The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition


William Davies

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  • Theory, Culture & Society

    Theory, Culture & Society caters for the resurgence of interest in culture within contemporary social science and the humanities. Building on the heritage of classical social theory, the book series examines ways in which this tradition has been reshaped by a new generation of theorists. It also publishes theoretically informed analyses of everyday life, popular culture, and new social and intellectual movements.

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    About the Author

    William Davies is a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. He completed a PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths in 2009. His articles have been published in Economy and Society, The British Journal of Sociology, Theory Culture and Society and The New Left Review. In addition to academic research, he has worked for a number of public policy think tanks, authoring reports including Reinventing the Firm (Demos, 2009). His blog is at


    Many of the ideas, concerns and arguments contained in this book began as part of my doctoral research, carried out between 2005–2009, at Goldsmiths, University of London, which resulted in my thesis, ‘Competition and Competitiveness: A Cultural Political Economy’. For this reason, I owe particular thanks to my two PhD supervisors, Scott Lash and Michael Keith. I would also like to thank the various friends I made during those years, both at Goldsmiths and via the NYLON research network that brings together graduate students in London and New York.

    I was able to carry on developing ideas and reading widely, thanks to the opportunity afforded by a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at the Institute for Science Innovation & Society (InSIS), University of Oxford, between 2009–2011. This was followed by a year spent at Kellogg College, University of Oxford, when I began working on this manuscript. I would like to thank all those who provided a supportive intellectual and collegial environment during those years, especially my InSIS colleagues Javier Lezaun and Lisa Stampnitzky, with whom I shared an interest in policy expertise and from whom I learnt a lot.

    I finished the manuscript following a move to the Centre for Inter-disciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick. Again, I'd like to thank colleagues there, and Celia Lury in particular, for providing a stimulating environment and enough time to help me complete this book. Emma Uprichard, Gurminder Bhambra, Alice Mah and Claire Blencowe offered valuable feedback on Chapter 1. Nate Tkacz offered useful references for Chapter 2. At Sage's request, Nicholas Gane read the manuscript, and offered some excellent comments and suggestions; I was very fortunate to have such a thoughtful and knowledgeable reader.

    Elements of Chapter 3 have already been published, as ‘Economics and the “Nonsense” of Law: the Case of the Chicago Antitrust Revolution’ in Economy & Society, and as ‘Economic Advice as a Vocation: Symbioses of Scientific and Political Authority’, in The British Journal of Sociology. The main arguments within Chapter 5have appeared as ‘The Emerging Neocommunitarianism’ in Political Quarterly (which subsequently won the Bernard Crick award for best Political Quarterly article of 2012) and as ‘When is a Market not a Market?: ‘Exemption’, ‘Externality’ and ‘Exception’ in the case of European State Aid Rules’ in Theory, Culture & Society. I am grateful to the editors and reviewers of those journals for helping me develop this work and building my confidence in it.

    Monika Krause has read various pieces of my work over the years, including some which have found their way into Chapters 4 and 5. She's been an excellent friend and critic, including at those moments when one gets stuck with a piece of writing. Henry Paker is partly responsible for me becoming fascinated by the latent absurdity of competition (specifically 5-a-side football) in the first place.

    I would also like to thank my family and friends for always being supportive of my academic ambitions and career over the past eight years. Finally, I would like to express my love and thanks to Lydia, my wife, and Martha our daughter. It is my hope that Martha will one day live in a society which offers more choices than merely ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ in a competitive game.

    September 2013


    During the early 2000s, I worked for a number of policy think tanks in London, all loosely supportive of the ‘New Labour’ government of the time. The moral legitimacy of Tony Blair's government received its most crushing blow with the disastrous decision to invade Iraq in 2003. But of course this was not what led to the Labour Party's eventual loss of power. Blair hobbled on, winning the 2005 election and governing for a further two years before handing over the leadership to his long-term rival, Gordon Brown. No doubt the British public was growing bored of being governed by the same party for a decade, and Brown never had his predecessor's gifts for communication and charm. Yet the real impetus for political change, as was also the case in the United States’ presidential election of 2008, arose thanks to the largest financial crisis since 1929. New Labour could survive Iraq – just – but not an economic meltdown.

    In time, we may look back enviously at that pre-2007 (or at least pre-2003) New Labour era. It will go down in history as one of those periods in which wealth appeared to grow almost effortlessly, allowing a progressive government to divert substantial funds towards various public and cultural goods while still allowing private enterprise to prosper. This was the ‘win-win’ model proclaimed in the mid-1990s as the ‘Third Way’ (Giddens, 1998). It was during this sunny era that something began to intrigue me. All manner of political, social, moral or cultural goals could be declared and pursued by policy makers at this time, but their legitimacy seemed to depend on their conformity with particular forms of economic rationality. This rationality was, on the face of it, a free market one. Policy makers spoke of prioritizing ‘consumers’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘competition’, but this rhetoric was being draped over public investments, cultural institutions and state agencies. Often, businesses themselves were demanding that government do more and spend more (especially in areas such as education or infrastructure) in order to increase something called ‘national competitiveness’. It would be difficult to characterize this as an era of ‘laissez-faire’ or conservative, small government. And yet the rationality seemed to be that of economic liberalism nevertheless, especially involving appeals to the virtues of competitive behaviour, culture and mindset.

    The question that I'd arrived at was a classically Weberian one: how does rationality (in this, instance a form of liberal economic rationality) generate and constitute political authority? I was also grappling unwittingly with a paradox that is fundamental to neoliberalism, namely how the economic critique of the state can be employed precisely so as to legitimate, empower and expand the state. New Labour were masters of this, somehow managing to oversee a rapid increase in the size of the state while constantly evaluating, measuring and criticizing that state in the name of efficiency, markets and competitiveness. I left the policy world in 2005 to do a PhD in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, in the hope of addressing these questions. I became fascinated by the networks of advice and expertise that linked academic economists, government agencies, regulators and think tanks. I was particularly keen to understand how some vision of competition was imagined and constructed by the experts working in this world in ways that weren't simply reducible to the market. Competition and competitiveness appeared to have become unquestionable social and economic goods, as manifest in the urban boosterism and relentless political and cultural celebration of sport, which were becoming tedious features of British public life at the time. Concerns with inequality or the vulgarity of finance-driven capitalism were pushed aside, thanks to metaphors lifted from the sports world: we have to attract and reward the ‘David Beckhams’ of the global economy; we have to create a ‘level playing field’. The rhetoric of competitiveness seemed to serve a crucial function in winning certain moral and political arguments, on behalf of economic elites, and I wanted to understand how and why. This book includes and builds on the arguments and research carried out for that thesis. The financial crisis struck as I was reaching the end of my doctoral research, and Britain then lingered in a state of macro-economic stagnation that was lengthier than any recession since the nineteenth century.

    What stunned many of us during the autumn of 2008 was not only that the state (personified by a small coterie of elite leaders) was suddenly the dominant force in sustaining global financial capitalism, but also how different this state looked from the one that I'd been intrigued by a few years earlier. No longer was the rhetoric about measurable ‘efficiency’ or ‘competitiveness’, but of emergency measures to enable Western finance to continue at all. This was the all-powerful, sovereign state, which apparently had been hovering in the background all along, ready if needed, to prop up the world of money and economics, and using exceptional powers if necessary. It was the state that was normally only seen during times of war. The economically rationalized state had prided itself on trimming budgets, balancing the books and optimizing its management, but the state was suddenly revealed as a more fearful, all-powerful force, bereft of any quantitative logic, other than to prop up finance at all costs. The economically rationalized state had focused on savings and improvements that were measured in the hundreds of millions of pounds; the emergency state was capable of injecting hundreds of billions of additional finance and guarantees, simply by force of decision. This suggested that the relationship between financialized or neoliberal capitalism and the state was far more complex – and more intimate – than many critics had supposed. Not long after, something equally shocking occurred. This emergency state stepped back into the sidelines again, perhaps only a little more visible than before, but effectively suggesting that the rescue was over, and now we could return to our pre-2008 world. The economic language of ‘competitiveness’ and ‘enterprise’ is now back, as if nothing has changed.

    These observations relate to a couple of themes which run throughout this book. The first concerns the question of uncertainty, which – as I shall explore – is a key concept for neoliberalism. What does it mean today to say that the future is ‘uncertain’? In one sense, this claim can be a basis for political and existential hope. The fact that the future is undetermined, is yet to be made, is what allows us to dream, to reinvent and to reorganize. It allows individuals and societies to be imagined differently, which carries with it profound risks and responsibilities. Uncertainty in this sense obliges us to confront the possibility of the future being worse than the present, as well as the possibility of it being better. But it does at least remind us that we are not trapped in the present. But typically today, ‘uncertainty’ refers to something else altogether. In a more specifically economic sense uncertainty is an effect of multiple, competing actors, operating according to various conflicting strategies in identifiable marketplaces, established institutions and global arenas. This is uncertainty in the sense of ‘price volatility’, ‘financial turbulence’ and entrepreneurial ‘innovation’, which has a certain normality about it. It imposes precarity and stress upon individuals. To some extent it can be represented in terms of risk through the application of a probabilistic calculation (Knight, 1957).

    This latter form of uncertainty undeniably produces things which are surprising and previously unknown. Who knows what Apple or Samsung will produce next? Who is even sure that they won't both have been overtaken by some as yet unheard of rival within a decade? But surveying our model of political economy in the wake of the global financial crisis, there is an eerie sense that for all the talk of uncertainty today, things appear to have become a tedious and painful procession of the same. Speculation and imagination regarding the future have free rein, so long as they are not turned upon the political conditions that seek to guarantee and secure them within certain limits. While we view our own fates as subject to unpredictable buffetting by competitive forces, the ‘game’ within which these forces operate feels utterly permanent. Individuals are trained and ‘nudged’ to live with certain forms of economic uncertainty, in the assumption that they personally need to become more ‘resilient’ in the face of unexpected shocks to their careers, pensions and domestic lives. We must be ready for anything; but somehow this is never cause for hope of real change. Our vision of uncertainty, indeed of modernity, appears to have become stuck.

    So how has this occurred? How is it that change itself has come to occur in a fashion that, while not predictable, seems terribly familiar? How has the narrower, economic vision of uncertainty (as the effect of competition) come to colonize the more fundamental, political vision of uncertainty? The genius of the neoliberals, and Friedrich von Hayek in particular, was to produce a model of political economy that incorporated uncertainty at its heart, but nevertheless elevated certain types of expertise and government as the guarantors of that uncertainty. Such a model is not threatened by disruptive and unforeseen events; it is strangely almost strengthened by them, as has occurred following the global financial crisis (Mirowski, 2013). Political regimes which pledge to control the future are undermined when they fail to, but political-economic systems which assume the uncontrollability of the future, and which install certain rules, methodologies, techniques and measures on this basis, do not run the risk of falsification. They are consequently much harder to de-legitimate. The political problem of the present is that normative and political discourse and action are containable within competitive arenas, overseen by various types of power and authority. This suffocating subsumption of both liberal-legal normativity and of political decision making within an economized vision of competitive processes is what Chapters 2, 3 and 4 seek to trace and analyse.

    The second theme, following on from this, concerns the state. What are the rationality and authority of the neoliberal state? What are they based on? Are they constituted by a careful, economizing logic, in which waste is monitored, productivity optimized, and agents carefully regulated? Or is this a more excessive, violent force, that transcends any economic or evaluative logic? The answer, I suggest, is that it is both at the same time, and that this contradiction is the central fact about the ontology and authority of the neoliberal state. Sovereignty, in the sense of an immeasurable and ‘ultimate power’, is wedded to economics of various forms and in various ways. Legal and executive power blend with forms of economic rationality, in an unwieldy balance between the immeasurable and the measurable. Procedures of measurement take on a quasi-sovereign authority, as Chapter 1 proposes. The sovereign-economic ambivalence of the neoliberal state is one of the key lessons of the financial crisis – it transpired that this state's economically rational role is to offer an irrationally large guarantee to maintain the status quo. This is addressed in Chapter 5.

    Much of this book is descriptive and historical, and not explicitly critical. Given the historical moment, this will disappoint some readers. But I would suggest that we need to understand how power works, how it achieves authority, and the role of economics (and business strategy) in facilitating this. It is no good simply criticizing without also understanding the role of critique within capitalist society and its capacity to be adopted by dominant powers; this is the argument that has been marshalled by Luc Boltanski and his co-authors since the early 1980s. And it is no good simply denouncing ‘neoliberalism’ in a pejorative sense, without also understanding the genealogy, normativity and subtlety of the ideas that underpin it. To this end, we are all fortunate for the recent surge in high quality scholarly work on the history of neoliberal thought, from which this book has benefited tremendously (Foucault, 2008; Mirowski & Plewhe, 2009; Peck, 2010; Bergin, 2013). Academically, my goal has been to bring this historical approach to neoliberalism together with the sociological approach of Boltanski, whose work has been a constant challenge and inspiration to me. But beyond discipline or theory, I simply hope to shake and de-naturalize some of the assumptions that neoliberal thought has propagated, but which have permeated our political and moral imaginations and come to stipulate horizons of human activity.

  • Afterword: Critique in and of Neoliberalism

    Neoliberalism, as this book has sought to demonstrate, is replete with its own internal modes of criticism, judgement, measurement and evaluation, which enable actors to reach agreements about what is going on. These are especially provided by certain traditions of economics and business strategy, which privilege competitive processes, on the basis that those processes are uniquely able to preserve an element of uncertainty in social and economic life. The role of the expert – be it in the state, the think tank or university – within this programme is to produce quantitative facts about the current state of competitive reality, such that actors, firms or whole nations can be judged, compared and ranked. For Hayek and many of the early neoliberals, markets would do this job instead of expert authorities, with prices the only facts that were entirely necessary. But increasingly, under the influence of the later Chicago School and business strategists, the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’ were to be judged through the evaluations of economics (and associated techniques and measures), rather than of markets as such. Certain forms of authority are therefore necessary for this ‘game’ to be playable. Economized law is used to test the validity of certain forms of competitive conduct; audits derived from business strategy are used to test and enthuse the entrepreneurial energies of rival communities. But the neoliberal programme initially operated such that these forms of authority could be exercised in a primarily technical sense, without metaphysical appeals to the common good, individual autonomy or the sovereignty of the state that employed them.

    As the previous chapter argued, various crises (primarily, but not exclusively, the 2007–09 financial crisis) have exposed neoliberalism's tacit dependence on both executive sovereignty and on certain moral-psychological equipment on the part of individuals. A close reading of neoliberal texts and policies would have exposed this anyway. In which case, the recent ‘discovery’ that neoliberalism depends on and justifies power inequalities, and not markets as such, may be superficial in nature. Witnessing the exceptional measures that states have taken to rescue the status quo simply confirms the state-centric nature of neoliberalism, as an anti-political mode of politics. As Zizek argued in relation to the Wikileaks’ exposures of 2011, ‘the real disturbance was at the level of appearances: we can no longer pretend we don't know what everyone knows we know’ (Zizek, 2011b). Most dramatically, neoliberalism now appears naked and shorn of any pretence to liberalism, that is, it no longer operates with manifest a priori principles of equivalence, against which all contestants should be judged. Chapter 2 identified the ‘liberal spirit’ of neoliberalism with a Rawlsian assumption that contestants are fomally equal before they enter the economic ‘game’. Within the Kantian or ‘deontological’ tradition of liberalism, this is the critical issue, and it played a part in internal debates within the early neoliberal movement. For those such as the ordo-liberals, who feared the rationalizing potential of capitalist monopoly, the task was to build an economy around such an a priori liberal logic. Ensuring some equality of access to the economic ‘game’, via the active regulation of large firms and ‘equality of opportunity’ for individuals, is how neoliberalism's liberalism has most commonly been presented politically. As Chapter 3 discussed, the American tradition of neoliberalism – as manifest in Chicago Law and Economics – abandoned this sort of normative liberalism, in favour of a Benthamite utilitarianism, in which efficiency claims trumped formal arguments. The philosophical and normative elements of neoliberalism have, in truth, been in decline since the 1950s.

    The ‘liberal spirit’ of neoliberalism was kept faintly alive by the authority that was bestowed upon methodologies, audits and measures of efficiency analysis. The liberal a priori just about survived in the purported neutrality of economic method (of various forms), to judge all contestants equally, even while the empirical results of these judgements have increasingly benefitted already-dominant competitors. This notion relied on a fundamental epistemological inconsistency of neoliberalism, between the Hayekian argument that there can be no stable or objective scientific perspective on economic activity, and the more positivist argument that economics offers a final and definitive judgement. American neoliberalism broadens the ‘arena’ in which competition is understood to take place, beyond definable markets, and beyond the sphere of the ‘economy’, enabling cultural, social and political resources to be legitimately dragged into the economic ‘game’, and a clustering of various forms of advantage in the same hands. Monopoly, in Walzer's terms, becomes translated into dominance.

    The loss of neoliberalism's pretence to liberalism transforms the type of authority that can be claimed by and on behalf of power, be it business, financial or state power. It means the abandonment of the globalizing, universalizing, transcendental branch of neoliberalism, in which certain economic techniques and measures (including, but not only, prices) would provide a common framework through which all human difference could be mediated and represented. Instead, cultural and national difference – potentially leading to conflict – now animates neoliberalism, but without a commonly recognized principle against which to convert this into competitive inequality. What I have characterized as the ‘violent threat’ of neoliberalism has come to the fore, whereby authority in economic decision making is increasingly predicated upon the claim that ‘we’ must beat ‘them’. This fracturing of universalism, in favour of political and cultural particularism, may be a symptom of how capitalist crises often play out (Gamble, 2009). One reason why neoliberalism has survived as well as it has since 2007 is that it has always managed to operate within two rhetorical registers simultaneously, satisfying both the demand for liberal universalism and that for political particularism, so when the former falls apart, a neoliberal discourse of competitive nationalism and the authority of executive decision is already present and available.

    One argument against the ‘sociology of critique’ is that it involves a capitulation to the forces of power that ‘critical sociology’ was traditionally pitched against. But unless we take seriously the capacity of regimes of economic power to assert themselves successfully in coherent normative, political and philosophical terms, then we will be unable to explain why they are quite as resilient as they are. The political success of neoliberalism lies partly in its capacity to harness arguments about both justice and political transformation, and to locate these within an economic contest, such that the demand for justice is reframed in terms of ‘meritocracy’ and the urge for political action is channelled into ‘strategic leadership’. Recognizing the internal modes and conventions of critique, that are immanent to neoliberal authority, helps to cast some light on the great question of recent years – why has the pre-2007 paradigm survived to the extent that it has? But it may also help us to imagine how critique – be it liberal or otherwise – might be better disentangled from the institutions and regimes that have sought to possess it. While there is an obvious and necessary role for critique of neoliberalism today, there is also some benefit in a hermeneutic excavation of the forms of critical authority that neoliberalism has claimed ownership of, but is now gradually relinquishing, or which it has struggled to possess in the first place. So what do these look like, where might they be found, and how might they differ from their economized, neoliberal manifestations?

    The Fate of Liberal Critique

    Neoliberalism's relationship with liberalism was always somewhat ambivalent. The moral metaphysics of the latter was treated with suspicion, by the pragmatists, behaviourists and positivists of the neoliberal movement. Outside of ordo-liberalism, rules and laws were only rarely recognized as legitimate in and of themselves (for instance, in the case of anti-cartel rules). Following the banking crisis, it now seems that neoliberalism has been de-coupled from liberalism altogether. This has opened up space for nascent political movements to challenge capitalism, from within the ‘liberal spirit’ of critique. Arguing that the system, as currently organized, is not ‘fair’, that the rules ‘ought’ to apply equally to the rich as to the poor, that the game has been ‘rigged’ by elites, represents a manifestation of liberal judgement operating in a manner that is antagonistic to neoliberalism, and not constitutive of it. Critiques of tax avoidance by the wealthy are typically liberal, in the sense that they demand a restoration of the rules, imposed with a spirit of a priori equality. According to this critique, elites had been gradually and tacitly exempting themselves from the liberal spirit of neoliberalism for many years, prior to the financial crisis of 2007–09.

    These same critiques also point precisely to how neoliberalism could in principle rebuild itself in an authoritative fashion. As Boltanski and Chiapello argue, ‘the price paid by critique for being listened to, at least in part, is to see some of the values it had mobilized to oppose the form taken by the accumulation process being placed at the service of accumulation’ (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2007: 29). The critique of ‘unfairness’ in the current political-economic system achieves so much public reach because neoliberalism has, at least for the time being, been denuded of its liberal qualities. Preserving it in its ‘contingent’ form has become the goal of neoliberal government, and not running it in its quasi-transcendental, universalizing form. But if the rules were applied fairly again, if economic judgement (by regulators, credit-raters, auditors etc.) came to be restored to the status of a ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ perspective, and if elites were subjected to the same set of rules as everyone else, would that really bring the normative critique to a resolution?

    The danger with this liberal critique of neoliberalism is that it can overlook Michael Walzer's distinction, noted in Chapter 2, between ‘dominance’ and ‘monopoly’. Monopoly is a form of inequality that is limited in its institutional reach, and therefore confronts other forms of inequality, that are antagonistic to it. Hence money does not translate directly into political power, which does not translate directly into cultural capital, though in no case is the good distributed equally. Dominance, on the other hand, involves one form of monopoly dictating all others. In totalitarian regimes, political power strives to dictate all other distributions of worth and recognition, and under existing neoliberalism, economic and monetary evaluation, and hence economic inequality, infiltrates previously separate spheres. This was not necessarily how neoliberalism had to turn out. The tradition of neoliberalism manifest in ordo-liberalism, Simons and the early Hayek proposed strict limits to markets and market power, overseen by judicial rule. The price system could not practically be used to value everything. But increasingly it was economic evaluation, and not markets as such, that became the critical neoliberal test of worth, and with sufficient methodological innovation, there is nowhere that economics cannot be extended. Not everything can become commensurable within the market price system (for instance, ‘public goods’ such as pollution and national security cannot be bought and sold), but everything can become commensurable within economic analysis, even culture, as the study of national competitiveness demonstrated.

    Dominance, in this sense, invariably undermines the conditions of liberal legitimacy, because it eventually seeks to dominate even its own adjudicators, and therefore its potential validators. Under neoliberalism, economic evaluation tools and money become the supreme mechanisms of comparison and commensuration – so powerful, in fact, that they infect the bodies responsible for representing and judging the market economy itself, such as accountants, auditors and credit raters. For example, the quest for fees on the part of service providers and evaluators is such that the ‘objectivity’ of evaluations and report can no longer ‘hold together’ as a viable convention. In 2013, the UK's Competition Commission expressed concern that the major accounting firms were too socially connected to the major banks to be able to audit them objectively (Competition Commission, 2013). Legitimate power, in a liberal sense, requires some ‘other’ through which its legitimacy is judged, tested and made publicly apparent. Some sort of constitution or normative framework must be external to the power that is to be judged. But this means that there must therefore be more than one form of power, more than one source of authority, or else the validity of political action cannot be gauged. Ultimately, there can be no single ultimate source of authority, a paradox that is also responsible for the Schmittian exception, an ontologically ambivalent situation that is neither internal nor external to the juridical order.

    Critique of neoliberalism cannot simply focus on its general ‘unfairness’, as if legitimacy could be restored if everyone were ‘playing by the same rules’. The problem is that the production and enforcement of rules is now internal to the game. There is no longer a juridical outside, thanks to strategic acts of rationalization and positivist critiques of the very idea of any ‘higher’ or ‘juridical’ source of authority, external to economic processes. Chicago Law and Economics scholars explicitly attacked substantive liberal notions of justice, rights and procedural legitimacy. While not addressed in this book, the Virginia Public Choice school similarly dismantled notions of the ‘public interest’ or ethos of government officials, through expanding neo-classical economics into political science (Amadae, 2003). Meanwhile, the authority of the entrepreneur or business leader to create the rules that others then have to play by is a similarly immanentist and economistic account of normativity.

    The vision of a ‘meritocratic’ society undermines its own conditions of possibility, if there is only a single sphere of competition to be dominated. Only if there are multiple and incommensurable spheres of inequality, with multiple measures, judges and notions of value, can liberalism be practically saved in any meaningful way. This means radically reducing the scope of economics again, and rediscovering rival measures and theories of value. A liberal separation of powers needs to be mirrored in a liberal separation of valuation techniques and principles, probably also of monies. The social indicators movement, which offers alternative and sometimes incommensurable audits of national ‘performance’ and policy, provides an example of how this can be done (De Neufville, 1975; Innes, 1989). The growth of social valuation techniques, such as social impact assessment and social return on investment, shows that the value of the ‘non-economic’ can be recognized and measured independently. But regardless of the critical imperatives underlying these techniques, they too are liable to be co-opted, in support of some broader notion of economic efficiency. The ‘neocommunitarian’ discovery of the ‘social’, described in Chapter 5, is a manifestation of this. Competitiveness evaluations also include plentiful ‘non-economic’ resources and data, in their assessment of a nation's overall competitiveness.

    When intrinsic values are reduced to metrics of value, the danger of this type of commensuration with economics and prices is ever-present. But if values are not reduced to metrics of value then they forego certain rhetorical and performative opportunities, that a numbers-obsessed public sphere might otherwise offer. A statement such as ‘art for art's sake’ can be portrayed as elitist, while a legal-normative commitment to human rights or juridical procedure can appear to be a special minority interest or lobby group that is ‘out of touch’ with public sentiment. Intrinsic valuation has lost publicly plausible metaphysical substrates, but extrinsic, utilitarian valuation is pure babble, unless it has some tacitly assumed connection to a reality which exceeds it. The performative and rhetorical capacities of numbers are now becoming explicit, in ways that make the possibility of ‘pre-interpretive’ empirical ‘facts’ about society far less plausible. Civic movements, from across the political spectrum, now generate their own numbers for rhetorical purposes – such as the ‘99%’ – and circulate them via social media, in ways that are aesthetically designed to gain attention and persuasion. The rhetorical and political elements of economic theories and methodologies have also moved to the foreground, corroborating studies of economic performativity (Callon, 1998), such that theories are now publicly discussed in terms of whether they can survive politically, rather than whether or not they are objectively valid. The discovery in April 2013 that a key paper, endorsing austerity policies and which the IMF and British Treasury had both attached great authority to, was based on a calculative error attributable to an Excel spreadsheet, is one dramatic example of how the performativity of economics and calculative devices is now a mainstream political issue (Reinhart & Rogoff, 2010). Mainstream policy thinking is beginning to address the role of models and measures in financial life (e.g. Haldane, 2012b).

    Neoliberalism is therefore becoming a victim of its own success, in making quantitative economic evaluation the ‘ultimate’ test of validity across all realms of governance and decision making. The price paid for this economic imperialism is that, once the language of ‘price’, ‘competitiveness’ and ‘efficiency’ is the lingua franca of public political discourse, then it itself becomes imbued with all of the ambiguity and rhetorical cleverness for which political speech was feared by the neoliberals. It is no longer clear on what basis an academic economist – or any other academic – can claim sufficient distance from economic events and policies, in order to speak with ‘objective’ authority on a state of affairs. Chapter 3 described how anti-trust agencies went to great lengths to allow in-house economists to operate in a secluded, quasi-academic culture of esoteric theoretical debate. But the authority of academic theories is no longer taken for granted, and alternative, ‘amateur’ and civic methodologies are emerging to challenge those of the ‘professional’ social sciences. This was a matter of public debate following Barack Obama's 2012 Presidential election victory, which had been predicted with unnerving precision by Nate Silver, a blogger who analysed various large data sets. As methodologies and measures multiply, so the possibility of building a liberalism upon quantitative measure becomes more distant and not less, if there can be no a priori agreement that the measure is the right one, and is being applied in the right way. The ‘audit society’ promised to replace judgement with numbers: now we encounter so much enumeration, that we face a severe question as to how to judge which numbers genuinely matter, and how much they matter. The rise of ‘Big Data’ is exacerbating this. A purely immanentist and political view of numbers emerges instead, meaning that it is no longer clear where any new liberal ‘equivalence principle’ will emerge from. No doubt it may reappear in the language of neuroscience, with accompanying measures of value. But for the time being, we might ironically paraphrase Milton Friedman's 1953 methodological essay and say that ‘over numbers and measures, men can only fight’.

    The Fate of Political Action

    I argued in Chapter 5 that a form of ‘contingent neoliberalism’ now existed, a combination of a ‘state of market exception’ and ‘neocommunitarianism’. Both of these, in different ways, seek to base economic rationality on some tacitly political notion of the decision. It is only the decision of executive sovereign powers to rescue and preserve the neoliberal status quo at all costs that keeps it alive: this is the state of market exception. Meanwhile individuals have to be taught and nudged to decide (or ‘choose’) in a certain utility-maximizing way, as a matter of cultural preservation: this is neocommunitarianism. A longer-standing neoliberal tradition (examined in Chapter 4) had also granted a certain political authority to decision making, in the form of the strategic leader or entrepreneur, who could rearrange social and economic institutions according to their own will. The national competitiveness paradigm sought to persuade national leaders to view their own roles in similarly business-oriented Schumpeterian terms. One question, as we consider the possibility of alternatives to and within neoliberalism, is how might the notion of political decision making or action be harnessed in ways that broaden the horizon of political possibility. This is partly about de-coupling the notion of the ‘political’ from that of entrepreneurship, and de-coupling the notion of the ‘social’ from that of cognitive and behavioural psychology, where neocommunitarianism has placed it.

    Achieving this will require a critical reexamination and rethink of the Hayekian understanding of uncertainty, in both its political and its economic forms. Hayek's core proposition, which weaves through subsequent neoliberal thought with various mutations, is that economic uncertainty will protect against the imposition of political plans. Therefore, the preconditions of economic uncertainty need to be constructed and secured by any means possible. But as Hayek himself was aware, this is itself a project of political planning, and its success lies in the fact that it has come to appear immutable and permanent. Arguably, it is now so politically successful (at least judged in terms of its elimination of political alternatives) that it suffers the same fate of the socialist planning that the neoliberals were initially inspired to combat, in that it is undermining the possibility of economic progress and innovation. In the United States and Europe, the neoliberal project has become both politically and economically stagnant, suggesting that its political substrate (which insists that there is only one way to govern the economy) has now overwhelmed its economic veneer (which initially suggested that the future was radically uncertain). As Graeber succinctly argues, ‘whenever there is a choice between one option that makes capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and another that would actually make capitalism a more viable economic system, neoliberalism means always choosing the former’ (Graeber, 2013).

    Neoliberalism rests on an idiosyncratic political anthropology, in which individuals and groups confront the future by way of plans. The assumption is that human beings are predisposed to impose their will upon others, that is, they are not ‘naturally’ liberal, so must be placed in frameworks which force them to be. Challenging neoliberal politics must therefore also involve offering an alternative political anthropology, in which political actors are capable of injecting vitality and surprise into society, without necessarily dominating one another, either as managers or as tyrants. This needs to be fed into the design and governance of economic institutions. This more Arendtian vision of politics bestows a capacity for decisive, inventive, autonomous political action upon all humans, and not only on those who are ‘leaders’ or ‘sovereign’ in the Schmittian sense. The notion of the ‘plan’ as the enemy of economic liberty now appears somewhat outdated, following the demise of state socialism. The more urgent object of critique is the political insistence that the same dominant economic powers must be protected and secured at all costs, for the forseeable future. This is neoliberalism's own equivalent of the ‘plan’, which now resembles Brezhnev-era state socialism, in its empty insistence that the future must be the same as the present. Businesses themselves impose bland and deadening plans upon society, via credit relations, consumer contracts and work contracts, which are all designed to restrict the individual's freedom of choice and not expand it. It is not the dynamism of the price system that is likely to upset this repetition of the present, but the dynamism of political action and the invention of alternative economic institutions, which do not concentrate the capacity for ‘decisions’ and ‘action’ only in their ‘leaders’ or their ‘entrepreneurs’.

    Entrepreneurship, as an ethos, contains a Schmittian ‘violent threat’, inasmuch as the entrepreneur acts without justification, in ways that are animated entirely by a desire for victory, rather than for peace or fairness. The entrepreneur simply desires that the economic status quo get re-made, including its rules and conditions. For this reason, there is undoubtedly political potential in entrepreneurship to introduce something radically new, and not simply ‘more innovation’ in the sense favoured by business and neoliberal policy makers. Entrepreneurship potentially moves beyond a zone of ‘competitive uncertainty’ (of the form valorized by Hayek) and into one of ‘political uncertainty’, which challenges the very terms on which choice, freedom and evaluation are organized. In this respect, entrepreneurship has always posed a tacit threat to neoliberalism, while also being celebrated. This threat is managed by offering celebrity, extreme wealth and political status to successful entrepreneurs (for instance, inviting them to Davos), as ways of channelling the entrepreneurial and militaristic ethos into the existing ‘game’, as opposed to creating new political conditions altogether. The phenomenon of ‘social entrepreneurship’ (in which non-monetary goals are pursued by new enterprises) represents a small shift away from this. However, were the disruptive entrepreneurial ethos channelled into the creation of radically new institutional forms, currencies, forms of property and rules of exchange, then it potentially would abandon the limits of ‘competitive uncertainty’ altogether. The creation of ‘real utopias’, such as democratically governed firms and public budgets, offers glimpses of this (Wright, 2010).

    The political shortcoming of entrepreneurship is that it remains, for the most part, hampered by its assumption that the new can only be brought into existence by a small minority of individuals, whose authority stems purely from their ‘talent’, ‘decision’ or ‘strategy’. To date, this has largely remained a feature of the social entrepreneurship and social innovation movement. A Schumpeterian anthropology, which affirms the facticity of human difference – in which most are inclined to obey routines, but a small few are inclined to invent new ones – underpins most visions of entrepreneurship, splitting political-economic agents into a small minority of narcissistic innovators, and a large majority of depressive followers. For this reason the term ‘entrepreneur’ may be too compromised to be politically transformative. The same may be true of the ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ that are so beloved of corporate elites. But if an alternative political anthropology were harnessed and channelled into the design and construction of new economic institutions, one which started from the (liberal-spirited) assumption that all individuals have ideas, decision-making capacity and value to contribute (albeit of incommensurable varieties), this might disrupt in ways that are genuinely uncertain, both in an economic and a political sense.

    At present, the actions and decision making of the ‘nonentrepreneurial’ majority are viewed via the lens of economic psychology, whether that be Human Resource Management and marketing on the part of business managers, or ‘nudging’ and cognitive behavioural therapy on the part of public policy makers. This is a critique ‘within’ neoliberalism which poses its own particular challenge for the critique ‘of’ neoliberalism. The assumption of the applied economic psychologists is that most people do not really know what they want, do not really know what they are doing, and are unhappy due to cognitive or neurochemical malfunctions. The recognition on the part of policy makers that consumers and citizens can be psychologically manipulated, through the provision of cognitive cues or drugs, represents a peculiar neoliberal acquisition of a theory of critical realism (or false consciousness), which is entirely opposed to the early neoliberal assumption that there was no higher basis on which to base knowledge, beyond ordinary consumer perspectives. Just as political action needs to be de-coupled from a specific notion of entrepreneurship, that presumes some heroic vision of an unaccountable leader, so also does it need to be de-coupled from this notion of a choice maker, who suffers from certain neurological or cultural defects of cognition. This would mean highlighting the ways in which individuals do know what they want, and do know what they're doing, but are severely limited by circumstances, and not by their brains or their cognitive equipment. It requires illuminating the latent relationship between unhappiness and critique, such that a phenomenon such as depression can be reactivated as resistance, rather than as re-engagement. A new variety of liberal agency therefore needs to be rediscovered or invented, in which rational action is taken seriously as a sociological, political phenomenon, and is not reduced to the normative prescription of a mathematical equation, to be used to test choice-making in laboratories against. Convention theory is an important resource here, as it takes the statements and judgements of all actors seriously, without ever presuming that they are invalid by virtue of their context. The attempt to understand what people are doing, on their own terms, takes on a newly political dimension, in societies which have made ‘behaviour change’ a crucial goal of public policy.

    After Competition and Competitiveness

    Chapter 2 argued that competition is privileged under neoliberalism, because of certain paradoxical qualities that distinguish it. Firstly, enforcing competition appeared to offer the state a unique economic role, that was both active and passive at the same time. Secondly, it seemed to secure a paradoxical combination of equality and inequality amongst persons, whereby they are formally equal, but contingently unequal. And thirdly, it appeared to offer a logical route between an ‘over-socialized’ vision of capitalism (in which it is the outcome only of rules and hierarchies) and an ‘under-socialized’ vision (in which it is determined only via individual rationality). Contrary to the depiction of neoliberalism as a form of Darwinistic or naturalistic faith in competition, which arises as soon as the state ‘gets out of the way’, it is important to remember the constructivist elements of this approach to competition, and its reliance on the state to secure and enhance competitive processes (Mirowski, 2009). As I argued through Chapters 2, 3 and 4, the politics of competition and competitiveness consists of creating a necessary tension and balance between the ‘liberal spirit’ (formal equality) and the ‘violent threat’ (contingent inequality) of political authority, which serve to harness (and hence also constrain) both.

    One lesson to be taken from neoliberalism, for political movements which seek to challenge it, is that both individual agency and collective institutions need to be criticized and invented simultaneously. Political reform does not have to build on any ‘natural’ account of human beings, but can also invent new visions of individual agency. The design and transformation of institutions, such as markets, regulators and firms, do not need to take place separately from this project, but in tandem and in dialogue with it. A productive focus of critical economic enquiry would be those institutions which neoliberal thought has tended to be entirely silent on. These are the institutions and mechanisms of capitalism which coerce and coordinate individuals, thereby removing choices from economic situations. The era of applied neoliberal policy making has recently started to appear as one of rampant ‘financialisation’ (Krippner, 2012). So it is therefore peculiar how little attention is paid within neoliberal discourse to institutions of credit and equity, other than that they should be priced and distributed via markets. Likewise, the rising power of corporations has been sanctioned by theories that actually say very little about firms, management, work or organization, but focus all their attention on the incentives and choices confronting a few ‘agents’ and ‘leaders’ at the very top. Despite having permeated our cultural lives with visions of competition, and also permeated political institutions with certain economic rationalities, the dominant discourse of neoliberalism actually contains very little which represents the day-to-day lives and experiences of those who live with it. This represents a major empirical and analytical shortcoming of the economic theories that are at work in governing us, and ultimately a serious vulnerability.

    A further lesson to be taken from neoliberalism, for the purposes of a critique of neoliberalism, is that restrictive economic practices need to be strategically and inventively targeted and replaced. In the 1930s and 1940s, ‘restrictive economic practices’ would have implied planning, labour organization and socialism. Today our economic freedoms are restricted in very different ways, which strike at the individual in an intimate way, rather than at individuals collectively. In the twenty-first century, the experience of being an employee or a consumer or a debtor is often one of being ensnared, not one of exercising any choice or strategy. Amidst all of the uncertainty of dynamic capitalism, this sense of being trapped into certain relations seems eminently certain. Releasing individuals from these constraints is a constructive project, as much as a critical one: this is what the example of the early neoliberals demonstrates. Lawyers willing to rewrite the rules of exchange, employment and finance (as, for instance the ordo-liberals redrafted the rules of the market) could be one of the great forces for social progress, if they were ever to mobilize in a concerted way. A form of collective entrepreneurship, which – like individual entrepreneurs – saw economic normativity as fluid and changeable, could produce new forms of political economy, with alternative valuation systems.

    The reorganization of state, society, institutions and individuals in terms of competitive dynamics and rules, succeeded to the extent that it did because it offered both a vision of the collective and a vision of individual agency simultaneously. It can appear impermeable to critique or political transformation, if only challenged on one of these terms. For instance, if a different vision of collective organization is proposed, the neoliberal rejoinder is that this must involve abandoning individual ‘choice’ or freedom. Or if a different vision of the individual is proposed, the neoliberal rejoinder is that this is unrealistic given the competitive global context. Dispensing with competition, as the template for all politics and political metaphysics, is therefore only possible if theory proceeds anew, with a political-economic idea of individual agency and collective organization, at the same time. What this might allow is a different basis from which to speak of human beings as paradoxically the same yet different. The problem of politics is that individuals are both private, isolated actors, with tastes and choices, and part of a collectivity, with rules and authorities. An alternative answer to this riddle needs to be identified, other than simply more competition and more competitiveness, in which isolated actors take no responsibility for the collective, and the collective is immune to the protestations of those isolated actors.


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