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A Research Agenda for Neoliberalism

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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Chapter 8: Neoliberalism as a contract-based order

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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