Mobility (continued) and Neoliberalism

There is something more than a little fraudulent about the celebration of—and high valuation placed on—mobility, akin to all the nonsense about risk and taking chances that accompany the current vogue of the entrepreneur.  Innovation, like mobility, is almost most fully and effectively activated when underwritten by security.  The dirty secret of the mobile agent’s manipulation of her mobility to command additional income or resources is that she is not paralyzed—or even much threatened by—the threat of becoming redundant in her current place.  Of course, not all mobile actors in the neoliberalism have tenure, but they do have relevant guarantors of income and employment.  Again, this suggests a “real” basis for their mobility, a set of skills, experiences, and achievements on which they can bank.

Boltanski and Chiapello (B&C) tell us (pp. 16-17) and elsewhere the demands that a successful “spirit of capitalism” must meet if it is to satisfy people in the way of giving them motivations to participate.  There are four major “demands” for “justification” (and, in their schema, “tests” must be devised to show that the demands are being met.) 1. Demand for justice (a): capitalism must be underwritten by a plausible claim that its processes advance the common good, not just the needs/desires of a particular group (i.e. the capitalists). 2. Demand for justice (b): there must be a plausible account of the inequities capitalism produces, so that those inequities are not seen as the direct (and sole) result of exploitation.  There has to be a story (usually based on merit—which includes talent, effort, educational credentials etc.) about why some people get more than others.  3. Autonomy: there has to be an account of how capitalism is connected to, even productive of, freedom.  That is, how it liberates people from dependencies characteristic of feudalism, paternalism, or traditional societies, and how it opens up pathways to self-fulfillment (choosing one’s own career, developing one’s own talents, pursuing one’s own interests.) 4. Capitalism must explain how it provides basic security, the means toward life for oneself and one’s children.

A good list, even a convincing one, even if (as I have mused before) the ruthless capitalism of 2018 seems hardly bothered to try to justify itself.  Except for the meritocratic arguments for inequality and some half-hearted hand-waving about how the “job creators” enable the common good of a flourishing economy, not much in the way of capitalist apologetics gets much air-time these days.  The threat of unemployment or underemployment does all the heavy lifting these days.  Get with the program—or join the ranks of the “excluded,” whose lives we will make as miserable as possible.

But even someone more sympathetic to the justifications of neoliberalism (justifications that I not only find hard to credit, but which I believe most people take with a full helping of salt), there are very few who would claim that neoliberalism offers security.  Just the opposite.  Our fullest-throated advocates of neoliberalism scorn security as a danger; it produces complacency and nothing is more fatal to economic success than resting on your laurels in an endlessly dynamic process that is only getting faster all the time.  The number of cautionary tales—as Kodak, Blackberry, record companies, and taxis—about businesses that become obsolete are mobilized to dismantle all forms of security, any commitments—to people, places, processes, products—that extend beyond the short term.

One point: it is a lie to say that mobility is won by foregoing security.  Instead, in the tales I win, heads you lose logic of neoliberalism, mobility is rewarded even though it is only the secure who can afford (in every sense of the word) to be mobile.  The ones penalized for not being mobile are also the ones from whom security (in what Hacker and Pierson call “the great risk shift”) has been taken away.

In their emphasis on mobility, B&C stand at a tangent from other accounts of neoliberalism.  The dominant accounts usually emphasize two things:

  1. The increasing colonization of various spheres of activity/life by economic rationales (meant both as the vocabulary used to describe the interactions within those spheres and the rational reorganization of those spheres in the name of efficiency and of “monetizing” them). B&C do devote considerable attention to this feature of neoliberalism.  “Capitalism has thus wrested a freedom of maneuver and commodification it has never previously achieved since, in a world where all differences are admissible, but they are all equivalent precisely as equivalents, nothing is worth protecting from commodification by mere virtue of its existence and everything, accordingly, will be the object of commerce” (466).


  1. The second feature usually identified as crucial to neoliberalism is privatization, its robbery of the common, now put to the service of private profit. Just as the private equity raiders strip the assets of the company’s they purchase, so neoliberalism also plunders public goods, making a profit out of services previously rendered by the state (prisons, sanitation, education, transportation, utilities) while also encroaching on public lands and off-loading to the state the costs of pollution and unemployment.


How are these two features of neoliberalism related, if at all, to the extreme valuation of mobility that B&C place at the center of their analysis?  Surprisingly, they don’t ask this question themselves.  In the first case (of the hegemony of economic logics/discourse over all other modes of organizing activities or articulating values), a tentative connection might be made if the economics stresses the “creative destruction” that Schumpeter famously attributed to capitalism.  In that scenario, to stand still is to court disaster.  You always need to be one step ahead of the pack, dismantling your own operations before a hostile competitor does it for you.  Back to our motto: be mobile or perish.

I think the connection is harder to make in the second instance (privatization).  In fact, privatization is, it seems to me, directly connected to the stationary, the persistent.  Prisons, sanitation, transportation etc. are constants, needs that are always going to be there and which are never exhausted by being satisfied today.  They are needs that must be met again tomorrow.  It is precisely this repetitive and necessary character that made them seem like appropriate services for the state to provide.  And it is their fixed character—both fixed in place (the garbage needs to be picked up here, not somewhere overseas) and in need (the garbage needs picking up this week and next and the week after that)—that make them a safe and attractive target for capitalism (which always claims to love risk and, in fact, hates to put down its chips in any place where the odds aren’t in its favor).

In short, I think B&C are a bit credulous.  They don’t pay enough heed to capitalism’s hypocrisies.  Don’t just look at what capitalism says (in the management manuals that serve as their archive), but also at what it does.

My next post will look at B&C’s proposed responses to the wholesale suffering that capitalism, in its current form, doles out so nonchalantly.

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