Anthropology’s obsession with neoliberalism: Musings from the APA conference

Last July, at the EASA conference in Paris, I noticed that there seemed to be dozens of papers in the program with the word "neoliberalism" in their title. I wondered whether "neoliberalism" had become the new black for discussions of power and domination, taking over the role that globalization used to have, back in the days when it struck fear into the hearts of academics who were afraid that it would spell the end to global diversity.

It seems that I wasn't alone. The EASA journal, Social Anthropology, have been running a debate about neoliberalism over several issues in 2012 and 2013. Earlier this year I was invited by David Picard to co-convene a pannel on anthropology’s obsession with neoliberalism at the conference of the Associação da Antropologia Portuguesa. So, this week, we converged on Vila Real to just that. Our co-panelists, Gabriela Vargas Cetina and Steffan Igor Ayora Diaz, flew over from Yucatan especially to debate this curious topic.

David opened our session with some philosophical meanderings. He pointed out that, on the one hand, anthropologists criticize change, while on the other, anthropology of science is based on ideas that are core to neoliberalism–the freedom to move, have ideas, communicate, and so on. When it first appeared in the 1930s, neoliberalism was far more about individual freedom than it was about the policies represented in the Washington Consensus.

My paper was first off the rank. My primary argument was that neoliberalism is really only relevant to discussions of Haiti where we are talking about foreign policy interventions and the Haitian state’s handling of them. Given its long history of foreign domination, neoliberalism really hasn't brought much that is truly new to Haiti. Rather, it is the continuation of practices of empire in which this island nation has been enveloped for half a millennium.

Igor was next up, discussing neoliberalism and changing culinary practies in the Yucatan. Drawing upon David Harvey, Igor's paper was very much concerned with neoliberal values and how we internalize and naturalize the idea of freedom to choose. This is even the case with food. In the Yucatan, people increasingly demand a wide variety of choice and ready-made ingredients. They are less concerned about the flavours, eating more to get fuel than to enjoy an experience. A global culinary marketplace means that they can move from one style of cooking to another. Even their "traditional" food has changes as the foodscape and technoscape have altered–yet people insist that they cook local dishes the same ways they always have. Igor argued that these appropriations make it difficult to pose a critique, because these values are becoming part of our nature. We have a challenge before us, to look at alternatives to neoliberalism.

Gaby's paper examined the relationship between neoliberalism and music production in the Yucatan. Hers was a little different because she views the music industry as–at least for the moment–having carved out an independent space despite the rise of neoliberalism. She drew upon Aihwa Ong's term "neoliberalism as exception" to point out that, even in countries like Mexico where the welfare state has been dismantled, parts of the safety net still exist. In the Yucatan, which is very different to the rest of Mexico, state bodies and civil society organizations have partnered to protect musicians' livelihoods and ensure the continued production of local music. Some musicians view themselves as workers; others see themselves as artists, but all have access to clubs that can help them. The arrival of computers has helped create these associations. In Merida there is wi-fi everywhere, so musicians can easily communicate with each other and share music. However, wealthier musicians still maintain an advantage, because they can afford to buy instruments. Hence parts of the old class system still come into play in the music scene.

Our discussant was Anastassios Panagiotopoulos. He astutely pointed out that, throughout the session, not one of us had mentioned capitalism–not even once in passing. Why not? After all, capitalism underlies the entire discussion. Although some of our papers argue that there isn't much new in neoliberalism, something new must be happening for people to identify it as such, so what is new in capitalism? Maybe, he continued, what is new is that it goes against previous ideas of what is a fair system. It is the negation of the expectations of capitalism: if the tendency is for a few people to accumulate all, then it is not liberal at all.

Perhaps, then, we can conclude that what is "neo" about "neoliberalism" is that the liberalism itself has been taken out of the equation.