Research Group: Historicising Neoliberalism: Elite and Mass Politics, 1970 to the Present

Jenny Andersson

My work at MaxPo is constructed around two main research themes: First, I continue a large research undertaking examining the role played by forecasts and scenarios in producing problematic and fundamentally unstable expectations and images of the future in a range of fields, ranging from financial markets to the governance of natural resources and austerity politics (Andersson and Westholm 2017, compare Beckert 2016). Prediction can be thought of as a particular form of social power over the future (Offe 2012), which contributes to extending key forms of economic interest over time, and, in so doing, also contributes to displace or postpone forms of social conflict from the present to the future. I am particularly interested in how forms of prediction project climate change and the continued exploitation of natural resources as an unavoidable future, as well as in the way that austerity politics project a one future of perennial crisis management.

It can be argued that austerity politics, relying heavily on forms of prediction, contribute to shifting the boundaries of political action, by reiterating the need for expert governance, and by depoliticising fundamental issues of conflict over the long-term direction of society. I am also working on so-called "anticipatory governance", in which scenarios and forecasts are used as expert based tools for managing expectations in global processes of market making and world ordering, oftentimes conducted by thinktanks and global consultancies (see Garsten et al, ongoing). In what way does prediction redefine the space for possible socioeconomic alternatives? Do predictive technologies help mobilise social capacities for managing economic and social futures, or do they rather incapacitate these?

Second, within MaxPo I am building an interdisciplinary research group between history (economic, social, political, cultural) history, political economy and sociology or anthropology, which will aim at understanding changing conceptions of politics between elites and the mass in the long period from the 1970s on. Historians such as William Sewell (2005) or Rodgers (2014) have described this period as complex processes of disintegration and fragmentation, in which a plurality of forms of market liberalisation under a set of different flags were inscribed in culture and politics in the period in the 1970s and after. What we call with shorthand neoliberalism was a complex set of rationalities, that changed, moreover, over the late post war period as neoliberalism developed from a marginal and mainly academic project to exert a profound influence on mass politics (Brenner, Pek and Theodore 2010, Mudge 2011).

The research group departs from the idea that neoliberalism can be thought of as a new constellation of elite and mass politics developing from the 1970s onwards, in which the idea of the market as both the central mechanism of social coordination, and as the main vehicle of social progress, is crucial. In many places in Europe, for instance Eastern Europe or the Nordic countries, neoliberalism was an actual learning process which came with changing economic, cultural and political preferences, and which was both elite driven, and highly popular, in a struggle for social change that remains to a large part to be understood. Marketisation was a process entangled with new notions of political democracy, and with new concepts of individual and collective empowerment.

The Group will continue on a careful process of historicisation of the economic, political, cultural and social expressions of neoliberalism that intellectual and political historians and historically oriented sociologist have begun in the last years (see Fourcade 2008, Plehwe and Mirowski, 2007, Bockman and Eyal 2002), in order to understand neoliberalism as a set of historically contingent promises on the future. These future visions, for instance those offered by financialisation, were a fundamental condition of the social legitimacy of neoliberalism, but they were also part of emerging mechanisms of social control. What role did such future promises play in terms of contributing to transform welfare state rationalities into neoliberal ones? Can we understand neoliberalism as both elite politics, and forms of mass mobilisation?

The research group seeks to study, for instance, the technologies of government of neoliberalism, including the use of market devices and financialisation as tools of social control but also promises of social progress; new constellations between political and economic elites, on the one hand, and social movements or community groups on the other; cultural conceptions of markets and market life; changing notions of democracy, politics, and progress including utopian as well as dystopian visions of social change and social order. We also seek to understand the consequences of neoliberalism in terms of creating the conditions for the present rise in authoritarianism, populism and technocracy.

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