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Neoliberalism, crisis and the world system – an introduction

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This week’s guest editor, Claire Westall, a Lecturer in English and Related Literature at the University of York, guides us through the argument this week:

Claire Westall
14 July 2013

This week’s theme and articles were inspired by an interdisciplinary academic conference that myself and Nick Gane in Sociology organised at the University of York, on 2-3 July, with speakers from the UK, Europe and North America and some 150 people in attendance. The conference was funded by the British Academy, University of York’s Pump Priming Fund and York’s Centre for Modern Studies. As organisers, we wanted to use the funds we had ‘won’ to host a free event that would allow academics and students from across a range of disciplines, as well as anyone else interested in the topics of debate, to help us thinking collaboratively about what it is to live and work in a neoliberal age - one that confusingly was declared over at a certain moment of crisis that has never marked an end-point.

Since the so-called ‘global financial crisis’ there has been notable and widespread academic, political and public interest in what is meant by ‘neoliberalism’ – where it sprang from, what its relationship with liberalism is/was, what its economic impact has been/is, what it means for political institutions and their decision making, and how it determines our labouring lives. With big-name public intellectuals – such as David Harvey, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Žižek and Stuart Hall – having written on and exposed neoliberalism’s place within capitalism’s development and on-going crises, it seemed important to continue to bring neoliberalism under closer scrutiny by probing its everyday manifestations and its large-scale ambitions, and by working to pinpoint its contradictions and weaknesses.

A robust debate around ‘Knowledge Regimes, “Public Education” and Neoliberal Universities’ was also part of the programme and some of the content from this discussion will be represented. Our first three pieces this week help work through specific challenges to common or clichéd responses to neoliberalism. Then we take up issues to do with the politics of the state in more detail, followed by the set of articles dealing with neoliberalism and higher education:

On Monday, while my ‘insider’ overview of our discussion joins that of openDemocracy’s Tristan Sechrest, who provided an external eye on our proceedings - Stephen Shapiro kicked things off. ‘Dandelions against neoliberalism’ speaks of his hope for the new future that the winds of change are blowing towards us, after Occupy. For him, ‘Neoliberalism might be the reappearance of capitalist tactics that have been dormant, but never forgotten or absent’, requiring us to ‘return to the entire set of Marx’s Capital and Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks to relearn the manifolds of capitalism and the construction of Left coalitions’. He pinpoints the crisis faced by the Euro-American middle class ‘as the core of the capitalist-world-system moves eastward to South and East Asia’.

On Tuesday, the headline article comes from William Davies with ‘Neoliberalism & the revenge of the “Social”. Given that ‘neoliberalism was a movement that was partly defined in opposition to the very idea of the ‘social’ as a distinct domain or logic of human activity’ - surprisingly, ‘neoliberalism is being reinvented in ways that incorporate social logic, as a means of resisting critique and delaying crisis’. After the NSA exposé, Davies shows how it is increasingly obvious that ‘social media potentially offers a proximity between the spontaneous individual and the state, far greater than that offered by markets’. 

Jodi Dean’s ‘The Neoliberal Trap’ - Wednesday's top slot -  mobilizes psychoanalytic theory, specifically Freud’s theory of 'drive', to suggest that this reveals to us how reflexivity functions as a ‘loop ensnaring the subject’. Rather than reflexivity being the very practice that enables us to see and critique ourselves, Dean suggests that it functions to bring about foreclosure, including political foreclosure such that, ‘neoliberal capitalism runs as a circuit in which reflexivity is a mechanism of capture rather than reason, where the loop of drive amplifies the worst tendencies rather than employing feedback as a mechanism of self-correction’. She uses this approach to re-read the rhetoric of the financial crash, beginning with the claim that banks were ‘too big to fail’.

On Thursday, Mark Fisher’s piece on ‘Strategizing the end of neoliberalism’, asks, ‘Why has the left made so little progress five years after a major crisis of capitalism discredited neoliberalism?’ The left, he argues must retrain themselves, 'to adopt a war mentality’ and ‘to rethink solidarity’ - if they are to break the bonds of ‘capitalist realism’. Michael Gardiner challenges the ‘received wisdom’ that neoliberalism belongs to the late 1970s, re-examining the ways in which the British state and constitution are built upon and perpetuate the logic of capital, and how Keynesian state-managed markets were the fertile ground needed for neoliberalism to thrive.

Friday’s pieces turn to where neoliberalism meets academia. Chris Renwick echoes Michael Gardiner, reading neoliberalism as having a history that stretches much further back than 1979. But he does so in order to remind us that neoliberalism was largely developed outside of academia and to explain that, ‘Neoliberals have cut them out of the loop and the effect has been to create a group of academics who talk about completely different things, using a completely different language, to those with power’. Next, John Holmwood, co-founder of the Campaign for the Public University, explains how changes in Higher Education and the ‘neo-liberal knowledge regime’ have specifically effected England in ways that are much more systematic and far-reaching’ than in other places, particularly other places in the UK. 

Saturday offers a bright start to the weekend with pieces from the co-directors of the Centre for Urban Studies (CURB) at York University. CURB has organised a series of Post-Crash City events covering the contemporary crisis and changes in urban systems. Their next event explores Environments and Ecologies, running 12-13 December.

Rowland Atkinson pinpoints how London’s property market is acting as a wealth ‘car park’ for the global super-rich, explaining that it is unlikely, ‘that political voices will be raised challenging the confidence of investors in the city as London breaks away from the rest of the UK and is internally splintered into places where wealth is parked and other spaces in which opportunity is desperately sought’.

Simon Parker completes the week's offering with a substantial complementary piece that explores the relationship between high finance, elite government and the austerity measures that have especially targeted the urban poor and waged labour before, during and after the financial crash of 2007-8. His piece derives from a presentation that was presented to the Post-Crash City: Urban Economies conference immediately following on from the Neoliberalism, Crisis and the World System conference at the University of York.

I would like to thank all those who contributed to the conference and all those trying to push its impetus forward – here via openDemocracy and elsewhere.

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To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

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