Neoliberalism at the Neopopulist Crossroads

For several decades, scholars across the humanities and social sciences have studied the phenomenon of “neoliberalism,” famously defined by geographer David Harvey as the doctrine that “market exchange is an ethic capable of acting as a guide for all human actions.” Neoliberalism’s origins can be traced as far back as the inaugural meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society in 1947, where a group of economists, philosophers and other scholars gathered to decry the state’s “extension of arbitrary powers,” which they viewed as a totalitarian threat. As Jacques Donzelot has observed, however, “the retreat of the state may be an expansion of government.”

Neoliberalism has precipitated its own massive social transformations since its ascendance in the 1970s, in the Global North and South alike. Among other effects, it is said to have reorganized social relations (including citizenship) in the image of the market, reframed the state as a service provider to the economy, dismantled safety nets, outsourced the public good to private contractors, transformed mass debt into new avenues of profit, and undermined liberal democratic principles in the name of freedom. 

Since the 2008 global economic crisis, however, neoliberalism has collided with a surging backlash of right-wing neopopulism, racism, and nationalism that frequently opposes neoliberal flows of peoples and goods. Populism can be characterized as a recurring form of modern counter-politics that claims to speak on behalf of a “people” against a ruling elite and their interests. Neo-populism often relies upon authoritarian leaders who distinguish those who count as the “legitimate people” from those racially or ethnically defined others who do not. The new populist forces have profoundly unsettled many of the political compacts and ideological centers that govern the globe.

  • How should we interpret the political turbulence of the last decade?
  • Are such figures as Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, or Narendra Modi, events like Brexit, and racialist parties like Alternative für DeutschlandUKIPor the Bharatiya Janata, signs that neoliberalism is losing ground to right-wing political alternatives? Or, paradoxically, is neoliberalism entering a new historical phase that appears altogether compatible with resurgent authoritarianism, racism and the shuttering of borders?
  • Does our arrival at the crossroads of a resurgent populism require us to rethink not only what neoliberalism has become, but also what it always was?

This Sawyer Seminar, generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, consists of a research team of faculty and graduate students to re-evaluate prevailing theories of neoliberalism’s intellectual histories, political imaginations and cultural practices in light of the last few years’ tumultuous populist turn.

The seminar builds upon but also rethinks and challenges recent scholarly developments in the study of neoliberalism. Following Michel Foucault’s insights, scholars have come to view neoliberalism not simply as an economic doctrine, but as a sophisticated strategy of governmentality that redefines modern individualism in the micro-economic image of the business firm (“entrepreneurship of the self”) while recasting the state’s primary role as expanding the logic of competition into ever new social domains.

Other scholars, such as Bernard Harcourt, Loïc Wacquant, and Naomi Klein, call attention to aspects of neoliberalism that exceed the rationality of the market. In their view, neoliberalism (like classical liberalism before) relies heavily upon racialist thinking, authoritarian visions, and recurrent perceptions of crisis. These readings bring neoliberalism far closer to the thematics of right-wing populist ideology, which, as Jan Werner Müller, Cas Mudde and others have observed, propagates an anti-pluralist, majoritarian view of an aggrieved “people” and often asserts the importance of a strong leader whose sovereign force can overcome elite corruption. Despite these potential connections, scant investigation has taken place into the relationship between neoliberalism and the recent upsurge in right-wing populism. Neither have scholars considered how a clearer understanding of this relationship might complicate the arguments of political theorists like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who affirm populism as the necessary form of all democratic politics.

The current populist turn raises another major issue for the seminar:

  • How has neoliberal erosion of both the state and public culture nourished neopopulist attacks on political discourse?
  • Does the decomposition of the body politic—and simmering sense of popular unrest so palpable in the U.S. and elsewhere–-signal that neoliberalism has over time undermined its own life support system? Conversely, does the current moment express a new governmental condition in which political turbulence is compatible with neoliberal markets?

Our seminar title alludes to the present moment’s disorienting quality – the vertiginous sense that multiple political futures are in play.

This seminar reconsiders neoliberalism’s intellectual pedigrees, narratives and projects in light of the growing rhetoric of political crises, trade wars, endangered nations, fears of immigrants, and calls for border walls both literal and metaphoric.

  • What might we learn about neoliberalism if we revisit its ideological relationship to the categories and conceptions—nations, races, borders, crises, media—that figure so centrally for populism today?
  • In what ways do populist tropes deploy distinctively neoliberal ways of world-making and subject formation even when they do so in order to break with them in certain ways?
  • What might we also learn from the responses of local community members here in the U.S. Southwest to these current political situations?

We will interrogate the underlying relationship of neoliberalism and the neopopulist turn, considering both their moments of antagonism as well as their points of compatibility and collusion.

Our program is organized around seven themes and three border zones. Click below to explore.


This thread sets the table for the entire seminar by exploring neoliberalism and populism’s shared itineraries. How have their histories intertwined, whether as allies or antagonists? Early Mont Pèlerin Society neoliberals (in the late 1940s) reacted to the totalizing state power sought by fascism, the same movement to which today’s neopopulists appeal for slogans and iconography. Yet neoliberalism has often made common cause with authoritarian governments dating as far back as the Chicago School’s advisory role for the post-1973 coup Pinochet government in Chile.

How are neopopulists continuous with or different from earlier national-populist mobilizations? And how has neoliberalism framed its relationship to governmental authority so long as it supports market rationality?

Neopopulism exerts pressure on traditional media through its routinized attacks and manipulations. At the same time, a number of populist movements have mobilized and weaponized social media platforms in ways that outmaneuver traditional state regulatory controls. Yet these social media platforms are themselves arguably inextricable from the neoliberal imperative of individual self-promotion.

What drives these assaults on media outlets traditionally understood as guarantors of an informed citizenry and public sphere? Are these attacks related to the neoliberal commodification of society itself through digital modalities?

How are social media paradoxically connected to the decimation/resuscitation of democracy – from tweet storms to flash mobs?

How can social media produce real-time democratic mobilizations, yet also unleash ideological hacking, impersonation and sabotage?

Populism seeks to intensify border security while neoliberalism advances a borderless world. Yet the reality is more complex.

How has neoliberalism understood borders as sites for the regulation of populations, the imagining of freedom, or the mechanism through which states must exert territorial power and property rights that are critical to markets? How does neoliberal border-making relate to that of neopopulists? How are those dispossessed and displaced in neopopulist contexts affected by these border makings and their related securitization practices, and how are community organizations in border zones responding?

Border zones arguably serve as one of the key sites of encounter between neoliberalism and the new populist politics. While neoliberalism’s overarching drive toward economic globalization tended to proliferate free trade agreements, multilateral forms of governance and migrant labor populations, the new right populisms instead draw their political energies through a nostalgic rhetoric of declining cultural wholeness that presents the opening of borders as a national crisis.

Scholars such as Domenico Losurdo and Nikhil Singh argue that classical liberalism leveraged and authorized racial distinctions as part of the Transatlantic commercial world that included the slave trade.

Is the same true for neoliberal global markets?

How should we connect populist neo-racism –intensified Islamophobia, the “rebirth” of white supremacy, resurgent anti-Semitism—with the racial and ethnic stakes of neoliberalism?

Much of the new scholarship on neoliberalism focuses on its reshaping of people as entrepreneurial subjects, as figures of self-interest. Meanwhile the scholarship on populism has focused on the discursive strategies of creating a “people” who can make political demands.

How persuasive are the respective accounts of neoliberal and neopopulist subjectivities? What do we make of the fact that both of these accounts center around the creation of interested subjects?

How do both neoliberalism and the new populisms as political projects produce norms that define certain populations as social threats?

When considering the relationship between populism and religion, scholars have argued that religion is being “hijacked” by populist leaders to build on a shared cultural ground in their attempts to unify otherwise heterogeneous populations (Marzouki, McDonnell and Roy 2016). Religion, it is said, is one among several elements that serve populists in the process of formation of a valorized majority and a demonized minority.

Is there something else to be said about the contemporary transformations of the religious field that helps us understand the traction of populism in the contemporary moment?

In socially engaged art practices in urban and rural areas around the globe, artists work as individuals or groups to address various emerging and everyday issues, whether social, political, economic, or environmental. At the same time, the arts are strongly linked to a cultural  cosmopolitanism that associates them with the elite status of global cities and neoliberal celebrations of the “creative class.” As a result, socially engaged art has not only developed its own complicated relationship with liberalism, socialism, and neoliberalism, but it often finds itself caught in the culture wars that have exploded in many sites between anti-globalist populisms and (neo)liberal multiculturalisms.

How do practices of socially engaged art both contribute to and contradict the formation of the neoliberal public? Is the neopopulist public a practical expression of the neoliberal public or an expression of hostility toward it? How has socially engaged art negotiated a relationship to peoplehood in the age of neopopulisms?

In the United States, neoliberalism triumphantly ascended to power with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who forged a new coalition of corporate interests and the evangelical right that was organized around a vision of the market as a sacred institution of American freedom. Latin America served both as a site where communist totalitarianism threatened (the Sandinista revolution and Cuban influence) but also as the launching pad for a marketized globe built upon Free Trade Agreements (beginning in 1994 with NAFTA). Yet the US populist reaction that began with Ross Perot in 1992 and now culminates in the Trump presidency, adopts a radically different vision. Today the border zones with Latin America are multiply blamed for undoing American greatness: for the “browning” of American culture, for the loss of jobs among “deserving” Americans, for growing trade deficits, for violent crime, and even for Islamic terrorism.

Our key questions will be:

  • How did neoliberalism reshape the politics of race and social identity in the United States during the 1990s and 2000s? What relationship did these changes bear to the populist turn?
  • How and why did political rhetoric concerning America’s southern border with Latin American change so decisively within American conservatism?
  • How have the successes of Latin American left populisms affected North America?
  • How did US neoliberalism reconcile the individualist economic rationality that it requires with the conservative nationalism that has become dominant in the Trump era?
  • To what extent were post-2008 movements like the Tea Party (pitted against “corrupt elites”) and the Occupy movement (defending the 99% against the 1%) already incipiently populist, and what role does left populism play today in the US political imaginary (from Bernie Sanders to the “resistance” movement)?
  • What practices have community organizations undertaken to address the material and affective implications of these changes in political rhetoric?

Europe’s populist explosion cannot be understood outside three major developments. First, the establishment of a supranational European Union sought to institute neoliberal reforms across the continent, while also relocating substantial political authority and control over economic policy to Brussels. Second, the 2008 financial crisis led to the EU’s commitment to austerity policies, undermining national economic responses to the crisis in Spain, Greece, Italy and elsewhere. And finally, in the turbulent aftermath of the 2010-2011 Arab Spring, Europe confronted its largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. From Brexit, to the rise of anti-immigrant parties like Alternative für Deutschlandand the Dutch Freedom Party, to the revival of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic violence, current populist energies have been fundamentally shaped by this conflagration of forces.

The European case raises unique questions: 

  • How was European neoliberalism shaped by the concept of a cosmopolitical EU state and a related civic identity outside a national conception of unitary language and culture?
  • How is European neoliberalism’s distinctiveness (as opposed to American or other forms) illuminated by its unyielding commitment to austerity policies?
  • How do we account for the weakness of the European public sphere and civic identity in the face of these challenges? 
  • Does the history of European empires tacitly inform the political conception of Europe that was assembled by the EU?
  • What relationship did European secularism bear to the right-wing political reaction to refugees from Muslim-majority nations?
  • How did the question of Europe’s borders (in relation to Eastern Europe and to Turkey in particular) enter into the populist explosion?
  • What role has been played by the electoral option and the political vision of left populism (including such parties as Syriza and Podemos) in shaping the populist crossroad in Europe?

This case affords the opportunity to consider how postcolonial conditions in the Global South have followed a related but different path. The South Asian border zone of this case differs fundamentally from the others in that it has always been closed and militarized. Nevertheless, it is a border zone that has been equally decisive for South Asia’s Hindutva turn. India underwent its most dramatic neoliberal reforms during the 1990s as the Congress Party relinquished its traditional socialist and pluralist commitments in favor of economic reform efforts to “free the market.” These policies led to what Priya Chacko has called the “disincorporation” of many citizens from the political process, and with it an opening for right populist alternatives. The subsequent rise of Hindutva electoral politics, which advanced by accusing a corrupt national elite of abandoning the Hindu values and moral compass of the Indian people, tracks closely with the career of now President Narendra Modi. As Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat (on the Pakistani border) in the early 2000s, Modi tacitly condoned the ethnic cleansing pogroms against Muslims that broke out in 2002. Under his current Bharatiya Janata Party government, elements of Hindu populist nationalism and growing military tensions with Pakistan have been combined with privatization policies and a cultural idealization of personal entrepreneurship. In the process, the cultural conception of India as a nation has been transformed.

Our key questions here are as follows:

  • How did what historian Partha Chatterjee has called the “derivative” status of nationalism in postcolonies like India affect the patterns of—and prospects for—populist movements?
  • Is Hindutva in fact a brand of populism or do its elitist and globalist dimensions require a different approach?
  • To what extent do the origins of India’s independence in the traumatic act of partition with Pakistan make for a radically different historical relationship to the anti-Islamist politics from those seen in the European and North American cases?
  • How did the aims of third world development change the characteristics of Indian neoliberalism, and how do they shape the direction of Hindutva politics?