Neoliberalism, crisis and the world system


An insider glimpse of the conference that inspired this week's theme, plus an outsider view.


Tristan Sechrest Claire Westall
15 July 2013


Occupy Wall Street, Liberty Park, New York. Flickr/Aaron Bauer. All rights reserved.


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. It was also important to situate neoliberalism or neoliberalization within an understanding of the capitalist world system – to borrow from Immanuel Wallerstein and others working to explain the long-waves of capitalism – to think and question in terms oriented towards structure and system. 

And as far as I could see, no conference concerned with neoliberalization held within a university could stand without reflecting on ‘the university’, on its working environment and practices and on the co-option and resistance of its staff. Consequently, 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 in the articles this week. 

While my view is clearly that of an ‘insider’, the conference was attended by Tristan Sechrest of oD who came in order to provide an external eye and write up his take on our proceedings. Claire Westall

Occupy no antidote for neoliberalism: keep the conversations going

By Tristan Sechrest

I am neither British nor an academic, and yet as a young American who’d grown up under the Bush Administration I could not help but be drawn to a conference on neoliberalism. Up till now I had found the term confusing – with its elastic deployment often used to capture both conservatives and liberals – and noticed that it was typically bandied about as a general label for “allies” or “enemies,” depending on the politics of the author.

Then the crisis of 2008 hit, Lehman Brothers closed, and suddenly, by the middle of the next year, the media could only speak of the end of a neoliberal age: we under-regulated our banks; they were too free and hoodwinked us with their massive profits and nice cars; we should have seen this coming…but we must give them more money for our very well being. Greed was no longer good, but the greedy was all that was left of society. Americans began to speak of the massive inequalities in our economic system, of the over-paying of chief executives and the massive wealth seemingly spun out of thin air. Even comedy films jumped in: the credits for The Other Guys (2010) went through a long discussion of the economic deficiencies of the pre-2008 system and their perpetuation in the bailouts, sending a warning to those who watched: don’t do this again.

So where did we go wrong? Why was contemporary neoliberalism, declared “dead and over” by multiple sources in 2009, the subject of this conference four years later? Simple: people kept doing what they had been doing. The system had not changed, and neither had we. This is why neoliberalism hangs on – undead and hungry. 

The conference moved us through the continuing significance of Marx, Foucault and Arendt, called on us to comprehend the importance and political force of voice, of socialization and collective action. It marked out the fundamental weaknesses of the state, particularly the British state, in neoliberal times, and offered amusing critiques of Google’s communist-corporate-campus-culture.

Yet, it also clung onto Occupy in a way that I felt replicated the Left’s romanticising of Occupy and similar moments: further discussion of this movement seems largely fruitless. This hero of the leftist resistance died in the winter of 2011-2012, swept away by bulldozers and effective bourgeois PR campaigns. I remember the preceding autumn as one of fervent hope, a time when something felt like it was really changing, when the two-hour train to New York was a two-hour ride toward an image of a better future. But when spring came and the loud drums of Occupy fell silent, we awoke from the dream of a better society. The failure of Occupy to produce anything but bourgeois annoyance and new buzzwords—parodied, in an ironic display, by Harvard undergraduates wearing, “We are the 6%” t-shirts—is one that must surely be acknowledged. There is no way now to eke success out of Occupy; reviving a zombie to fight another zombie is not enough. 

Yet, this was a successful conference. It had its flaws—where were the voices of people of colour, the queer voices, and why were voices from beyond the academic left consigned to questions and open discussion?—but the way to remedy these limitations is to not give up. This conference was a great conference on its own merits: the papers were exciting, the speakers engaging, the energy of the room around topics of academia and teaching absolutely electric. It was also a free event, marketed to allow those beyond academia to attend and become part of the debates.

The work of examining neoliberalism will continue, but the only way to understand the larger structures and how they will change is to connect disciplines as this conference did. As an outsider to both the context and methodologies of this conference, I found it incredibly helpful that everyone managed to balance their technical vocabulary (jargon for some of us) with clear, precise and even poignant explanations of their understanding of contemporary life and how it might change. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ is an academic buzz word which can mean the selling off of the humanities for profit-oriented activities, but it can, as this conference showed, also provide exciting spaces for the study of macrocosmic trends in specific contexts, as well as the collectivization of academics working with similar outlooks and concerns.

The conference did not provide a singular or simple definition for ‘neoliberalism’: but it did pinpoint the central dynamics and pressures bearing down on us as the age of neoliberalism limps on, not-yet-dead. Its participants clearly agreed that we must keep the conversations going because moments of connection drive us to action, and to act is to change the world. The conference should be part of something larger, and that something should be the world's structural transformation.


This article is part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and the Centre for Modern Studies at the University of York. It was funded by the University of York's Pump Priming Fund, the British Academy, and York's Centre for Modern Studies.

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