Glimpses of Alternatives to Neoliberalism


Social Justice and Neoliberalism: Global Perspectives.  Adrian Smith, Alison Stenning, and Katie Willis, eds.  Macmillan/Zed Books, 2008.  253 pages.

Following the tradition of critical geographers, this book explores the expansion of neoliberalism into different spheres and spaces of everyday life.  It consists of a collection of essays by writers from the global South, the West and the former ‘communist’ East.  The essays are grounded in extensive and often longitudinal field work examining the lived experiences of neoliberalisation in nine different countries: Argentina, Peru, the UK, Ghana, Turkey, Germany, Poland, Slovakia and South Africa.  They provide fine-grained and nuanced analyses of marginalized people and communities in contrasting social and geographical contexts and their resistance to capitalism and its geographies.

Refreshingly, the case studies go beyond the economic and highlight those aspects of social justice such as dignity and respect encouraged by movements responding to the violence associated with neoliberal transformation, including the emotional costs of commodification, insecurity and individualisation.

The book identifies four interrelated themes: resistance to neoliberalism; the forging of new identities, subjectivities and attempts at forms of democratic governance; the link between social justice and the impact of neoliberalism; and finally the experimentation in alternative non-commodified economic arrangements.

The resistance to neoliberalism includes mass-based social movements such as the Living Wage campaign in the cities of London and Manchester but also localised and less ambitious initiatives.  The latter examples include the barter networks organized in Argentina following the economic crash of 2001 where local communities developed alternative currency forms and spaces for non-capitalist forms of exchange.  The backdrop to this essay is also a commentary on the fickleness of the neoliberal order making it possible for Argentina to move in a short period from the status of IMF’s “poster child to that of problem child”.  A chapter titled “Bargaining with the Devil” on Turkish women garment workers in the small-scale sweatshops found in Istanbul’s periphery deals with their strategies of resistance using kinship networks and informal cooperation in the face of repression and the precarious nature of their work.

The second thread in the book relates to how labour market restructuring and employment flexibility create a discourse of individual opportunities alongside a “reality of labour market marginalization and the emergence of in-work poverty”.  Huws calls some of the results of neoliberalism “footloose and fractured jobs”.  Dominant perceptions and prejudices around hard work, reliability and application is a common theme.  The chapter on young Turkish women workers expresses the perceived essentialist characteristics of “nimble fingers”.  Similarly, a chapter titled “Travelling Neoliberalism” on migrant workers from Poland and Ghana in London shows how despite “hard work” workers find it near impossible to ensure a reasonable standard of leaving.  This and other chapters also relate to the international division of labour and its racial and gender characteristics — some political economists have called this reality global apartheid.

The book is also about understanding how neoliberal policies are constituted through contingent social relations.  Neoliberal policies are not only about economic life but also (following Polanyi) about how the human economy is “embedded and enmeshed in institutions, economic and noneconomic”.   To illustrate this dialectic, an essay titled, “Confounding Neoliberalism: Priests, Privatization and Social Justice in the Peruvian Andes” attempts to understand the relationship between the “non-economic” and neoliberalism through an account of the work of religious social activists.

Given the profound nature of the capitalist crisis even mainstream economists are acknowledging, albeit grudgingly, the failures of neoliberalism.  The book concedes criticism that some initiatives might be attempts to create temporary conditions for a gentler, kinder capitalism.  Still it argues that the projects covered in the book are in their infancy, often contradictory but allow for alternatives to rampant marketisation and commodification to develop in that they “provide glimpses of present and future opportunities to imagine and enact alternative scenarios”.

All, beyond the new lunatic fringe, those who continue to defend neoliberalism, despite its obvious devastating effects on human beings and nature, will do well to read this impressive contribution toward understanding neoliberalism.

Salim Vally, Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, University of Johannesburg.  A shorter version of this article was published by in the latest issue of New Agenda.

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