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Kean Birch

With an ever-expanding variety of perspectives on the concept of neoliberalism, it is increasingly difficult to identify any commonalities. This book explores how different people understand neoliberalism, and the contradictions in thinking of neoliberalism as a market-based ethic, project, or order. Detailing the intellectual history of ‘neoliberal’ thought, the variety of critical approaches and the many analytical ambiguities, Kean Birch presents a new way to conceptualize contemporary political economy and offers potential avenues for future research through a judicious exploration of ‘neoliberal’ practices, processes, and institutions.
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Kean Birch

This chapter provides an historical overview of the emergence and evolution of neoliberal thought since the early 20th century. It introduces readers to a range of schools of neoliberalism, including Austrian, Chicago, Virginia, German/Ordoliberal, British, French, and Italian, and discusses how these schools and neoliberalism more generally have evolved over time, especially in relation to attitudes towards corporate monopoly. It does so in order to problematize the idea that there is a coherent or consistent set of ideas that can be characterized as ‘neoliberal’.

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Kean Birch

This chapter aims to get readers to think like a neoliberal in order to understand the analytical bases for neoliberal claims about political-economic and normative benefits of markets. It starts by exploring the representation of markets in popular economics and then contrasting these representations with several neoliberal thinkers. The chapter focuses on four key neoliberal thinkers – Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Gary Becker, and Richard Posner – who represent different stages of development of ‘modern’ neoliberalism. In presenting the ideas of these thinkers, the chapter illustrates the different ways that neoliberals conceptualize society and the implications this has for understanding the role of markets as an organizing and coordinating mechanism for social life.

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Kean Birch

This chapter introduces readers to several key critical approaches to understanding neoliberalism. These include governmentality, Marxism, ideational analysis, institutional analysis, neoliberal thought collective, and processual or geographical analyses. It starts by discussing the use of neoliberalism as a term and concept in academic debate, before going on to outline the different ways that neoliberalism is currently understood in academic circles. The point of the chapter is to problematize the idea that the concept of neoliberalism can be applied easily in the analysis of the social world.

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Kean Birch

This chapter unpacks the ambiguities and problems with the various critical understandings of neoliberalism discussed in the previous chapter. Neoliberalism can be and has been used to refer to almost anything from corporate power through inequality to entrepreneurial subjectivities, and yet its wide applicability has led a growing number of people to question whether it can retain its analytical value in light of its promiscuous applicability. The chapter outlines the growing critique of neoliberalism as a concept.

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Kean Birch

This chapter introduces the first contradiction in neoliberalism and critical understandings of it, namely the emphasis on markets as defining feature of neoliberalism versus the importance and role of business and corporations in the economy. In particular, it explores the implications of corporate power to our understandings of neoliberalism as a concept. Several key financial economists sought to theorize this contradiction as a way to legitimate a new form of shareholder governance in which investors are imagined and framed as the most efficient allocators of capital rather than business managers. The chapter thereby highlights the role played by business training and business schools in reproducing and legitimating neoliberal ideas.

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Kean Birch

This chapter introduces the second contradiction of neoliberalism and critical understandings of it, namely the emphasis on entrepreneurship as the defining feature of modern subjectivity. Both neoliberals and their critics emphasize the idea that everyone is or has become an entrepreneur in contemporary capitalism. Despite these claims, there is limited evidence that people are actually more entrepreneurial in their actions and behaviours; most critical perspectives that propound this view, for example, do not present substantive empirical support for their arguments. In fact, it is possible to argue that contemporary capitalism is underpinned more by forms of rent-seeking or rentiership in which ownership and control of various assets (e.g. housing) enables individuals to capture and appropriate (rather than create) value. This is evident across the economy from house ownership through social media platforms.

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Kean Birch

This chapter introduces the third contradiction of neoliberalism and critical understandings of it, namely the emphasis placed on markets as the key organizing institution and mechanism for society. Contractual relations underpin markets, and this has not been analyzed sufficiently by critics of neoliberalism. The chapter outlines and discusses the historical evolution of contract law in common law countries in order to show how markets and market actors are both ‘made’ and ‘unmade’ through new contractual relations, especially those based on standard form or boilerplate contracts. These illustrate the extent to which only certain social actors (e.g. business entities, professional groups) are considered, legally speaking, to be market actors. Consequently, it is helpful to theorize neoliberalism as a contract-based order, rather than market-based one.

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Kean Birch

This chapter summarizes the arguments in the preceding chapters and discusses their implications in light of recent political events, like the British referendum on membership of the European Union and the US election of Donald Trump.

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Kean Birch and Andrew Cumbers