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What Is Neoliberal Expertise?

Vincent Ostrom with his wife and Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom was President of the Public Choice Society (the third, after James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock) and the Founding Director of the Indiana University Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.

I finished a draft of a chapter–at the moment called Neoliberalism and Rule by Experts–for an upcoming volume edited by Wendy Larner and Vaughan Higgins called Assembling Neoliberalism. It focuses on Vincent Ostrom as an unexpected and confounding exponent of American neoliberalism who articulated a critique of expert rule and advocated for reinvigorated institutions of direct democracy.

I was particularly interested in Ostrom’s writing as an example of what Michel Foucault identified as a formation of neoliberal critique that took shape in the midst of what he called, in Birth of Biopolitics, a “crisis in governmentality.” Among the surprises I encountered in writing this piece was that Ostrom’s work anticipates Bruno Latour’s much later writing (particularly in books such as Politics of Nature).

Among my concerns in this chapter was argue that conventional critical understandings of expertise and government have significant blind spots and fail to take into account significant forms of programming truth and politics that have emerged in the last half century. The below is from the chapter’s conclusion:

[T]he point I want to emphasize is that Ostrom’s work points to a significant blind spot in much critical thinking about truth and politics as well as to a promising horizon of inquiry. Much recent social theory (or post-social theory) constitutes as its own field of adversity a set of assumptions about, and practical arrangements of, truth and politics that came under withering critique fifty years ago. And in at least a substantial number of cases it simply folds a critique of neoliberalism into a critique of that theory of truth and politics, as though nothing had changed in fifty years, as though the critique of that theory was not a constitutive moment for neoliberalism, and as though this critique had not been taken into account in the arts of government over the past half-century. At a minimum, this suggests that the critical social scientific discourse on truth and politics is badly out of date. It is not acceptable to continue to treat a particular configuration of truth and politics—which arose at a certain moment, bolstered by certain arguments, and actualized in certain institutions—to embody the unchanging terms of the modern settlement that repeats itself in place after place and case after case. Nor is it acceptable to proceed as though critique is the exclusive and privileged practice of social theorists, rather than a “line of development” in the arts of government that must itself be made the object of inquiry.