Neoliberal Fictions

Nandini Ramachandran



Defining neoliberalism is one of the most vexing conundrums facing the contemporary academy. Most accounts trace neoliberalism — whether specified as ideology or governmentality; process or epoch — to a structural breakdown of postwar capitalism in the North Atlantic world during the 1970s that led to the untethering of capital from nation-states. This entailed shifts in both domestic and international policy making, a recalibration of the scales of production, and an exploration into new forms of sovereignty and subjectivity. 

Scholars have emphasized different aspects of this historical conjuncture. David Harvey argues that neoliberalism is a process of accelerating “creative destruction,” a constant deferral of the immanent crises of capitalism through flexible accumulation and a renewed assault on labor power. While neoliberalism consistently fails at revitalizing accumulation, Harvey notes, it has been incredibly successful at entrenching inequality and restoring class power, undoing the achievements of both union organizing and decolonizing movements. Building on Harvey’s insights about the “scalar fix” as a strategic recalibration of the geographies and chronotopes of production, Neil Brenner theorizes neoliberalism as an accumulation strategy that depends on an irresolvable tension between fixity and motion. If the postwar era was characterized by the entrenchment of the nation-state as a nested federation, Brenner explains, the neoliberal era disarticulated the nation on two levels: a ceding of regulatory authority to the world market, on the one hand, and “glocal” cities (such as New York) on the other. 

Legal scholars and anthropologists have approached the deterritorialization/ reterritorialization dialectic that Brenner and Harvey identify by framing neoliberalism as a question of how these uneven geographies are managed and sustained through changes in global and local governance. Such scholarship often provides a useful view of neoliberalism from beyond the North Atlantic world. Elizabeth Dunn, for instance, traces the “mobile sovereignty” of humanitarian aid, arguing that it is often mobilized to discipline states, empowering their reach in certain arenas (such as surveillance) even as it encroaches on their legitimacy by providing the pastoral care that once legitimated state power. This enables what she calls “pastoral hunting,” in which states must persistently locate internal enemies and threats that they can defeat in order to justify their existence.

 Aihwa Ong, in a similar vein, follows the legal scholar Stephen Gill in arguing that the political efficacy of neoliberalism depends on identifying “sovereign exceptions” to a rule of law that is conceived on an abstract plane of human interchangeability and the formal equality of nation-states, even as it is enacted upon (and through) a material plane of intensifying differentiation. Such ethnographic interventions are an exploration into the institutional arrangements of neoliberal capital, the processes that result in “the nested hierarchical structures of organizations which can link the local and the particular with the achievement of abstract labor on the world stage.”

Ong and Dunn analyze neoliberalism as an innovation within liberalism as a mode of bureaucratic reason. They highlight what Stuart Hall once called the “managerial marketization” imposed by neoliberal governance, in which speculation replaces planning as the preferred modality for arriving at desired institutional outcomes. “Triangulation was its life-blood, its leading tendency” Stuart Hall notes in the context of New Labour politics in England, but the observation applies just as well to the humanitarian aid projects that Elizabeth Dunn studied in Georgia and their well-intentioned “adhocracy,” which relied on quick fixes, approximations, and temporary solutions rather than the plodding intelligence usually associated with the exercise of bureaucratic agency. Baked into such “adhocratic” models are justifications that invoke immediacy and insecurity, and the steady encroachment of such crisis discourse into daily life produces and stabilizes epistemological practices that value quantitative facts (as the “objective” basis for expert prediction) rather than qualitative context (as the “subjective” experience for a holistic solution). 

Frederic Jameson has often reminded us that speculation and standardization are dialectically related; speculative thought thrives by reproducing generic frameworks. Jameson argues that speculative thought provides “solutions without problems,” by which he means that the narrative forms of generic fiction allow us to reframe problems posed by political or social theory by combining the disparate “moments” of an otherwise invisible or incommensurable totality. A space opera, for instance, reconciles the “divergent streams” of social temporality— lived experience and historical time— by allowing readers to witness generational time as lived experience. Jameson’s recognition of the “constitutive antinomies” of utopian thought— its ability to suspend paradox rather than resolve it; to restore what Wittgenstein once called the “civic status of a contradiction”— distinguishes his approach from that of Raymond Williams, who suggests that “heuristic” and “systematic” utopias are distinct strategies of extrapolation. (David Harvey makes a similar, if orthogonal, distinction between “utopias of form” and “utopias of process.”) Jameson argues that the power of speculative thought is precisely that it overhauls categories of thought through the imposition of narrative discipline upon received reality. Any extrapolation is thus, to make a crude distinction, a feature of plot rather than thought. Speculation, for Jameson, enables us to re-evaluate causes, not effects, such that utopia provides a narrative technology that allows us to isolate what Walter Benjamin might call fresh monads. 

Jameson turns his attention to dynamic recalibration of the territorial organization of capitalism in the essay “An American Utopia,” which includes a suggestive interlude about the relationship between speculation and standardization. Increasingly, he writes, the global has become so inaccessible and yet so fundamental to lived experience that it is effectively “unimaginable,” while the local has been so particularized that it is “unthinkable.” This intensifying polarization between the universal and the unique has dissolved their Hegelian synthesis, the individual, and the resulting phenomenological gap is increasingly bridged by “sheer standardization, the production of entities of equal value that no longer have anything distinctive or particular about them, but which also do not count as unique in the sense of singularities. They are thus the grotesque shadows of universalities that no longer function to organize anything, but which are equally inaccessible to reason or sense alike: both tasteless and unthinkable at once.”

Jameson goes on to argue that this “new standardization” is a diagnostic shorthand for postmodernity, and that “it is strikingly confirmed by the evolution of politics itself, whose extraordinary verities throughout history seem today to have been themselves reduced and standardized on a well-nigh global scale.” Global politics today (insofar as such a spatiotemporal totality can be grasped) is, for Jameson, marked by this animosity to historicity, replacing its “extraordinary verities” with a source of standardized, all-purpose truth: the world market. This suggests to him a renewed dialectic of homogeneous space and instantaneous time, in which space annihilates time by freezing it. Jameson thus theorizes the speculative standards characteristic of postmodernity as geared to the production not of the future as such, but of the very next instant. His intervention, however, isn’t about the empirical reality of neoliberalism as much as of its dystopian dream: this is the market standard it seeks to impose, even as the project of generating it introduces inadvertent particulars and hostile singularities. 

A lot of scholarship links this turn to speculative standards to the increasing influence of finance capital in the global economy. In Capitalizing on Crisis, Greta Krippner traces the roots of the financialization of the US economy to the political unwillingness of successive governments to continue allocating increasingly scarce resources. In the early decades of the postwar period, she explains, the state controlled the supply of credit to the economy by imposing interest-rate ceilings on commercial banks. As inflation became an endemic problem within a contracting economy, US policymakers started to control the price of credit rather than the supply of credit, assuming that the market would allocate scarce credit more efficiently than the state could. Instead, however, demand expanded even as credit grew more expensive, and foreign capital flooded the US market once the dollar standard was abandoned. Policy decisions meant to more effectively regulate the distribution of limited credit thus produced an economic environment of apparently limitless credit, deferring the underlying crisis by three decades. This extensive reliance on expanding credit to fuel the economy allowed, Krippner argues, for financialization, in which it is securitization (the reification of risk) rather than commodification (the reification of labor power) that generates profits. 

A focus on financialization provides an inadequate account of neoliberalism as a process characterized by polarized economic geographies; as Marx noted, interest-bearing capital depends upon industrial and extractive capital to produce value, if in increasingly attenuated ways. Krippner’s account also indicates, however, a decisive ideological entrenchment: that the free market, defined by free competition, could more efficiently regulate the economy than the state, and that this presumed efficiency conferred an automatic legitimacy upon it.  This depends, in turn, on the conception of an economy as a bounded sphere of independent action. One incisive historical account of the economy as an epistemological object (and the attendant invention of the science of economics) is Susan Buck-Morss’ “Envisioning Capital,” which considers how it was that the allocation and measurement of scarce resources became the question for economics, even as the material horizon of the civilization so produced was theoretically limitless. 

Buck-Morss notes that the liberal democratic tradition rests on a collective forged through depersonalized exchange, and that Adam Smith, like Marx after him, recognized that the motive engine of capitalism was the disciplining of desire. As Marx pointed out, production is the governing moment within the totality of the economy because it (re)produces the need that commodities claim to satisfy. Unlike Marx, Smith failed to recognize that the logical circuit between production and consumption doesn’t reflect an equally seamless historical circuit; in the real world, producers and consumers were and continue to be very differently situated people. 

While there is no theoretical “outside” to Smith’s political economy, there was an absolute outside — the state — and it was only by tethering the “civilization” produced by the market to territorial nations that Smith could make a normative claim for the virtue of an invisible hand that steadily multiplies commodities. 

The economy’s assumed imperviousness to interference is central to Smith’s argument. The economy should not be externally regulated because it cannot be externally regulated: it resists capture because everyone is dynamically implicated, and this is what, in Smith’s tautological reasoning, ensures that the invisible hand will weave a multiplicity of interested selves into a cohesive society. Neoclassical economists would perform a similar sleight of hand a century later, when they presumed a “growth model” for the economy instead of theorizing one.  

For Smith, the autonomy of the economy is a defensive position meant to contest the totalizing gaze of the sovereign state; the virtue of the market is that it provides an alternate ground for ascertaining and potentially challenging the legitimacy of state action. As Foucault charts in The Birth of Biopolitics, later iterations of economic thought have retained their faith in the invisible hand even as the complexity and reach of the economy expanded dramatically. The sociologists Bockman and Eyal develop this insight, suggesting that the entrenchment of neoliberal dogma in the postwar world was the product of a longstanding conversation between American libertarians and Soviet market socialists— a conversation that was mediated by a translation strategy adapted from Hayek and the Austrian school. Bockman and Eyal trace the “hybrid and dialogic origins of neoliberalism,” to this transnational discourse, which was mobilized by both sets of participants in their respective contexts: to fight for deregulation in the US and to reform Soviet socialism.

For Hayek, as for his American acolytes, socialist planned economies presented a privileged exception to free market capitalism that could be harnessed to criticize Western welfare states. Bockman and Eyal explain that in Hayek’s analysis, “the advantage of markets lay in the fact they provided dispersed, accurate, real-time information, coupled with precisely calculated incentives, in a way that allowed economic actors to ‘coordinate’ their decisions and actions.” Planning was abhorrent to this free flow of information, distorting market signals and mechanisms. Hayek thus reiterated Adam Smith’s emphasis on the invisibility of the market as a normative precept, arguing that effective coordination was impossible to plan from a position external to the market. Hayek didn’t believe, however, that this invisible hand was natural; it had to be constructed, maintained, and facilitated. Despite this constructivism, he was, like Smith, faced with the dilemma of explaining precisely how this coordination occurs, and Soviet socialism offered him an excellent counterfactual to support his polemical claims: central planning, he argued, resulted in widespread and large-scale “market distortions” that were also introduced, in subtler ways, by Keynesian state interventions. Hayek proved his absent norm, thus, by referring to an existing exception. 

The birth of neoliberalism as a political and economic epoch is most easily analyzed by highlighting two related metonymic substitutions: the market for the economy, and efficiency for justice. If the onset of liberalism as a political philosophy is characterized by an insistence on the cultivation of the economy as a natural, just, and autonomous sphere of exchange, neoliberalism is marked by its emphasis on the necessary endurance of the competitive market as a site of eternal truths. 

The curious temporal structure of endurance— a thing that was and must continue to be, simultaneously completed and continuous—suggests an inherited, unchanging object that must be preserved within a nurturing environment through assiduous effort and active intervention. The overwhelming activity of endurance in the face of imminent threats and constant crisis supports, paradoxically, the “politics of the next instant” that Frederic Jameson notes is characteristic of contemporary society. The indisputable truth of the free market is the unyielding precipitate of a vast and fluid array of historical and social relations, and its reality-effects are, in this sense, opposed to both positivist teleology (in which transformed relations produce new and necessary objects) and subjunctive speculation (in which new objects yield fresh relations). 

Neoliberal thought naturalizes and eternalizes market competition, even as it dramatically transforms social life and political processes to strain towards the unrealizable goal of a unified space of speculative variation with no damaging or mitigating “externalities.” This is a transition that Foucault captures when he argues that what distinguishes neoliberalism from liberalism as political rationality is that “the state must govern for the market rather than because of the market [and] the problem thus becomes… what will be the effect on the art of the government of this general principle that the market is what ultimately must be produced in government?”

Wendy James traces the implications of Foucault’s insight about this “generalization of enterprise” in Undoing the Demos, where she discusses the institutional changes and transformations in subjectivity demanded by the pervasiveness of market rationality and the rise of finance capital. James argues that Foucault inadequately theorizes the shrinking space for politics in the neoliberal era— the evacuation of homo politicus by homo oeconomicus—and criticizes his “indifference to democracy and to capital.” For Foucault, she explains, the subjectivity implicit within both neoliberalism and liberalism is homo oeconomicus, the man of interest—the schizophrenic economic subject, simultaneously a disciplined producer and an insatiable consumer, that Buck-Morss identifies in Adam Smith’s philosophy. 

As Foucault explains in The Birth of Biopolitics, however, Adam Smith’s homo oeconomicus was significantly updated by American neoliberals from the Chicago School, who recognized that a founding flaw within classical economics was its evasion of the labor question. They argued that labor ought to be considered, in itself, as a form of capital, in which people could “invest” by educating themselves and marrying appropriate partners. Foucault marks this transition: “The characteristic feature of the classic conception of homo oeconomicus is the partner of exchange and the theory of utility based on a problematic of needs. In neoliberalism… homo oeconomicus is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself.” This line of argument is ironically reminiscent of Marx’s observation that a worker belongs not to himself, nor even to a singular capitalist, but to the capitalist class, “and it his business to dispose of himself, that is, to find a purchaser within this capitalist class.” 

The difference, of course, is that a worker sells his labor power— an abstraction that corresponds to no standard—while the entrepreneur sells his differentiated ability, a particularity measured almost exclusively by comparison to market standards. Wendy Brown argues, further, that while Foucault notes the shifting face of homo oeconomicus, he fails to register the political and social consequences implicit in this conception of people as self-investing human capital, partly because of his relative lack of interest in the lived reality of neoliberalism. Foucault emphasizes changes in the “art of government” once the state is assumed to produce for the market, but what sort of market is being produced? 

The lectures in The Birth of Biopolitics examine closely a certain origin story for neoliberalism, tracking thinkers from Smith through Hayek through Friedman, but they have nothing to say about how market standards and market fictions and market subjects reproduce themselves as part of an ongoing collective project. The Birth of Biopolitics, I mean to say, offers us no insights about how (or even why) the market endures. 

The problem of endurance is especially acute in financial markets, where money and words are brought together in circuits of accelerating velocity, and all transactions between these expressive currencies accrues both risks and profits. One of the features of our current juncture is an ongoing metonymic substitution of stock markets for markets as such, and that process of extraction demands an extensive and unequal collaboration between market participants and market victims as well as between market fictions and market standards. Markets have to be performed to retain their ontological status, and the implications of that performativity have engaged a growing field of scholars. Michel Callon argues that economic discourse frames (and partly invents) the phenomenon it claims to describe by activating institutional networks and promoting what he calls “calculative agency.” This “formatting” of economic activity enacts, in other words, the boundary between politics and economics as distinct spheres of action, even as it dissolves the internal and constantive coherence of the economy. 

Judith Butler cautions us against Callon’s “hermeneutic reading of performativity,” arguing that Callon assumes an automatic correspondence between theory and object. Theory can tend to establish a phenomenon, she writes, but it can just as easily fail, and this possibility of “misfire” must be built into any analysis that deploys a performative approach. Theories, she writes, are always brokering failure—such failure “is what is what necessitates its reiterative temporality”—and she concludes her essay by arguing that political theory and economic theory both operate through a certain disavowal of one another, while the real challenge is to undo the conditions that allow for the “sovereign agency” of either by thinking them together. 

Caitlin Zaloom, meanwhile, develops (and partly challenges) Callon’s insights ethnographically, describing the monk-like discipline that financial traders cultivate in order to speculate in the market rather than about the market. Speculators, Zaalom writes, are encouraged to swiftly react to the market but never to examine it (or “out-think” it), which requires an almost theological submission to the transcendental market. In Zaloom’s account, markets appear to work through revelation rather than interpretation, and traders must create a “boundary around the space of the market [so as] to hone and execute purified economic logics when they are dealing.” One technique they deploy in this quest to create the hallowed space of the market is temporal discontinuity; in order to sufficiently immerse themselves in the market, “traders must block out external influences, including the memory of success or failure” and thus, she explains, the best speculative practice resists narrative.  It is this strict adherence to the boundaries of the market and its delimitation from ordinary “emotional” life, coupled with an assurance about the generalized applicability and ineffable power of the reality so produced, that standardizes such speculation into science, not the arcane calculus of derivative-pricing. 

Zaloom’s ethnography suggests that Callon’s thesis— that markets are the ontological residue of vast and fragmentary regulatory discourses— is only partially true. Markets might be produced by information, but they remain, for precisely that reason, impenetrable to knowledge, at least for those actors who are most engaged with them. Further, if financial markets resist both interpretation and narrative— if they have finally become, as Smith and Hayek both so ardently desired, invisible— how are they to be made visible again? 

This essay has suggested that neoliberalism is a successful utopia in the Jamesonian sense — it suspends its polarities — and it has, like any fully realized utopia, powerfully dystopian dreams and effects. But it remains unclear how the stratified fictions of neoliberalism are to be dismantled, or even questioned, which is perhaps why the cultural production of more provisional utopias has declined so sharply since the 1970s. Contemporary popular culture manufactures messiahs rather than utopias, having seemingly ceded structural transformation to an inevitable capitalism and imagining only superhuman transformations of agency. How does one, then, narratively capture the neoliberal oscillation between (theoretical) fragmentation and (dystopian) salvation? 

All utopias are unstable, and one fundamental instability within neoliberal discourse is its emphasis on endurance— the sense of an ending both impending and impossible— and the concomitant call to simultaneously navigate both immediacy and duration. This collapsed temporal horizon is most obvious in the politics of the next instant, in which it is the future, rather than the past, that is conceived through homogenous time and standardized space. This instability is sharply crystallized in the dilemma of how financial markets can be narratively represented. The question thus becomes: what kinds of literary forms can critically represent their reality, especially once standardization has harnessed and partly disabled speculation?

The literary scholar Leigh Claire La Berge frames this quandary through a discussion of what she calls “the financial form.” Building on Jameson’s famous essay about postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism, she argues that his focus on fragmentation and the collapse of narrative is only half the story, because it ignores capital’s persistent hegemony over lived reality and its ability to consistently refuse alternate imaginaries. Instead, she argues, we must investigate the relationship between the aesthetic modes of postmodernism and realism, and the ways in which the burden of representing contemporary capitalism is distributed between them. Realism anchors the lived reality of neoliberal finance, while postmodernism abstracts and refracts its effects. Together, she explains, they present the financial form as a cohesive and yet incoherent totality.  

“The logic of finance” she explains “is sutured between a description (which is repetitive) and a transaction (which is additive). A thing, or person, has to be described and a time period delimited based on that description. It is between these two operations that a time/space matrix of finance foments.” This intimate encounter between representation and accumulation in the “logic of finance” is why La Berge theorizes the financial form as “an organization in which the field of representation is simultaneously indexical and value-producing— the indexing itself is a form of evaluation.” If one of the dystopian dreams of neoliberal financialization is to commodify all representation, as La Berge argues, its recursive circuits can be traced critically by engaging moments when texts display an awareness of their own material conditions of possibility. She calls this form of criticism “capitalist realism” in an earlier essay, arguing that it interrogates “the ways in which the ‘reality’ of production is incorporated into and interacts with the modes of representation… the capitalist realist mode interrupts and disorganizes itself, through its incorporation of other genres and through its desire to show the processes of its own commodification.”

La Berge’s call for a reinvigorated realism provides the ground upon which Jameson’s utopian “universal army” can be imagined.  I don’t intend to engage Jameson’s (somewhat dubious) utopian projections in detail; I only want to note that his call for the universal army is born out of the recognition that what we need today are utopias premised not on revolutionary ruptures but rather on revolutionary endurance—we need visions not of how utopias are made, but of how they may be sustained. Jameson uses his vision of the universal army to stage an assault on the iron law of efficiency, arguing that we have to displace efficiency from a foundational value into a strategic one, and thereby overhaul the crippling complex of ideologies that bolster neoliberal technocracy: progress, growth, expertise. Yet Jameson warns us against a reactionary loathing for modernity that renounces “everything for which today we have a grateful and complicit enthusiasm” as well as the bland functionalism and uniformity suggested by his advocacy of the universal army. His “cultural revolution” against efficiency also demands the cultivation of a deep reflexivity— “an implacable… even intolerable negativity to be trained against… the positivist and empiricist world they inevitably construct.” “Capitalist realism” instantiates a similar critical stance.  

La Berge’s example for exemplary “capitalist realist” text is the television show The Wire, which spent its first four seasons “realistically” depicting the failures of neoliberal social institutions and then turned its critical lens upon itself in the final season by introducing the sensational plot of an invented serial killer. The structural violence of the first four seasons is realistic, La Berge notes, because it is committed in the service of accumulation. It is taken as obvious, by the show and by its audience, that people are motivated to accumulate money, even when their pursuit of it results in murder. Violence committed in the pursuit of gratification must be explained its own right, through criminal psychology rather than institutional critique, and with reference to specific murderers rather than the structural contexts that made their violence possible.  

As La Berge puts it, “psychology disavows economy; economy disavows interiority”  and the challenge of the fifth season— the speculative impulse, if you will— was to hold both these standard assumptions in a productive tension. Like McNulty within the show, The Wire “sells its own realism” and thereby, she argues, discards the nostalgia that haunts most realisms: the dream of a return to a simpler past of the welfare state, community policing, loving marriages, and clean cities. The nostalgia of return valorizes the imagination of a decaying present and a bleak future; a refusal of that return, as Jameson reminds us, revitalizes the political possibilities implicit in Raymond Williams’ famous observation that actually achieved socialism will be vastly more complex than capitalism. 

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