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For several decades, scholars across the humanities and social sciences have studied the phenomenon of “neoliberalism,” famously defined by geographer David Harvey as the doctrine that “market exchange is an ethic capable of acting as a guide for all human actions.” Neoliberalism’s origins can be traced as far back as the inaugural meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society in 1947, where a group of economists, philosophers and other scholars gathered to decry the state’s “extension of arbitrary powers,” which they viewed as a totalitarian threat. As Jacques Donzelot has observed, however, “the retreat of the state may be an expansion of government.”

Neoliberalism has precipitated its own massive social transformations since its ascendance in the 1970s, in the Global North and South alike. Among other effects, it is said to have reorganized social relations (including citizenship) in the image of the market, reframed the state as a service provider to the economy, dismantled safety nets, outsourced the public good to private contractors, transformed mass debt into new avenues of profit, and undermined liberal democratic principles in the name of freedom.

Since the 2008 global economic crisis, however, neoliberalism has collided with a surging backlash of right-wing neopopulism, racism, and nationalism that frequently opposes neoliberal flows of peoples and goods. Populism can be characterized as a recurring form of modern counter-politics that claims to speak on behalf of a “people” against a ruling elite and their interests. Neo-populism often relies upon authoritarian leaders who distinguish those who count as the “legitimate people” from those racially or ethnically defined others who do not. The new populist forces have profoundly unsettled many of the political compacts and ideological centers that govern the globe.

  • How should we interpret the political turbulence of the last decade?
  • Are such figures as Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, or Narendra Modi, events like Brexit, and racialist parties like Alternative für Deutschland, UKIPor the Bharatiya Janata, signs that neoliberalism is losing ground to right-wing political alternatives? Or, paradoxically, is neoliberalism entering a new historical phase that appears altogether compatible with resurgent authoritarianism, racism and the shuttering of borders?
  • Does our arrival at the crossroads of a resurgent populism require us to rethink not only what neoliberalism has become, but also what it always was?

This Sawyer Seminar, generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, consists of a research team of faculty and graduate students to re-evaluate prevailing theories of neoliberalism’s intellectual histories, political imaginations and cultural practices in light of the last few years’ tumultuous populist turn.

The seminar builds upon but also rethinks and challenges recent scholarly developments in the study of neoliberalism. Following Michel Foucault’s insights, scholars have come to view neoliberalism not simply as an economic doctrine, but as a sophisticated strategy of governmentality that redefines modern individualism in the micro-economic image of the business firm (“entrepreneurship of the self”) while recasting the state’s primary role as expanding the logic of competition into ever new social domains.

Other scholars, such as Bernard Harcourt, Loïc Wacquant, and Naomi Klein, call attention to aspects of neoliberalism that exceed the rationality of the market. In their view, neoliberalism (like classical liberalism before) relies heavily upon racialist thinking, authoritarian visions, and recurrent perceptions of crisis. These readings bring neoliberalism far closer to the thematics of right-wing populist ideology, which, as Jan Werner Müller, Cas Mudde and others have observed, propagates an anti-pluralist, majoritarian view of an aggrieved “people” and often asserts the importance of a strong leader whose sovereign force can overcome elite corruption. Despite these potential connections, scant investigation has taken place into the relationship between neoliberalism and the recent upsurge in right-wing populism. Neither have scholars considered how a clearer understanding of this relationship might complicate the arguments of political theorists like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who affirm populism as the necessary form of all democratic politics.

The current populist turn raises another major issue for the seminar:

  • How has neoliberal erosion of both the state and public culture nourished neopopulist attacks on political discourse?
  • Does the decomposition of the body politic—and simmering sense of popular unrest so palpable in the U.S. and elsewhere–-signal that neoliberalism has over time undermined its own life support system? Conversely, does the current moment express a new governmental condition in which political turbulence is compatible with neoliberal markets?

Our seminar title alludes to the present moment’s disorienting quality – the vertiginous sense that multiple political futures are in play.

This seminar reconsiders neoliberalism’s intellectual pedigrees, narratives and projects in light of the growing rhetoric of political crises, trade wars, endangered nations, fears of immigrants, and calls for border walls both literal and metaphoric.

  • What might we learn about neoliberalism if we revisit its ideological relationship to the categories and conceptions—nations, races, borders, crises, media—that figure so centrally for populism today?
  • In what ways do populist tropes deploy distinctively neoliberal ways of world-making and subject formation even when they do so in order to break with them in certain ways?
  • What might we also learn from the responses of local community members here in the U.S. Southwest to these current political situations?

We will interrogate the underlying relationship of neoliberalism and the neopopulist turn, considering both their moments of antagonism as well as their points of compatibility and collusion.