The term “neoliberal” and the ecumenism of blame

This entire interview with Colum McCafferty is well worth reading, especially the parts referring to the contrast between liberal citizenship and republican citizenship, as well as the growing use of the word “consumer” in place of any reference to citizens. I want to mark the following for attention too though:

Regarding this use of language to limit of discourse, you refer to the expression ‘the political class’ as another term that has become widespread, even among well-regarded journalists.

Well, before this term arose you had a tendency to talk about ‘The Politicians’, which is also used as a way to eliminate discourse. It eliminates the very possibility that there are different politicians with different points of view. Michael D Higgins called it “an ecumenism of blame”.

You now see this term changing to ‘the political class’, so you have the political class and people change within it, but it’s permanent.

I have noted previously that we would do well to have a Godwin’s Law for the term ‘neoliberalism’, given that in the best case such references are exercises in taxonomy (I think I called them ‘trainspotting‘ in one of my more uncharitable harrumphs). Invoking neoliberalism is similarly a way to eliminate conversation. Zizek also refers to this rhetorical maneuver in the use of the term “fascist” as a way of shutting down an argument. There is both an ecumenism of blame as well as an agnosticism of responsibility here. If some politician or political act is identified as neoliberal, then room for alternative action and debate is effectively precluded. We don’t even think in terms of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, ‘constitutional’ or ‘unconstitutional’. Something is simply ‘neoliberal’ – and that’s it.

This is at once a testament to how what is identified as ‘neoliberalism’ utterly suffuses our discourse. I think of the title of Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes here as a symptom of this, of which he is of course aware. The best an alternative to this status quo can be is to have the tragic honour of a lost cause, because the possibility of a real alternative doesn’t exist. This term is a testament to how impoverished the debate is in terms of constructing possible worlds, and scenario planning, and how so much effort has been expended in the equivalent of Late Scholastic taxonomizing of minutiae.

I recall a recent experience after a conference where the discussion of an academic by others (including one quite senior figure in the field) turned to what can best be described as a Blutreinheitsgebot. This academic, early career, on whom an anathema was declared was identified as ideologically suspect purely because he didn’t discuss the topics they did by invoking neoliberalism. His attempt to step beyond this term (for whatever reasons) was singled out as suspect and cause for censure in and of itself. This is the paranoia of the academy taken to its absurd conclusion. Thankfully, however, there may be an equivalent of the Gartner hype cycle for such ideas, and we can move beyond this limited and limiting idea, beyond the identification of problems, to a fuller concept of critique which is proactive as well as descriptive.

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3 thoughts on “The term “neoliberal” and the ecumenism of blame

  1. I think this idea can be applied broadly to most discussion today. We go into discussions with predefined concepts, not willing to accept any idea or definition contrary to our own. Does not lead to very productive debate. Great post!

    • Cheers for that, Stephen. Amended accordingly. It’s not so much what I mean but what President Higgins does. It’s a rhetorical descriptor of an unwillingness to facilitate or engage with the fact that we have rights and responsibilities within all discussion (and that includes disagreement and opprobrium). Spreading the blame so thin and far that the problem itself becomes unrecognisable. Or alternatively: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptd_h0dF7NE

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