I just came across a neat blog called Decasia: critique of academic culture run by Eli Thorkelson, a graduate student in the anthropology department at the University of Chicago. I started to offer a response to his though-provoking post on neoliberalism in the academy when I realized that really I was running on so long that my thoughts should be a post of their own.
In essence, Eli is trying to work through how to ask questions about neoliberalism from an ethnographic perspective–in other words, how to think through the contingencies and particularities of an object that itself traverses many such contexts.
This, of course, is one of the great anthropological questions of the past 30 years, and has been played out in everything from Eric Wolf to Arjun Appadurai to Aihwa Ong and Anna Tsing; from everything from the anthropology of globalization and modernity to the anthropology of the state to the anthropology of humanitarianism.
Appropriately, I think, Eli and friends are trying to tackle this problem through the specific case of universities: how can we make sense of what seem to be linked issues–shared problems, if not exactly shared responses–in the very nature of academic practice today? I ran into a similar issue when developing my dissertation project on police reform in France: so much of what was going on with Nicolas Sarkozy’s reform of the Police nationale seemed to follow a set script, but it wasn’t long into my time there that i realized that the issues at stake in his “culture of results” were different than, say, what was going on in Berkeley, or London.
How to make sense of this?
For starters, Foucault’s suggestion– in “What is Critique?” and elsewhere– has suggested that “liberalism” is best understood as a form of governance which seeks its own principle of limitation and therefore its corresponding form of critique–liberal critique– is to ask the question: do we have too much government? In other words, continual and reflexive self-limitation on the power and scope of governance is the characteristic feature of liberalism across its various manifestations. Beyond that, however, the particular mechanism of this self-limitation is variable.
If the first part of Foucault’s formulation (liberalism as form of self-limitation by government of governance) can be buttressed by the work of everyone from Albert Hirchman to Max Weber, the second part (thinking through the various mechanisms of liberal governance) is most fruitfuly approached, i think, by a group of scholars who follow the work of Nikolas Rose.
For example, rose argues that the distinguishing characteristic of neoliberalism is not “lack of governance,” “accumulation of wealth,” “excess of greed,” or even “privatization” (all popular definitions of the term). rather the difference between “classical” liberalism and “neoliberalism” is that whereas the former sought a principle whereby the role of government could be limited through the cordoning off of separate “public” and “private” spheres, the latter attempts to use a set of techniques developed in the Market–located, for classic liberalism within the “private” sphere–to better regulate a variety of domains–including those classically relegated to the “public sphere”.
Now, several anthropologists–Aihwa Ong and Jim Ferguson being chief among them, I think– have taken up Rose’s work here in order to focus on the myriad ways neoliberal techniques have been taken up for purposes not predicted by grander theories of economic transformation. Their point here is, I think, that neoliberalism is a technical toolkit that can be used in the service of a whole array of political projects.
Now, having said that, in my own dissertation I argued that, while the police reform that I was ethnographizing was indeed a form of liberalism which made use of some of the management techniques usually associated with neoliberalism in the Rose/Ong/Ferguson post-Foucaultian understanding of the term, I’m not sure that it was the sole mechanism of self-limitation.
On the one hand, I think I’m “not sure” mostly because neither were the people I was studying. in a very tangible sense, they were trying to figure out how to delimit the legitimate violence they were entrusted with. On the other hand, this very fact seems to suggest that there was at least some kind of experimentation with another, yet emergent, form of liberalism.
Dr. Ong and I have been going back and forth a bit about this ever since: what, for example, I ask her, would a new form of liberalism look like, if it were neither “classical” nor “neo” liberalism? Can we see any evidence of such a thing in the world around us? For example, in the post-economic collapse U.S. where there at least circulates the idea that market techniques are not in themselves sufficient “regulation”?
This is the terrain I think Eli & co. are on as they try to think through everything from the University of California’s current economic crisis to Mexican student protests of the 1990’s to ethnic violence at Cameroonian universities. It is exciting territory, and I’ll be interested to see what they find…
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