Tag Archives: Neoliberalism

Patchy Notes on Roy’s Guide (HUM415)

Here are some partial notes I’ve made on Roy’s An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire that may come in handy. It might be useful to review them. You might also continue drafting a list of key terms we’ve discussed in class. It will be helpful for the midterm.

1st essay: Peace is War: The Collateral Damage of Breaking News

the media: our sense that print journalism at least is somehow objective when in fact the news itself is merely one more commodity/service in a global economy.

“Modern democracies have been around for long enough for neo-liberal capitalists to learn how to subvert them. They have mastered the technique of infiltrating the instruments of democracy– the ‘independent’ judiciary, the ‘free’ press, the parliament– and molding them to their purpose. The project of corporate globalization has cracked the code. Free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities on sale to the highest bidder” (3).

note the distinction being made: “corporate globalization”, not globalization per se. The commodification of the “instruments of democracy”, submitting these institutions and practices to the logic of the market means that a political apparatus is shaped by economic pressures.

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After Theory (contcult)

 At this point in your reading you’ll have noted that for Eagleton, theory is, as he writes, politics by other means. Much of the theoretical work from the 60s through the 80s was a dialog with Marxism played out on the terrain of culture. If the Soviet experiment was ossified by Stalinism and eventually crumbled under its own weight, the radical impulses of the left sought other domains of synthesis and expression. With mass social movements sputtering to a halt (an exception being the rise of alternative globalization/ anti-captitalist fronts) the possibilities of human liberation– always the core of any left-radical tendency– seemed best addressed not in the streets but within the autonomous spaces of the dance floor or the university. As Eagleton notes, this transition from confronting the State in public square to reflecting on the nature of power and its relationship to cultural production and consumption, was no substitute for effective, organized dissent. At the same time, however, advances were made in the effort to come to terms with the shifting dynamics of capitalism. 

“If culture began to be more crucial to capitalism in the 1960s, it had become well-nigh indistinguishable from it by the 1990s. This, indeed, is part of what we mean by postmodernism. In a world of film-actor Presidents, erotically alluring commodities, political spectaculars and a multi-billion-dollar culture industry, culture, economic production, political dominance and ideological propganda seemed to have merge into a featureless whole. Culture had always been about signs and representations; but now we had a whole society which performed permanently before the looking-glass, weaving everything it did into one vast mega-text, fashioning at every moment a ghostly mirror-image of its world which doubled it at every point. It was known as computerization.

“At the same time, culture in the sense of identity had grown even more pressing. The more the system unfolded a drearily uniform culture across the planet, the more men and women aggressively championed the culture of their nation, region, neighbourhood or religion. At its bleakest, this meant that the narrower culture grew at one level, the more it was spread thin at another. Blandness found its response in bigotry. Rootless advertising executives jet-setted in the skies over those for whom not sharing the same piece of sky as themselves meant to be hardly human” (48-49).

Loosely speaking, “theory” was (is) both a symptom and a response to this situation. As the people of the world become more interconnected and alienated from one another, as whole economies intertwine and national/ethnic/religious differences deepen, the demand for some new means of understanding and, crucially, addressing these contradictions becomes more pressing.

Neoliberals, like the free trade advocates of the 18th century, believe that the master-mechanism of the market is providential, an “invisible hand” whose motions bring the system into equilibrium. Left free of hindrances in the form of State intervention, the market will fulfill human needs in the most efficient manner possible. During the 1990s, what some might call the era of the “Washington (DC) consensus”, that view had many adherents. In the last decade or more, however, as disparities in wealth sharpen, fewer people are willing to submit to the logic of “market fundamentalism.” In Geneva this summer, for instance, global trade talks failed after several nations refused to accede to a US demand that local (national) markets remove protections (in the form of import tariffs) for their farmers. To anyone familiar with the history of US capitalism this demand was patently hypocritical: the US, especially in its earlier years of development, has had one of the most protected economies in the world. 

This isn’t an economics class, obviously, but one more item to note in the category of breaking news:

“The US government today announced the biggest financial bailout in the country’s history as it took troubled mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae into temporary public ownership to save them from collapse.”

Such intervention directly contradicts the tenets of Free Trade. You can read the whole story here

Finally, a pdf version of Mike Davis’s essay Planet of Slums.

Notes from today’s lecture (contcult)


Defining the contemporary period is an inexact project at best, and what counts as contemporary shifts between disciplines. Historians and philosophers tend to conceive of the period in larger terms: most world histories date the contemporary period as beginning with WWII. Philosophers are even further removed from our present moment and many date contemporary philosophy as beginning in the latter half of the 19th century. These periodizations are further complicated by dictionary definitions of “contemporary”: the OED defines “contemporary” as “Belonging to the same time, age, or period; living, existing, or occurring together in time.” In this sense of the word, contemporary has more to do with the condition of being contemporaneous. All of us are contemporaries, as are the texts we’ll examine in this course. 

My argument for periodizing the contemporary from the 1970s to the present is based on changes that have occurred in economic, social and cultural life. Some of these transformations are difficult to explain as they entail major shifts in production and consumption. The Fordist model of production, for instance, which was predicated on the existence of major industrial centers and full employment has given way to new methods generally grouped under the rubric of “postFordism” (Harvey). 


Key dates of the pre-history of the contemporary period:


Ghana decolonizes.


Credit card revolution.


World-wide insurgencies, protests and rebellions.

First ATM.


SFSC student strike.

The internet.

Key dates of the contemporary period


Shift from Fordism to “flexible accumulation”.


Energy crisis in Western nations creates “stagflation”

9-11-73 Military coup in Chile overthrows first democratically elected Marxist administration. Chile becomes the first neo-liberal nation-state.


Fall/liberation of Saigon

Microsoft founded


Islamic Revolution in Iran


Deng Xiaoping initiates liberalization of Chinese economy.


Total eradication of small pox worldwide.


Identification of the AIDS virus.


Berlin Wall comes down

Tianenmen Square


Rwandan genocide.


Telecommunications Act


Human Genome Project announces its mapping of the human genome.

Feb. 15-16, 2003

Up to 30 million people around the world protest the imminent invasion of Iraq.

March 19, 2003

US invades Iraq.

Dec. 5, 2006

World Institute for Development Economics completes its study on global economic disparities and states in its press release that 

“The richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of global household wealth…. The most comprehensive study of personal wealth ever undertaken also reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total. In contrast, the bottom half of the world adult population owned barely 1% of global wealth.” 

Features of the Contemporary Period:

growth of megacities (megacities are usually identified as urban centers of 10 million or more inhabitants as distinct from megalopoli, which are extended corridors as in Houston to Lake Charles or Southern California)

Tokyo (33,600,000)

Seoul, South Korea (23,100,000)

* Mexico City, Mexico (22,000,000)

* New York City, USA (21,800,000)

* Mumbai (Bombay), India (21,100,000)

* Delhi, India (20,800,000)

* São Paulo, Brazil (20,300,000)

* Shanghai, China (18,600,000)

* Los Angeles, USA (17,900,000)

globalization (of financial markets, culture, labor, etc.)

rise of new communication technologies that have transformed the place of culture in social life and impacted concepts of identity

rise of fundamentalisms

fragmentation of social life

massive migratory flows

shift from fordism to postfordism

the rise of the security industry

The Contemporary: Neoliberalism


Neoliberalism: Quotes and Fragments

NL: “a theory of political economic practice that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within the institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey).

“The unequal distribution of property is not a distortion of the formal equality of the market, but is its presupposition and its inevitable consequence” (“The Neoliberal Theory of Society”, Simon Clarke).

“In 1945 or 1950, if you had seriously proposed any of the ideas and policies in today’s standard neo-liberal toolkit, you would have been laughed off the stage at or sent off to the insane asylum. At least in the Western countries, at that time, everyone was a Keynesian, a social democrat or a social-Christian democrat or some shade of Marxist. The idea that the market should be allowed to make major social and political decisions; the idea that the State should voluntarily reduce its role in the economy, or that corporations should be given total freedom, that trade unions should be curbed and citizens given much less rather than more social protection — such ideas were utterly foreign to the spirit of the time. Even if someone actually agreed with these ideas, he or she would have hesitated to take such a position in public and would have had a hard time finding an audience” (A Short History of Neoliberalism, Susan George [http://www.globalpolicy.org/globaliz/econ/histneol.htm]).

“In this way, a Darwinian world emerges – it is the struggle of all against all at all levels of the hierarchy, which finds support through everyone clinging to their job and organisation under conditions of insecurity, suffering, and stress. Without a doubt, the practical establishment of this world of struggle would not succeed so completely without the complicity of all of the precarious arrangements that produce insecurity and of the existence of a reserve army of employees rendered docile by these social processes that make their situations precarious, as well as by the permanent threat of unemployment. This reserve army exists at all levels of the hierarchy, even at the higher levels, especially among managers. The ultimate foundation of this entire economic order placed under the sign of freedom is in effect the structural violence of unemployment, of the insecurity of job tenure and the menace of layoff that it implies. The condition of the ‘harmonious’ functioning of the individualist micro-economic model is a mass phenomenon, the existence of a reserve army of the unemployed” (“The Essence of Neoliberalism”, Pierre Bourdieu [http://mondediplo.com/1998/12/08bourdieu]).

“The current world situation is thus characterized by a remarkable interdependence, though this is a highly asymmetric interdependence in which the influence of the US and other countries of the North is preponderant. It is an interdependence which makes itself felt through repeated shock waves and counter-shock waves, where reduction as well as amplification of effects are possible. This is an interdependence whose effects spread out further and further into the world, leaving no person and no place untouched. Workers in the mines and straggling villages at the end of the world, fishermen on distant islands, peasants in the most remote villages: all have become dependent on world events.

“This is an interdependence which the most powerful actors work into their strategies, in order to come out on top. Those on the bottom, without resources, most often must simply submit to such interdependence and suffer whatever effects it brings” (A History of Capitalism– 1500-2000, Michel Beaud).

“The extension of economic rationality to formerly non-economic domains and institutions extends to individual conduct, or more precisely, prescribes citizen-subject conduct in a neo-liberal order. Whereas classical liberalism articulated a distinction, and at times even a tension, among the criteria for individual moral, associational, and economic actions… neo-liberalism normatively constructs and interpellates individuals as entrepreneurial actors in every sphere of life. It figures individuals as rational, calculating creatures whose moral autonomy is measured by their capacity for “self-care” — the ability to provide for their own needs and service their own ambitions. In making the individual fully responsible for her/himself, neo-liberalism equates moral responsibility with rational action; it relieves the discrepancy between economic and moral behavior by configuring morality entirely as a matter of rational deliberation about costs, benefits, and consequences. In so doing, it also carries responsibility for the self to new heights: the rationally calculating individual bears full responsibility for the consequences of his or her action no matter how severe the constraints on this action, e.g., lack of skills, education, and childcare in a period of high unemployment and limited welfare benefits. Correspondingly, a “mismanaged life” becomes a new mode of depoliticizing social and economic powers and at the same time reduces political citizenship to an unprecedented degree of passivity and political complacency. The model neo-liberal citizen is one who strategizes for her/ himself among various social, political and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options. A fully realized neo-liberal citizenry would be the opposite of public-minded, indeed it would barely exist as a public. The body politic ceases to be a body but is, rather, a group of individual entrepreneurs and consumers . . . which is, of course, exactly the way voters are addressed in most American campaign discourse.8 Other evidence for progress in the development of such a citizenry is not far from hand: consider the market rationality permeating universities today, from admissions and recruiting to the relentless consumer mentality of students in relationship to university brand names, courses, and services, from faculty raiding and pay scales to promotion criteria.9 Or consider the way in which consequential moral lapses (of a sexual or criminal nature) by politicians, business executives, or church and university administrators are so often apologized for as “mistakes in judgement,” implying that it was the calculation that was wrong, not the act, actor, or rationale” (“Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Wendy Brown


An interview with Wendy Brown for Chicago Public Radio.

“Modern democracies have been around for long enough for neo-liberal capitalists to learn how to subvert them. They have mastered the technique of inflitrating the instruments of democracy– the ‘independent’ judiciary, the ‘free’ press, the parliament– and molding them to their purpose. The project of corporate globalization has cracked the code. Free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commoditiies on sale to the highest bidder” (An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, Arundhati Roy).

photo: Dispute between Serra Pelada gold mine worker and military police, Brazil 1986. © Sebastião Salgado.