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‘Neoliberalism’ as ‘conceptual trash heap’

This is my first post in a long time. Over the last year I moved to Manchester and started teaching full time. I hope to return to blogging from time to time.

Recently I’ve seen the transcript of the 2012 GDAT debate on the concept of neoliberalism, which is due to be published in JRAI next year. I spoke in the debate as second proposer for the (resoundingly defeated!) motion The concept of neoliberalism has become an obstacle to the anthropological understanding of the twenty-first century. (more…)

Alastair Macintyre on the moral/instrumental division of the modern world

Alasdair MacIntyre
Alasdair MacIntyre (Photo Credit: Sean O’Connor)

I am reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981), and I’ve just come across a passage that is related to my recent argument about the problems of the use of the concept of neoliberalism in anthropology.

Part of my argument was that academic advocates of neoliberalism and academic critics of it share a view of the world, for all their apparent disagreement, in which all action is either moral or instrumental. I argued that this was part of a long argument in western thought that took the division for granted and in which the problematic was what the proper balance between the two spheres of life should be, and that neither position can adequately comprehend forms of moral life in which effective instrumentality is considered to have intrinsic ethical value.

MacIntyre’s book historicizes this very distinction, attributing its emergence to the attempt of Enlightenment thinkers to justify morality, and looks at historical forms of virtue in which the good and the effective were unified. MacIntyre’s target is not, of course, ‘neoliberalism-ism’, but a theory of morality he describes as emotivism. He argues that emotivism dominates moral thought in the contemporary world.

Emotivism, according to Macintyre, is premised on the division of the social world into,

 …a realm of the organizational in which ends are taken to be given and are not available for rational scrutiny and a realm of the personal in which judgment and debate about values are central factors, but in which no rational social resolution of issues is available…

…debates are often staged in terms of a supposed opposition between individualism and collectivism, each appearing in a variety of doctrinal forms. On the one side there appear the self-defined protagonists of individual liberty, on the other the self-defined protagonists of planning and regulation, of the goods which are available through bureaucratic organization. But in fact what is crucial is that on which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely so it may limit the free and arbitrary choices if individuals. (p. 34f)

“Neoliberal is henceforth dead to me”

Thanks to Theo Kyriakides (@Theo_Kyriakides), who was present at the GDAT debate on neoliberalism for alerting me to a post by Kathleen Fitzpatrick of Pomona College. She writes,

I have come to despise the term “neoliberal,” to the extent that I’d really like to see it stricken from academic vocabularies everywhere. It’s less that I have a problem with the actual critique that the term is meant to levy than with the utterly sloppy and nearly always casually derisive way in which the term is of late being thrown about. 1 “Neoliberal” is hardly ever used these days to point to instances of the elevation of market values above all others — it’s used to tar anything that has anything to do with any market realities whatsoever.

Read the rest here: “Neoliberal” | Planned Obsolescence.

In a later post, she says:

like “bourgeois” or “reactionary” or any number of other such terms, I have too often of late heard “neoliberal” deployed as an insult by people on the left against other people on the left. It’s the classic circular firing squad of ideological purity, and it makes me nuts.

GDAT 2012: Debating “neoliberalism”

GDAT 2012 panel and chair, 1 December
Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, University of Manchester, 1 December 2012. (L-R) James Laidlaw, Soumhya Venkatesan, Keir Martin, Jonathan Mair, Thomas Hylland Eriksen

On Saturday I had the pleasure of taking part in GDAT, an annual debate on anthropological theory hosted by Manchester University. GDAT, the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, was started in the late 80s by Tim Ingold, and has been organized and chaired more recently by Soumhya Venkatesan. This was the third GDAT I have attended and I think it’s a brilliant institution. People come from all over the country, and the discussion is always highly engaged and critical in the best sense.

This year’s motion was: The concept of neoliberalism has become an obstacle to the anthropological understanding of the twenty-first century. James Laidlaw was proposing, I seconded, and Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Keir Martin opposed.

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