Neoliberalism: What on earth are we talking about?

Neoliberalism: it’s a contentious term and one that is as hotly debated as it is carelessly thrown around.

I reflect on, and write about, neoliberalism a lot and have just recently come across Philip Cerny’s (2010) book Rethinking World Politics: A Theory of Transnational Pluralism wherein he provides a very clear description of neoliberalism that mirrors my own understanding. He writes:

[N]eoliberalism is not a seamless web doctrinally and discursively. It is not only a contested concept in theoretical terms but also a highly internally differentiated one, made up of a range of politically linked but potentially discrete and freestanding subcategories and dimensions. These can be manipulated and orchestrated in different ways by political actors, leading to a much larger spectrum of strategic options, policy prescriptions, and de facto practices than the original conservative version would suggest – including what are here called regulatory, managed and social neoliberalism. In this way, a wide variety of interest and value groups, as well as political actors, can latch onto specific parts of the package and claim them for diverse political projects. Neoliberalism is proving to be eminently flexible and politically adaptable – a discourse that increasing reflects the process of transnational pluralism (Cerny 2010:129-30).

For Cerny, and others, neoliberalism has become “embedded in twenty-first century institutional behavior, political processes, discourses and understandings of socioeconomic realities” (Cerny 2010:129). Through this processes of embedding it has become the “shared mental model” (Roy, Denzau and Willett 2007) of the evolving art of governmentality (Burchell, Gordon, and Miller 1991; Foucault, 2008), the contemporary Gramscian “common sense”: what is expected and taken for granted.

What is important to pull out of this is:

–          The multiplicity inherent in neoliberalism: neoliberalisms

–          The common-sense nature of neoliberalism

–          The multiple opportunities to co-opt/shape the discourse for various political ends accepting that these actions are confined to the (always contested and ever changing) barriers of embedded neoliberalism.

This raises important questions about social change (which I will address tomorrow by reflecting on Richard Day’s work on non-hegemonic activity). The other question I want to consider is: How have neoliberalisms proved useful for civil society organizations participating in global food security governance? How do CSOs make use of embedded neoliberalism to support their engagement in global food security governance while simultaneously critiquing it or claiming to reject it?

Following Cerny (2010), but also Chantal Mouffe, neoliberalism is maintained through tensions inherent to liberal democracy: Totalizing bureaucratization competes with the primacy of the individual. When it comes to CSO engagement in food governance, especially at the global level, we see the expectation of liberal democracy support the development of spaces to facilitate their engagement, which is evident, for example, through the enactment of a rights discourse.

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