Humanity interview with James Ferguson, pt. 2: rethinking neoliberalism


Humanity: Both The Anti-Politics Machine and Expectations of Modernity were conceived and written in the late twentieth century, when the signal geopolitical transformation of course had to with the collapse of communism and the triumph of neoliberalism. These books were published, in other words, during the heyday of the post-communist suspicion of the state, which took the state to be an agent of oppression. Even though your politics share little with celebrators of capitalism like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, or Daniel Yergin, your skepticism of the developmental state as an agent of positive change shares not a little with these authors. Where are the points of overlap and where are the disjunctures between their critique of the state and yours?

James Ferguson: It is important to recognize that this thing we call neoliberalism is an intellectually complex field, and that there is not a single politics that we can neatly and unproblematically attach to the style of reasoning that we identify as neoliberal. This is a point that Stephen Collier has recently made well. He identifies a series of what he calls “minor traditions” within neoliberalism that are actually attached to a very different kind of politics than we are usually used to associating with the word.[1] So it is partly a matter of careful intellectual history and scholarship.

But there is also a political issue. I think it is important for us to acknowledge that Hayek and company were importantly right about something. I sometimes remind my students that one of the biggest fans of The Road to Serfdom was Keynes, who spoke very effusively in praise of the book. The reason is that it was not principally an attack on the welfare state; it was an attack on central planning, on Soviet-style centrally planned economies. And Hayek got that mostly right. Now, that Hayekian critique contains an important point of agreement with what anthropologists have always said, which is that ordinary people actually know a lot about their own lives. They are often better positioned than experts from on high to make decisions that affect their own lives. The point is: where does the information lie? Who has enough information to actually know what social good is? Anthropologists very easily assimilate these arguments: we have been saying the same thing for a long time.

The problem is that this observation can degenerate into a simplistic anti-statism, which it does in the rightist politics of many neoliberals. In a similar way, in anthropology, it can also degenerate into a simplistic anti-statism, which takes the form of a romanticism that suggests that the grassroots are virtuous and that if only the state were not there then everyone would be egalitarian and nature-loving. So those dangers are undeniably there: of taking a modality of thinking critically about state power and turning it into a simplistic anti-statist politics. But I would rather think of this as one route into a discussion of the problem of government. That is the spirit in which Foucault talks about neoliberalism, which is quite different from most of our discussions of neoliberalism, which tend to be ideological and based on a “for or against” model. Foucault looks at discussions within neoliberalism in the same way that he looks at other discussions of the problem of government. Which is to say that it is a mode of reasoning that takes place within the context of a set of problems. He is both sympathetic with and critical of the problem of governing. He does not think we want to live in a world in which there is no government. But he knows that government always involves the exercise of power, it always involves possibilities for abuse and exploitation.

But his solution is not to say that therefore we should be against power. For him that is silly: you cannot be against power; power is an integral problem of the social world. The question is: how do we want to be governed? That is a very important discussion and I do not think you get anywhere by saying, simply, “We’re against neoliberalism.”


H: Your new work describes in depth how neoliberalism forms a complex field. When you wrote The Anti-Politics Machine, was neoliberalism already in your head? Was it something that somehow haunted you then that you have felt a need to revisit? In other words, how has your thinking on neoliberalism evolved in the two decades since?

JF: I had never heard the word neoliberalism when I wrote The Anti-Politics Machine! In that book I was writing about a pre-structural adjustment world. I was writing it just as structural adjustment was beginning to kick in all across Africa. That is when we first started hearing about neoliberalism—in the context of structural adjustment in Africa. And like everyone else, I thought it was terrible, and I was against it. It was a necessary ideological moment, of saying these are actually disastrous policies, being justified on the basis of spurious arguments, and that nobody has really thought what the long-term costs are going to be.

But that work was done, that critique was made. We reached a point where it did not seem like it was accomplishing much to say, yet again, to an audience full of people who already believe it, “Aha! Look: structural adjustment is bad for the poor!” You got to the point where even the World Bank itself was saying it. So who the hell cares whether I condemn neoliberalism: it is an empty political act! It is not that I disagree with those critiques—I agree with them absolutely—but simply reiterating them does not get us any further at this point.

I have become more interested in thinking not so much about what we are against as about what we’re for, thinking about positive political goals and strategies, which to me leads to the question of government. To see what I mean by that, let me give an example of a different kind of question. There’s a program in Zambia to take care of AIDS orphans. Zambia has a massive number of AIDS orphans, and the state recognizes that there is a public responsibility to take care of these orphans. Most of these orphans have been taken in by older women, and the state acknowledges that this is a valuable thing and has committed to supporting it. The program that has been in place involves providing these households with food. Once a month a truck comes through and they have a list of names of all the households where AIDS orphans are being minded, and they give each of these old women a bag full of maize meal, which is the local staple.

Now, the new thinking comes in, and says, “You know, it’s good that you’re supporting these women, but this isn’t the right way to do it. Instead of giving them a bag of maize meal once a month, why don’t you give them an amount of money that would enable them to go to the local shop and buy the equivalent amount of maize meal if that’s what they want, but that would also give them the choice to do other things with the money, things you might not know they need. The old woman may realize that what she needs this month, for example, is to use the money for bus fare so that she can go get that lingering infection treated. She knows her own problems, she knows her own circumstances, she knows her own resources to solve those problems much better than some planner in Lusaka does. So give her the ability to make her own choices about how those resources should be allocated.”

Now, what are we to make of this? On the one hand, we can say this is classic neoliberalism: using markets to deliver social services—getting government out of the way of delivering those services, and letting the market provide them instead. But on the other hand, you can also say that this is trusting rural women to understand and address their own needs in ways that planners cannot. A lot of anthropologists find that a very attractive idea.

I do not think it is very helpful to insert this into a left-versus-right ideological frame. It is a different question—about the how of government, about governmental technique. I want to linger over those questions. I do not want to have a deductive politics where we say, “Ah, so this is neoliberalism, so now we know we’re against it!” I want to stop and say, “Hm. Well, what do I think about that? Let us think this through. What social services can be delivered through markets? What role can cash transfers play in redistributive social programs?” We should allow the political judgments to emerge out of the investigation rather than being the thing that drives it.



[1] Stephen J. Collier, Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).


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