects even as we imagine and try and craft a strategy for engaging whatever may emerge in its place.

Here, Hardt presented the first of two impasses that he is trying to work through. He is dissatisfied with Keynsianism as an alternative to neoliberalism in the long term. It is the lack of imagination (on the part of the left) that resurrects it as an alternative. He argued instead for an attention to political formations that may lie outside and beyond political-economic institutions- of public and the private, or states and markets. The primacy of these distinctions are compromised in contemporary state formations, particularly when the “state increasingly fashions itself in the image of the corporation” (Baviskar 2007). As Ashwin Desai and Comaroff would separately argue, debates between the public and private control appear fraught when unions, movements and governments are shot through with neoliberal rationalities of the current political moment.

The state of movements

Neoliberal rationalities that increasingly constitute state relations present the first challenge to social movements. Hardt presented a second impasse that confronts left movements, particularly those that have, over the last few years, effectively mobilized to capture state power through social mobilizations and the representative politics of elections. Drawing on examples from Latin America, Hardt expressed a challenge that may resonate with many in South Africa: Where social movements have successfully mobilized to take control of the state, what is the appropriate relationship between the state and the social movement that now constitutes it?

Suggesting that both unrelenting criticism and its opposite are not quite helpful, Hardt argued that it might be productive to see states only as a “rtial interpretation” of social movements. His suggestion thus effectively questioned the topographical imaginary of the political field- where states are seen to sit ‘above’ social movements and the rest of civil society (Ferguson and Gupta 2002). Hardt argued that it was critical for movements not to be contained by their governments. Instead, he suggested that social movements maintain a restless and tentative relationship with government, at once pushing forward and opposing them where warranted.

Research and Imagination

In a somewhat related move, Desai asked the same of intellectuals who work with social movements. He strongly criticised both the quality and the debilitating effects of leftist scholars writing about social movements. Much of this scholarship, Desai boomed, was not only troublingly uncritical, but also very shoddy. Through such intellectual production, the systemic problems of social movements are not being addressed. Instead, Desai argued, through such scholarship, movements are big set up to be either broadsided by the state or safely incorporated into party politics through the predictable routines and rituals of resistance.

What is needed, Desai asserted, was a rigorous and honest interrogation of movements’ strategies and tactics, research that is grounded in the work, dilemmas and difficulties that are present in all social movements. Such work, he argued, would be better equipped to deal with the challenges that a more sophisticated practice of politics produced. Earlier, Comaroff had also called for more imaginative and engaged research. While this research would need to be based in everyday practices, to understand the workings of the neoliberalizing state, it would also need to envision a coherent set of political practices for the left to work towards, he argued.

To embark on such a program, we would do well to follow Hardt’s provocation to think beyond the relations constituted by states and markets (see also Chakrabarty 2000). To pay attention to the politics of such relations produced by other affinities- kinship, friendship, religious belonging among others- is to situate the practices of politics in wider fields of possibility that can interrupt the production and proliferation of state and market regimes. While Hardt did point out that such ‘alternatives’ may not necessarily be preferable to the quotidian depredations of neoliberal and/or socialist states, they might also provide critical ground for more inclusive and just societies in which both authoritative states and also liberal markets have a substantively diminished role.

Nikhil Anand

[i] Link to Katie’s Blogpost about the use of metaphor in the sessions.

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