- Reading for Neoliberalism, Reading like Neoliberals
After some delay, neoliberalism has arrived on the literary scene. The term has appeared in a diverse collection of critical studies in the last five years. Gillian Harkins and Jane Elliott edited a special issue of Social Text called "Genres of Neoliberalism" in 2013; a volume edited by Alissa Karl and Emily Johansen titled Neoliberalism and the Novel (2016) has just been published; and another collected volume, Neoliberalism and Contemporary Literature Culture, edited by Mitchum Huehls and Rachel Greenwald Smith, will be released in 2017. Michael Dowdy's Broken Souths: Latina/o Poetic Responses to Neoliberalism and Globalization (2013) takes poetry as its subject rather than narrative, and Michael Walonen's Contemporary World Narrative Fiction and the Spaces of Neoliberalism (2016) moves the topic beyond the Western hemisphere. As an anecdotal index, of the words in the 135 abstracts submitted to a conference for early and mid-career literary scholars on "The Contemporary" at Princeton University in 2016, "neoliberalism" came second in frequency only to the general prefix "post" (postmodern, posthuman, etc.). For a conference not devoted to economic concerns, the incidence is remarkable.1
This essay reviews two new books that contribute to the scholarly debate of neoliberalism. First, we revisit how the term has circulated to date before suggesting that literary analysis of neoliberals [End Page 602] themselves might produce some surprising and clarifying results, including the need for greater specificity of what kind of neoliberalism is in question. The tardy arrival of neoliberalism to literary studies trails the sociologists, historians, and political scientists who have studied it for decades. Despite the often-asserted novelty of the category, neoliberalism circulated in academic discourse as early as the 1960s to describe both the particular form of conservative capitalism in a rebuilding West Germany, as well as authoritarian strains of antisocialism in Latin America. Far from the breadth of meaning the term invites today, a 1966 article stated simply that "contrary to nineteenth-century laissez-faire, neoliberalism . . . assigns positive duties to the state" (Heilperin 4). One seldom encounters such concise summaries today, as the term sutures together left-inflected investigations of all aspects of culture.
Disciplines beyond literary studies have offered various definitions of neoliberalism. It is a period from the 1970s through the present marked by the rise of the relative importance of services and a deregulated financial sector in the global north, and the shift of manufacturing and market-friendly structural adjustment to the south. It is the attendant doctrine of governance that sees economic inequality and risk as ineradicable and mandates competitiveness, leanness, and flexibility over redistribution, solidarity, and social justice for states, businesses, and individuals to succeed in an increasingly globalized world economy. It is a movement of intellectuals associated with the Mont Pelerin Society founded by the British-Austrian economist F. A. Hayek in 1947 that outlined and propagated the doctrine through think tanks, business leaders, academic institutions, and policymakers. Now, in the writing of political scientist Wendy Brown—following Michel Foucault and Jamie Peck—another language for the investigation of neoliberalism has emerged. It is a broader "order of normative reason" that has amplified features of capitalism, including contract, investment, self-maximization, and entrepreneurship, to the point that it has become something qualitatively new (Brown 30).
Which definition will come to dominate in literary and cultural studies remains an open question, as does the question of what literary studies will itself offer. At the moment, the most important books for literary and cultural studies scholars have been David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005) and Michel Foucault's The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France (2008). Put broadly, Harvey is used to periodize; Foucault, to conceptualize. Harvey offers a timeline dating from the crises of the 1970s that links the four figures pictured on the book's stark black cover—Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Augusto Pinochet, and Deng Xiaoping—in a mode of rule that...