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Popular neoliberalism?

Even the term ‘neoliberalism’ is now the subject of considerable controversy with some people arguing that academics have inflated it into a catch-all concept that glosses over the plurality of ways through which political life is made and remade (e.g. Ferguson 2009). Yet, as Stuart Hall once remarked, it is often at the very moment at which a concept is being jettisoned that it is worth returning to it. So, what is there left to say about neoliberalism?

Many early studies of neoliberalism focused on its formation within elite institutions based in the West – the IMF, World Bank, WTO and so on – in the 1980s (Peet, 2007). Influential commentators such as Naomi Klein (2007) have subsequently argued that the rapid imposition of neoliberal policies on countries in the Global South occurred in the form of ‘shock therapy’ during times of ‘crisis’: wars, ‘natural’ disasters, fiscal crises.

Writers such as Anaya Roy (2010) have pointed to the World Bank’s more recent turn to ‘neoliberal populism’, premised on gentler, ‘pro-poor’ forms of marketization. Several scholars have also traced the complex and contingent pathways through which neoliberalization takes place, pointing to the multiple ‘centers of calculation’ at which it is reworked and renewed as policy and ideology (Peck et al, 2009). And there has also been a greater focus on how neoliberal projects experience all kinds of ‘friction’ on the ground (Tsing, 2005), sometimes stalling or spinning off in a quite different political direction.

Perhaps there is still a part of this story that has not been fully explored though. What about the ways in which neoliberalism is not only accepted but deepened by non-elite populations in particular places? This is something I thought about after a recent interview with Chandra Bhan Prasad, a public intellectual based in Delhi. Prasad is a Dalit [ex-untouchable], raised in eastern Uttar Pradesh. He is a self-trained anthropologist and social psychologist, writes a column in the English-speaking Pionner newspaper, and is currently involved in a huge study of Dalit livelihoods coordinated by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI).

Prasad is also an enthusiastic supporter of market liberalization. Liberalization, he argues, has created new kinds of jobs that work to further erode the link between caste and occupation, as well as increasing access to credit for entrepreneurship. It has also helped to democratize consumption practices and create a Dalit middle-class whose status is increasingly signified by access to ‘luxury’ goods and services. This is then manifested in a new kind of confidence and assertion amongst Dalit populations more broadly.

Of course, Prasad and his colleagues know that the story is not so straightforward as this. Clearly discrimination still exists and Dalits continue to be hugely over-represented amongst India’s poor. His commitment to neoliberalism is also tempered by a commitment toward new kinds of affirmative action to help Dalit entrepreneurs. But he does argue that liberalization has enabled greater social mobility and economic progress for lower caste populations in the last twenty years than happened in the previous two thousand years.

Prasad, whose work has been picked up by the Washington Post and New York Times, is a key interlocutor of what we might call ‘popular neoliberalism’. It would, I think, be inaccurate to argue that he has simply been ‘interpellated’ by institutions in DC or Delhi to invest in the idea of market reform. Rather, he is instrumental in deepening neoliberal reforms, providing validity and vitality to larger projects of privatization and market-led development.

Nor is ‘popular neoliberalism’ a term restricted to public intellectuals. In 2007-08, I conducted research on microfinance programs in Andhra Pradesh. The State government, in conjunction with a World Bank program, had recently reintroduced subsidies for interest rates for microloans and was attempting to tie its microfinance program together with other forms of welfarism and political participation. Yet some microfinance institutions were further commercializing their operations, using an approach that was more minimalist and market-driven than the WB and expanding more quickly than the government’s program.

These kinds of intellectual and professional initiatives are important, I would argue, if we are to understood how neoliberalism is currently being reconstituted. According to commentators like Joe Stiglitz, the recent financial crisis has bankrupted not only a number of Wall Street-based banks but also neoliberalism as an ideology (Stiglitz, 2009). Others see neoliberalism entering a ‘zombie’-like status, still ‘failing forward’ even though part of its central nervous system has been incapacitated (Peck et al, 2010). Perhaps ‘popular neoliberalism’ is an important idea in helping us to understand how neoliberalism is sometimes revived and reinvigorated by populations whom it is often assumed – and often with substantial empirical support – are rendered most vulnerable by such policies.

Democracy Set in Stone?

The construction of civic monuments celebrating the supposed virtues of powerful generals and merchants was a popular governing strategy of the British Raj. One of the most noticeable changes to the landscape of postcolonial India however, has been the proliferation of statues of the Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956). Dressed in a three-piece suit, his animated right arm indicating his skills as a teacher and orator, and with a copy of the constitution he helped to craft under his arm, Ambedkar statues can now be found at hundreds of street corners, rural crossroads, bus stands, and university campuses.

Some people have argued that the statues are frivolous and only attest to the shallowness of low caste politics. But many others see them as evidence of the extent to which democracy has taken root in minds of ‘common people’ and an  important means through which Dalit activists can symbolically appropriate public space. The iconography of the statues also fortifies the aspirations of a growing number of Dalits, particularly young men, to attain educational qualifications and ‘respectable’ work and, more broadly, reaffirms formal democracy as a route to political emancipation.

Symbolic resources such as statues surely are important in developing a sense of pride, solidarity, and belonging amongst historically marginalized communities. Indeed, the periodic accounts of attacks against Ambedkar statues by non-Dalits seems to support the idea that they have succeeded in making the political struggles of low castes more visible.

Yet, it is important to also consider what the iconography might obscure or exclude. Ambedkar’s role in challenging social prejudice and economic injustice is clearly central to the political identity of many Dalits but he himself was at best ambivalent about civic monuments commenting: “India is par excellence the land of idolatry. There is idolatry in religion, there is idolatry in politics, hero and hero worship is a hard if unfortunate part of public life.” Do Ambedkar statues also tend to collapse the struggles of all oppressed peoples in India into one category – the amorphous ‘subaltern society’? And does his persona as an educated man obscure the less ‘civil’ and more informal actions that have also characterized struggles for political rights?

What experience do you have of the politics of monuments, memory and civil rights?