Neoliberalism and De-Politicisation Through Economisation

The following is just set of notes designed to help me think through something, but I also want to bring attention to an interesting article. I will return to this post later when I have time. Meanwhile, I welcome comments.

In “Neoliberal Reason and Its Forms: De-Politicisation Through Economisation,” Yahya M. Madra and Fikret Adaman (Antipode 2014) argue that

critical positions that question the founding assumptions of modern mainstream economics are marginalised, in part due to neoliberalism’s enduring hegemony . . .  [We] propose a unique definition of neoliberalism as two clusters of ontological projects with shared epistemics; namely, pro-market and post-market, both of which aim to reorganise the social such that all human behaviour is governed through an interface of economic incentives. The project of the economisation of the social, materialised either through the naturalisation of economic processes or technocratisation of their governance or both, entails its de-politicisation. (691-92)

From a systems-theoretical perspective, we can look at this issue in terms of function systems. Madra and Adaman are looking at how one function system–the economy–colonizes the political system such that politics begins to operate by economic principles. Society becomes increasingly economized and decreasingly politicized. Or we could say that the economic system is destabilizing the political system, and the political system is trying to restabilize itself. They’re also saying that the economy is colonizing other systems when they say “the aim is to reorganise the social such that all human behaviour is governed through an interface of economic incentives.” We see this when parents offer their kids money for making good grades, and so on.

Neoliberalism also sees human beings as homo economicus, or economic man.

Accordingly, the concept of the economic agent “as someone who pursues his own interest” and “who must be left alone” (270) became the grid on which governments began to organise social life. (Madra and Adaman 696)

But homo economics is not merely descriptive, it is a performative term–it transforms people into that kind of person. In other words, it is a normative rather than empirical term. Economic man becomes the norm; it becomes naturalized so that it becomes very difficult to think in other ways.

Within this frame of governmentality, neoliberal thought occludes the performative nature of the figure of homo economicus and takes it to be descriptive of the anthropological subject’s reality . . . [The] neoliberal ontological project therefore demands, and on occasion elicits, homo economicus-like behaviour from subjects (Madra and Adaman 696)

As an analogy, we can think descriptive words like student, professor, patient, parent, criminal, etc., as performative. I am called a professor or patient or parent, and I start to try to act like one of these things. Althusser called this process hailing or interpellation.

This is an epistemic shift.

Neoliberalism forges an epistemic shift at the level of social subjectivity: as a project, it aims to transform the way individuals relate to one another and their environments, thereby potentially generating a change in social being. This depoliticisation through economisation contributes to silencing the attempts to rethink the very organisation of economic practices that may be needed to break from the growth and austerity cycles of capitalism. (696)

In other words, when economic principles enter or begin to take over politics, we get a neoliberal government.

Neoliberal governmental reason posits “competition” as its code of conduct, and aims to govern the social in a decentralised manner by manipulating incentive structures that subjects—individuals, households, enterprises, bureaucrats etc.—face. (696)


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