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Department of Geography, University of Victoria
Abstract: Yep, fuck it. Neoliberalism sucks. We don’t need it.
Keywords: fuck neoliberalism; fuck it to hell
Fuck Neoliberalism. That’s my blunt message. I could probably end my
discussion at this point and it wouldn’t really matter. My position is clear and you
likely already get the gist of what I want to say. I have nothing positive to add to
the discussion about neoliberalism, and to be perfectly honest, I’m quite sick of
having to think about it. I’ve simply had enough. For a time I had considered
calling this paper ‘Forget Neoliberalism’ instead, as in some ways that’s exactly
what I wanted to do. I’ve been writing on the subject for many years (Springer
2008, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015; Springer et al. 2016) and I came to a point where I
just didn’t want to commit any more energy to this endeavor for fear that
continuing to work around this idea was functioning to perpetuate its hold. On
further reflection I also recognize that as a political maneuver it is potentially quite
dangerous to simply stick our heads in the sand and collectively ignore a
phenomenon that has had such devastating and debilitating effects on our shared
world. There is an ongoing power to neoliberalism that is difficult to deny and I’m
not convinced that a strategy of ignorance is actually the right approach (Springer
2016a). So my exact thoughts were, ‘well fuck it then’, and while a quieter and
gentler name for this paper could tone down the potential offence that might come
with the title I’ve chosen, I subsequently reconsidered. Why should we be more
worried about using profanity than we are about the actual vile discourse of
neoliberalism itself? I decided that I wanted to transgress, to upset, and to offend,
precisely because we ought to be offended by neoliberalism, it is entirely upsetting,
and therefore we should ultimately be seeking to transgress it. Wouldn’t softening
the title be making yet another concession to the power of neoliberalism? I initially
worried what such a title might mean in terms of my reputation. Would it hinder
future promotion or job offers should I want to maintain my mobility as an
academic, either upwardly or to a new location? This felt like conceding personal
defeat to neoliberal disciplining. Fuck that.
It also felt as though I was making an admission that there is no colloquial
response that could appropriately be offered to counter the discourse of
neoliberalism. As though we can only respond in an academic format using
complex geographical theories of variegation, hybridity, and mutation to weaken
its edifice. This seemed disempowering, and although I have myself contributed to
the articulation of some of these theories (Springer 2010), I often feel that this sort
of framing works against the type of argument I actually want to make. It is
precisely in the everyday, the ordinary, the unremarkable, and the mundane that I
think a politics of refusal must be located. And so I settled on ‘Fuck Neoliberalism’
because I think it conveys most of what I actually want to say. The argument I
want to make is slightly more nuanced than that, which had me thinking more
about the term ‘fuck’ than I probably have at any other time in my life. What a
fantastically colorful word! It works as a noun or a verb, and as an adjective it is
perhaps the most used point of exclamation in the English language. It can be
employed to express anger, contempt, annoyance, indifference, surprise,
impatience, or even as a meaningless emphasis because it just rolls off of the
tongue. You can ‘fuck something up’, ‘fuck someone over’, ‘fuck around’, ‘not
give a fuck’, and there is a decidedly geographical point of reference to the word
insofar as you can be instructed to ‘go fuck yourself’. At this point you might even
be thinking ‘ok, but who gives a fuck?’ Well, I do, and if you’re interested in
ending neoliberalism so should you. The powerful capacities that come with the
word offer a potential challenge to neoliberalism. To dig down and unpack these
abilities we need to appreciate the nuances of what could be meant by the phrase
‘fuck neoliberalism’. Yet at the same time, fuck nuance. As Kieran Healy (2016: 1)
has recently argued, it “typically obstructs the development of theory that is
intellectually interesting, empirically generative, or practically successful”. So
without fetishizing nuance let’s quickly work through what I think we should be
prioritizing in fucking up neoliberalism.
The first sense is perhaps the most obvious. By saying ‘fuck neoliberalism’
we can express our rage against the neoliberal machine. It is an indication of our
anger, our desire to shout our resentment, to spew venom back in the face of the
noxious malice that has been shown to all of us. This can come in the form of
mobilizing more protests against neoliberalism or in writing more papers and
books critiquing its influence. The latter preaches to the converted, and the former
hopes that the already perverted will be willing to change their ways. I don’t
ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 2016, 15(2): 285-292
discount that these methods are important tactics in our resistance, but I’m also
quite sure that they’ll never actually be enough to turn the tide against
neoliberalism and in our favour. In making grand public gestures of defiance we
attempt to draw powerful actors into a conversation, mistakenly believing that they
might listen and begin to accommodate the popular voice of refusal (Graeber
2009). Shouldn’t we instead be done talking? Here is the second sense of ‘fuck
neoliberalism’, which is found in the notion of rejection. This would be to advocate
for the end of neoliberalism (as we knew it) in a fashion advanced by J.K. Gibson-
Graham (1996) where we simply stop talking about it. Scholars in particular would
discontinue prioritizing it as the focus of their studies. Maybe not completely forget
about it or ignore neoliberalism altogether, which I’ve already identified as
problematic, but to instead set about getting on with our writing about other things.
Once again this is a crucially important point of contact for us as we work beyond
the neoliberal worldview, but here too I’m not entirely convinced that this is
enough. As Mark Purcell (2016: 620) argues, “We need to turn away from
neoliberalism and towards ourselves, to begin the difficult – but also joyous – work
of managing our affairs for ourselves”. While negation, protest and critique are
necessary, we also need to think about actively fucking up neoliberalism by doing
things outside of its reach.
Direct action beyond neoliberalism speaks to a prefigurative politics
(Maeckelbergh 2011), which is the third and most important sense of what I think
we should be focusing on when we invoke the idea ‘fuck neoliberalism’. To
prefigure is to reject the centrism, hierarchy, and authority that come with
representative politics by emphasizing the embodied practice of enacting horizontal
relationships and forms of organization that strive to reflect the future society being
sought (Boggs 1977). Beyond being ‘done talking’, prefiguration and direct action
contend that there was never a conversation to be had anyway, recognizing that
whatever it is we want to do, we can just do it ourselves. Nonetheless, there has
been significant attention to the ways in which neoliberalism is able to capture and
appropriate all manner of political discourse and imperatives (Barnett 2005; Birch
2015; Lewis 2009; Ong 2007). For critics like David Harvey (2015) only another
dose of the state can solve the neoliberal question, where in particular he is quick to
dismiss non-hierarchical organization and horizontal politics as greasing the rails
for an assured neoliberal future. Yet in his pessimism he entirely misunderstands
prefigurative politics, which are a means not to an end, but only to future means
(Springer 2012). In other words, there is a constant and continual vigilance already
built into prefigurative politics so that the actual practice of prefiguration cannot be
coopted. It is reflexive and attentive but always with a view towards production,
invention, and creation as the satisfaction of the desire of community. In this way
prefigurative politics are explicitly anti-neoliberal. They are a seizing of the means
as our means, a means without end. To prefigure is to embrace the conviviality and
joy that comes with being together as radical equals, not as vanguards and
proletariat on the path towards the transcendental empty promise of utopia or ‘no
place’, but as the grounded immanence of the here and now of actually making a
new world ‘in the shell of the old’ and the perpetual hard work and reaffirmation
that this requires (Ince 2012).
There is nothing about neoliberalism that is deserving of our respect, and so
in concert with a prefigurative politics of creation, my message is quite simply
‘fuck it’. Fuck the hold that it has on our political imaginations. Fuck the violence
it engenders. Fuck the inequality it extols as a virtue. Fuck the way it has ravaged
the environment. Fuck the endless cycle of accumulation and the cult of growth.
Fuck the Mont Pelerin society and all the think tanks that continue to prop it up and
promote it. Fuck Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman for saddling us with their
ideas. Fuck the Thatchers, the Reagans, and all the cowardly, self-interested
politicians who seek only to scratch the back of avarice. Fuck the fear-mongering
exclusion that sees ‘others’ as worthy of cleaning our toilets and mopping our
floors, but not as members of our communities. Fuck the ever-intensifying move
towards metrics and the failure to appreciate that not everything that counts can be
counted. Fuck the desire for profit over the needs of community. Fuck absolutely
everything neoliberalism stands for, and fuck the Trojan horse that it rode in on!
For far too long we’ve been told that ‘there is no alternative’, that ‘a rising tide lifts
all boats’, that we live in a Darwinian nightmare world of all against all ‘survival of
the fittest’. We’ve swallowed the idea of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ hook, line
and sinker; when in reality this is a ruse that actually reflects the ‘tragedy of
capitalism’ and its endless wars of plunder (Le Billon 2012). Garrett Hardin’s
(1968) Achilles’ heel was that he never stopped to think about how grazing cattle
were already privately owned. What might happen when we reconvene an actual
commons as a commons without presuppositions of private ownership (Jeppesen et
al. 2014)? What might happen when we start to pay closer attention to the
prefiguration of alternatives that are already happening and privileging these
experiences as the most important forms of organization (White and Williams
2012)? What might happen when instead of swallowing the bitter pills of
competition and merit we instead focus our energies not on medicating ourselves
with neoliberal prescriptions, but on the deeper healing that comes with
cooperation and mutual aid (Heckert 2010)?
Jamie Peck (2004: 403) once called neoliberalism a ‘radical political
slogan’, but it is no longer enough to dwell within the realm of critique. Many
years have passed since we first identified the enemy and from that time we have
come to know it well through our writing and protests. But even when we are
certain of its defeat, as in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the
subsequent Occupy Movement, it continues to gasp for air and reanimate itself in a
more powerful zombified form (Crouch 2011; Peck 2010). Japhy Wilson (2016)
calls this ongoing power the ‘neoliberal gothic’, and I’m convinced that in order to
overcome this horror show we must move our politics into the realm of the
enactive (Rollo 2016). What if ‘fuck neoliberalism’ were to become a mantra for a
new kind of politics? An enabling phrase that spoke not only to action, but to the
reclamation of our lives in the spaces and moments in which we actively live them?
ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 2016, 15(2): 285-292
What if every time we used this phrase we recognized that it meant a call for
enactive agency that went beyond mere words, combining theory and practice into
the beautiful praxis of prefiguration? We must take a multipronged approach in our
rejection of neoliberalism. While we can’t entirely ignore or forget it, we can
actively work against it in ways that extend beyond the performance of rhetoric and
the rhetoric of performance. By all means let’s advance a new radical political
slogan. Use a hashtag (#fuckneoliberalism) and make our contempt go viral! But
we have to do more than express our indignation. We have to enact our resolve and
realize our hope as the immanence of our embodied experiences in the here and
now (Springer 2016a). We need to remake the world ourselves, a process that
cannot be postponed.
We’ve willfully deluded and disempowered ourselves by continuing to
appeal to the existing political arrangement of representation. Our blind faith has us
waiting endlessly for a savior to drop from the sky. The system has proven itself to
be thoroughly corrupt, where time and time again our next great political candidate
proves to be a failure. In this neoliberal moment it’s not a case of mere problematic
individuals being in power. Instead, it is our very belief in the system itself that
epitomizes the core of the problem. We produce and enable the institutional
conditions for ‘the Lucifer effect’ to play itself out (Zimbardo 2007). ‘The banality
of evil’ is such that these politicians are just doing their jobs in a system that
rewards perversions of power because it is all designed to serve the laws of
capitalism (Arendt 1971). But we don’t have to obey. We’re not beholden to this
order. Through our direct action and the organization of alternatives we can indict
the entire structure and break this vicious cycle of abuse. When the political system
is defined by, conditioned for, enmeshed within, and derived from capitalism, it
can never represent our ways of knowing and being in the world, and so we need to
take charge of these lifeways and reclaim our collective agency. We must start to
become enactive in our politics and begin embracing a more relational sense of
solidarity that recognizes that the subjugation and suffering of one is in fact
indicative of the oppression of all (Shannon and Rouge 2009; Springer 2014). We
can start living into other possible worlds through a renewed commitment to the
practices of mutual aid, fellowship, reciprocity, and non-hierarchical forms of
organization that reconvene democracy in its etymological sense of power to the
people. Ultimately neoliberalism is a particularly foul idea that comes with a whole
host of vulgar outcomes and crass assumptions. In response, it deserves to be met
with equally offensive language and action. Our community, our cooperation, and
our care for one another are all loathsome to neoliberalism. It hates that which we
celebrate. So when we say ‘fuck neoliberalism’ let it mean more that just words, let
it be an enactment of our commitment to each other. Say it loud, say it with me,
and say it to anyone who will listen, but most of all mean it as a clarion call to
action and as the embodiment of our prefigurative power to change the fucking
world. Fuck Neoliberalism!
I owe my title to Jack Tsonis. He wrote me a wonderful email in early 2015
to introduce himself with this message as the subject line. Blunt and to the point.
He told me about his precarious position at the University of Western Sydney
where he was trapped in sessional hell. Fuck neoliberalism indeed. Jack informs
me that he has since gained employment that is less precarious, but seeing the beast
up close has made him more disgusted and repulsed than ever. Thanks for the
inspiration mate! I’m also grateful to Kean Birch and Toby Rollo who listened to
my ideas and laughed along with me. Mark Purcell motivated greatly with his
brilliant delight in thinking beyond neoliberalism. Thanks to Levi Gahman whose
playful spirit and support demonstrated an actual prefiguration of the kinds of ideas
I discuss here (“Listen Neoliberalism!” A Personal Response to Simon Springer’s
“Fuck Neoliberalism”). Peer reviews from Farhang Rouhani, Patrick Huff and
Rhon Teruelle demonstrated tremendous unanimity giving me reason to believe
that there is still some fight left in the academy! Special thanks to the translators
Xaranta Baksh (Spanish), Jai Kaushal and Dhiraj Barman (Hindi), Ursula Brandt
(German), Fabrizio Eva (Italian), anonymous contributor (French), Eduardo
Tomazine (Portuguese), Haris Tsavdaroglou (Greek), Sayuri Watanabe (Japanese)
and Gürçim Yılmaz (Turkish), as well as Marcelo Lopes de Souza, Myriam
Houssay-Holzschuch, Ulrich Best, and Adam Goodwin for helping to organize the
translations. Finally, thanks to the many people who so kindly took the time to
write to me about this essay and express their solidarity after I first uploaded it to
the Internet. I’m both humbled and hopeful that so many people share the same
sentiment. We will win!
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