Neoliberalism's Forked Tongue

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Gen. Butt Naked
Neoliberalism's Forked Tongue

by Maya Mikdashi

I want to start with an image of a protest that has revolutionary aspirations. This protest is full of people of all ages wearing different kinds of clothing and from all different regions of Lebanon, Egypt or Tunisia. As with all of the protests that the Arab Middle East witnessed in 2011, different signs are held up and different chants are shouted, often interrupting each other. As with protests in Egypt and in Tunis, signs are held up side by side demanding jobs for citizens and demanding that the “human rights” of citizens be respected. In the crowd there is even a sign tying these two demands together; the right to a job, the right to a living, the “human rights” that should buffer a citizen from the ravages of structural adjustment imposed by international lending agencies.

Many articles on the Egyptian revolution of 2011 have focused on how the uprising exposed the failures of neoliberal economic policies and thus, perhaps, authors foresee the dampening of neoliberal practices in post-Mubarak Egypt. Missing in this analysis is an appreciation of the multiple registers of neoliberal ideology and practice. These practices and discursive circulations both engender and are engendered by a notion of the subject often described as “liberal” by critical theorists; rational, autonomous, legally and litigiously constituted, rights demanding, and freedom seeking. I suggest that when discussing the Egyptian revolution we should pay attention to the linked practices of the citizen (or the subject more broadly) and of the economy that occur within the larger material, discursive and ideological framework of “neoliberalism.” When we focus on only one of these domains; the subject or the market, we unknowingly use neoliberalism to critique itself, thus re-scaffolding the hegemonic place this discourse occupies in the practice of life today.

Perhaps, in order to understand the phenomenon to which I am trying to draw attention, it is best not to approach it with overdetermined words such as “neoliberalism” or “liberalism” or “capitalism” in mind. No matter what the larger framework is called, it is undeniable that international human rights corporations such as Human Rights Watch are important agentive political bodies in Egypt and in Lebanon, for example. Similarly, other “international bodies” such as the UNDP (see the Arab Human Development Reports for examples of these "common sense" recommendations) , the IMF and the WorldBank are actors in the reconfiguration of life worlds across the region. This reconfiguration does not come only through market adjustment, but also through World Bank and UNDP “recommendations” as to “optimal” fertility rates, systems of education that are needed, and the types of family structure (nuclear, urban, double income) that should be promoted in the name of development. These organizations and their local allies intervene in a connected economic/social sphere, and they play a role in the conditioning of subjects vis-à-vis global market processes. To put it bluntly, organizations such as the IMF and Human Rights Watch are uncomfortable allies in a global and ideological project to shape practices of life, economy, and of citizenship. In addition, the proliferation of the local-global NGO capital networks and their attendant languages and institutions translate questions of justice into questions of rights, a translation which ties a citizen ever more intimately to the state. Thus, the question of economic justice becomes one of economic rights, the question of gender justice becomes one of women's and/or gay rights, and questions of violence are transformed into calls for bodily rights. In this framework, states are posited as potential human rights abusers, yet only the state can ensure the redress of these rights. Hence, the paradox of human rights reports; after spending pages outlining how, for example, the state of Iran is abusing the human rights of its citizens, towards the end of the report “recommendations” are made to said author of those abuses. In these reports, invariably the state is asked to transform (or reform) itself from a human rights abuser into a human rights defender. The move from justice to rights, as authors such as Zizek and Fraser have argued, is a feature of late capitalism that depoliticizes inequality and posits the state as the arbiter of said inequality. Thus, the state is “good” or “bad” depending on how well it regulates the lives of their citizens or, as anthropologists have suggested, depending on how well they perform “good governance.” Such depoliticization should be understood as a political process that aims to separate the messiness of shared life into compartments such as “culture,” “government,” “economy,” “personal life,” and, my personal favorite, “civil society.” Once segregated into neat, independent packages, we, as liberal/neoliberal subjects, are told that our “political” involvement begins, and ends, as participants in “free”, “fair” and “transparent” elections.

While the Egyptian revolution, was, as another Jadaliyya writer pointed out, a revolution against neoliberalism it was also, in very important ways, a neoliberal revolution. The ravages of market restructuring were highlighted by the brave protestors who were daily risking their lives in challenging the regime. Their demands were voiced in a grammar that would be familiar to neoliberal (or late liberal) subjects everywhere; an end to corruption, and increased transparency, accountability, and rights for citizens. Human rights discourses were invoked by protestors, and the internet's promises of stranger sociality, anonymity and disembodied reason were highlighted by many as a main component of the revolutions' success. Rather than demanding the end of neoliberal market practices, demonstrators demanded the reform of those practices and assurances that economic opportunity would be shared more widely. Ultimately, the head of the Egyptian regime was forced to resign. Thus far, the institutions of the regime not only remain, but are tasked, to adopt Human Rights Watch language, with “reforming” themselves.

Let us revisit the image I began this train of thoughts with. A would-be revolutionary is standing in Tahrir square before the ousting of Mubarak. She is carrying a sign that ties Husni Mubarak's corruption with her inability to find a job that she deserves as a college graduate. She claims that her economic, political, and bodily rights are violated daily by a corrupt and inefficient regime. Her neighbor may be holding a sign that highlights the alleged 70 billion dollar price tag of Husni Mubarak's corruption, implicitly stating that were it not for rampant corruption, this windfall of structural adjustment would have been distributed more equally among Egypt's citizens. As observers, we should not be too quick to applaud the defeat of neoliberalism in Egypt. Instead, we should pause and dwell on the irony of hearing neoliberal/liberal discourses mobilized to critique neoliberal economic practices. We should dwell on the irony of a revolution that has, too quickly, been captured into the language of reform. We should ask whether a lexicon of revolution that engenders radical political transformation (such as the Bolshevik or the French Revolution) is still intelligible to a broad constituency. We should wonder if it would have been possible in today's world to have a revolution not expressed in the language of reform. We should recognize that when a revolutionary couches her demands for political and economic change in a grammar of rights and good governance, she is speaking in, and through, neoliberalism's forked tongue.

For work that adresses some of the themes I have raised here, see

Timothy Mitchell , Rule of Experts

David Harvey , A Brief Introduction to Neoliberalism

Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff , Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming

Patty Kelly, Lydia's Open Door

Biehl, João Guilherme. Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment