Jacqueline Best – Security, Economy, and Our Addiction to Neoliberalism

An informal piece, but with some interesting insights

Jacqueline Best is Professor of Political Studies, University of Ottawa & SPERI International Advisory Board member

Cross-posted from the Website of Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI)


Neoliberalism is an addictive concept: as scholars, once we start to use the concept, it is very hard not to see it everywhere. Yet, at least in political economy circles, we tend to understand it in narrowly economic terms. In doing so, are we actually misinterpreting practices that are driven by a different set of logics—linked to security as much as to the economy?

A case in point: I went to the UK as a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at SPERI to pursue a project exploring the idea of “post-neoliberalism.” I arrived in Sheffield highly skeptical of the relevance of the concept of neoliberalism, based not only on my archival research into the very messy early days of the Thatcher and Reagan governments, but also on my fundamental exhaustion with it as an idea.

Yet, after four months of living in the UK—as both a professor during a REF year and as a mother of two children in Year 1—I began seeing neoliberalism everywhere, particularly in the elementary school. Back in Canada, my children were in senior kindergarten, learning through play. In the UK, they were in a group of children who had already spent a year and a half in exhausting reading, writing and handwriting drills, as their wonderful teachers tried to respond to a series of perverse external targets and metrics designed to ensure the school’s (and the children’s) competitiveness. Two days before we headed back to Canada, we received an “amber warning” letter (with the words in orange, no less) indicating that our children’s attendance level had dropped to 95.2% (because they spent two days home with nasty colds), which was below the school’s target of 97%.

As sad as I was to leave the UK and its dynamic intellectual community after our four months there, I also felt a bit relieved to be escaping a life in which a kind of self-governing, performance-driven neoliberal subjectivity had taken over everyday life to such an extraordinary extent.

Yet, was this compulsive performance measurement a product of neoliberalism on steroids or something with more complex roots and dynamics?

In a fantastic project on the military roots of neoliberal governance (which includes a blog forum to which I contributed an earlier version of this commentary), Dutta, Knafo, Lovering, Lane and Wyn-Jones suggest that this fixation on quantification and performance evaluation is the product of a very different kind of systems-planning, with its roots in military planning in the 1950s, rather than in neoliberal economic policy in the 1980s.

Although I do not entire agree with their suggestion that we understand these practices as either military or economic, I do think that we can use their excellent work to look more carefully at the interconnections between these two dynamics, seeing neoliberalism at least in part as a logic of governing that helps to define and manage both “the economy” and “the military” through a particular preoccupation with the problem of security.

In my own recent research, I have found it enormously useful to draw on some of the insights of critical security studies to help make sense of the many complex ways that states have used claims of exceptionalism and emergency to respond to economic crises.

Michel Foucault’s work is useful here. In both Security, Territory, Population and The Birth of Biopolitics, he traces the rise of a new logic of governance, beginning in the eighteenth century, which is preoccupied with the health—and security—of a population. This is a form of governance that uses the emerging science of statistics to track and guide the well-being of people, things and money.

Political economic knowledge, combined with the new power of statistical measurement, provided a way of governing at a distance: tracing the flows of supply and demand, the circulation of diseases, the rise and fall of mortality, and the possibilities and risks of conflict. Of course, this logic shifts once more in interesting ways as liberalism is reborn as neoliberalism, and the logic of governing becomes more interventionist as key figures seek to construct market-like mechanisms in all kinds of unexpected places. But the central logic remains that of managing the population’s security (at least as it is defined by some) through the rationality of political economy.

As Liam Stanley has argued in his writings on austerity and his recent SPERI blog, and as Louise Amoore has noted in book, The Politics of Possibility, the problems of sovereignty, economy and security have always been linked in complex and often inconsistent ways. Which means that we shouldn’t be too surprised to find security, economy and sovereignty linked up in odd and seemingly irrational forms (think Brexit and neoliberalism, Trump’s capitalist nationalism, or Thatcher’s strong state and free economy).

Perhaps the kinds of metrics that my children and British colleagues were being trained to meet were the product of a strong state seeking manage an unruly population (6-year-olds and academics being both especially unruly subjects) using the techniques developed to fight wars and maintain an empire. Perhaps they were about fostering forms of neoliberal self-governance and enterprise in a globalizing economy. Perhaps they were both—and in ways that cannot ever be fully separated but that we urgently need to spend more time trying to understand.

After all, as I discovered during my time in the UK, “neoliberalism” is also addictive in practice. For the first few months after I came back to Ottawa, I found myself frustrated at the lack of a performance measurement culture here in Canada. Why wasn’t anyone incentivizing academics to apply for big grants? Why weren’t my children being given more challenging reading assignments at school? It took almost eight months for me to let go of that internal voice that was looking for external pressures and rewards and to start rediscovering my own internal drive to pursue the research questions that fascinate me and to appreciate my children’s joy at learning at their own pace.

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