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Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State
Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State
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Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State

Inequality, Exclusion, and Change

Leela Fernandes

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ūüďĖ eBook - ePub

Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State

Inequality, Exclusion, and Change

Leela Fernandes

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A rich set of feminist perspectives on the varied and often contradictory nature of state practices, structures, and ideologies Growing socio-economic inequality and exclusion are defining features of the twenty-first century. While debates on globalization, free trade, and economic development have been linked to the paradigm of “neo-liberalism,” it does not explain all the forms of social change that have been unfolding in comparative contexts. Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State provides a timely intervention into discussions about the boundaries, practices, and nature of the post-liberalization state, suggesting that an understanding of economic policies, the corresponding rise of socio-economic inequality, and the possibilities for change requires an in-depth reconceptualization. Drawing on original field research both globally and within the United States, this volume brings together a rich set of perspectives on the varied and often contradictory nature of state practices, structures and ideologies in the post-liberalization era. The essays develop an interdisciplinary approach that treats an understanding of historically-specific forms of inequality—such as gender, race, caste, sexuality and class—as integral to, rather than as after-effects of, the policies and ideologies associated with the “neoliberal project.” The volume also tackles central questions on the restructuring of the state, the state’s power operations, the relationship between capital and the state, and its interactions with the institutions and organizational forms of civil society in the post-liberalization era. As such, Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State examines both what is distinctive about this post-liberalization state and what must be contextualized as long-standing features of modern state power. A truly international and interdisciplinary volume, Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State deepens our understanding of how policies of economic liberalization shape and produce various forms of inequality.



Conceptualizing the Post-Liberalization State

Intervention, Restructuring, and the Nature of State Power

Leela Fernandes
‚ÄúThe gap between the haves and the have-nots globally is now at the same level as in the 1820s, the OECD said Thursday, October 2, warning it was one of the most ‚Äėworrying‚Äô developments over the past 200 years. In a major report on global well-being over the past two centuries, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) noted inequality shot up after globalization took root in the 1980s.‚ÄĚ1


The 2014 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) provided a stark warning about the rise in inequality.2 The growing concentration of wealth and the intensification of inequality has in fact become one of the distinguishing features of the twenty-first century. Public and academic debates on questions of economic inequality and exclusion have centered on the paradigm of ‚Äúneoliberalism.‚ÄĚ Popular usage of the term has broadly centered on key features that have dominated contemporary global economic practices. These features include the restriction of state controls of economic activities (and the corresponding dismantling of the welfare state), a belief in the self-regulating power of the market in economic, social, and cultural spheres (and corresponding trends of privatization), and a range of policies of economic liberalization that have been designed to spur economic growth in comparative contexts. Proponents of the model of neoliberalism argue that restricting the state to a market-enabling force is necessary to spur economic growth (Bhagwati 2004). Indeed, policies of economic liberalization over successive decades have been implemented in varying forms and with varying paces in comparative contexts in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Such policies have constituted a new developmental model that presumes that inequality and poverty can only be addressed through economic growth and an expansion of upward mobility and middle-class membership. Meanwhile, critics of neoliberalism have pointed to both the negative economic effects of such policies (Harvey 2005; Piketty 2014) as well as the deleterious political and sociocultural implications as logics of privatization have transformed the texture of both civil society and subjectivity in the twenty-first century (Brown 2005; Gambetti and Godoy-Anativia 2013; Greenhouse 2009; Hall and Lamont 2013).
The ideological paradigm of neoliberalism is invested in models of economic growth that both restrain and retrain the state. The state, in this hegemonic conception, must be restrained from its past regulatory and interventionist impulses and retrained to serve a limited market-enabling role. Critics of this paradigm have analyzed the effects of the ideological paradigm of neoliberalism and its material effects (such as cutbacks on welfare states) as well as the broader normative effects on societies that are structured through the logics of market behavior. There is, for instance, a vast scholarship on various dimensions of neoliberalism and its impact on inequality and identity. Interdisciplinary studies of neoliberalism have primarily focused either on declining state sovereignty in the face of corporate power and institutional forms of national and global governance that enhance the power of political and economic elites (Ong 2006) or on the ways neoliberalism has seeped into civil society, producing new forms of neoliberal subjectivity and disciplinary regimes of power (Laurie and Bondi 2005). Peter Hall and Mich√©le Lamont describe these trends as a constitution of the ‚Äúneoliberal imaginary‚ÄĚ that marks ‚Äúa period that has authorized self-interested market behavior in settings where it might not once have been legitimate‚ÄĚ (2013, 4). They illustrate the ways in which this imaginary has reconfigured social relationships and transformed the terms of social recognition in comparative contexts. Such changes, as some scholars have argued, have produced new forms of subjectivity that have been shaped in complex ways by the market-oriented logics of rationality, entrepreneurship, and selfhood (Brown 2005; Greenhouse 2009).
While such scholarship has produced critical insights into new modes of power and subjectivity, the primary emphasis of such work has been on the curtailment or displacement of the state by neoliberal modes of governance and identity. An effect of these very real processes of restructuring is a danger of presuming that the state has retreated or vanished in the post-liberalization period or that the neoliberal state is marked by a clear historical break from earlier forms of modern state power.3 In this context, neoliberalism risks taking on a deterministic and ghostly character‚ÄĒacting as a primary agent that reshapes socioeconomic and cultural practices and permeates all forms of cultural, social, and political life. Critics of the paradigm of neoliberalism in effect may run the danger of reproducing the all-pervasive power of the neoliberal imaginary that they seek to contest by reproducing recursive narratives of a vanishing state in the face of the all-encompassing force of neoliberalism.
Although the ‚Äúneoliberal imaginary‚ÄĚ is commonly associated with privatization and market-led growth, the varying perspectives that exist on this paradigm are, in fact, paradoxically, implicitly, or explicitly grappling with the role of the state. The ‚Äústate‚ÄĚ often lurks at the edges of both popular and academic discourses on the neoliberal economic order of the twenty-first century. For instance, consider the strongest case for theories that presume a state in retreat. Policies of economic restructuring have led, rightly, to a great deal of research and analysis of state cutbacks in social spending (such as welfare benefits), of processes of privatization that have led to the decline of public sector employment, and of the naturalization of the ideological tenets of neoliberalism. Yet as recent research has shown, the state has, in fact, not retreated in the post-liberalization period. Gambetti and Godoy-Anativia, for instance, provide an important cautionary reminder that ‚Äústate power is the paradoxical instrument of the dismantling of the welfare state‚ÄĚ (2013, 5).
Processes of privatization are indeed a key dimension both of policies of economic liberalization that have been implemented in comparative contexts and of certain forms of political subjectivity that emerge in particular contexts. However, the premise that the logic of markets (usually coded as ‚Äúprivatization‚ÄĚ) is the driving impetus of neoliberalism also risks skewing knowledge production in ways that may inadvertently reproduce the logic of neoliberal ideology that such work seeks to disrupt. An adequate understanding of the post-liberalization period in the twenty-first century requires more sustained analyses that also foreground questions of how conceptions of ‚Äúpublicness‚ÄĚ are reconstituted and deployed (in relation to privatized conceptions of self and subjectivity), how states shape economic policy and contribute to the reproduction of inequality, and how political and social consent to structures of exclusion are produced and disrupted.4 Dag MacLeod, for instance, has shown that Mexico‚Äôs sweeping program of privatization from 1983 to 2000 cannot be understood adequately without addressing the role of the state in carrying this program forward (2004). As MacLeod notes, in the Mexican case, ‚Äúthe real challenge of implementing reform had to do with gaining control over the unwieldy apparatus of the state in order to transfer public assets to private actors‚ÄĚ (2004, 26). Thus, for MacLeod, the question of the autonomy of the state can only be understood relationally where ‚Äúthe state‚Äôs ability to act ‚Äėautonomously‚Äô from one social group simply means that it is acting in the interest of some other social group‚ÄĚ (26).
Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State seeks to understand the post-liberalization period through a redefinition of conceptions of ‚Äúpublic‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúprivate‚ÄĚ interests rather than an easy shift from public interests to the interests of private capital. This analysis disrupts the analytical drive to understand neoliberalism through a self-evident market-led logic of privatization. On the contrary, such an approach points to a need to think more deeply about how the state is implicated in and actively shapes policies and processes of economic liberalization. An analytical lens that mirrors a neoliberal logic of a market-dominated world misses the ways in which the restructuring of the state sets in motion a set of state practices and interventions that are not reducible to market actors. The state in effect does not retreat but both redeploys in complex ways (Brenner 2004; Collier 2011; Sassen, 1996) and continues to exercise power through long-standing practices, institutions and ideologies that have been historically salient features of the modern state. In this vein, the theoretical framework of the volume disrupts naturalized market-centered conceptions of the post-liberalization period.
The essays in this volume provide an in-depth analysis of the boundaries, practices, and nature of the post-liberalization state. The volume examines the nature of the restructuring of the state and argues for an understanding of the state that moves beyond conceptions of a state in retreat on the one hand and a state that simply mirrors the needs of capital on the other. The book intervenes in this body of knowledge through a distinctive emphasis on the state from both a comparative and transnational perspective. Transnational processes (whether in terms of movements of capital, people, or ideational forms across national borders) are critical to understanding the post-liberalization period. However, transnationalism too often becomes an abstract or overdetermined frame of analysis (Fernandes 2013) when it is dislocated from situated understandings of such processes. Narrow conceptions of transnationalism can also severely underestimate both the sustained power of nationalism (such as the nationalist framings of certain modes of populism) and the significance of state power. This volume seeks to understand how such transnational processes shape and are shaped by the economic, political, and historical contexts of specific nation-states. Drawing on original field research in comparative contexts both globally and within the United States, the essays present a rich set of perspectives on the varied and often contradictory nature of state practices, structures, and ideologies in the post-liberalization era. The essays address four central questions: (1) How has the state been restructured? (2) How is state power exercised? (3) How is the state shaped by the needs of capital? (4) How does the state interact with institutions and organizational forms within the realm of civil society in the post-liberalization era of the twenty-first century?
As the essays in Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State illustrate, the nature of state formation affects processes of economic restructuring in complex ways. New state spaces and new state activities that emerge as the state seeks to direct economic liberalization or manage the political and social conflicts that arise from economic crisis and inequality intersect with and are shaped by historically specific trajectories of state formation in particular places. For instance, as recent research has shown, postcolonial state practices in the post-liberalization period often reflect a continuation of older regimes of state-led development (Fernandes 2006; Gupta 2012; Sharma 2008). Consider, for instance, one of the quintessential hegemonic discursive signifiers of liberalization‚ÄĒthe growth of the middle classes in contemporary India. The potential for expanding upward mobility and access to middle-class status has become the embodiment of the benefits of economic liberalization (Fernandes 2006). Public discourses and postcolonial scholarship have tended to emphasize the ‚Äúnewness‚ÄĚ of these middle classes‚ÄĒoften linking claims about a new middle-class identity to middle-class consumption and India‚Äôs policies of liberalization (Mazzarella 2003; Rajagopal 2001). What is missing in such analyses are both the ways in which these ‚Äúnew‚ÄĚ middle classes are able to access upper-tier, new economy jobs because of historical state developmental patterns that support urban middle-class formation (by focusing, for instance, on higher education rather than primary education) and the ways in which these new middle classes continue to seek and receive substantial state resources (Fernandes 2006, 2015). Middle-class formation is thus still primarily a product of state developmental policies rather than of market liberalization. Such dynamics highlight the need to untangle the ways in which the neoliberal state coexists with older models of the developmental state and more closely investigate the interaction between these two sets of state activities.
Meanwhile, in specific national contexts, the retreat of the state is often due to state failures rather than to conscious policies of privatization. Thus, an analysis of the neoliberal model needs to guard against a conflation between processes of privatization and state regulatory failure. The failure of the state to provide services and to develop effective regulatory frameworks of governance‚ÄĒor what Stuart Corbridge calls ‚Äúthe scarcity of the state‚ÄĚ (2005)‚ÄĒhas often provided a space that has subsequently been occupied by private actors and privatized practices. This ‚Äúscarcity of the state‚ÄĚ often paradoxically coexists with an intensified set of state practices of policing, surveillance, and containment that marks expanding capacities of state power as exercised within civil society and the public sphere. Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State unpacks such contradictions and examines when and how the modern state contracts, expands, and is reconstituted in the historically specific conditions of late capitalism that are now associated with the ideology and policies of neoliberal economics.
Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State addresses the systemic and transnational effects of economic liberalization but does not presume a single model of neoliberalism with uniform effects. Research in comparative contexts provides a complex picture of the nature and causes of inequality. States, although restructured in varying ways, continue to play a central role in shaping the causes and responses to inequality (Ewig 2010; Lind 2005; MacLeod 2004). Social movements that respond to various forms of inequality are immersed in complicated political dynamics with both the state and transnational and national capitalist actors. The political dynamics and economic effects of such processes also vary greatly depending on the specific national context being discussed. This volume delves into these questions with the objective of providing an in-depth comparative understanding of the nature and practices of the post-liberalization state. For instance, comparative social science research on economic liberalization shows that policies of economic liberalization are one of the biggest sources of new state activities (Levy 2006). Such research points to the importance of unpacking the normative model of neoliberalism and distinguishing this singular model from the varied economic policies that states have implemented in historically specific contexts.5

What Is Neoliberal about the Contemporary State? Historical Continuities and Discontinuities and the Question of State Power

The task of understanding the nature of the state in the twenty-first century requires a careful examination of the term ‚Äúneoliberal.‚ÄĚ The term itself is overladen with ideological and discursive meanings in both academic and public discourses. ‚ÄúNeoliberalism‚ÄĚ in its overdetermined form often becomes a ‚Äúmaster‚ÄĚ concept that serves as an explanatory device for economic inequality, poverty, political quietism, alienation, and social exclusion. Complex questions regarding economic policy and ideology are conflated with broad processes of globalization as well as with long-standing historical processes that have shaped capitalist development and political and theoretical conceptions of liberalism. The risk in deploying the term ‚Äúneoliberal‚ÄĚ lies in the ways these overladen meanings that are invested in the term render it devoid of any analytical use. If ‚Äúneoliberalism‚ÄĚ becomes an ahistorical concept that is read back into time even as it becomes a default explanation for the plight of the present, the term itself becomes a symptom of its own conditions. In other words, if the drive of policies and ideologies of neoliberalism is to absorb political, economic, and sociocultural life into an all-encompassing logic of market rationality, taking this all-encompassing logic as an unquestioned analytical assumption inadvertently mirrors the very rationality that critics seek to contest. As Gambetti and Godoy-Anativia note, the challenge is to ‚Äúavoid constructing neoliberalism as a kind of ‚Äėempty signifier‚Äô that explains everything and anything‚ÄĚ (2013, 4). Any analysis that seeks to demarcate the theoretical usefulness of the concept thus needs to delineate the specificity of the term and to consider where ‚Äúneoliberalism‚ÄĚ is simply an extension of long-standing historical processes and where it serves as a useful analytical marker of discontinuity.
The most well-known understanding of neoliberalism is linked to what is popularly known as the ‚ÄúWashington consensus,‚ÄĚ which emerged in the late 1980s around a specific set of economic policies designed to restructure economies in comparative contexts. Such policies have broadly included a set of prescriptions t...

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[author missing]. (2018). Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State ([edition unavailable]). NYU Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2018)
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[author missing]. (2018) 2018. Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State. [Edition unavailable]. NYU Press.
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[author missing] (2018) Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State. [edition unavailable]. NYU Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. Feminists Rethink the Neoliberal State. [edition unavailable]. NYU Press, 2018. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.