How does one tell stories of people whose lives bear scars and wounds of trauma and violence? Jonny Steinberg’s book, Little Liberia (2011), is a testament to the complexities of representing the life of the Other. Steinberg’s book shows the challenges of negotiating the self, the other, and disciplinary norms to craft a story that honors the wishes of the informant without compromising the ethos of scholarly work, which in the case of literary ethnography may include, inter alia, commitment to greater good, taking responsibility for the freedom and the well-being of the other, being open and transparent, and being cognizant of bias. Steinberg’s Little Liberia like his other works – Midlands (2002), The Number (2004), Three-Letter Plague (2008), and A Man of Good Hope (2015) – blends ethnography and biography to tell the stories of Jacob and Rufus whose lives are intertwined in many ways.
I chose Little Liberia for review because Steinberg’s works exemplify what it means to push the boundaries of disciplinary focus to craft narratives that straddle the lived experience of people while remaining anchored in the systematic way of producing knowledge. Steinberg traces Jacob and Rufus’ lives from the present-day streets of Staten Island in New York to Liberia, their country of origin, and back to New York. At the core of the story is the quest for relevance on the part of Rufus and Jacob. They are children of war; born into a tumultuous and chaotic country with a deeply entrenched system of structural violence that limits any form of personal development or fulfillment. They both fight this system, albeit differently. Rufus is the older of the two; a trained tailor with a passion for improving the lives of the youth in Liberia through soccer. Jacob was a student at a university who was keen on taking an active role in liberating his country from the warlords who were tearing it apart. They both fled the conflict, at different times, but ended up in Park Hill in Staten Island – a place where the majority of Liberian refugees in the United States have come to regard as the “Little Liberia.”
Steinberg follows these men as they go about their business of community building in Park Hill. They both work with a large community of Liberian immigrants living in Staten Island, particularly in Park Hill, which has become a microcosm of the country the refugees fled. Here, refugees reenact the very politics that led to their exile and homelessness. Steinberg quickly learns that Jacob and Rufus do not like each other. Even though they share a similar heritage, their trajectories are marred by controversy and back-biting as they compete for attention, influence, and grant money. Steinberg is not a stranger to these kinds of stories. He has remarked in several interviews that his works explore stories of people and communities in transition; that is, he investigates how political transition changes the filigrees of unwritten rules through which people come to understand themselves and the other.
In Little Liberia, Steinberg maps the landscape of Park Hill like a linguistics landscape ethnographer. For instance, as the story unfolds, he lets us into a long shot of the Park Hill neighborhood. The place was quiet. He comments, “perhaps I was on the streets of some abandoned utopia, that this place had once been crowded, but that nobody lived here anymore” (1). He then zooms in to let us see an “ABC Eyewitness News” pitch-black van parked on the side of the road, which lets us into the soundscape, “a disembodied voice, a reply, then another – a veritable commentary tossed from one window to the next.” For several pages, Steinberg does not let us see living bodies; he wants us to take in the landscape and understand its contours. Later in the story, I began to understand that Park Hill neighborhood is as much a character as is Jacob or Rufus. The landscape demands the same attention as do human characters. It is through its description and documentation that we begin to understand how Liberian refugees reenact their lives in the US. Steinberg unravels this landscape in ways that allow us to smell, see, hear, and experience the lives and of people in the neighborhood.
His extraordinary reflective practice draws us into his writing process. He places himself in the story and lets us know of his thoughts. Furthermore, he actively questions his conclusions and even engages his interlocutors to reach a better understanding. For instance, at one point while walking home with Jacob, he says:
I brooded over his (Jacob) last comment: Remember where you are from. The Kids in the room all had American accents and dressed like gang bangers in their low-slung pants, their exposed underwear, and their converse shoes.
‘Was every kid in that workshop African? I asked.
‘They were all Liberian.”
‘Why were there no-African-American there?
He said nothing, and we walked in silence for a long time.
Here, Steinberg honors silence. He wants to understand an issue, but his informant is not willing to diverge any information. He waits for another time to pose the question. This practice is an excellent lesson in literary ethnography – the ability to understand that often, informants do not have a language to articulate their story or even to answer your questions. Steinberg’s practice resists imposing his interpretation on silences. Instead, he waits patiently to reframe the question.
In addition to observation and interviews, Steinberg travels to Liberia to talk with people who knew Rufus and Jacob’s lives before they fled to the US. The visit allows him to present a well-developed story about his informants. It also allows him to ground his interpretation on much wider evidence. His earlier work as a journalist in South Africa plays a role here – he wants evidence, and he goes looking for it. Although this step does not seem necessary, especially if one acknowledges that the value of a literary ethnography does not lie in how well it represents the “objective truth,” it does serve a function in this particular story. Rufus and Jacob make claims about a violent conflict in Liberia that can potentially affect the lives of many families. Thus, it pays to countercheck their claims and the contradictions in their stories.
After spending a year and ten months shadowing Rufus and Jacob around New York, Steinberg completed his manuscript and gave copies to both Jacob and Rufus to comment, clarify, or contest any issue in the manuscript. He told Rufus, “if there are things you disagree with, not just matters of fact, but of perspective, about your fight with Jacob, about your vision for Rosa, about your trip to Monrovia, please share with me” (259). He lets us into his mind to peek on his reason for letting his informants shape the story he will finally publish. “My mind drifted, I felt anxious. I found myself wondering whether I could ever know much about this man’s experiences without being there, next to him, as they unfolded” (259). Here lies Steinberg’s gift as a literary ethnographer – the capacity to understand the limits of your craft. Ethnographers can learn a lot from his practice, that is, allowing the informant to challenge your conclusion and interpretation of their lives.
Later, Jacob called him to complain about problems in the manuscript. Problems that might affect families in the Park Hill neighborhood and even back home in Liberia. How did Steinberg address Jacob’s concerns? He reflects on the role of an ethnographer and the imagination of the informant. I share his reflections here to underscore the complexity of representing the life of the other and how ethnographers can exercise empathy without compromising their ‘agency to represent.’
Reading a book-length depiction of yourself for the first time is shocking, always, for everybody who has had the experience. You have spoken into a voice recorder for months, years. As you talked, you’re censored here and embellished there; you felt increasingly comfortable and in control; you were, in fact, writing a persona into the pages of the book that was still to be written. When you finally open the manuscript, you discover that you never were the one with the pen. The person, the writer, has contrived is recognizably you in detail. But in the spirit, something is awry. The writer has cheated. He has written a you that is not you: certainly not a you that you would care to present. You have given him material that you ought to have kept to yourself, that only you should have the right to clothe and display (260).
This quote underscores the major challenge of literary ethnography: the ethnographer takes the informant’s words (words that may have been carefully selected to build a specific persona), his interpretation of those words, and weaves a story of a persona the informant would rather keep hidden. Steinberg sat with Jacob and tried to understand his complaints. In the end, he managed to change a few passages in the story, but mostly let the story be. He remarks that while a writer of fiction is a master of his house with the freedom to do whatever he wishes; the writer of nonfiction is a renter who must obey the conditions of the lease. It seems then that a literary ethnographer – in this case, a writer who blends ethnography and biography to represent the other has the freedom to use the creative techniques of fiction but must always remember his duty to ethnographic truth (whatever that may be).
The just-concluded 21st Nairobi International Book Fair allows us to reflect on the trends in book publishing in Africa. In a way, international book fairs are a microcosm of the state of publishing in the continent. At the Nairobi International Book Fair, many publishers showcased school textbooks and a few creative or trade books. Save for a few university presses that had tertiary books, it appears that local publishers are not keen on producing knowledge for higher education or for general reading.
In the early 1990s, Philip Altbach argued in his essay, Perspectives on Publishing in Africa, that books were fundamentally significant to the development of African countries. Altbach pointed out that developing local publishing houses will allow African countries to not only create an infrastructure for intellectual culture but also resolve the challenge of sustaining an intellectual life with returns from sharing ideas. His argument underscores the fact that publishing is perhaps the best platform for creating a livelihood for the many Africans who work with ideas.
Altbach wrote his essay in the wake of multiparty democracy campaigns in most of Sub-saharan Africa. He envisioned that in the absence of credible media houses and constant government censorship, publishing houses were well suited to upholding free expression.
Though Altbach was cognizant of the neoliberal forces that privileged international publishing houses to the local ones, he was optimistic that African countries could still build and develop their own knowledge production infrastructure. In addition to South Africa, which had a thriving publishing industry, he singled out Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe as countries that had made significant progress in developing local publishing industries. He further observed that Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, and Cote d’Ivoire could build a thriving publishing culture.
Although there are some research and a lot of policy reports that explore ways of developing new reading publics in Africa, most of these studies are either written from a neoliberal perspective that privileges books as commercial entities and authors as self-entrepreneurs or from a western perspective of knowledge production. While there is nothing wrong with publishers getting returns on their investments or authors earning a livelihood from their works, it is troubling when publishers limit themselves to producing school textbooks for basic education because they are more likely to be bought by parents or governments.
In my view, publishers who rely on government tenders undermine their ability to shape a reading public. Instead of producing books that engage society and issues that affect it, these publishers wonder in corridors of hotel conferences conducting workshops on how to write for governments. They are forever chasing government tenders and have no time to innovate or shape the educational agenda. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the act of gaining government tenders, after all, are governments not the major funders of basic education in most African countries? What is wrong are the models of publishing that are specifically geared in meeting government book demand.
If publishing houses are to develop into meaningful knowledge producing platforms, they must redefine their business models. They need to think beyond producing for basic education because most research is conducted at the university level. Since it is already established that few governments are keen on promoting local publishing industries beyond buying textbooks, publishers must devise ways of getting ahead of governments in shaping the reading public. Investments made in tertiary, trade books, and creative books publishing while may seem unprofitable in the short-term, have the potential of shaping the public psyche and developing new reading publics in the long-term, a situation that would be both beneficial to the business interests of publishers and authors, and the development of a nation.
Most publishers are quick to complain that the public does not read books, and therefore, they cannot waste their resources publishing books that will never sell. However, the reality is that many readers face challenges accessing books from the continent because of poor distribution. Many publishers are stuck with orthodox means of publishing that do not match the reading habits of the modern world. Whereas most of the world is doubling their efforts to have books on multiple platforms, most publishers in Africa restrict themselves to print publishing. It appears then that what is mostly construed as a lack of market for books can be addressed by developing better distribution channels.
In most African countries, publishing industries enjoy low entry requirement and have the privilege of autonomy and lack of constant government interference or regulation. This is the kind of freedom that enables innovation and allows creativity to flourish. It then seems to me that there are many opportunities for publishers to build the much-needed infrastructure for knowledge production in Africa. But if publishers participate in promoting neoliberalism, they risk being its first casualty.
Part IV continues with the critical reflection on Ferguson’s Global Shadows: Africa in the neoliberal world order
Is Africa part of the convergence that is so-called globalism?
Although globalization is often presented as one-size fit all jacket that accommodates all countries in the world, Africa seems to resist this description of globalization. The continent does not fit into any of the compartments that define globalization. As Ferguson points out “it seems, when it comes to globalization, Africa just doesn’t fit the storyline. It is an inconvenient case” (26). He further notes that laws that anchor capitalism in the rest of the world are antithetical to African communal way of life as most of Africa define property and means of capital differently. Following this conceptualization, some scholars have referred to Africa as a “global ghetto, wasted lives, the black hole of the information society” among other derogatory terms, without considering the particularity of countries in Africa. But as Ferguson argues, labels scholars imprint on Africa depend on individual scholars’ point of view and do not necessarily represent the totality of the experience of Africans.
Ferguson singles out three elements of globalization and discusses them in the context of Africa. They include: (1) Culture, (2) flows of capital, and (3) governance and the nation-state. Like Walter Mignolo in Local History/Global Designs, he points out that what we consider as global is basically Euro-American local history imposed on the rest of the world. He explores a few definitions of modernity (a word he seems to use interchangeably with globalization) such as Arjun Appadurai’s notion of alternative modernity for Africa, which one might regard as obnoxious considering that modernity cannot be articulated without factoring colonial legacy. So, why will Arjun propose alternative modernity for a continent that has always been part of Euro-American modernity, albeit on the receiving end? Arjun’s concept of modernity is limited. If one examines modernity and the whole colonial project as two sides of the same coin, evidence will emerge that indeed Africa has always been an integral part of modernity.
Ferguson leans to this generally acceptable conceptualization of modernity that looks at Africa as a constitutive element of modernity. Of course, such an inclusive definition does not denote singularity of experience. On the contrary, it shows how Euro-America point of view of modernity is defined in positive terms while the African one points to everything that is wrong with the continent. Thus, the folly of one, enabled the other to succeed.
Many confuse the issue of “political-economic inequality” in Africa with the concept of development. They divorce inequality from its global consideration and discusses it at the nation-state level as “development” issue. This articulation is wrong as it ignores the historical contribution of Africa into what we now call modernity or globalization. Furthermore, scholars who look at global capital flows often ignore Africa. Obviously, to them, Africa is not part of the global capital equation. The few who look at global flows in Africa, constrain themselves to capital related to mineral-resource extraction. Ferguson points out that this capital does not indeed cover the globe, it moves from one point to another, that is, it bypasses national economies. Thus, does not benefit citizens. He says, “capital is globe-hopping, not globe-covering.”
In looking at governance and the nation-state, Ferguson points out that governments have become nongovernmental while civil society has now taken some functions of governments. He calls this concept “transnational governmentality” because some of these civil societies have international connections that breach boundaries of nation-states.
I like Ferguson’s critique that seeks to draw attention to flaws in Anthropological methodologies that lump Africa at per with western worlds, and then proceed to castigate it from a Eurocentric perspective.
Paradoxes of sovereignty and independence: “real” and “pseudo-” nation-states and the depoliticization of poverty
Our understanding of global inequality and cultural differences should be examined from a global social, economic, and political perspective as opposed to the localization of such. In this chapter Ferguson describes development in Lesotho, a nation-state recognized all over the world as a sovereign country, and Transkei, a Bantustan region, one of the many the Apartheid government of South Africa created to lump Blacks into. The logic of creating and making “autonomous” regions such as Transkei was to have a pool of labor for White South Africa while at the same time purporting to have granted freedom and independence to Blacks. As bad as this looks, Transkei was economically better than Lesotho, which is a sovereign country. Its sovereignty is a sham as its economy was still dominated and controlled by South Africa. But being a nation-state, Lesotho was blamed for its poor economy. The issue was no longer economic inequality but rather “development.” Similarly, granting regions autonomy/independence, meant that the Apartheid government could spin the narrative of economic inequality as a development issue as opposed to a political issue.
As Ferguson argues, one cannot depoliticize poverty as it is constitutive of the political challenges facing African countries. Sovereignty in Africa is a mockery. “None of the impoverished nations of the world are truly “sovereign” or “independent,” and nowhere do we find a true “national economy.” All these underscore the fact that there can be no local culture that is divorced from the wider and encompassing sphere within which they are conceptualized and articulated. Therefore, Ferguson concludes that anthropologists should reconsider ideas of “the field” as a unique site of culture.
De-moralizing economies: African socialism, scientific capitalism, and the moral politics of structural adjustment
Production of wealth and social relations are intrinsically linked and have their foundation in what the society considers “moral.” Most post-independence African governments embraced socialism of some sort. Nyerere, Nkrumah, Kaunda, Toure, and Kenyatta among others, advanced this idea as organically evolving from practices of African societies. At its foundation, socialism has the society as its nucleus. Capitalism, on the other hand, supports individual ownership of property and means of production.
Fergusson talks about the World Bank and IMF policies imposed on African countries without any empirical support apart from the fact that they were different from socialism and termed right. Their success was pegged on their difference with African policies. As history shows, these economic policies multiplied poverty in Africa and widened economic inequality. The blame went to African governments and their leaders. Since they are considered nation-states, the issue was depoliticized, chopped off from Washington and discuss from an African point of view. But as Fergusson notes, institutions such as the World Bank or IMF cannot offer viable solutions to African economies.
Therefore, any institution serving Africa must focus on what Africans consider as morally appropriate. Some policies, regardless of their viability or potential for success, will be opposed on the grounds that they do not augur well with what Africans consider morally acceptable. For instance, policies that allow a few people to amass wealth more than others might be tolerated if they can guarantee the minimum acceptable quality of life to the rest of the population. Ferguson’s discussion of Zambian economy illustrates this point clearly. People in Zambia do not care so much about what policy the government is implementing – be it humanism or neoliberalism – if the government feeds them.
Carol Cohn’s Women and War has challenged me to reflect on the following questions: With all the legislation and resolutions calling for a more participatory role for women in peacebuilding, how come peace negotiation tables or peace processes are dominated by men? Will peace agreements be effective if more women were involved? During the 2008 peace negotiations in Kenya, there was a 33% women representation in the mediation team and 25% representation at the negotiation table. The peace agreement signed resulted in a new constitution that gave a very critical treatment to gender. It rejected the historical exclusion of women from the mainstream society and struck at the socio-legal barriers that Kenyan women have faced over history. The new constitution created space for women to maneuver their way in the private and public sphere on an equal footing with men, but also institutionalized direct gender-specific measures that sought to correct the consequences of women’s historical exclusion from the society. Such measures included affirmative actions that sought to elevate women to a pedestal that had hitherto been the preserve of men.
Whether the women negotiators made all this possible is hard to tell, but we can clearly deduce that women did gain a lot from this new constitution. However, the implementation process was clearly designed in a way that involves both genders, that is, no state department or commission can be headed and deputized by people of the same gender. Has this solved the problem of gender imbalance in my country? No. Unfortunately, most agencies headed by women have been criticized in the recent past for underperforming. The public, which does not take into account the fact that the women who were appointed into the offices were either politicians or friends of politicians and that their performance does not in any way reflect the ability of women to hold higher offices, have already expressed their stereotypes that women cannot do certain jobs.
Some initiatives such as affirmative actions have backfired. For instance, when you lower university points for female students, you give them an opportunity to join university but force them to compete with male students for certain majors considered “good” e.g. Medicine, Law and Engineering etc., you haven’t improved their future as much.
I think the best way of involving women in peace processes is to go back to the basics. We first have to educate the society on the critical position a woman occupies. It is not enough that individual women know their rights, the whole society must be educated in this to the extent that they cease from making gender distinctions consciously or unconsciously. When this is done, people will remember to involve women in pre-negotiations, which mostly determines who gets a seat at the table, which in turn determines the affairs of a post-conflict society.
Camaroff, L and Camaroff, J (2000). Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming. Durham, Duke University Press.
Cooper, F (2014). Africa in the World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Mbembe, A (2001). On Postcolony. Los Angeles California: University of California Press.
Cooper (2014) and Mbembe (2001) traces Africa’s economic history before and after colonialism while Camaroff and Camaroff explore the development of capitalism and neoliberalism in the 20th century. They describe how neoliberalism has catapulted some practices such as gambling that was previously not considered economic practices per se into full-fledged economic entities. The change in what they call “moral valence of gambling” reflects many such changes in the United States of America and across the world, whereby a thing or practice that was scorned upon or prohibited because of its destructive potential, is legalized and permitted into the public sphere. Examples include the legalization of certain drugs such as marijuana, coal mining, and offshore drilling among others. The core argument for legalizing these practices is their economic potential — to create more jobs and to generate the much-needed tax revenue.
Taking gambling as a departure point, Camaroff and Camaroff explore the emerging influence of stock markets in the world economy. They point out that free flow of capital contests and challenges sovereignty of nations as capital can no longer be confined within boundaries of nation states. They give examples of transnational business owners such as Robert Murdoch who was born in Australia and founded his media empire there but has expanded into England, US and other world markets. Camaroff and Camaroff further show that production no longer determines capital. Consumption does. This redefines the concept of labor in the sense that companies can now base different sections of production and assembly in countries where labor is cheap and taxation friendly. For instance, Apple can design their products from California but assemble them in China where there are cheap labor and abundance of raw materials. Furthermore, they can keep their finance department in Ireland, which offers them huge tax credits. The point here is that they do not have to support U.S. local industries where organized and perhaps unionized labor is likely to exist. Camaroff and Camaroff thus underscore the idea that under neoliberalism capital has wrenched itself free from labor.
Running the world economy like a casino has exposed countries to adverse economic disasters such as the 2007 and 2008 economic recession. Although Speck (2013) argued that neoliberalism is not solely responsible for world economic disasters, one can make a claim that its contribution trumps other causes. As Camaroff and Camaroff note, a marker of neoliberal capital is its inherent contradiction, particularly the dichotomy between neoliberal economic theory and its practicalities. This contradiction is more likely to lead to disastrous economic outcomes. For instance, neoliberalism promises individual freedom but locks many people out of means of production or sustainability. Moreover, it creates opportunities without giving resources for people to access these opportunities. Only those who are well positioned, those in the upper class can utilize the opportunities. Thus, widening inequalities in societies as well as extending ideas of exclusion that often exacerbate violence, crime, and disorder between those at the peripheries and those within the system (Camaroff and Camaroff, 2000).
Concepts of capital, capitalism, and neoliberalism are neither alien in Africa nor late entrants. In fact, capitalism is entrenched in the African past, and as Cooper points out, it has been slowly “coming.” Furthermore, slavery and colonialism are not departing point for the African economy, or its entry into the world economy as African suppliers of slaves were not necessarily part of the global economy that this kind of trade created. In fact, they did not even know what happened to the slaves once they crossed the Atlantic. Cooper contends that Africa had its own economy that catered for their needs and adapted to its ecosystems, but slavery and colonialism disrupted this economy. For instance, colonialism abolished the concept of communal land ownership that defined land in a way that benefited all communities – with no one having exclusive rights to land ownership. They introduced individual land ownership, a practice that continued through colonialism and persists in the current economies of most African countries.
The British used the so-called concept of primitive accumulation and misappropriated African lands on the pretext that it was underutilized affected many communities as it deprived them their main means of capital production. Cooper presents the successful independent farming of Cocoa farming in Gold Coast to show the inherent ability of Africans to engage in farming and trade without shepherding from colonialists. This implies the civilizing mission that was the excuse of colonialism was a farce. The British were just interested in acquiring raw materials for their industries and free and/or cheap labor to exploit the materials.
Mbembe builds on the idea of governance as it was introduced by colonialism. He explores ideas of governmentality in Africa and how they have impacted governance over time. He also looks at the concept of African state-building and the idea of citizenship. He points out how the British left pre-colonial societies with forms of working governments or structures of governments intact to use the structures to rule Africans. They identified or created elites to act as their intermediaries as they sought to exploit and control capital.
Although neoliberalism as a theory is Euro-American centered, its influence or practical aspects has greatly affected economies of African countries. Western institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) have been major conduits for promoting market fundamentalism in African countries. In the 1980s and 1990s, they formulated policies, commonly referred as Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), that led to economic adjustments such as austerity and scrapping of subsidies for important sectors such as agriculture, education, and healthcare, factors that finally wrecked economies of many African countries.
As I pointed out in my introductory article, reading David Harvey’s, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Jamie Peck’s Explaining (with) Neoliberalism, and Michel Foucault’s The Birth of Bio-Politics, one learns that neoliberalism does not have a single definition because the concept cuts across multiple disciplines. But at its basic, neoliberalism refers to an assemblage of social-economic, political, and cultural relations that favor market-based initiatives. According to Harvey, originators of neoliberalism leveraged the desire for individual freedom and dignity, which is ubiquitous in western societies (but not limited to it) to drum up support for the concept. They figured out that people are more willing and likely to support policies or frameworks that warrant personal liberty and freedom to determine their own lives however they wish.
Harvey further notes that from the beginning, proponents of neoliberalism, especially those based at Chicago School (the Economics Department of the University of Chicago), were against state interventionist theories such as Keynesian. Whereas Keynesian economic theory (which was advanced by British economist John Keynes) advocated for increased government spending and lower taxes as a means for addressing economic depression, Chicago School argued that the state was not competent enough to judge market initiatives because it had limited data, and that politicians could not be trusted to be impartial in planning the economy. Moreover, economic stagflation in Europe and America was blamed on Keynesian initiatives such as fixed exchange rates, heavy government spending on social welfare, and government intervention that hindered market competition. Neoliberalists argued that there is no such thing as society. They privileged individuals and families, and thus, justified the scrapping of state enterprises or social welfare programs geared to the benefit of society (as a collective). They proposed the idea of a neo-liberal state, one that operates as super-enterprise facilitating other sectors of the economy while ensuring market competition. As Harvey notes, “the freedoms it embodies reflect the interests of private property owners, businesses, multinational corporations, and financial capital” (7).
Scholars seem to agree that the common denominator for various interpretations of liberalism is the market. However, some scholars such as Jamie Peck have gone beyond the basic definition to explore how neoliberalism tends to operate differently from one geographical region to another with varying degrees of success. Furthermore, even the historiography of the concept of neoliberalism also tends to differ from one region to another. For instance, Ordo-liberals in Germany anchored their neo-liberal ideas on “social market economy’ and advocated for the creation of a social policy that can create and determine conditions for the market, which included “universalization of the entrepreneurship form and the redefinition of law” (Lemke, 2001: 195). In other words, they conceptualized an economic-institutional structure that encompasses the law of the land and even determines the nature of the state that can be established. Chicago School went further and blurred the line between the social and economic spheres. As Lemke (2001) notes, they “attempted to re-define the social sphere as a form of the economic domain” (197). In other words, social phenomena that were not considered in monetary or economic terms were incorporated into the economy.
In other areas neoliberalism redefined the relationship between capital and labor, that is, it introduced the concept of human capital whereby people were no longer receiving wages for performing a task but “an income from a special type of (human) capital” (Lemke, 2001: 199). In this regard, people became entrepreneurs of themselves. Thus, a person pursuing education to acquire more skills was regarded as investing in self; increasing one’s human capital.
The concept of neoliberalism has had its fair share of criticism from both the left and right critics in cultural studies, political science, economics, and other disciplines. The 2008 crash of the economy led to mass protests such as Occupy Wall Street that condemned neoliberalism as a cause of economic inequality in the US. But as Peck (2013) points out, neoliberalism is not the sole cause of contemporary social, political, and economic problems. He argues that it is one of the Others. My view is that neoliberalism as conceptualized favors certain classes of people who have taken advantage of the system and enriched themselves at the expense of the poor. Some countries such as the US have taken the neoliberal idea of freedom beyond their borders through instituting and adopting foreign policies that purport to promote freedom around the world. For instance, President Bush’s invasion of Iraq was pegged on the idea that they were liberating Iraq citizens from decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein. They sought to achieve this through liberalization of the entire Iraq economy, that is, privatizing key public institutions and adopting market-based initiatives for all sectors of the economy. They even sought to regulate labor by prohibiting unions and unionization. All these policies have not translated into “good freedom” for the oppressed. Instead, they have widened inequality and exacerbated suffering.
Harvey, D (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lemke, T (2001). ‘The birth of bio-politics’: Michel Foucault’s lecture at the College de France on neo-liberal governmentality. Economy and Society, 30(2), 190-207.
Mamdani, M. (2007). Define and Rule. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mantena, K (2010). Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the ends of liberal imperialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Peck, J (2013). Explaining with Neoliberalism, Territory, Politics, Governance, 1:2, 132-157.