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Review of ‘Social Justice and Neoliberalism’

‘Social Justice and Neoliberalism’, edited by Adrian Smith, Alison Stenning and Katie Willis, is a book that strives to ‘shift the focus from stock exchanges and politicians to the damage neoliberalism inflicts on real people and their communities’, writes Jamie Pitman and Adzowa Kwabla Oklikah. Pitman and Oklikah commend the book’s acknowledgment of human tales, though disagree with the authors’ claims that neoliberalism comes in many varied forms, and insist that looking at neoliberalism through different lenses does not invalidate its homogeneity.

‘Social Justice and Neoliberalism’ is a welcome companion to the already extensive canon of work analysing neoliberalism. I have chosen the word ‘companion’ rather than, say, ‘addition’ as the book is an attempt to shift the focus from stock exchanges and politicians to the damage neoliberalism inflicts on real people and their communities. With this new lens the editors, Adrian Smith, Alison Stenning and Katie Willis, hope to redefine neoliberalism by inspiring an understanding of it that moves away from the monolithic, homogenised global steamroller approach of other writers and theorists.

The editors outline their intention to challenge our ‘existing perspectives of neoliberalism’ in the introduction. Indeed, this is the overarching aim of the book, which takes the form of eight essays bookended by an introduction and conclusion, both written by Smith, Stenning and Willis themselves. To add meat to the bones of this central premise, an impressive amount of longitudinal fieldwork has gone into the project, which uses case studies from the UK, Ghana, Turkey, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, South Africa, Argentina and Peru. Aside from the main revisionist objective, each chapter also revisits four connecting themes: (1) resistance to neoliberalisation; (2) the role neoliberalism plays in atomising society (by prioritising entrepreneurship and individualisation); (3) alternatives to neoliberalism both inside and outside the market system and, as suggested by the title, (4) the space for equality and social justice within the new order.

From Smith, Stenning and Willis’ contention that much of the preceding work on neoliberalism has been too nomothetic (which means generalised), it follows that a lot of this previous work has concentrated on the more obvious figureheads of neoliberalism such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan or economists such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. Because the editors’ mission statement is to create a different understanding of neoliberalism, it similarly follows that they, and the other writers involved, have ignored those familiar names and focused on people living on the margins of the neoliberal consensus instead.

Essentially then, this is neoliberalism ‘from below’, grounded in local contexts and using marginalised people for a lens, all done with the intention of fleshing out the dichotomy that anthropology professor Aihwa Ong succinctly describes as big ‘N’ and little ‘n’ neoliberalism. Within the essays that have been compiled, there are both continuities and contradictions which are often used by the authors as proof of the ad hoc nature of neoliberalism – as compared to the ‘one size fits all’ model that the authors wish to contest. Therefore it is only superficially surprising to find that some aspects of neoliberalisation are actually praised, such as giving migratory workers from the global South the opportunity of previously unimaginable income generation, moving away from the exploitative drudgery of the Fordist Keynesian era and creating new space for entrepreneurs, as highlighted by Colin Marx in his chapter on Durban. However, this eulogising is rare and the chapters on Polish and Ghanaian migrant workers in London, the working poor in Manchester, Turkish clothing industry workers and out-of-work youngsters in post-socialist Germany are all starkly critical of what has been termed neoliberal ‘violence’.

To lay the foundations for the central plank of their argument, the first and second essays contained in the book are all about placing neoliberalism in unfamiliar surroundings. Chapter one discusses the barter or trueque networks set up in Argentina following the economic crash of 2001. Chapter two investigates neoliberalism’s relationship with the ‘non-economic’: in this case, religious social justice activists in the Peruvian Andes. Both essays are well written but academic in their prose (although some of the later chapters become more accessible). However, in terms of ‘challenging our existing perspectives of neoliberalism’, they are less successful. Chapter one details the resistance the Argentinians presented to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) restructuring in 2001. People expressed their rage at austerity by rioting, prompting the resignation of four presidents in a week. The fifth president, a Peronist named Eduardo Duhalde, removed the dollar-to-peso peg imposed by the IMF. Buoyed on by this success, millions of Argentinians joined the newly formed barter networks to cut all remaining ties to the poisoned peso.

Whilst the trueque networks were a magnificent achievement on their own terms, I would argue that the three days of rioting in Buenos Aires were more of a success in terms of rocking the neoliberal order – after all, forcing the resignation of four presidents does not lie easily with the neoliberal characteristic of consolidating and reproducing social elites. However, barter networks themselves actually conform to neoliberal philosophy. Even the intellectual father of neoliberalism, Friedrich Hayek, supported them in principal (as well as other forms of denationalised currency) because they represent a market-based solution that promotes entrepreneurship and reduces the role of the state.

I also found the arguments to be flimsy in the next chapter, which asks us to consider whether religion can act as a buffer to ‘soften’ neoliberalism. The first bone I would pick is in the assertion that religion and capitalism are entirely removed from one another. Major forks in two of the three major Abrahamic religions have their starting points in the tensions between labour and capital, whilst the third of the three was a precursor of, and shaped much of the modern banking industry. Therefore, the premise that neoliberalism and Catholicism (the religion featured here) are somehow juxtaposed is historically misleading. Similarly, the central question of whether or not ‘neoliberalism can be softened’ is flawed as well. If it cannot – at least superficially enough to convince voters – then the book’s entire premise of exposing a pluralism of neoliberalisms would fall at the first hurdle (or, to be accurate, the second chapter).

The following chapters are more in keeping with the intentions Smith, Stenning and Willis laid out in the introduction. The lived experiences of steel workers in Leipzig, cleaners from the Ghanaian diaspora and textile workers in Usak, amongst others, are finely etched and arouse empathy. There is a lovely irony in the fact that the sum of these atomised case studies (that is to say the stories of individual people) exposes the levels of alienation that neoliberalism embeds within people. The ironic part is that capitalist ideology praises atomisation and self-interest but these studies help to reveal the true consequences of following such a dogmatic path. Literary and media critics sometimes refer to attacking or exposing something by turning its own characteristics against it as ‘detournement’, but I think the expression ‘shot with its own bullet’ is much more pleasing.

The theme of alienation looms so largely across the remaining chapters that it represses some of the other themes that the editors had hoped to visit (such as resistance to neoliberalism and social justice). Chapter three for example, investigates Ghanaian and Polish migratory workers in London who, despite their shared predicaments, which include working long hours for little pay and living in squalid conditions, are suspicious and hostile towards one another and, perhaps surprisingly, even to their fellow countrymen (who they view as competition). Most sadly of all, many migratory workers are often qualified to much higher levels than the employment they take on reflects. Thus the editors show that the trade-off for financial reward entails a lessening of social status and self-worth.

The following chapter concentrates on the experiences of the working poor in Manchester. It also helps to shed more light on the alienation felt by the Polish and Ghanaian diaspora by providing the experiences of a sample of indigenous people as a comparator. Whilst the feelings between all three groups are almost identical, they all look upon any other groups, and even individuals, with distrust and dislike. The reader, from their dispassionate vantage point, is able to identify the problem as system failure rather than the diagnosis of personal failure that the people featured in the book have settled upon. Of course, we rarely get the opportunity to see this bigger picture in our own lives and, barring a team of critical geographers following us about to write a book, it is all too easy to slide into this sort of alienation. We see ourselves at fault and the system around us as being perfectly natural. Individuals are then compelled to make themselves the centre of all their life plans, a process of ‘making the neoliberal self’ that is explored in chapter six.

Drawing such interconnections and comparisons between the essays is a testament to how well compiled the book is. There are some omissions whose inclusion might have benefited the presentation of the bigger picture, such as an essay from one of the Eastern economies, given their importance on the world stage, and possibly a look at a less marginalised, more middle class group, to show that being more successful in the race for property and commodity accumulation can still be an empty and alienating experience when one shuts their own front door. But in a system where everything is being commodified, a system which Watts describes as the ‘privatisation of everything’,(p.231) it is probably unfair to start listing omissions.

In the conclusion, the editors cite the different ways in which the subjects of the essays, and indeed the particular governments of those subjects, experience and implement neoliberalism as proof of its varied nature. This leads me to my own conclusion, in which I would dispute this fundamental finding. The results were always going to be varied and scattershot, coming as they do from such geographically broad fieldwork. Even if you disregard the lack of proximity between the featured locations (which I feel is one of the book’s strengths), people themselves cannot be corralled into the same ways of thought, interpretations or reality, which means the results will always appear varied. Whilst I do not dispute that neoliberalism can appear to be different through different filters, that does not make it new, different or changed. For instance, there were many global variations of third way politics in the 1990s but their common denominator was neoliberalism. The political rhetoric that made them appear different was only smoke and mirrors – the more democratic a nation might be, then the more smoke and mirrors would be needed by the politicians to hoodwink the voters. Simply put, the capitalists’ and the workers’ personal experience of capitalism will always be different from one and another’s, just as the experience of a worker in Accra will be different from a worker in Istanbul or London. These facts do not alter the nature of neoliberalism itself. Therefore, I cannot say that the authors succeed in their goal of challenging our definition of neoliberalism. Enhancing it – yes, but redefining it – no. This assertion is nicely illustrated by the fact that 6 out of 10 essays cite David Harvey’s ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’ in their work, a seminal work of the ‘nomothetic’, big-picture kind the editors are trying to move away from.

Another miss might be said to be the examples of resistance to neoliberalism. The low-level entrepreneurship, migratory employment (which often means dealing with racialised immigration laws) and the barter networks might, in some cases, provide a bloody nose to the elites but do not pose a threat to the neoliberal consensus. Nor do any of these things help those who are marginalised climb out of their situation. However, this sad truth does help the reader realise that social justice and neoliberalism are impossible bedfellows.

There is still much to recommend ‘Social Justice and Neoliberalism’, although it seems regrettable to have made the revisionism angle such a central plank of the book. If we remove that aspect (which is easily done by taking the introduction and conclusion from the equation) then we are left with a reasonably accessible academic piece. Whilst not every reader will have encountered concepts such as ‘reification’ or theorists such as Michel Foucault before, we can all of us empathise with the human tales of neoliberalism’s failings on offer here. Therefore, I have no hesitation in recommending this book as a companion piece, but I would also recommend that you read David Harvey’s book or something similar first.


* ‘Social Justice and Neoliberalism’, edited by Adrian Smith, Alison Stenning and Katie Willis, is published by Zed Books (London/New York) and is priced £60 (hardback)/£18.99 (paperback). ISBN: 9781842779194 (Hardback)/ 9781842779200 (Paperback).
* Jamie Pitman is a politics and economics student at Ruskin College, Oxford. In what seems like a previous life he was a docker and then a carpenter.
* Adzowa Kwabla Oklikah, 31, was born and raised in London to a Ghanaian father and English mother. She works in the environment sector and lives and works in London.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.