What's Wrong with Neoliberalism?

Thomas Biebricher, Eric Vance Johnson

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With economic theory front and center in current debates over the role of government, neoliberalism remains the concept with the most diagnostic potency for describing our contemporary political-economic world. And while many commentators asserted that the 2008 crisis of finance capitalism and its accompanying economic disaster would undermine neoliberalism's promise, for the time being policies of crisis management of governments and central banks have ostensibly mitigated the damage. Neoliberalism remains unchallenged as the pre-eminent economic regime and, despite rampant social inequality, it appears to be here to stay.
While providing an unequivocal definition is difficult, we agree with a number of others that, despite a certain degree of heterogeneity within neoliberalism and the somewhat blurry lines separating it from classical (economic) liberalism or (neo-)conservatism, neoliberalism can be conceptualized in an abstract though meaningful way.29 For our purposes, neoliberalism refers to a body of ideas and practices that emphasize individual responsibility and freedom (to choose); supports deregulation, privatization and fiscal discipline; and assumes that the more allocation tasks done through markets rather than states, the better.

While neoliberals maintain that the kind of order that they advocate is one that rests on individual freedom, we agree with many critics that neoliberalism remains normatively problematic. Yet, identifying what precisely is wrong with the doctrine remains puzzling. To do so, we evaluate two prominent challenges to neoliberalism's seemingly conflict-free and normatively unproblematic state of affairs: Gramsci's hegemony and Foucault's responsibilization. Acknowledging their shortcomings, we then turn to Johan Galtung's oft forgotten concept of “structural violence,” exploring what potential analytical and strategic gains or losses emerge from the latter's introduction to the debate. We conclude with an assessment of those relative strengths and weaknesses that we identify in all three frameworks. Thus, we do not think one particular perspective trumps the alternatives in an absolute way; they all enable us to formulate different critiques of neoliberalism. And while we suggest that Galtung's perspective should be brought back into the debate because it provides us with powerful normative arguments against neoliberalism, we posit that this comes at a price in the form of a highly contested vocabulary that may ultimately undermine the critical potential of the concept of structural violence.
Original languageEnglish
JournalNew Political Science
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)202-111
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes

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