Will Davies is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Politics at Goldsmith, University of London where he also co-directs the newly created Political Economy Research Centre, and a prolific blogger. His recently published book The Limits Of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty And The Logic Of Competition examines the efforts paid by economic and innovation experts to model society in terms of competition. In this conversation we discuss the usefulness of the concepts developed by the recent sociology of critique to study the limits of neoliberalism and how the economic critique of the state has been employed precisely to legitimate, empower and expand the state.
Q1. TU. In the introduction of your book you mention that critics of neoliberalism will probably feel disappointed if they are expecting to find a sort of conspiracy theory being unveiled through your research. However, what your research does is to unveil the theoretical and ontological underpinning of competition and neoliberalism. But maybe I am missing part of your intentions. An introductory question: what were your initial hypotheses and/or motivations for studying competition and the rationality and authority of the neoliberal state?
A1. [4.32 mins.]
Q2. JO. One of the very interesting aspects of your book is that instead of approaching neoliberalism as a mono-logic discourse, you see it as multiple. Neoliberalism unfolds with its own peculiarities in different areas such as anti-trust regulation, innovation policy and strategic management. What is not that clear, though, is the relationship between these different streams. Let’s take the example of Hayek and Coase. Sometimes it seems you have an historical thesis, e.g. you claim that Hayek’s notion of competition was undermined by Coase’s foundational claims concerning Law and Economics. In other moments, however, it seems like you are suggesting that different branches of neoliberalism have found their own institutional niches: Coase’s work works on anti-trust regulation; Schumpeter’s on innovation policies and strategic management; Porter’s on competitiveness… And, I would add, Hayek’s on market based social policies and financial regulation… Question: would you say your primary argument is indeed historical (distinguishing different phases of neoliberal thought) or that it is rather more like a “varieties” type of argument (opening a comparative research agenda by studying the different practical institutionalizations of neoliberal thought)?
A2. [2.35 mins.]
Q3. JO. Methodologically, your book could be seen as a close reading of neoliberal discourses (from existing texts and your interviews) inspired by Boltanski’s and Thévenot’s pragmatic sociology. In this sense, your work differs from most of recent studies on the performativity of economics that has been more ethnographic in style. I don’t think it is fair to criticize a book for not doing something it doesn’t in fact aim to do, of course, but I still have a question: recent ethnographic work on economic regulation (for instance Annelise Riles in Japan or the contributor of this blog Gustavo Onto in Brazil) have found that neoliberal economic doctrines need to be translated into what Riles calls ‘legal reasoning’ in order to work legally. They don’t deny the relevance of neoliberalism but they maintain that in order to work legally it needs to be made legal at a practical level, and this is the work of lawyers, not economists. How important would you say it becomes to study the particularities of legal knowledge and discourse to understand the impact of a movement such as Law & Economics? Is there a risk of overestimating the impact of economic knowledge if its study is not accompanied with an equally close study of the discursive context in which is used?
A3. [9.39 mins.]
The authority of competitiveness consultants
Q4. TU: You mention that the authority of the consultant or competitive advisor derives from the fact that his nature is unconstrained – by discipline, by institutional and/or cultural boundaries, by his external position, but also by the scholarly method, and by being able to communicate across different sectors, to continue ‘the conversation’. Similarly, you argue that under the vision of management inspired by Schumpeter’s elitist view of entrepreneurs, the business leader’s authority is conceived within a regime of violence. That authority would rest in the charismatic character of the leader, which the mass of employees will have to obey. This vision of managerial authority is anti-normative. The picture makes sense to me in many ways, but I miss another neoliberal feature of gurus and managers: their pragmatism and adaptive capacity. A crucial source of the consultant’s authority is also their capacity to deliver ‘results’, to achieve goals. Your emphasis on ‘continuing the conversation’ somehow suggests that their network or capacity for lobbying is their main asset. Where does the authority of such a figure finally rest?
A4. [5.41 mins.]
Q5. JO: The title of the book is The limits of neoliberalism. Something I was thinking while reading the book is: how is the boundary of neoliberalism been drawn? P. Mirowski, for instance, labels as neoliberal anyone or any idea that is connected to the core of what he calls Neoliberal Though Collective. You, beside authors such as Coase, Becker or Hayek normally associated with neoliberalism, include also Schumpeter or people like Porter. Where would you set the border that makes someone or someone’s idea to be neoliberal? Is it about their political position? Their networks? Their ideas? Let’s me exaggerate, we could say that someone like P. Bourdieu, in his Social Structures of the Economy, understands market competition as a violent struggle over the definition of rules, not that far therefore from the literature on Strategy, does that make him also a neoliberal?
A5 [6.01 mins.]
Q6. TU: At the end of the book you conclude that contingent neoliberalism is unjustified. In your words: “The economized social and political reality now only just about ‘holds together’, because it is constantly propped up, bailed out, nudged, monitored, adjusted, data-minded and altered by those responsible for rescuing it. It does not survive as a consensual reality as once was”(p.186). Two questions: when do you think in history that holding together of society was truly consensual? Second, if neoliberalism is truly unjustified, and disenchanted politics by economics has reached its limit, why, then, neoliberalism doesn’t collapse? You mention that after 2008 crisis neoliberalism has survived partly because it has operated between 2 registers, the universalism of justice and the particularism of political transformation. Beyond discourses, what are the absent conditions for that critical moment of change to happen? Why neoliberalism is so resilient?
A6. [9.59 mins.]
On Competition and entrepreneurship as transgression
Q7. TU: Competition is an important value for neoliberals. What you show though is they are far from understanding the same by competition. You describe two different sources of revamping competition: Coases’ idea of efficiency and Schumpeter’s celebration of the innovative capacities of entrepreneurs. Whereas Coase’s psychological capacities are deemed common to all, Schumpeter capacities belong only to the privilege minority of entrepreneurs that have the capacity to challenge norms, and transform the old structures of the economy through the creative-destructive process. How does that ‘elitist’ principle cohabit with the meritocratic ideal of competition? Or put other way, how that elitist principle was ‘democratised’ as an achievable dream through which everyone can unleash his or her potential talent? How does neoliberalism reconcile these opponent/contradictory aims?
A7. [5.07 mins.]
Q8. TU: To conclude, in your genealogy the entrepreneur is characterised by someone who doesn’t respect the rules, who want to reinvent the rules towards his or her own benefits, as a transgressor. I missed a concrete example about it. Could you elaborate a bit more on the anti-social aspects of the entrepreneur? Who would be an example of a transgressor entrepreneur?
A8. [6.02 mins.]