Maxine Molyneux (2008) discussing neoliberal trends in feminist social policy in Latin America argues that the term ‘neoliberalism’ has become so profuse it had lost a sense of any specific meaning. In their essay Introduction: Reclaiming Feminism: Gender and Neoliberalism, Cornwall, Gideon and Wilson (2008) have described neoliberalism as a ‘set of economic policy prescriptions associated with the Washington Consensus’.
Originally, neoliberalism came to prominence under the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and promoted the theory that privatisation and deregulation of an economy were the best means of safeguarding the freedom of the individual to consume and compete without the intrusion of the state. Economist David Harvey (2006) argues that nations of the global North stumbled towards neoliberalism in response to the 1970s recession, where ‘the uneasy compact between capital and labour brokered by an interventionist state’ broke down.
Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) owing to debts created by post-war reconstruction as well as the recession, Thatcher implemented a series of cuts to expenditures, especially those that benefited the most disadvantaged, in the guise of ‘balancing the books’. The ideology was that those government expenditures secured in the post-war settlement had made too many concessions to labour, and the only way to re-start the depressed economy was to secure wealth in the hands of the upper classes and watch it ‘trickle down’.
At present, however, there is some agreement in the scholarship that we have reached a ‘late stage’ of capitalism where the forms of neoliberalism experienced today differ from those of Thatcher’s time and emphasise, rather, ‘market fundamentalism’ (Molyneux, 2008). This new version, emerging in the late 1990s is referred to as the ‘post-Washington Consensus’ or neoliberalism ‘with a human face.’
Nancy Fraser has pointed out that the flourishing of second wave feminism and neoliberalism from the 1970s onwards ‘served to legitimate a structural transformation of capitalist society that runs directly counter to feminist visions of a just society’. Fraser’s contention in the book is that there is a convergence of second wave feminism and neoliberalism and that certain forms of feminism have thrived under neoliberalism. This is because, as these scholars have argued, capitalism, in an attempt to survive, finds means of renewing itself by co-opting oppositions to its ideology for its own ends. For example, where the central focus of neoliberalism is the shrinking of the state, co-opting feminist critique means that capitalism can use feminist analysis that describes the state as ‘paternalist’ and ‘patriarchal’ for its own ends.
Where critiques of the paternalistic state may imitate feminist concerns, there are few critiques of patriarchy specifically, and the silences are revealing and significant. The theorisation of patriarchy would identify the ways in which oppression against women served an economic as well as a social arrangement. This arrangement benefited certain, elite women, whilst, the social relation served to drive down wages and conditions of both men and women, ultimately benefiting ‘the boss’ primarily. To critique the state’s paternalism without criticising the economic component of this social relation (patriarchy) is to wed, in Fraser’s contention, neoliberalism with feminism to the detriment of oppressed and exploited classes of women.
Thus, neoliberalism promoted a version of feminism that was (is) principally concerned with overcoming sexism through the greater visibility of women in the public sphere. It was about integrating women into the social and material structures of capitalism, not by transforming those structures fundamentally. The transition between second and third wave feminisms, at least in the global North, represents the archetypal appropriation of feminism as I had defined it above, belonging to a social movement organised from the bottom up. Shorn of its political context provided by the notion of patriarchy, neoliberalism re-invented feminism or at least a version of liberal feminism.
Scholars have called this version neoliberal feminism. In Rottenberg’s (2013) conception neoliberal feminism is where the
feminist subject accepts full responsibility for her own well-being and self-care, which is increasingly predicated on crafting a felicitous work–family balance based on a cost-benefit calculus. (ibid: 418)
In this way, the neoliberal feminist subject becomes the catalyst for converting gender inequality from a structural injustice that relies on oppression and exploitation of the genderised and racialised body, to the individual ‘problem’ of a single subject. Rottenberg argues that there is a ‘particular cultural purpose’ for this in that neoliberal feminism:
hollows out the potential of mainstream liberal feminism to underscore the constitutive contradictions of liberal democracy, and in this way further entrenches neoliberal rationality and an imperialist logic.
Upon this definition of neoliberal feminism, Rottenberg demonstrates how feminism has become a discursive modality entrenching the notion of American exceptionalism as the last ‘bastion of progressive liberal democracy.’ She explains,
rather than deflecting internal criticism by shining the spotlight of oppressive practices onto other countries while overtly showcasing its enlightened superiority, this discursive formation actually generates its own internal critique of the USA. Yet, it simultaneously inscribes and circumscribes the permissible parameters of that very same critique.
The allure of this form of neoliberal feminism, or what it purportedly had to offer women was the notion of agency but defined within the parameters of neoliberalism. In this sense, agency is a choice freely exercised, and free even from the restraints of patriarchy. As Rottenberg points out this version of feminism emphasises self-sufficiency of the individual while at the same time undermining those collective struggles or institutions which make self-sufficiency possible. In this conception, successful participation in a market economy was the key to self-actualisation and freedom from the oppression of sexism.
In an essay for the Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies, Clare Chambers (2013) argues that what she calls liberal capitalism, and what I argue is neoliberal feminism, is devoted to ‘fetishism of choice’. The ‘fetishism of choice’ perilously undermines many postcolonial and radical feminist contentions in putting forward the idea that if a person chooses things that disadvantage them and entrench differences, it legitimates inequality because the inequality arises from the choices they make rather than the choices made for them/on their behalf.
Returning to the notions of resistance and identity put forward by Jeffress and Beauvoir, the idea of ‘woman’ as an embodied situation and discursive space for a politics of liberation is subverted by the dialectical logics of a ‘fetishisation of choice’. This, in turn, transforms feminist resistance from a practice of social justice to an experience for the effect of ‘self-responsibilising’. This, in turn, has transformed Jeffress’ resistance model to serve the purposes of neoliberalism that in turn outlines the parameters of permissible resistance or which produce an extremely limited notion of resistance whose implicit objective is to accentuate the impossibility of any other forms.
In Wendy Brown’s (2005) Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy, she argues that neoliberal rationality has become the dominant mode of governance in Europe and American (Euro-America). Brown claims that this approach ‘produces subjects, forms of citizenship and behaviour, and a new organization of the social’ (ibid: 37). Brown’s theory is in the vein of other critical theories of modern political reason stemming from the 1970’s, including Foucault’s own genealogy that resulted in his theory of ‘panopticism’ which discussed the art of neoliberal governmentality as being able to assemble ways of rendering the object of rule governable that reflects the very practice of rule. In Rottenberg’s words,
Neoliberalism, in other words, is a dominant political rationality that moves to and from the management of the state to the inner workings of the subject, normatively constructing and interpreting individuals as entrepreneurial actors.
Rottenberg asserts that this discursive modality of neoliberal governmentality, as Wendy Larner (2000) posits, ‘encourages people to see themselves as individualised and active subjects responsible for enhancing their own well-being’. This, in turn, has converted collective spaces, forms of collective action and mobilisation as not only ineffectual but suspect as a
new regime of morality comes into being one that links moral probity even more intimately to self-reliance and efficiency, as well as to the individual’s capacity to exercise his or her own autonomous choices[, and] undoes notions of social justice, while usurping the concept of citizenship by producing economic identities as the basis for political life (Rottenberg, 2013: 421).
In Louiza Odysseos’ (2010) contention, neoliberalism’s relationship to freedom, including individuals’ freedom is consequential. She explains that liberalism has
an intimate relationship with freedom but not because it is predicated upon the pre-given, free and sovereign individual,’ rather ‘liberal governmental practice requires – and indeed must produce, and produce globally…the free and sovereign…subject’.
Consequently, government is recognised as dependent upon crafting both the conditions of freedom and ‘the subject able to exercise that freedom’.
For post-colonial communities, the understanding that the coloniser creates an image of him/herself through the subjugation of the colonised means that their body has been made into a thing, a commodity either for consumption or as a tool for the accumulation of capital. However, in today’s scarcity defined economy, where privilege determines who is able to ‘be productive’ how does power engage the freedom of those who cannot be efficiently and/or securely rendered as economic subjects? Why, in other words, is there any need for the production of a neoliberal feminism, which draws attention to a specific kind of inequality? Given that neoliberal rationality individuates subjects, eliding structural inequalities while instating market rationality, why is there any need for a feminist variant when a female (as opposed to a feminist) neoliberal subject might do the job just as well or better?
The ascendance of neoliberal feminism can be traced to multiple sources. One is what David Harvey (2005) describes as the necessity of the dominant or hegemonic mode of governance needing to colonise an increasing amount of domains. Feminism, as a political project and as a theory, was activated by, at least in theory, a critique of dominant political order(s). Feminism has consistently included a range of political aims, from a liberal feminist project whose ambition was to expose the ‘contradictions between liberal democracy’s theoretical commitment to equality and its actual practice of gendered exclusions and discrimination,’ which included the ‘double critique’ of many, for instance, black feminists of their role in a project for women’s rights they wouldn’t benefit from on the basis of their racial identity to other streams in the feminist project which insisted on revolutionary objectives that would see the complete dissolution of the patriarchal foundations of ‘modern’ society.
From the perspective of neoliberalism and its reliance on colonisation as an orientation, the production of a neoliberal feminism within the realm of the neoliberal knowledge economy is essential not simply because it becomes an additional domain to subjugate and remake in its imagine. More importantly, in the words of Stuart Hall (2011), it operates to ‘transcod[e] while remaining in sight of the lexicon on which it draws’. In this way, the neoliberal feminist subject is, in the argument of Sara Ahmed (2010), ‘oriented and orients herself towards the goal of finding her own personal work–family balance’.
In light of numerous indications that liberal democracy has failed due largely to the assumption that it could maintain an orientation towards ‘free market capitalism’ as well as a progressive trajectory towards social equality, the ability for neoliberalism to be malleable, sustains the belief that the democratic project is at its core both incorruptible and egalitarian. In Rottenberg’s contention:
Whereas in recent years the so-called plight of women in Muslim countries served to deflect attention away from continued gender inequality in the USA, today a specific kind of internal critical gaze may have become increasingly necessary in order to do some of the same cultural work.
In this way, neoliberal feminism is able to create the powerful impression that the U.S. is willing and able to sustain self-critique, but more importantly that it is still committed to and governed by liberal rather than neoliberal or market principles. This ostensible self-critique, in other words, serves to bolster the U.S.’s sense of openness, as well as moral and political superiority while (re)inscribing an imperialist logic. On the one hand, the ‘progressive’ critical eye is turned back on the U.S. itself, which, Rottenberg argues, marks a new development in the neoliberal landscape. In this way, neoliberal feminism may be the latest discursive modality to (re)produce the U.S. as the basis of progressive liberal democracy. American exceptionalism is maintained because in a superficial sense—it is self-critical and always-improving gender relations while continuing to mobilise ‘gender equality’ as the benchmark for civilization.
This assists in neutralising criticisms lobbed from other streams of feminism, as well as from other countries about continued gender inequality in the U.S., especially those intent on examining the intersection of race and gender inequalities by focusing on a ‘post-racial’ and individualised progressive feminist subject. This, in turn, serves to justify continued imperialist intervention in countries that do not respect the liberal principle of gender equality. Conversely, the turn inward, into interiorised effective spaces, helps to further entrench neoliberalism by ‘responsibilising’ women and by producing individuated feminist subjects who have trans-mutated liberation narratives into narratives about self-care, which melds neoliberal rationality with an emancipatory project.
Looking at neoliberalism in relation to Afghanistan, Naomi Klein’s (2007) The Shock Doctrine outlines a compelling theory for explaining the ways that force, ‘stealth’ and crisis are manipulated to implement economic policies in line with neoliberalism. If one examines ‘post-conflict’ reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, for example, one can see how enmeshed policies of the United States are with those of the World Bank and apparent the objectives of neoliberalism by way of pacification and privatisation. In Afghanistan, the World Bank is the locus of reconstruction activity, committing billions in ‘social aid’ projects as well as administering grants (via the) Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund. The World Bank openly acknowledges that these investments are made in ‘aligned[ment] with national priorities’ whose framework is neoliberalism. As Naomi Klein outlines:
In Afghanistan, where the World Bank administers the country’s aid through a trust fund, it has already managed to privatize health care by refusing to give funds to the Ministry of Health to build hospital… [and] mandated ‘an increased role for the private sector’ in the water system, telecommunications, oil, gas and mining and directed the government to ‘withdraw’ from the electricity sector and leave it to ‘foreign private investors.’ These profound transformations of Afghan society were never debated or reported on, because few outside the bank know they took place: The changes were buried deep in a ‘technical annex’ attached to a grant providing “emergency” aid to Afghanistan’s war-torn infrastructure two years before the country had an elected government.
In Afghanistan, as they do in other debtor countries, the World Bank considers foreign direct investment as a critical aspect of the privatisation process, evidenced by the Afghanistan Investment Guarantee Facility for foreign investors which emphasise coverage for ‘acquisitions that involve the privatization of state enterprises’. Revealingly, where donors insist on the imperative of productivity of the Afghan market economy by way of laws that limit the economic sovereignty of the Afghan state, there is no mention of the war or the improvements to productivity that could happen with the cessation of hostilities.
In the long run, NGOs are accountable to their funders, not to the people they work amongst . . . it’s almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neoliberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs . . .Apolitical (and therefore, actually, extremely political) distress reports from poor countries and war zones eventually make the (dark) people of those (dark) countries seem like pathological victims. Another malnourished India, another starving Ethiopian, another Afghan refugee camp, another maimed Sudanese….in need of the white man’s help. They unwittingly reinforced racist stereotypes and reaffirm the achievements, the comforts and the compassion….of Western civilisation. They’re the secular missionaries of the modern world.
Recognising how neoliberal feminism was attempting to reconstitute the aims, objectives and strategies of the liberal feminist project in the global North, it was simultaneous, through force (what Klein calls ‘shock therapy), and in the guise of a ‘rhetoric of liberation’ restructuring the indigenous logics and practices of Muslim majority states in ways that were incommensurable with their moral economies of care, many rooted in Islamic ethical practice and broader kinship obligations.
Where decades of scholarship critiquing orientalist tropes of the so-called ‘third world women’ had birthed critical and valuable scholarship under post-colonial feminism, and later transnational feminism (including Islamic feminisms), these critiques have not been able to sufficiently challenge neoliberal agendas in the development sector. This is in large part because the development sector is based on many colonialist missionary logics framed by charity as opposed to justice.
In Afghanistan, this has led to a neoliberal discursive landscape characterised by the privatisation of social justice commitments, especially those of gender justice, but also race and class. Privatising these commitments has meant the necessary removal of the social significance of these identities as institutionalised systems of power and inequality from the public sphere ‘substituting individual prejudice and psychological dispositions or expressions of “hate” instead’ (Mohanty, 2013). In this way, according to Giroux (2003) political agency gets re-defined as ‘act of consumption’ and feminist theory, according to Mohanty (2013) is ‘trafficked as a commodity disconnected from its activist moorings and social justice commitments’.
An example comes, again, from Anila Daulatzai’s work with widows, where she explains:
Neoliberal agendas are fundamentally changing what it means to be a widow. Afghans would suddenly say things to widows like, “why don’t they go and work?” I had never seen this before in Afghanistan. It is because programmes for gender-mainstreaming were focussed on jobs. The only concept of helping widows was making them work. Of course, there were widows who wanted to work, saying it kept them busy, etc. But if this is the only form of care you are going to get, it fundamentally alters so much.
Daulatzai’s reflection on how neoliberalism was affecting international strategies for gender inclusion in Afghanistan was instructive. However, her assessment revealed more about the assumptions behind those implementing gender equality programmes rather than about the moral economies of Afghanistan.