Skip to content

Fisking Bockman

Johanna Bockman has a review of Post-Soviet Social in the Winter 2012 issue of Slavic Review. It begins nicely enough, stating that my book is difficult and rewarding. It ends nicely as well, stating that my book contributes to discussions of socialism, post-socialism, and neoliberalism. But the bulk of the review is not so nice. It contains a remarkable number of misleading or simply false statements about the book. It ignores much of my book’s intellectual project. And it evinces confusion about a range of conceptual and methodological issues. Overall, it is remarkably uncomprehending.

Bockman has, of course, written a book about socialist reform economics and its connection to neoliberalism. And in the course of her review she finds occasion to refer extensively to the topics of her own research, even though their relationship to my project is unclear. At some point I hope to find time to write something up about her understanding of neoliberalism. This is an area of mutual interest, and a direction in which something productive might arise.

But to the review: In general I believe that reviews do not need to be answered. But given the prominence of Slavic Review, and the depth of Bockman’s misrepresentation of my book, I have written a letter to the editor that I hope will be published in the next issue. I have also taken the liberty of putting together some notes about her various errors of fact, omissions, and confusions.

The text of Bockman’s review is reproduced–in full–in block quotes below. Sentences on which comment is made are boldfaced. My comments follow the block quotes in bullet form. For the most part her paragraphs are reproduced without breaks, but in some cases I make comments on individual sentences where warranted.

Paragraph 1

Post-Soviet Social is a difficult and a rewarding book that advances our understandings of socialism, postsocialism, and neoliberalism. Stephen J. Collier seeks to move us beyond understanding neoliberalism as a static package of programs—pro-market and anti-state—or as a unified ideology espoused by specific neoliberal people with clear (right-wing) political projects. Collier returns to Michel Foucault’s 1978–79 lectures on biopolitics to demonstrate that neoliberalism is instead a style of economic reasoning that is less about freeing markets than about rethinking government. Collier applies Foucault’s approach to changes in urban infrastructure in the Soviet Union since the 1920s and to Russia in the 1990s and 2000s. He specifically studies changes in centralized city heating and budgets in two small industrial cities, Belaia Kalitva and Rodniki, during this period. Collier’s book, unlike a conventional ethnography, focuses instead on experts’ journal articles, as well as government and World Bank reports, looking for trends in thinking about government. My criticisms of the book involve attempts to clarify and push forward its argument.

  • The claim about my research is untrue. My book was based on a year of ethnography that is extensively discussed in the Introduction. It was also based on archival research. A relatively small part of the analysis is based on journal articles and reports (for the most part restricted to the latter parts of chapters 5 and 6).

Paragraph 2

Collier argues that neoliberalism is not a common ideology but rather a style of economic reasoning that views industries, state regulators, and customers/users ‘as calculative agents whose incentives were structured both by market signals and regulatory institutions’ (223). This economic reasoning is neoliberal because economists, architects, and planners rethought liberalism in light of the “social state”: the Soviet model, the welfare state, and state-led development. These social states, according to Collier, practice illiberal forms of governance and are fundamentally different from liberal and neoliberal governance. In his view, the Soviet model of khoziaistvo —which could be understood as economy focused on need fulfillment—is illiberal because, first, individuals are viewed as labor power and subjects of need, thus not as constituting an independent society or economy that imposes limits on the state, and, second, planners seek to integrate and prescriptively plan all elements of the city. In contrast, the neoliberal style of reasoning envisions individuals, companies, and state officials as calculative agents shaped by incentives.

  • Bockman is correct that Post-Soviet Social analyzes how neoliberalism introduces mechanisms of government through calculative choice. But Bockman’s characterization of my analysis of neoliberalism is incorrect. I specifically argue against a simple opposition between neoliberalism and the social state; indeed, my argument against this opposition may be the most important point of the book. For example, I show in detail how neoliberalism also governs individuals as “subjects of need,” not only as calculative agents. My argument is that neoliberalism should be understood as a reflexive critique of the social state that takes up important normative orientations established by the welfare systems of the 20th century. In this sense, my argument is the opposite of the one Bockman attributes to me.
  • Moreover, I argue against reducing neoliberalism to “government through calculative choice”—or, as Bockman puts it, “incentive-oriented reforms”—precisely because such analysis leaves neglects to consider how neoliberal thinkers understand the public purposes of government, the political philosophical foundations of neoliberal thought, and the way in which neoliberalism takes up and reworks elements of the social state.

Paragraph 3

Collier’s argument that socialism and neoliberalism were not implemented immediately, but rather took much time to develop, represents one of the most exciting aspects of the book. Soviet khoziaistvo integrated industrial production and need fulfillment within new, small industrial cities like Belaia Kalitva and Rodniki, creating a specific Soviet city defined by khoziaistvo. In Belaia Kalitva, however, planners did not begin to implement the Soviet city khoziaistvo until the 1960s. Rodniki’s transformation began even later. Yet, even in their incompleteness, small industrial cities in the Soviet Union shared a common nature. Similarly, Collier shows that neoliberal reforms of infrastructure could not completely alter the Soviet model but rather neoliberalism’s, in Karl Polanyi’s terms, “formal rationality” accommodated and reprogrammed the “substantive economy” of Soviet khoziaistvo.

  • No comment, though I am puzzled about why Bockman finds this aspect of my book exciting. My observation about the delays in the construction of works foreseen in city plans is an old commonplace of Sovietological discussions of local government and city-building. It is hardly new or exciting.

Paragraph 4

Collier argues that structural adjustment policies, and other heterogeneous neoliberal “microeconomic devices,” as an “assemblage of elements . . . arrived on the Russian scene in the early 1990s and [were] deployed in the project of ‘transition’” (140). In Collier’s view, significant aspects of this assemblage came from American neoliberal economists James Buchanan’s and George Stigler’s engagements with and criticisms of the American social state. After World War II, these two neoliberals criticized the social state and developed a new neoliberal approach “developed precisely  to address situations in which normal mechanisms of competitive markets were unworkable” (242, emphasis in the original)—like centralized heating and other public utilities—and thus reorganize the state. Collier shows that Buchanan and Stigler surprisingly assumed a role for the state—social welfare, redistribution, justice, and equity—while also criticizing corporations. He warns us not to accept the easy “presumption that the political stakes of neoliberalism are clear: we know who the bad guys are (the neoliberals); we know who the good guys are (those who suffer at the hands of neoliberal reforms, or resist these reforms); and we know what the right political commitments are (more social welfare, more solidarity, more equalization, more justice)” (250). After 1991, economists in Russia adopted Buchanan and Stigler’s approach to reprogram the Soviet khoziaistvo, retaining the social state and social welfare while, simultaneously, introducing neoliberal reasoning.”

  • Although this paragraph is largely correct up to the last sentence, it fundamentally misrepresents my argument on two levels. First, it mischaracterizes my understanding of neoliberalism in post-Soviet Russia. In Post-Soviet Social the styles of thinking inaugurated (in part) by Buchanan and Stigler are associated with the public sector reforms of the 2000s, not with the liberalizing reforms of the 1990s. I do not argue that these reforms of the 1990s retained the elements of the social state while simultaneously introducing neoliberal reasoning. Indeed, I argue that in the 1990s the Polanyian narrative of Great Transformation (the transformative force of markets pitted against the existing substantive organization of society) is largely correct. My argument is that in the 2000s the story changes. Neoliberal reforms in the 2000s were one vehicle for the preservation of various aspects of the social state, a dynamic that is contrasted to that of the 1990s.
  • On another level, in missing these distinctions, Bockman has also missed the entire methodological intervention of my book. Post-Soviet Social criticized at great length a tendency in critical scholarship to group all instances of neoliberalism together as part of a coherent project and ideology, and to see neoliberalism as a pervasive force in shaping contemporary transformations. It was for this reason that I took great pains to distinguish among various aspects of neoliberal thought, among various kinds of neoliberal reform, and among different reform agendas that were advanced at different moments in post-Soviet Russia. But in Bockman’s reconstruction of my book, they all collapse in a mess of confusion and indistinction.

Paragraph 5

One could extend Collier’s argument to show that neoliberal biopolitics developed within Soviet biopolitics well before 1991. Throughout the Soviet period, economists worked on incentive-oriented reforms. At least since Evsei Liberman proposed his reforms in 1962, Soviet leaders considered and eventually implemented incentives for managers, workers, and firms. From this perspective, neo- liberalism is not a foreign imposition but has domestic origins. Neoliberalism can thus be understood as the importation into Russia of ideas that had already developed there. Does this mean that liberalism, and maybe even capitalism, emerged organically in the Soviet Union?

  • There may be interesting examples of proposals for “incentive-oriented reforms” in the Soviet Union. But they are not relevant to the themes of my book, and Bockman’s suggestion that they constitute the “organic” emergence of neoliberalism in the Soviet Union is based on a misunderstanding of my definition of neoliberalism. First, as noted above, I do not define neoliberalism as incentive reforms, and indeed criticize scholars who reduce neoliberalism to incentive reforms. Second, whatever reform economists imagined during the Soviet period, their proposals had little importance for urban governance or social welfare provision, which was my topic. (It also bears noting that they had little relevance for economic governance in the Soviet Union. Unlike some Eastern European cases, “reform socialism” was never implemented in any sustained way in the Soviet Union.)

Paragraph 6

Even though these incentive reforms were controversial, they fit within a tradition of socialism. While Collier focuses on neoliberalism emerging out of critique of the social state and using “microeconomic devices,” he does not recognize that socialists also created a variety of socialisms out of a critique of the social state. In part, this is because he contrasts liberalism to the social state, conflating all socialisms, including consciously liberal ones. Throughout postwar state socialism, however, economists used “microeconomic devices,” such as incentives and market mechanisms, to end ad hoc Stalinist planning and to realize, from their perspective, a more authentic socialism. In opposition to the Soviet model, socialist economists envisioned free markets, marginalist economics, and cooperatives as tools to create a radically liberal, inclusive, anti-state, and anticapitalist market socialism. Supposedly neoliberal auctions developed as market socialist tools to maintain social ownership of the means of production and market mechanisms, while ending state control. Thus, Collier’s focus on neoliberal critiques disregards many critical socialist projects.

  • Here, too, Bockman’s criticisms of my book seem to be based on quite fundamental misunderstanding of the topic of my book and the scope of my claims. The book advances claims about the specific kind of governmental reasoning that lay behind the institutions of Soviet social welfare and urbanism, and about how this form of reasoning was embodied in patterns of resource flow, norms, and material structures. I draw a contrast between the planning and practical operation of those mechanisms of Soviet social modernity and neoliberal reforms. Bockman, by contrast, criticizes me for a series of things that I do not do and do not claim in the book. First, since my book made absolutely no claims about “all socialisms” it would be impossible for me to have conflated them. Second, as noted above, I do not contrast liberalism to the social state. Indeed, my argument was precisely that no strict distinction of this type is possible. Third, whatever Bockman has in mind when she writes that “socialist economists envisioned free markets, marginalist economics, and cooperatives as tools to create a radically liberal, inclusive, anti-state, and anticapitalist market socialism” it is unclear why such visions should have been addressed in a book about Soviet social modernity. In this domain, reforms of this type were ever taken up at any point in the Soviet period. This is the topic of Bockman’s research, but she gives no explanation for why it should also be my topic.

Paragraph 7

Collier seems to want to side with neoliberals particularly because they support redistribution and equity, as well as because they are liberal.

  • Bockman entirely mischaracterizes the critical project of my book. Because I anticipated the kind of misreading that Bockman makes, I dedicated the Epilogue of Post-Soviet Social to clarifying the book’s critical project. In it, I write: “[I]t should be underlined that I am not offering an apologia for neoliberalism. If most critical scholarship has conceptualized neoliberalism in a matter that is appraisive—a judgment, and in this case always a negative judgment, is built into the very definition of a term—I am not simply proposing to reverse the evaluative valence” (p. 249). I struggle to imagine a clearer way to express a view that is precisely the opposite of the one Bockman attributes to me. I refuse the choice between being for or against neoliberalism, precisely because I want to avoid the well-worn and tired ideological debates about these topics, and to find a way to examine neoliberalism that has more conceptual traction. Moreover, I was careful throughout the book to present a balanced picture of neoliberal reform that was faithful to the reality of the cities I worked in. Thus, the above quote from Post-Soviet Social continues: “Certain aspects of neoliberal thinking and writing seem to me quite attractive (for example Buchanan’s arguments about redistribution and fiscal justice). But others are most unattractive (his increasingly virulent opposition to state intervention as such). Similarly, if there is much in the “neoliberal” agenda in Russia of the 2000s that seems to me valuable—a potential contribution, dare we say, to a more just society—the post-Soviet experience also provides abundant material for criticizing reforms, individual thinkers, and economic doctrines that can be meaningfully associated with neoliberalism. Indeed, no one who spent significant time in the country in the last twenty years—particularly outside the centers of political power, particularly in small cities like the ones I worked in—could fail to see that critical scholarship has, in this sense, gotten many things right.” It takes a particularly violent misreading to interpret such sentences to mean that I “seem to want to side with the neoliberals,” or, to anticipate a point below, am insensitive to the issues raised by neoliberalism’s critics.

He contrasts socialism with liberalism—socialist illiberal governmentality versus liberal governmentality—rather than contrasting socialism with capitalism. Yet, neoliberals like Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, as well as most likely Buchanan and Stigler, understood socialism as the antithesis to liberalism and capitalism. Their advocacy of capitalism endorsed private property and monetary transactions, while rejecting public property, barter, and nonmonetary planning.

  • In direct opposition to Bockman’s claim, the styles of reasoning that Buchanan and Stigler inaugurated left space open for both public property and non-monetary planning (for example, planning for the fulfillment of human needs). This point is made extensively and substantiated in great detail in Post-Soviet Social, as would be evident from even the most superficial reading of chapters five and six.

Neoliberals, despite their actual and often contradictory views, receive support from corporations and other sources for this declared advocacy of capitalism and opposition to socialism. Collier interprets neoliberals within their own terms, which downplays this support and views all forms of socialism as central planning.

  • First, for Buchanan and Stigler socialism was not a crucial point of reference. Rather, as I argue in the book, they were primarily motivated by a critique of the politics and economics of the New Deal, and in particular by a critique of “public interest” economics.
  • Second, the consequences of any support these thinkers received from corporations for my argument are completely unclear, and in any case the argument in Post-Soviet Social is that there is no reason to treat the origins of neoliberal ideas as somehow determinative of their possible forms.
  • Third, I view Soviet social modernity—not “all forms of socialism”—as an example of what I call total planning because it unambiguously was. If I had written a book about a different topic, my analysis might have been different. But given the topic of my book, and the scope of its claims, Bockman’s criticism is entirely misdirected.

Ironically, Collier takes Foucault’s devastating critique of liberalism and neoliberalism—in which Foucault reveals their new forms of disciplinary power and biopolitics, their governmentality that uses the soul as a prison of the body, and their very notion of the autonomous subject—and presents it as a positive description, especially in contrast to the “illiberal” state. Instead, liberalism, neoliberalism, and illiberalism should all be the target of analysis.

  • Bockman leaves the reader with the impression that I have misread Foucault in a very fundamental way and that I have misunderstood the most basic thrust of Foucault’s critical project. In fact, I have spent a good deal of my intellectual energy in recent years arguing that Foucault’s lectures on liberalism and neoliberalism—which were published only in 2007 and 2008—document a significant shift in his diagnosis of modern power and his approach to studying it in the late 1970s. I have argued (both in Post-Soviet Social and in journal articles dedicated to this topic) that Foucault’s work on liberalism and neoliberalism marked a methodological and critical break from his prior work on disciplinary power. Bockman seems to miss this point entirely. She simply repeats the standard American reading of Foucault, which reduces his thought on neoliberalism to a couple passing comments in Discipline and Punish and other writings and lectures from that period of Foucault’s work. She seems to be completely unaware of the analysis in Foucault’s lectures on liberalism and neoliberalism and of the secondary scholarship on these lectures.
  • Most importantly Bockman ignores the material in Post-Soviet Social that addresses these issues. For example, she ignores the long epigraph from Foucault’s lectures of 1978-1979 in the book’s Epilogue, in which Foucault specifically rejects the understanding of neoliberalism that Bockman attributes to him. He argued against seeing neoliberalism as a “cover for a generalized administrative intervention by the state which is all the more profound for being insidious and hidden beneath the appearances of a neo-liberalism” (an implicit reference to his own prior conception of liberalism as a cover for disciplinary power). Describing his own project as he conceived it in the late 1970s, he said in these lectures that “what I would like to show you is precisely that neoliberalism is really something else” (cited in Collier 2011: 245). The first paragraph of the Epilogue then discusses at length a classic essay by the British Foucault scholar Colin Gordon, who had access to the lectures of the late 1970s decades ago. Gordon argued that Foucault identified neoliberalism as “a considerably more original and challenging phenomenon than the left’s critical culture has had the courage to acknowledge” (cited in Collier 2011: 245). Post-Soviet Social contains long discussions of the nature of that challenge. Again, Bockman does not engage these discussions or argue against them. She either has chosen to ignore them or did not read the sections of the Introduction and the Epilogue in which they are laid out.

Paragraph 8

Scholars use the term neoliberalism  to describe the popular understandings of its ideology and to examine current-day practices that increase inequalities worldwide: new exclusions from state redistribution and new dispossessions of land and wealth.

  • The premise of this paragraph is that Bockman is introducing the reader of her review to a critical conventional wisdom about neoliberalism that has been ignored in Post-Soviet Social. In fact, Post-Soviet Social engages this critical conventional wisdom in great detail, and proposes an alternative approach. But, as is apparent in this paragraph, Bockman does not acknowledge this engagement, or the alternative I lay out, and leaves a reader of her review with the impression that I am unaware of these conventional critical arguments about neoliberalism.

While Collier innovatively studies urban infrastructure, it is rather unique. Such infrastructure has a materiality and rigidity, as well as integration within broader structures that reformers cannot easily change.

  • This claim is both false and misleading. Post-Soviet Social did not only study urban infrastructure. Rather, I study urban infrastructure, public sector budgets, and the more familiar “rollback” reforms such as privatization and liberalization. Moreover, Post-Soviet Social explicitly considers the “uniqueness” of Soviet urban infrastructures, and, more generally, the extent to which neoliberal reform of infrastructure and budgets can be considered paradigmatic of neoliberal reform generally. I argue explicitly that they cannot be considered paradigmatic of neoliberalism as a whole but that they do provide insight into a particular kind of neoliberal reform that has been neglected in critical scholarship, namely, reforms dealing with the public sector that offer some insight into the neoliberal vision of the positive purposes of government. This distinction is entirely lost in Bockman’s review.

In contrast, Polanyi demonstrated that the problematic objects of liberalism are the fictitious commodities of land, labor, and money (The Great Transformation, 1944), which are much more readily subject to accumulation by dispossession and exploitation than infrastructure.

  • Post-Soviet Social addresses Polanyi at great length, so it is somewhat surprising to find this offhanded comment about Polanyi that suggests I have obviously misread him, or misunderstood his relevance to my topic. In fact, it is Bockman who is confused about Polanyi. The commodification of labor in Polanyi referred to the extent to which human needs had to be fulfilled by using market-derived income to attain basic items of consumption on the market; in other words, the market is the institutional mechanism for organizing the “material satisfaction of human wants,” as Polanyi put it. Labor is decommodified to the extent that institutions other than the market are used to organize the material satisfaction of human wants. In modern societies one crucial way that the fictitious commodity of labor is decommodified is precisely through mechanisms like government-provided infrastructure and public sector budgets; this is why they were good objects of study for a book on biopolitics! It is thus incoherent to claim, as Bockman does, that labor is “much more readily subject to accumulation by dispossession than infrastructure.” It is evident that Bockman has not grasped my most fundamental argument for why infrastructures and government budgets are good (if unexpected) objects of inquiry if one wants to understand neoliberalism and biopolitics.

Urban scholars who focus on the post-1970s study these fictitious commodities in transnational contexts. For example, as capital flows more easily and concentrates in global cities’ land, housing, and capital markets, David Harvey examines growing global inequalities (Harvey, The Enigma of Capital, and the Crisis of Capitalism, 2010).

  • Here, Bockman again implies that I am unaware of standard critical understandings of neoliberalism. She ignores the fact that a central concern of my book—addressed extensively in the Introduction and throughout—is to engage what I call the “critical conventional wisdom” that understands neoliberalism as Bockman portrays it here. Reading her review, one wonders whether she has even read the section of the Introduction (pp. 9-12) titled “The Critical Conventional Wisdom” that addresses Harvey explicitly. There is not one word in her review that engages with the extensive criticism I advance of this “critical conventional wisdom,” which she simply repeats in its most basic form.
  • A serious misrepresentation follows from Bockman’s implication that I have not engaged with the critical conventional wisdom on neoliberalism. Bockman suggests that I have not grappled with—or, indeed, am simply insensitive to—the profound disruption, dislocation, and dispossession that can accompany liberalization, particularly in urban contexts. Here, Bockman’s misreading is, frankly, offensive, given the research I did and the experiences I had in Russia. In researching Post-Soviet Social I lived for months in small industrial cities that were devastated by the initial waves of liberalization in Russia. I was acutely aware of the processes she is referring to, interviewed innumerable people who experienced them, and I described all of this at great length in my book. Bockman would only have had to read five pages into the Introduction to encounter a long discussion of post-Soviet changes in one of the cities in which I conducted ethnographic fieldwork, which describes in some detail the profound shock and disruption of liberalization. There is, as well, a long discussion in Chapter 5 that traces in detail the collapse of the industrial economy in the two small industrial cities in which I conducted ethnographic fieldwork, from 1991 to the devaluation. I was not in any way excluding these processes from an assessment of liberalization and reform. Rather, my book strove to paint a nuanced picture that brings other aspects of neoliberalism into the story alongside these familiar dynamics of liberalization.

Furthermore, such scholars examine heterogeneous forms of global governance—or, in Foucault’s terms, “governmentality”—that move beyond the state, bringing together states, corporations, nongovernmental organizations, and new entrepreneurial individuals. Whereas Collier focuses on a single state, its government, and a small group of economists, other scholars of neoliberalism follow multiple transnational flows through which governance is practiced. Soviet governmentality also benefitted from the transnational flows of international socialism that both supported and sought to escape this governmentality. Collier’s analysis would be deepened by examining governmentality beyond infrastructure, the state, and a narrow group of economists.

  • Since my book traced styles of neoliberal thought and practice from their origins in American conservative responses to the economics and policies of the New Deal, through broader strains of American reformist thought, through their elaboration in International Financial Institutions, through their implementation in reforms in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I struggle to understand how I have failed to analyze transnational flows.
  • Moreover, Bockman’s argument that my analysis would be “deepened” by examining a broader range of topics misses—again—the entire critical thrust of my methodological intervention. My point is that analyses of neoliberalism have been too broad, and that they have not “paid the price” for the grand claims that they are advancing. I explicitly argue that it is essential to begin an analysis of neoliberalism with a much more concrete and grounded understanding of what precisely is being talked about. Here, as everywhere, Bockman does not acknowledge or take on this claim. She simply ignores it, and calls for me to repeat what I see as the fundamental methodological errors of the critical conventional wisdom about neoliberalism.