J. Peck (2010). Constructions of Neoliberal Reason.

It’s a trend: another book summary. This time, I am sharing some tidbits that I have taken from Jamie Peck’s 2010 book “Constructions of Neoliberal Reason”.

Full refernce: Peck, J. 2010. Constructions of Neoliberal Reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

I frame my research with global governance literature (notably Rosenau’s work on fragmentation in global governance) and within that, I reply on Philip Cerny’s work on “embedded neoliberlism” to provide a framework within which — or outline the logic with which — these processes of global governance take place. I have just read the first two chapters of Peck’s book but what I am most drawn to is the shift from neoliberalism (noun) to neoliberalisation (verb- i.e., process).  As you will see from my notes below, these link very well to the concept of embedded neoliberalism-cum-neoliberalisation and will provide a more solid theoretical framework for my research.

Peck (2010:15-6) argues that “for all its doctrinal certainty, the neoliberal project is paradoxically defined by the very unattainability of its fundamental goal – frictionless market rule”. It follows that clean or precise definitions of neoliberalization are simply not possible; instead, Peck argues “concretely grounded accounts of the process must be chiselled out of the interstices of state/market configurations”.

The methodological challenge of uncovering neoliberalism in its various moments of actualization, failure, normalization and adaptation, is a geographical one, argues Peck (2010:33).  It is, for Peck (2010:33-4), “a matter of determining the relational location of specific events, actors, and claims on the broader terrain of socioregulatory restructuring”. The result of this becomes a series of traverses and triangulated readings across shifting landscape. But what does this mean for projects taking place at the global level?

Peck (2010:19) argues that processual definitions of neoliberalization are preferable to static and taxonomic renderings of neoliberalism, since the latter tend to rely too heavily on regime-like conceptions, bracketed in time and space”. “Neoliberalism” he continues, “defies explanation in terms of fixed coordinates”.  Philip Cerny (2008:4) argues that “neoliberalism is increasingly what actors make of it”.


Neoliberalization refers  to a contradictory process of market-like rule, principally negotiated at the boundaries of the state, and occupying the ideological space defined by a (broadly) sympathetic critique of nineteenth-century laissez-faire and deep antipathies to collectivism planned and socialized modes of government, especially those associated with Keynesianism and developmentalism (Peck 2010:20). Neoliberalism has evolved through processes of shape-shifting, and uneven open-ended mutations and cross-referential development (Peck 2010:30). The existing worlds of neoliberalism are “institutionally cluttered places marked by experimental-but-flawed systems of governance, cumulative problems of social fallout and serial market failure (Peck 2010:31).

Peck explains that “neo,” can be taken to refer to the project’s historical and ideological positioning after nineteenth century liberalism, or in a process sense, “neo” can also “denote the repeated (necessity for) renewal and reinvention of a project that could never be fixed as a stable formula, and which has lurched through moments innovation, overreach, correction, and crisis” (Peck 2010:20).

Peck identifies two temporal dynamics of neoliberalization: “roll-back” and “roll-out”. The “roll-back” processes are most obvious with the initial onset of neoliberalization, when restructuring processes are focussed on implementing basic tenants or fundamentals of neoliberalism, such as the dismantling of institutions, disorganizing alternate centres of power, deregulating zones of bureaucratic control and disciplining potentially unruly subjects (Peck 2010:22). This phase is likely of greatest interest to those studying national-level development and shifts towards neoliberal policies (which links very nicely to Chatterjee’s work on political societies).

The “roll-out” phase, which is of perhaps more interest to those studying global food security policy, is predicated on the roll-back phase but differs substantially. Peck (2010:23) argues that “it is typically associated with an explosion of “market conforming” regulatory incursions – from the selective empowerment of community organizations and NGOs as (flexible, low-cost, non-state) service providers, through management by audit and developed governance to the embrace of public-private partnerships – in the form of an on-the-hoof rediscovery and reinvention of an Ordoliberal ethic”.  Peck explains that there are “flanking mechanisms” of mutating neoliberal rules that are implicated in the periodic reconstruction of neoliberal governance. Roll-out neoliberalism involves an internal logic, brought about by failures of simple deregulation, and an extrinsic-contextual dynamic, brought about by increased reliance on various institutional supports, mechanism and policy adjustments (Peck 2010:23). This mirrors what we are seeing in global food security policy, including what is happening through the CFS.

Neoliberal Project

The neoliberal project is “a story of the never-inevitable ascendancy of neoliberalization, as an open-ended and contradictory process of politically assisted market rule (Peck 2010:xii).

“If there is an enduring logic to neoliberalization, it does not follow the pristine path of rolling market liberalization and competitive convergence; it is one of repeated prosaic and often botched efforts to fix markets, to build quasi-markets, and to repair market failures” (Peck 2010:xiii). In this sense, neoliberalization is not the antithesis of regulation, but rather “a self-contradictory form of an adaptive, mutating and contradictory mode of governance.”

Neoliberalism never represented a singular vision free from doubt or dispute but rather has been the result of a continuous process of construction. Its hegemonic nature creates the situation of deep embeddedness.

Uncovering neoliberalism requires “following flows, backflows, and undercurrents across and between these ideational, ideological and institutional movements, over time and between places” (Peck 2010:xiii).

Neoliberalism and the State

“Neoliberalism, in its various guises, has always been about the capture and reuse of the  state, in the interests of shaping a pro-corporate, freer-trading  “market order,” even though this has never been a process of cookie-cutter replication of an unproblematic strategy” (Peck 2012:9).

Neoliberalization refers to the “form of state/economy relations, not a linear path towards a purely free market state” or a developmental stage of quantitative threshold (Peck 2012:10).

Peck (2010:10) argues that national and local forms of neoliberalism are becoming increasingly interdependent, and this can also be extended to the global level, as Philip Cerny does. Peck (2010:32-3) argues that neoliberalism must coexist parasitically with other state forms and social formations. Said otherwise: neoliberalism is dependent on the state.

Adjectival Promiscuity

Susan Watkins (2010:7) has proclaimed that neoliberalism “is a dismal epithet… imprecise and overused”. Peck (2010:14-5) warns against “adjectival promiscuity” that surrounds neoliberalism. He warms that “neoliberalism seems often to be used as a sort of stand-in term for the political economic zeitgeist, as a no-more-than approximate proxy for a specific analysis of mechanisms or relations of social power, domination, exploitation, or alienation.


Peck (2010:27) argues that resistance to neoliberalism does not always play out as a David-and-Goliath metaphor: local resistance to global super project. Rather, he suggests that alternative politics may take radically different, unanticipated forms, cutting a very different course and reshaping the market offensive.


As Andrew Gamble and Philip Cerny have argued, there remains a great deal of variability across the global political economy. Peck (2010:29) argues that the variety across neoliberalism may in fact be increasing, “even as the trajectories of regulatory transformation continue to be framed in neoliberal terms”.

Peck highlights Jessop’s formulation of the “ecological dominance” of neoliberal globalization and explains that neoliberalism has achieved this ecologically dominant position through exploitation, reflection and intensifying conditions of globalizing economic turbulence since the 1970, especially with regards to:

  • Increased capital mobility and exposure to international trade
  • Structural reorientations in favour of shareholder values and financialization
  • The generalized intensification of competitive pressures
  • Speculation and short-termism
  • Widespread evasion and externalization of the costs of social and ecological reproduction
  • Development of various forms of state outsourcing, devolved governance, and lean bureaucracy, and locking in competitive austerity
  • Weakening of specific national government capacities, especially with respect to sociospatial redistribution and long-term (public, social) investment.

These are the circumstances that have secured a global regime of embedded neoliberalism (Cerny 2008, 2010) which are enabled by and realised through a complementary reconfiguration of socioeconomic governance systems which have become increasingly porous and interdependent.

While the regime is far from stable, it is also not very reversible, rather, “embedded neoliberalism radically reconstitutes the playing field upon which political and economic strategies are  being calculated and prosecuted – even under conditions of global economic crisis” (Peck 2010:29), representing “a new ‘bottom line’ for the politics of both the left and the right” (Cerny 2008:27).

More specifically:

Embedded neoliberalism involves first of all an acceptance that we libe in a multi-level, more open and market-like globalizing world in which informal and negotiated policy processes do not merely complement relations among nation-states but constitute a complex, fungible, pluralized political game that is drawing in ever more actors. Furthermore, globalization has generated a range of multi-level, interlocking playing fields on which actors have increasing scope to experiment and innovate policy approaches in practical situations  … [N]eoliberlism, with its mixture of free-market liberalism, arms’-length regulation, institutional flexibility and international openness, has proven to be a relatively manipulable and fungible platform for actors to use to reconstitute their strategies and tactics (Cerny 2008: 27&37)

Here then, neoliberalism is not only characterised by serious constraints and limitations, but also by new registers of political opportunity, drawing on an increasingly wide range of (often co-opted) social actors (Peck 2010:30).

Much like Jessop’s proposal of post-hegemonic entrenchment, embedded neoliberalism has become “overdetermined” in an increasingly transnationalised sphere. Cerny (2009:33) refers to this as a “fusion project” with its own spatiality as neoliberalism now “reaches the parts –  the places and spaces – other discourses and political projects no longer reach”.

ASIDE: You can read Jessop’s 2000 article “The Crisis of the National Spatio-Temporal Fix and the Ecological Dominance of Globalizing Capitalism” of grab his book chapter: Jessop, B. 2009. The continuing ecological dominance of neoliberalism in the crisis. In: Economic Transitions to Neoliberalism in Middle-Income Countries: Policy Dilemmas, Economic Crises, Forms of Resistance. ed. / Alfredo Saad-Filho ; Galip Yalman. London : Routledge. p. 24-38.

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