Knowing neoliberalism, or, why doesn’t talking about it make it better?

My notes on Jana Bacevic (2019) Knowing Neoliberalism, Social Epistemology, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2019.1638990

What does it mean to know neoliberalism? In this innovative piece, Jana Bacevic explores how the focus on neoliberalism as an epistemic subject (a way of knowing about the world through rankings, metrics, indicators etc) has tended to excluded consideration of neoliberalism as an epistemic object i.e. what does it mean to have knowledge about neoliberalism?

This involves a familiar question of how one’s social position has implications for one’s capacity for knowledge production, with an unfamiliar twist given the dependence of that capacity on the circumstances one is seeking to characterise and critique. In other words, what does it mean for how we know neoliberalism that its critics are dependent upon neoliberalism for how and when they make their critiques, particularly so if they seek a public audience for them.

This builds on Bourdieu’s account of the scholastic fallacy. As Jana Bacevic summarises it, “different forms of inability to think of objects of knowledge outside of the epistemic apparatus developed within disciplines, networks, and institutions of knowledge production – institutions that themselves embody the social conditions of their existence”. However whereas Bourdieu believes that sociological reflexivity could interrupt the tendency to, as she puts it, assume “reality corresponds to the analytical categories used to make sense of it”, Bacevic identifies how their critical stance is itself tied up in the structures of knowledge production in a way which it fails to account for.

Social, political, and economic context in which academic critique is produced is marked by relatively high levels of symbolic and cultural capital. Its diagnostic narratives are socially embedded precisely in the institution that is the object or ‘site’ of the mechanisms of domination this sort of critique postulates: the university (see Bacevic 2018, Bacevic, J. 2018). Obviously, some forms of academic critique are performed outside the university in the strict sense of the term, for instance in round tables, panels, book launches, or other forms of public events. Even in these instances, however, they rely on forms of recognition, classification and valuation (Lamont 2012, Lamont, M. 2012.) derived from the academic field: speakers or authors usually hold positions at (frequently British or American) universities; their critique most often takes the form of an intellectual product (book, article); interactions at public events are usually structured in ways that assume an epistemic imbalance between speakers and audience (e.g. members of the audience ask questions, while speakers provide answers).

Her stunningly innovative PhD thesis which I’ve had the pleasure to read in draft (this blog post captures some of the contours of the project) explores the ontology and epistemology of this dependence in much greater depth. However her focus in this paper is on how the sense of neoliberalism as an epistemic project (a way of knowing the world, embodied by the account of someone like Mirowski) shaped how we come to see it as an object. This project entails a focus on what counts as knowledge, as even forms of knowledge which didn’t easily fit into a quantitative and positivistic framework were incorporated into it. Those that could not be are subject to attack, seeking to replace their expertise with its own economistic sort. In this sense, “governance is inextricable from epistemology: ways of knowing literally become ways of governing”.

However the diagnostic popularity of the category has created doubts about its analytical utility. This is what she diagnoses as a fundamental ambiguity which is itself susceptible to explanation, as opposed to simply being a typical feature of academic definition. It provides an overarching narrative through which trends can be connected, placing their origin in politics and economics, away from the university and leaving academics as framed as objects of these changes. It also entails a normative evaluation (i.e. it’s not a positive thing to evaluate something as neoliberal) and implies the speaker is not themselves neoliberal. Drawing on a number of sources, Bacevic offers a sharp account of the normative valence of the term and its narrative implications. It entails a form of positioning which unites the intellectual and the moral-political.

In this sense, Jessop (2013) is right to note that neoliberalism should perhaps better be thought of as a Kampfbegriff, a term of struggle, rather than a (purely) diagnostic denominator. It constitutes a form of ‘resistance’ to transformations of knowledge production, communicates agreement that the current state of affairs is unacceptable, and – at least in principle – a willingness to change it.

This raises the question of who the critique of neoliberalism in academia is addressed to? If it’s intended to instil critical consciousness in the familiar mode of ‘unmasking’ then why is neoliberalism so healthy? Why does critique proliferate without any corresponding increase in practice? Why do academics talk constantly about the evils of neoliberalism in academia while failing to do anything to change them? This paradox is becoming acknowledged but it’s important to stress that Jana Bacevic is, to the best of my knowledge, the first person to have raised this as a paradox to be explained. If we see neoliberalism as an epistemic subject, the significance of ‘fighting-words’ might appear obvious. As she puts it:

If neoliberalism is an intellectual project, then it makes perfect sense to assume that what is needed to counter it is equally intellectual in nature (cf. Gane 2014). If neoliberalism is inimical, adversarial, or simply alien to scholarship ‘as such’, then the obvious implication is that we should fight it with more scholarship. Even further: scholarship itself – especially if it takes ‘useless’, unquantifiable forms, as, for instance, in the calls for ‘slow scholarship’ – is equated with an act of resistance.

However this assumes power relations are equal to knowledge about power relations, “almost as if it assumes interpreting the world will automatically propel one towards changing it”. This is not to say that neoliberalism has co-opted critique but rather to stress that critique was never outside neoliberalism: the conditions in which critique is constituted are what we talk about when we talk about neolberalism. Why would we assume we could escape them through the power of our ideas? This is the question Bacevic both asks and answers in her PhD and in this paper, albeit in a more truncated form. It involves a diagnosis of what she (wonderfully) calls the “politically soothing, yet epistemically limited assumption that knowledge automatically translates into action” – something with equal foundation in both the orientation of critical theory which saw ‘unmasking’ as sufficient for action & approaches to performativity which saw reframing as remaking – and the conceptual detritus which gets in the way of our dealing with the intellectual and practical implications of its falsity. In fact this is crucial to understanding the ambiguity of contemporary neoliberalism:

The fact that it is perfectly possible to engage in ever-more-sophisticated analyses of the nature of the ‘neoliberal beast’ from within its belly is more relevant for understanding contemporary contradictions generated by ‘reflexive’ capitalism than all the writings of Hayek, Mises, and the Mont Pelerin ‘thought collective’ combined. There is (and should be) space for both, of course; but we should not avoid some of the crucial, if slightly unpleasant, questions about the relationship between ‘knowing’ neoliberalism and doing something about neoliberalism.

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