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Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism has become a obligatory point of reference for critics of contemporary capitalism. It is understood as a grandiose intellectual and transformative project that explains vast areas of recent history.

Beginning with my work in post-Soviet Russia I have tried to grapple with this “critical conventional wisdom” about neoliberalism. During the 1990s, post-Soviet transformation was often taken to be paradigmatic of neoliberal transformation: an existing substantive economy was torn apart by marketizing reform. But my field work in small industrial cities suggested a more complicated story. As I argue in Post-Soviet Social, in many cases, reforms proposed to preserve the social norms and structures of substantive provisioning created by Soviet socialism. This finding raised a series of questions: Were these simply not examples of neoliberalism? Were these examples of a “Russian” neoliberalism, modified by the exigencies of local circumstances? Or was neoliberalism something different than most critical scholars have assumed?

In addressing these questions I have focused on neoliberal thinkers who reflected specifically on the social welfare state, and traced “minor traditions” of neoliberal reform through which their ideas and proposals for reform have been transformed into techniques of contemporary government. Thus, in Post-Soviet Social, I traced post-Soviet reforms to James Buchanan and the discussion of fiscal federalism, and to George Stigler, the neoliberal critique of regulation, and a discourse of infrastructure reform. In more recent research, I have examined parallel issues in the domain of flood control policy, which was a surprisingly important site for the emergence of neoliberal reflection on public value in the United States in the decades after World War II.

Complementary to these inquiries into specific neoliberal thinkers and minor traditions of neoliberal thought, I have conducted methodological investigations on neoliberalism. In contrast to much purportedly “critical” work–in which neoliberalism is simply taken for granted–I have tried to ask how it can be constituted as an object of inquiry: How it can be made into something about which we can discover something new and unexpected? Beyond Post-Soviet Social, which is  centrally concerned with these issues, I have written two short articles on methodological matters. With Lisa Hoffman and Monica DeHart I published “Notes on the Anthropology of Neoliberalism” in Anthropology News. In 2012, I published a response to Loic Wacquant and Matthieu Hilgers in Social Anthropology, entitled “Neoliberalism as Big Leviathan, Or…” that addressed related problems.

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