The Limits of Neoliberalism: An Interview with Will Davies
Posted by Management is too Important Not to Debate Blog on April 15, 2015in
Stephen Dunne (henceforth SD): Can I ask you to recount, when you set out on the book, what you were trying to do and in relation to what body of work?
WD: The main question I had, following on from my PhD, concerned competition and competitiveness as forms of justification, or as sources of political authority. It appeared to me that appealing to competitive processes, or claiming that certain actions were going to be good for competitiveness or improve competition, was a basis on which to win consent to certain things. It seemed to be a form of justification or a way of legitimating certain types of action. I was interested in the fact that it was almost not tenable in today’s society and particularly in today’s policy establishment to be against competition or against competitiveness in some way. It was almost that to be against those ideas was to put yourself in some sort of irrational or futile position. And that immediately concerned me because it made me think about where these ideas came from.
It was only later that I started to become interested in the notion of neoliberalism. In the space of about three years, there were a series of very good critical historical books on neoliberalism as a distinct tradition of thought. In 2008 Foucault’s The Birth of Biopolitics was translated into English then in the summer of 2009 Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe’s The Road from Mont Pelèrin, a series of articles on different aspects of what they call The Neoliberal Thought Collective was also published. I think it was 2010 when Jamie Peck’s Constructions of Neoliberal Reason came out and much more recently there was Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion, the most historical and detailed history of the neoliberal intellectual movement, although probably also the least critical or theoretical.
Foucault points out that the key trait of markets from a neoliberal perspective is not that they facilitate exchange but that they facilitate competition. For liberals, the market is a space of equivalence in that two people come together and perform an act of exchange. Money is equivalent to a good or a service or a unit of labour. For neoliberals, the market is something which produces inequality between people. One person wins and another person loses and that is the key moral trait of markets for them. Suddenly I realised the reason I was interested in competitiveness was precisely this issue: competition as a mode of justification. This effectively means generating more inequality and preventing the push towards equality that was a trait of the socialists, Keynesians and social democrats: projects that initially prompted the creation of the neoliberal thought collectives as a critical response.