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Edited by

and the Culture
of Discontent
New Comparisons in World Literature

Series Editors
Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee
University of Warwick
Coventry, UK

Neil Lazarus
University of Warwick
Coventry, UK
New Comparisons in World Literature offers a fresh perspective on one of
the most exciting current debates in humanities by approaching ‘world
literature’ not in terms of particular kinds of reading but as a particular
kind of writing. We take ‘world literature’ to be that body of writing that
registers in various ways, at the levels of form and content, the historical
experience of capitalist modernity. We aim to publish works that take up
the challenge of understanding how literature registers both the global
extension of ‘modern’ social forms and relations and the peculiar new
modes of existence and experience that are engendered as a result. Our
particular interest lies in studies that analyse the registration of this deci-
sive historical process in literary consciousness and affect.
Editorial board
Dr. Nicholas Brown, University of Illinois, USA; Dr. Bo G.  Ekelund,
University of Stockholm, Sweden; Dr. Dorota Kolodziejczyk, Wroclaw
University, Poland; Professor Paulo de Medeiros, University of Warwick,
UK; Dr. Robert Spencer, University of Manchester, UK; Professor Imre
Szeman, University of Alberta, Canada; Professor Peter Hitchcock, Baruch
College, USA; Dr Ericka Beckman, University of Illinois at Urbana-­
Champaign, USA; Dr Sarah Brouillette, Carleton University, Canada;
Professor Supriya Chaudhury, Jadavpur University, India; Professor
Stephen Shapiro, University of Warwick, UK.

More information about this series at
Sharae Deckard  •  Stephen Shapiro

World Literature,
Neoliberalism, and the
Culture of Discontent
Sharae Deckard Stephen Shapiro
Dublin, Republic of Ireland Coventry, UK

New Comparisons in World Literature

ISBN 978-3-030-05440-3    ISBN 978-3-030-05441-0 (eBook)

Library of Congress Control Number: 2018965469

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As editors of a collection, our thanks are due first to this volume’s con-
tributors. Pablo Mukherjee and Neil Lazarus, as series editors, were the
first to open doors and ensure that we made it down the various hallways
towards publication. In a broader sense, we thank WReC (Warwick
Research Collective) and the emerging community of world-literature
scholars, including the World Literature Network and World-Ecology
Research Network, for their collective intellectual and political support.
We are likewise grateful for support from our colleagues in the School
of English, Drama, and Film Studies at University College Dublin. Finally,
Tomas René, Vicky Bates, and the staff at Palgrave have been generous
with their help and attention to the preparation and design of the
We dedicate this to Benita Parry, our teacher, and Phillip Baldwin, of


1 World-Culture and the Neoliberal World-­System: An

Introduction  1
Sharae Deckard and Stephen Shapiro

2 The Long 1970s: Neoliberalism, Narrative Form, and

Hegemonic Crisis in the Work of Marlon James and Paulo
Lins 49
Michael Niblett

3 From “Section 936” to “Junk”: Neoliberalism, Ecology,

and Puerto Rican Literature 69
Kerstin Oloff

4 Mont Neoliberal Periodization: The Mexican “Democratic

Transition,” from Austrian Libertarianism to the “War on
Drugs” 93
Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado

5 Cricket’s Neoliberal Narratives: Or the World of

Competitive Accumulation and Sporting Spirit in
Contemporary Cricket Fiction111
Claire Westall


6 Keeping It Real: Literary Impersonality Under

Daniel Hartley

7 The Cultural Regulation of Neoliberal Capitalism157

Mathias Nilges

8 Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite: Monetized War,

Militarized Money—A Narrative Poetics for the Closing
of an American Century175
Richard Godden

9 A Bubble in the Vein: Suicide, Community, and the

Rejection of Neoliberalism in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little
Life and Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows195
Amy Rushton

10 Futures, Inc.: Fiction and Intellectual Property in the

(South) African Renaissance215
Matthew Eatough

11 Trains, Stone, and Energetics: African Resource Culture

and the Neoliberal World-Ecology239
Sharae Deckard

Notes on Contributors

Sharae  Deckard  is Lecturer in World Literature at University College

Dublin. She is author of Paradise Discourse, Imperialism and Globalization
(2010) and co-author (with the Warwick Research Collective) of Combined
and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature
(2015). With Rashmi Varma, she is co-editor of Marxism, Postcolonial
Theory and the Future of Critique: Critical Engagements with Benita Parry
(2019). She has also edited special issues of Ariel, Journal of World-­Systems
Research, Green Letters, and Journal of Postcolonial Writing. Her research
centres on world-ecology and world-systems approaches to postcolonial
and world literature.
Matthew Eatough  is Assistant Professor of English at Baruch College,
City University of New  York. He is the assistant editor of the Oxford
Handbook of Global Modernisms (2012), and is completing a book manu-
script with the provisional title Long Waves of Modernity: Global History,
the World-System, and the Making of the Anglophone Novel.
Richard Godden  teaches in the English Department at the University of
California, Irvine. He is the author of Fictions of Capital: The American
Novel from James to Mailer (1990); Fictions of Labour: William Faulkner
and the South’s Long Revolution (1997); and William Faulkner: An
Economy of Complex Words (2007). He is completing an account of the
narrative poetics of the financial turn, at the closing of an American
Century, provisionally titled, Paper Graveyards.


Daniel Hartley  is Assistant Professor in World Literatures in English at

Durham University, UK. He is the author of The Politics of Style: Towards
a Marxist Poetics (2017), and is working on a comparative study of literary
impersonality in world literature across the long twentieth century. He has
published widely on Marxist theory and contemporary literature.
Michael Niblett  is Assistant Professor in Modern World Literature at the
University of Warwick. He is the author of The Caribbean Novel since 1945
(2012) and co-editor of Perspectives on the ‘Other America’: Comparative
Approaches to Caribbean and Latin American Culture (2009). His most
recent book is the co-edited collection The Caribbean: Aesthetics, World-­
Ecology, Politics (2016).
Mathias  Nilges  is Associate Professor of English at St. Francis Xavier
University, Canada. His essays have appeared in collected editions and
journals such as American Literary History, Callaloo, College Literature,
CR: The New Centennial Review, and Textual Practice. He is co-editor of
Literary Materialisms (2013), Marxism and the Critique of Value (2014),
The Contemporaneity of Modernism (2015), and Literature and the Global
Contemporary (2017), and the author of Right-Wing Culture and
Opportunistic Futurism in Contemporary Capitalism (2019).
Kerstin Oloff  is Associate Professor in Hispanic Studies in the School of
Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Durham, UK. She
writes on Caribbean and Latin American literature, gothic and monstrous
aesthetics, world-literature, and ecocriticism.
Amy Rushton  is a lecturer in the Department of English, Communications,
and Philosophy at Nottingham Trent University, UK, where she teaches
American and postcolonial literature. Her research intersects with postco-
lonial studies and world-systems theory, and she is writing a book on con-
temporary African fiction, tragedy, and neo-colonialism.
Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado  is the Jarvis Thurston and Mona Van Duyn
Professor of the Humanities at Washington University in St Louis. He is
the author of seven books and over 100 articles, and editor of 12 critical
collections, on Mexican and Latin American literature, culture, cinema, and
theory. His most recent books are Pierre Bourdieu in Hispanic Literature
and Culture (Palgrave Macmillan 2018) and Strategic Occidentalism: On
Mexican Fiction, the Neoliberal Book Market and the Question of World
Literature (2018).

Stephen Shapiro  teaches in the Department of English and Comparative

Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. He is author of The Culture
and Commerce of the Early American Novel: Reading the Atlantic World-­
System (2008); How to Read Marx’s Capital (2008); and Pentecostal
Modernism: Lovecraft, Los Angeles, and World-System Culture (2017), with
Philip Barnard; and How To Read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (2011),
with Anne Schwan. He is also a co-author (with the Warwick Research
Collective) of Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory
of World-Literature (2015). Additionally, he has co-published editions
of Charles Brockden Brown’s writing, The Wire: Race, Class, and Genre
(2012), with Liam Kennedy, and a forthcoming collection, with Liam
Kennedy, Neoliberalism and Contemporary American Literature.
Claire  Westall  is a senior lecturer in the Department of English and
Related Literature at the University of York. Her forthcoming book is The
Rites of Cricket and Caribbean Literature (Palgrave Macmillan). She is
also co-author of The Public on the Public (2015), and co-editor of
both Cross-Gendered Literary Voices (2012) and Literature of an
Independent England (2013).

World-Culture and the Neoliberal World-­

System: An Introduction

Sharae Deckard and Stephen Shapiro

The Problem of Neoliberalism

Almost unused as a term in the twentieth century and never unequivocally
deployed by the historical figures now routinely taken as its exemplary
advocates, “neoliberalism” has, nonetheless, become a standard keyword
to categorize the present regime of accumulation, especially after the 2008
financial crash that made the term “globalization” seem inadequate.
Thanks to a wide spectrum of critics such as David Harvey, Naomi Klein,
Michel Foucault, Wendy Brown, Jamie Peck, Jason W. Moore, Neil Smith,
Philip Mirowski, Anatole Kaletsky, and Gérard Duménil and Dominique
Lévy, we have developed a synoptic familiarity with the term and a com-
monsensical understanding of its manoeuvres as characterized by a nexus
of practices and axiomatic assumptions about recent modes of capitalist

S. Deckard (*)
Dublin, Republic of Ireland
S. Shapiro (*)
Coventry, UK

© The Author(s) 2019 1

S. Deckard, S. Shapiro (eds.), World Literature, Neoliberalism, and
the Culture of Discontent, New Comparisons in World Literature,

Features of neoliberalism include state deregulation of markets, privati-

zation, and anti-labour and social welfare strategies; the ascendancy of
finance capital; the renewed imperialism of law-and-order schemes on the
global level (as in the endless “war on terror”) and in domestic arenas (as
with the creation of a prison industrial complex); the elite project of wealth
redistribution through new forms of ecological enclosure and accumula-
tion via dispossession; the proliferation of metrics that spur competition in
new realms of social life and administrative oversight; the exploitation of
crises and disasters to force the imposition of austerity and structural
adjustment; the increased biopolitical control of individuals by the state;
the redefinition of individuals as quantums of human capital rather than
subjects of interior development or political representation; the deploy-
ment of mass personal debt in ways little foreseen by prior macroeconom-
ics; and the emergence of new algorithmic technologies of surveillance
and financialization that have penetrated everyday life.
Yet, as the term spreads through academic and media apparatuses, it is
in danger of becoming so ubiquitous that its historical insight is blurred
and its analytical edge is blunted or lost. As Taylor Boas and Jordan Gans-­
Morse observe:

Neoliberalism is commonly used in at least five different ways in the study of

development—as a set of economic policies, a development model, an ideol-
ogy, an academic paradigm, and an historical era. Moreover, beyond a
shared emphasis on the free market and frequent connotations of radicalism
and negativity, it is not immediately clear how these varied uses are intercon-
nected. (Boas and Gans-Morse 2006: 38, cited in Mirowski 2009: 433–34)

As an academic paradigm referring to cultural production, the descriptor

neoliberal is frequently used in literary criticism as a mere successor to
“postmodern,” an earlier term also meant to be periodizing, yet which itself
lacked a historical exit. This usage can be seen in the proliferation of curi-
ously ahistorical critiques of neoliberalism which do not name capital, and
tend to theorize neoliberalism’s novelty solely in terms of governmentality
rather than capital accumulation of affects and ontologies of the entrepre-
neurial self, rather than class exploitation. Such a theoretical tendency has a
cultural logic of its own, corollary to the post-1970s retreat from class as a
category of analysis and the subsequent illusion of “posthistory.”
Detached from materialist analysis of the wider world-economy in rela-
tion to capitalism’s long modernity, these kinds of exegeses of “neoliberal

culture” focus instead on the cultural or ideological symptoms of neoliber-

alism as they are experienced in post-Fordist core nation-states of Europe
and America (and overemphasize post-Fordism as a phenomenon), rather
than critiquing the processes of neoliberalization from a world-historical
perspective of capitalism’s developmental cycles. This is not dissimilar to
the pitfalls of earlier varieties of postcolonial criticism, which focused on
culturalist critique of imperialism, to the exclusion of capitalism (thus fore-
going understanding of the specific role of imperialism within capitalist
Conversely, critiques of neoliberalism from the social sciences often
concentrate solely on the analysis of political elites, economists, or elec-
toral parties, assigning them primary credit for the development and
implementation of neoliberal ideologies and policies, while failing to
examine how culture plays a constitutive role in generating and stabilizing
the socioeconomic relations on which neoliberal hegemony depends, or
how the ideological innovations and development projects of political
elites are necessarily bound up with the complex causality of capitalism’s
historical cyclical crises.
Consequently, a common response by many left critics to recent discus-
sions about neoliberalism is that the term has lost its utility as a means of
characterizing the current phase of capitalism, and should be discarded for
its failure to clarify the features of the purported period in relation to the
overall operations of capital’s logistic across centuries. However, we feel
this momentary exhaustion to be tactically clumsy and analytically mis-
guided. Given the difficulty the left has historically had in Anglo-American
societies in getting its terminology broadly accepted as objective in ways
outside its otherwise limited congeries, we should pause before abandon-
ing a term simply when a limited group of commentators has become
distracted or bored by the lack of novelty. As Mathias Nilges suggests in
this volume, neoliberalism can retain its use as a “Kampfbegriff, a term of
struggle” that enables us to frame both critique and resistance.
An additional semantic confusion emerges over whether neoliberalism
ought to be considered a break from postmodernism or if, in retrospect,
as we would argue, postmodernism can be now perceived as the cultural
logic of incipient or insurgent neoliberalism. In “Periodizing the 60s,”
Fredric Jameson defines that decade as the moment in which “the enlarge-
ment of capitalism on a global scale simultaneously produced an immense
freeing or unbinding of social energies” in both the First and Third Worlds,
leading to monetary, social, and cultural inflationary pressures that were

subsequently reined in by the early 1970s (1984: 208). Writing from the
vantage point of 1984, Jameson predicted that “the 80s will be character-
ized by an effort on a world scale to proletarianize all those unbound
social forces which gave the 60s their energy, by an extension of the class
struggle, into the furthest reaches of the globe as well as the most minute
configurations of local institutions (such as the university system)” (208).
Jameson is of course one of the foremost theorists of “postmodernism” as
the cultural logic of “late capitalism,” but the passages here seem pre-
sciently indicative of the onset of what we now call “neoliberalism,” at a
time when that terminology was not readily available.
For whatever objections about the specificity of the term neoliberalism
can be raised, it seems clear that in many ways the current phase of capital-
ism is different in noteworthy ways from the prior Fordist and Keynesian
phase. Surely, some terminology must exist to register the differences if any
activist response is to be successfully mounted. The challenge then is to
forge a better framework of terms to help convey what is both distinctive
and familiar about the last few decades up to and including the contempo-
rary period. There remains a pressing need to underscore the continuities
of capitalist predicates, while also discerning its historical formations and
A major motive for this collection, therefore, is to prevent “neoliberal-
ism” from becoming a “quicksand term” that indiscriminately sucks all
commentary into its maw without regard to temporal or spatial particular-
ity; that acts as a vacuous counterpart to “post-postmodern,” or even
“late-late capitalism.” In our estimation, the way forward is to think
through issues of historical alteration through a greater horizon of the
capitalist world-system. Hence, this volume mobilizes a collection of
essays that seek to periodize the different phases of neoliberal accumula-
tion leading up to the current moment, restoring the horizon of capitalism
as the primary object of their critique, while at the same time exploring
how neoliberalization is differently experienced and mediated in cores,
semiperipheries, and peripheries of the world-system. As Matthew Eatough
writes in his contribution to this volume, any account of the culture of
neoliberalism requires us to formulate a working definition of what neo-
liberalism is in its local expression and “what distinguishes it from the
normative Euro-American model of neoliberalism.”
Most collections on neoliberalism and literature published thus far have
had an exclusively North American or British focus, which we seek to chal-
lenge in this volume through a comparative approach that juxtaposes

scholars from American and British studies with those from postcolonial
and world-literary studies and area studies. Thus, our contributions con-
centrate on a wide range of literary and cultural production from global
settings in both cores and semiperipheries, and frequently make compari-
sons between them, including Mexico, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Brazil, the
United States, Canada, Italy, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of
Congo, Senegal, and India.
In this volume’s conceptual endeavour to redefine neoliberalism, our
main aims are threefold. Firstly, we seek to rehistorize neoliberal move-
ments within a world-systems perspective that may better link together,
rather than split apart, the insights of Foucauldian accounts of govern-
mentality and Marx’s critique of the dynamics of capitalist exploitation.
Such a world-systems perspective enables a more comprehensive under-
standing of the ways in which capitalism requires structural inequalities
that are produced through the constellation of a core-zone, semiperipher-
ies, and peripheries. This perspective requires an attentiveness to the
ongoing and interwoven role of regions beyond the “white” Euro-­
American nation-states that have not only often been treated in isolation
from one another (as if their dynamics are not shaped by inter-core com-
petition) but also disconnected from other regions, which are often con-
sidered as instances of note only to the degree they develop in ways that
emulates or reproduces the logistics of the core nations (often frequently
those of their former colonial occupiers).
Secondly, we seek not only to differentiate a neoliberal period from
prior periods in capitalism’s history but also to grasp the temporal shifts
and differentials within this phase. The enactments during the 1980s are
different from recent ones, even while both are best grouped within a
larger context. To foreshadow our argument, we contend that one source
of confusion in scholarly discussions of neoliberalism has been the lack of
consideration for the nested, rather than linear and sequential, quality of
the roughly post-1970s period. Just as there are mini-cycles or conjunc-
tures within this phase, this phase is a segment within other longer cycles.
While what has been called neoliberalism deserves to be analysed as differ-
ent from and in opposition to the mid-twentieth century formations that
we will broadly call Keynesian and Fordist, it also exists as a cadenza within
a greater phase that arose in the late nineteenth century in the period after
Marx’s analysis of capital as it existed in the mid-nineteenth century.
As Kennedy and Shapiro argue, neoliberalism ought to be seen as con-
taining 40–50-year cycles that are stitched together by an overlapping

“hinge” or “Sattelzeit” period (Kennedy and Shapiro 2019). The first

phase runs from the 1930s through the mid-1960s, wherein different, but
often inter-dependent, responses to the economic crisis of the Great
Depression and the political one involving the rise of right-wing politics
are exemplified by the Nazi, Fascist, and Falangist regimes. Hence, in
many ways, neoliberalism can be understood as developing alongside
Keynesianism, and not simply or clearly afterwards. In this way, the pres-
ent moment may stand potentially as a conclusion to both neoliberalism
and a greater duration of approximately 90 years.
When this first phase of neoliberalism came into crisis (more below),
there ensued a contested decade from the mid-1960s to the early/mid-­
1970s in which there arose both avenues to overcome neoliberalism and
neoliberal preparations for a substantive move to become a more domi-
nant force, as would historically occur. A second phase then runs from the
early/mid-1970s until roughly the 2008/11 crisis. As before, the current
moment is likewise a mixed moment that contains both substantive efforts
to displace neoliberalism, while also presenting aspects of what may emerge
as a third longer phase (Shapiro 2019).
Yet, even this frame might not be expansive enough, since our current
moment of “late” neoliberalism may also mark the movement of capitalist
core hegemony outside of the dominant states of Western Europe and
North America towards East and South Asia, meaning that for the first
time in about 500 years, capitalism’s lodestar will no longer be easily con-
flated with Anglo-European primacy. The synchronization of these differ-
ently lengthened spirals of capitalist expanded reproduction has meant
that some critics mistake differences where they should espy continuities
and vice-versa. To better understand the general logistic of capitalism in its
neoliberal particularities, we will discuss below the difference between
periodization and periodicity. Due to the nested quality of capitalism’s
cycles, we prefer the term “long spiral” to the more conventional, but in
our minds overly sequential and two-dimensional, “long wave.” The key-
word long spiral better captures how the expanded circuit of capital’s
reproduction actually operates, as well as also better encouraging us to
perceive wormholes, those analogous moments that burrow across long
periods within cyclical capitalism.
Thirdly, in this collection, we insist on the constitutive role of culture in
all its textual, televisual, sonic, behavioural, performative, and socially
reproductive forms, while understanding that cultural productions have a
distinctiveness based on their dynamic location within the world-system.

The Neoliberal World-System

Our conception of neoliberal world-culture follows the WReC’s (Warwick
Research Collective) proposition that the analytic category of world-­
literature designates “a single but radically uneven world-system; a singu-
lar modernity, combined and uneven; and a literature that variously
registers this combined unevenness in both its form and its content to
reveal itself as, properly speaking, world-literature” (WReC 2015: 49),
but with the added understanding that it must therefore also be literature
of the “Capitalocene,” Jason W. Moore’s term to designate the geological
era dominated by the organization of nature-society within the capitalist
world-ecology (Moore 2016: 1). As such, we argue for a critical approach
to neoliberal world-culture aggregating:

1. a world-historical perspective of the nested temporalities of capital-

ism’s durées and cycles
2. a world-ecological conceptualization of capitalism as not only a

world-economy, but as constituted by and through ecological
3. a world-literary reading practice attentive to the aesthetic mediation
of combined and uneven development and to the hierarchical dif-
ferentiation of the world-system between cores, semiperipheries,
and peripheries

Crucially, this constellation of world-literary methodologies moves

beyond national-based criticism to comparison of multiple literary units,
located not only in different spaces but also in different temporal moments
of capitalism’s longue durée, with the singular modernity of the world-
system acting as an “universal baseline of comparison” (Brown 2005: 3).
In “World-Systems Analysis,” Immanuel Wallerstein summarizes the
world-­systems perspective in three defining characteristics. Firstly, he
asserts that the appropriate unit of geopolitical analysis is a “world-sys-
tem,” rather than isolated nation-states or regional areas. Secondly, he
contends that each world-system has a finite, albeit long, duration, with
several phases embedded within it. Finally, he focuses on “one particular
world-system,” the “capitalist world-economy” (Wallerstein 1990: 288).
This capitalist world-economy is distinguished by a number of ele-
ments. Its driving force is the ceaseless accumulation of capital. It is hier-
archically striated by an axial division of labour in which there is a

core-periphery tension, such that there is some form of unequal exchange

(not necessarily as defined originally by Arghiri Emmanuel) that is spatial;
at the same time, there are semiperipheral zones that mediate between
cores and peripheries. Unwaged labour, particularly that of the hidden
abode of social reproduction, continues to play a large and continuing role
alongside that of wage labour within this world-economy. Wallerstein
underlines the fundamental importance of racism and patriarchy in con-
cert with class as organizing principles of the system’s hierarchical exploi-
tation of labour, and insists on the nonprimordial character of states,
ethnic groups, and households, all of which are constantly created and
recreated. This systemic constellation of gender, race, class, and ecology in
relations of exploitation and appropriation has been importantly devel-
oped by the recent efflorescence of social reproduction theory by feminist
critics building on the important work of forerunners such as Silvia
Federici, the often-neglected Wilma Dunaway, who emphasizes the need
to “rescue women from the periphery of world-systems thought”(Dunaway
2002: 127), and Maria Mies, with her powerful critique of the way the
capitalist division of labour appropriates the unpaid work of “women,
nature, and colonies” (Mies 1986).
In contrast to the conventional Marxist focus on the nineteenth cen-
tury, Wallerstein locates the origins of the capitalist world-economy ear-
lier, in the sixteenth century, and thus speaks of 500 years of capitalist
modernity. He contends that the capitalist world-economy began in one
part of the world (largely Europe) and later expanded to the entire globe
via a process of successive, if violent, incorporations. The boundaries of
this world-economy align to an interstate system comprised of sovereign
states in competition with each other. Within this system arise hegemonic
states, each of whose periods of full or uncontested hegemony has, how-
ever, been relatively brief. At the same time, anti-systemic movements and
world-revolutions periodically emerge from below and simultaneously
undermine and reinforce the system. Capitalism as a world-system is char-
acterized by a pattern of both cyclical rhythms and secular trends that
incarnate the inherent contradictions of the system and which account for
the systemic crisis in which we are presently living (Wallerstein 1990:
287). Wallerstein concludes by emphasizing the need for contemporary
critics to focus on comparative approaches to inequality and on the iden-
tification of possible exits from the capitalist world-system (1990: 292).
In this, we would echo Wallerstein’s suggestion that the traditional dis-
ciplinary separation of studies of the market, the state, and culture from

one another is untenable in the context of neoliberal world-culture, and

that a new more integrated, transdisciplinary analysis is necessary.
Furthermore, we wish to highlight the significance of the semiperiphery
to our exploration of the role of culture. In discussions of the core-­
semiperiphery-­periphery, the tendency has been to treat these as spaces,
rather than processes, thus reducing the world-system to a homogeneous
geography of nation-states. Understood in terms of logistics rather than
reified territory, core zones are those which tend to have multiple produc-
tion processes, often involving secondary or finishing processes: core states
are strong sovereign states that are able to enforce their decisions about
the trans-boundary movements of goods, people, and capital (Wallerstein
2004: 46). In contrast, peripheral regions have weak sovereignty and usu-
ally tend towards monocultures of cash crops or extractive industries of
single export commodities, while semiperipheries combine the two
Mike Davis provides a useful alternative characterization of the divi-
sions of the contemporary neoliberal world-system when he describes our
“current period” as

defined by a trilogy of ideal-typical economies: superindustrial (coastal East

Asia financial/tertiary (North Atlantic), and hyperurbanizing/extractive
(West Africa). “Jobless growth” is incipient in the first, chronic in the sec-
ond, and absolute in the third. We might add a fourth ideal-type of disinte-
grating society whose chief trend is the export of refugees and migrant
labor. (Davis 2018: 7)

Using Davis’s ideal types of the North Atlantic core, East Asian semiper-
iphery, and West African periphery, we want to insist that core-­
semiperiphery-­periphery be understood as relational zones that operate
on multiple scales, rather than strictly national spheres. The movements of
goods, peoples, and environmental resources mean that the peripheries
exist both outside and within cores. Each spatial level (whether the house-
hold, city, region, nation, or macro-area) contains its own internal core-­
periphery differences (Shapiro 2008: 33).
As Neil Smith puts it, uneven development as both “social inequality
blazoned” onto the landscape and as the exploitation of “geographical
unevenness for certain socially determined ends” is “highly visible in land-
scapes as the difference between developed and underdeveloped spaces at
different scales: the developed and the underdeveloped world, developed

regions and declining regions, suburbs and the inner city” (2010: 206).
Urban settings have their own class-differentiated regions, from the
peripheral slums inhabited by manual labour forces and reserve armies of
the unemployed, to the core sectors where elite classes live and work. At a
higher level, individual nation-states are divided between internal periph-
eral and core-like zones, such as north/south and urban/agrarian divi-
sions. The urban cores of these different zones are often organized within
a ‘city-system’, where some cities are more dominant than others, and rise
and fade in prominence; at the global level, core cities in the world city
system exercise more power than others, whether in finance, industry, and
international politics or in the dissemination, translation, and consecration
of cultural capital.
However, because the social action of cores is too incommensurate
with that of the peripheries, the world-system requires a third calibrating
zone, the semiperiphery, in order to “translate” the culture and commodi-
ties of each sphere to another:

[The semiperiphery] receives, monetarizes, and forwards two kinds of com-

modities: the core’s “fictional” ones of credit, insurance, and contractual
property and intellectual rights and the periphery’s labor-power and natural
resources. As the “transistor” space where two different segments of a com-
modity chain become articulated and receive their first pricing, the semiper-
iphery is the contact zone that makes it possible for the core and periphery to
transmit value to each other, especially as both the rural dispossessed of the
hinterlands and the factors of the core’s jobbing interests congregate there,
one to commodify their labor and the other to finance and insure the material
apparatuses that will consume this labor-power. (Shapiro 2008: 37–38)

Semiperipheries exist simultaneously in core nations, like the United

Kingdom, the United States, or Germany, and in peripheral nations with
weaker sovereignty, like African or Caribbean states. In these sites, the
experiences of traumatic dispossession and exploitation by people from
peripheries subjected to primitive accumulation, enclosure, and extraction
collide together with the speculative entrepreneurship, technical innova-
tions, jobbing interests, and cultural forms of the core. In the peripheries,
the systemic violence and unevenness produced by capitalist development
are frequently starker, more brutally manifested. Semiperipheral cultural
forms mediating these experiences might thus be expected to display a
greater apprehension of the inequality and hierarchy that characterizes the
world-system’s divisions.

Consequently, we argue that the semiperipheries are the zones where

political economy receives its greatest cultural inflection, where socioeco-
nomic and socio-ecological contradictions are amplified and mediated
through new cultural innovations. This encounter often produces new
forms of world-cultural representation, conjoining oral cultures, folkloric
materials, and indigenous knowledge-systems from the periphery with the
printed traditions, behavioural performances, and institutionally conse-
crated notations of the core (Shapiro 2008: 38). Thus, Stephen Shapiro
and Philip Barnard see religious innovations, like Pentecostalism, as aris-
ing in the semiperipheral tissues of the United States in the early twentieth
century (Shapiro and Barnard 2017), while Michael Denning, as treated
in Sharae Deckard’s chapter in this volume, heralds the emergence of
world-music in the 1920s in the global archipelago of semiperipheral har-
bour towns and ports that received the music of deruralized peoples from
agrarian peripheries in colonies, and linked them to core nations’ trans-
portation and communication channels (Denning 2015). Similarly,
throughout the contributions to this volume, we can see examples of the
semiperipheral recalibration of peripheral and folkloric materials, whether
in discussions by Michael Niblett of Marlon James’ incorporation of inter-
medial genres from dancehall to gangster fiction to the yardie novel,
Matthew Eatough on the “translation of Xhosa culture” in South African
magical realism, Kerstin Oloff on the “monstrous turn” in Puerto Rican
fiction, Claire Westall on the transition from the subversive performances
of cricket as anti-colonial “playing back” to “neoliberal cricket accumula-
tion” in global crick lit, or Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado on the “neoliberal-
ization of Mexican cinema.”
If the neoliberal world-system is understood world-historically, then
the particular features of financialization and speculation, enclosure, accu-
mulation via dispossession and so forth that dominate this moment can be
seen to have historical antecedents in earlier phases of accumulation, par-
ticularly in what Giovanni Arrighi, using Fernand Braudel’s metaphor
(Braudel 1983: 246) has called the “autumn” of capital’s long cycles of
expanding and contracting accumulation, in which capitalists respond to
declining profit by reallocating capital from production to finance, and the
power of hegemonic complexes is challenged by emerging rivals (Arrighi
2002: 6). So too might these features be expected to have corollary cul-
tural forms that are different in their particularities but analogous in the
structural conditions that produce them, and even in the formal strategies
they adapt or reactivate from earlier moments to register those conditions.

As Braudel insisted, “It would be a mistake to imagine capitalism as some-

thing that developed in stages or leaps  – from mercantile capitalism to
financial capitalism, with some regular progression from one phase to the
next. […] Despite everything that has been written about the liberal com-
petitive capitalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, monopoly is
by no means a thing of the past. It has simply taken on new forms” (1983:
Giovanni Arrighi charts a powerfully suggestive approach to capital-
ism’s longue durée in The Long 20th Century, where he pursues “com-
parative analysis of successive systemic cycles of accumulation in an
attempt to identify […] patterns of recurrence and evolution” among
four systemic cycles of accumulation (2002: 6). These include “a Genoese
cycle, from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries; a Dutch
cycle, from the late sixteenth century through most of the eighteenth
century; a British cycle, from the latter half of the eighteenth century
through the early twentieth century; and a US cycle, which began in the
late nineteenth century and has continued into the current phase of
financial expansion” (7). Arrighi bases his cycles on “Marx’s general for-
mula of capital (MCM′)” as a “recurrent pattern of historical capitalism
as world system” (6). He argues that the central aspect of this pattern is
“the alternation of epochs of material expansion (MC phases of capital
accumulation) with phases of financial rebirth and expansion (CM′
phases)” which together constitute “a full systemic cycle of accumula-
tion (MCM′)” (6).
However, we have a central hesitation regarding Arrighi’s model, in
that what should be taken as an initial view into the complexities of the
world-system has become, in many of his followers’ hands, a machinic
reading devoid of class struggle. In this, we see three fundamental errors.
Firstly, the season metaphor has led some critics to assume a foreseeable
regularity and hence lazy predictability. Like Walter Benjamin’s descrip-
tion of Stalinist-era “historical materialism” as being like a mechanical
puppet that actually concealed a master chess-player who was supposed to
always win, these fully automated citations of Arrighi are more ­theological,
than analytical. They imply that all one needs to chart history is a calendar.
Yet critics from Marx to Braudel insist that history should be considered
as a dynamic logistic, not a mechanical schematic: “There is a tendency for
these great waves [of capitalist cyclicality] rolling in from the deep to
become shorter in length…a speeding up in the pace of history” (Braudel
1983: 78).

Secondly, a concomitant reduction occurs when using an overly simpli-

fied model of capital accumulation. Arrighi takes the MCM′ formula in
Capital Volume I as his template to explain world-history. Yet when Marx
himself began to broach his own discussion of the world market, the pre-
liminary equation was replaced in Capital Volume II with a more expanded
version involving the circuits of money and commodity capital, in addition
to the production capital that was only examined in Volume I. This was
the equation M-C…P…C′-M′. While this is not the place for a prolonged
exposition of the expanded scale of capital’s reproduction, it bears insist-
ing on the risks of misaligning a truncated exposition of capital from
Volume I, with the perspective of the world-system, for the former was
basically not designed for and cannot handle a useful discussion of the lat-
ter’s complex twists, nor can any other schematic of social or cultural his-
tory based on the reduced formula.
Here Braudel’s assertion of the need for a more multivariate typology
is useful. He suggests that the three “cases” of time involving an upward
trend, crisis, and downward trend have to be multiplied about Wallerstein’s
three “circles” of core, semiperiphery, and periphery, and that, in turn,
each of these nine situations has to be multiplied about “four social ‘sets’—
economics, politics, culture, and social hierarchy” to produce 36 distinc-
tive particularities (Braudel 1983: 85). Whether Braudel’s categories are
considered too many or too few(!), his larger point remains that a model
that only rests on three elements is simply not an adequate toolkit.
Lastly, an unfortunate legacy of Arrighi’s study has been the assump-
tion of sequential homogeneity, where each phase can be known as wholly
totalized by a single hegemon such as Britain, the United States, and so
forth. Wallerstein, who retains his importance as a key formulator of
world-systems theory, is absolutely clear that so neat a reduction is wrong:

Hegemony is a rare condition; to date only Holland, Great Britain, and the
United States have been hegemonic powers in the capitalist world-economy,
and each held the position for a relatively brief period […] The problem
with hegemony […] is that it is passing […] superiorities are successive, but
they overlap in time. Similarly, the loss of advantage [is] also largely succes-
sive. It follows that there is probably only a short moment in time […of]
hegemony. (Wallerstein 2011a: 38–9)

Furthermore, Wallerstein distinguishes between “two major cyclical pro-

cesses,” a Kondratieff cycle of “more or less fifty or sixty years in length-­

cycles of expansion and stagnation in the world-economy as whole. The

second major cyclical process is a much slower one; it is the rise and demise
of hegemonic powers in the interstate system” (2011b: 276). Hence,
Wallerstein cautions against a too swift or too fixed linkage between capi-
talist rhythms and a particular nation-state’s hegemony, since even though
the “capitalist world-economy needs the states, needs the inter-state sys-
tem, and needs the periodic appearance of hegemonic powers…the prior-
ity for capitalists is never the maintenance, much less the glorification, of
any of these structures. The priority remains always the endless accumula-
tion of capital” (2004: 59). Finally, hegemony for Wallerstein typically
occurs after a “thirty years’ war” that “implicates all the major economic
loci of the world-system and have historically pitted an alliance grouped
around the putative constructor of a world-empire against an alliance
grouped around a putative hegemonic power” (58). Consequently, a less
static and overly mechanistic understanding of contemporary processes
than that provided by Arrighi’s epigones is necessary.
Such a world-systems inflected approach must not be so overdetermin-
ing of inter-state competition and the temporal cycles that shape the
world-system that it excludes analysis of modes of resistance-from-below
or to the forms of culture that can either call-into-being or challenge dif-
ferent accumulation regimes by stabilizing or destabilizing the realign-
ment of class formations and alliances. To the contrary, by rigorously
periodizing the accumulation regime, and restoring the repressed horizon
of capitalism’s long duration, while rejecting mere culturalism, a recuper-
ated cultural studies can very usefully teach us about aspects of neoliberal-
ism that economics and political journalism cannot or have not: exploring
the particular experience-systems, rationalities, bodily dispositions, socio-­
ecological regimes, cultural genres and forms, and modes of political resis-
tance that mediate processes of neoliberalization, and the ways in which
cultural forms register, imagine, and make-history-from-below. Our con-
tributors address this whole range of affects and subjectivities, whether
Amy Rushton on the “neoliberal model of mental health” and those fic-
tional explorations of “suicidal depression” that are “productively
­disruptive” of hegemonic ideology, Daniel Hartley on the uneven modali-
ties of “depersonalization and (re-)personalization” under neoliberal capi-
talism, Kerstin Oloff on the use of horror and grotesque aesthetics to
register socio-ecological degradation, Sharae Deckard on the “locomotive
consciousness” associated with African resource fictions and insurgency, or
Mathias Nilges on the role of neoliberal “cultural regulation” in produc-

ing forms of thought and morality. To the critique of domination enabled

by a systemic approach to the neoliberal world-system, we would add
analysis of the culture of neoliberal discontent.

Neoliberalism and Neoliberalization
A second major claim of this book is that much of the lack of conceptual
clarity surrounding critique of neoliberal culture has been due to a lack
of consideration about the difference between neoliberalism and neolib-
eralization. Here, we propose that the triptych of modernization/
modernity/modernism could be usefully reconfigured to distinguish
between neoliberalization, neoliberal modernity, and neoliberalism.
Thus, “neoliberal modernity” might specifically name the particular
world-historical moment of the neoliberal world-system, encompassing
the experience-systems, socio-ecological formations, and sensoriums that
exist within it.
Following on, “neoliberalization” would refer to the material processes
and technologies of capitalist penetration and development, including
financialization, privatization, structural adjustment, outsourcing, enclo-
sure, flexibilization and dematerialization of labour, precarization, new
regimes of algorithmic governmentality (Rouvroy 2013), and novel tech-
nics of enclosure and appropriation of nature (Moore 2015) enabled by
revolutions in bioinformatics and genomics and so forth, all of which gen-
erate the new lifeworlds of neoliberal modernity.
Finally, “neoliberalism,” or “neoliberal world-culture,” would name
the particular market ideologies, economic policies, development models,
and academic paradigms associated with the global “neoliberal thought
collective” (Plehwe 2009a: 4), indicating those forms of neoliberal
thought that occupy the cultural dominant but are nonetheless striated by
internal conflicts and inter-capitalist competition and unevenly imple-
mented across the world-system, as well as the broader cultural forms
through which the neoliberal world-system is constituted and represented
as a lived reality. At the same time, neoliberal world-culture would also
encompass those emergent forms of cultural mediation of neoliberal
modernity that are counter-hegemonic in their critique of the processes of
neoliberalization and the dominance of neoliberal ideology of competi-
tion and calculation, registering the culture of discontent against the
abstraction of financialization and the scarring violence of seizure capital-
ism’s accumulation via dispossession.

The distinction we seek to make here between neoliberalism and neo-

liberalization is not simply a matter of splitting terms, but rather has sev-
eral key implications. Firstly, “neoliberalization” as a keyword enables us
to question the way in which the neoliberal period is sometimes presented
as a sudden break from the past. Instead of conceiving the present in terms
of unprecedented rupture or novelty, it leads us to explore how neoliber-
alization works through the reformation and reconfiguration of longer
lasting predicates and strategies for the current moment of capital.
Secondly, the use of a triumvirate of terms seeks to avoid both “strategic
culturalist” and “reflectionist” interpretations of neoliberalism, that either
overemphasize the role of culture or diminish it by portraying it as a deter-
ministic result of political processes, insisting instead on a dynamic reading
of culture as one of many relations in the complex totality of pressures that
is neoliberal capitalism. Thirdly, the specific contrast between neoliberal-
ism and neoliberalization seeks to differentiate between the baggy nomi-
nalism of an unchanging, homogeneous thing-form—an “ism”—from a
dynamic process—an “ization”—that involves multiple, often contradic-
tory operations that are never simply guaranteed in outcome or predict-
able in advance. Neoliberalization as a term, thus, foregrounds an
antagonistic conception of the political agency of elites in conflict with
modes of contestation-from-below: the blockages to the strategies of neo-
liberalization presented by new modes of political resistance.
As Jamie Peck usefully argues, it is not satisfactory to construct a
“broad-brush account of neoliberalism as a global regulatory architecture,
imposed from above, or as a metaphor for the ideological air that we all
(must) breathe” or “as a summary label, to be applied to particular politi-
cians, policy techniques, or as parts of the world” (Peck 2010: xi). Instead,
Peck proposes that we should treat “neoliberalization” as a “never-­
inevitable ascendency” and as an “open-ended and contradictory process
of politically assisted market role” (emphasis original; Peck 2010: xii), one
that has been broadening and deepening its implementation, but that also
has reversals, oppositions, and blockages of discontent. To indicate the
perspicuity of this position, we wish to examine the implications of one
such brief reversal.
A common historical narrative has charted the prehistory of American
“Chicago School” neoliberalism through an anticipatory and inter-linked
prehistory involving German-speaking ordoliberals, often known as the
Freiburg School, who developed anti-socialist and anti-Keynesian ideas
about the state’s exclusion from planning. In a process that would later be

repeated within the United Kingdom and the United States, a group of
economists became highly successful in having their claims institutional-
ized within formal state policies in the post-war period. When Friedrich
Hayek moved to the University of Freiburg in the 1960s to take up a
professorship after a long spell at the University of Chicago, he returned
to a Germany that was organized by the so-called Erhard-Röpke Plan,
thanks to Ludwig Erhard’s role as West Germany’s Minister of Economic
Affairs since 1949. Despite the conventional tale that sees ordoliberalism
as mainly an academic exercise, post-war German policy was, in fact, orga-
nized through ordo/neoliberal policies (Kennedy and Shapiro 2019).
While Erhard held to strict anti-inflationary controls of the money supply,
he also removed in 1948 “the entire structure of Nazi-era price and wage
controls, while slashing taxes on incomes and capital, establishing what
has since been celebrated as a deregulatory tabular rasa” (Peck 2010: 56).
Yet, this move was not without consequences, since, “Three days later, the
Russians established the Berlin blockade, in order to contain the effects of
currency reform, triggering the beginning of the Cold War” (Peck 2010:
56). While Erhard’s policies might have still catapulted him to the German
Chancellorship in 1963, a changing world-system may have resulted as
well in his fall. From here, “Ordo histories recount that his exit from
office, in 1966, coincided with the country’s surrender to the evils of
bureaucratic intervention, welfarism, overregulation, and ‘penal’ levels of
taxation” (Peck 2010: 57), even though ordoliberal policies arguably per-
sisted in lower-key modulations through social market claims. One result
of Erhard’s sparking of the Cold War would be increasing opposition
throughout the world to being forced into spheres of influence, as seen
with the formation of the non-aligned Group of 77 in 1964.
While most histories of neoliberal practices recount the work of ordo-
liberal theory, few consider its political rise and fall. The standard narra-
tives typically skip ahead to monetarist success within the United States in
the atmosphere of the Nixon administration’s 1971 abandonment of the
gold standard and the ensuing 1973 oil crisis. While this is not the place
for a detailed investigation into 1960s political economy, we want to high-
light this seeming “pause” that occurs from the mid-1960s to the ­early/
mid-1970s between two longer phases of neoliberalism to make a few
points that will characterize and exemplify this collection’s approach to
neoliberalization as a dynamic process.
Firstly, and most obviously, it challenges conventional narratives of the
uncontestable rise of neoliberalism by indicating the historic existence of a

rollback or containment of neoliberal policies even after they had crossed a

threshold to become state policy. If historically this was the case in German
ordoliberalism, then so, too, might it be a future possibility for state-­
endorsed varieties of neoliberal economic policy. The bridging between
two longer phases also raises interesting questions about the differential
conditions of possibility for neoliberalization across the world-system.
While Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics has become a much-read resource for
understanding neoliberal governmentality, many of his historical claims for
the ascent of neoliberalism have not been fully explored. In particular, we
would highlight the significance of his 1979 lecture on “the difference
between American and European neo-liberalism,” in which he asserts that
a contributing factor to the success of neoliberalism in the United States,
as opposed to the reversal of ordoliberalism in Germany, was that the “daily
struggle against the development of an imperialist and military state” by
left constellations throughout the 1960s and early 1970s was as active as
the right in attacking the Keynesian, Fordist state as a bureaucratic imposi-
tion in personal relationships in ways that meant social security provisions
were left with a weakened host of defenders, unlike the German state in the
early and mid-1960s (Foucault 2008: 218). Although formal political par-
tisanship is of course but one small feature in the larger landscape of the
neoliberal turn, it could be argued that the fragmentation of the Democrat
Party in the United States, especially in the 1990s policy of policy triangu-
lation, in contrast to the rise of the Social Democratic Party in Germany,
helped accelerate the ascension of the neoliberal dominant.
Secondly, we would argue that neoliberal forces used cultural tactics to
actively contour Keynesian enactments even during a period when con-
ventional accounts see the latter as unassailable. In the United States, this
is evident in the skirmishes over collegiate textbooks used to introduce
economics within the liberal arts curriculum in the rapidly expanding
post-war American university. David Colander and Harry Landreth argue
that “the so-called Keynesian revolution in economics involved a three-­
part interrelated process—a policy revolution, a theoretical revolution,
and a textbook revolution,” all of which “met with political resistance”
(Colander and Landreth 1998: 59). In particular, they note the impor-
tance of the pedagogical revolution in the tools and models used to teach
macroeconomics, which “not only reflected the theoretical and policy
developments, but also played a significant role in determining the course
of the other revolutions” by generating a new knowledge formation
(Colander and Landreth 1996: 3).

If teaching is understood as integral to the production of culture,

then just as Keynesian claims worked through cultural mediums, then
so, too, was the cultural a field of contestation in which neoliberals were
also active. A commonplace has been to conceptualize neoliberalism’s
origins as existing outside firm institutionalization or active contestation
with Keynesian thought, ensconcing itself instead within the self-pro-
tected enclosures of the Mont Pèlerin Society. Yet, to the contrary, neo-
liberals were simultaneously shaping the institutional terms of their
opponents, in ways that would ultimately allow them to overcome
Keynesian thought.
In 1947, Lorie Tarshis, a former student of Keynes in Cambridge who
had accepted an academic post in the United States, published The
Elements of Economics: An Introduction to the Theory of Price and
Employment. Perhaps the first general introduction to Keynesian
approaches for American lay and undergraduate readers, Elements por-
trayed “the government as an agency through which people acted collec-
tively for the common good” (Colander and Landreth 1998: 61). Initially
widely adopted and taught to American undergraduates, Elements subse-
quently became the target of a successful red-baiting campaign launched
by the libertarian polemicist Rose Wilder Lane, employed by Merwin Hart
on behalf of the National Economic Council (NEC), an organization
formed to combat New Deal “liberalism” (Lawson 2015: 3).1 The
Canadian-born, but American-naturalized Tarshis found his textbook
widely blackballed, subjected to screeds by William F. Buckley, and even-
tually reduced to a dead letter. In its place, Paul A. Samuelson’s Economics:
An Introductory Analysis (1948) became the canonical book for teaching
Keynesian perspectives.
While Tarshis wrote in a lively style that was directed to a common
reader, replete with practical examples and a “passion for demonstrating
to ordinary citizens the principles undergirding macro-economic per-
formance,” Samuelson deliberately adopted a more detached and ana-
lytical tone that used an air of scientific technicality to forestall political
attacks (Lawson 2015: 4). Wendy Brown has described the “stealth
revolution” of neoliberalism’s demophobic culture (Brown 2015), and
the pressure on Samuelson to avoid Tarshis’s welcoming style for lay
readers in favour of technocratic authority is one example of how the
neoliberal disdain for democratic movements was successful in curtailing
the imaginative horizon of post-war American liberalism very early in its

Furthermore, Samuelson’s book was viewed by British Keynesians as

fatally deficient in its understanding of Keynes, in ways that would have
consequential policy effects. As Catherine Lawson explains:

[T]he approach used by Tarshis would not have paved the way for the rise
and ultimate implementation of Monetarist policies within the Federal
Reserve in the late 1970s, as did the approach of Samuelson’s text. While
there were many factors at work in that development, one of them was the
inability of the Keynesianism envisioned by Samuelson (as expressed, for
example, in his famous 45-degree diagram) to explain the phenomenon of
rising inflation occurring simultaneously with high unemployment (so-­
called stagflation.) This became a powerful factor discrediting what had
been the dominant (if bastardized or, at least, stylized) Keynesian paradigm.
Yet a variety of alternative explanations […] had been inspired by Keynes’s
General Theory. (Lawson 2015: 4)

The various forces that delimited the range of liberal thought also
spurred the creation of new intellectual warriors in the fight against
Keynesianism. For instance, Harold Luhnow gained control of his
deceased uncle’s William Volker Charities Fund and redirected its activity
towards conservative ends (Van Horn and Philip Mirowski 2009: 141).
Luhnow’s fund financed the academic posts of Ludwig von Mises at
New York University and Friedrich Hayek at the University of Chicago, to
the extent that Hayek’s “entire ten years at Chicago were financed exclu-
sively by Luhnow’s ample resources” (Lawson 2015: 8). Luhnow “also
underwrote the project that would ultimately result in the publication of
Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom” after he had unsuccessfully
tried to persuade Hayek to write a more reader friendly version of The
Road to Serfdom (9).2 Other mass, popular culture interventions that
sought to advance Hayek’s ideas within the United States include an
abbreviated version of The Road to Serfdom that appeared in a 1945 issue
of Reader’s Digest and also, in the same year, a brief graphic version in Look
magazine (The Institute of Economic Affairs 1999).
This truncated history demonstrates how neoliberal forces powerfully
contested American liberalism, shaping its eventual failure by ensuring a
weaker version of Keynesianism would be instantiated. The history of neo-
liberalism needs to account not only for the complex of cultural and finan-
cial interests antecedent to economic knowledge formation, but for its
ability to define the terms of its antagonists in the first instance.

It also has parallels with our own twenty-first century moment of the
global reorganization of higher education to produce what is now being
widely called “the neoliberal university,” a process which can be under-
stood as bound up not only with the vicious asset-stripping of education
and other public sector goods but as part of the cultural fix necessary to
stabilize and reconstitute neoliberalism after the 2008 crisis, by disciplin-
ing and reshaping the intellectuals active in knowledge production. In this
we contend that while world-literature in our understanding is always the
literature created within the conditions of the capitalist world-system, it is
significant that “world literature” as a category of critical analysis within
academia reemerged in 2000 with Franco Moretti’s essay “Conjectures on
World Literature,” and gained momentum in the period when capital reas-
sembled itself after the 2008 crisis.
In the terrain of this discipline, we can see a war of position being con-
ducted between those desirous of a more totalizing, politicized under-
standing of capitalism’s systemic crises and interested in the capacity of
world-cultural forms to critique or inflect capitalism’s development, while
critical of the increasing commodification and alienation of all forms of
knowledge and cultural production, and those for whom world literature
is more purely a matter of formalist analysis, humanist appreciation or
taste, or datafied analysis, and whose criticism presents no threat to neo-
liberal consensus as such.
Thirdly, while neoliberal policies may have been endogenously devel-
oped within the lineaments of a particular nation-state (and language ter-
ritory), the room for the operation of political elites was shaped by the
world-systemic environment characterized by the encounter between a
rising American hegemon in the post-war period in the face of the USSR
and their mutual construction of the Cold War. Cold War tactics and
decolonial forces shaped the development of neoliberal claims even in its
earliest formations.
Thanks to Naomi Klein, the story of the Chicago School neoliberals’
involvement with the Pinochet military dictatorship has become a power-
ful narrative for how capitalism uses the peripheries of the world-system as
a laboratory to perfect “shock doctrine” techniques before implementing
them in core nations (Klein 2007), not least since peripheral peoples often
have less institutional capacity to resist the predations of neoliberal capital-
ism because their own local governmental and social elites are complicit in
its deployment. Yet offering Pinochet’s 1973 coup as the crucial moment

of the “neoliberal turn,” as in Klein’s account, is too late a dating to

account for the constitutive role of the Bandung era (1950s–1970s).
To give just one example, as Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado describes in this
volume, even as early as the 1930s, post-revolutionary Mexico played an
important role in the history of neoliberalism, when national right-wing
and business and financial sectors began to mobilize critiques of Keynesian
paradigms in opposition to the leftist populist presidency of Lázaro
Cárdenas. As such, the Mexican counterrevolution “opened the space for
political ideas tied to the purported connection between freedom and
free-market,” which would be reinforced with the visit of Mont Pèlerin
figures in 1958, even if the economic boom of the “Mexican miracle” in
the 1950s seemed to give credence to the then-dominant nationalist
Keynesian policies of the government. The early presence of key ideologi-
cal tenets of the neoliberal programme in the political and intellectual
discourse of financial sectors in Mexico, far before the Volcker Shock, were
consequential in Mexico becoming one of the first major sites of neoliber-
alization, a “laboratory” for processes later unfolded across the globe.
Sánchez Prado rightly concludes that the periodization of neoliberalism
must not only develop fuller understandings of experiences of neoliberal-
ism outside of Euro-America but must also recognize that its rise occurred
over a longer durée than is sometimes acknowledged, and was directly
related to “the formation of fields of cultural production tied to develop-
ment of economic knowledge as a purported defense of freedom against
global Keynesian-style policies which, particularly in regions like Latin
America, were essential engines of economic growth when implemented
by regimes following populist paradigms.”
Furthermore, to conceive of the postcolonies and peripheries of the
world-system as solely “targets” for the kind of “shock doctrine” interven-
tion Klein so powerfully describes would be to efface the dynamic pro-
cesses of contestation that take place alongside such testing. Indeed,
Quinn Slobodian contends that neoliberalism was shaped through the
post-war processes of decolonization (Slobodian 2018). Dieter Plehwe
also argues that in the Bandung era:

Decolonization, and concomitantly rising “Third Worldism,” continued to

present enormous challenges to neoliberal perspectives. The revolutionary
aspirations of the popular masses in the Third World, utopian egalitarianism,
an emphasis on a strong and centralized state to accomplish development,
and international alliances all combined with rhetorical commitments to

transnational unions (pan-Arabism, pan-Africanism, etc.) in favor of regional

integration and redistribution. (Plehwe 2009b: 253)

Here, then, is another key factor in the “pause” of neoliberalization

between its two phases. If the Group of 77’s initial declaration at the UN
in 1964 was a catalyst in facilitating Erhard’s fall from power and Germany’s
turn back from ordoliberal policies, the decolonization of the Third World
may have been as great an antagonist to the ascent of neoliberal hegemony
given that Anglo-European Cold War policies supported state-led and
socialist development programmes in postcolonial nations, such as Nehru’s
India, in exchange for their political distance from the Soviet Union.
However, the state-led redistribution projects and welfarist policies that
benefited metropolitan working classes in capitalist cores during the
Keynesian “Golden Age” were ultimately dependent on the surpluses
extracted from the peripheries and semiperipheries of the world-system:
Fanon’s famous observation that “Europe is literally the creation of the
Third World” (Fanon 1963: 102). The policies of military and other vari-
eties of Keynesianism were also fuelled by the “cheap energy” of abundant
post-war energy surpluses whose extraction “built a working class that was
able to resist its exploitation and whose demands for equality could be met
through the energy its labor made profitable” (Patel and Moore 2017:
Jason W.  Moore emphasizes the fact that the rapid appropriation of
surpluses by capitalist ecological regimes is gradually undermined as they
encounter not only biophysical limits to extraction but also the exhaustion
that emerges from “the intertwining of resistances” from labouring classes,
such as industrial strikes, worker exhaustion, and insurgencies; landscape
changes generated by climate volatility, hydrological or soil exhaustion,
famine, drought or natural disaster, and market flux, including price vola-
tility and boom-bust dynamics (Moore 2011: 46). In this light, we can
understand decolonization struggles for political determination and
national sovereignty over resources as a fundamental challenge to the eco-
logical regime on which Keynesianism was founded.
This point can be clarified by a short illustration from the Caribbean
context. From the 1950s onwards, Jamaica was one of the world’s largest
exporters of bauxite, its extractivist economy dominated by a monoculture
of raw material export, monopolized by North American companies
including Alcan, Reynolds, Kaiser Alpart, Revere, and Alcoa. Bauxite pro-
vides the red ore from which aluminium is refined, and as Mimi Sheller has

argued, it has been central to the making and uneven development of capi-
talist modernity, providing the material culture in which the built environ-
ments that support the world-economy are founded, from vehicles, to
food-packaging, to electricity lines in long-distance power-grids, to hydro-
electric power projects, to powders in cosmetics, foods, paints, vaccines,
bombs, missile fuels, and nano-technologies (Sheller 2014: 2).
Bauxite’s political ecology is inextricably bound up with the rise of
resource imperialism conducted by multinational corporations and with
the dispossession of native indigenous peoples from the sites around the
world where it is extracted. Aluminium was inseparable from the entrench-
ment of US world economic and military power during the Cold War
period, central to the technologies of warfare and air power and to the
political ecology of military Keynesianism (Sheller 2014: 5). Supplies of
bauxite ore are not widely distributed across the planet, and North
American aluminium companies thronged to Jamaica in the 1950s, both
because of its rich deposits and because of the guarantee of cheap labour
and political stability.
These corporations paid little to no tax and did not invest in other sec-
tors of the economy, even insisting on importing mining equipment, while
pursuing land grabs that displaced half a million rural Jamaicans over the
decades from 1943 to 1970, leading to mass urbanization and mass unem-
ployment. In the 1976 election, the leftist People’s National Party
(PNP) led by Michael Manley and supported by a coalition of the urban
poor, blue-collar workers, youth, farmers and domestics, and unemployed,
campaigned intensively for resource sovereignty and the dismantling of
neo-colonial trade relations. Under Manley, many of Jamaica’s industries
were nationalized, and he proposed a bauxite levy on the mining corpora-
tions. Subsequently, the United States, frightened by the prospect of the
nationalization of the bauxite industry and the loss of the “cheap” alu-
minium vital to the Cold War, as well as the political spectre of a red wave
of socialism cascading across the Caribbean archipelago, sent CIA opera-
tives to destabilize the PNP and back the conservative Jamaica Labour
Party led by Edward Seaga, known popularly as “CIA-ga.” The proven
model of destabilization combining political violence with the Friedmanite
measures of the Chicago School deployed in Chile after President Nixon
ordered the CIA to “make the economy scream” in order to oust Salvador
Allende was subsequently repeated in Jamaica to force Manley to capitu-
late to loan conditions, creating artificial food shortages and using ‘shock
and awe’ tactics of terror.

As Michael Niblett describes in his discussion of Marlon James’ A Brief

History of Seven Killings in this volume, these tactics included arming pos-
ses of organized crime and drug traffickers, as well as a CIA-sponsored
assassination attempt on Bob Marley, whose Rasta politics were seen as a
bulwark to Manley’s success. In the name of fighting communism and
spreading the “democratic” doctrine of the “free market” throughout the
hemisphere, Reagan signed the 1983 “Caribbean Basin Initiative,” which
brought more than 600 million in loans and foreign investment to the
Jamaican economy. Stricken in the wake of the 1973 and 1979 oil crises,
Seaga’s government accepted the stringent structural adjustment demands
of the IMF and World Bank in exchange for these loans, enacting a “vir-
tual counterrevolution” that reprivatized the industries nationalized under
Manley, removed price controls and tariffs including the bauxite levy, cre-
ated new free trade zones, defeated the unions, and drastically cut state
services and social programmes (Stolzoff 2000: 102).
This quintessential moment of neoliberalization in the Caribbean is
thus embedded in a complex ecology involving not only Cold War geo-
politics and the subsequent “cold drug war” that would unfold across the
hemisphere, but also the commodity frontiers enabling profitable extrac-
tion of resources such as bauxite, as well as the oil energy regime under-
pinning the world-system. Kerstin Oloff’s discussion in this volume
provides similar insights into the relationship between oil crisis, energy
colonialism, and the aftermath of the end of the oil-fuelled Operation
Bootstrap development programme in Puerto Rico. Ultimately, the mas-
sive financial and human costs of the Vietnam War and the revanchism of
the OPEC nations played a significant role in hurtling the United States
towards the breakup of Keynesian-informed policies in the 1970s, when
neoliberal ideologues took opportunistic advantage to insert their own
claims. The struggle between Keynesian and neoliberal economic and
state policy, in all cases, cannot be ignored or be isolated from the world-­
ecology of self-determination movements across the Third World.
Consequently, we approach the problem of comprehending neoliberal-
ism from a world-ecology/world-systems perspective that seeks a defini-
tion based less on formal characteristics and more as a dynamic phenomenon
that registers the changing global composition of class relations governing
the exploitation of peoples and the appropriation of natural resources.
Distinguishing between the cultural dominant of neoliberalism and the
dynamic processes of neoliberalization helps to redirect our attention to
the liberation struggles that some critics worry risk being obscured in the

“world-literary turn,” but also to the cyclical temporality of “world-­

revolutions” across the longue durée of capitalism, described by
Christopher Chase-Dunn as those “clusters of social movements and
rebellions that break out in different regions of the system during the
same time periods […] designated by symbolic years in which dramatic
collective actions occurred that characterize the nature of each cluster:
1789, 1848, 1917, 1954, 1968, 1989” (Chase-Dunn 2017: 738). It also
leads us to ask how neoliberal world-culture can be interpreted in light of
the periodic recurrence of certain cultural forms, genres, or aesthetics at
different points in systemic cycles not only in relation to the cyclical crises
of accumulation but also in relation to the periodic outbursts of revolu-
tionary resistance that seek to refashion the world—the culture of discon-
tent that seeks to imagine an exit from the neoliberal era.

Periodicity and Periodization
This question of periodic recurrence leads to our third main aim in this
volume, which is to complicate the question of neoliberalism’s periodiza-
tion by exploring its periodicity. The “pause” of neoliberalization between
1966 and 1971/73 is once more helpful in illustrating the pitfalls of peri-
odization. The “problem” of periodization is far more commonly
­understood than periodicity, especially since the former has been taken as
the dominant question for post-1800 historiography.
Periodization involves the task of differentiating and separating socio-­
temporal phases, often through according to forms of cultural expression,
patterns of social subordination, technology, or mode of production.
Whether the units of time handled are short and spasmodic or temporali-
ties so long in duration as to be nearly indiscernible to human observation,
a periodizing study defines searches for representative fractures to locate
ruptures in sequential time-space. Consequently, periodization studies
often lend themselves to highlighting “Great Men” and dates of signal
events, and are thus vulnerable to overestimating the performative power
of bravura declarations.
Rather than seeking differences, the search for periodicity looks to
ascertain the nature of recurring familiarities across historical cycles of
capital’s expanded reproduction. The value of periodicity in opening up a
new perspective of historical study can be understood with reference to
chemistry’s periodic table of elements. For instance, all the elements lack-
ing an electron are presented vertically as halogens, so that viewers can

understand that all the elements in that column operate similarly, even if
they are non-contiguous, and that the operation of one analogous element
(i.e. fluorine) can be surmised from another (i.e. chlorine). Yet while all
halogens function analogously, they also have unique features based on
their horizontal location due to increasing weight, what we might call
their periodizing features.
We can begin contouring this different approach by recuperating the
intimations of Marx’s conception of capital’s periodicity. While Capital
Volume I does not fully flesh out a theory of periodicity, perhaps because
Marx imagined that it would belong more properly to his long-planned
but never-delivered analysis of the world market, he does telegraph his
concerns in ways that will matter for our understanding of neoliberalism.
As Marx is wont to do in Volume I, he grounds a conceptual question
about capital’s logistics on concrete labour practices. In his extensive
descriptions about the horrific living and work conditions for (often female
and child) textile workers, Marx writes that “alongside the general and
periodic changes in the industrial cycle, and special fluctuations in the
markets to which industry is subject, we may also reckon what is called
‘the season’, dependent either on the periodicity of favourable seasons of
the year for navigation, or on fashion,” that requires work to be “executed
in the shortest possible time” (1977: 608). The prior naturalness of the
year’s ebbs and flows become changed and become “more frequent with
the extension of railways and telegraphs” (608). Marx argues thus that the
collision of seasonal time and human consumption is transformed by the
factor of the world market in two fundamental ways that initially seem
incompatible with another.
On one hand, Marx suggests that capital’s periodicity only emerges
fully with more developed capitalism, and is not as easily identified in its
earlier centuries: “the peculiar cyclical path of modern industry” of “aver-
age activity, production at high pressure, crisis, and stagnation” is one that
“occurs in no earlier period of human history, was also impossible when
capitalist production was in its infancy,” primarily because of the absence
of a large population of “unemployed or semi-employed ‘hands’” (1977:
785). As conceived here, periodicity is a feature of modernity, but is
dependent on the expansion of capitalism beyond its European perime-
ters, not least as it requires the incorporation of peoples in non- or weakly-­
capitalist regions and their transformation into subjects of capitalist
peripheries with high degrees of unwaged labour. It arises only after capi-
talism has had a profound influence on “the whole of national produc-

tion” in the aftermath of the human flow of dispossession from rural

regions, and at an international scale “only after the world market had
successfully annexed extensive area of the New World, Asia, and Australia
and finally, only after a sufficient number of industrial nations had entered
the arena” (786).
On the other hand, while Marx portrays periodicity as emerging fully
only in more advanced phases of capitalism, he also sees it as reactivating
and resituating earlier forms of wage and coerced labour. Marx cites Jean
Charles Sismondi’s “deeper insight” that feudal-like forms of domination
are recalled even in the most developed commodity production of Belgian
lace (Marx 1977: 345). Furthermore, as the world market expands “lower
forms of slave-labor, the corvée,” are drawn in and utilized in unrecon-
structed ways (345). Since the nineteenth century, the conditions of Black
American slavery become “a factor in the calculated and calculating sys-
tem” that leads to British factories (345). These two seemingly divergent
features of periodicity—its appearance only in modern times, alongside its
resurrection of prior ones—stand as examples of what Marx called the
Zwitterform (hermaphroditic or intersex form) of “combined subsump-
tion” linking otherwise incongruous social modes and temporalities (645).
Our insistence on Marx’s linkage of periodicity with that of the
Zwitterform of combined and uneven development functions to operate
both spatially and temporally. Not only do periodic cycles reach across
non-contiguous and non-sequential time to analogous moments, but they
also reach across space to create the mesh that is the world-system’s car-
tography. As the WReC asserts, periodicity is a useful analytic for world-­
literary critics because it enables us to move beyond linear, diachronic
analysis to vertical, synchronic comparison of the punctual ways in which
cultural forms emerge and recur over the long waves of capital accumula-
tion across different zones:

We prefer to speak then not of literary forms spreading or unfolding across

empty time (and hence of literary history as being divided into sequential
“periods” – classicism, realism, modernism, postmodernism, etc.), but of a
periodic recurrence of forms that are brought into being (and often into col-
lision with other, pre-existing forms) through the long waves of the capitali-
sation of the world. (2015: 50–51)

Capital’s constitution as “an internal processional of recurring economic

cycles that differ in their dominant form and geography of social inter-

course, but not in their fundamentals” (Shapiro 2008: 31) can be usefully
conceived as a three-dimensional “long spiral” (Shapiro 2016: 16; Deckard
2017: 90) that repeats earlier processes but in newly expanded and inno-
vative forms.
The search for periodicity identifies analogical similarities in chronically
contiguous moments within capitalism’s long spiral, when writers might
seek to reactivate older literary forms that mediate similar processes and
refashion them to provide a new conceptual and aesthetic model for the
present, while accepting that these recurrences have their own anagram-
matic particularity. This identification of contiguities should be predicated
as analytical, rather than simply predicative, enabling the explication of
recurrences, rather than deterministic, assuming that similarities will
always appear. World-literary critics must therefore read the idiographic
particularities of cultural registrations at different historical points in ten-
sion with the nomothetic tendencies of capitalism’s long spiral. Applying
this to the problem of neoliberal world-culture, instead of treating the
aesthetics of literary representations in the neoliberal period as exceptional
or unprecedented, we might periodize them in relation to texts from ear-
lier historical moments when hegemonic regimes were in their contraction
and decline.
As Eli Jelly-Schapiro notes, the features of “late” neoliberal capitalism
have a genealogical preformation in earlier forms of primitive accumula-
tion. Furthermore, he argues that neoliberalism is not composed of one
“unitary neoliberal rationality,” but rather of three different temporal
“moments” of primitive accumulation, expanded reproduction, and accu-
mulation by fabrication that are articulated within the “complex unity” of
the neoliberal world-system, wherein each constitutive element maintains
its particularity:

The moment of primitive accumulation prefaces and founds the moment of

expanded reproduction, the crises of which then provoke—and are deep-
ened by—processes of accumulation by fabrication. If we limit our geo-
graphic focus to one national space—to Marx’s “classic” example of
England, say—there is a certain, if limited, plausibility to this sequential
narrative. But when we bring the broader world system of capital into
sharper focus it becomes clear that these three temporalities are—historically
and in the neoliberal context—synchronous. […] In the late-neoliberal
present, these dynamics persist. Expanded reproduction continues to be
enabled by outright dispossession. And the efficacy of capitalist ideology in

the global North continues to be ensured in part by the enactment of crude

state violence in the global South (or in spaces of exclusion within the
North). That the “reserves of coercion and force” are applied with an espe-
cial intensity on the other side of the tracks ensures the potency of the
“structure of moral reflexes” on this side. (Jelly-Schapiro 2019)

These “moments” are embedded in a temporal succession which is not

diachronic but rather synchronic, so that different forms of neoliberal
accumulation and governance are paradigmatic in different spaces of the
hierarchically divided world-system. If as we have suggested earlier, the
overemphasis of criticism from Anglo-American academia on the particu-
lar affects and ontologies corresponding to the middle-class experience of
entrepreneurial selfhood and immaterial labour within post-Fordist
service-­based economies in metropolitan cores looks rather less conclusive
when held in contrast to other forms of labour in the peripheries and semi-
peripheries, whether that of Foxconn workers in China, coltan miners in
the Congo, or Walmart warehouse runners in West Virginia. These differ-
ent forms must be read together rather than in isolation.
Such a perspective of the synchronic temporalities of neoliberalization
helps us understand the seemingly contradictory connection between the
most brutal handling of nature and labour in the periphery alongside the
intangible manipulations of fictitious capital in the haute metropolitan
capitals of the core: the weird conjoining of abstract and scarring forms of
capitalism that demand different modalities of aesthetic registration. We
can see diverse registrations of these conjoined forms according to the
differing intensities of particular “moments” in the discussions in this vol-
ume: Hartley and Rushton reveal the relation of mental affects and liter-
ary subjectivities to changes in governmentality, Claire Westall explores
how effects of risk and speculation come to dominate cricket fiction as the
sport itself becomes increasingly imbricated within global circuits of cor-
porate finance and satellite television, and Matthew Eatough traces the
ways neoliberal ideas of intellectual property act to foreclose prospects of
futurity in African fiction, while Oloff, Niblett, and Prado show how the
starker violence of extractivism, primitive accumulation, maquilization,
and drug war capitalism—what Prado calls the “naked war on resources
and bodies”— might demand more extreme or speculative modes of rep-
resentation. Godden’s discussion, likewise, examines the registration of
conjoined financial abstraction and violent war—what he calls the juxta-
position of “monetised war” and “militarised money”— on both the sub-

ject’s psychology and the narrative form that seeks to convey these
Any attempt at periodizing the unfolding temporalities of neoliberal-
ization across the last four decades must also develop a more complex
understanding of nested cycles. Economists have as analytical tools a range
of cyclical categories including the Kitchin (3–4 years); Juglar (6–8 years);
Labrousse (10–12 years); Kuznets (20 years); Kondratieff (roughly 50
years); and a secular trend described by Braudel as roughly 250 years and
reimagined in Arrighi’s notion of the “long century” (Braudel 1983:
77–80; Arrighi 2002: 1). To these latter conceptions of long cycles, we
might add the world-ecological temporalities of “ecological regimes” and
“ecological revolutions” based on Jason W. Moore’s insight that Arrighi’s
systemic cycles of accumulation should be understood as founded in orga-
nizational revolutions not only of social relations but also of socio-ecological
bundles of human and biophysical natures (Moore 2015).
These ecological regimes are dependent on the unpaid appropriation of
nature’s “free” gifts and the transmutation of these ecological surpluses
into value through human waged labour. When each successive ecological
regime is exhausted and no longer able to produce surpluses, then the
conditions of profit accumulation falter, and ecological revolutions occur.
These creative revolutions produce new technologies to rekindle labour
productivity and locate new frontiers for appropriation. However, each
revolution only resolves the exhaustion of the previous regime by recon-
figuring its contradictions on a larger scale.
Indeed, Moore suggests that the neoliberal ecological regime which
began in the 1970s now faces an epochal crisis of productivity, as the
financialization of nature produces diminishing returns. Within these lon-
ger waves of accumulation and exhaustion, Moore locates a shorter-term
cycle, the boom-bust temporality of frontierization or recursive capture, in
which the rapid appropriation of commodity regimes organized around
plantation cash-crops such as sugar, or extraction monocultures of raw
materials such as rubber, tends to undermine the socio-ecological condi-
tions of profitability typically within 50–75 years in any given region, lead-
ing to the successive relocation of commodity regimes to new locations in
the world-ecological, or the transition to the enclosure of new
Such a panoply of cycles suggests that neoliberal activity has numerous
moments of inflection nested at different scales, each of which could be
compared to similar moments in prior cycles. Any attempt to periodize

literary or cultural aesthetics in relation to the unfolding of neoliberal

dynamics cannot therefore rely on a two-dimensional, horizontal peri-
odization, but must strive for a way to delineate the periodicity of these
nested micro-periods. While our contributors offer much fuller consider-
ations of micro-periodization in the context of cultural production arising
from particular regions such as Jamaica, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and
South Africa, we would like here to offer brief summaries of some of the
previous attempts at such micro-periodization that seem to us suggestive,
if flawed or incomplete.
In Capitalism 4.0, for instance, Anatole Kaletsky attempts to develop a
multivalent understanding of what he identifies as four long ages of capi-
talism, each with their own internal moments of systemic transformation.
He identifies these transition points as centred around the crises of the
Napoleonic Wars (1803–15), the 1930s, the 1970s, and present (Kaletsky
2010: 3). At the same time, he attempts to break down each phase into
smaller internal periods. The first age of laissez-faire capitalism can be bro-
ken into periods of 1776–1815; 1820–48; 1848/49–late 1860s,
1870–1914; and 1917–32. The second shorter age of Keynesian capital-
ism has phases of 1931–38, with the abandonment of the gold standard by
the United Kingdom and New Deal experimentation; 1939–45 with
government-­ led militarism; 1946–69, the Keynesian Gold Age; and
1970–80 as defined by stagflation, the energy crisis, and breakdown of the
Bretton Woods currency system. Kaletsky sees the third age as defined by
moments of early monetarism and confrontation with the unions during
1974–83; the Thatcher-Reagan and Volker/Greenspan years of 1984–92;
a period of retrenchment that he calls the “Great Moderation” of
1992–2000; and the market fundamentalism under Greenspan and
George Bush during 2001–2008 (241–57).
The beginning of the fourth phase of capitalism is pegged to the 2008
financial crisis, which Kaletsky optimistically hails not as the epochal crisis
of a fundamentally flawed socioeconomic system, but a golden opportu-
nity for capitalism to shed its market fundamentalism and emerge in a
newly dynamic form, which will combine “government and business in
partnership rather than opposition” and embrace new algorithmic-based
forms of institutionality (190). As such, Kaletsky’s account is method-
ologically suggestive in its approach to the micro-periods nested within
longer phases of capitalist accumulation, even as we here understand the
framing dates in a slightly different way between the 1930s and now. Yet
despite the unusual clarity about the internally differentiations within the

neoliberal era, Kaletsky is overly economistic and avowedly non-Marxist,

offering little in the way of critique of capitalism itself, or of the role that
culture might play in shaping and constituting different periods in each
phase. He thus seems uncritical of the rhetoric about transparency that
data provides.
By contrast, the literary critics Mitchum Huehls and Rachel Greenwald
Smith do emphasize the role of culture in their alternative four-phase peri-
odization of neoliberalism, which they sequence as a progression of peri-
ods in which the economic, the political-ideological, the sociocultural, and
the ontological became successively dominant (Huehls and Greenwald
Smith 2017: 3). Acknowledging the prior existence of German ordoliber-
alism alongside the 1947 formation of the Mont Pèlerin Society, they see
this early period as “a form of theoretical utopianism,” a socioeconomic
and cultural prehistory of the multi-faceted neoliberalism that emerges in
the concluding three decades of the twentieth century” (5). They then
periodize the first “economic” phase of neoliberalism as emerging between
1971 with Nixon’s unpegging of the dollar from the gold standard and
the 1973 coup against Allende, and ending with the Volcker Shock where
“economic stability became synonymous with labor deregulation,
increased interest rates, privatized public services, and local markets open
to international competition” (6).
The rise of the second political phase occurs in 1979/80 with
Thatcher’s and Reagan’s translation of economic principles into “the
dominant political ideology of the 1980s,” where “lower taxes, deregula-
tion, free and private markets” were linked to a “political conservatism
motivated by anticommunism, Christian morality, and a generalized fear
of minorities and immigrants” (7). They correlate this phase with the rise
of aesthetic postmodernism and the consecration of 1960s and 1970s
avant-gardes. The Clinton-Bush years, after the fall of the Berlin Wall,
define the third “sociocultural” phase where culture “absorbs and diffuses
neoliberalism’s bottom-line values, saturating our daily lives with for-
profit rationalities of commerce and consumerism, eventually shifting
neoliberalism from political ideology to normative common sense” (8).
Finally, the fourth “ontological” phase loosely defined as unfolding
throughout the early 2000s is the moment when “neoliberalism became
what we are, a mode of existence, entrepreneurial action, and the maxi-
malization of human capital” (9).
While Huehl and Greenwald Smith’s accessible account is organized
around important historical touchstones, and usefully restores the link

between neoliberalism and contemporary literary culture, we are critical of

such a sequentialist declension narrative. As suggested by our prior discus-
sion of Jelly-Schapiro’s emphasis on the synchronous distribution of dif-
ferent moments of neoliberal governance and accumulation across the
world-system, this periodization makes common sense only if those life-
worlds outside the United States and Great Britain are considered of less
historical notice. Additionally, we hesitate over the reflectionist notion
that economic changes automatically pass through the political first, then
the cultural, before finally reaching their summit in the philosophical.
Such a narrative underestimates the role of the cultural and paradoxically
can be read as reinforcing the current devaluation of the humanities as
supplemental, if not redundant. We contend that the terms of reference
used here are both too limited and homogenizing as well as misunder-
standing the constituent role of culture, broadly defined, at every stage of
this history. As Mathias Nilges contends in this volume, a “more complex
and heterogeneous plane of analysis” that examines how “culture partici-
pates in the process of establishing, maintaining and interrupting the fun-
damental processes” of neoliberalization is necessary.
By way of another illustration of the need for a multivalent approach
that intertwines analysis of culture, politics, history, and world-systemic
pressures, we would like to briefly explore the topic of financial d
­ erivatives.3
In the aftermath of 2008, the role of financial derivatives in the crash
became an exemplary touchstone and slogan for critiques of neoliberal-
ism, from those within academia to the public assembly discussions of
Occupy, the indignados, and the Greek anti-austerity protests. In the latter
half of the last decade, academic interest in the topic has waned somewhat,
whether in response to neoliberalism’s reorganization during the
2011–2013 interregnum, or perhaps because the theme is increasingly
subsumed under emergent discipline of critical algorithmic studies.
However, it bears momentarily returning to the question—what is a

Derivatives and World-Culture
The conventional introductory textbook definition is both nominalist and
consequently obfuscatory. When a derivative is explained as a financial
transaction based on but separated from the exchange of an underlying
commodity, derivatives can be treated as if they are a form of commod-
itized insurance, like a futures or option trade, which might “hedge” or

protect against uncertainty. Yet derivatives function actually less as a fire-

wall against market unpredictability than as a mean of commoditizing risk
and exchanging risk as if it were a tangible commodity. In this sense, deriv-
atives are an ontological form of fictitious capital that imagines profit can
come without capital circulation having to be slowed down by taking the
form of an objective commodity rather than a subjective one. Keynes calls
this the anticipation of “what average opinion expects the average opinion
to be” (1974: 156), and prophetically warned against the growth of spec-
ulation—“the activity of forecasting the psychology of the market”—from
what he called enterprise, “the activity of forecasting the prospective yield
of assets over the whole life” (155). He cautioned that “human decisions
affecting the future, whether personal or political or economic, cannot
depend on strict mathematical expectation, since the basis for making such
calculations does not exist” (162–3).
The derivative as an apparatus became possible only through the inter-
twining of cultural, political, technical, and economic features, none of
which are solely determinative or which clearly precede the other. A deriv-
ative requires a new form of knowledge that allows for the perceived ratio-
nalization of risk. The canonical illustration here is the development of the
Black-Scholes options pricing model, developed in the early 1970s and
published in 1973, shortly after the opening of the Chicago Board Options
Exchange, that made it seemingly possible calculate risk in ways that
appeared to provide the “basis” for making calculations that Keynes had
argued did not previously exist.
Without a new knowledge formation, in the shape of a rationalizing
formula that seemed as if it solved the problem of how to make risk pre-
dictable, speculation would always be haphazard. The construction of this
new epistemology, however, emerged due to specific historical conditions
largely involving the entry of mathematics, not simply into the economic
field, for that had happened much earlier, but also into the otherwise little
explored domain of speculative markets. The demise of military
Keynesianism catalysed by the costs of the Vietnam War, both social and
budgetary, meant that the science faculties in American universities, long
dependent on funding related to the military-industrial complex, needed
to seek replacement financial sources for their operation. The altering
shape of the capitalist world-system due to insurgent anti-colonialism and
decolonizing impulses, both domestic and international, shifted mathe-
matics towards new arenas. One of these was a relatively unexplored prob-
lem of the patterns of speculation, an endeavour that led to the exemplary

Black-Scholes equation that presented the foundation for calculating

Yet this revolution of knowledge would have remained in vitro were it
not for a technological transformation in computer engineering, a revolu-
tion also catalysed by the post-Vietnam reorganization of engineering and
computer science departments and concomitant career trajectories for
their graduates in an age when military financing was put under question.
One effect was the increasing miniaturization and democratization of
computation that allowed for equations, like Black-Scholes, that would
have formerly required place-bound computational equipment in select
universities or corporate research centres to now become easier to handle
by less specialized personnel and more mobile, with the advent of the
affordable handheld calculator, such as the Texas Instruments’ iconic
TI-57 programmable calculator first released in 1977 (LiPuma 2017:
304). These devices allowed bankers with little mathematical sophistica-
tion to deploy these new equations in conditions approaching real-time
and within the hurly-burly of the trading floor.
However, the possibilities of a new means of production that could
operationalize a new means of knowledge and technology would have
remained insufficient to effect change in the absence of a reformulated
state. Nixon’s 1971 abandonment of the gold standard and Bretton
Woods system led to an increasing confidence in fiat money. An increasing
deregulation of banking that eventually removed the separation between
commercial and investment banking granted speculators access to vast
new pools of capital, not least of which included the mortgage markets,
which had been made relatively illiquid as a result of controls put into
place in response to the 1930s Great Depression, such as the 1932 and
1933 Glass-Steagall legislation. Embedded within these changes was the
use of off-shore tax avoidance schemes that helped facilitate the rise of
derivatives by cloaking their operations and a lack of inclination to pursue
criminal cartels of price-fixing, which were witnessed in revelations about
Enron’s manipulation of the electricity market and collusion in LIBOR
and foreign currency trades.
Without these transformations in the nature of State oversight, the cal-
culator and Black-Scholes pairing would not have been worth traders’
time away from other ventures. Even this combination was insufficient, for
there also had to be a social collective that would engage with others to
construct an actual market in derivatives. When J.P. Morgan first devel-
oped derivatives trade, they did not keep their calculations as a proprietary

trade secret, but gave them freely away in The J.P. Morgan Guide to Credit
Derivatives (1999). Early adopters of derivatives ran informal training ses-
sions for their putative competitors (Mackenzie 2006: 143–177). Morgan
and other investment banks knew that they had to catalyse a new group
awareness of derivatives, otherwise there would be no “market” to trade.
The development of this social formation in turn required new sensibilities
and affects: a generation of bankers shaped by the post-war baby and eco-
nomic boom, who were more willing to break with the past reservations
about speculation and more comfortable with risk than their slightly older
colleagues, who had been shaped by the catastrophic economic events of
the mid-twentieth century. If trade in derivatives and their imbrication in
the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008 are key features of the neoliberal
era, their origins have to be understood as a complex intertwining together
of world-systemic history, changing culture, and technologized knowl-
edge in ways that have remained too little recognized.
To suggest the similarity of these conjunctures from the 1970s onwards,
a similar story could be told about the rise of hip-hop. As a group of DJs
learned a new technique in the early 1970s for rationalizing what was pre-
viously a fiendishly difficult to manage operation within a mercilessly fast
dynamic setting—the location of the break or cut of percussion in a play-
ing LP—this knowledge was facilitated by the new availability of cheaper
and more mobile (Japanese) sound systems and turn tables, like Technics
SL-1200, first released in 1972. One of the central environments for the
emergence of hip-hop was the open-air settings of the urban landscape of
New York City, which was shaped by the burnouts left in the wake of col-
lapsed support for New Deal social housing and federal support for the
city’s metropolitan budget.
The rise of a generation of hip-hop artists was not only influenced by
economic peripheralization of African-American neighbourhoods such as
the Bronx within the core city. Rather, it also required a new cultural sen-
sibility: a willingness to risk artistic humiliation or social disapproval as
they placed their hands on the vinyl record’s horizontal surface in order to
scratch it, rather than taking care to handle only the edges of the platter.
Similar disregard for past proprieties—the habitus informing public behav-
iour and performance—could be seen in the post-disco breakdancers will-
ing to soil their clothing by spinning on the ground, or the graffiti taggers,
who were enabled both by the withdrawal of urban policing and by the
democratization and newly cheap availability of aerosol-spray technology.
At the same time, the evolution of MCing—the chanting vocal style super-

imposed over the beats produced by turntablist techniques such as scratch-

ing and beatmatching—was indebted to Jamaican toasting.
In Jamaican popular music culture in the 1960s and 1970s, “deejays”
following in the footsteps of Count Machuki (Winston Cooper) impro-
vised lyrics, squeals, screams, and rhymed storytelling over the instrumen-
tal “riddims” on the version side of popular records, played on travelling
sound systems at parties. The sound system first appeared in 1950s down-
town Kingston, where deejays would load trucks with generators, turnta-
bles and huge speakers, and set up street parties playing imported American
rhythm and blues to black inner city Jamaicans who were banned by the
colonial administration from participating in dances uptown.
As Jason Toynbee remarks, the Jamaican sound system is the unique
product of a particular historical conjuncture in mid-twentieth century
Jamaica, which is markedly different “from the institutional arrangement
of popular music in advanced capitalist cores” (2007: 22). This conjunc-
ture is marked by the massive expansion of the urban population in 1950s
Kingston due to the mass deruralization earlier mentioned in our brief
discussion of the bauxite economy, by Kingston’s role as the political and
commercial “centre” of the British Caribbean, and by the country’s geo-
graphical proximity to the United States, which enabled access to American
radio stations playing African-American popular music (Toynbee 2007:
21). In a setting with a huge urban base but an extremely impoverished
community of working-class or unemployed people without sufficient
incomes to support a commercial dance scene, professional live music sec-
tor, or retail market for records, the sound system enabled a supply of
music using inexpensive recordings from the United States, dynamically
reinvented through the improvisatory stylings of toasting and dub.
Reflecting on the cultural strategies of the urban black poor in Kingston,
Obika Gray writes that they “typically retreated to their exilic space as both
a social site for dissidence and the venue for the repair of cultural injuries.
There they developed structures of defiance and modes of existence,”
which included sound system performances in warehouses, clubs, and
street corners (Gray 2004: 190). After independence in 1962 and the
swell of nationalist sentiments, the sound system began to incorporate,
generate, and record local innovations, beginning with ska and moving
through the different styles of rocksteady, reggae, dub, and dancehall.
The culture of the sound system was brought to the United Kingdom
and the United States, by the mass immigration of Jamaicans, beginning
in the 1960s and intensifying in the 1970s and 80s after the depredations

of structural adjustment and the debt trap. In the United States, it fed into
the development of hip-hop, as mentioned above, particularly in the
Bronx. As in Jamaica, the music culture that emerged was at first under-
ground, distinct from the mainstream population who consumed music
from the radio. Instead of being played for individuals in a sphere of pas-
sive consumerism, this was a culture of collective consumption and of col-
laborative production, not subsumed within a professional music industry,
a means of “active cultural production, a means by which black lower-class
youth articulate and project a distinct identity in local, national and global
contexts; through dancehall, ghetto youth also attempt to deal with the
endemic problems of poverty, racism, and violence” (Stolzoff 2000: 1).
From the 1980s onwards, as Jamaica’s state entered its 30-year crisis of
hegemony, and public infrastructure continued to decay, while
­unemployment and organized crime rose, dancehall music became ascen-
dant, embodying the contradictions of neoliberalism. As Denise Noble
argues, dancehall music embraces hyperconsumerism and expresses desires
for inclusion in the illusory benefits of neoliberal capitalist hegemony, as
“signalled by the recommodification of the ‘monetized’ hetererotic Black
body,” but at the same time also acts as a space of “maroonage from the
biopolitical governance of Jamaica bourgeois liberal nationalism and white
governmentality” (Noble 2016: 338).
In Kingston’s semiperiphery, thus, we can see how imported materials
of US black vernacular culture, together with local oral traditions with
deep roots in African tradition such as griots chanting over drum beats or
the creolized patois of everyday speech, were calibrated into new art forms
with both local and transnational resonance, connecting two different
contexts of neoliberal depredation and peripheralization, shaped by the
movement of populations and musical forms between cores and peripher-
ies. Jamaican dancehall and US hip-hop are, as Toynbee puts, the “prod-
uct of a much larger contrastrive demi-reg: the historical-geographical
division of world capitalism in terms of core and periphery” (Toynbee
2007: 22).
Our juxtaposition of emergent popular music cultures and derivative
trading is not meant to glamorize one as a work of art or condemn
another as complicit with neoliberalism. Instead we want to suggest how
a process of conjunctural convergence of several elements of world-sys-
temic transformations within capital, culture, and ecology are not easily
isolated as a sequential chain and are in fact constitutive of each other.
World-systemic alterations, transformations of the state’s relation to the

marketplace, technological changes in information processes and resource

regimes, and generational cultural shifts all form the ecology for neolib-
eralization, as Oloff, Niblett, and Deckard all emphasize in their essays in
this volume.

We would like to conclude by gesturing towards our own alternative peri-
odization of neoliberalism’s advance. In searching for a methodology that
can account for nested units and the differing lengths of periodization and
periodicity, we find useful Michael Denning’s approach to the periodiza-
tion of the 1930s Cultural Front (Denning 2011). Denning initially
sketches a series of short conjunctures that capture the flow of events and
the importance of particular points or events in forming the tactical field.
He then considers a longer generational period involving the overlap
when a new generation consciously sees itself as a replacement, in this case,
the rise of the 1960s New Left, and the eventual death of the Depression
cohort in the last decades of the twentieth century. Finally, Denning con-
textualizes his discussion within a long duration from the 1890s through
the late 40s and 50s that were marked by changing “gender and house-
hold formations,” a racial revolution involving international decolonial
energies as well as domestic shifts in American racial relations including
the “largest internal migration” as “black and white southerners” moved
North in ways that fundamentally remade the industrial working class, and
the “emergence of a post-Fordist economy” alongside “the third techno-
logical revolution” (Denning 2011: 26–27).
In this way, we likewise see the rise of the neoliberal world-system as
characterized by a cluster of different, sequential conjunctural moments,
a longer generational shift, and a longer duration of more expansive
economic changes and processes. Rather than making an exposition of
the longest units, we will briefly sketch our touchstone conjunctures. In
The Crisis of Neoliberalism, Duménil and Lévy argue that recurring pat-
terns of alternating crises have shaped the capitalist economy from the
late nineteenth century onwards, identifying four major structural crises
(2011: 2). Amongst these, they identify two different types, distinguish-
ing between the crises of falling profitability in the 1890s and 1930s,
and the crises of financial hegemony in 1930s and 2000s–2010s, where
they argue the middle class begins to lose their leadership to financial

Within the 1930s and 2008/11, we further divide the period between
two 40–50-year phases that are sutured together by an overlapping period
of about ten years. To this analysis of four major conjunctural crises, and
our own internal division, we add the fact that these smaller cycles are now
aligning within larger nested ones, so that the particularity of our current
moment is its combination of an emerging crisis of profitability and of the
accumulation of negative value in the realm of nature, signalled by what
Patel and Moore call the end of the “cheaps” (2017), as well as a time of
disintegrating class alignments and loss of trust in managerial and financial
elites, as famously captured in Occupy’s slogans of the 99% versus the 1%.
Thus, the current crisis of neoliberalism has analogies within the longer
period from the nineteenth century as well as within earlier ones; in par-
ticular, we can see the return of both the conditions of late nineteenth-­
century imperialist monopoly capital and the derangement and
reorganization of class relations.
For these reasons, we also want to emphasize Duménil and Lévy’s anal-
ysis of often overlooked inflections based on “neoliberalism as class hege-
mony” (7). Following Duménil and Lévy, we see the period from 1968 to
1973 until 1979/80 as the phase of the incipient attack on the working-­
class and other group recipients of welfare securities within capitalist cores.
They argue that class alignments fractured and realigned after the 1930s
crisis of financial hegemony, contributing to a new sympathy between the
professional and working classes that helped to usher in the Keynesian era,
before dissolving in the wake of the structural crisis of the 1970s, when the
capitalist classes entered a new “alliance with upper management, specifi-
cally financial managers, intending to strength their hegemony and to
expand it globally” (1). While 1979/80 represents an amplification of this
process as it becomes energetically pursued by the state, these changes are
consequential more than innovative.
From 1980 until the mid-1990s, these policies were remarkably suc-
cessful in stripping away working-class protections within capitalist cores,
though to a lesser extent in the social democracies of Europe, in conjunc-
ture with the intensification of new modalities of extraction in the periph-
eries and the outsourcing of production to semiperipheries across the
Global South, where labour was rendered “cheap” by new policies of
structural adjustment, as in the quintessential example of the North
American Free Trade Agreement. The late 1990s, as presided over by the
Clinton administration in the United States, represents a new threshold
that begins when neoliberal strategies are in need of overcoming their own

achieved limit and move from hollowing out the labouring class to begin
cannibalizing the middle-class through increasing resort to personal debt
and credit. From this point until the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008,
with an important amplification around 11 September 2001, and the sub-
sequent surge of new strategies of energy imperialism and creative destruc-
tion in the “war on terror,” middle classes in capitalist cores experience
their own version of working-class depredations. The global financial crisis
of 2008/11 stands as yet another marker of an internal horizon for neo-
liberalism, when the “neoliberal revolution” in class relations “ultimately
unsettled” the “secure base of the upper classes” and succumbed to the
contradictions of its own “class and imperial strategy” (2).
Accordingly, Duménil and Lévy predict that our twenty-first century
conjuncture will require a new class adjustment, whether “in the context
of a social arrangement to the Right or the Left,” with much depending
on “the pressure exerted by the popular classes and the peoples of the
world” (2). This is, as such, a moment of bifurcation, still unsettled, in
which right forces are in vociferous confrontation with the loose coalition
of anti-systemic forces, which, we have suggested, constitutes the poten-
tial emergence of a new cultural front. Rather than falling away, neoliberal
factors have not only survived the financial meltdown but have reorga-
nized with zombie-like persistence (Mirowski 1), aided in no small part by
a resurgent political right under the banner of the “national factor”
whether in Trump’s America or Modi’s India. In the realm of culture, this
reorganization has been further enabled by the rise of algorithms shaping
new experiments in the logistics of commodity circulation, as exemplified
by Amazon, and new forms of data behaviourism and algorithmic govern-
mentality, as exemplified by social media networks and the Cambridge
Analytica scandal. It is this more recent phase of late or renewed neoliber-
alism, rather than a comprehensive survey of the historical record from the
1970s onwards, towards which this collection primarily orients itself,
exploring the world-culture emerging from a period that combines the
uneven development of new forms of cultural discontent and
One final point about the periodization of neoliberalism offered by
Huehls and Greenwald-Smith, which captures a larger critical tendency
that we wish to refuse, is the lack of clarity as to whether their use of the
word ontological operates as a category description for how a cluster of
(American) writers self-understand their project, or whether it should be
taken as an analytical explanation for the historical moment’s features.

Their use of “ontological” to designate the dominance of an entire period

is in danger of ceding too much terrain as it implicitly erases all the prior
understandings of the contested and conflicted ways, in which a hege-
monic common sense is lived in the experience-system (or “structure of
feeling”), which have been hitherto explored in literary criticism in refer-
ence to Gramsci’s writing, and the work of Raymond Williams and the
Birmingham School. As Stuart Hall reminds us in his essay on the “long
march” of neoliberalism:

No project achieves ‘hegemony’ as a completed project. It is a process, not

a state of being. No victories are permanent or final. Hegemony has con-
stantly to be ‘worked on,’ maintained, renewed, and revised. Excluded
social forces, whose consent has not been won, whose interests have not
been taken into account, form the basis of counter-movements, resistance,
alternative strategies and visions … and the struggle over a hegemonic
­system starts anew. They constitute what Raymond Williams called ‘the
emergent’—and are the reason why history is never closed but maintains an
open horizon towards the future. (ellipsis original; Hall 2017: 334)

In short, the framing devices of Huehls and Greenwald Smith’s periodiza-

tion of neoliberalism paradoxically discount the role of culture and the
long tradition of cultural studies analysis attentive to the complexity of the
interlayered waxing and waning of emergent, residual, and dominant cul-
tural forms. Ironically, their account of an ontological plentitude comes to
function similarly to Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 “end of history” hypothe-
sis, the notion that historical transformation has come to an end, by imply-
ing the logical impossibility of a post-ontological state.
The long tradition of claims that capitalism has wholly subsumed every
available region of existence and experience never seems to foresee either
the next turn of the screw or its resistance. In recent years, we have seen
precisely the reverse of what critics such as Huehls and Greenwald Smith
suggest with the emergence of a new “cultural front” of intersectional
concerns including anti-capitalist and anti-austerity movements such as
Occupy; decolonial and anti-racist movements including #BlackLivesMatter;
the uprisings known as the Arab Spring; feminist mobilizations such as
#MeToo, Repeal the 8th in Ireland, anti-femicide and pro-abortion cam-
paigns in Argentina, or the anti-rape movement in India; resource sover-
eignty movements driven by indigenous activism from Cochabamba to
the Narmada Valley to Standing Rock; and academic union organization
and industrial actions against the neoliberalization of the university and

state from the Red Square Quebec occupations to the USS pension strikes
in the United Kingdom to the Ayotzinapa 43 protests and ongoing move-
ment of zapatismo in Mexico. There seems to be an incipient formation
threading together the minoritized populations within the core nations,
those falling from security under conditions of relentless precarity, and
those beyond the boundaries of the capitalist cores’ supposed comfort.
This is not simply a culture of discontent, but a loosely constellated emer-
gent form of new political experience, even despite the deepening pres-
ence and renewal of neoliberal policies.
The discussion of neoliberalism now is more pertinent than ever. Such
an analysis requires a better sense of capitalist temporality as shaped by the
cyclicality of its search for profitability, of capitalist geography as shaped by
a world-system of dynamic, but intrinsic inequality, and of capitalist
­culture, as shaped by the struggles over lived experience and social repro-
duction. This collection seeks to begin this renewed conversation.

1. Wilder Lane is the daughter of The Little House on the Prairie author and
was editor of the Review of Books between 1945 and 1950, then published
by Hart’s National Economic Council.
2. A lineage of these attacks lingers into the present, as the Freedom School,
saved from closure by donations from Rose Wilder Lane, later produced
Charles Koch as an alumnus.
3. The following discussion of the invention of derivatives largely draws on
Dick Bryan and Michael Rafferty (2006); John Lanchester (2010); Edward
LiPuma (2017); Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee (2004); Donald
Mackenzie (2006); and Gillian Tett (2009).

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The Long 1970s: Neoliberalism, Narrative

Form, and Hegemonic Crisis in the Work
of Marlon James and Paulo Lins

Michael Niblett

Writing during his stay in the USA between 1938 and 1953, C.L.R. James
noted a turn to sadism and cruelty in the popular arts “immediately after
the consciousness of the Depression had seized hold of the country”
(1993: 122). He was particularly struck by the tremendous popularity of
a new form of violent gangster-detective fiction, which, he argued, was an
“expression of mass response” to the turmoil unleashed by the financial
crisis of 1929 (122). In a society where “there is no certainty of employ-
ment, far less of being able to rise by energy or ability,” the “individual
demands an aesthetic compensation in the contemplation of free individu-
als who go out into the world and settle their problems by free activity and
individualistic methods” (127). Gangster stories, continued James, have
given to “millions a sense of active living, and in the bloodshed, the vio-
lence, the freedom from restraint to allow pent-up feelings free play, they
have released the bitterness, hate, fear and sadism which simmer just below
the surface” (127). The popular demand for narratives of this sort was

M. Niblett (*)
Coventry, UK

© The Author(s) 2019 49

S. Deckard, S. Shapiro (eds.), World Literature, Neoliberalism, and
the Culture of Discontent, New Comparisons in World Literature,

indicative of a loss of faith in existing institutional forms of social authority

and advancement. The previously hegemonic social compact was unravel-
ling: the “political ideas of the old regime are exhausted and recognized as
such by the vast majority,” declared James (159).
Some seventy years after James’ critique, another Caribbean migrant to
the USA, working in the shadow of the Great Recession of the late 2000s,
produced a gangster novel as bloody and violent as anything written dur-
ing the Depression. Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014)
describes the political upheavals and gang warfare that shook Jamaica in
the 1970s, as well as the subsequent migration of Kingston’s gangs to the
USA and their involvement in the cocaine trade. Many of the rude boys
and Shotta Dons who populate A Brief History are lightly fictionalized
versions of real gang members such as Lester Coke and Claudie Massop.
Like their historical counterparts, James’ characters possess self-identities
profoundly shaped by the consumption of Hollywood westerns and gang-
ster films, the influence of which on Jamaican society has been widely
noted. As Obika Gray observes, the “penetration of American popular
culture […] through the extensive distribution of B-grade Hollywood
films and […] the importation of American popular magazines, comic
books and pulp fiction” was an important vector in the imposition of US
imperial power in the Caribbean (2004: 99). James’ complex engagement
with the impact of these imported cultural forms, which owe much to the
narrative conventions popularized by Depression-era gangster fictions,
speaks to the history of Caribbean-US relations across the “long” twenti-
eth century. But it also speaks to the specific contours of our contempo-
rary moment: an era of hegemonic dissolution analogous to the one
C.L.R. James described when analysing the popular arts of the 1930s.
Broadly speaking, the years since the financial crisis of 2007/08 have
seen many of the political regimes that functioned in the global North as
representatives of the neoliberal economic consensus confront a crisis of
legitimacy. While it is widely recognized that neoliberalism has eviscerated
working classes worldwide, what is new about the current moment is that
middle-class fractions in the USA and Western Europe now face similar
pressures as their means of social reproduction—home ownership, higher
education, pension security, and so forth—become harder to access. The
critical and popular reception of James’ bloody epic, I will argue, is at least
in part an expression of the response of middle-class elites in the USA and
UK to the strain these pressures have placed on the hegemonic social com-
pact. The novel itself, meanwhile, must be read against the backdrop of

what Brian Meeks describes as a protracted period of hegemonic ­dissolution

in Jamaica, one that reached a “crescendo” with the events surrounding
the extradition of Christopher “Dudus” Coke in 2010 (2014: 181). Coke
is leader of the Shower Posse and the son of Lester Coke, whose life story
provides much of the raw material for James’ narrative. In fact, A Brief
History presents a kind of genealogy of Jamaica’s “thirty-year crisis”
(Meeks 2014: 181), the roots of which lie in the fallout from the struggles
of the 1970s and the subsequent neoliberal re-structuring of the island. In
this way, the novel casts light on the general trajectory of historical capital-
ism since the beginning of the “long downturn” in the 1970s (Brenner
In what follows, I explore James’ registration of this trajectory through
a comparison with the Brazilian Paulo Lins’ equally epic novel of gangster-
ism and slum life, Cidade de Deus (City of God 1997). Unlike the geo-
graphically more expansive A Brief History, City of God’s compass is
limited primarily to the closed world of the titular favela, located on the
western edge of Rio de Janeiro. Despite this limited compass, however,
the “inexorable weight of contemporary history makes itself felt” in the
novel’s representation of the desperate lives of its protagonists (Schwarz
2012: 227). Spanning the period from the 1960s to the early 1980s, the
narrative is shadowed by the presence of the dictatorship in Brazil
(1964–1985) and by the unfolding logic of the world-economy. Published
in the midst of the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, during
which a whirlwind of deregulation and privatization overthrew all estab-
lished relations between politics and economics, City of God speaks to
what Francisco de Oliveira calls Brazil’s “era of indeterminacy,” the impact
of which was to push the political system towards “the hither side of hege-
mony” (2006: 5; 2007: 106).
When it comes to the possibilities generated by such periods of hege-
monic dissolution, both Lins’ and James’ novels display an ambivalence
reminiscent of C.L.R.  James’ assessment of the loss of faith in existing
forms of social authority during the Depression. For James, this crisis of
legitimacy was potentially productive: the pleasure taken by the masses in
the “active living” of the gangster-detective figure was expressive of the
“political possibilities that slumber behind these manifestations of our
times” and of a collective desire for the realization of human freedoms and
potentialities hitherto thwarted by the “routinized existence” of the mod-
ern world (147). However, insofar as the expression of these desires was
canalized by the social situation and the entertainment industry into the

sadistic individualism of the new gangster fiction, what was in fact fostered
was “the psychological preparation on a vast social scale of the most strik-
ing social and political actuality of our time – the emergence of the totali-
tarian state” (148). City of God and A Brief History must negotiate a
similar ambivalence, each rehearsing the possibilities for both reactionary
and progressive class realignments in the wake of hegemonic dissolution.
The precise nature of these possibilities, however, is differentiated in the
two novels by the specific social contexts and historical moments to which
they respond.

* * *

City of God and A Brief History help to periodize the messy historical pro-
cesses through which the neoliberal regime of accumulation unfolded.
Three of the five sections that comprise James’ novel are set amidst the
upheavals of what might be termed the ‘long’ 1970s in the Anglophone
Caribbean. This period runs from the “Rodney Affair” in Jamaica in 1968,
when the government’s refusal to allow the radical historian Walter
Rodney to re-enter the country triggered widespread protests, to the col-
lapse of the Grenada Revolution in 1983. During these years, the
Caribbean was a crucible of revolt and reaction. Across the region, increas-
ing dissatisfaction with the lack of progress made since independence in
eliminating the colonial legacies of “racial, economic, and class oppres-
sion” led to the emergence of new social and political movements (Lewis
2013: 448). These were “to the left of the political establishments that
had been erected in the wake of the constitutional changes following
World War II and which gave the West Indian middle class a hold on
political power” (Lewis 2013: 448). Challenging the limited constitu-
tional decolonization achieved by bourgeois nationalist regimes, uprisings
such as the Black Power Revolution in Trinidad in 1970, the Union Island
revolt in 1979, and the Grenada Revolution of the same year demanded
not just political sovereignty, but full economic and cultural sovereignty.
The rise in radical activity in the region prompted fresh rounds of inter-
vention by the USA, concerned lest another Caribbean island go the way
of Cuba. These interventions formed part of the global reassertion of US
imperial dominance in the 1970s in response to the downturn in the
world-economy. They frequently involved efforts to force countries to
implement the set of economic and political policies that would eventually
become known as the “Washington Consensus.” The Anglophone
Caribbean’s ‘long’ 1970s, then, marks the moment when, with the

p war social democratic settlement and its corollary, constitutional
decolonization, having reached an impasse, the region was confronted
with the alternative pathways of socialism or neoliberal barbarism.
Ultimately, the weight of imperialist pressure would ensure the latter won
out: the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, along with the initiation of the
free-trade Caribbean Basin Initiative in the same year, signalled the
region’s full integration into the neoliberal regime of accumulation and, in
Rupert Lewis’ words, “brought the curtain down on Anglophone-
Caribbean radicalism for the rest of [the] century” (2013: 455).
In its evocation of the politically charged gang violence of 1970s
Jamaica, A Brief History captures a key turning-point in this history. In the
1940s, Jamaica’s two nationalist parties began to recruit “social outlaws
from among the militant Kingston poor” as their “shock troops” in the
battle for office (Gray 2004: 28). The development of these political gangs
was tied to the emergence of distinct urban enclaves in Kingston—garri-
son communities—in which “support for one party was or became over-
whelming” (Meeks 2014: 171). Following the electoral victory of Michael
Manley’s left-wing People’s National Party (PNP) in 1972, the struggle
between the gangs assumed a more ideological stamp. Hoping to destabi-
lize the PNP government, the USA began supplying arms to those groups
affiliated to the right-wing opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The
violence escalated and the island descended into a state of near civil war.
James’ novel not only makes explicit reference to these events, but also
stresses their wider geopolitical significance—not least by having one of its
narrators, a CIA operative, compare his agency’s destabilization of Jamaica
to its role in the 1973 coup in Chile, generally regarded as the proving
ground for neoliberal economic shock therapy.
Although such direct political references are absent from City of God,
Lins’ novel nonetheless registers the specific Brazilian instantiation of the
general crisis into which the world-economy stumbled after the post-war
boom years. Broadly speaking, the post-war regime of accumulation had
been characterized by social democratic (“welfarist”) class compromise in
the core capitalist countries and by “developmentalism” in the global
South (Amin 1997: 94, 17). By the early 1970s, the fundamental incom-
patibility between capitalist class relations and social democracy, mani-
fested in a falling rate of profit, saw the “logic of unilateral capital” strive
to reassert itself (Amin 1997: 95). In Brazil, the local articulation of this
history unfolded with a certain precocity. The country’s post-war political
order had been dominated by a form of nationalist populism, which saw
“the left [opt] for an alliance with sectors of the national business elite in

the name of economic modernization, agrarian reform and a certain

autonomy with respect to Northern imperialism” (Sader 2008: 10–11).
By 1960, the contradictory nature of this alliance, as well as shortcomings
in the dominant industrial strategy of import substitution, led to the
breakdown of the nationalist model. For Octavio Ianni, the resulting
political-economic impasse could be overcome “only by one of two radical
measures: socialist revolution or re-integration into world capitalism”
(1970: 118). The 1964 military coup represented the triumph of the lat-
ter option, with the dictatorship reorienting the Brazilian economy
towards a policy of “modernization” predicated upon “interdepen-
dence”—in other words, the re-opening of the country to massive foreign
investment, such that “multinational oligopolies assumed increasingly
important roles in economic policy decisions” (Ianni 1970: 170, 167).
Thus, writes Nicholas Brown, “what happened in the coup of 1964 was
not unique to Brazil” but rather an early and “particularly dramatic
instance of a global phenomenon”: “the turning of the cold war toward
the consolidation of a USA-led market hegemony, globalization as it is
currently understood” (2005: 188).
In City of God, the violence of the dictatorship finds expression in the
violence and corruption of the police force, while the pressures of mod-
ernization and of the renewed penetration of capital are registered in the
evolution of the favela and its gangsters. Early on in the novel, City of
God is described as “a large farm” [uma grande fazenda] where the inhab-
itants can still grow vegetables and pick wild fruits (14). This semi-rural
landscape is gradually obliterated by the proliferation of houses, flats, and
other buildings. The urbanization of the favela coincides with the disap-
pearance of a more “socially conscious” type of gangster and the emer-
gence of a “new style of distinctly antisocial organized criminal” (Line
2005: 73–74). This transition is represented most starkly in the figure of
Pipsqueak, who, following the demise of an older generation of gangsters,
renames himself Tiny and assumes control of the favela. He is more brutal
and business-like than his predecessors, reorganizing and rationalizing his
drug-dealing activities. His motivations are made abundantly clear:
“Money, he was going to make lots of money” (210). The dog-eat-dog
attitude of the new-style gangsters speaks to the direction in which
Brazilian society was headed under the pressures of neoliberalization. As
de Oliveira puts it, the “neoliberal blitzkrieg with its privatizations, dereg-
ulations and all-out attacks on the rights of society, [.. .] made steeper the
path that descends into social barbarism: greater competition in an already

unequal society is not the formula for a democratizing individuality but

for a dangerous form of social and political cannibalism” (2007: 111–12).
The transformation in social relations and subjectivities wrought by
neoliberalization is similarly addressed in A Brief History. The struggle in
Jamaica over the competing pathways of socialism or neoliberalism was all
but ended in 1980, when Manley was swept from office in a general elec-
tion. In fact, Manley had already been forced by Jamaica’s dire economic
straits to seek assistance from the IMF, a path his successor, Edward Seaga,
would pursue with gusto. The revolutionary promise of the 1970s thus
gave way to a “long interregnum,” during which “neo-liberal platitudes of
the ‘magic of the market’ and grassroots interpretations, such as the crude
materialism of the ‘bling’ culture, proliferated” (Meeks 2014: 192). Like
Lins, James duplicates this historical trajectory in the development of his
protagonists. The novel documents a shift in power amongst Kingston’s
gang leaders from Papa-Lo, whose violence often has directly political
ends and a strong, if perverse, connection to the social needs of his com-
munity, to the more individualistic and entrepreneurial Josey Wales.
“From 1976,” declares Josey, “politics don’t mean shit. Power don’t mean
shit. Money mean something” (644). Yet Josey himself will eventually be
superseded by the slick, university-educated Eubie, who establishes his
drug racket “like any business, better than any shop, because I know from
the devil was boy that you can never expand if your core base didn’t set
right” (494).
The trajectory of the neoliberal era as manifested in James’ characters is
also mediated in the novel’s form. A Brief History draws upon the tradi-
tion of the Caribbean yard novel, which in the work of writers such as
C.L.R.  James and Alfred Mendes in the 1930s, or Roger Mais in the
1940s and 1950s, sought to depict the life of the urban poor. These
authors were members of a radical middle-class intelligentsia and impor-
tant figures in the rising tide of anti-colonial agitation in the Caribbean.
Their narrative interest in the working-class masses was a literary parallel
to the emerging alliance between proletarian organizations and middle-­
class political leaders that would form the backbone of the national inde-
pendence movements. This had something like a formal corollary in novels
such as Mais’ The Hills Were Joyful Together (1953) and Brother Man
(1954), which combined vanguard modernist techniques with artistic
materials and generic forms drawn from popular culture. A Brief History
alludes to such works through both its subject matter and its formal
­composition. The New York Times’ characterization of the novel—“It’s

like a Tarantino remake of The Harder They Come but with a soundtrack
by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner”—may
have been facile, but it did capture James’ admixture of high modernist
stylings with generic narrative forms and “B-movie” contents.
In the context of the contemporary hegemonic crisis, this instance of
aesthetic uneven and combined development might be read in analogy to
the cultural work performed by those earlier yard novels: as projecting the
possibility of a new alliance between middle- and working-class groups.
On this view, the consecration of James’ novel by middle-class elites in the
USA and UK—its winning of the Booker Prize in 2015, for example—
represents a response by those elites to the potential for such an alliance.1
The reception of A Brief History parallels the recent rise in popularity of
culturally prestigious, long-form television shows that draw on “low-
brow,” highly generic narrative forms. “The return to generic narratives
by middle-class audiences,” writes Stephen Shapiro, is “an indicative fea-
ture of the ongoing rearrangement of the composition of class alliances”
consequent on the unravelling of neoliberalism’s hegemonic order (2014:
223). The latter, as Shapiro argues (following the work of economists
Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy), was characterized by an alliance
between high capitalist business interests and the professional-managerial
(more broadly middle) classes. Any “social divorce” between these groups
and the establishment of a new class compact between the professional-­
managerial and working classes “is not an easy or smooth cultural transi-
tion” (222). Rather, it requires a “complicated set of cultural rehearsals [.
. .] for surely the middle class needs practice in making so different a social
linkage” (222–223). The consumption of A Brief History by middle-class
elites could be said to enable just such a cultural rehearsal.2 Not only do
the novel’s first-person gangster narrators immerse the reader in the
impoverished world of Kingston’s urban masses; in addition, the presenta-
tion of these narrators complicates any straightforward moralizing per-
spective on their actions, creating an ambivalence in point of view that
allows for at least partial identification with otherwise unacceptable social
identities. Take Josey Wales: his extreme violence is anathema; yet James
endows him with such intelligence and acumen—as well as various liberal
attitudes (e.g. he has a tolerance for homosexuality unusual amongst his
fellow gangsters)—that many critics have echoed Jeff Vasishta in finding
Josey “charismatic and compelling” and “completely absorbing” (2014).
As James himself has observed: “You can’t dismiss Josey Wales’ quite lib-
eral worldview. […] The thing about Josey is – yes, he’s a psychotic mur-

derer who will kill pregnant women – but at the same time, he has such a
fantastic worldview. He has a chill worldview” (Vasishta 2014). The forms
of partial identification enabled by this “chill worldview” permit the reader
to rehearse a change in cultural perspective away from existing norms of
social authority and status towards hitherto marginalized or subaltern
As I have suggested, however, Josey’s own trajectory is towards an
increasingly competitive entrepreneurialism. Hence, one might under-
stand reader responses to this “compelling” gangster in a less progressive
way also, one that recalls the more troubling tendencies observed by
C.L.R. James in his analysis of the popularity of gangster fiction during the
Depression. Such fiction allowed the “pent-up feelings” of its audience
free-play, releasing the “bitterness, hate, fear and sadism” provoked by a
world in which existing forms of social advancement had been eroded and
“aesthetic compensation” was sought in “the contemplation of free indi-
viduals who go out into the world and settle their problems by free activity
and individualistic methods” (1993: 127). Figures such as Josey may well
be so compelling to a certain (ideal type) middle-class audience—now fac-
ing the kind of social precarity previously experienced by the working
classes—not only because they represent a rejection of the now crisis-­
stricken institutionalized modes of social authority, but also because they
reproduce in their behaviour the competitive economic logic upon which
that audience’s status and self-identity had been predicated.
The cultural rehearsal of class realignment A Brief History makes pos-
sible for its readers, then, is an ambivalent one: on the one hand, renewed
sympathy with the poor and the powerless; on the other hand, the reassur-
ing affirmation of a neoliberal politics of life. In this, the novel encapsu-
lates the competing tendencies that have emerged with the contemporary
crisis in neoliberalism: on one side, efforts to build progressive, anti-­
systemic alliances between the working and middle classes (e.g. Occupy)
and, on the other side, desperate attempts to refurbish the existing class
compact with high capitalist business interests (e.g. the far-right populism
of Trump in the USA, or the cosmopolitan liberalism of Macron in France
or Trudeau in Canada). The inclination of A Brief History at the level of
its social imaginary, I would suggest, is to affirm the possibility of a new,
progressive class alignment. At the level of form, however, despite regis-
tering the damage done to subjectivities and collective political agency by
the forces of neoliberalization, the novel seems to concede the continuity
of these forces (even as the hegemonic status of neoliberalism unravels).

Thus, although A Brief History alludes to the yard novel tradition and
the types of social commitment such fictions encoded, the way this formal
model is incorporated in the text makes of it something different to what
it was in the hands of, say, Roger Mais. A work such as The Hills Were
Joyful Together, responding to the independence struggles of the post-war
era, sought to re-shape novelistic conventions in an effort to “represent a
collective subject” in a form built historically “around the interior life of
the individual” (Denning 2004: 59). As Gordon Rohlehr has suggested,
in Mais’ text “the fragments of communal experience knit into a single
tragedy, character flowing into character, as if the entire group were a
single person. […] Mais contrives to blend the disparate voices and modes
into a single weighty philosophising voice” (1992: 56). It is precisely this
collective narrative voice that is absent from A Brief History, in which each
chapter is narrated by a single character in such a way as to relocate social
experience in the consciousness of the individual. When something like
the blending of voices one finds in Mais does occur, it is marked off as a
moment of psychological breakdown. After being put in a cell by Papa-Lo,
for example, the ghetto youngster Leggo Beast begins to rave uncontrol-
lably. Moving between linguistic registers, he has Papa-Lo perplexed:
“Half of what come out of him mouth, not just what him say, but also how
him say it didn’t originate in Copenhagen City” (343). Leggo Beast’s
channelling of disparate, fragmented voices recalls the aesthetic strategies
of experimental yard fictions like The Hills Were Joyful Together, but it does
so only as an instance of isolated delirium.
James’ narrative, therefore, displays a re-individualizing tendency that
corresponds to the dog-eat-dog individualism—the social cannibalism—
that characterizes the actions of many of the novel’s leading figures.
Indeed, the formal logic of A Brief History might be re-cast in precisely
this light: as proceeding through a cannibalization of past forms and
genres, which in the case of yard fiction involves the evacuation of its for-
mal impetus towards narrative collectivism, an impetus grounded in the
historical situation of nationalist agitation and social democratic advance.
In this respect, the novel could be said to encode in a very specific sense
the trajectory of neoliberalism, which, in response to the long downturn
and absent a scientific-technological revolution capable of boosting labour
productivity, succeeded in reviving accumulation only by “cannibalizing
the accomplishments of the Fordist-Keynsian order” (Moore 2012: 231).
Faced with a decline in the growth of annual labour productivity in the
OECD from 4.6% in 1960–73 to 1.6% in 1979–97, neoliberalism

embarked on “an extractive strategy that discouraged long-term invest-

ments by states and capitals, and encouraged socio-ecological ‘asset-­
stripping’ of every sort  – pension funds were raided, state enterprises
privatized, water and energy sources depleted” (Moore 2012, 244, 231).
In short, neoliberalism ate its own reproductive foundations.
Although A Brief History’s formal mediation of this logic might be said
to produce it as an object of critique, the re-individualizing impetus of
James’ narrative and its fostering of an identification with—even absorp-
tion in (to recall Vasishta’s response to Josey Wales)—the gangster-as-­
entrepreneur militates against this critical stance. Indeed, the novel’s
formal tendencies would seem to underline the difficulty it has in imagin-
ing a world beyond the sway of a neoliberal politics of life.3 In this regard,
A Brief History can be usefully contrasted with City of God. Like A Brief
History, Lins’ novel incorporates all kinds of pre-existing aesthetic materi-
als. As Roberto Schwarz observes, “faced with the task of giving novelistic
form to his vast subject matter, [Lins] has availed himself of every support,
from Angústia to Crime and Punishment to cinematic super-productions”
(2012: 233). Absent here, however, is the formal tendency identified in A
Brief History towards re-individualizing social experience. Rather, what
Lins’ novel provides via its narration of the lives of multiple characters is a
perspective on the social totality (something James’ text does only nega-
tively insofar as it consistently marks the fragmentation and atomization of
social life). Schwarz again: “As maximum tension becomes routine, the
trivialization of death pushes us far beyond any thrill of suspense towards
a disabused, all-encompassing standpoint, only one degree removed from
mere statistics; a point of view focused rather on the decisive, supra-­
individual parameters of class” (2012: 229). Significant in this regard is
the novel’s close association with social inquiry. Lins (who grew up in the
City of God) worked as a research assistant in the 1980s on an investiga-
tion into criminality in Rio de Janeiro, co-ordinated by the anthropologist
Alba Zaluar. The interviews he conducted for this project provided much
of the raw material for his narrative, which in places retains the tone and
texture of a sociological report. It is this feature in particular from among
the text’s uneven admixture of forms that lends the novel the systematiz-
ing force integral to its supra-individual social cartography.
City of God’s combination of reportage, sociological analysis, and mod-
ernist technique is also pivotal to its capacity to perform a similar kind of
cultural work to that facilitated by James’ novel vis-à-vis the realignment
of class sympathies. “I wrote this book as a gift for the middle class,” Lins

has said, emphasizing how the presentation of the realities of favela life in
a culturally prestigious, experimental narrative form might serve as a way
both to educate middle-class readers and to enable the cultural rehearsal
of a new social linkage to the subaltern classes (quoted in Lund 2006: 1).4
Certainly, the publication of the novel sparked “an intense debate in Brazil
about the relationship between violence, drug-dealing, social injustice,
political action and the role of civil society” (Lund 2006: 1). Lins has
claimed that “the research, book and [the subsequent film adaptation] are
all fated to continue to stir social mobilization” (Lins 2005: 127). The
cultural rehearsal of class realignment enabled by the novel seemed to tally
with the current of the times: only a few years after the publication of City
of God, the victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, leader of the Partido dos
Trabalhadores (PT), in the 2002 presidential elections signalled an impor-
tant leftwards shift in Brazilian politics. The PT came to power promising
“the priority of the social”—a policy programme aimed at responding to
the social needs of the masses (Sader 2005: 68). Lula’s record in office,
however, was mixed. His administration not only maintained but also in
many instances amplified the neoliberal economic policies of his predeces-
sor, Cardosa (Sader 2005: 71).
Even as it rehearses the possibility of a new linkage to the subaltern
classes, Lins’ novel illuminates the entrenched social forces that would
contribute decisively to the shortcomings of Lula’s administration. As
noted, the trajectory of City of God’s leading characters registers the colo-
nization of the lifeworld by the logic of neoliberalism; but the sheer per-
vasiveness of this logic is also emphasized by the formal rhythms of the
novel, through which the rhythms of social reality are reconstituted as an
object of critique. To understand this process, it is necessary to examine
City of God’s relationship to naturalism. With its element of social enquiry,
the book has affinities with the great naturalist novels of the nineteenth
century, specifically those that appeared in Brazil in the 1880s and 1890s.
An obvious precursor to Lins’ text is Aluísio Azevedo’s O Cortiço (The
Slum 1890), set in a tenement yard in Rio de Janeiro. In an important
essay on O Cortiço, António Cândido highlighted the contradictions of
Azevedo’s narrative, which depends upon a series of naturalist stereotypes
around race and environment that the unfolding of the plot will under-
mine. The plot is driven by the insatiable urge of its protagonist, João
Romão, to enrich himself. To this end, Romão mercilessly exploits all
those in his path, whether white or black, Brazilian or Portuguese. The
instrumental logic of capitalist accumulation thereby destabilizes the natu-

ralist perspectives on racial and national difference that nonetheless con-

tinue to circulate in the novel as ideological constructs (Cândido 1991).
The contradictory composition of the text thus acquires “critical function-
ality and mimetic value in relation to Brazil” (Schwarz 2001: 34), objecti-
fying at the level of form the contradictions between the new economic
rhythms of the country and the governing ideologies of the ruling class.
Something similar might be said of Lins’ novel. This, too, is governed
by a rhythm of relentless accumulation, which manifests itself in the inten-
sification of the violence perpetrated by the gangsters and the constant
expansion of their criminal activities (from haphazard, small-scale dope
dealing to the organized distribution of crack; from the use of crude
revolvers to the attempted purchase of assault rifles). In the accelerating
struggle over assets and territory, the perpetual to and fro between rival
gangs (and between the gangs, their victims, and the police) blurs the
distinctions between social actors. Thus Knockout, for example, who ini-
tially appears as a righteous civilian avenger of Tiny’s crimes, is soon mired
in the same swamp of violence and drug dealing as his adversary. The
ambivalence of Lins’ narrative—the “general dissolution of meaning
within energies that become ungraspable” (Schwarz 2012: 233)—destabi-
lizes what might otherwise emerge as a conventional naturalist inventory
or typology of subaltern individuals. The effect is to relativize the natural-
ist narrative perspective as merely “one ideology among others, within a
discursive web that has no final word” (Schwarz 2012: 233). Far from
limiting the novel’s social enquiry, however, the destabilizing of the natu-
ralist paradigm assumes “critical functionality” in relation to the socio-­
economic reality of Brazil in the period in which City of God was written.
Recall that many of the original materials for the book were gathered
in the 1980s at a time when industrial production in the country was
being restructured, the formalization of wage relations had ground to a
halt, and informal labour was expanding. The novel was subsequently
published in the midst of Brazil’s “era of indeterminacy,” a period “that,
given the powerful changes undergone during the previous decade  –
themselves overdetermined by an intensified exposure to the globalization
of capital – would be characterized by its apparent suspension of any rela-
tion between the economic and the political, between classes and their
political representation” (de Oliveira 2007: 87). This indeterminacy was
embodied in Cardoso, the former Marxist dependency theorist who, as
president, would allegedly declare “forget everything I ever wrote,” as he
unleashed a wave of deregulations and privatizations. In line with the

general tendencies fostered by neoliberalization, Brazil’s economy became

increasingly financialized. Productive accumulation stalled, to be super-
seded by a truncated form of accumulation predicated on the seizure and
transfer of assets. The result, as de Oliveira notes, was the growth of a
“new class” of investment-fund directors within the bourgeoisie. This
class, however, was “unable to offer a coherent solution to the problems
that the neoliberal model has encountered on the periphery, one which
could unify a broader coalition of capitalist forces beyond those sectors
profiting from the orientation towards exports and financialization”
(2006: 18–19).
If, as Fredric Jameson observes, “what stands at the centre of the natu-
ralist narrative paradigm is the perspective of the bourgeoisie and its vision
of the other (lower) classes” (2013: 149), then the relativization and
unhinging of this perspective in City of God might be said to speak to the
difficulties confronting Brazil’s bourgeoisie in the neoliberal era. Marta
Peixoto points out that

the novel is told by a detached, nonpersonified, third-person narrator whose

educated Portuguese sets him apart from the idiosyncratic, slang-inflected
street language of the favela youth and the drug gangs. While the precisely
reproduced ghetto language creates verisimilitude, the narrative voice, with
its correct grammar and ample lexicon, emphasizes social distinctions and
establishes a disparaging perspective on the social universe being viewed.
(2007: 172–73)

Turning to the narrative’s relentless depiction of violent episodes, Peixoto


The sheer accumulation of grisly scenes […] unmoors the novel from its
literary project as exposé. The pileup of graphically violent episodes, in its
relentlessness, takes on the character of a phantasmagoria, where the narra-
tive voice itself is a further symptom of the social derangement. (2007: 173)

Peixoto’s judgement on the text is largely negative, viewing its serial vio-
lence and the hysteria of the narrator as in danger of reproducing the
sensationalism of mass media accounts of the favelas. But this is to miss the
significance of the novel’s narrative contradictions. What Peixoto describes
as the unmooring of the novel from its literary project as exposé is rather
an expression of its internalization of the contradictory dynamics of
Brazilian society as a formal problem. The reduction of the omniscient

narrative voice—the bourgeois naturalist perspective—to one more symp-

tom of the social derangement not only encapsulates the confusions of
Brazil’s “era of indeterminacy,” but also registers the problems confront-
ing the country’s bourgeoisie: its inability to “unify a broader coalition of
capitalist forces” and re-orient the economy away from financialization
and dependency on external credit. In a context where this class has
become reliant on the seizure and transfer of assets (rather than produc-
tion), it is entirely apt that the bourgeois perspective in Lins’ novel should
become as much a symptom of crisis as the gangsters it describes, whose
own reproduction as a social group is similarly based on the seizure of
assets and territory. The contradictory composition of City of God, in
other words, is indicative of its mapping of the social totality through the
reconstitution of this reality as a force internal to form.
Crucially, not only does Lins’ novel thereby objectify social reality, but,
unlike A Brief History (where the formal reconstitution of the logic of
neoliberalization as an object of critique is undermined by the re-­
individualizing perspective of the narrative), it consistently enforces a criti-
cal distance between text and reader. The blurring of distinctions between
social actors, the often abrupt or bathetic resolution of character arcs (e.g.
the death of the favela’s most popular gangster in a random car accident),
and the relative lack of interiority to the protagonists (as compared to
James’ virtuosic rendition of inner consciousness) deliberately forestall any
absorption in the novel’s characters of the kind we saw in A Brief History.
The destabilization of the omniscient narrator, meanwhile, also problema-
tizes this as a site of identification. Whereas in James’ novel, then, the
cultural rehearsal of class realignment is achieved via the reader’s immer-
sion in the protagonists’ lifeworlds, in City of God this rehearsal occurs in
the space opened up between text and reader. The novel pursues a form of
critical pedagogy: its characters and the world they inhabit, as well as hith-
erto dominant ways of apprehending this world (the bourgeois perspec-
tive of the naturalist narrator), are presented to the reader as matter for
careful study and critique. In this way, the novel seeks to encourage new
attitudes towards the contemporary situation.

* * *

City of God, then, keeps faith with the possibility of imagining a world
beyond the sway of a neoliberal politics of life. This move is emphasized
by the language of the novel. In an effort to capture the gangsters’ reified

lifeworlds and the violent rhythms and immediacy of favela life, the narra-
tive deploys a “quick-fire language, of shortened words and phrases,” “cli-
chés,” and “pre-formed ideas” (Nagib 2005: 34–35). Yet it treats these as
building blocks to be reassembled into a representation of the world in
line with poetic technique. Indeed, the novel’s approach to its raw materi-
als is characterized throughout by what Schwarz calls Lins’ “insistence on
poetry” (2012: 232).5 There is a persistent strain of lyricism in the narra-
tive—as, for example, in the account of Hellraiser’s death, which paradoxi-
cally introduces a lyrical note even as it affirms that “all [Hellraiser] could
do was live the life he lived without any reason to be poetic in a world
written in such cursed lines” (200). Such lyricism serves as a self-conscious
marker of the distance between text and world. The assertion of this dis-
tance (however slight) does not signal a retreat into aestheticism or ideal-
ism; rather, it is an expression of the novel’s political commitment to
seeking out a perspective from which to critique the socially cannibalistic
logic of a reified reality.
An instructive comparison can be drawn here with A Brief History.
This, too, emphasizes the reification of its protagonists’ lifeworlds: the
thoughts and perceptions of Josey Wales and his fellow gunmen are thor-
oughly saturated by the clichés and readymade ideas of the mass cultural
narratives they consume (Wales’ own adopted name, of course, references
the 1976 western starring Clint Eastwood). The novel then replicates this
in terms of its own status as an art commodity destined for consumption
on the international market. For what James presents us with to some
extent in A Brief History is one variant of the export version of Jamaican
culture: gangs, drugs, reggae! In fact, the novel might be said to play up
to what Graham Huggan calls the “postcolonial exotic” (2001: vii), its
success at doing so then confirmed by its consecration by the global cul-
ture industry. James, I think, does this deliberately, invoking such exoti-
cism in order to interrogate the sociological position of his work. Thus,
for example, the novel thematizes its potentially problematic packaging of
Jamaican culture for an international audience via the character of Alex, a
US music journalist who is writing an account of Jamaica’s gangs that by
the end of A Brief History is being serialized in The New Yorker under the
title A Brief History of Seven Killings. Meanwhile, the novel’s stylistic
excesses, in particular the “cultivated exhibitionism” (to borrow Huggan’s
phrase [2001: xi]) of its graphic depictions of violence, stage a certain
irreducibility to exoticist norms and the commodification of cultural dif-
ference. Indeed, in its representation of violence A Brief History seems to

want to restore the critically distanciated perspective on the logic of neo-

liberalism that its formal dynamics otherwise short-circuit. While always in
danger of reinforcing the ghetto-not-so-fabulous image of Jamaica as a
gangster’s paradise, James’ searing and sadistic portraits of violence are, in
their very extremity, always also on the verge of overwhelming such cli-
chés. This is because they are frequently driven to a point of grotesquerie
at which they suddenly become expressive not of this or that individual act
of violence, but of the sheer weight and socially pervasive quality of the
systemic violence of both the Jamaican state—the legacy of its historical
origins in colonialism—and contemporary imperialism.
The relevant reference point for understanding James’ strategy is, I
think, Richard Wright, and in particular Wright’s assertion that in writing
Native Son he sought to correct the “awfully naïve mistake” he had made
in his earlier work, Uncle Tom’s Children (2000: 23). The latter, in its
depictions of the sufferings of African-Americans, had allowed for empa-
thetic identification on the part of the reader, for expressions of pity and
sympathy that threatened to neutralize the text’s protest (it was a book
“which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good
about,” complained Wright memorably [23]). Native Son, by contrast,
was intended as a literary assault on the reader: it was to be so “hard and
deep” that it would have to be faced “without the consolation of tears”
(23). A similar impetus is at work in James’ fiction, I would suggest, the
horror of its violence intended to provoke a disconsoling distance. Yet it is
a fine balance between playing up to the post-colonial exotic and doing so
in such a way as to transform this into critique. Whereas James negotiates
this brilliantly in his previous novel, The Book of Night Women (2009), in
A Brief History the ideological weight of the motifs he mobilizes (the
gangster, the reggae star, and the drug-lord), insofar as these have already
been made over by the global culture industry, tips the scales towards the
confirmation of the dominant cultural logic. The novel’s representations
of violence struggle to generate the necessary distance, being too easily
subsumed into the consolations of an internationally marketable image of
Jamaica. This, in combination with the novel’s formal dynamics, attenu-
ates its ability to project an alternative social imaginary.
Together, therefore, James’ and Lins’ novels present something of a
paradox. City of God was published at a time when the Washington
Consensus was at the height of its influence internationally. Indeed, it is
worth re-emphasizing that in the Brazilian context the moment of hege-
monic dissolution in which the novel appeared was the product of the

intensification of the forces of neoliberalization. Yet Lins’ text is able to

mediate this reality in such a way as to reconstitute it as an object of cri-
tique, thereby keeping faith with the possibility that things might be oth-
erwise. In this respect, the novel anticipates and perhaps taps into the
emergent energies of a wider Latin American reality: for by the turn of the
century, “the continent that had been a privileged territory for neoliberal-
ism […] rapidly turned into the leading arena not only for resistance but
for construction of alternatives to neoliberalism” (Sader 2008: 5). By con-
trast, A Brief History appeared in the midst of the contemporary crisis of
neoliberal hegemony. In this context, there have emerged new possibilities
for radical class realignments and anti-systemic movements. In Jamaica
itself over the last decade or so, a new spirit of social contestation has reg-
istered in a range of popular cultural forms. Thus, for example, “Jamaican
popular music in the post-Marley era has moved through a period of the
glorification of symbolic wealth and macho sexual conquest (slackness) to
a more recent period of ‘consciousness’ in which themes of unity, resis-
tance, and rebellion have once more come to the fore” (Meeks 2014:
164). Though James’ novel can certainly be construed as enabling the
cultural rehearsal of a progressive social compact, ultimately it seems
unable to escape the exhausted neoliberal logic it records formally via its
cannibalization of its literary precursors, now hollowed out and voided of
the collective political energies they once encoded. Thus, while both A
Brief History and City of God serve to periodize and critique the unfolding
of the neoliberal regime, they also underline—particularly in the case of
James’ novel—the difficulty in breaking with the social imaginary of this
regime, even as it unravels in a haze of reactionary violence.

1. Following his Booker Prize win, James was the subject of numerous appro-
batory articles and interviews in broadsheet newspapers and periodicals on
both sides of the Atlantic. In October 2016, the BBC’s flagship arts show
Imagine dedicated a programme to his work.
2. In an indication of the continuities between the cultural work performed by
A Brief History and the high-status TV shows referenced by Shapiro, the
screen rights to the novel were optioned by HBO for a TV series.
3. Although there is not space to develop the point here, it is worth noting the
ambivalent trajectory of another central character in the novel, Nina Burgess.
She is a sympathetic figure who experiences social precarity and the eco-
nomic pressures of the neoliberal regime; yet in her constant self-reinven-

tion, she displays a kind of entrepreneurialism of the self fully compatible

with the cultural politics of neoliberalism.
4. The 2002 film adaptation of the novel could be said to enable a similar kind
of cultural rehearsal in its combination of gritty, generic content with high-
production-value cinematic techniques. As Juliet Line observes:
“Committing itself to a high level of realism, City of God updates Cinema
Novo’s ethos of using the cinema as a tool by which to aggressively confront
Brazil’s citizens, seeking to force them to face up to the unspoken but not
unseen horrors of their own society” (2005: 71). However, the inclusion in
the film of various Hollywood-style narrative formulae—in particular, the
organization of the story arc around Rocket’s social advancement—intro-
duces an element of conformism, reaffirming the individualizing perspective
that the book seeks to transcend.
5. See also Hart (2007), who highlights the “vibrant poeticity” of the novel

Works Cited
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Brenner, Robert. 2006. The Economics of Global Turbulence. London: Verso.
Brown, Nicholas. 2005. Utopian Generations. Princeton: Princeton University
Cândido, António. 1991. De cortiço a cortiço. Novos Estudos-Cebrap (Sao Paulo) 30.
De Oliveira, Francisco. 2006. Lula in the Labyrinth. New Left Review 42: 3–22.
———. 2007. The Lenin Moment. Trans. Neil Larsen. Mediations 23.1: 83–123
Denning, Michael. 2004. Culture in the Age of Three Worlds. London: Verso.
Gray, Obika. 2004. Demeaned but Empowered. Jamaica: University of West Indies
Hart, Stephen M. 2007. A Companion to Latin American Literature. Woodbridge:
Huggan, Graham. 2001. The Postcolonial Exotic. London: Routledge.
Ianni, Octavio. 1970. Crisis in Brazil. New York: Columbia University Press.
James, C.L.R. 1993. American Civilization. Oxford: Blackwell.
James, Marlon. 2014. A Brief History of Seven Killings. London: Oneworld.
Jameson, Fredric. 2013. The Antinomies of Realism. New York: Verso.
Lewis, Rupert. 2013. Learning to Blow the Abeng. In Caribbean Political Thought:
Theories of the Post-Colonial State, ed. Aaron Kamugisha, 448–459. Kingston:
Ian Randle.
Line, Juliet. 2005. Trajectories of Malandragem in City of God. In City of God in
Several Voices, ed. Else R.P. Vieira, 71–81. Nottingham: CCCP.
Lins, Paulo. 2005. Cities of God and Social Mobilization. In City of God in Several
Voices, ed. Else R.P. Vieira, 127–134. Nottingham: CCCP.

———. 2006. City of God. Trans. Alison Entrekin. London: Bloomsbury.

Lund, Katia. 2006. Introduction. In City of God, 1–3. London: Bloomsbury.
Meeks, Brian. 2014. Critical Interventions in Caribbean Politics and Theory.
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Moore, Jason W. 2012. Cheap Food and Bad Money. Review 33 (2–3): 225–261.
Nagib, Lúcia. 2005. Talking Bullets. In City of God in Several Voices, ed. Else
R.P. Vieira, 32–43. Nottingham: CCCP.
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Rohlehr, Gordon. 1992. Literature and the Folk. In My Strangled City and Other
Essays, 52–85. Port-of-Spain: Longman Trinidad.
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———. 2008. The Weakest Link? New Left Review 52: 5–31.
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———. 2012. Two Girls: And Other Essays. London: Verso.
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From “Section 936” to “Junk”:

Neoliberalism, Ecology, and Puerto Rican

Kerstin Oloff

That neoliberalism is “badly wounded today, dominant but dead” (Smith

2010), that it is still holding a death grip on the present, is nowhere more
visible than in the violent, indeed deadly, socio-ecological crisis afflicting
Puerto Rico.1 The present chapter was originally written in the months
before hurricane Maria devastated the island and its already fragile infra-
structure on September 20, 2017.2 This disaster tragically intensified the
dynamics identified in the texts I discuss, exposing an “extreme depen-
dence on imported fuel and food” (Klein 2018). It was, as many point
out, “unnatural” (de Onís 2018: 1), rapidly exacerbating the legacies of a
history of colonial exploitation and of more recent rounds of disaster
­capitalism and neoliberal austerity. The hurricane’s tragic and ongoing
aftermath has been marked by governmental neglect and corruption, and
the rise of further rounds of disaster capitalism and austerity measures (see
Klein 2018). Indeed, Maria’s impact amply illustrates Ashley Dawson’s
observation that, within the age of climate change, inequality is further

K. Oloff (*)
Durham, UK

© The Author(s) 2019 69

S. Deckard, S. Shapiro (eds.), World Literature, Neoliberalism, and
the Culture of Discontent, New Comparisons in World Literature,
70  K. OLOFF

exacerbated and shapes the experience of disasters (Dawson 2017: np). In

the case of Puerto Rico, the pre-existing situation of the “terrible vulner-
ability imposed by [its] colonial relationship to the United States” (Cintrón
Moscoso et al. 2018) had already come to a head in the years leading up
to Maria. It had manifested itself in a series of overlapping, now further
intensified, crises: amongst these were the island’s debilitating debt crisis
that benefitted Wall Street (Backiel 2015); the mass exodus of Puerto
Ricans, the “tragedy of disappearing communities, […] crumbling infra-
structure […], dismantling safety nets” (Fusté 2017: 93); as well as the
devastating effects of environmental degradation and climate change. The
literary texts that I examine in this chapter—while all predating Maria for
years and often decades—thus hold incisive insights for the future as it
Despite the specificities of the colonial situation of Puerto Rico, it is
important to put this into a global context: neoliberalism is a regime of
accumulation that emerged as a systemic response to the end of the post-­
World War II (WWII) expansion of the global economy and the crisis of
US-led capitalism in the 1970s; it gained hegemony in the 1980s, and has
been in crisis for the last decade.3 In the Puerto Rican context, it was the
crisis of oil-fuelled “Operation Bootstrap” and the amendment of Section
936 of the Inland Revenue Code as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1976
that “marked the incorporation of the island into new patterns of US
extensive capitalist accumulation and increasingly neoliberal deregulation”
(Benson 2007: 33), thus transforming the island’s industrial, economic
and social landscape. This emergent neoliberal order shifted gear again in
the early 1990s, as the “sizable public sector” was dismantled in accor-
dance with “the neoliberal gospel of entrepreneurial initiative, competi-
tion, deregulation and privatization” (Ayala and Bernabe 2009: 292,
291), while Section 936 was gradually being phased out between 1996
and 2006. As the island’s financial woes deepened, Wall Street Banks
extracted “millions in fees” through predatory lending practices from the
early 2000s onwards (Bhatti and Sloan 2017: 1). The year 2006 marked
the beginning of a long-lasting recession and spiralling debt crisis, which,
as Fusté outlines, was but an intensification of the “pattern of dependency
and debt” that goes back to the beginning of the American Century
(2017: 108), and has now become the dominant form of colonial appro-
priation, culminating in the undisguisedly colonial imposition of a Fiscal
Control Board after the passing of PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight,
Management and Economic Stability Act) in June 2016. To understand

neoliberalism in the Puerto Rican context, it is thus also crucial to insert it

within a longer history of US colonial and imperial domination and post-
WWII industrial development.
As this chapter will discuss, Puerto Rican literature from the mid-1970s
onwards has offered incisive ways to think through shifting socio-­ecological
realities under neoliberalism, which it registered through an intensifying
aesthetics of socio-ecological degradation. The perspective I here employ
to examine these aesthetic shifts is informed by recent eco-materialist liter-
ary criticism and world-ecology research (Moore 2015; Deckard 2012;
Niblett 2012; Oloff 2012; Deckard 2013). While it is beyond the scope of
this chapter to give an account of the diversity of literary production in
Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican diaspora over the last 40 years, texts
from the different periods will be drawn on to illustrate this intensifica-
tion.4 Following Ayala and  Bernabe, who posit that “the pulse of the
world capitalist economy” has been particularly evident in Puerto Rico
due to its close and subordinated relation to United States since 1898
(2009: 3), Puerto Rican literature could arguably be seen as an (often
highly self-conscious) example of world-­literature, defined by Warwick
Research Collective (WReC) as the literature of the world-system (WReC
2015). And since the world-system is also a world-ecology (Niblett 2012),
it is possible to read these texts as not only world-literary but also critically
world-ecological. The chapter discusses texts from different periods within
neoliberalism, seeking to read some of the aesthetic shifts—often discussed
under the rubric of “postmodernism”—in relation to world-ecological

Puerto Rican Petro-Fiction and the Aesthetics

of Socio-Ecological Degradation5

From a world-ecology perspective, neoliberalism is understood as a global

ecological regime that stabilized through new rapacious global patterns
and sets of relations between human and extra-human natures and the oil-­
fuelled deepening of rifts in socio-ecological metabolism. These patterns
were, as before, organized to the benefit of the capitalist core and in the
interest of restoring the availability of what Jason Moore refers to as the
“Four Cheaps” (food, labour, energy, and raw materials), required for
sustained capitalist growth. Yet, since the neoliberal period is one in which
capital’s exploitation of natural resources as well as its potential for spatial
expansion has hit global limits, and since “a scientific-technological
72  K. OLOFF

revolution” capable of restoring growth has not materialized for all the
experimentation in genetic engineering (Moore 2010: 229), it has overall
been characterized by socio-ecological asset-stripping, renewed primitive
accumulation and plunder through finance capital.
The crisis of the mid-1970s marked the end of the global economic
boom period. Offering “one of the highest standards of living in Latin
America and the Caribbean” (Benson 2007: 29), Puerto Rico had par-
taken in some of its benefits—albeit at a high social, economic, environ-
mental and political cost. The post-WWII economic expansion had
proceeded in the island through rapid industrialization, urbanization, and
the fostering of consumerism, transforming it from “a largely agricultural
district into an export oriented manufacturing platform with decaying
agricultural activity […] [and] bypass[ing] the possibility of a more bal-
anced and complimentary relation between industry and agriculture”
(Ayala and Bernabe 2009: 180). In the process, the problems inherent in
its colonial status—including high unemployment rates, significantly lower
living standards as compared to mainland United States, the dependence
on US capital and governmental funds and the predominance of foreign
ownership of productive wealth—were further entrenched (ibid: 182;
199). Further, as many energy critics have pointed out, a key aspect of the
post-WWII global ecological regime was the centrality of cheap oil. Oil
fuelled the cars that mobilized an increasingly suburban society; oil under-
wrote the intensifying global division of the workforce and oil shaped
people’s diets, increasingly consisting of imported foods, grown with the
help of pesticides and fertilizers. Indeed, beginning in the late nineteenth
century and increasingly after WWII, the entire world-system has been
reorganized by oil—and thus to “think oil is to think the world-system”
(Niblett 2015: 275).
But what does it mean to think oil from an island in which infrastructure
and industry are based heavily on imported oil? In Puerto Rico, 98% of
electricity is derived from imported fossil fuels. This energy system is both
very expensive (resulting in almost double the US average of electricity
prices) and very vulnerable to climate change and disaster, due to the cen-
tralized reliance on very few power plants, as well as on extensive transporta-
tion networks (Klein 2018). As Catalina de Onís outlines, “energy
colonialism” has long played a significant role in shaping the relations of
exploitation and domination between the United States and Puerto Rico, as
indeed epitomized in the Jones Act (which requires all goods to be imported
on US ships) and Operation Bootstrap (2018: 1–2). It has also significantly

shaped the aftermath of Maria: the neglected oil-fuelled electricity system

collapsed with horrific consequences, including loss of many lives as medical
apparatuses, hospitals, and fridges were left without power supply. Further,
relief efforts were curtailed by the Jones Act, which was only temporarily
lifted by Trump.
Long before Maria, energy has occupied the island’s writers as inextrica-
ble from colonial and class dynamics. Luis Rafael Sánchez’s La guaracha del
Macho Camacho (2007 [originally published in 1976])—an allegorical novel
about a debilitating traffic jam in San Juan—offers an ideal starting point:
published the year of the introduction of Section 936, it has been seen as
symptomatic of the crisis of Operation Bootstrap and its established hetero-
normative tropes of narrating the nation (Cruz-Malavé 1995: 139). Its very
form—characterized by the dissolution of plot and the use of the guaracha
[a style of music and dance] as linking device and symbol of mass media—
can be read within this context.6 At the moment of crisis, the novel high-
lighted the centrality of oil to the island’s infrastructure and society and,
more broadly, US-dominated petro-modernity. While recent years have
seen the growth of energy-conscious approaches to literary aesthetics,
Sánchez’s text as a petro-novel has not yet been given the prominence it
deserves within this field. It is worth stating, then, that one of the Great
American Oil Novels is Puerto Rican and that it contributes to our under-
standing of the role of culture in global and local u ­ nevenness of petro-
modernity.7 While profoundly and completely reshaped by oil-powered US
imperialism, Puerto Rico never had any direct access to oil production, and
oil’s impact was largely mediated through industrialization, electrification,
de-ruralization, automobilization, and consumerism.8 While Sánchez’s text
features no oil derricks, oil suffuses the entire island, its infrastructure, and
its culture—a contradictory dynamic that would also be explored and
pushed to apocalyptic extremes six years later by Ana Lydia Vega in  her
short story “Puerto Rican Syndrome” in Encancaranublado y otros cuentos
de naufragio (Vega 2001 [originally published in 1982]).9
In Sánchez’s novel, stuck and isolated from each other in different loca-
tions are two overlapping versions of the “national family”—one composed
of the elite with ties to North America and Europe, and the other represen-
tative of the popular classes. In a fratricidal twist, the son of the latter—El
Nene [the Child]—is eventually killed by a Ferrari driven by the son of the
elite family. The trope of “la gran familia puertorriqueña” [the Big Puerto
Rican family] parodied by Sánchez had emerged in the late nineteenth
century and had subsequently been mobilized by the generación del treinta
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as a symbolic defense against Americanization (Moreno 2012: 29). It had

later been revived in national discourse during the boom years (Moreno
2012: 35). Sánchez’s text not only exposes its racialized hetero-patriarchal
exclusions and biases, but also shows this hegemonic trope to be deeply
embedded in uneven petro-modernity. This is taken to parodic extremes
through the inextricability of Senator Vicente’s sexual relations with lower-
class women and his libidinal investment in cars, as his Mercedes Benz
turns into “an emergency bed for emergency intercourse” (108). If the
senator as a representative of the elite is a figure of the generation of the
boom years, in the depiction of Vicente’s inarticulate son Benny, the
underlying social violence, as well as the libidinal overinvestment and over-
reliance on cheap energy is exposed at the moment of its crisis:

Benny devotes himself to an invocative delirium, the hand reaches the auto-
mobile velocity negated to the Ferrari: chromed Ferrari […] Ferrari pene-
trated by Benny’s desire, the gasoline tank torn off by Benny’s desire, by
Benny’s celebrant, Ferrari full of Benny’s semen. (258–9)

As the oil-fuelled regime is collapsing in stagnation, Benny’s oil fetishism

has become detached from hetero-patriarchal masculinity and hetero-­
normative conceptualizations of social reproduction, absurdly literalized
in the image of the semen-stained car. His fetishism is revealed as a socially
destructive and alienating force through the parodic sexual coupling of an
elite male and the machine. While Benny’s masturbation crescendos, the
car is stuck—until it crushes to death El Nene.10
Yet, even before this oil-fuelled crushing, El Nene “this sometimes sym-
bol of national hope” (Díaz 2013: 140)—offers a harsh allegorical reflec-
tion on Puerto Rican socio-ecological reality under petro-modernity. In his
influential Literatura y paternalismo en Puerto Rico (2005), Juan Gelpí has
read El Nene within the context of Sánchez’s re-visiting of Antonio
S. Pedreira’s classic essay Insularismo (1934).11 Insularismo could be read,
Gelpí argues, as “an account of a sick country-­child”, about Puerto Rico as
an infantilized “sick body” (ibid, 56), since Pedreira offered a critique of
US-dominated Puerto Rico through metaphors evoking sickness, cultural
infancy, negatively connoted miscegenation, and the determining influence
of the island’s natural landscape and climate. That Pedreira’s overtly racist,
Eurocentric, ecophobic, and hetero-­patriarchal vision is formulated during
an earlier moment of crisis is visible in the text: he laments the impact of
the oil-fuelled agro-­industrialization of the sugar plantations, through air
pollution and gasoline fumes, the degradation of the land, urbanization

and de-ruralization, and increasing dependency on food imports (see

60–63), which are the product of widening socio-ecological rifts driven by
petro-modernity. While La guaracha del Macho Camacho parodies and de-
essentializes Pedreira’s text, it updates his vision of socio-ecological degra-
dation through El Nene, a non-realist and grotesque figure suffering of
hydrocephaly, who literalizes Pedreira’s determinist metaphors (Gelpí
2005: 64–65), but continues to highlight deepening rifts in socio-ecologi-
cal metabolism. Abandoned in a tree-less urban context and exposed to the
sun, he feeds himself on lizards that induce him to vomit.12
With his bodily excretions, El Nene produces one of the most grotesque
images of the novel, binding together anxieties around landscapes, indus-
trialization, and food-getting: “archipelago of misfortunes, bleeding
islands, necklaces of vomit, vomit like broth of Chinese soup” (148). Not
only is there no reconciliation of the “national family” that is riven by inter-
necine class struggle but the relations to extra-human nature have here
become a site of the grotesque. Indeed, anxieties around food and food-
getting also feature in the textual foreplay to Benny’s masturbation, high-
lighting the links between oil-fuelled consumer fetishism and North
American convenience foods: “BENNY SAYS AT midday: how pretty is my
Ferrari and makes a salutatory acrostic with the letters of a Campbell soup”
(257). Oil not only suffuses the characters’ mobility (and lack thereof), but
also the US-dominated post-WWII global food-regime and Puerto Rico’s
heavy reliance on food imports, already lamented by Pedreira as “dietetic
slavery” (63) and, as we will see below, further intensifying through the
federal assistance nutritional programmes after 1975 (Colón Reyes 2011).13

The Businesswoman and the Drugged-Up Boy

From the aesthetics of the Oil Crisis, I will now jump to Mayra Santos-­
Febres’s equally canonical Sirena Selena vestida de pena [Sirena Selena
dressed in sorrow] (2000), a novel that depicts neoliberalism as a
­profoundly uneven global regime that has translated into new forms of
exploitation on a regional level. The novel has received much attention for
its cross-dressing, gender-fluid protagonist and indeed provided an impor-
tant corrective to hetero-normative national tropes, presenting the reader
with a range of genders, sexualities, and relations (Ferly 2013: 240–3).
Yet, while this challenge was in part enabled by the crisis of the hegemonic
narratives of the boom years, the text simultaneously draws a bleak picture
of Puerto Rico’s position within the by then fully established neoliberal
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world-order and embeds it within a larger (historical and geographic)

Through the inclusion of narrative voices from different generations,
Santos weaves a long history of the neoliberal present: it traces the trans-
formation of exploited agricultural labourers into urbanized proletariat
profoundly affected by structural unemployment. Sirena’s grandmother,
for instance, describes her family’s transformation from jíbaros [rural per-
sons] working for the owners of fincas [farm or place in the countryside]
to urban workers in Campo Alegre (now part of San Juan; 2000: 45), a
generational experience of de-ruralization that is importantly not roman-
ticized. This experience is paralleled by the characters encountered in the
Dominican Republic, transformed from “sugar plantation workers and
fishermen” (75) into hotel and domestic servants.14 This reality is drawn
against the (largely implicit) background of structural unemployment, as
humans become increasingly disposable and relegated as permanent sur-
plus; as Michelle Yates formulated this tendency within late capitalism, the
structurally unemployed “are little more than the human-as-waste,
excreted from the capitalist system” (Yates 2011: 1680). Indeed, in the
novel, “waste” or “garbage” [basura] is mentioned in descriptions of both
the cityscape and of Dominican beaches, but is also in places applied to
humans, as when Sirena fears that he would be treated like “waste” by
social services (96), or when Solange looks at Sirena as if she smelled of
“waste” (168), or when Valentina refers to Sirena as a miracle among so
much “waste” (86).15 By this sliding from description to metaphor, then,
Santos invites the reader to understand processes of increasing consumer-
ism (and waste production), unemployment, and social exclusions as
linked. The novel’s depiction of non-hetero-normative communities,
then, unfolds against this stark background of the dissolution of commu-
nities, eroded social networks, environmental degradation, and the pre-
dominance of unemployment and drug addiction.
Much of the novel is set in “transitory spaces” such as airplanes, bars,
and hotels (Russ 2009: 146) and Selena’s social ascent depends in part on
mobility and tourism. However, this does not translate into a celebration
of oil-fuelled globalization. Instead, the world depicted is profoundly
unequal, characterized by the continuation of both racialized and gen-
dered inequality, and colonial-capitalist exploitation of the periphery by
the core, whether by finance capital, pharmaceuticals, or mass tourism
(which took off in the last decades of the twentieth century). Neoliberalism

is thus depicted as a global, combined, and uneven regime that encom-

passes radically divergent experiences, including, for instance, two
Canadian tourists’ exploitative enjoyment of cheap sex with young
Dominican men, as well as the plight of Sirena’s Dominican double
Leocadio, who will, the novel suggests, eventually become a sex worker.
This unevenness is also captured in the novel’s two central images (Santos
2013: 159): the cross-dressing, transnational diva Sirena Selena, perform-
ing her bolero as well as offering images of patriarchal hyper-femininity to
the landed elite in the Dominican Republic and international tourists; and
Sirena as an ambiguously gendered child in San Juan, “drugged beyond
consciousness, [singing] and look[ing] for cans” (16). Sirena Selena, the
performer, operates in the neoliberal market as self-made entertainer, refer-
ring to her “blood of a businesswoman” and Martha Divine’s investment
in her (75; 257). While the language of neoliberal ideology—according to
which “human well-­being” is best served “by liberating individual entre-
preneurial freedoms” (Harvey 2007: 2)—has here infiltrated everyday rela-
tions and Sirena’s self-understanding, the text as a whole does not let the
reader forget the unequal power relations at play.
Sirena’s awareness of her own vulnerability stems from these contrast-
ing images of the performer and the drug-addict and sex worker. While
selling one’s body is not in itself morally coded in the novel, her experi-
ences with her mother-figure Valentina (who worked as a cross-dressing
sex worker to pay for rent and food and died of a drug overdose) highlight
the fact that the social conditions and relations under which these charac-
ters sell their bodies to survive need to be held up to critique. Most power-
fully, this is captured in the traumatic rape episode narrated by Sirena, who
remembers how “from the darkness inside this car emerged an extremely
white hand holding a large number of banknotes” (91)—an image with
strongly gothic undertones that disturbingly captures the transformation
and continuity of racialized inequalities under petro-­modernity.16 Even
after her relative social ascent, Sirena remains painfully aware of her bodily
and emotional vulnerability, as she turns into a commodity to be con-
sumed, into an exoticized “complete package deal” (128). This commodi-
fication replicates the dominant order in more ways than one: while in her
private life, she prefers androgyny and gender ambiguity (Ferly 2013:
241), in her performance she sells highly marketable images of patriarchal
hyper-femininity (203), turning into “the pure image of a waiting dam-
sel,” “a ship’s figurehead, a mythological goddess, a fallen virgin” with a
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face that is “provocatively absent” (203). Of course, Santos’s descriptions

of her performances are rightly celebrated both in their own right and as
disruptive of gender norms, but the conditions under which these perfor-
mances occur and which partly shape them always remain in sight.
Santos inserts the consumption of Sirena by Hugo Graubel—a repre-
sentative of the Dominican island’s landed elite, with investments in the
sugar industry, tourism, and the pharmaceutical industry (145)—within a
longer history of the Caribbean and the world-system. Sirena’s experience
of Hugo Graubel’s hacienda is revealing in this context:

She didn’t know that there were millionaires like this in the Dominican
Republic. […] She didn’t know of the acres and acres of sugar that had paid
for the humble estate of her host […], nor of the succulent cocolos [black
Caribbean migrant workers] who always served as appetizer for the hungry
boys of the Graubel family. […] Selena was unaware of all of this. She only
knew that glamour had always suited her well. The precious floor tiles of
pink marble accentuated the red-ish glimmer of her skin; the boudoirs of
white Filipino wicker and the velvety light in the interior patios would high-
light her silhouette of a nymph in sorrow. (118)

Santos here emphasizes the difference in the reader’s and Sirena’s perspec-
tive, as Sirena—while aware of the exploitation that she seeks to turn to
her advantage—is unable to fully grasp her position within the social
whole. The cognitive mapping performed by the omniscient narrator for
the reader clearly situates the consumption of Sirena within the history of
the consumption of Caribbean bodies and landscapes, as well as within a
history of ongoing class struggles. “Globalization” is here presented as a
mountain of spoils, the “triumphant signs of the profits gained from the
violent legacy of slavery” (Russ 2009: 156).17
To put this differently, then, Sirena—the enterprising performer who
sells images and is the seemingly perfect neoliberal subject—occupies but
one of the possible subject-positions under neoliberalism. She contrasts
with Hugo, the workers on the fields and her former drug-addicted self.
While the dissolution of the hetero-normative tropes and their underpin-
ning gender regimes are thus celebrated and replaced by a liberatory mul-
tiplicity of sexualities and genders across the class spectrum, the text
simultaneously advances a strong critique of the new ecological regime
under neoliberalism, characterized not by increased mobility, but the wid-
ening of pre-existing social and global inequalities and socio-ecological
degradation which have long roots in colonialism.

Urban Zombies: The Monstrous Turn After 2006

The aesthetics of socio-ecological degradation has become ever more
prominent since 2006, making itself felt through what one might call the
monstrous turn.18 We might refer to a number of zombie texts (by writers
including Pedro Cabiya, John Torres, Angel Rivera, and Josué Montijo),
to sci-fi and cyberpunk narratives (by writers including Rafael Acevedo,
Alexandra Pagán Vélez, and José Santos) or to works written in the Gothic
mode (by writers such as Ana María Fuster Lavín and Marta Ponte Alsina).
While a full discussion of these trends exceeds the scope of this chapter, I
will here turn to two insightful examples of the monstrous during neolib-
eralism’s “punitive phase” (2016),19 in which figurations of the human-as-­
waste and food-as-horror paint a slow apocalypse unevenly unfolding
across the world-system.
Josué Montijo’s El killer (2007) forms part of the recent zombie spike
in Puerto Rican culture, narrating the life and suicide of a serial killer and
postgraduate student called Juan B. Aybar, who lives in an urban setting
dominated by cars and asphalt. Driven apparently by disgust, Juan sets out
to kill San Juan’s drug addicts, whom he refers to as urban zombies and,
in English in the original, as the “living dead” (35).20 In other contempo-
rary zombie-centred poetry and narrative, zombies or the processes of
zombification are often threatening narrators. This is perhaps not surpris-
ing, since the zombie as a figure of a past that refuses to die and that feeds
on the living speaks to a society ever more strongly in the extractive grip
of predatory lenders; dead labour (capital) is colonizing the life-­forces of
the living. Yet, this is not how zombies signify in El killer, in which the
unreliable narrator Juan employs the zombie register as a distancing device
to de-humanize the homeless people he kills, implicitly aligning himself
with the zombie-slayers who, in global Anglophone film, are usually
attacked by cannibal zombies—a scenario that provides an ideological jus-
tification for militarization and violence. From Juan’s view, a potential
victim is thus described as appearing to be infected with rabies and resem-
bling one of the fast and infectious zombies of Danny Boyle’s 28  Days
Later—despite of course not posing any actual threat. Juan conceives of
these acts as a form of “social cleansing” (Casanova 2015: 120), as ridding
society of beings who, as he puts it, smell badly, walk about in rags and
have an “insatiable intravenous appetite” (8).
The novel thus offers a critical translation of the neoliberal disdain for
those the system expels into a murderous imperative. It contains three
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parts: Juan’s 120-page diary; a brief response and contextualization by a

journalist, and fictional alter-ego of the novelist, called Montijo; and Juan’s
brief letter to this journalist. Montijo-the-journalist professes to struggle to
understand Juan’s actions and shows particular concern to refute his
attempt to lay claim to “reasons” and to label him as mentally unstable
(125). Juan’s narrative is less revealing on individual terms than it is for
thinking about the logic that underpins hegemonic cultural narratives.
While the fictional present is set in 2004, Aybar was born in 1974, the year
after the global Oil Shock. He is thus the product of the unfolding of the
successive periods of neoliberalism, from the crisis that beset Operation
Bootstrap in the seventies, through privatization of public services and
anti-­union strategies in the 1990s, and the onset of the new regime of
colonial wealth extraction through predatory lending practices of the
2000s. The location of Juan’s first murder is symbolic, as it occurs behind
the former office of the Puerto Rico Phone Company, which had been
privatized at the end of the 1990s under then-governor Pedro Rosselló,
despite a long strike that is still remembered today by many. Typically, Juan
reacts not to the building (which is only briefly mentioned), but to the
nearby shelter for the homeless that, he claims, “serves them everything on
a silver plate” (13). Having internalized neoliberal logic, Juan rewrites
drug addiction as personal choice and as deriving from laziness, thus
abstracting it from the larger global and local contexts. To use the terms by
Alison Phipps in her work on neoliberalism, he measures success “by indi-
viduals’ capacity for self-care via the market” and, in accordance with neo-
liberal ideology, viewing “those who do not achieve their potential […] as
failures rather than as victims of oppressive social structures” (2014: 11).
The irony of Juan’s metaphoric use of the zombie is repeatedly high-
lighted in the text, producing a disjunction between the reader’s and the
narrator’s perspectives. The zombie figure originated in Haiti and was
linked not only to a critique of enslavement and exploitation, but also to
the Revolution and resistance. Within Caribbean literatures, zombies thus
tend not to be conceived as monstrous villains, but as victims of, and fight-
ers against, processes of exploitation and appropriation. The irony is high-
lighted in a scene in which, while polishing his “hungry” guns, Juan listens
to “Haitian Fight Song” (1957) by the Jazz musician Charles Mingus,
whose work was profoundly shaped by the struggle against racial discrimi-
nation (56–57). While the unreliable narrator Juan never critically exam-
ines his own use of metaphors or of cultural references to songs, films and
works of literature, the mention of Mingus’s composition here reinforces

the aforementioned disjunction. Through the song’s title, Mingus had

sought to make a political statement, “root[ing] the civil rights movement
in a 150-year old struggle” (Dunkel 2013, 76), seeking to highlight the
larger global history of resistance to racial inequality and to evoke transna-
tional solidarity against a systemically racist capitalist world-order—an
endeavour that contrasts with Juan’s distrust in communal and political
solutions. “Hope,” as he puts it as potential title for his imagined self-­
defence, “is a bank account (without funds)” (48). Juan’s allusions and
comparisons are correspondingly devoid of a moral compass: he describes
both his victims and himself as monstrous, compares himself to serial kill-
ers and vigilante heroes of American film and describes himself in gothic
terms as vampirically pale, while describing his weapons in cannibalist
terms (63; 11).
Juan’s solipsism is literalized in his professions to feel nothing while
shooting 19 people over the course of a year, in his disinterest in the coun-
try that “stinks of cadaver” in a homicidal twist of earlier tropes of the
island-as-sick-body (9). Instead the reader is offered a detailed focus on
fire arms, on video games, and his inner emotional life, illustrating total
moral and intellectual bankruptcy and thus, symbolically, the psychopa-
thology of the system. The national family is here all but forgotten: while
Juan was raised within a two-parent family, they play no significant role
other than to render him into an exemplary product of a normalized
hetero-­patriarchal order. There are certain parallels with texts, such as Bret
Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), which “translates for the readers
the massive social costs of neoliberal economics into a terrifyingly intimate
experience of violence by a psychotic subject who embodies neoliberal
theory and performs it through repeated acts of disembowelment” (Heise
2011: 135). Unlike the Donald Trump-worshipping New Yorker Bateman,
however, Juan wields no economic power, does not work in the financial
sector, nor obsesses with branded clothing, nor derives sexual satisfaction
from his killings. Instead, while he displays a voyeuristic obsession with the
pain he inflicts, an obsession with guns, video games and US serial killers,
he also lives an otherwise unremarkable and isolated life of an intellec-
tual—so much so that one early reviewer of the novel observed that “we
are all Juan B. Aybar” (Cardona 2013). The choice of Juan as character
that here embodies internalized neoliberal ideology—despite gaining
nothing from the dominance of finance capital—speaks strongly to the
global unevenness of neoliberalism and the differential experiences of its
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While in El killer, the symbolic comparison of those addicted to drugs

to zombies is ultimately held up to critique, it is performed uncritically in
the National Geographic production Drugs Inc. (2012), which focussed
on drug addiction and trafficking in a range of different locations. In
Episode 8 of Season 3, Puerto Rico is referred to in the title as “Zombie
Island.” The episode mobilizes centuries-old tropes of the Caribbean-as-­
hell and visually obsesses with abject bodies, zooming in on an infected
tropical ulcer and following the sleepwalking movements of a user of horse
tranquilizers. As Travis Linnemann observes, Drugs Inc. “is little more
than tabloid television pawned off as serious investigative work” (28).
While Drugs Inc. does not, of course, put forward anything remotely simi-
lar to Juan’s murderous proposals, the way in which the topic is approached
risks making paternalist external control seem desirable and thus forms
“part of the larger ideological frame that normalizes state violence and
conceals the fundamental inequalities of late capitalism” (Linnemann
28–29). Drug transhipment through Puerto Rico and the associated dras-
tic increase in crime since the 1990s need to be understood within the
regional and global context of the international drug trade, which has
benefitted from the conditions created by global neoliberalism, which
facilitated money laundering through liberalization while creating massive
economic instability (Avilés 2017).
It is certainly consistent that Aybar’s contempt stretches further to
include “cuponeros” [those living on food stamps] who, he suggests, are
“leeches [who] suck up everything, everything” (101). Allocating guilt to
the “individual inability to integrate oneself into the consumer market”
(Colón Reyes 2011: 42), his stereotyped description of a woman on ben-
efits is rife with the same sense of disgusted fascination and abjection that
also characterizes his description of the homeless drug addicts: “[her]
two-hundred and fifty pounds of overweight spilled over the sides of the
seat. Add to this her hair that was all messy […] loose black plastic flip
flops with flower motifs in electric clean, dirty tanned feet” (100). The
dependence of a large sector of the population on benefits and on nutri-
tional assistance programmes needs to be placed within its neoliberal con-
text: since 1975, these programmes have offered some improvements to
well-being, but they also became a new form of political and economic
control that profoundly changed people’s diets (as the obesity crisis exem-
plifies) and work lives, while benefitting mainly the upper sectors in society
(e.g. those in the food import business) and further dismantling alimen-
tary self-sufficiency (Colón Reyes 2011: 43–46).

In this context, Juan’s early reference to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later

(2002) again resonates beyond the narrator’s intentions, since it raises
the question of food delocalization in relation to zombification. In this
British film famous for introducing fast zombies, an army Major leading
a surviving all-male unit of soldiers holds an infected captive in order to
study his behaviour and eventually learns the following: “he’ll never bake
bread. Plant crops. Raise livestock. He is futureless.” The Major’s obser-
vation raises a larger point about the history of the zombie, a figure that
became globalized in the 1930s, when scores of small-scale farmers
across the Caribbean were displaced by US monopoly capital, a process
that laid the foundations for the increasing oil-fuelled delocalization of
food. In the apocalyptic world of 28 Days Later, accessing food is diffi-
cult and the few remaining humans live on a high-sugar diet composed
of junk foods—the leftovers of a society running on oil and processed
foods produced by multinational companies. A ruptured connection to
the land, to food production, and to one’s own body and labour force is
thus key to the emergence of the zombie phenomenon, which turns on
the specific nature-society relations that are fundamental to the capitalist

Food-Horror and Cyberpunk
While in El killer, food is not central to the narrative, in Rafael Acevedo’s
dystopian Al otro lado del mundo hay carne fresca [On the other side of the
wall there is fresh meat/flesh] (2014), set in the 2040s, the uneven access
to healthy food becomes the dominant focus as indicated in the title. The
fictional world of Acevedo’s novel taps into an oneiric irrealism as well as
the conventions of cyberpunk, “that self-declared bastard child of science
fiction” (Williams 2011: 17; see also Acevedo 2014a). The former was so
aptly theorized by Sylvia Wynter as a feeling of unreality produced by the
domination of the logic of the market over the political, economic and
cultural aspects of everyday life (1971); here, events seem to shape them-
selves in accordance with the wishes of the socially alienated narrator, as a
woman who he mentally designates a “cow” turns out to be named
“Holstein” with a daughter called “Milka,” as he becomes increasingly
drawn into a plot revolving around access to healthy food (with an empha-
sis on meat and milk). This “unreality” is inscribed within a cyberpunk
vision of a “system let loose upon itself” (Williams 2011: 18), marked by
rampant inequality, militarization and dissolved states.
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The novel builds on Acevedo’s earlier Exquisito cadáver (2001), which

was set in slightly more distant future inhabited by cyborgs but, like Al
otro lado, also portrayed a society in the throes of a profound socio-­
ecological crisis. In Exquisito cadáver, this was most succinctly expressed
through the contrast between the nostalgically evoked Samoyedic society
of hunter-gatherers and the image of modern city as “a human body pre-
pared for the oven” (51). As the latter image suggests, twenty-first century
alienation from food production seemingly turns the relation between
food and humans on its head. Bodies consistently are likened to food and
prepared as dish in a variety of grotesque images, with explicit references
to cannibalist imaginaries and to the food writing of early colonial travel
writers, thus inserting the perspective on food-getting and consumption
within the longer histories of capitalist expansion through colonialism
(Irizarry 2009: 208).
In Al otro lado, this concern with food-horror is central: the plot
revolves around the abduction of the Senator Macarán—who has invest-
ments in tourism, the food industry and pharmaceuticals—by an eco-­
terrorist group; access to “fresh meat” is restricted to those living on the
right side of the wall, whereas Puerto Rico lies in the prohibition zone,
where meat is artificially produced and characters have not consumed real
milk in years; the bioreactors of artificial food production resemble a
Panopticon and hide the possible addition of human flesh. Within the
novel, profound alimentary inequality is thinly masked through the preva-
lence of fast foods, a situation described by the narrator in terms evocative
of the zombie apocalypse: “I decide to run to the hamburger stand.
Actually, they are some sort of croquettes, with wheat gluten, soya milk
and a fifth of meat from the bioreactors. The place is open 24 hours.
Serving the community of vagabonds and hungry drug addicts of zombie
island” (34). The separation and alienation of the population from food
production is complete in this nightmarish but recognizable version of the
present and the agricultural past has been reduced to kitsch marketing
images, like the “happy cow” on the milk carton filled with a yellowish
green liquid (61). Further, the reference to “zombie island”—and thus to
sensationalist employments of zombie imaginaries within the mass media—
offers here a critical take on monstrous imaginaries from a perspective that
exposes neoliberal and capitalist inequality.
As Colón Reyes observes, Puerto Rican food dependency needs to be
inscribed within the global context of US food-power: it is “part of a

global economy of unequal distribution of food and of its large-scale

industrial production” and turns into an instrument of subjection (2011:
47). Historically, the US economy has gained from this arrangement, as
the funds of the assistance programmes “are spent mostly on imports from
the United States” (Ayala and Bernabe 2009: 33). This is also in line with
global trends over the course of the twentieth century, as the agricultural
surpluses from subsidized large-scale mechanized farming industries (in
the United States and EU) were dumped as cheap food on peripheralized
countries, creating a damaging food dependency and destroying local
economies. This food domination is felt on every level of the ecological
regime, working through the reorganization of landscapes, but also
through individual bodies of lower-class populations who are eating cheap,
sugar-laced processed foods. Their bodies thus “become a site for the
­spatial fix of capitalism’s inherent growth problems” (Guthman 2011).
Yet, just as capitalism is increasingly hitting its environmental and spatial
limits on a global scale, this alimentary regime increasingly “run[s] up
against the limits of the body” (ibid), as becomes evident in the elevated
rates of diabetes and obesity in Puerto Rico.
In Acevedo’s text, food inequality is an integral part of a world-system
dominated by multinational capital, reshaped by oil, and increasingly
mired in an all-encompassing socio-ecological crisis, evoked through ref-
erences to intense forms of political and economic subjection and advanced
environmental degradation that manifests itself through acid rain, rising
sea levels and polluted landscapes. The island itself has been bought up by
one corporation, owned by “a fool from Arkansas [...] an Arab with invest-
ments in Irak and a producer of porn films from California” (73). Like
Sánchez and Vega, Acevedo highlights the centrality of oil to the domi-
nant order, rendered most clearly through one of the narrator’s dreams, in
which meat has the texture of “fungus” and “gushes forth a viscous liquid
that resembles Diesel” (58). Oil has also infiltrated, and provides the
imaginative limits to, various characters’ emotional and spiritual world, as
seen for instance through the figure of the cultish prophet, who instead of
receiving revelations from a burning bush, receives them through a burn-
ing car (152), or as witnessed in the final scenes of apocalypse, in which
exhaust pipes are compared to the trumpets (168). His text may thus be
read as an intensification of the aesthetics of socio-ecological degradation,
from La guaracha del Macho Camacho to El killer.
86  K. OLOFF

World-Literary Puerto Rico

Within the world-market of publishing, Puerto Rican writing is routinely
marginalized, a fact Duchesne Winter found most succinctly expressed in
the book sections of the (now bankrupt) Borders, relegating Puerto Rican
writers to the local interest section (2001: 30). Yet, if considered as world-­
literary in the sense of registering the world-system (WReC 2015), Puerto
Rican writing of the last few decades has offered some of the most self-­
consciously critical examples, which speak to different periods within neo-
liberal global capitalism. As the more stable post-WWII-boom conditions
were eroded after the Oil Crisis, the veneer of the narratives of “progress”
through industrialization revealed long-persisting realities of the colonial-­
capitalist peripheralization and its accompanying socio-ecological violence.
As an oil-novel about a place with no oil production, Sánchez’s text pushed
oil-fuelled tropes of the national family to grotesque extremes, eroding
their discursive foundation. In Santos’ novel published over two decades
later, after the privatizations of the 1990s, the aesthetics of the national
family has given way to different gendered and relational experiences, but
this takes place against the background of so-called globalization. In con-
trast to uncritical celebrations of transnationalism, Santos’s text sheds light
on the combined and uneven nature of global neoliberalism and the sub-
jectivities it generates: the individual-as-entrepreneur contrasts with the
disenfranchisement of the urban masses and the emergence of the human-
as-waste. In the work of the two writers of the post-2006 moment, this
structural inequality assumes apocalyptic proportions with the erosion of
unfolding through the erosion of social networks and a meaningful notion
of the collective. On a formal and stylistic level, the punitive stage of neo-
liberal capitalism, then, is registered in the turn towards the monstrous and
a heightened feeling of unreality. While Josué Montijo critically engages
with globally circulating hegemonic zombie imaginaries and their relation
to the global status quo, Rafael Acevedo inserts his irrealist style explicitly
within an uneven and increasingly militarized global context, in which the
oneiric, the monstrous and cyberpunk aesthetics speak powerfully to neo-
liberal capital’s control over, and destruction of, local life worlds. Within
the last decade, the aesthetics of socio-ecological degradation have gained
renewed urgency, expressed in the bundling of anxieties around environ-
ments, the body-as-spatial-fix, the emergence of the human-as-waste, and
the heightened delocalization of production and reproduction. From the
perspective of the dramatic unravelling of relative boom-period stability in

Puerto Rico, these global trends are experienced and exposed with par-
ticular acuity. Within the context of Maria’s aftermath, some of the apoca-
lyptic and dystopian scenarios imagined by the writers become tragically
and disturbingly prophetic, as humans and their homes are treated as
expendable by those with economic and political might.

1. The extent of the tragedy was downplayed by the government of right-
wing Ricardo Roselló, who gave an official death count of 64. A new
Harvard study places the death toll at more than 70 times this estimate,
namely 4645, which is “likely to be an underestimate due to survivor bias”
(Kishore et al. 2018: 1).
2. Thanks to Dr Yarí Pérez Marín for her helpful comments on an earlier draft
of this article.
3. See Ayala and Bernabe (2009) and Bernabe (2017).
4. A longer history of Puerto Rican aesthetics of environmental degradation
is offered by Acosta Cruz.
5. Translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.
6. See Frances R. Aparicio’s discussion of the role of music in the novel
7. As Graeme McDonald has suggested, the putative absence of great cultural
works engaging with oil is overstated. “[G]iven the global cultural reach of
an oil and gas dominated world energy system, all fiction is petro-fiction to
various removes” (2013: 19).
8. In the 1960s, there was an attempt to sift towards petrochemical industri-
alization but this was brought to an end by the Oil Crisis (Ayala and
Bernabe 2009: 192–3).
9. In the story’s apocalyptic ending the island is engulfed by the sea, cars are
swallowed up by the ground, and an oil fountain breaks forth. This is
ironic, Rodríguez Marín suggests, since oil wealth “could have changed
the history  – economic, social and colonial  – of Puerto Rico” (2004–5:
29). Yet the irony might also be said to turn on oil’s veiled omnipresence
preceding the apocalypse—something that Vega highlights through the
insistent emphasis on processed American foods, omnipresent cars, con-
sumer goods and the TV screens.
10. On the allegorical dimension of his death, see Pérez Montijo.
11. See also Luis Felipe Díaz’s seminal De charcas, espejos, infantes y velorios en
la literatura puertorriqueña (2013). Díaz traces a longer history of the
national child from the nineteenth century to the present day.
12. Díaz reads the scene of the deliberate exposure of the child to the sun as
staging a regressive desire to reintegrate into Nature and to leave behind
88  K. OLOFF

the “empire of the artifice of signs” (143). I would here add that instead of
opposing late modernity to “Nature,” it is here useful to understand late
capitalism as a way of organizing nature in such a way that increasing
financialization, globalization, and mass mediatization produce the appear-
ance of the domination of signs while creating increasingly hostile socio-
ecological environments for the majority.
13. See also Huard’s analysis of convenience foods and the critique of the “ali-
mentary American Dream” (245).
14. Hernández’s analysis of increasing food dependence in the Dominican
Republic and the increasing redundancy of low-skilled workers within a
world-systemic context here provides an excellent comparison (2002: 58; 4).
15. Sirena’s gender fluidity is highlighted in the novel through changing pro-
nouns. I here follow the novel’s employment of feminine and masculine
16. In early twentieth century Caribbean literature, cars tended to be associ-
ated with the plantation overseers.
17. See Mimi Sheller (2003).
18. Acosta Cruz offers an insightful longer history of the aesthetics of environ-
mental degradation (2014).
19. Davies dates “punitive neoliberalism” from 2008, which in the Puerto
Rican context may be modified to 2006, the year that marks the beginning
of the recession.
20. For a perceptive commentary on El killer as a fiction critical of neoliberal-
ism in Puerto Rico, see Casanova-Vizcaíno (2015).

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Mont Neoliberal Periodization: The Mexican

“Democratic Transition,” from Austrian
Libertarianism to the “War on Drugs”

Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado

The discussion of neoliberalism from the perspective of literary and cul-

tural studies in 2017 must begin with the acknowledgment of two chal-
lenges that, in my view, frame any attempt to account for its history. First,
neoliberalism cannot be conflated with the idea of “the contemporary” as
it now names a historical arch with roots in the 1920s, which at the very
least describes the effects of policies of economic reform that have been
hegemonic around the world for thirty to forty-five years, depending on
the region. Second, the canonical accounts of the history of neoliberalism
in the Anglophone world—David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism
(2005) and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (2007)—have gradually
become outdated for at least two reasons. First, their reading of global
neoliberalism as imperial irradiation—economic ideas and policies formed
in the metropolitan North that irradiated into the global South through
interventionism—is partially challenged by more nuanced readings that
show the roots of neoliberalism in  local policies (more on this in a

I. M. Sánchez Prado (*)
St. Louis, MO, USA

© The Author(s) 2019 93

S. Deckard, S. Shapiro (eds.), World Literature, Neoliberalism, and
the Culture of Discontent, New Comparisons in World Literature,

moment). Second, the 2008 crisis—just like the Mexican crisis of 1994,
the 1997 financial crisis of the Asian tigers or the 2001 collapse of
Argentina among many others—has raised important caveats to the notion
of neoliberalism as a technocratic political economy of development by the
transference of economic resources from the social to the one percent, as
they render visible what Robert Brenner (2006) calls the “economics of
global turbulence,” that must be narrated beyond the terms Klein’s idea
of the “shock doctrine” (2007). The long historical arch of neoliberalism
also raises the importance of understanding that the term has morphed
from the description of a political economy (the realm in which Harvey’s
work generally keeps the term) to a lived experience that operates in affec-
tive, ideological, and material terms not accountable by mere economicist
approaches. In the English-language academy in particular, the belated
arrival of literary and cultural studies to the discussion of neoliberalism as
such has had resulted in a pernicious lag in the discussion of this dimen-
sion—although recent contributions, such as the collective book
Neoliberalism and Contemporary Literary Culture (2017) and the excel-
lent monographs by its editors Mitchum Huehls (2016) and Rachel
Greenwald Smith (2015), have made significant strides in breaking this
impasse in American literary studies. Yet, these works read neoliberalism
from idea of the contemporary and with a strong focus on 9/11 as a tem-
poral reference point, even though the relevance of this landmark date
varies significantly across geographies as nodal site for the history of neo-
liberalism proper.
Within this landscape, I think that scholars like myself, who do not
participate in the field of American studies and who hail from other
regions, must confront the task to develop fuller understandings of neo-
liberalism as experienced outside of the United States and Western Europe,
in order to see the ways in which other experiences allow us to read neo-
liberalism not only as imperial irradiations but also as political economies
and lived experiences tied to the long durée experience of individual coun-
tries and regions in national and global configurations of capitalist devel-
opment. In this spirit, what I propose here is an approach to the
periodization of neoliberalism, based on the concrete experience of Mexico
as a privileged site in the historical arch of neoliberalism. The importance
of Mexico to the history of neoliberalism has to do with various factors.
First, it is a country that was, from very early on, a fertile ground for the
introduction of neoliberal ideas, given that the national right-wing and the
business and financial sectors fostered critiques for Keynesian paradigms of

development as early as the 1930s, when they coalesced in opposition to

the Left-oriented populist presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas. Indeed, as is
visible in the work of historians (e.g. Niblo 1999), the Mexican counter-
revolution opened the space for political ideas tied to the purported con-
nection between freedom and free-market central to neoliberalism.
Second, Mexico’s unique political history related to the slow transition
from the longest one-party regime of the twentieth century to a liberal
multi-party system created unique conditions for a neoliberalism con-
structed on a soft-authoritarian State and on a peculiar balance between
liberalization and clientelism (Ornelas Delgado 2001). Finally, Mexico
occupies a crucial role in the formation of key neoliberal development
policies (such as Conditional Cash Transfer policies, which have part of
their origins in late 1980s programs in Mexico), the imagination of anti-­
neoliberalism politics (one can remember the seminar role of the Zapatista
uprising of 1994 in this regard) and the experience of neoliberal crisis (the
1994 crash is one of the paradigmatic examples of economic turbulence
directly resulting from neoliberal reform and was much bigger in size,
proportionally, than the 2008 crisis in the United States).
Evidently, a full account of this history exceeds the length of a chapter.
Due to this limit, I will not provide a detailed account of Mexico’s recent
history, which is very accessible in good-quality English-language sources
(Dawson 2006; Haber et  al. 2008; Tuckman 2012) and more recent
texts in Spanish (Ackerman 2015; Meyer 2016). To begin the discussion,
it is important to understand, particularly for those not familiarized with
the process, that neoliberalism in Mexico functions in two axes. One of
these axes has to do with the two modes of political economy that succeed
each other in Mexican neoliberalism. The first one is typically known as
“democratic transition,” which names the erosion and ultimate fall of the
one-party regime and which accounts for a technocratic mode of ideology
tied to the aversion to State-centered development. The second period,
known generally through the misnomer the “War on Drugs,” constitutes
a form of “late neoliberalism” where the technocratic imaginary cedes its
way to a radical biopolitical project framed under ideas of crisis and
resource extraction. The second axis has to do with the cultural scaffold-
ing that engages these modes of political economy through three cultural
modes: (1) the myth of “civil society,” which articulated a cultural dis-
course that masked the “undoing of the Demos” recently discussed by
Wendy Brown (2015) through notions, such as “consumer citizenship”
(García Canclini 2001) or “post-Mexican condition” (Bartra 2002); (2)

the participation of cultural fields in the advancement of neoliberal ideas of

class and politics and in the subjectification of new forms of immaterial and
material labor (Emmelhainz 2016) and in the construction of cultural
industries, such as new forms of Mexican cinema which align with neolib-
eralism in both industrial structure and ideological framing (Sánchez Prado
2014); and (3) the idea of “precarization” that defines late neoliberalism
by rendering the erosion of the political subject as the fundamental ele-
ment of form, giving rise to precarious subjectivities, such as the victim
(Rivera Garza 2011) or the gendered body-commodity subject to violence
and exploitation (Segato 2016). This cartography points to the idea of the
reconfiguration of the fields of culture, politics, and economics in their
relationship to each other as a fundamental trait of neoliberalization, and
creates an understanding of the ways in which the materiality of those
fields permits the thinking of neoliberalism in its periodization.
Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo’s Historia mínima del neoliberalismo
(2015) provides a useful departing point to discuss the problem of neolib-
eral periodization from the Mexican perspective. Puzzlingly in my view,
Escalante opts for a history of world neoliberalism largely omitting
Mexican specificities, but it is quite significant to see how he unfolds the
history of neoliberalism itself. Escalante Gonzalbo establishes on the sur-
face a chronology that is by and large familiar to scholars of neoliberalism:
the precursor role of Lippman and Austrian economics (which, as I will
show momentarily, is far more crucial to the Mexican experience than usu-
ally recognized), the rise of the discipline of economics to “grand science”
in the 1950s and 1960s, the implementation of neoliberal reforms in the
1970s and 1980s, and the ultimate consolidation of the neoliberal State in
the 1990s and onward. But, toward the end of the book, Escalante
Gonzalbo makes a fundamental claim. He contends that the true moment
of “intellectual creativity” when the idea of the marriage between the
world, the State and the market was posed, and the “epic moment” in
which neoliberal reforms sought to reverse half a century of policy inertia
have passed and that essentially any other work in neoliberal thinking after
that is only derivative (2015: 293). This is essential because it shows the
framework under which Mexican historians are recentering neoliberalism
from the idea of a US-centered policy diffusionism to a set of ideas more
aligned with the Austrian school. Further, Escalante Gonzalbo notes that
we live a “neoliberal moment,” in the same way in which there was a “lib-
eral moment” in the nineteenth century. This moment is defined not so
much on the triumph of neoliberalism as policy but in its elevation to

“social imaginary” that accounts for the totality of social life. Paradoxically
though, following his own argument although Escalante Gonzalbo does
not quite enunciate it this way, the consolidation of neoliberalism happens
when its intellectual roots are derivative and its creative moment is
exhausted. Therefore, it becomes crucial to understand that contemporary
realism is defined by a process (that Escalante Gonzalbo actually calls the
“opium of the intellectuals” following Raymond Aron’s critique of
Marxism) in which the way neoliberalism totalizes knowledge allows for
the creation of intellectual practices that spread the neoliberal credo
(2015: 300). Although Escalante Gonzalbo is thinking these matters from
a liberal perspective that is as much distant from Marxism as it is from
neoliberalism—and although he argues we should still consider contribu-
tions of thinkers like Hayek and Gary Becker, freed from the chains of
their mediocre followers—his point is important precisely because it is an
outgrowth of the ideas of liberalism and democracy that were central to
Mexico’s neoliberalism. It is an instructive book because it seeks to account
for the failure of neoliberalism without undoing the gains of the demo-
cratic transition, a point to which I will return at the end of this chapter.
For the time being, a key idea to return here is the role that Mont
Pèlerin and other precursor scenes to contemporary neoliberalism have in
the imagination of neoliberal periodization in Mexico. In a recent book,
María Eugenia Romero Sotelo traces the origins of neoliberalism in
Mexico not to what Sarah Babb calls the “crisis of Mexican developmen-
talism” and the ulterior rise of a technocratic, US-educated economist
class (2001: 108–98) but, rather, to the early impact of the Mont Pèlerin
society in Mexico and the way in which Austrian economic theory inter-
acted with the desire of the national business class to question the post-­
revolutionary regime’s interventionist economic policy. Romero Sotelo
notes that the visit of Ludwig von Mises and other Mont Pelerin figures to
Mexico in 1958 did not have great impact because the booming economy
of the “Mexican miracle” (the period of vertiginous economic growth due
to nationalist economic policy in the 1940s and 1950s) had given cre-
dence to the government’s Keynesian policies, grouped under the formula
of “stabilizing development” (2016: 216–17). Nonetheless, as Romero
Sotelo discusses, the idea of “liberalism” and freedom that the business
class and its organic intellectuals have, originated in the works of econo-
mists such as Luis Montes de Oca, a scholar of economics and politics who
played a crucial role in the early history of Mexico’s central bank and who
was an early admirer of Walter Lippman’s liberalism before becoming

both an early theorist of free-market liberalization (which he fundamentally

did in the 1940s and 1950s) and the translator of Von Mises’s Socialism
(2016: 135–157).
Without delving too much into Romero Sotelo’s outstanding research,
three points can be derived from it in order to think the questions that
pertain to my argument. First, it shows that the origin of neoliberalism as
a worldwide phenomenon does not necessarily lie on the backlash to the
global 1968 or in response to the oil crisis of the 1970s, as suggested in
Harvey’s account, or in the push to impose Chicago School ideas in South
America through shock-doctrine interventionism, as Klein describes.
Instead, we see that it has to do with the formation of fields of cultural
production tied to the development of economic knowledge as a pur-
ported defense of freedom against global Keynesian-style policies which,
particularly in regions like Latin America, were essential engines of eco-
nomic growth when implemented by regimes following populist para-
digms. In Mexico, thinkers like Montes de Oca were tied to the creation
of both financial institutions (central and private banks) and private edu-
cational institutions (such as the Instituto Teconológico de México, later
ITAM, which became the central institution in the formation of Mexico’s
technocracy from the 1980s onward), all of them counter to the populist
legacy of the Revolution. Second, it shows that, crucially, the periodiza-
tion of neoliberalism lies not so much on the history of economic doc-
trine, but rather on the history of the intellectual and cultural fields that
create the conditions of possibility for neoliberalism to become both
enacted policy and lived social experience. In Mexico, one of the crucial
factors for the success of neoliberalism is the longstanding centrality of
classical liberalism as the hegemonic form of thinking in the intellectual
class, which means that, even if sustained by outsiders, the ideas of the
Mont Pèlerin society were never fully alien to the fields of cultural and
academic production. For instance, José Antonio Aguilar Rivera, a fore-
most historian of Mexican liberalism, includes Gustavo R. Velasco in one
of his accounts (2010: 103–20). Velasco translated The Federalist Papers
into Spanish and was one of the leading advocates of the Austrian school
in the 1960s and 1970s. What is striking about his figure is that he sought
the foundation of a Liberal Party (a name that in Mexico has a peculiar
load, as it was the name of the anarchist party of the Flores Magón broth-
ers during the Mexican Revolution), which essentially intersected notions
of economic freedom brought by the Mont Pèlerin school with ideas of
freedom canonical in Mexican liberalism. His works were also often funded

by the Mexican Banking Association. Finally, in a more global argument,

the story in Rosas Sotelo’s work demonstrates that the economic and cul-
tural ideologies of neoliberalism sprouted in areas such as Latin America
even before Milton Friedman came to the scene, and, in many cases, have
intellectual histories that would ultimately meet Monetarism and other
schools of thinking.
This is the reason why the periodization of Mexican neoliberalism
departs from the idea of “democratic transition,” as economic liberalization
and liberation from the control of a one-party, soft-authoritarian State were
frequently imagined as bound together. One of the reasons why this is the
case is because the policies of developmentalism and Keynesianism—and
regional variations, such as Comisión Económica para America Latina
(CEPAL)-informed economics and the mid-century ideas of Import-
Substitution Industrialization (ISI)—became identified with the Partido
Revolutionario Institucional (PRI) due to the party’s monopoly on State
power. This accounts for many factors, including why Mexico did not
develop a triumphant Pink-Tide government—as forms of politics like
Chavismo or institutions like the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) in Brazil
hold similarities with the PRI of the 1960s and 1970s, at least from the
perspective of Mexican liberals. Even Andrés Manuel López Obrador,
Mexico’s recently elected Left-leaning president, articulates in many cases a
restoration of State-centric economics and the principles of post-­
revolutionary populism, rather than the type of constitutional assembly and
reconfiguration of political grassroots at the base of the Pink Tide. When
reading key texts of the democratic transition in Mexico, it is clear that the
plea for economic liberalization was preceded or accompanied by thorough
critiques of the power of the State, which could articulate themselves per-
fectly in ideological configurations of both the right and the left wing. It is
not coincidental, for instance, that 1970s Mexico was the site in which Iván
Illich developed his theory of modernity based in part through a denuncia-
tion of State institutions, such as the educational system (Beck 2017).
Gabriel Zaid, a Catholic intellectual of libertarian bent and a central figure
in Octavio Paz’s intellectual group, wrote El progreso improductivo (The
Improductive Progress, 1979), a heterodox grouping of essays in economics
which argued, among other things, that taxes produced inequality and that
there is not much use for the State as an institution. At the same time,
Mexican Marxism was developing a significant anti-State bent through
studies of primitive accumulation and the influence of Gramsci and Althusser
(Illades 49–71), while Roger Bartra developed, first under the influence of

Althusserianism and then under the influx of Michel Foucault and Cornelius
Castoriadis, highly influential critiques of what he called “despotic power”
and the “imaginary networks of political power,” which are terms to
describe, respectively, the material and symbolic tools of State domination
(Sánchez Prado 2014). The corollary that emerges out of these examples is
not so much to label them as “neoliberal” proper. All of them depart sig-
nificantly even from the brand of Austrian-informed liberalism of Montes
de Oca and Velasco and some of these figures, like Bartra, openly critique
neoliberal economic programs. Rather, the point is that the true history of
neoliberalism in Mexico emerges from the encounter between radically dis-
parate intellectual figures with avant-la-lettre forms of the neoliberal pro-
gram: freedom from the State; the emancipatory role of free markets (in the
right) or of autonomic forms of pre-capitalist organization (which would
result into what Verónica Gago provocatively calls “neoliberalism from
below” [2014: 12]); a culture of individual freedom that brands collective
forms of engagement and State-centered forms of citizenship as oppressive
tools of material and symbolic coercion. In the mid-1980s, as these ideas
were fiercely debated, the first neoliberal economic reforms came to be as a
consequence of the 1982 debt default, which directly resulted from the
Volcker Shock in the United States and which coincided with the purge of
Keynesianism and the emergence of “structural adjustment” in the
International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (Harvey 2005:
29). It is precisely because of the coincidence of structural-adjustment eco-
nomics with the language of the democratic transition that opened the
space for neoliberalism to have a deep political and social influence in
Mexico. The ground opened by the followers of the Austrian school in
policy and by the near-universal consensus of anti-State theories across the
ideological spectrum was essential in Mexico becoming one of the first
major sites of neoliberalization proper.
Shock-doctrine theories of neoliberalism generally focus on the
moments in which Cold-War ideologues negotiate with right-wing
regimes to shove structural reforms through dictatorial repression, or in
which neo-imperial financial institutions like the IMF or the World Bank
impose structural adjustment and draconian reductions of public spending
in exchange for funding required to navigate a financial crisis or fund
development projects. Yet, these histories miss what scholars working in
national contexts have discussed for years: the long-term construction of
social and cultural consensus, and of new structures of state hegemony, to
foster neoliberalization from within. What Romero Sotelo illuminates is

that the key ideological tenets of the neoliberal program were already
present in seminal forms in the political and intellectual discourse of the
financial sectors in Mexico. Although the Volcker Shock was essential to
introduce structural adjustment in the country, this notion misses the
popularity enjoyed by protoneoliberalism among financial circles, or the
growing pervasiveness of its values across different forms of cultural repre-
sentation. In my book Screening Neoliberalism (Sánchez Prado 2014) I
sought to argue that cinema embodied neoliberalization in the whole
chain that runs from production to consumption. The privatization of
structures of cinema exhibition—which went from publicly owned, price-­
controlled screen to multiplexes that priced out the lower classes—was
accompanied by the emergence of films that had significant allegorical or
literal manifestations of support for different aspects of neoliberalization.
One can recall here Alfonso Arau’s film Como agua para chocolate (Like
Water for Chocolate 1992), where the marriage between a Mexican and an
American character signals Americanization as a path forward, Sabina
Berman and Isabel Tardan’s Entre Pancho Villa y una mujer desnuda
(Between Pancho Villa and a Naked Woman, 1995), in which the protago-
nist who is seeking to liberate herself from the allure of machismo happens
to be the owner of a manufacturing sweatshop in the border, or Fernando
Sariñana’s comedy Todo el poder (Gimme the power 1999) that represents
the State as corrupt and complicit with crime, and raises individual citizens
as heroes who can individually fight crime with no government aid.
Further, cinema of the period frequently elevated creative-class characters
(graphic designers, publicists, documentarians, and the like) as protago-
nists and social models. It is telling that, a decade and a half later, the film
that would shatter all historical records of the Mexican box office, Gaz
Alazraki’s Nosotros los nobles (We the Noble, 2013) is basically a comedy of
the inherent goodness of a plutocratic family, which manifests itself when
the patriarch pretends to have lost his fortune to force his grown children
into work. The film—directed by the scion of one of Mexico’s wealthiest
families, whose business, incidentally, is marketing—was astonishingly
successful as audiences in Mexico, a proverbially unequal country,
embraced the movie’s characters to the point that young upper-class men
and women began mimicking their appearance and behavior.
My point with the example of cinema is that neoliberalization does not
only entail the forced realignment of countries like Mexico to global
reconfigurations of capital. It also requires the capture of both State insti-
tutions and the structures of symbolic representation by the economic and

cultural elites who had been fighting Keynesian, nationalist or mixed

­models of development since at least the rise of Latin America’s ISI mod-
els in the 1930s. My contention here is that the term “democratic transi-
tion” names this period in the case of Mexico—and also in South American
post-dictatorial societies where transitional parties identified with the his-
torical Left or with populist nationalism (e.g. the Justicialista Party of
Peronist bent in Argentina or the Socialist Party in Chile) enacted neolib-
eral reform agendas through consensus rather than through dictatorial
coercion. Of course, one should be careful here and note that there are
legitimate reasons why the democratic transition developed in these terms:
while the PRI was enacting populist reforms in the 1970s, the regime was
also notoriously repressive and waged a “dirty war” against clandestine
movements that has never been properly prosecuted. It is also undeniable
that the cycle of economic crisis that plagued Mexico between 1976 and
1994—some of which had to do with stagflation and debt crises, while
others had to do with the side effects of early neoliberal reforms—created
the political conditions for Mexicans to further distance themselves from
the idea of the one-party regime. Yet, the fight against State authoritarian-
ism waged by actors identified with the idea of civil society became con-
flated with the agendas of structural economic reform pushed forward by
financial elites, and eventually merged into the same symbolic and ideo-
logical universe. This is one of the reasons why neoliberalism has become
such an intractable question in Mexico. Many alternative forms of politics,
like the political platform of López Obrador, the most visible and viable
presidential candidate in the Left in the past decade or the early Zapatista
manifestos look, at least in part, for the restoration of developmentalist
models of the twentieth century because neoliberalism has created a hori-
zon of unthinkability for economic justice that is not tied to the type of
strong State demonized by the democratic transition.
In the mid-2000s, violence, one of the most important consequences
of neoliberalization and the weakening of the State began to acquire, par-
ticular prominence. Although the term “War on Drugs” is generally used
to account for Mexico’s late neoliberalism, one should note that the
underlying logic is more complex and can more properly be defined as the
evolution of the withdrawal of the State advocated by democratic transi-
tionists, and the consequent realignments of capitalist structures in the
country. Scholars have already begun to articulate a critique of the idea of
“Drug War” to name this period. Oswaldo Zavala (2014) has repeatedly

argued that the Drug War is a construct by cultural discourses, which echo
the accounts of violence by Mexican intelligence agencies without chal-
lenging them, thusly obscuring the economic and political dynamics and
the role of the State in the current Mexican situation. Similarly, Dawn
Paley (2014) has shown compellingly that “Drug War” is more properly
understood as “Drug War Capitalism” and is related in Mexico in particu-
lar and in the Americas in general to forms of policy reform related to the
precarization of educational structures and the distribution of natural
resources among other things. Drug War capitalism fostered a paradig-
matic change in Mexico’s neoliberal model from the negotiation of struc-
tural reform with the ideologies of democratic transition toward a State
model based on the chilling coexistence between the killing and disappear-
ance of over 100,000 people in a decade and a functional model of capital-
ist development in which the structures of speculation and finance remain
more or less intact.
A problem of the thinkability of this kind of neoliberalism, one that
does not rest on the technocratic narratives of the economist class but in a
naked war on resources and bodies that no longer needs to be rationalized
through the knowledge of the managing class, derives from the fact that
the brutality of its material conditions and the urgency in the visibilization
of its violences postpones the full consideration of the social totality.
Indeed, if Zavala and Paley’s analysis has something in common is that
they both proceed through the suspension of immediate and palpable vio-
lence to account for the underlying projects that sustain them. In a way,
late neoliberalism puts forward the need of following Slavoj Žižek’s
injunction, in his book on violence (2008), to move the analysis from
“subjective” or visible violence, to “objective” violence, the one that is
inherent in the state of things. During the process of neoliberalization in
the 1980s and the 1990s, Mexican culture was generally blind to objective
violence because in many cases its critical lens was pointed to the legacies
of the twentieth-century regime, the critique of what Roger Bartra (2012)
called the “imaginary networks of political power,” which described the
rule by consensus and soft forms of authoritarianism established by the
one-party regime. Thus, works of literature, cinema and the visual arts
were engaged in projects, such as the critique of Mexicanness, the open or
veiled critique of twentieth-century political legacies and the opening of
society to new regions (such as the Mexican North, generally marginalized
by the political and cultural centralism of the PRI regime) or identities
(including the rise of indigeneity and the LGBTQ spectrum as key sites of

agency). This is not to say, of course, that this culture lacked merit. On the
contrary, they signified in some cases major instances of democratization,
most notably enacted by the Zapatista influence on indigenous rights and
autonomy politics and the great strides that feminism and gender critique
performed in the 1990s.
However, the notion of living a societal opening, the idea of a civil
society self-organizing (prevalent in many writings across the political
spectrum) and the decline of the State relegated properly neoliberal pro-
cesses of deregulation, financialization, and expulsion into blind spots for
a significant number of cultural texts. To avoid delving into an excess of
examples, it is possible to bring forward two of the most significant cul-
tural phenomena of the 1990s, the literature of the Crack group and the
rise of transnational Mexican cinema, as examples of this. The Crack
movement was a group of five writers (Pedro Ángel Palou, Jorge Volpi,
Ignacio Padilla, Eloy Urroz, and Ricardo Chávez Castañeda) who released
in 1996 a manifesto (Jaimes 2017) in which they defended the right of the
Latin American writer to not just engage with his (because they were all
men) immediate reality, pushing back against the commoditization of
magical realism in commercial literary circuits of the time. The Crack
group’s gesture very much aligned with the terms of the democratic tran-
sition. They understood literary freedom to be based in three key princi-
ples: dislodging from the imperative to write based on organic relationship
to national literature, insofar as such a construct was related to PRI cul-
tural politics; the resistance to pigeonholing of Latin America into magical
realism (which can be translated as a resistance to the right of producing
cosmopolitanism and not just being a repository of authenticity, breaking
away from Mexico’s location in a combined and uneven world literature);
the defense of the individual writer as a figure that does not have a neces-
sary relationship to the social or the political. Although this position
caused great debate in Mexico at the time and in various junctures of the
Mexican literary field, the point is that the Crack movement—a literary
movement iconic of the transition—is able to redefine literary practice
through values aligned with democratic transition ideologies and with no
bearing of the financial and economic processes underlying that transition.
It would not be until more than a decade later that some Crack writers
would engage those issues in their fictions: Volpi did so in a novel about
the financial crisis, while Palou’s turn into a historical fiction writer led
him to reassess the legacies of the Mexican revolution.

Similarly, the much-celebrated internationalization of Mexican cinema

in the early 2000s follows similar patterns. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s
Amores Perros (2000), for instance, became celebrated in international
circles as a new form of social cinema, but, as I argued in an older piece
(Sánchez Prado 2006), it was thoroughly readable through socially con-
servative ideas of the democratic transition: rather than rendering, directly
or allegorically, issues of economic inequality under neoliberalism, all three
plots attribute the fall of their characters to the crisis in family relation-
ships, tied to adultery and the absence of a father figure, and there is no
clear rendition of the economic position of the characters. A more intelli-
gent film, Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también (2001), provided a
clearer engagement with neoliberalism, as the relationship between the
protagonists is partly defined by class, and as their road trip is framed by a
reality of inequality of violence described by a voice-off narrator. Yet, the
things that the film renders visible—the privatization of a beach for the
construction of a resort, the killing of peasants in a juncture of the high-
way—belong to the public perceptions of neoliberalism in the 1990s and
are not connected to the critique of neoliberal capitalism as such.
Ultimately, both directors move to the realm of global Anglophone cin-
ema, and their work to this date has not substantially engaged with
Mexican neoliberalism—although Alfonso Cuarón, at the time of this
writing, is shooting once again in Mexico. The Mexican film infrastructure
built in the wake of their success has actually moved in the direction of
naturalizing neoliberalism across the board, because they both emerged
from democratic transition structures. As I discuss more extensively in my
book (Sánchez Prado 2014), both directors result from a process in which
State-funded social cinema became gradually eclipsed and dislodgment
from their structures—which were identified with censorship and with
narrow aesthetic aspirations—was key to their identities. Cuarón, for
instance, was (at least according to legend) expelled from film school,
along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who went on to win
three Oscars in a row for his work with Cuarón and González Iñárritu)
and Luis Estrada (now a famed director of political commercial film) for
daring to shoot a short movie in English. Cuarón’s first migration to the
United States in the 1990s was in part the consequence of the industry’s
pushback to his supposed Americanization. González Iñárritu avoided the
structure altogether: a famed radio host in the late 1980s, he became one
of the country’s leading publicists and with the proceeds from his advertis-
ing businesses he set the financial basis for his career as filmmakers. We can

see that both cases very much represent values tied to democratic-­transition
neoliberalism. On the one hand, Cuarón saw in Americanization a
­necessary remedy to official nationalism, just like intellectuals such as
Roger Bartra did. On the other hand, González Iñárritu found artistic
freedom and the ability to create a successful film by embracing the priva-
tization of industry structures, as well as his own particular construction of
synergy between advertising and cinema.
The point in both examples is that we cannot understand the relation-
ship between neoliberalism and culture in Mexico without understanding
two interrelated processes. First, narratives of resistance gradually align
with the cultural forms and values of neoliberalism due to the role that
Statism and national identity had in constructing the one-party, soft
authoritarian regime. Second, the relationship between the infrastructural
and material workings of cultural production are rendered invisible when
ideologies of neoliberal freedom dominate cultural discourse which in
turn accounts for the ideological blind spots in cultural objects and in
critique. This is the reason why the critique of the networks of imaginary
power laid out by intellectuals like Roger Bartra (2002), key to under-
stand the political frameworks for the Mexican transition, could accurately
identify identitarian and symbolic processes tied to national identity and
State domination, but did not have real ways to account for the infrastruc-
tural economic processes, even if, as is Bartra’s case, many of these cri-
tiques were card-carrying Marxists back in the 1970s. Bartra was himself
the authors of important books on primitive accumulation and Leninist
accounts of State power before turning to the critique of ideological struc-
tures in the 1980s (Sánchez Prado 2014). Neoliberal reforms were the
condition of possibility for dislodging the centralized power of the PRI
and the State it ruled for decades, insofar as the processes of privatization
of sectors like telecommunications and banking allowed for the autonomy
of crucial sectors of the “democratic transition” and led to the decentral-
ization and outsourcing of significant parts of the State. The unintended
consequences of this, based in part due to the loosening of State infra-
structure, led to some of the central events of Mexican late neoliberalism,
the “War on Drugs” period, including the voids on the Rule of Law and
the outsourcing of resources to both private actors and criminal organiza-
tions (which, of course, are another form of private actor).
The current late neoliberal period is still unfolding, and as we saw
before the idea of the “War on Drugs” has eroded, leading to the emer-
gence of new forms of thinking in the neoliberal moment. I want to con-

clude this piece by noting that this period-in-the-making is already the

subject of at least two exceptional works of cultural critique, which move
away from “War on Drugs” and “Democratic Transition” narratives and
are able to think Mexican late neoliberalism in its proper ties to the realm
of capital. The first one is Sayak Valencia’s Capitalismo gore (2018) a self-­
described “decolonial feminist” reading of the assemblage between vio-
lence and late capitalism. Focused on the experience of Tijuana, Valencia’s
literary essay/theoretical intervention takes the idea of “gore” from visual
media, to describe “gore capitalism” as the explicit and unjustified blood-
shed that Third World countries must enact to be faithful to the logics of
contemporary capitalism, by creating a structure of “necroempowerment”
(2018: 14). Valencia warns that if this logic continues “gore capitalism,”
which maintains elements that allow interventions to make it stop, is in the
process of “becoming-snuff,” which would be even more extreme and
would so penetrate social logic in such depth that it would become unstop-
pable (2018: 23). Valencia’s work is in many ways demonstrative of the
challenges to think Mexican late neoliberalism from within. The book
coins a considerable number of neologisms and taxonomies, indicating the
limits of existing vocabularies to account for Mexico’s experience and
acknowledging the need of creating localized vocabularies to develop a
decentralized account of global neoliberalism. It is also telling that its
original edition in 2010 was in an independent press in Spain, and for
many years the book was known only by a small circle of scholars and read-
ers that elevated it to cult status until it finally got a mainstream Mexican
edition in 2016 (in Debate, an imprint of Penguin Random House) and
an English translation forthcoming in Semiotext(e) in 2018. I believe that
the editorial itinerary of Valencia’s work, perhaps the first to seriously
think the specificities of late neoliberalism from Mexico, is indicative of the
readability of late neoliberalism itself. In 2010, as the “Drug War” narra-
tive reached its peak, the book was running against the grain thinking
about violence in structural terms, while in 2016, years after interventions,
such as the works by Zavala and Paley cited above, the book has been able
to reach further circulation.
The other important intervention in understanding Mexican late neo-
liberalism is Irmgard Emmelheinz’s La tiranía del sentido común (2016).
Emmelhainz does not engage, like Valencia does, in the centrality of vio-
lence, but rather provides a rich analysis of the way in which, as Escalante
Gonzalbo also noted in the book I commented at the beginning of this
piece, neoliberalism has become a structuring imaginary for contemporary

Mexico. Emmelhainz strikes, precisely at the transformation of neoliberal-

ism into common sense in contemporary political and cultural spheres and
the ways in which labor, social struggles, and art intertwine in the “neolib-
eral reconversion” of Mexico. Emmelhainz is a fascinating type of emerg-
ing public scholar, as he has worked in forms of public critique—such as
her blog “Comité Invisible Jaltenco” and the journal Scapegoat of which
she is an editorial board member and which focuses on architecture, land-
scape and political economy. Her work grows out of new trends on aes-
thetics and visual culture—her first book, Alotropías en la trinchera
evanescente (2012), is on this very subject—and she engages in critical
dialogue with theorists such as Ariella Azoulay and Franco “Bifo” Berardi,
who wrote the preface to La tiranía del sentido común. Like Valencia,
Emmelhainz proposes feminism as a way out of neoliberalism’s hegemony,
something essential if one considers that the first manifestation of neolib-
eral violence was not the War on Drugs but rather the epidemic of femini-
cide that began in Ciudad Juárez’s maquila sites but has grown into a
national phenomenon (Driver 2015; Segato 2016). Yet, Emmelhainz’s
book is, to date, the most important contribution of Mexican critical
thinking to the study of neoliberalization as it shows a crucial evolution in
Mexican critical theory toward the thinking of late neoliberalism as a sub-
jectivation machine and not as a mere site of violence or as a phenomenon
circling around the transcendental signifier of the War on Drugs.

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Cricket’s Neoliberal Narratives: Or the World

of Competitive Accumulation and Sporting
Spirit in Contemporary Cricket Fiction

Claire Westall

The premise of this collection is that the neoliberal is the latest, and poten-
tially last, phase of the capitalist world-system and, consequently, is best
read through capitalism’s violent contradictions, periodic cyclicality and
multi-scalar world-ecological webs of extraction, exploitation and uneven-
ness. According to Jason W. Moore, the neoliberal is the “accumulation
regime that emerged in the 1970s,” saw its “signal crisis” in the 2003–2011
commodity boom and related 2007–2008 financial crash, and stands as
the transitional close of US hegemony (Moore 2012: 225). Building on
David Harvey’s understanding of a “crisis of accumulation” and his dis-
tinction between “the theory of neoliberalism and the actual pragmatics of
neoliberalization” (Harvey 2005: 2), Moore sees neoliberalization, that is
“practices and thought-structures” (227) supporting only ever-­diminishing
returns, as having enabled a globally expansive acceleration and tightening
of short-term surplus value creation that has destroyed capitalism’s facility
for cyclical renewal. Why then, one might ask, should we attend—as I do

C. Westall (*)
York, UK

© The Author(s) 2019 111

S. Deckard, S. Shapiro (eds.), World Literature, Neoliberalism, and
the Culture of Discontent, New Comparisons in World Literature,

in this chapter—to a potentially “terminal” crisis within the world-system

(232) via sport, specifically via cricket and the recent upturn in “global”
cricket fiction?
Well, in broad terms because the systemic logic and culture of “fair”
competition leading to acceptable (and thereby accepted) outcomes of
inequality (of winners and losers) has been critical to liberal and neoliberal
dynamics (see Davies 2012, 2014a, 2014b), including claims for merito-
cratic practices, with sport and sporting terminology playing a particularly
useful role in the socio-cultural “fixity” capitalism needs (see Shapiro
2014, 2019). More specifically, in this context cricket bears a notably
heavy ideological burden, emerging with the first modern empire and car-
rying universalizing and precedent-setting claims for “fair play” that belie,
while actually instantiating and perpetuating, “first” (economic) advan-
tage. Hence, the game is especially useful for historicizing and decoding
the materiality of the cultural “fixes” required across and within capital-
ism’s “long spiral” of continuity (see Shapiro 2019). In addition, the
common-story of the changes implemented in professional cricket since
the 1970s tracks a clear neoliberal chronology, with the impact(s) of Kerry
Packer’s World Series 1977–1979 casting the game in an explicitly neolib-
eral light. Accelerated and compressed modes of cricketing play in shorter
match formats come with notorious celebrity and exuberant spectacle and
are bound to the global networks of corporate finance and satellite televi-
sion that bring the “big” money associated with flamboyant benefactors,
gambling, and corruption. For those attached to the game’s idyllic image
of slow and elegantly disciplined play spread across five days (Test Matches)
rather than the quick fire five-hour bonanzas (Twenty20), cricket seems to
be facing its own crisis of rapid and shortening accumulation as it widens
the gap between its richest and poorest participants.
These issues feature heavily in the upsurge of internationally circulating
cricket novels and films that have emerged since the early 2000s and which
use cricket to examine late capital and manage the anxieties neoliberaliza-
tion brings. In addition, although cricket is most recognizable as a cultural
hallmark of the British Empire and was a key means of anti-/postcolonial
“playing back,” such texts do not concentrate on the game’s imperial
backstory. Instead, they reframe cricket within the longue durée of capital-
ism, including its present-tense uncertainties, thereby telegraphing the
shortcomings of postcolonial literary studies and emphasizing the gains of
world-literary approaches (see WReC 2015). What follows, then, is an
unpacking of the aesthetic mediation provided in recent cricket fiction

from different positional locales within the world-literary system. The

chapter reads Joseph O’Neill’s first-world, transatlantic novel Netherland
(2008) written during the pre-crash/pre-austerity moment, alongside,
and in relation to, The Three Mistakes of My Life by Chetan Bhagat and The
Zoya Factor by Anuja Chauhan, both also published in 2008 and offering
buoyant visions of cricket in a youthfully “new” (i.e. neoliberal) and eco-
nomically emergent India. Such a “worldly” comparative mode helps illus-
trate the complex workings of capitalism’s periodicity and helps investigate
oft-made claims to epochal transformation. It does so by presenting these
texts as engaging with the differently experienced but expressly interlinked
combined and uneven manifestations of capital. O’Neill’s text offers a ret-
rospective vision of multiple capitalist cycles within a neoliberal present
contending with, yet perpetually denying, their cumulative consequences.
On the other hand, Bhagat and Chauhan unmask the systemic dangers of
a rapid “rise” for India and its “billion” and attempt to offset these dan-
gers with singular or individualized heroic and romantic stories of success;
stories bound to an acceptance of the “spirit” of a global game—sporting
and financial. Across these texts, then, capitalism’s classic strategy of crisis
postponement is deployed to hold-off the consequences of the very real
revelations their cricketing content leaks as the exhaustion of neoliberal-
ism’s failing/falling systemic surplus comes into view.

Neoliberalism and Sporting Spirit

For cricket fans and/or world-literary scholars who appreciate that imperial-
ism is, as Lenin saw, “the highest stage of capitalism,” cricket’s neoliberal fit
and the purposefulness of considering “worlded” cricketing fictions and
their deployment of the “spirit of the game” may be self-evident, but for the
uninitiated, a further moment of sporting explication might be needed.
Sport and the neoliberal have been bound together by the “boom”
times of sporting finance, from the late 1990s onwards, and, quite
famously, sport has become a “battering ram with which to secure entry
into new markets,” as with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire (Mike
Marqusee 2005: 25). Under neoliberalism, rampant public expenditure
for major international sports events like the Olympics and World Cups has
helped exacerbate and refine enclosure and extraction strategies, typically
in the name of local redevelopment, national opportunity, and good global
relations. In a more subtle and ubiquitous fashion, sport and its popular
idiom are used to cement “moral equivalences” key to ­neoliberalism (Davies

2012: 8), ensuring that sport (regardless of its many communitarian

aspects) acts as “a major carrier of neoliberal ideology” (Mike Marqusee
2014), especially in terms of the “spirit” of competition. Indeed, as “com-
petitors” people are required to invoke and uphold the “spirit of the rules”
as “an unspoken idea of justice” that takes human shape in the figure of the
umpire or referee (Davies 2014b: 63). The state, increasingly large and
aggressively interventionist despite neoliberalism’s counterclaims, is always
crucial for this competitive meritocracy (see Littler 2013), doing what the
market “cannot do for itself,” such as “determining the rules of the game”
(i.e. the “laws” of participation) and acting as “an umpire” to interpret and
enforce those rules/laws, especially for “those few who would otherwise
not want to play” (Bonefeld 2014: 178).
While all sports carry an extra-juridical sense of sportsmanship, cricket
has a set of supposedly indefatigable “laws” (rather than mere “rules”)
bound to an ideologically determined and historically traceable claim for
British neutrality expressed as “the spirit of the game.” While cricket’s
“laws” (formalized in the period 1727–1774 largely in response to the
need to settle wagers between London-linked aristocrats and merchants)
financialized the game’s legislative power at source, the mid-nineteenth
century bourgeois re-inscription of cricket within a public school “code”
superimposed ethical claims for Britain’s imperial Englishness over
colonial-­economic brutality. This allowed those with precedent-setting
advantages to disclaim winning (thereby also protecting themselves against
the dangers of losing) and cultivate the “effortless, confident, assured and
disinterested manner […] that distinguished the upper from the lower
classes [as well as other races], and naturalized the power differentials that
separated them” during and after formal empire (Schirato 2013: 48).
Although many of cricket’s explicit markers of class- and race-based
inequalities have given way since the 1960s, the “spirit of the game” con-
tinues to determine its popular image and the ways in which the sport
unevenly acculturates its subjects. Hence, in 2000 Marylebone Cricket
Club (MCC), the self-appointed guardian of the game, arranged for a
“Preamble” to precede cricket’s “laws,” supposedly spelling out, for the
first time in written form, what the “Spirit of the Cricket” means.
Re-asserting Britain’s (and the cricketing Anglosphere’s) rights over the
game in the face of a financial-administrative (Asian/subcontinental)
overturning, this “Preamble” is neoliberalization par excellence; a quasi-­
legal assertion of largely unspecified “traditional values” (MCC “Preamble
to the Laws”) that precedes legal regulation and reinforces (culturally
“fixes”) pre-existing hierarchies and claims for obedience.

What shows itself in contemporary, markedly international cricket fic-

tion, as demonstrated below, is not a debunking of this “spirit,” as might
be expected, but rather an adherence to its meritocratic hypocrisies in
order to engender a neoliberal and specifically cricketing mode of entre-
preneurial accumulation; a mode articulated across core/declining and
emergent/peripheral sites within the world-system.

Neoliberal Finance, Cricketing Risk, and Cyclicality

Cricket can appear a slightly confused and confusing global sports prod-
uct, laden with imperial baggage and (still) sitting on the blind side of
Americans despite cricketing icons Shane Warne (Australia) and Sachin
Tendulkar (India) bringing the game’s most commercial of formats,
Twenty20, to the United States in 2015 in a manner reminiscent of Chuck
Ramkisson’s ambitions in O’Neill’s text. Netherland, the most critically
acclaimed of recent cricket novels, makes keen use of this US/cricketing
dissonance as it tells of the New York sojourn of Dutch-born equities ana-
lyst Hans van der Broek, whose post-9/11 period of marital separation
from Rachel, an English lawyer, pushes him towards Staten Island Cricket
Club. And through cricket Hans becomes embroiled in Chuck’s small-­
time racketeering campaign as the Indo-Trinidadian umpire and entrepre-
neur tries to force America to see cricket as “NOT AN IMMIGRANT
SPORT” (O’Neill 2009: 98).
The name “Netherland” evokes, as Katherine Synder suggests, the
Dutch colony that preceded New York, male “nether” regions, an under-
world, and the never-lands of perpetual boyhood (2013: 479–80).
Something that is “nether” is also something partially hidden and so
Snyder sees it as the palimpsestic modus operandi of Netherland and its
management of national trauma (480). Rather than being bound to
trauma, however, the text actually ties itself, and cricket, to the four over-
lapping “systemic cycles” that Giovanni Arrighi and Moore describe as
constituting the “distinct stages of the transformation of the world capital-
ist system from being a ‘world’ among many ‘worlds’ to becoming the
historical social system of the entire world” (2001: 56). Where cricket is
associated with the third and fourth cycles—the British and US
centuries—O’Neill’s novel alludes to the earlier Dutch and Genoese-
Iberian cycles, drawing them into the present of US-led neoliberal finance.
These cycles are thematically explicit, and organizational and metaphorical
patterns of cyclicality gain in significance as the story progresses until a

paralysing “zenith” is reached. It is as if Netherland knows but refuses to

articulate the post-neoliberal cumulative endpoint facing Euro-US hege-
mony, and potentially capitalism itself.
O’Neill references the Iberian cycle through imperial conquests in
Latin America, and binds these to the British plantation culture of the
Caribbean with brief explanations of sugar, cocoa, and tonka beans. Chuck
registers the imperial histories that coloured Trinidad, specifically high-
lighting the Spanish names of farmland families (239), and Netherland
draws these layers of the past and their intermingling into present inter-
personal relations. For example, Hans’s new risk-assessing protégé,
Cardozo, arrives from New York, with a Portuguese surname, to bask in
the faded financial-imperial glory of London and marry his English girl-
friend—pulling together Portuguese, British, and American references
under the directional advice of the Dutch. In addition, being Dutch means
that beyond the clichés about small nation contentedness, popular conser-
vatism, rationality and the weak profile of the national cricket team, Hans
comes to us filtered through the imperial dominance of the Dutch
Republic, the financiers of world trade in the seventeenth century and the
first European settlers in the Hudson Bay; which the Dutch controlled
until 1664 when it passed into English hands (see Shorto 2004).
It is Chuck who reminds Hans of these connections, and their territorial
inscription, taking him to the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church grave-
yard on Flatbush Avenue (O’Neill 2009: 149). In fact, throughout
Netherland cricket-linked territorialization brings New York’s cityscape into
relief and, repeatedly, the city is revealed as spatialized along socio-­economic
and racialized lines. This is not American “hybridity”—as Michael Rothberg
enthusiastically suggests (2009: 157)—so much as uneven and territorial-
izing coexistence in which immigrant cricketing spaces are “Other,” even in
Walker Park, the home of Staten Island CC that marks cricket’s US history
as well as the immigrant-led re-emergence of the game. For Hans, though,
each cricketing locale testifies to his present privilege as the continuation of
predetermined, first-world/core advancement, from his young experiences
of cricket in the Hague, playing with his club HBS (i.e. HBS Craeyenhout
of The Hague), providing access to the “conservative, slightly stuck-up stra-
tum of society” where “the players are ghosts of sorts from an Anglophile
past” (O’Neill 2009: 39), through to his adult experiences of cricket on
“shorn Surrey greens”, and with a “private net at Lords” (41).
Chuck, in contrast, isn’t a player himself, but is a cricketing entrepre-
neur attempting to redefine US soil by turning the “derelict airstrip” of

“ice and waste” that is “Floyd Bennett Field” (76) into a “bright green”
cricket field set for “Bald Eagle” success (141). Chuck, Hans and the
groundskeeper cultivate the land, disciplining the pitch into a less uncer-
tain (i.e. flatter) form. Chuck knows about and wants to mobilize: rising
numbers of immigrants from the Asian subcontinent; the growing force of
India within world cricket and the world economy; and, the TV income
games like India versus Pakistan in New York would bring. Yet Chuck is
always-already dead; his dream is always-already a failure. He cannot build
a permanent cricket structure because he doesn’t have permission and he
is eventually ejected. His murdered body—referencing the migratory
world networks of colonialism, slavery and indentureship linking India
(Madras), the Caribbean (Trinidad), and America (New York)—washes up
on the shore of the Hudson. The material importance of such destruction
and erasure is played out with world-systemic ramifications in the text’s
other references to “Indians”: “Indian Point,” named for the alleged first
meeting between natives and Europeans; allusions to India’s nuclear
weapons; and the “thin and poor and dark-skinned” labourers in India
that make Hans remember Chuck even as he tries to resist conflation
(222). In addition, it’s the news of Chuck’s murder that prompts Hans’s
retrospective narration. As Snyder suggests, Hans’s story “depends upon,
even requires,” Chuck’s death (2013: 473).
With Chuck and other immigrants pegged to physical violence and
eventual eradication, Hans’s white-collar relation to the brutality of the
markets and the oil-face of finance capital is repeatedly overshadowed.
This is initially seen when a black player from St. Kitts brings a gun onto
the cricket field and then later when Hans vomits at the realization that
Chuck and his Jewish business associate assaulted one of their clients
(O’Neill 2009: 208). Consistently the interpersonal violence associated
with Chuck’s illegal imported lottery, “weh weh” (164), is set against the
absent–presence of institutional prestige and systemic violence carried by
Hans’s banking employment where he acts as a successful “equities analyst
[…] analysing large cap-oil and gas stock” (23). When depicting his work,
Hans identifies “corporations […] as vulnerable, needy creatures entitled
to their displays of vigour” (19) but fails to see himself as complicit in any
danger this brings, attempting to minimize his own position as “an ana-
lyst – a bystander” lacking “entrepreneurial wistfulness” (99). His effort
to excuse himself as a “political-ethical idiot” in the face of the Iraq War,
Rachel’s new anti-American politicization, and the high-profile US oil
interests in the Middle East is reliant upon an exaggerated undercutting of

his own professional expertise. He claims that he cannot form opinions

because the future “retained the impenetrable character [he] had always
attributed to it” (96), but his professional success is based on his ability to
collate and organize information so that probabilistic assessments of the
future can be made. His supposedly ethical opt out is actually his opting in
to neoliberalism writ large.
When challenged by Chuck, Hans refuses to see himself as “a gambling
man” (164). Nevertheless, his entire cricketing transformation comes
because of supposedly increased risk-taking. The quiet, conservative, ratio-
nal professional is the orthodox, careful and steady batsman who learnt his
skills on smooth, flat, grass wickets and has “to reinvent [himself] in order
to bat the American way”, because, he says, “that baseball-­like business of
slugging and hoisting, involved more than the trivial abandonment of a
hard-won style of hitting a ball” (47). He bemoans his inability to “make
adjustments,” and begrudges peripheral teammates raised playing on
“floodlit Lahore car parks” because they can modify their play without
“spiritual upheaval” (46). When, in a moment of epiphanic joy, Hans
“hit[s] the ball in the air like an American cricketer” (170), it is a glorious
ascension, seemingly a radical alteration of personality-based action and
achievement. Hans, though, doesn’t descend into “cow shots” and “lofted
bashes” (46); he achieves his skyward ambition on top of, rather than at the
expense of, his textbook strengths; strengths that evoke the public school
civility code and underpin his status as a first-world/core “gentleman.”
It is Chuck who vehemently asserts the “lesson in civility” that cricket
offers and the responsibility it places on marginalized immigrants to “play
the game right” (13). In a moment of high rhetoric, he tells Hans to “Put
on white to feel black” (13), suggesting that Hans can only aligns himself
with the black and brown figures in whites by occupying the imagined
“environment of justice” (116). Chuck declares America as less than civi-
lized because it has not “embraced” cricket and he praises the missionaries
who took the Trobriand Islanders cricket as a “crash course in democracy”
(203–4). In his insistence on the “spirit of the game,” Chuck glorifies
cricket’s potential as a space for resistance via ethical adherence, but the
novel repeatedly betrays this ambition and reduces his sentiments to
money-making clichés. In contrast, the text ties Hans to Britain’s “long
century” by playing on the imperial code of “spiritual” civility, and by
insisting on the continuing import of finance-bound London. In its bind-
ing of Dutch and English characteristics and finance-filled futures,
O’Neill’s story echoes Eric Hobsbawm’s claim for an “Anglo-Dutch sym-

biosis” to explain the carry-over of capitalism’s development from the

Republic of the Netherlands to England-then-Britain across the seven-
teenth and eighteenth centuries (1954: 55). With such an interlinking, the
novel inadvertently calls attention to the transitional phase of each of the
capitalist cycles it references—and thereby evokes the systemic crises it
thematically avoids.
This refusal to name and depict coming crisis is underlined by the place
of cricket. For the British Empire cricket might be described as a “cultural
fix,” used long after but also as part of the cyclical highpoint of surplus
extraction (see Shapiro 2014, 2019). This “fixity” is redeployed in
Netherland as part of a refusal to see past cycles of accumulation as having
faded. By concentrating on the culture of contemporary “global” cricket
and only gently referencing its imperial backstory, O’Neill holds together
the predominantly past British and Dutch cycles, places them within and
in relation to America, and leaks capitalism’s need for “cultural fixes” to
maintain cyclical self-management. Tellingly, when Hans’s batting begins
to mirror the patterns of neoliberal finance, his wicket quickly falls, as if to
intimate that an end will follow the glories of unrestrained exuberance,
even if there is no obvious consequence for Hans’s life outside of sporting
As I have argued elsewhere (see Westall 2016), set in the pre-crash
world of neoliberal finance, Netherland ultimately refuses the possibility of
future collapse suggested by Hans’s cricketing risks, clinging instead to
the multicultural collectivity it heralds as America’s potential and insisting
on the ability to freeze-frame while atop a cycle. Hans has nostalgic mem-
ories of carrying his young Dutch girlfriend on his bicycle handlebars and
of riding alongside his mother. Cycling initially brings a youthful sense of
progression for Hans, but as his mother grows older, the turning of wheels
brings a feeling of entrapment in the unfamiliar roadways of New York.
The novel closes with a related set of images. On a July evening, the van
der Broeks meet to ride the London Eye Ferris wheel. As they “reach the
very top of [their] celestial circuit,” Hans joins Rachel at this “zenith,”
this “summit,” thinking that she must “accept her place above it all”
(246). Hans then remembers an earlier journey on the Staten Island Ferry
and as he recalls his mother smiling at him, as if he is “risen in light”
(247), he is called back to the London view by his son, Jake, and the fam-
ily look “for what it is [they’re] supposed to be seeing” (247). Sarah
Wasserman argues that this scene is part of a repeated pattern of upward
movement for Hans—as with his skyward cricket shot and his use of

Google Earth to visit a “distorted” London while separated from his son
(2014: 264). For Wasserman, this denouement is not a “return to a domi-
nant normative position” for Hans because his gaze is “the messy reality
of an altered view,” indicating that “[a]scending to such heights […] does
not itself secure power” (264–5). However, Hans’s position “above” is
possible regardless of any claim to knowledge, or ability to describe
London, and is premised on the very wealth-based security and power that
is conveyed and reinforced by his elevated position.
Crucially, this closing image insists on an elongation of a “zenith”
achieved at the top of a cycle, and this is extended by Hans’s memory of
the earlier vantage point in New  York. In both images the journey will
end—the wheel will come back down and the ferry will arrive—but Hans,
and the novel generally, resist the consequences of such cyclicality (despite
Google Earth bringing him down to earth). We never see them descend,
arrive, or face an endpoint that is not simply a perpetuation. For Rachel,
their reunion is a “continuation” and for Hans it is a new beginning that
“fortuitously” results in the same outcome as before (222). The van der
Broeks are allowed to describe new beginnings as continuities, even as the
reality of life after the summit faces them and the novel posits that, accord-
ing to Faruk Patel (the rich Indian businessman drawn into Chuck’s
plans), it was wrong to concentrate on cricket in America because America
is “[n]ot relevant” given its economic decline and the rising power of Asia
(243). Fear of declinism is held at bay, then, by the novel’s insistence on
secure continuation, of life at the top for those like the van der Broeks,
who have themselves emerged as they began—happy, wealthy, and united
in London, having survived both 9/11 and 7/7 unharmed and without a
sense of socio-political or economic upheaval. Hence, the world-system is
clearly mediated in Netherland, aesthetically and through the aesthetics of
cricketing ambition and style, but the consequences of systemic cyclicality
are denied through perpetually deferment.1

Rapid Accumulation, Longevity Ambitions

and the Nike Spirit of National Honour

Alongside a raft of cricket-focused films, a growing body of cricket novels

written in English has recently emerged from India. Heavily indebted to
the idea of a “new,” cricket-obsessed, India, this post-millennial “crick lit”
(Dawson Varughese 2013: 41) repeatedly features—despite the variety of

genres used—young and seemingly “rising” protagonists; romantic and

moral resolutions; the importance of advertising, television, and the media
more generally, specifically with references to Bollywood and the Indian
Premier League (IPL); plus strong assertions of national pride, even or
especially in the face of corruption and most often as expressed through
heroic cricketing action and support. Moreover, this fictional cricket-scape
is not pegged to England or Britain, as was the case with the iconic film
Lagaan (2001), but to the internal dynamics of neoliberal India, or, when
looking beyond, India’s ties to its principal cricketing-economic competi-
tor, Australia—itself a neoliberal trendsetter. In this way, and akin to
Sharae Deckard’s argument about the myth of the BRICS countries and
“rising Asia” (2015: 239–40), India’s recent cricketing fictions are, at
best, only partially legible within a postcolonial frame, and instead should
be read in relation to India’s experience of and position within the global
order of late capital, particularly as the “Indian-ization” of cricket and
India’s administrative power in the game are used to both allegorize and
defend a wider narrative of economic success and soon-to-be supremacy.
In fact, where the fear of cyclical decline in Netherland led to an imagined
elongation of, and paralysis within, a time “at the top”, India’s crick lit is
haunted not by poverty, inequality, or internal divisions—though these are
sometimes present—but by the threat of going “bust” built into India’s
neoliberal mode of rapid accumulation. This is encoded, in cricketing
terms, as going out hard and getting out early, and in the texts discussed
here—The Three Mistakes of My Life and The Zoya Factor—attempts to
offset this fear centre upon a nationalized cricketing “spirit” of honour
and a reconciliatory mode of steady play needed for longevity creation and
meant to help India beat the world.
Set in Ahmedabad, the titular “mistakes” of Chetan Bhagat’s third
novel are those of Govind Patel as told, in a bildungsroman-like fashion,
to an in-text “Chetan” whose framing authorial presence brings Govind
back from suicide into the communal/familial fold. Within a set-piece tale
of triangulated male friendship (traversing business acumen via Govind,
religious identification via Omi, and cricket via Ishaan), Govind’s self-­
confessed “mistakes” are: (1) losing all the initial business profits from the
group’s “Team India Cricket Shop” (Bhagat 2008: 18); (2) undertaking a
secret relationship with Ishaan’s sister, Vidya; and (3) delaying his physical
defence of Ali, the exceptional Muslim boy-batsman, when Ali is attacked
during the 2002 Gujarat riots. Although a rather weak and melodramatic

text—riddled with relatively superficial characters and written in a mode

akin to fiction for young adults—Three Mistakes offers three specific areas
in which its cricketing content is critically purposeful.
This first is the way the novel’s boom/bust logic draws together the
cricket shop and Ali’s batting to express a haunting fear of rapid neoliberal
accumulation. Initially the business grows steadily, but Govind’s plan for
quick expansion brings financial collapse as his unit in an unfinished new
mall is flattened by an earthquake. After Govind’s emotional breakdown
and subsequent affirmation of the “Hindu philosophy” of not “yearning
for more” (70), the old shop’s fortunes are transformed when India secure
a historic Test win, coming back to defeat Australia after “following on”
(being made to bat twice, in succession, because they were so far behind
Australia’s score). This specific match, from March 2001, is itself impor-
tant as only the third time in history such a victory has occurred (with the
two previous occasions, in 1894 and 1981, bringing England victories
over Australia), and as the first time India gained a Test Match hat-trick
(three wickets in three consecutive balls, here taken by Harbhajan Singh).
With this victory, India explicitly supersedes England as Australia’s great-
est rival and, more tellingly, comes from being dramatically “behind” to
rapidly accumulating enough to surpass their first-world/core adversaries
and then destroy their efforts to catch up.
Running parallel is Ali’s batting, and the problems created by his ability
to hit every delivery for six before collapsing with exhaustion after just a
handful of strokes. He is physically caught between a brief period of abso-
lute maximization and the debilitating implosion that follows. This is what
Ishaan, and then the Australian bowler Fred, want to change with coach-
ing and training. Ali’s ability is explained by Dr. Malani as “hyper reflex,”
where his super-fast “quick think” reflex is as accurate as the slower “ana-
lysed mode” of decision-making people normally use (39). While we
might stop to question the medicalization and seeming “Indian-ization”
of the hard-hitting Muslim batsman (most commonly associated with
Pakistan), and the expressly neoliberal dream of marrying speed and accu-
racy, what is key is the recognition that a brief explosion of accumulation
is dangerous to the body it empties and pains. Long-term success is under-
stood to necessitate a slower, steadier, and more selective mode of accu-
mulation—a first-world/core professionalization of the exceptional—that
both Australia and India desire.
Relatedly, the second useful cricketing marker offered by the novel is
England’s minimization and the growing significance of Australia. England

is only mentioned three times. The first comes with India’s historic 2001
victory described above. The second and third occasions come as England
is being routed by India in a day–night match and, simultaneously, as
Govind and Vidya consummate their relationship on Vidya’s 18th birth-
day. Happy to relinquish her virginity, Govind explains that Vidya can now
“officially make her own decisions” but has been doing so “Unofficially …
since birth” (113) in a kind of woman-as-the-independent-nation cliché
(64) that reinforces India’s separation from England. And it’s Australia
that actually stands as India’s closest rival, here and in The Zoya Factor,
which is perhaps unsurprising given the strength of the Aussie team in the
early 2000s and the money-making clout of India–Australia games. When
Ishaan helps Ali gain access to Australia—as the land of sporting scholar-
ships, training programmes and avenues into a national side (i.e. without
India’s nepotism)—the young batsman declines this route to Australian
citizenship, tying his own future success to India’s and thereby resisting
the first-world/core’s effort to buy up exceptional talent still-in-­
development. Thus, the novel insists on the loyalty of India’s Muslim
citizen(s) and the binding force of talent, cricket, and future Indian tri-
umph. In addition, it does so by closing with an all-Indian frame of
In fact, Australia is erased entirely in the Hindi film adaptation of the
text, Kei Po Che (2013), extending the self-referentiality of the novel’s
negotiation with communal violence and casting of cricketing recovery.
Where Ishaan had used a cricket bat to attack a would-be suitor for his
sister, Ali uses his to kill Bitton Mama, his attacker during the riots. The
battle lines drawn are between the religious excesses of the rioters, and the
anti-religious, or cricketing-religious, young men, with Ali’s lack of
(Islamic) extremism (akin to his father’s pacifism) making him ripe for
heroic cricketing action. Although the film’s notable plot rewrite priori-
tizes punishment and redemption (with Omi becoming Ishaan’s riotous
killer but ultimately regaining Govind’s friendship), both film and novel
emphasize national consolidation and recovery as achieved through Ali’s
batting, the third critical prompt worth noting. In Three Mistakes, Ali’s
recovery from the wrist injury caused by Bitton Mama’s assault is con-
firmed when he hits a six for the first time post-surgery. This maximum,
though, is set within the context of his earlier stamina training and also the
steady profits made by both Ishaan and Govind in their subdivisions of the
old shop. The film develops this idea of sustained accumulation with Ali
scoring a double century for India on debut. Across film and novel, then,

India’s future is optimistically envisioned as the success that comes from a

conversion of rapid accumulation into a combination of exceptional talent
and the longevity of professionalized staying power.
India’s world-beating future triumph is also the crux of The Zoya Factor,
Anuja Chauhan’s first novel, which draws heavily on her professional expe-
rience of advertising in its depictions of Zoya Solanki; a twenty-seven-­year-
old who works on ad-campaigns for Zing! (a hip soft drink brand akin to
Pepsi), and becomes the “lucky” mascot of the Indian cricket team said to
bring certain victory because—à la Midnight’s Children—she was born “at
the very second” Kapil Dev’s side secured India’s first World Cup win in
1983. The novel’s “chick lit” credentials set cricket-ignorant Zoya at odds
with her love interest, the anti-luck captain, Nikhil Khoda, especially when
she accompanies India to the World Cup and becomes a much-­worshipped,
and heavily insulted, Devi of advertising-income potential. When Zoya
realizes that her role is part of the Board of Control for Cricket in India
(BCCI) President Jogpal Lohia’s efforts to undermine Khoda, she returns
home to watch the side succeed without her. And then Khoda returns to
claim her. For all its predictable women’s-magazine tropes, the novel is
sharply articulate about the ubiquity of advertising and its intimacy with
Indian cricket, especially the networks of finance, contractual obligation,
“Pecking Order” prioritization (41), “client servicing” and Bollywood
glamour upon which this coupling depends. It is sensitive to the profes-
sionalized vibrancy of marketing idioms, brand positioning and namedrop-
ping, and freely refers to Sony Entertainment, Nike and cricket-­specific
branding, such as the “Fly Emirates” sponsorship of International Cricket
Council (ICC) umpires. I could offer a sustained critique of the gender
politics of Chauhan’s depiction of her protagonist—the girlish professional
virgin swept away by the heroic captain, however tongue-in-­cheek—and
the great simplification of the “Great Indian Disease” (16), of “cricket
fever,” supplanting religious belief structures while taking up their danger-
potential. But here I want to briefly flag the text’s use of India’s “billion”,
its population size, as a key feature of everyday ad-­aesthetics and the reason
for due success, as well as how the “spirit” of cricket works, via a particular
ad-idiom, in the service of India’s claim to coming supremacy.
In Zoya, as in Three Mistakes, “the billion” grounds India’s right to suc-
cess. For Ishaan it is unacceptable that Australia, with its paltry popula-
tion, wins nearly every match when India’s population means it should
“always win” (Bhagat 2008: 24). Similarly, Zoya tries to persuade God of
“how cost-effective it’ll be” to let India win the World Cup and make “a

round billion delirious with joy” instead of “a few crummy million

[Australian] souls” (318). In both texts, the sheer size of India’s cricket-­
pool (players and supporters) appears determining, despite both novels
also advancing the individuality of talent, and despite Zoya revealing the
enormity of the gap between the few at the top and the rest, particularly
the burgeoning middle class and its young workers, who, like Zoya, are
never well paid, let alone economically independent. Such use of “the bil-
lion” is the carryover of market penetration and growth arguments that
have dominated the neoliberalization of India since its “opening-up” in
the 1990s, and the intersection of television, cricket and the Indian middle
class is at the core of their holy grail—a single Indian market. Nalin Mehta
explains that cricket only came to dominate national imagery in the 1980s
because of the coincidence of the growth of TV and Indian cricketing suc-
cess, initially with the 1982 Asian Games—the first broadcast of sport on
Indian TV, which helped force the transition to colour—and then with the
broadcasting of the unexpected 1983 World Cup win (2009: 7–9).
Cricket, Mehta argues, adapted best to the practicalities of television cov-
erage and “virtually defined the legal structure of India’s satellite revolu-
tion” (4). Pivotal to this transformation is the link between advertising,
cricket, and the Indian middle class, the perpetual consumers supposedly
providing a gateway to “the billion.” The resultant inescapability of crick-
eting news and coverage alongside the immense public presence and per-
sonal of wealth of its superstars is well documented in Zoya. However, the
novel’s plot and relationship structures mean that instead of a rising “bil-
lion” coming to the fore, there’s no sense in which the masses are gaining
economic or political ground. Instead, they are portrayed as endangering
and farcical, prone to (cricketing) excess, including as “would-be
immolator[s]” (Chauhan 2008: 310). Zoya herself repeatedly misses out
on being paid and becoming wealthy in her own right, leaving her romance
with Khoda as the only way in which this young, middle class professional
woman can economically rise in the seemingly “rising” India.
What the novel promises, though, is the substantiation of the advertis-
ing rhetoric that dominates everyday life and its conversion into a nation-
alized “spirit of cricket” that sees India, via Khoda, claim its rightful place
at the top. Focalized through Zoya’s worldview, knowing ad-aesthetics
pervade the text’s similes, metaphors, and humorous descriptions of ordi-
nary life: as with the term “Khodaphone” (29), and the sexualized praise
that compares Khoda to the chocolate colours of Boost drinks. As a crick-
eting “superhero” (33) and national “soldier” fighting for his cricketing

country (116), Khoda becomes the cricketing-icon whose sincere yet

readily commoditized idiom Zoya associates with Nike. Having escaped
being named Kapila Devi Solanki (13) or Nike, like “the Greek Goddess
of Victory” (204), Zoya first encounters Khoda while drawing a “Nike
swoosh” (26) onto locally made trainers. Thereafter the romantic tensions
between Khoda and Zoya are cast through Zoya’s reception of his Nike-­
like idiom, his speaking like “a Nike poster” (34), only authentically, with
an insistence upon the “honesty, discipline and courage” (36) his young
team requires. His self-actualizing, anti-luck sentiments become the basis
of Vishal’s attempt to advance his career with an anti-Zoya Nike campaign
featuring Khoda declaring:

You can believe in luck…

Or you can believe in yourself.
And just play your game.
Just do it. (96).

Here belief is acceptable, even required, so long as refraining from critical

thought brings individualized confidence and not adherence to something
beyond you and your control. The emphasis on individual action seems
notably ironic given cricket is a team game, and the insistence on control
built into the sloganizing leaks the hypocrisies of all such neoliberal claims
to empowerment. The “just” of Nike’s imperative to action alludes to the
supposedly self-righting outcomes of those that take action. Just “doing”
is thought to bring success as if self-determined individual action will
result in positive outcomes, such as world-beating success, and as if this
alone turned India’s team of “losers” (22, original emphasis) into champi-
ons. The catch is that although this advert smacks of irony and the self-­
knowing of ad-excess, such sentiments are the ideological underpinnings
of the novel. They provide the rationale for India’s World Cup win and the
glue that binds Zoya to her captain, as she progresses from reading his
“pocket biography, In Good Nick” (226) to realizing that all India can do
to win the final is put their “faith in Nikhil” (310), because he transforms
the naive sentiments boyhood, “with Grrreat Power comes Grreat
Responsibility” (206), into a mature enactment of national leadership.
The individualizing of team success, which Khoda speaks against, is repeat-
edly reinforced, including via the novel’s overarching structure and heroic
focus, as if the Nike-like neoliberal reification of self-worth and ethical

action is the backbone of India’s contemporary self-understanding. Yet,

instead of the democratizing potential of anyone “just” doing “it,” “the
billion” has to stand aside and spectate, supporting heroic exceptionalism
as a means of national honour creation. Any effort at politicizing collective
action is gently withdrawn with Khoda depicted as the nation’s Che
Guevara in a sports magazine article (165), enabling individual cricketing
achievement to replace Marxist ambitions for redistribution as he hits the
winning run.
All of this is set against a feigned critique of the “spirit of cricket,”
which is tied to the racialized political divide often described as structuring
international cricket and voting within the ICC. Initially, “celebrating the
spirit of the game” (9) is the basis of Zing!’s low-risk approach to sponsor-
ing the ICC Champions trophy. When, during the text’s World Cup,
Zoya’s status becomes part of a debate TV show, Australia Decides, con-
cerns about the game’s “spirit” return. A “junior ICC official” makes clear
that the Laws of Cricket have “nothing to say” about Zoya’s unprece-
dented position, only for a viewer to then insist that “the spirit of the game
was vehemently against her” (262). This prompts Jogpal Lohia to attack
the “wretched spirit” that should be “exorcized” because it is all “too
pompous and too bloody British” for a game “played at its best in the
dusty streets of Jamaica, Ranchi and Lahore” (262). Jogpal’s defence of
India rests on the well-known “Black-White rift that exists in the cricket
world” (260), and India’s right to use its “national resource[s]” (262),
including Zoya, for self-determination. When Australia Decides announces
that “83 per cent of Australians have voted to disallow Zoya”, seemingly
to protect cricket’s “spirit” from India, Jogpal cuts in, saying “100 per
cent Indians vote that Zoya stays! And there are many many more Indians
than Australians” (262) in a reprise of “the billion wins” argument. The
catch, though, is that Jogpal is the villain, trying to undermine Khoda and
insert his own man. This means that the novel, in abandoning this repu-
diation of the “spirit of the game,” allows for an elastic, presumed, and
exploitable ethos of “good” sporting conduct to continue, so long as it
can be carried in the Nike-like rhetoric grounding neoliberal India and as
long as it aids India’s ambition for rapid ascension and sustained world
supremacy. And the novel’s World Cup Final clearly combines the strength,
rapidity and steadying leadership needed as a six off the penultimate ball is
supplemented by Khoda’s single run to secure victory and convert his
nation’s young big-hitting power into incrementally managed world

This aspiration for worldly success as global dominance is fundamen-

tally a desire for “core” status, for India’s rise within the world-system; a
rise that would be at the expense of the current hegemonic-core but is
never likely to materialize—hence the ongoing fear of rapid, neoliberal
accumulation, and the acceptance of the “spirit” of unfair advantage,
masking as fairness of opportunity, to help level out the exuberance that
seems endangering. And this levelling out in order to imagine a rise to the
top of the world-order is the systemic counterpoint to Netherland’s insis-
tence on the continuity of zenith-paralysis, where the fear inspired by neo-
liberalism’s increasingly risky strategies of accumulation is offset by an
aesthetics (cricketing and literary) of familiarity and inconsequence for
those feeling the precarity of their privilege but resisting the insight that
feeling could bring. With this in mind, then, it should be easier to see that
relational readings of cricketing fictions from across the world-literary sys-
tem, as offered here, help expose systemic interconnectivity because they
deploy commonly bound aesthetic, formal and sporting tropes through
which connected yet particular experiences can be tracked, making the
anxiety as well as combined unevenness of the worldly politico-economic
pitch all the more obvious.

1. This section is indebted to an earlier publication and fuller working through
of this argument (see Westall 2016).

Works Cited
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Historical Perspective. In Phases of Capitalist Development: Booms, Crises, and
Globalization, ed. Robert Albritton et al., 56–75. New York: Palgrave.
Bhagat, Chetan. 2008. The Three Mistakes of My Life. New Delhi: Rupa.
Bonefeld, Werner. 2014. Critical Theory and the Critique of the Political Economy:
On Subversion and Negative Reason. London: Bloomsbury.
Chauhan, Anuja. 2008. The Zoya Factor. New Delhi: HarperCollins.
Davies, William. 2012. The Promises of Sport. https://www.academia.
———. 2014a. How ‘Competitiveness’ Became One of the Great Unquestioned
Virtues of Contemporary Culture. CURATIO Magazine, May 20.

———. 2014b. The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of
Competition. London: Sage.
Dawson Varughese, Emma. 2013. Reading New India: Post-Millennial Indian
Fiction in England. London: Continuum.
Deckard, Sharae. 2015. Inherit the World: World-Literature, Rising Asia and the
World-Ecology. In What Postcolonial Theory Doesn’t Say, ed. Anna Bernard,
Ziad Elmarsafy, and Stuart Murray, 239–255. London: Routledge.
Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University
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Present 6 (1): 44–65.
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Neoliberalism. New Formations 80-81: 52–72.
Marqusee, Mike. 2005. The Ambush Clause: Globalisation, Corporate Power and
the Governance of World Cricket. In Cricket and National Identity in the
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York: Routledge.
———. 2014. Sport Undermined by Neoliberalism. Green Left Weekly, June 16.
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India. Sport in Society 12 (4–5): 579–599.
Moore, Jason W. 2012. Cheap Food and Bad Money: Food, Frontiers, and
Financialization in the Rise and Demise of Neoliberalism. Review: A Journal of
the Fernand Braudel Center 33 (2–3): 1–29.
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9/11 Novel: A Response to Richard Gray. American Literary History 21 (1):
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and Cyclicality in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. Journal of Postcolonial Writing
52 (3): 287–300.

Keeping It Real: Literary Impersonality

Under Neoliberalism

Daniel Hartley

In 1956, the German critic Hugo Friedrich identified a list of common

attributes used to describe modernist poetry.1 Derived from French,
German, Spanish, and English critical traditions, it reads like a summa of
the ideology of modernism: “disorientation, disintegration of the familiar,
loss of order, fragmentism, reversibility … brutal abruptness, dislocation,
astigmatism, alienation” (Friedrich 1956: 22).2 The problem with this list,
as Friedrich himself was well aware (1956: 19ff.), is that it describes mod-
ernism in a purely negative fashion. Modernism becomes a singular tale of
loss and deprivation rather than a productive, politically heterogeneous
phenomenon. The task would thus seem to be to rewrite certain modern-
ist categories in a manner that foregrounds their productive originality and
revolutionary or counter-revolutionary potential. Fredric Jameson has
attempted to do just this with one of Hugo Friedrich’s central critical cat-
egories: Entpersönlichung or “depersonalization.”3 Where for Friedrich
depersonalization is the subjective correlate of a condition of alienation in
which human praxis and creativity are systematically constrained, for
Jameson it is a literary figuration of early twentieth-century revolutionary

D. Hartley (*)
Durham, UK

© The Author(s) 2019 131

S. Deckard, S. Shapiro (eds.), World Literature, Neoliberalism, and
the Culture of Discontent, New Comparisons in World Literature,

forces: a “longing … for some new existence outside the self, in a world
radically transformed and worthy of ecstasy” (2002: 136). This would
suggest that depersonalization is a more politically ambiguous phenome-
non than its habitually negative connotation might imply.
Differently from both Jameson and Friedrich, however, I understand
depersonalization as part of a broader phenomenon of “impersonality”
inherent in the capitalist world-system as such. That is, I take modernist
depersonalization to be but one variation of a larger socio-cultural process
of impersonality that unfolds across the longue durée of capitalist moder-
nity, and whose forms and valences mutate depending upon the historical
and geopolitical context. Such impersonality has many modalities—for
example, real abstraction (Toscano 2008; Finelli 1987; Sohn-Rethel
1978), reification (Lukács 1971; Chanson et  al. 2014), alienation
(Fischbach 2016)—but fundamentally it consists in the fact that capitalism
effects a systematic rupture with all traditional figures of the social bond
(cf. Badiou 1999: 55), replacing them with the “cash nexus” or what
Marx calls the “silent compulsion of economic relations” (Marx 1976:
899). In certain strands of the secondary literature this “silent compul-
sion” has become known as “impersonal domination” (e.g., Postone
1993; Heinrich 2012). Compared to previous modes of production, capi-
tal’s mode of domination is said to be impersonal rather than personal; as
Ellen Meiksins Wood has written, “it is the ‘autonomous’ laws of the
economy and capital ‘in the abstract’ that exercise power, not the capitalist
wilfully imposing his personal authority upon labour” (1995: 41). Wood
thus argues that there exists a “structural indifference of capitalism to
extra-economic identities” (ibid.: 267).
The problem with this position is that it tends to downplay the extent
to which “impersonal domination” is simultaneously impersonal and per-
sonalizing.4 This chapter argues that the impersonality of historical
­capitalism is best conceived as an uneven, often violent, combination of
socio-cultural processes of depersonalization and (re-)personalization. It is
within this purview of the longue durée that I shall locate the specific con-
figuration of impersonal and personal forces in the period known as ‘neo-
liberalism’. I shall argue that, from the perspective of the person,
neoliberalism constitutes a combined and uneven world-systemic project
operating through multiple socio-cultural “personae” (from homo œco-
nomicus to “wageless life” (Denning 2010)), unified by a counter-­
revolutionary project of Restoration whose aim was to negate the “passion
for the real” [la passion du réel] that characterized much of the twentieth

century (Badiou 2007). I shall then use these extended sociological and
philosophical elaborations as a framework within which to read two key
contemporary works of world-literature: S.  J. Naudé’s The Alphabet of
Birds (2015) and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013). I interpret
these works as attempts to inherit the “passion for the real” under condi-
tions of neoliberalism; more precisely, I read them as literary rearticula-
tions of the “passion for the real” that aim to identify and orient the
contemporary reader towards points of the historical Real that resist the
“organized disorientation” (Badiou 2008b: 18) of neoliberalism. Both
writers employ techniques of impersonality and depersonalization to carve
out a fragile space of resistance and formalize hope in an ethico-political
absolute. In doing so, they not only extend Badiou’s own reflections on
the intrinsic limitations of the “passion for the real” (not least its intimate
bond with violence and destruction (cf. Badiou 2007: 48–57)) but also
indicate potential blind spots in Badiou’s philosophical project itself.

Capital Personified
Much recent work in the Marxist tradition has argued that we should
understand capitalism as a social institution or civilization (e.g., Fraser
2013; Arruzza 2014; Moore 2015), a contradictory amalgam of wars,
money, and the state (Alliez and Lazzarato 2016), or as a “totality in
­process” (Monferrand 2017) rather than a purely economic system. It is
with this body of work in mind that I shall argue that capitalist “imper-
sonal domination” is best conceived as a dual process of depersonalization
and (re)personalization. This can be seen in three ways. First, in Capital,
Marx constantly stresses the way in which impersonal domination operates
through structural processes of personification. In the famous preface to
the first edition of Capital, he states that “individuals are dealt with here
only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, the
bearers [Träger] of particular class-relations and interests” (Marx 1976:
92). Capital’s impersonal domination thus works through a system of cat-
egorial personifications or “masks” [Charaktermasken]. Whilst these per-
sonifications appear, in their logical immediacy, to be indifferent to the
faces and bodies they force into relation, they are in fact mediated histori-
cal and political results: they are “fields of forces” (Basso 2015: 46) that
condense both longue-durée structural tendencies and conjunctural over-
determinations. Likewise, page after page of Capital attests to the struc-
tural connection between the sphere of circulation and juridical

personhood—the “very Eden of the innate rights of man” (Marx 1976:

280)—and the systematic brutalization and bodily torture that occurs in
the hidden abode of production. The structural impersonality of capital
thus depends upon enforced structural personifications and a system of
legally mediated personal violence.
Second, these structural personifications—the attempt, through primi-
tive accumulation and state interpellation, to force humans into the func-
tional personae of capital accumulation—cannot be separated from wider,
systemically uneven, socio-cultural processes of personification. Indeed,
the “person” as such might best be understood as a historically and geo-
graphically variable dispositif connecting—at any one time—ideological
and repressive state apparatuses, citizenship discourses, spatial practices,
philosophy, and cultural representations.5 The “person” is a field of class
struggle, constantly shifting in line with the play of forces of a given con-
juncture. Under the capitalist mode of production, the dominant dispositif
of the person has traditionally had as its primary functions identification,
separation, and simplification: it identifies and separates out individuals
from transindividual collectives embedded in pre-capitalist historical
natures, reducing these individuals’ constitutive multiplicity to violently
simplified racial, sexual, national, and other categorizations.6 The person
has assumed these functions because, within the zone of commodification,
capitalism requires the production and reproduction of individualized
legal persons who are ‘free’ to sell their labour-power. The relative pre-
dominance and efficacy of these functions, however, are historically and
geographically variable for two reasons. First, in any social formation
(especially those located at the periphery and semi periphery of the world-­
system), the capitalist mode of production is articulated with residual and
emergent modes of production on which it must impose its dominance,
thus giving rise to situations of combined and uneven personhood.7
Second, zones in which wage labour predominates are increasingly imbri-
cated with and surrounded by zones of “wageless life” (Denning 2010) or
relative surplus populations whose activity is structurally necessary to capi-
tal but which is external to its primary operations. Consequently, modes of
personal capture and resistance in, say, the (semi)peripheral “planet of
slums” (Davis 2006) are distinct from those within the enfranchised pub-
lic sphere of the core. Ultimately, however, whether at the periphery or
the core (albeit to vastly differing extents), workers are gendered, racial-
ized, and categorized—as Muslim, black, white, immigrant—and these
categorizations overdetermine and materially affect, by reinforcing or
impeding, the continued efficacy of the structural personifications of

c­ apital. The impersonal domination of capital must thus be understood as

being in constant articulation with a whole network of potentially contra-
dictory socio-cultural personifications.
Finally, at the level of the capitalist world-system itself, even if the
“silent compulsion” of economic relations implicitly corresponds to a
period of hegemonic stability in a fully developed capitalist core, this core
nonetheless relies upon continued primitive accumulation at the world-­
systemic periphery (cf. Jelly-Schapiro 2019). Impersonal capitalist consen-
sus always has its roots in direct personal violence elsewhere in the
world-system, which it repatriates to the core during periods of economic
crisis (cf. Serfati 2017: 186–224). These processes overlap with a more
general tendency through which financialization, which imposes debtor-­
creditor dependency, gives rise to renewed forms of personal domination
both at the core and at the periphery (Carson 2017). Ultimately, then, it
can be said that impersonality and depersonalization, whilst the dominant
tendencies of capitalist modernity, are so profoundly imbricated with (re-)
personalizing tendencies that it is only at a high level of abstraction that
one can plausibly uphold capital’s “structural indifference” to “extra-­
economic identities” (Wood 1995: 267).
This constant dynamic between systemic depersonalization and regional
(re-)personalizations is reproduced in the field of culture. Unlike capital
itself, however, whose impersonality is tendentially “axiomatic” (cf.
Deleuze and Guattari 1983: 246), in the field of culture impersonality can
assume the form either of conservative “reterritorializations” (cf. Deleuze
and Guattari 1983: 34) or—alternatively—of emancipatory depersonali-
zations. To give a general example, historically it is well known that cul-
tural forms of personalization (e.g., liberal individualism, romanticism,
“culture”) developed partly as a defence against the impersonal domina-
tion of the “cash nexus” (cf. Williams 1963). Yet this, in turn, provoked a
backlash in the form of neoclassical impersonalities: fascist discipline, reli-
gious fundamentalisms, and authoritarian traditionalisms are all forms of
ethico-political impersonality that reject romantic individualism. Inversely,
there also exist conservative forms of personalization which reinforce or
attempt to replace the social bond that is severed by the axiomatic of capi-
tal (e.g., regimes of race; nationalism; the neoconservative family).
Emancipatory modes of impersonality subsequently develop and take aim
at these sometimes violent identifications: politically, this includes prac-
tices of “solidarity,” an impersonal ethico-political mode of social relation
indifferent to specific national or ethnic identities, whilst, philosophically,
one might cite Badiou’s (2003) understanding of truths as indifferent to

differences or Jacques Rancière’s (1999: 36) notion of subjectivation as

disidentification—both variations on communist universality. Capitalist
impersonal domination, then, both at the level of the economy and of
culture, is best understood as a combined and uneven process of deper-
sonalization and (re-)personalization.

The Combined and Uneven Personae

of Neoliberalism

The internal extreme of this dynamic occurs when selected elements of

personal resistance are strategically incorporated into operations of capital
accumulation. It is precisely this process that Luc Boltanski and Ève
Chiapello explore in The New Spirit of Capitalism (2005 [1999]). They
argue that the “artistic critique” of capitalism (against alienation and lack
of autonomy and creativity) voiced during the French insurrection of May
1968 became separated from the “social critique” (of capitalist exploita-
tion and egoism) and was incorporated into the management discourse of
post-Fordist capitalism.8 In so doing, the “anti-Oedipal” critique of cen-
tralized, hierarchical, and impersonal bureaucratic structures became co-­
opted by the neoliberal restructuring of capital. Where corporations of the
1960s had purposely rejected “‘personal judgements’ … in decisions
about promotion, in favour of ‘impersonal judgement’ on the basis of
results” (67), managerial discourse of the 1990s reintroduced “criteria of
personality and the use of personal relations” (85): “Charisma, vision, gifts
of communication, intuition, mobility and generalism become the ideal
traits of the new leaders – dressed-down, cool capitalists like Bill Gates or
‘Ben and Jerry’ … who refuse to surround themselves with the formal
trappings of bureaucratic authority” (Budgen 2000: 153). At the same
time, neoliberal personhood has also been understood as a backlash against
second-wave feminism and the new social movements of the 1960s whose
rallying cry was that “the personal is political”: “the neoliberal reaction
consolidated in the 1980s recodes the person as the personal: it privatizes
politics by making personal experience the test of political action; it reduces
political action to the representation of identities, with the crucial qualifi-
cation that these identities, though passed off as equivalent, are not at all
equal” (Haines 2017: 182; cf. Dean 2016, chap. 1). On these readings,
neoliberalism effected a double privatization of the person: a repersonal-
ization of the private corporation and a reactionary privatization of an
attempted depersonalization of the private realm.

Other critiques of neoliberal subjectivity have developed along primar-

ily Foucauldian lines. Dardot and Laval, for example, hold that neoliberal-
ism should be understood as a “rationality” which effects a “generalization
of competition as a behavioural norm and of the enterprise as a model of
subjectivation” (2013: 4). A new work ethic is said to have developed
whereby “individual aspirations and the enterprise’s objectives of excel-
lence … can only be conjoined if everyone becomes a small enterprise”
(ibid.: 266). Consequently, as Wendy Brown puts it,

we may (and neoliberalism interpellates us as subjects who do) think and act
like contemporary market subjects where monetary wealth generation is not
the immediate issue, for example, in approaching one’s education, health,
fitness, family life, or neighbourhood … Thus, one might approach one’s
dating life in the mode of an entrepreneur or investor … A student might
undertake charitable service to enrich her college application profile. (2015:

The irony is that whilst this internalization of market principles is meant to

offer flexibility and subjective dynamism, it may actually erode personality
altogether. Post-Fordist short-termism, lack of long-term predictable
careers, and instability of “projects” produce a “pliant” self that is little
more than what Richard Sennett has described, in a phrase reminiscent of
the modernist artwork, as a “collage of fragments unceasing in its becom-
ing, ever open to new experience” (cited in Dardot and Laval 2013: 290).
As in the Sartrean dialectic of winner loses, neoliberal personalization
begets further depersonalization.
One of the problems with such theories of neoliberal conduct, how-
ever, is that they often suppose a single subject of neoliberalism known
variously as homo œconomicus or the “entrepreneurial subject.” Yet the
supposed reign of homo œconomicus would then be coeval with the widely
documented demise of the single revolutionary subject—and privileged
revolutionary site—that many claim was hegemonic in the workers’ move-
ment: the male industrial worker in the factory. As Aaron Benanav et al.
(2015: 277) have written of the contemporary moment: “The working
class – always internally differentiated – displays a diminishing capacity for
unification under a single hegemonic figure, thus realising its always latent
tendency to decompose into fragments, facing off one against the other.”
On the one hand, there is nothing surprising about such social and politi-
cal decomposition during a period of increasing deindustrialization, the

demise of the trade unions, and totalizing processes of privatization. On

the other hand, however, the focus, especially in Foucauldian accounts, on
the figure of homo œconomicus at the expense of all other subjects of
neoliberalism suggests that the social and geographical scope of such
approaches is too limited. Annie McClanahan has recently argued that “by
characterizing neoliberalism through a specific kind of entrepreneurial
subject … we miss the possibility that neoliberalism is not the becoming-­
economic of the non-economic, but rather the introduction of economic
exigencies into the lives of a group – white, educated, upper middle-class
citizens of the developed world – formerly protected from them” (2017:
512). She suggests that a more “exemplary” subject of the present would
be “an underemployed part-timer, probably working in the service sector,
buying her groceries on her credit card and cashing her paychecks at a
check cashing service, renting rather than owning her home, barely able to
survive day to day and thus unlikely to see any of this precarity as an
interest-bearing investment in her own future” (ibid.: 513). Furthermore,
Eli Jelly-Schapiro’s (2019) important account of the “multiple temporali-
ties” of neoliberalism across the world-system—he names them primitive
accumulation, expanded reproduction, and “accumulation by fabrica-
tion”—identifies a range of political subjects, each of which is dominant in
one or another time-space of the neoliberal world-system: migrant “wage-
less life” (the phrase is Denning’s 2010), the wage labourer, and the pro-
letarianized middle class. If theories of “neoliberalism” are to retain their
critical incisiveness, they will thus have to broaden their conception of its
dramatis personae: no longer homo œconomicus alone, but an uneven com-
bination of exemplary subjects which, in varying rhythms and ratios, con-
stitutes the objective fact of neoliberal social (de)composition and the
diffuse material and geographical basis for the emergence of any future
revolutionary subject.
Beyond this emphasis on the world-systemic multiplicity of neoliberal
personae, however, I would like to suggest that the philosophy of Alain
Badiou offers a rich new perspective on the nature of neoliberal subjectiv-
ity. Badiou never uses the term neoliberalism but his philosophical account
of contemporary subjectivity deals with many of its recognized features.
For Badiou the period since approximately 1975 has been characterized
by worldlessness.9 In his terms, a world is a logic of appearance in which
all are entitled to a name and which is “tensed” by “points”; naming
­signifies the possibility of an inscription into a political process (e.g., class
struggle or national liberation), whilst a “point” submits the situation to

the decisional pressure of an absolute “yes or no” decision (especially char-

acteristic of revolutionary situations). Today, Badiou argues (writing at the
turn of the twenty-first century), there exists no logic of the visible, a
general acceptance of non-nomination, and a general “pointlessness”;
worldlessness has replaced the world, excluding the majority of humanity
from visibility (potential or actual) and from the absolute yes or no of
revolutionary decision—that is, from the possibility of political subjectiva-
tion. The logic of a world has given way to the anarchic illogic of universal
substitutability, commodified ideals of youthfulness, passive hedonism,
and a present so fleeting as seemingly to defy all proactive formation.
How did this situation come about? For Badiou it is the end result of a
sustained Thermidorean reaction to the last historical sequence of the
“communist hypothesis” (1966–75); that is, neoliberalism is a fundamen-
tally counter-revolutionary subjective project.10 The communist hypothe-
sis in the twentieth century was driven by what Badiou calls a “passion for
the real” [la passion du réel] (2007: 32): “There is a conviction, laden with
pathos, that we are being summoned to the real of a beginning.” Where
the nineteenth century “announced, dreamed, and promised,” the twen-
tieth century “declared it would make man, here and now” (ibid.). In
stark contrast to the ever-calculating entrepreneurial subject, this convic-
tion was characterized by a “steadfast indifference to its cost” (ibid.: 33)—
both physical and personal. The “passion for the real” was thus, in one
sense, a violent and destructive desire for immediate collective self-­
actualization, a desire that found all semblance or mediation intrinsically
suspect (hence the twentieth-century’s gravitation to the slogan of the
purge); yet it also harboured a ‘subtractive’ orientation—“a differential
and differentiating passion devoted to the construction of a minimal dif-
ference” (as in Malevich’s White on White [1918]) (56)—which under-
stands the gap between real and semblance as itself real and thereby aims
“to invent content at the very place of the minimal difference” (57). More
recently, Badiou has redefined destruction and subtraction as the negative
and affirmative parts of negation respectively, proposing that any
­inheritance of the passion for the real will involve “maintain[ing] the com-
plete concept of negation from the point of view of subtraction” rather
than destruction (i.e., the inverse of the twentieth century). In other
words, any contemporary revolutionary project must avoid the following
three partial types of negation: negation without destruction (what
Badiou calls capitalist-parliamentarianism); negation without subtraction
(nihilist will-­to-­obliteration; terrorist violence); and subtraction without

destruction (a semi-depressive “dropping out” of the world; or, the

Hegelian beautiful soul).11 To inherit the passion for the real under neo-
liberalism is thus to invent affirmative negations—productive, enduring
recompositions of the world—and yet to do so in a situation of general
The exemplary figure of Badiou’s philosophy is the “faithful subject.”
Without wishing to rehearse Badiou’s theory of subjectivation in full, suf-
fice it to say that for Badiou the entirety of ethics comes down to fidelity
to the event: “Do all that you can to persevere in that which exceeds your
perseverance. Persevere in the interruption. Seize in your being that which
has seized and broken you” (Badiou 2001: 47). In the terms of this chap-
ter, fidelity should be understood as an impersonal operation. It is imper-
sonal because whilst an individual belongs to a truth-process as ‘herself’ (a
multiple singularity), she is simultaneously in excess of herself—fidelity
“passes through” her (Badiou 2001: 45). Badiouian impersonality, like
the passion for the real, is that within one’s self which goes beyond one-
self.12 From the perspective of the dispositif of the person, it is a process of
profound, emancipatory depersonalization. It invokes militant subjective
orientations at odds not only with entrepreneurial rationality and youthful
hedonism but also with one further neoliberal ideological persona: the
victim. Where the “passion for the real” implied a conception of man as a
programme or project, the dominant ideology of the twenty-first century
is, according to Badiou, a “project-less humanism” premised on the vic-
timized body; “man” becomes “a substantialist or naturalist category,
which we attain through empathy in the spectacle of suffering” (Badiou
2007: 176). This so-called animal humanism (Badiou 2007: 175) is the
vision of humanity imposed by the neoliberal Restoration and lives on in
what Nina Powers and Alberto Toscano (2009: 32) have called “the ‘anti-
totalitarian’ credo … and the anticommunist philosophies of finitude, lib-
eralism, and human rights.” If neoliberal management discourse was a
“reactive subject” which positively incorporated the joyous “artistic” and
hedonist elements of the global uprisings of the long 1960s, then the
pious champions of human rights and the Pax Americana tempered that
joy with an equally novel melancholy of finitude.13 To rearticulate Badiou’s
argument in terms of this chapter, then, one might say that neoliberalism
relies upon a dispositif of the person that violently separates the body from its
impersonal potential.
We are now in a position to propose some provisional theses on com-
bined and uneven neoliberal subjectivity and its relation to impersonality:

1. Foucauldian theories of homo œconomicus are powerful but partial:

they underestimate the extent to which neoliberalism consists of
multiple temporalities and uneven geographies, producing multiple
exemplary personae (e.g., “wageless life,” the wage labourer, and the
proletarianized middle class). These structural personifications pre-
dominate over—and enter into occasionally explosive combinations
with—far wider socio-cultural practices of personhood.
2. The multiplication of exemplary neoliberal personae is coextensive
with the widely documented objective decomposition of the work-
ers’ movement throughout the “long downturn.” This decomposi-
tion is at once social and geographical, generating confusion over
both the identity and location of the contemporary revolutionary
3. At the level of subjectivity, neoliberalism constitutes a collective

“reactive subject” whose unconscious is the spectre of the commu-
nist hypothesis.14 It is composed of multiple practices of (to risk a
strategically inexact analogy) subjective primitive accumulation:
where objective primitive accumulation separates workers from the
land, subjective primitive accumulation separates bodies from
Ideas.15 Neoliberalism operates personalizing privatizations of the
emancipatory potential of the impersonal.

This is the subjective matrix in which contemporary world-literature


Impersonality in Contemporary World-Literature

In what follows, I shall argue that S. J. Naudé’s The Alphabet of Birds and
Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers intervene in this neoliberal conjunc-
ture in three ways. First, they both attempt to inherit, and remain faithful
to, the passion for the real that is structurally denied by neoliberalism; they
do so via experimentations with impersonality and depersonalization that
foreground the Badiouian virtue of courage, which Benjamin Noys has
suggestively reinterpreted as “a virtue that orients itself to a point, to a
Real, in the intervallic period of the absence of the event … a non-heroic
political virtue … woven out of political memories which are not mere
nostalgia, but also critique and re-formulation” (Noys 2010: 153). Naudé
and Kushner critically mobilize a certain nostalgia for modernism and
the  avant-garde as a way of (re)formulating militant twentieth-century

subjectivities that resist the hegemonic figures of neoliberalism. Second, in

line with Fredric Jameson’s transcoding of Aristotelian anagnorisis (‘rec-
ognition’) as the ‘discovery’ of collective political subjects who have previ-
ously been overlooked—“the coming into view of those multitudinous
others suppressed from the official story and field of vision” (2009:
565)—I hold that Kushner and Naudé provide subjective cognitive maps
of selected subjects of neoliberalism, enabling an aesthetically unified rep-
resentation of that which is objectively, geographically, and socially dis-
persed. Finally, I argue that these works of fiction suggest potential blind
spots in Badiou’s philosophy itself, not least the manner in which faithful
subjects, pace Badiou, “are incessantly undone, circumvented, manipu-
lated by a Subject [Capital] which is both made up of nothing but their
very actions and simultaneously an abstraction over which they seem to
exercise no ultimate control” (Toscano 2007: 198). Both works are exam-
ples of what one might call “anti-worldless literature”: a committed search
for the traces of a “world” within the non-world of neoliberalism—“a
network of signs that we can scan and assemble” (Badiou 2014: 113).
The remarkable stories collected in S. J. Naudé’s The Alphabet of Birds
(2015) span the entire globe: Milan, rural South Africa, a castle near
Nuremberg, Berlin, Hanoi, Tokyo, Paris, Lesotho, Johannesburg,
Phoenix, London, Dubai, and Cape Town. Within and between these
places, Naudé—acutely attuned to the capitalist production of space—is
drawn to those locations or architectural styles characterized by combined
and uneven development: a state-of-the-art neomodernist hunting lodge
cheek-by-jowl with a corrugated iron shack in the South African outback
(2015: 76–77); “[r]emarkable,” the narrator of one story exclaims, “the
proximity of the two things: the perfect and the abject, the room and the
destroyed space” (128). Like the Italian futurists who inspire the first story
“The Noise Machine,” one senses that, for Naudé, such combined and
uneven spaces are not simply statically objective geographies, but produce
a subjective surplus: they are the “‘weak links in the chain,’ where the Real
may appear without warning” (Jameson 2012: 474). Four of the stories
feature a gay male protagonist (different each time) who has recently quit
his high-flying job at an elite multinational corporation. We follow his
string of erotic encounters across global cities and their underworlds, his
endless nights of partying, and intoxication. In each case, the narrator—
despite his tendency to Bacchanalian self-destruction—is always the mun-
dane counterpart to a mysterious male figure driven by strangely absolute
existential “visions,” neomodernist artistic projects, or what one character

calls a “hard, impersonal scheme” (223; emphasis added). Such bouts of

drug-fuelled reverie are counterposed both to these impersonal projects
and to the knowledge, or presence, of the decaying body of the protago-
nist’s mother (a recurring figure), who is dying of terminal cancer. Even
those stories which do not feature a male protagonist contain damaged or
decaying female bodies. The principal interest of these stories lies in the
way in which, in and through the twin neoliberal figures of the victim and
the hedonist, they stage acts of fidelity to absolute ethico-political projects
which are indifferent to the suffering bodies through which they are
In the story “Van,” Sandrien, a white Afrikaner woman, retrains to
become a nurse. She cares for patients—most of whom are dying from
HIV/AIDS—in a provincial rural area near Blomfontein in South Africa.
When she learns that she is suffering from terminal cancer, she rejects fur-
ther treatment so as to dedicate herself to her work. Increasingly patho-
logically driven by an absolute determination to cure or care for her
patients irrespective of personal cost, she alienates her husband, Kobus,
who attempts to make her see reason, and becomes entangled in a com-
plex, transnational web of finance capital, NGOs, and corrupt state institu-
tions. Of all the stories in the collection, it is “Van” that shows most
clearly the inseparability of any possible inheritance of the “passion for
the real” from the many mediations of the world-systemic project of
In Naudé’s fictional universe, there exists a moral morphology of the
body: roundness or curves are outward signs of corruption, whilst angu-
larity and corporeal dissolution are indices of virtue. The “round head”
(2015: 85) and “squeaky clean … little rolls of fat” of Walter Mabunda, a
corrupt provincial health minister, and the cheeks, “still lovely as a baby’s”
(44), of Mrs. Nyathi, a cunning and manipulative guest house owner, are
in stark contrast to the “sore, sharp corners of bodies” (56) that Sandrien
discovers on her rounds. Sandrien admits to being surprized at discovering
the existence of these hidden subjects: “I could not have imagined. …
Invisible, just on the other side of these hills … Dozens of them” (56).
Combining the recurring figure of modernist linearity and abstraction
with the sudden “discovery” (or anagnorisis) of a new collective subject,
the story traces Sandrien’s absolute commitment to these suffering, angu-
lar bodies.16 When told by Lerato (an example of the corrupt, post-­
apartheid nouveaux riches) who blocks Sandrien’s efforts at every turn,
that “we can only do what we can do,” Sandrien replies: “‘We can do

more, much more!’ We can find the divine fibres in our weak flesh, the undis-
covered grace in our entrails!” (70; emphasis in original). These “divine
fibres” and “undiscovered grace” are figures of that impersonal potential-
ity that is so violently extinguished by the neoliberal reactive subject.
Sandrien engages in a “passion for the real” worthy of the twentieth cen-
tury: her resolve is absolute and her indifference to her own well-being is
borderline maniacal, her body gradually wasting away and dehydrating
into dust. Yet her fidelity to an ethico-political absolute is intrinsically
marred because her project is internally structured by a misguided saviour
fantasy: “she will be able to keep everyone safe. Soon she will be able to
carry all the dying. She will hold them in the palm of her hand” (72). This
narcissism is connected to Sandrien’s inability to read her situation: “All
these connections make me dizzy … I don’t know what my involvement
is supposed to be” (79). The story is thus tragic, in the precise sense that
tragedy entails “the recognition of a strain of insouciant refractoriness to
human agency that is woven into the very fabric of action itself” (Aryeh
Kosman, cited in Eagleton 2003: 78). Yet here the “insouciant refractori-
ness” is not some transhistorical “all-too-human” flaw, but that point at
which the Real of the self meets the Real of Capital to undermine indi-
vidual life-projects.
Sandrien constantly attempts—unsuccessfully—to access antiretroviral
drugs for her patients from (corrupt) state-run provincial health services
and a US NGO named “Widereach,” loosely modelled on the “US
President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief” (PEPFAR). At one point,
she is told that she will not receive antiretrovirals because Widereach’s
“emphasis will be on abstinence campaigns, rather than condom use …
These are the values of Middle America: we’re talking faith-based organi-
zations. Those are the ones now holding the money” (73). Indeed, when
PEPFAR was introduced in 2003, current Vice President of the United
States, Mike Pence, told congress: “Abstinence and marital faithfulness
before condom distribution are the cure for what ails the families of Africa
… It is important that we not just send them money, but that we send
them values that work” (cited in Frankel 2017). Yet even those PEPFAR
schemes that do not promote the Orwellian-sounding “A-B-C strategy
(Abstinence – Be Faithful – Condom Use)” have still tended to promote
its politico-economic counterpart, neoliberalism, by “systematically
ignor[ing] the role of structural inequality and the differential political
economy of risk, while focusing entirely on ‘high-risk’ individual behav-
iors” (Sastry and Dutta 2013: 25). PEPFAR measures the effects of HIV/

AIDS in terms of “the number of hours and dollar amounts of productiv-

ity lost” (ibid.: 28); it binds HIV/AIDS—via Orientalist r­ epresentations—
to local cultural norms (e.g., early marriage and polygamy). It also
systematically ignores the structural factors behind such conduct, such as
change in agricultural ownership patterns or large-scale unemployment
resulting from structural adjustment programmes (ibid.: 31). In terms of
the capitalist dynamics of impersonality and (re-)personalization, then,
Sandrien finds herself at the centre of two interlinked processes. On the
one hand, South African state institutions are insufficiently impersonal,
mired in such profound corruption that personal dependency trumps
bureaucratic abstraction at every turn. On the other hand, the re-­
personalizing values of neoconservatism, forged as an ideological solution
to the social contradictions of the neoliberal counterrevolution (cf. Harvey
2005: 82ff.), have now become the moral wing of US-led neoimperial
privatization. It is thus no surprise that Sandrien feels “dizzy” at all these
The true object of Naudé’s scorn, however, is the white Afrikaner farm-
ers. No longer assured of their material privileges, many have had to rein-
vent themselves. The farmers affected in “Van” have two options: sell out
to hunting-farm developers or set up a funeral business. Those who opt
for the latter now use the fridges that once housed slaughtered cattle to
store the plentiful supply of black HIV/AIDS cadavers until they can be
buried in the—expensively—hard ground (“Soil structure determines
profit,” Manie informs Sandrien). It is thus in the interests of the white
Afrikaners to keep the black corpses flowing. When Kobus tells Sandrien
he is considering starting a funeral business—“One must adapt, one must
naturalise” (69)—she tells him that if he does so she will never look him
in the eye again. Indeed, there is a sense in which Kobus mobilizes the
ideology of modest domestic comforts to counteract Sandrien’s radical
impersonality. On one level, everything he utters or writes is a perfectly
reasonable response to his wife’s monomaniacal and self-sacrificial behav-
iour; on the other, it is an attempt to separate Sandrien from her imper-
sonal potential, from that within her that is more than herself: the “divine
fibres” of her “weak flesh.” First, he tells her not to feel guilty about their
relative privilege, then he accuses her of not wanting to be part of a com-
munity (“I have my community,” she tells him), until finally, at his wit’s
end, he writes her a letter: “You want to collapse the pain and stench into
one blinding truth. Where do you make the people behind the truth disappear
to? And do they understand your abstract manner of saving them?” (81;

emphasis in original). On one level, he is of course right, but on another,

we know that from Burke to the nouveaux philosophes reactionary thought
proceeds by way of accusations of “abstraction.” Predictably, yet under-
standably, Kobus’ own truth consists in “the silence of our bedroom, the
flashes of lightning passing between our skins…when I stick out my fingers
and am touching real flesh. And for me that is enough” (82; emphasis in
original). Kobus is, in a sense, an ideal-type literary realist, insisting on the
importance of the human individuals behind the structures and truths,
maintaining the primacy of the suffering and erotic body, the domestic
space of the home, the concrete over the abstract, and a defender of the
“minor sorrow” (81). In an astonishing ideological legerdemain, Kobus
effectively recasts what Auerbach once referred to as “creatural realism”
(2003: 247) into a counterrevolutionary fidelity to finitude under
Yet Sandrien’s own absolute fidelity, as we have seen, has tragic flaws.
“If only you had an idea of the scale of things, of how puny you are,”
Lerato tells her when accused of having hired an assassin to kill her. By
failing adequately to map the web of social relations in which she is
involved, Sandrien’s project is scuppered on the rocks of romanticism:
“The system is irrelevant,” she says at one point, “it’s about the victims”
(71). Yet, as we have seen, the system precisely is not irrelevant: at every
step, a powerful combination of predatory international capital and intra-­
state corruption has prevented her—and by extension her patients—from
receiving lifesaving antiretrovirals. Her absoluteness of vision prevents a
serious engagement with the world-systemic mediations of HIV/AIDS,
thus ironically reproducing the very neoliberal individualism of the NGOs
that impede her. This insistence on absoluteness is also a potential weak-
ness in Badiou’s philosophy itself—an underestimation of the extent to
which capital and ideology subtly, immanently unwork the projects of
faithful subjects. Nonetheless, Sandrien’s impersonal heroism powerfully
delineates a space within the neoliberal ideological environment, domi-
nated by paeans to finitude, in which something else—something like a
world—becomes visible. In a later story, we learn that, shortly before she
died, the state-of-the art hunting lodge—intended to host a World Cup
after-party for global VIPs—has been burnt to the ground.
Rachel Kushner’s 2013 novel The Flamethrowers extends many of these
ideas. It is a novel about an anonymous young female motorcyclist who
moves to New  York from Reno in the 1970s to become an artist. She
becomes involved with a successful male Italian-American artist, Sandro

Valera, whose minimalist art plays on the shift that is underway in New York
from Fordism to post-Fordism, and whose father was initially an Italian
futurist (modelled on Marinetti) who later became a motorcycle and rub-
ber tyre magnate (modelled on Henry Ford). Towards the end of the
novel, the protagonist visits the now deceased magnate’s automobile fac-
tories in Milan, at the height of the anni di piombo and the ferment of
insurrection. The Flamethrowers is one of the most profound contempo-
rary experiments in literary impersonality precisely because it is so alert to
the manner in which what begins as an emancipatory depersonalization—
such as the futurist desire for an impersonal speed that can break with all
oppressive bonds of the past—can swiftly become incorporated into new,
more powerful capitalist processes of personification. As Eli Jelly-Schapiro
(2019) has observed, it also maps and connects the “three temporalities of
contemporary capital” and their specific modes of resistance.
Impersonality is integral to Kushner’s stylistic project. Consciously
opposed to the personal, self-expressive tendency of much contemporary
fiction, Kushner “wanted a narrator who could convey a tone that was like
thought and wasn’t at all like a spoken account or historical testimony or
a confession or a performance of any kind” (Hart and Rocca 2015: 201).
Inspired by the narratorial voice of Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives,
which she describes as being “like water” (Barron 2013), the voice of the
first-person narrator in The Flamethrowers is, relatively speaking, “neu-
tral.” Kushner achieves this effect by associating the voice with the passive,
self-withdrawing nature of the nameless protagonist herself: just as “Reno”
is dominated by the speech of others, a speech on which she thrives, from
which she learns, so the guiding narratorial idiom subordinates itself to
multiple character idioms for long stretches, or—during passages of inte-
rior monologue—assumes a casual yet essay-like impersonality whose
complexity is at odds with the protagonist’s supposed naivety.17 This sty-
listic and characterological passivity becomes integral to one of the recur-
ring themes of the novel: the idea of waiting. Contrary to the patriarchal
men—whether avant-gardists, artists, or business men—who act accord-
ing to rigidly designed plans, “Reno” waits: “I, too, had it in me to wait.
To expect change to come from the outside, to concentrate on the task of
meeting it, waiting to meet it, rather than going out and finding it”
(Kushner 2013: 88). There is a paradoxical proactivity at work in this wait-
ing; it is a “task” that requires what Alberto Toscano has called, in a dif-
ferent context, “non-dogmatic anticipation” (2010: 197; emphasis in
original). Thus, the impersonal style becomes integral to a larger project

of militant waiting whose aim is precisely to scan the terrain of worldless-

ness for the advent of an event or an irruption of the Real.
The style is also connected to the autodiegetic narrator’s desire for what
might be called an absolute non-relationality. In the opening pages, for
example, skiing is understood as a type of drawing whose ideal would be
tracelessness (Kushner 2013: 9) whilst “Reno’s” youthful adoration of Flip
Farmer, a land speed record holder, is inspired by the feeling that, in his
presence, “[w]e weren’t individuals but a surface he moved over, smiling
and remote” (ibid.: 21). Later, “Reno” works as a “China Girl,” a model
whose facial skin tones are used by lab technicians for cinematic colour-
control for Caucasian skin.18 Spliced into film leaders, China Girls gener-
ally went unseen by the public, but if they were seen, “they flashed by so
fast they had to be instantly reconstructed in the mind” (87): “I would be
looked at, but by people who didn’t know who I was. I would be looked
at but remain anonymous” (85). This desire simultaneously to be looked
at yet to remain anonymous links impersonality to a failed—or perhaps
subtracted—dialectic of recognition, in which the formal prerequisites of
interpersonal recognition are minimally present but are undermined by a
depersonalizing force which is felt to be emancipatory. “Reno” elsewhere
speaks of personhood itself as a prison: “We seemed to share certain ideas
about what happens in childhood, when you have to place yourself under
the sign of your own name, your face, your voice, your outward reality.
When you become a fixed position … as if the container of my person were
some kind of terrible mistake” (101). In a classic anti-­Oedipal manoeuvre,
speed and anonymity thus become for “Reno” a means of resisting the
violent personifications of the dispositif of the person.
Yet the novel complicates this accelerationist logic by demonstrating
that both speed and anonymity are themselves connected to violent pro-
cesses of personification. Kushner’s ingenious, if potentially misleading,
conflation of Marinetti and Henry Ford in the single figure of T. P. Valera
subtly undermines “Reno’s” emancipatory conception of speed. From the
primal scene in which Valera’s first sighting of a motorcycle is fused with
his erotic desire for the woman riding it—a scene that occurs in Alexandria
and conforms to Jameson’s (1991: 309–10) argument that modernism is
the result of incomplete modernization19—speed becomes coextensive
with what one might term petro-patriarchy: a (literally) toxic masculinity
informed by a misogynist metaphysics in which “[w]omen were trapped in
time” (Kushner 2013: 77), destined to become “pocket cunts” (76).
Yet what began as an avant-garde explosion has become, by the 1970s, a

mainstream Honda advert: “Speed is every man’s right” (13). Matthew

Huber has argued that oil has been integral to the rise of a mode of social-
ity he calls “petro-privatism” which underlies neoliberal subjectivity:
“Energy powered the privatization of social space. By extending the pro-
ductive forces of capital … to the reproductive forces of everyday life, a
specific stratum of American workers could now live, think, and feel an
individuated sense of power over the geographies of everyday practices.
Life appeared to some as a coherent space of privatized freedom” (2013:
xv). As well as enabling an emancipatory non-relationality, then, speed
becomes harnessed to a petro-infrastructure that inculcates the very neo-
liberal entrapment in the personal from which “Reno” desires to escape.
This infrastructure, however, is not limited to the confines of a single
nation-state. Perhaps inspired by Henry Ford’s ill-fated Amazonian “uto-
pia” of “Fordlandia,” Valera’s tyre business comes to rely upon imported
Brazilian rubber. Once a major late nineteenth-century commodity fron-
tier, wreaking genocidal devastation in the Amazon basin, by the 1920s
Asia had become the world capital of rubber production. Yet when Valera’s
supplies from Malaysia are cut off, he—like Ford—turns to the Amazon.
Realizing his futurist roots, Valera subordinates nature and the local
“Indians” to his will: “The jungle was a standing army, a reserve that
would summon forth a product, become something other than green,
useless, hostile nature, and Valera liked this idea, of conscripting nature
into service” (Kushner 2013: 126). The indigenous tappers work on
credit: “It was all indebtedness and credit, zero outlay of actual money.
Credit came from credo, which was to believe. … The Indians in the jungle
were going to work for free” (127). If the labourers fail to conform to the
“optimum calibration” for profit—that is, “within human limits, but just
barely” (127)—they are kept in line by “cheap muzzle-loaders, mock
drownings … and various further entrenchments of [their] peon status”
(214). This is the primal scene of primitive accumulation at the periphery
of the world-system—direct personal violence and slavery mediated by
credit—which is the material precondition of the cultures of speed and
petro-privatism at the core.
Fundamentally, then, The Flamethrowers is a novel about a historical
period in which the great revolutionary desire for an anonymous, imper-
sonal absolute—a passion for the real—becomes almost indistinguishable
from the absolute speed of capital. The genius of Kushner’s novel, how-
ever, lies in the manner in which it demonstrates that the great, uneven
struggle of capital and communism cannot be neatly mapped on to the

structuring binaries of the novel itself—speed versus slowness, action ver-

sus waiting, naming versus anonymity. Rather, the central contradiction
internally divides each term of the binary. Thus, “waiting” is split between
a communist anticipation of the evental insurrection and the patience
intrinsic to the art of the business deal (a capitalist kairos) (cf. 129). It is
precisely this process of internal diremption which, I have been arguing,
occurs in the dialectic of capitalist impersonality and personalization in
general: persons split into structural personifications, romantic neoterrito-
rializations, and state interpellations; impersonality splits into capitalist
axiomatics, reactionary neoterritorializations and emancipatory deperson-
alizations. If the “passion for the real” is to be inherited in the neoliberal
present, it must pass by way of these immanent socio-cultural mediations
whose ultimate scope is the capitalist world-system itself.

1. I am grateful to Stephen Shapiro for his comments on a previous version of
this article. All remaining errors are my own.
2. The translation is taken from Friedrich (1974: 8–9).
3. Jameson mistakenly transcribes Friedrich’s term as “Entpersonalisierung”
(2002: 131).
4. Cinzia Arruzza (2014) has put this point differently, criticising Wood’s
too-sharp distinction between the “logic” and “history” of capitalism: “as
soon as we accept [Wood’s] distinction between the logical structure of
capital and its historical dimensions, we can then accept the idea that the
extraction of surplus-value takes place within the framework of relations
between formally free and equal individuals without presupposing differ-
ences in juridical and political status. But we can do this only at a very high
level of abstraction—that is to say, at the level of the logical structure.
From the point of view of concrete history, things change radically.”
5. On the person as dispositif, see Esposito (2012).
6. I am here condensing ideas found, among others, in Jodi Dean’s (2016)
theory of interpellation as enclosure; James Scott’s (1998) work on the
state construction of “legibility and simplification;” and Jason W. Moore’s
(2015) notion of “abstract social nature.” It is also inspired by Marx’s writ-
ings on wood theft, on which see Hartley (2017).
7. For a clear historical example, see Chakrabarty (1989) on the jute mill
workers of Calcutta.
8. This argument is challenged by Dardot and Laval (2013: 262).

9. What follows is an abbreviated reconstruction of arguments put forth in

Badiou (2009, 2014). Badiou is not alone in this somewhat bizarre-sound-
ing diagnosis: it can also be found in Franck Fischbach (2016) and Gopal
Balakrishnan (2009: 26).
10. Badiou (2008a: 35–6) identifies two modern sequences of the communist
hypothesis: 1789–1871 and 1917–1976, within which 1966–1975 consti-
tutes something like a sub-sequence.
11. I am drawing here on Noys (2010: 146–7).
12. As Alberto Toscano observes, “it is a passion that inhabits its subjects as
what is in themselves more than themselves” (Badiou 2007: 220, n. 32).
13. By “reactive subject” Badiou (2009: 54ff.) means those renegade figures
(he has in mind the nouveaux philosophes) who, though once involved in a
political sequence, now deny the necessity of rupture embodied in the
political event, yet who incorporate (and often passively benefit from) cer-
tain of its novelties whilst producing new discourses to delegitimise faithful
14. Cf. Badiou (2009: 56): “the form of the faithful subject nonetheless
remains the unconscious of the reactive subject.”
15. Cf. Badiou (2014: 125): “The violence that compels the individual to
become a commodified body [un corps marchand] is not direct violence
against the body, it is a violence done to the capacity of the body in the
idea, to its capacity to be the bearer of something other than its own inter-
ests.” (I am grateful to Daria Saburova for help in translating this difficult
sentence). For Badiou, “democracy” in neoliberal guise consists in the vio-
lent command to “live without Idea” (ibid.); the “bare power” [pouvoir
nu] that secretly drives contemporary democracy “exerts considerable vio-
lence at the level of what one might call the frontier zone between bodies
and ideas” (ibid.: 128).
16. Elsewhere one character is described as a “living Giacometti” (Naudé
2015: 16) with a “bone structure … angular, like something from a
Futurist painting” (18). In yet another story, a dancer’s body is described
as “[l]ike something from modernist photography  – an Edward Weston
study of the body as abstraction” (280).
17. “Reno” is the name ascribed to the protagonist by others.
18. This is a further example of the impersonal-personal dynamic: the mechan-
ical impersonality of film is, in fact, a deeply racializing technology designed
to codify whiteness as the social norm.
19. “It was the discord that had struck him so many years earlier … It had been
the discord of the two, cracked limestone wall and gleaming motor parts”
(Kushner 2013: 39). Jameson’s hypothesis is supported by Ram (2012).

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The Cultural Regulation of Neoliberal


Mathias Nilges

What is neoliberal culture? In August 2012, the journal Social Anthropology

dedicated its debate section to the attempt to define the term neoliberal-
ism. Not unexpectedly, while the essays in this section do forward some
possible definitions, many of the most energetic passages are dedicated to
a pervasive sense of frustration with the conceptual nonfixity of the term.
In his 2013 essay, “Putting neoliberalism in its time and place: a response
to the debate,” published in the same journal, Bob Jessop suggests that
one possible response to Daniel Goldstein’s charge that “many anthro-
pologists invoke neoliberalism ‘as a sort of explanatory catholicon’” in
spite of the fact that neoliberalism generally remains “a ‘chaotic’ concept”
is to understand neoliberalism not as a “rigorously defined concept that
can guide research in anthropology and other social sciences” but instead
as a Kampfbegriff, a term of struggle, “that frames criticism and resis-
tance” (65). “Even authors who accept that neoliberalism is a valid ana-
lytical object,” Jessop continues,

M. Nilges (*)
Antigonish, NS, Canada

© The Author(s) 2019 157

S. Deckard, S. Shapiro (eds.), World Literature, Neoliberalism, and
the Culture of Discontent, New Comparisons in World Literature,
158  M. NILGES

still differ over the entry points they adopt to establish its essential quali-
ties—referring variously to a particular genealogy, a particular time period, a
particular case or set of cases or a particular policy field. Others deny that
neoliberalism has a quintessential form, insisting on its diverse origins, con-
tinuous reinvention, diverse local instantiations or variegated nature. (65)

The question with which this chapter begins therefore is from the outset
complicated by the first of the two terms, by the fact that neoliberalism
itself is by no means a stable concept. But, of course, concepts are never
entirely stable, and in particular for those with an investment in dialectics
this is a good thing, too. In a sense, this is what we may gain from Jessop’s
suggestion that the term neoliberalism might be best regarded as a
Kampfbegriff while maintaining a commitment to using the term neolib-
eralism in the context of cultural critique: like all concepts, the term neo-
liberalism moves through time, and it is defined not by a set of universal
principles but rather by its implication in a general historical process that
fuses economic, epistemological, social, and cultural form, and that
bestows upon neoliberalism a rich external and immanent history.
Consequently, what appears as a problem for those who wish to define the
concept universally, to make it measurable by bestowing upon the term a
fixity that stands opposed to the investment in historical mobility, geo-
graphical specificity, and conceptual polysemy that defines cultural cri-
tique, becomes in many ways a virtue for those who seek to understand
the relation between culture and neoliberalism in more detail. The term
neoliberalism, particularly inasmuch as it becomes of interest for cultural
critics when attached to the term culture, expresses a relation that we can
only conceive as a process, as fluid and historically changing, because we
are confronted from the outset with a relation—that between neoliberal-
ism and culture—that is grounded on a constitutive dynamism that stands
in relation to external, objective history and through which this history
can become legible.
Still, in spite of the fact that what appears elsewhere as a frustrating
problem can be turned into a productive contradiction and motor of his-
toricism with which cultural critique is not only able to deal but to which
it is particularly suited to speak as a discipline—and, one might add, this is
also one clear way in which cultural critique can make an important con-
tribution to the general discussion and analysis of neoliberalism—, the
particular ways in which we might bring together neoliberalism and cul-
ture for analytical and critical purposes are by no means plainly evident.

Entire special issues of leading journals in the field have been dedicated to
this question. Recently, new formations has assembled an impressive lineup
of essays in a special double issue that develops the notion of “neoliberal
culture.” Yet, while the issue collects important essays that study the work
of particular authors, the effect of particular sets of policies and sociopo-
litical developments, and important paths in the history of the philosophi-
cal foundation of neoliberalism alongside the connection between
neoliberalism and feminism or neoliberalism and technological develop-
ments, there remains the sense that cultural critics, however brilliant their
ultimate contribution to a particular field or discussion may be, often seem
to be able to get away with skipping an analytical step. If there is a relation
between neoliberalism and culture, what exactly is it? How might we
understand the ways in which the two sides of the equation relate to each
other? Does neoliberalism change what culture is and does? Does culture
have anything to do with the development and functioning of neoliberal-
ism itself? How does one term influence or maybe even determine the
other? To what end? What are the basal connections that we assume when
we read the relation between a particular cultural artifact and neoliberal-
ism, what is their logic, what are they aimed at, and what are the particular
points of tension and the crises that trouble this relation? Of course, one
might object, these questions are at the same time impossibly broad and
reductively narrow. But, as with the term neoliberalism itself, this should
not be regarded as grounds for avoiding the questions but as the basis for
a methodology that does not aim to generate universal definitions but that
instead aims to understand how particular studies of the relation between
cultural objects and neoliberalism might be articulated in relation to a
larger totality that defines the link between neoliberalism and culture.
Such a framework, then, aims to make a contribution to the general map-
ping of a totality while conceiving of this totality as a process in itself that
must be concretely understood through the particular. To do so, this
chapter will focus on the connecting space in between the two concepts—
culture and neoliberalism—and understand it, in Adornian terms, as the
restless connection that generates the history of the process that elsewhere
emerges as the problem of the seemingly unreconcilable split between
chaos and catholicon. After all, as Adorno reminds us, “totality produces
and reproduces itself precisely from the interconnection of the antagonis-
tic interests of its members” (Minima Moralia 17).
Much work has been done to show how cultural artifacts make legible
central aspects and logical as well as structural principles of neoliberalism.
160  M. NILGES

Yet, while undoubtedly important, such work does not provide us with a
differentiated account of what culture is and does in neoliberalism. Aside
from scholarship that examines how culture may aid us in the process of
better understanding neoliberalism, allowing us to see both its structural
intricacies and its contradictions, work that does engage with the question
of the ontology and function of culture under neoliberalism ordinarily
focuses on the ways in which culture has become instrumentalized by or
fully subsumed under neoliberalism. We encounter such notions of cul-
ture’s instrumental role in neoliberalism in two main versions: positive
instrumentalization (from the perspective of neoliberalism) and negative
instrumentalization (from the perspective of cultural criticism that stands
opposed to neoliberalism). Over the course of the past 10–15 years, a new
field of heterodox economics has emerged that focuses on the cultural
economy. Gilberto Gil’s introductory essay to one of the key textbooks in
this new field, Helmut Anheier and Yudhishthir Raj Isar’s The Cultural
Economy, can help illustrate the first of these two positions on culture’s
instrumentalization in neoliberalism. The book gathers a wide range of
essays and statistical information in order to illustrate the clear links
between culture and the economy in ways that are absolutely central to the
spread of neoliberalism and its associated politics and ideology. Of course,
since the term neoliberalism is largely only popular with those who oppose
or wish to critique it, it never finds its way into the book. Culture, Gil
writes in his introduction, assumes a key role in the contemporary moment,
“both as a symbolic system and as an economic activity” (x). In fact, he
argues, “the role of culture at the center of our development strategies”
ought to be considered “one of the most captivating debates of our time”
(x). The debate about culture is so important, he explains, because, as the
information collected in the book illustrates, “culture produces wealth like
never before. We have celebrated and pragmatically used such information
to broaden the space for culture in our development models” (x). As a
consequence, Gil argues that it is of central importance to use the data and
information gathered in the book to ensure that “governments and societ-
ies…believe that their economies depend on a policy for cultural diversity”
(x). Of course, as is well known by now, the political gesture toward diver-
sity clearly stands in the service of diversifying a given market’s cultural
portfolio, as becomes evident when Gil proceeds to address inequities:
“the same figures show that we are producing not just considerable wealth
but considerable inequities as well. They show how poorly this cultural
wealth is distributed” (x). But such inequality is in Gil’s estimation neither

a result of nor endemic to the system itself. Rather, it is evidence of the fact
that the system has not yet been fully implemented and become fully
hegemonic in all spaces. The answer—and it is in this context that culture
once again assumes an important role—is additional development, which
must to no small part be understood as cultural development. “Perhaps
because twentieth century attitudes die hard,” Gil reasons,

we still identify development with industrialization. In many circles, the wis-

dom of the indigenous peoples, their linguistic heritage and their environ-
mental consciousness are only rhetorically respected. But the very title of
this book, which evokes ‘economy’ rather than ‘industry’ may help us
decode the real meaning of ‘development’: as a form of collective social
well-being. (xi)

What we see here is the characteristic rhetoric of neoliberal development.

The term “economy” that here replaces the term “industry” signals the
attempt to market neoliberalism as a kinder, gentler capitalism focused on
freedom and diversity. The effort to market neoliberalism as a form of
capitalism focused on global development that aims to improve social
well-being depends importantly on the work of culture through which the
system can ultimately also act and which becomes instrumental to sup-
porting its objectives.
Of course, as Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff show in their
impressively detailed introduction to one of the first collections of essays
that examine the relation between neoliberalism and culture, Millennial
Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism, such a version of collectivity,
freedom, and social well-being is defined directly through neoliberalism’s
characteristically stunted version of the collective and the social whose
very basis is the contraction into individualism and the self. Neoliberal col-
lectivity, they argue, is at every point routed through the focus on indi-
vidual responsibility and the self. Gil celebrates the “right to culture” that
to him forms a cornerstone of the cultural economy and the general
improvement of social well-being, “cultural policies are an instrument of
social emancipation, global articulation and human freedom in the twenty-­
first century. Seen in this light, the notion of the ‘cultural economy’ is a
welcome politicization of economic debate for the contemporary world”
(xii). Comaroff and Comaroff, on the other hand, stress that it is precisely
in this rhetoric that we can locate a key element of neoliberalism’s cultural
turn in the context of which “politics are treated as a matter of individual
162  M. NILGES

or group entitlement” and “social wrongs are transposed into an issue of

‘rights’” (16). The result of this re-articulation of the social and the
­political, to no small part carried out through the work of culture, accord-
ing to Comaroff and Comaroff, is that

the contours of ‘society’ blur, its organic solidarity disperses. Out of its shad-
ows emerges a more radically individuated sense of personhood, of a subject
built up of traits set against a universal backdrop of likeness and difference.
In its place, to subvert the old Durkheimean telos, arise collectivities erected
on a form of mechanical solidarity in which me is generalized into we. (15)

Gil’s outline of the relation between culture and the economy is, in other
words, a fully neoliberal account of culture in which culture is fully reduced
to economic concerns and market relations—culture becomes a set of eco-
nomic assets as much as it provides an infrastructure through which eco-
nomic development is able to work. But as we can already at this point
begin to see, while the overall picture of the relation between culture and
the economy that Gil aims to present in positive terms is one of full instru-
mentalization and integration into the economy, some rifts and contradic-
tions in this relation between culture and the economy become visible.
But before turning to the contradictions that characterize this relation, it
is necessary to examine the ways in which the notion of culture’s instru-
mental role in neoliberalism emerges out of critiques of neoliberalism,
providing us with a productive counterpoint to cultural economy as out-
lined by Gil.
One of the most widely accepted characteristics of neoliberalism is the
dramatic increase in economic inequality that, as a number of critics have
shown, is a fundamental component of the spread of neoliberal capitalism.
In his foreword to the expanded and updated 2006 edition of his book
The Limits to Capital, David Harvey advances one version of this

Marx shows that the closer a society conforms to a deregulated, free-market

economy, the more the asymmetry of power between those who own and
those excluded from ownership of the means of production will produce an
“accumulation of wealth on one pole” and an “accumulation of misery,
agony, toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite
pole.” Three decades of neoliberalization have precisely produced such an
unequal outcome. (xi)

And while Gil seeks to present a picture of neoliberal inequality that

understands it either as a minor flaw in the system that can be fixed or as a
sign that the system has not yet been implemented fully in all parts of the
world to the detriment of those left behind in the general process of devel-
opment, Harvey suggests that inequality is not only to be understood as a
fundamental aspect that accompanies neoliberal capitalism but in fact that
it is one of neoliberalism’s basic aims: “a plausible argument can be con-
structed…that this was what the neoliberalizing agenda of leading factions
of the capitalist class was about from the very outset” (xi). In their much
discussed 2012 book The Crisis of Neoliberalism, Gérard Duménil and
Dominique Lévy echo Harvey’s argument and argue for an understanding
of neoliberalism as a “strategy of the capitalist classes in alliance with upper
management…intending to strengthen their hegemony and to expand it
globally” (1). In the context of this strategy, the free market reveals itself
not as the aim of the process of neoliberalization that, according to Gil,
will bring freedom through development, but instead as merely one of
many instruments in service of this neoliberal strategy (35). Jeremy
Gilbert, too, in his introduction to the special issue of new formations ref-
erenced above, foregrounds this argument as one of the most important
aspects of engagements with neoliberalism and its relation to culture:

[T]he combined decreases in social equality and social mobility generated

by neoliberal government in practice lend very serious weight to David
Harvey’s claim that the fundamental aim of actually existing neoliberalism
has been the “restoration of class power” on part of the capitalist class. (16)

But if, as Gilbert suggests, “the moment of neoliberalism may represent an

assertion of capitalist class power of unprecedented magnitude” (16), then
how are we to explain the fact that precisely in a moment in which neolib-
eralism strengthens class power and concentrates as much wealth in as few
hands as never before the concept of class itself disappears and seems to
lose all explanatory power? Comaroff and Comaroff, for instance, similarly
wonder why “class has become a less plausible basis for self-recognition
and action when growing disparities of wealth and power would point to
the inverse” (11) and why and by what means “class has become displaced
and refracted in the way that it has” (16). Throughout his recent work,
Walter Benn Michaels has shown in great detail that neoliberalism depends
on this invisibility of class and of its erasure from the political realm. One
of Michaels’ central arguments in this regard is that neoliberalism can be
164  M. NILGES

understood as an economic structure that requires a “world in which the

fundamental conflicts have less to do with wealth than with race, space,
gender, and sexuality, and in which the relevant projects center on main-
taining identities by respecting differences…or producing new identities”
(1029). Class disappears, in other words, because recognitions of the rela-
tion between self and the structure of capitalism that formerly gave rise to
an objective recognition are now reduced to and contracted into the
purely subjective. The relation to objective externality that underlies class
consciousness requires an objective turn in the context of which the sub-
ject recognizes not only differences between herself and others (such as
differences in wealth), but also that she belongs to a group, to a class of
people who all relate to the overall process of production and accumula-
tion in the same way. The result is an objective recognition that transcends
the purely subjective examination of one’s relation to capitalism and
wealth and that focuses on the systemic implication of the subject in the
larger material structure along with the ideology and politics that are
bound up with this system—class consciousness. Neoliberalism, Michaels
illustrates, champions identities and the subject with a particular end in
mind. Once the relation to capitalism becomes fully ontologized and con-
tracted into the subject and transformed into a matter of identity, politics
itself becomes a matter of identities, the result of which is precisely the
fracturing of collectivities, politics, and social projects that Comaroff and
Comaroff describe above. And while it is precisely in this way that neolib-
eralism aims to market itself as a structure aimed at individual freedom and
the “democratic” appeal of individual responsibility and personal liberty
that we see in Gil’s essay, Michaels and recently Adolph Reed Jr. have
shown the devastating effects this fetishization of identity has had on poli-
tics. The ontologization of social, economic, and political difference, Reed
argues, is fundamentally bound up with a cultural turn. Objective relations
to capitalism (such as class consciousness) and politics itself are trans-
formed into matters of culture and, Reed argues, cultural politics must
ultimately be regarded as worse than no politics at all, as cultural politics
not only seamlessly lines up with the logic of neoliberalism, but it also
must be understood as one of the necessary structural preconditions for
it.1 The conspicuous absence of class at a moment in which we witness a
stratification of class distinction and a reconstitution of class power in pre-
viously unseen dimensions points toward culture’s instrumental function
in the context of establishing, expanding, and maintaining neoliberal

The important role culture assumes in neoliberalism also becomes poi-

gnantly visible when it comes to the ways in which failures to adapt to
neoliberalism or failures in neoliberal development register. Neoliberal
failures are usually understood as cultural failures. This argument shines
through in Gil’s attempt to explain the inequities and problems that may
result from neoliberal development. For Harvey, such attempts at explain-
ing neoliberal failures as cultural failures, which replicates the same logic
that reconfigures differences in class or political positions into matters of
differences between identities, are part of what he calls the “Darwinism of
neoliberalism” (xiv). Neoliberalism here emerges as a strategic culturalism,
as the vulgar reduction of structural relations to culture in ways that stra-
tegically impoverishes our understanding of economic relations and politi-
cal positions while simultaneously emptying out the category of culture
into a flat, instrumentalized universality. With regard to neoliberal failures,
Harvey argues, the common argument tends to run as follows: “if condi-
tions among the lower classes deteriorated” after neoliberal transforma-
tion of a given region, “it was because, it is said, the failed, usually for
personal or cultural reasons, to enhance their own human capital” (xiv). If
a social group or entire region fails in the eyes of neoliberal development,
in other words, the failure is construed as either the inability to assume a
form of subjectivity that registers as productive and valuable in neoliberal-
ism or, and both aspects of this account are connected, of course, as a
cultural failure. It is from this set of situations, then, that we can begin to
extrapolate some answers to the question: what is neoliberalism such that
culture could matter to it?
The picture of culture’s relation to neoliberalism that begins to emerge
here transcends accounts of instrumentalization and subsumption.
Additionally, we can begin to see ways articulating this relationship that
add to cultural critique’s established accounts. The “Neoliberal Culture”
special issue of new formations largely replicates the split between Marxian
and Foucauldian approaches to neoliberalism that have become common
in recent criticism. In these approaches, culture is linked to politics and
subjection as ideology, and it is frequently discussed as either a way to
make legible important aspects of neoliberalism or as an instrument of
neoliberalism that supports the formation of appropriate identities and
forms of subjectivity. When it comes to concrete discussions of neoliberal-
ism and power or discipline, areas that the issue together understands as
matters of “actually existing neoliberalism,” culture, however, often takes
a step back and is replaced by the state, which implements new policies
166  M. NILGES

that underwrite neoliberalization and which aids in the process of neolib-

eral subjectification. Here, power is conceived as discursive power, along
Foucauldian lines, and it is not until after this first transformation into the
discursive has occurred that culture once again enters the equation.
Approaches that focus on discursivity find it relatively easy to connect neo-
liberalism to culture. Once neoliberalism is understood as a matter of dis-
cursive power culture assumes a clear role in the construction and
expansion of the necessary discursive structures. But this line of argumen-
tation comes at the cost of limiting our understanding of what culture is
and does.
This limit and indeed the potential function of this very understanding
of culture in the context of neoliberalism itself register in Ash Amin and
Nigel Thrift’s outline of the cultural economy. On Amin and Thrift’s
account, the cultural economy stands in direct opposition to neoclassical
economics, which means that it is to no small part committed to produc-
ing a critique of neoliberalism. A far from unified field, the cultural econ-
omy can, according to Amin and Thrift, refuse the orthodoxy of neoclassical
economics by way of interrogating what advantages a cultural economy
may provide the general field of heterodox economic theory. And while,
as Amin and Thrift, note, Foucauldian approaches play a central role in
cultural economics, such approaches tend to replicate neoliberalism’s lim-
ited understanding of culture’s function and proceed to apply this under-
standing to different case studies. It is worth quoting Amin and Thrift’s
introductory essay at some length here:

Power is one of the key aspects of the cultural economy approach. However,
in contemporary literature, the understanding of power is increasingly asso-
ciated with discursive approaches and especially the work of Michel Foucault
and followers such as [Niklas] Rose. Such work tends to stress two particular
aspects of economic formations. One aspect is the narration of the economy
as found in features of diverse as stories of corporate power and advertising
scripts, where the narration works as a cultural template of what it takes to
become powerful, and, in turn, is an act of enrolment of allies and warning
to competitors…The other is the formation of ‘economic subjects’ who
have been configured to perform in, and understand, particular modes of
discipline, subjects that are both subjects to particular discourses and cre-
ators of them…The final mode of contemporary cultural thinking on the
economy consists of symptomatic readings of the overall economic trajecto-
ries of Western societies. (xxi)

But the problem with such an account of culture is not only that it limits
our understanding of what culture is and does. It also at times comes dan-
gerously close to replicating central aspects of the neoliberal turn. For
instance, the focus on discourse and narration as well as the focus on the
linguistic structure of the economy that has become characteristic of
recent Italian theory (including the work of Franco Berardi, Paulo Virno,
and Maurizio Lazzarato), in spite of its very commitments, runs the risk of
failing to historicize and foreground the connection between neoliberal-
ism and postmodernism and post-structuralism. Roswitha Scholz exam-
ines this link in some detail in her analysis of neoliberalism as centrally
defined by what she calls “actually existing deconstruction.”2
What is important for our purposes here, however, is that the
Foucauldian tradition itself contains a line of argumentation that can pro-
vide us with a different pathway for analyzing neoliberalism and its rela-
tion to culture. One of the key assertions regarding neoliberalism that
Foucault unfolds in his now famous examination of German Ordoliberalism
is that neoliberalism is not based on a notion of the free market that defines
freedom as the complete absence of and freedom from regulation. Gilbert
addresses precisely this point in his essay, emphasizing that, on the
Foucauldian account, “neoliberalism, from the moment of its inception,
advocates a programme of deliberate intervention by government in order
to encourage particular types of entrepreneurial, competitive and com-
mercial behavior in its citizens” (9). “This,” Gilbert continues, “is the key
difference between classical liberalism and neoliberalism: the former pre-
sumes that, left to their own devices, humans will naturally tend to behave
in the desired fashion” (9). In the essays by Comaroff and Comaroff and
Harvey referenced above we find a similar conviction that the analysis of
neoliberalism must involve an analysis of its structures of regulation. This
regulation, therefore, requires not a general analysis of discursive struc-
tures but rather more precise attention to the ways in which the neoliberal
economy is dialectically linked to a multi-faceted process of social
­regulation that can neither, as is often done in discussions of regulation
and discipline, be fully explained by a focus on the state, nor can it neglect
the vital work of culture that is one of the central mediating planes via
which society and the economy are related. The tendency to construe
neoliberal failures as cultural failures is furthermore an index of the fact
that neoliberalism does not merely instrumentalize and fully subsume cul-
ture. Neoliberalism cannot simply take hold of culture and wield it as a
tool in the context of neoliberal development. So-called cultural failures
168  M. NILGES

point as much to the despicable attempt to reduce the violence and ineq-
uities of neoliberalism to matters of culture and individual responsibility as
to the fact that neoliberalism’s reliance upon culture is rife with contradic-
tions that are a part of neoliberal culture just like instances in which cul-
ture appears fully congruent with neoliberalism. Maurizio Lazzarato, for
instance, suggests with regard to the process of individualization upon
which neoliberalism relies that it

now involves “morality” by mobilizing the “self,” since the debtor’s future
actions must be molded, his uncertain future established in advance. Future
behaviors and conduct must be structured and controlled. Within neoliber-
alism, what the institution judges, appraises, and measures is, in the end, the
style of life of individuals, who must be made to conform to the conception
of the “good life” of the economy. (132)

In this context, recent works such as Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism are
particularly important as they provide us with an account of neoliberal-
ism’s cultural regulation, of the ways, that is, in which culture assumes an
important role in creating those forms of thought and morality via which
neoliberalism aims to regulate itself as well as of some of neoliberalism’s
central contradictions, which include importantly instances in which cul-
tural regulation fails and generates epistemological and cultural crises.
The work of a school of heterodox economics that focuses on the his-
tory and forms of capitalist regulations is helpful here in order to further
develop the notion that neoliberalism requires particular social structures
in order to regulate its processes of production and accumulation for pur-
poses of cultural critique. A central text in what has come to be described
as the “regulation approach” is Michael Aglietta’s A Theory of Capitalist
Regulation. The advantage of the focus on regulation, according to
Aglietta, lies in the ability to

isolate the determinant relationships that are reproduced in and through the
social transformation, the changing forms in which they are reproduced,
and the reasons why this reproduction is accompanied by ruptures at differ-
ent points of the social system. To speak of the regulation of a mode of
production is to try to formulate in general laws the way in which the deter-
minant structure of society is reproduced. (13)

The advantage for our understanding of capitalism’s structure itself, there-

fore, is that it allows us to “pose quite different theoretical questions” than

the orthodox (neoclassical) theory against which the regulation approach

positions itself:

[T]his means a collective effort to develop a theory of the regulation of capi-

talism which isolates the conditions, rhythms and forms of its social transfor-
mations. The term ‘regulation,’ whose concept it is the task of theory to
construct, denotes the need for an analysis encompassing the economic sys-
tem as a whole. This analysis should produce general laws that are socially
determinate, precisely specifying the historical conditions of their validity.

And since, Aglietta suggests, forms of competition “are historically modi-

fied to the extent that the expanded reproduction of capital in general
imposes its demands on social relations as a whole,” it is important to

therefore, how the regulation of capitalism must be interpreted as a social

creation. This theoretical position will enable us to conceive crises as rup-
tures in the continuous reproduction of social relations, to see why periods
of crisis are periods of intense social creation, and to understand why the
resolution of a crisis always involves an irreversible transformation in the
mode of production. (19)

Such a focus on capitalism’s social regulation, according to Robert Brenner

and Mark Glick, allows us to understand the ways in which

each mode of regulation is constituted by a historically developed, relatively

integrated network of institutions that reproduces the fundamental capitalist
property relationships, guides the prevailing regime of accumulation, and
helps make comparable he myriad decentralized decisions, potentially con-
tradictory and conflictual, taken by the economy’s individual units. (47)

For cultural critics, therefore, it is precisely such an approach and such a

focus on neoliberalism’s regulation that allows us to see how culture may
be linked to capitalism and its social dimension, which in turn illustrates
the importance of cultural critique at a moment when neoliberalism
increasingly relies upon the social and the cultural sphere.
For our understanding of the relation between culture and neoliberal-
ism this means that culture assumes an active, complex, multi-faceted role
in the social regulation of capitalism and provides the plane in which and
170  M. NILGES

through which those forms of morality, ethics, thought, subjectivity, and

so on, which then assume a particular function (including contradictory
functions) in neoliberalism’s social regulation, are developed and dissemi-
nated as well as contested, challenged, and potentially superseded. Culture
is not merely ideology or instrument, not merely reflection or narrativiza-
tion, but it occupies an important function in the regulation of neoliberal
capitalism. Understanding culture’s relation to neoliberalism in such a way
also means that it is important to emphasize that culture relates to this
process of regulation in a highly heterogeneous way that transcends, as we
shall see, the narrow utility of concepts such as instrumentalism and sub-
sumption. I shall conclude this chapter by illustrating one of the advan-
tages of examining the relation between neoliberalism and culture from
the perspective of cultural regulation: it allows us to understand the ontol-
ogy and political function of culture in ways that avoids the tired, empty
gesture toward “progressive” or “revolutionary” culture that somehow
“resists neoliberalism” on the one hand and resigning cultural study to
self-flagellating accounts of the complicity of cultural and critical produc-
tion with neoliberalism on the other.
As suggested above, neoliberalism is frequently understood as a struc-
ture that turns the market into the sole force that determines all aspects of
life. But this claim, however apocalyptic it may seem in the context of neo-
liberalism, is not new. After all, one could suggest that it is merely another
version of one of the most fundamental insights into capitalism that we
know from Marx or the work of Georg Lukács: it is what we might other-
wise describe as the reification of social relations and the elevation of the
commodity fetish to the dominant form of thought that brings with it
specific forms of alienation. But what is new with regard to neoliberalism as
a particular stage of capitalism is that neoliberalism amplifies these tenden-
cies due to its structural reliance upon immediacy and a version of auton-
omy. Comaroff and Comaroff, for example, stress that one of the additional
aspects of neoliberalism that contributes to the disappearance of class is that

the explosion of new markets and monetary instruments, aided by sophisti-

cated means of planetary coordination and space-time compression, have
given the financial order a degree of autonomy from “real production”
unmatched in the annals of political economy. (10)

What Comaroff and Comaroff describe as the “spiraling virtuality of fiscal

circulation, of the accumulation of wealth purely through exchange” (10)

that operates upon abstraction and immediacy registers in theorists such as

Franco Berardi as a particular contraction and turn toward immediacy in
the context of monetarization:

[S]igns fall under the domination of finance when the financial function (the
accumulation of value through semiotic circulation) cancels the instinctual
side of enunciation, so what is enunciated may be compatible with digital-­
financial formats. The production of meaning and of value takes the form of
parthenogenesis: signs produce signs without any longer passing through
the flesh. Monetary value produces more monetary value without being first
realized through the material production of goods. (17–18)

Neoliberalism can from this standpoint be understood as the autonomiza-

tion of (finance) capital. Finance capital’s autonomization from real pro-
duction and the erasure of the primacy of labor and the commodity from
relations of value as money increasingly relates directly to money in the
context of the rise to dominance of finance capital brings about a version
of abstraction and contraction that works in tandem with the tendency
toward ontologization and contraction into the subject discussed above.
The contraction into relations of immediacy that remove the objective
from the surface of the relation underlies the disappearance of class and
dissolves, Comaroff and Comaroff argue, “the ground on which proletar-
ian culture once stood” (12).
Neoliberalism’s reliance upon increasing relations of immediacy that
simultaneously depend upon processes of autonomization illustrates why
examinations of culture’s subsumption under or autonomy from under
neoliberal capital may be burdened with so much conceptual baggage that
these concepts may hinder more than they help efforts at generating suffi-
ciently differentiated examination of culture’s relation to neoliberalism. We
have seen that culture relates to neoliberalism in ways that cannot be suf-
ficiently captured by the language of instrumentalization or by concepts
such as subsumption and autonomy. To be sure, Theodor W. Adorno
famously shows in his Aesthetic Theory that we can only understand artistic
autonomy in dialectical connection with commodity society—the former
does not predate the latter. But, especially since the concept of autonomy
takes on a particular function within neoliberalism itself it may not be our
best option to highlight the different ways in which culture operates in
relation to neoliberalism. It may help, therefore, to trade in the notion of
autonomy for that of de-fetishization as outlined in Georg Lukács Aesthetics.
172  M. NILGES

In Volume II of his Aesthetics, Lukács sets out to map the basal relation-
ships between art and capitalism in a way that seeks to return to the start-
ing point of such an analysis to the fundamental structures of capitalism.3
What this means is that any discussion of the relation between capitalism,
society, and the artwork that begins its inquiry on the level of circulation,
production, distribution, and exchange includes at its heart an erroneous
operation insofar as it begins too late, at a point at which a profound act
of mystification has already occurred. By implicitly accepting this moment
of mystification—and this is the central concern that underwrites Lukács
inquiry—we lose sight of capitalism’s basal structures: the value form and
the fetishistic inversion underlying the commodity form and commodity
thought via which capital constitutively binds itself to society. In his
attempt to generate an analysis of the relation between art and capital that
begins at this fundamental level, Lukács trades in the notion of auton-
omy—for a term that is aimed at understanding and ultimately undoing
the very process of reification and returning it to its underlying relation-
ships: de-fetishization. For Lukács, de-fetishization describes the process
of returning reified thought to that which underlies it: forms of social
relationships. Such a focus on what Lukács calls “the de-fetishizing mis-
sion of the artwork” (234) aims to understand not the relationship
between art and capital’s secondary level (distribution, production, circu-
lation, etc.), but it instead focuses on art’s particular function in the devel-
opment of the relation between the value form and the historically specific
social forms via which it establishes itself (and which it in turn establishes).
What is at stake for Lukács in art’s de-fetishizing mission is nothing less
than the undoing of the forms of reification upon which capital and its
value form grounds itself, which in turn amounts to nothing less than the
“demand to reclaim the rights of man” (238).
In a historical period in which the relation between capital and its social
dimension, the relation to which Lukács seeks to return our attention,
takes concrete form to no small extent in the terrain of culture. The dis-
tinction Lukács draws is that between the plane of production, circulation,
and exchange on the one hand and the underlying level of the value form
and the fetish which establishes commodity thought at its very heart on
the other, which is to say that the latter level establishes the epistemologi-
cal foundations upon which capital mounts its structures only after it has
universalized commodity thought and naturalized its logic via an initial
process of fetishistic inversion. Such an approach understands the process
of cultural regulation as at every point bound up with the complex history

of fetishization and defetishization, the latter serving as one way of under-

standing the ontology and function of the artwork in direct relation to the
history of capital. Commodity thought rests upon the necessary mystifica-
tion of reification that fetishistically inverts an objectified relationship into
an immediate appearance, an operation that establishes the value form’s
immanent principle. The opposite of immediacy in this context is then not
distance but instead mediation. Connected to this, the opposite of sub-
sumption is better understood not as autonomy but rather as defetishiza-
tion. Accordingly, in Lukács’ Aesthetics, the opposite of art is not culture
that is fully subsumed by capital or the commodity more generally, but,
more accurately, it is parietal art. It is in the petroglyph’s immediate attach-
ment to “the magic of nature as sole worldview” (35), as Lukács argues,
that we can find the logical equivalent of the magic of the commodity and
the immediacy at which commodity thought is aimed, which assumes a
particularly important role in neoliberalism, but which does not uniformly
instrumentalize culture today. The point of this distinction, in Lukács and
for our purposes, is that the logic of autonomy and subsumption over-
writes a more complex and heterogeneous plane of analysis that examines
the ways in which culture participates in the process of establishing, main-
taining, and interrupting the fundamental processes of fetishization upon
which the value form grounds itself. Put more directly, the focus on de-­
fetishization replaces a conceptual system aimed at developing a binary
distinction with the aim to describe the varied ways in which culture and
art are integrated into the development of capitalism’s basal relations and
may allow for more complex accounts of the what culture is and does in
the context of neoliberalism by examining neoliberal capitalism’s cultural

1. See Adolph Reed Jr.’s “Django Unchained, or, The Help: How “Cultural
Politics” Is Worse Than No Politics at All, And Why,” nonsite 9, February
2. See Roswitha Scholz’s “Patriarchy and Commodity Society: Gender Without
the Body” in Neil Larsen et  al. (eds.) Marxism and the Critique of Value
(Chicago and Edmonton: MCM Prime, 2014). 123–142.
3. Note: the translations of the following sections of Lukács’s Aesthetics are my
own, since the work has as yet not been translated into English.
174  M. NILGES

Works Cited
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———. 2006. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. London/New
York: Verso.
Aglietta, Michael. 2001. A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The U.S. Experience.
London/New York: Verso.
Amin, Ash, and Nigel Thrift, eds. 2004. The Blackwell Cultural Economy Reader.
Oxford: Blackwell.
Anheier, Helmut, and Yudhishthir Raj Isar, eds. 2008. The Cultural Economy.
London: Sage.
Brenner, Robert, and Mark Glick. 1991. The Regulation Approach: Theory and
History. New Left Review 188: 45–119.
Duménil, Gérard, and Dominique Lévy. 2013. The Crisis of Neoliberalism.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Gilbert, Jeremy. 2013. What Kind of Thing Is Neoliberalism? New Formations
80–81: 7–22.
Goldstein, Daniel M. 2012. Decolonising ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism’. Social
Anthropology 20 (3): 304–309.
Harvey, David. 2006. Limits to Capital. London/New York: Verso.
Jean, Comaroff, and John L. Comaroff, eds. 2001. Millennial Capitalism and the
Culture of Neoliberalism. Durham: Duke University Press.
Jessop, Bob. 2013. Putting Neoliberalism in Its Time and Place: A Response to
the Debate. Social Anthropology 21 (1): 65–74.
Lazzarato, Maurizio. 2011. The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the
Neoliberal Condition. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
Lukács, Georg. 1972. Aesthetik II. Neuwied: Luchterhand.
Michaels, Walter Benn. 2011. Model Minorities and the Minority Model—The
Neoliberal Novel. In The Cambridge History of the American Novel, ed.
Leonardo Cassuto, 1016–1030. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite:

Monetized War, Militarized Money—A
Narrative Poetics for the Closing
of an American Century

Richard Godden

Jayne Anne Phillips remains preoccupied with industrial accidents and the
damaged bodies that they produce. The return and reception of dead
workers, over the span of her writing, may be understood to index the
receding role of the factory and of productive labour within the US econ-
omy during the last third of the twentieth century and beyond, and
accordingly be read as expressive of what Robert Brenner casts as the
attendant stagnation of that economy. Two instances: in Machine Dreams
(1984), Billy Hampson (aged 19) dies problematically in Vietnam, prob-
lematically because, missing in action and the moment of his presumed
death unrecorded, his body does not come back. Rather, care of his sister
Danner’s oral history, Billy is retained, recast in gold. Drafted by lottery in

R. Godden (*)
Irvine, CA, USA

© The Author(s) 2019 175

S. Deckard, S. Shapiro (eds.), World Literature, Neoliberalism, and
the Culture of Discontent, New Comparisons in World Literature,
176  R. GODDEN

the December of 1969, Billy goes to Fort Knox in 1970 for training;
Danner notes, “Fort Knox is where they keep the gold and train the kids.”
She extends the proximity of the nation’s gold reserves and military prepa-
ration towards a symbiosis figured through the body of her brother:

[At] the entrance to Fort Knox… there is a tank on a broad stone platform
and a sign that says WELCOME TO THE HOME OF ARMOR.  The
famous gold is kept in the Gold Vault, a bunker type building…. I think
about those gold bars sitting inside a well-fortified silence, row after row of
gold bars. Billy was golden in the Summer; he got that kind of tan. (Phillips
2009: 299)

“ARMOR,” linked to “Gold” by the arbitrary capitalization of the phrase,

“Gold Vault” and the characterization of that “Vault” as a “bunker,”
allows Danner to extend US gold holdings—“row on row” through a
“fortified silence” in 1970, just prior to a run on the nation’s gold which
shrank that reserve, requiring its fortification by “tank,” or a militarization
of money. The shine of the precious accordingly shifts from the metallic
measure and monetary guarantor to the body of military labour, where it
proves to be skin-deep (as a “tan”). Yet for Danner remembering her
brother in 1972, and for Phillips from the perspective of 1984, “gold” and
its “boy” manifestly retain value, albeit as split signs, split in that they refer
doubly to military labour and to the supreme equivalence. Once recog-
nized, the split extends: “Vault” consequently functions as both locus of
reserve, and as mausoleum; “row after row” invites the substitution of
coffins for “bars,” with the implication that bars carry weight only because
of the “tanks,” or the labour expended by their trained personnel. The
inference here being that gold as the hoardable precious, “crucial to the
operability” of money’s additional functions as price (or equivalency) and
credit (or liquidity), remains subsemantically bound to labour as the basic
measure of value.1 Read through such whispers, “gold” embodied as GI’s
gone missing (“row on row”) amounts to the coming into hiding of a true
contradiction, expressible as a question, ‘How, or under what conditions,
may supreme equivalency form from disavowed labour, presumed dead?’
For Phillips, the question persists, though by 2009, and with Lark and
Termite, the level of disavowal has shifted, and with it the terms of the
contradiction. Stated reductively, Fort Knox remains, but the gold goes.
In November 1948, Erin Leavitt enlists on impulse into a peacetime army.
On July 26, 1950, having trained at Fort Knox, he is hit in the spine by

friendly fire while leading a retreating column of refuges through

Chungchong Province, South Korea. Three days later, he dies among
massacred peasants in a tunnel at No Gun Ri. The five sections detailing
Leavitt’s long death punctuate the text from start to finish, ensuring that
an opened body forms the novel’s persistent subtext. But at this point, I
am interested primarily in Phillips’ account of Leavitt’s training:

he took to basic so hard the brass kept him on at Fort Knox for seven
months, assisting drill instructors. Fort Knox billed itself as the ‘Home of
Armor,’ but Leavitt found that he had no interest in driving tanks…. He’d
come in fit but trained compulsively… pushed himself to attain firsts in
every drill. He saw it as protection, survival, his own invulnerability: if he
attained perfect form, he increased his options. (8–9)

Elements from Billy’s experience remain, but their inflection differs: for
“gold” read “brass,” an inescapable play on debased metal in the context
of Knox and the missing gold; the “sign” (299) too has been recast,
“billed … as” infers money owed’, while Leavitt’s “perfect form,” though
falling short of “invulnerability,” substitutes for the precious the perfected
body of military labour. The substitution veils a further substitution, even
as Leavitt’s training by day veils an alternative training by night:

Nights he lay in an upper bunk, silently practicing fingerings, his trumpet fit
to his mouth, tonguing the familiar mouthpiece while men snored around
him. (9)

Perfection of “tongue,” “mouth” and agitated air enable him, during his
seven months at Fort Knox, to play trumpet at Onslow’s Club, while
Onslow, “coaxed an unbelievably fluid sound from the best tuned
Steineway grand in Louisville” (9). Mastery of vibration in the service of
musical fluidity ensures that, shipped to Japan and playing swing at the
Match Box Officers’ Club (Tokyo), his “tonal familiarity” and “auditory
sophistication” (20), catching the ear of the relevant officer, effect his
transfer to Language Immersion Seoul, a unit of sixty enlisted men tasked
with learning “phonetic Korean” (12). “Meaning” for the trainees “didn’t
matter; the real content of words was the sound itself” (13). His training
“only deepened Leavitt’s belief in language and sound as the only tincture
of reality” (13). “Tincture” joins “immersion” in linking auditory ­vibration
to a lexicon of liquidity: “tincture,” the ‘supposed[ly] essential principle
178  R. GODDEN

of any substance obtained in solution,’ as in tincture of opium or lavender.

By implication, and for Leavitt, desemanticized “language” (“sound”),
functioning as a solution, so soaks the real that “reality” gives up its quin-
tessence, spirit or soul to a tonality inseparable from the liquid through
which it has passed.
I dwell on “tincture” because as the “perfect form” produced by
Leavitt’s sonic education—the training under the training received at Fort
Knox—it identifies that place with an alternate “soul” or precious: for the
gilded body of militarized money, as figured in Billy, read Leavitt’s liquid
asset. Where Knox, in 1984, still stored gold, by 2009 its vaults issue
vibration, in liquid form. The shift from 1970 (as seen from 1984) to
1950 (as seen from 2009) accordingly recasts the contribution of military
labour to its monetary term, be that term supreme equivalency as gold, or
as credit. Though Billy Hampson doubtless dies in Vietnam, because his
body does not return, the form of its appearance remains “golden.” Thus
refined, gold, and nostalgia for its standard, remains substantive in the
1970s, even viewed from 1984. In contradistinction, and by 2009,
Leavitt’s body, opened by a laborious death, comes back in all but name,
and in a form dictated by his dying: for Leavitt, read Termite. Phillips
would have us believe that Leavitt dies at the very moment of his son’s
birth, Termite being born marked not simply by the father’s wound—a
spinal injury—but as the bearer in “perfect form” of his father’s
“perfect[ed]” sensitivity to vibration. His familiar name might have come
from his father’s hand: Nonie (his stepmother) first calls him “mite”
because “he was so small for his age,” and then Termite “because he
moved his fingers, feeling the air” (34). That Termite exhibits little else
beyond such responsiveness appears not to matter, given that, in West
Virginia as a Seoul, “immersion” in sound proves to be “the only tincture
of reality.”
Evaluated by Social Services as minimally “hydrocephalic” (43),
Termites loves water, whether rain, river, dishwasher or bath. Towards the
novel’s close he will be rescued from a flood. Lark, his sister and loving
carer, holds that “his head is heavy… because there was water round his
brain,” though she adds that “the water in his head never got in the way
of his listening” (88). Sound, for Termite, who is apparently without lan-
guage beyond an occasional capacity to echo the utterances of others
inclines, perhaps unsurprisingly, to the liquidity in which he is cognitively
immersed. While for Nonie, his head flung back, Termite “tak[es] a
­sounding” of the sky so bruised and deep… [it] could be a river” (86).

Witness his response to “skat” (“sound, not real words” [180]). Given a
radio to quieten him during preparations for the flood,

Termite turns the knobs loud, and louder to listen for the sounds behind.
Clicks and beeps are deep inside the wires, stops and ticks that snap. He
wants the hum of air between, the urgent pause and fall inside the trills and
crashing. (212)

Assonance layers sound, even as punctuation layers that layering: the

“stops” that “snap” break towards an “inside,” even as the depth of the
“beeps” implies a “behind” that “ticks,” while the “tick” within the
“click”—as the briefest of broken temporal units—announces a minimal
“between” (or “pause”), from which something may rise on a “hum of
air.” Since Termite listens to skat, and Leavitt plays jazz trumpet, Termite’s
annotation of “stop,” and drawing of minute distinctions as to vibration,
might be thought to resonate from his father’s ‘stopped notes’ or ‘hand
stopping,’ a trumpeter’s techniques for pitch modification. Note that the
full stop after “snap” end-stops the break, allowing a gap that wells with
Termite’s “want,” understood not as an entity (or as that which Termite
“wants”) but as a “between” indexed by a “hum.” “[B]etween,” care of
its abrupt and unexpected comma (we might have expected, ‘between the
urgent pause and fall’) produces a degree of caesural anticipation by way
of which the preposition itself becomes the desired state: “between”
thereby sets a “pause” within a “trill,” and graduates “crash” with “fall.”
Accordingly, the “wide sound,” that Termite hears “raining and pour-
ing…. [e]ven on a clear day” (216) might best be imagined as occurring
“between”: that is, as a vibration that occurs “between” a sound’s source
and its receptor (in the case of an utterance or radio noise), or “between”
the thing struck (a blade of grass; a strip of blue plastic; gravel) and that
which strikes (a mower; the wind; a car tyre). Termite listens for waves of
moving air, whose preferred medium is liquid.
The implications of Termite’s lived and liquid acoustic become more
explicable in the light of Termite’s baptismal name, Robert Onslow
Leavitt, a name recovered from his birth certificate (198), late in the novel,
and otherwise unused. For the reader Termite remains Termite through-
out, but his replication of the father’s wound and aural sensitivity attaches
“Termite” to “Leavitt.” Leavitt—G.I., trumpeter, and Jew—Phillips
stresses his ethnicity early, having him declared a “Philly Jew boy” (14)
named Meyer (11), Jewish against the grain of his “tight blonde curls”
180  R. GODDEN

(according to Tompkins, with him at No Gun Ri, “no Jew has hair like
that” [14]). I can find no reason for Leavitt’s Semitic designation, beyond
the name. Leavitt, of the tribe of Levi, whose members were guards and
musicians, with particular responsibility for the protection and mainte-
nance of the Temple. Further, to listen as Termite listens, hearing the
“wide sound” in the name, is to find “levy” in “Levi,” a word whose sev-
eral meanings ratify the Hebraic dimensions of “Leavitt.” ‘To levy’ may be
to enlist a body of men for war. The verb may also refer to the imposition
of a toll or tax, or to the collection of a debt. A combination of monetary
and military inflections within ‘levy’ speaks to similar links latent in “ter-
mite”: “term,” among its many versions of spatial and temporal limit, may
refer to “a set time for the payment of money due,” or to the “stipulations
and conditions” relating to that “charge or price.” “Mite,” a ‘wee thing’
(perhaps a ‘tiny child’) also amounts to the smallest of coins (in the Gospel
of Mark [xii, 43], two mites are said to make a farthing). But why enforce
harsh terms on the payment of a mite, and how might such a levy relate,
care of the sons of Levi, to the Temple, resting place of the ark of the cov-
enant? My questions verge on the silly, deriving as they do from puns
plumbed for etymology, a doubling of tricky grounds for any reading. In
my defence, I would point out that Nonie and Charlie think of Termite as
a “[h]igh interest loan… very high,” one by implication unlikely to be
repaid (153), while Leavitt’s training posits a twofold substitution for the
“famous gold” missing from US reserves (or Knox as Temple). In place of
the metallic standard, Leavitt, the guardian of that place, sets first the “pro-
tection” of his own “perfect form” as military labour; second, his manage-
ment of “sound” as “the only tincture of reality.” Since the novel renders
sound and vibration synonymous with liquidity (care of Leavitt’s extension
through Termite), I would argue that Leavitt’s second substitution encrypts
credit as the new precious and substitute for the gold-backed dollar.
The work of the economic historian Radhika Desai offers an account of
why Phillips might associate Leavitt’s long death in defence of credit with
Korea. Desai argues that “the increase in US military expenditure set the
post war pattern for liquidity provision through balance of payments defi-
cits” (Desai 2013: 95). Effectively since 1950 and Korea, the United
States has borrowed massively from the world’s credit nations, in order,
via a permanent militarization of its global policies, to protect the status of
the dollar as a reserve currency, and to foster accompanying levels of
dollar-­denominated liquidity. For Desai, the US case for globalization,
and its own hegemonic status therein, turns on “liquidity provision

through deficits” (106): tracking “the crisis ridden career of the dollar as
the world’s money,” she notes that, particularly after the closing of the
gold window in 1971,

… [the dollar’s] ability to continue in this role was regularly cast into doubt.
As attempts to sustain the dollar’s world role, globalization and empire
rested on vast increases in dollar-denominated world financial flows. They
were the main element of what came to be known as financialization. It
enabled capital to flow into the United States. It flowed into the US stock
market under globalization as Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan led
illusions about the US’s ‘new economy’ and ‘hidden productive miracle.’
And it flowed into the swelling market for US mortgage backed securities as
Greenspan and his successor Ben Bernanke fed new illusions about the tra-
jectory of house prices, …. [it] justified capital flows into the United States
under Bush Jr’s empire. The financial crisis in which the latter culminated
leaves the US administration no viable option to stabilize the dollar’s world
money role…. While it is still difficult to tell how long the dollar’s role will
linger… its fate is now governed by forces its makers cannot control. (4)

I quote at length to convey how fundamental preservation of credit influx

has been to the miraculous illusions of the neoliberal turn, a turn pre-
served in the teeth of manifest anomalies: How can a deficit-dollar con-
vince as “the world’s money,” or a debt factory operate as the world’s
bank? Preservation has depended on US military spending, as that which
guarantees the dollar’s lingering value. So understood, “might” stands
behind the American ‘mite,’ though the term “might” (as the past tense
of “may”) proves provisional, as do puns, indulged to this degree. Yet
readers of Lark and Termite learn to listen as Termite listens, relishing
sound prior to semanticization. Puns are apt to such relish, offering a
momentarily promiscuous acoustic—matter made from “between”—
within which sonic valences yield reference only as a second thought. So
‘might’ and ‘maybe’ emerge from ‘mite’ to form a narrative that links Levi
to levy by way of leveraged liquidity.

Towards the close of Lark and Termite, Elise, friend to Noreen (Lark’s
stepmother), and Coffee-Stop owner in the small and shrinking West
Virginia town of Winfield, tells Lark, “People forget that a soldier’s death
goes on for years – a generation really” (Phillips 2009: 233). Given the
182  R. GODDEN

reach of Phillips’ novel from 1950 (the date of Leavitt’s death and
Termite’s birth) through 1959 (the date of Termite’s sections) to 2009
(the novel’s date of publication), Elise underestimates. Two of the text’s
epigraphs usefully annotate the bridge between 1950 and 1959: where
“victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools” (The Sound and the Fury),
“han’guk sarami which means ‘Korean,’” will readily transpose to “gook”
(Dvorchak 2003) even as Korea will give way to Vietnam. The year 1959
saw the first deaths among America’s military advisors, sent to aid the
French in their colonial war against Vietnam. As Vietnam extended to
Laos and Cambodia, in America’s thirty-year war against S.E. Asia, so US
indebtedness and consequent credit-need deepened; deepening yet fur-
ther care of the Iraq wars, Afghanistan and the ‘war on terror’: hence
2009. Set on such a time-line, Leavitt dies for almost half a century, in the
cause of credit provision.
The suggestion that a dead GI carries a credit-rating may seem inap-
propriate in the context of wars fought for “Democracy,” “Freedom,” or
to expunge sources of global terror, but Randy Martin’s account of US
engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan provides terms that render such cost-
ings reasonable. Martin argues that, with the great and organizing antago-
nisms of the Cold War gone, the American state, subject to a financial
turn, designed and fought wars in keeping with that turn. For Desai the
turn proves immanent in America’s Korean adventure. Just as the deriva-
tive stands as the “apotheosis” of a new financial register, so “derivative
wars” grant risk, the derivative’s raw material, a global reach, doing so (in
the last instance) to ensure “the freedom of global capital to circulate in
financial markets” (Martin 2007: 97). Before engaging with Martin’s
argument, I had best establish the particular nature of that object—global
capital—for which new wars were fought.
Since 1971, world money as a circulating medium has been dollar
denominated. Severed from its golden standard, and therefore no longer
a “commodity money” (or money founded on a metallic “good”), the
dollar as the world’s currency amounts to “fiat money,” or more properly,
given America’s position as the world’s greatest debtor, to “credit money.”
Fiat money (from the Latin, “fiat:” “let it be done”) proves only as good
as the issuer’s promise to pay: Costas Lapavitsas notes, “a promise to pay
is capable of functioning as money ultimately because of trust in the ability
of the issuer to fulfil the promise made” (Lapavitsas 2003: 85). Under the
gold standard, and prior to 1971, fiat monies, typically issued as credit by
banks, in proportion to their holdings, were finally backed by a central

bank, that is, by the state as it assumed the form of a “state-finance-nexus”

(Harvey 2013: 215). The gold standard, at least nominally, controlled the
level of credit any state might issue, its issuance of fiat monies being cur-
tailed by a “metallic barrier” (Marx 1981: 708) in direct proportion to the
gold reserves held in that nation’s treasury.
Since 1971, and the US decision to sever credit money’s link to com-
modity money, “the US dollar has in practice functioned as a valueless
replacement for gold in the world market” (Lapavitsas 2003: 101). The
substitution “though fundamental to financialization” (Lapavitsas 2003:
86) has proved problematic, not least because any hybrid of fiat and credit
commands credence by way of compulsion. Michael Hudson, economic
historian of American empire, plots the emergence of the financial turn as
the economic basis for that compulsion, yielding a form of “monetary
imperialism” whereby America locked its “deficit… into the world eco-
nomic system,” to its own advantage (Hudson 2003: 385, 377) Hudson
describes the post-Bretton-Woods’ dollar as “papergold” (Hudson 2003:
310) valuable rather than “valueless” only because—haemorrhaging gold
to its international lenders, themselves anxious for the dollar’s credibility
in the face of escalating levels of deficit associated with Vietnam—the
United States persuaded its European and Asian creditors to accept inter-
est payments on its borrowings in the form of US Treasury securities,
convertible not into gold but into dollars or further Treasury securities.
Creditors, unwilling to risk dollar devaluation and a subsequent fall in the
value of their prior lending, complied—fearful that a curtailment of credit
issued to the world’s largest market might impede the saleability of their
own national goods. In effect, with the collapse of the “metallic barrier,”
America could command almost automatic credits: accordingly, US fed-
eral deficit grew from ten billion dollars in the early 1970s, to nearly one
hundred and fifty billion dollars by the late 80’s, doubling by the end of
the twentieth century as America flooded the global market with dollar-­
denominated liquidity, accepted (by metallic default) as the new global
reserve currency.
By implication, at least for Hudson, credit flows to the United States
and consequent debt imperialism will continue for as long as military
expenditure remains sufficient to the task of tithe-extraction. Desai sug-
gests otherwise, noting that America’s turn to finance, whose medium
might now be understood as militarized money, signals a withdrawal of
investment from the nation’s industrial sector, hence overcapacity, over-
production and the long downturn. As Desai puts it, “a doctrine of antici-
184  R. GODDEN

patory self-defence,” allowing the United States to conduct “open-ended

global war,” seemingly abrogates the need for a national industrial policy
orientated to heightened productivity and increased competitiveness.
Ergo, in “a perverse growth process,” credit influx amounts to the export
of value production and its distribution among America’s creditors—a rec-
ipe for the lingering decline of the US hegemon (Desai 2013: 233, 270).
Put intimately, and in terms more in keeping with the work of Phillips,
the body of the G.I. is torn, in the last instance, by a contradiction—that
between his valueless labour on behalf of the deficit dollar, and value pro-
ductive labour elsewhere, in China, India, S.E. Asia, or wherever work is
cheapest. The value/valueless distinction, drawn from Marx, turns on the
recognition that real accumulation (unachieved in America since the finan-
cial turn) derives from the extraction of surplus value from abstract labour
time, and the subsequent productive investment of that value. Military
labour, paid for by the state—from federal taxes and federal borrowing-
actively protects the exchange of already existing value (made elsewhere).
As such, like the financier, though at one remove, the military worker
enables the transfer of titles, and consequently protects the ownership of
already extant values. His labour therefore, preserves but does not initiate
value (Kliman 2011: 101). Adequately to substantiate national credit enti-
tlement, the G.I.’s work carries him into the wound, for Elaine Scarry
war’s raw material, since pain in its immanence substantiates both his oth-
erwise valueless labour and the titular transfer that it enables.
These are broad strokes, strokes that I am about to make yet broader,
by extending them briefly towards semantic issues. How might an appre-
ciation of Hudson’s flow, revised through Desai’s recovery of contradic-
tion from within that flow, be said the register in Phillips’ literary language,
informing, in this instance, her sensitivity to Leavitt’s wounded and dying
body? Put contentiously: just how much of a world system can a single
vibrant syllable be said to bear? I shall back-off from my own question in
order to reapproach it via a swift theoretical two-step. Step one: Marazzi,
the Italian autonomist, argues by way of Austin, that the referent of finan-
cial statements and practices is profoundly performative, which is to say—
it resides in the saying. For Marazzi, the price of a stock emerges from
“eminently linguistic… conventions,” having nothing to do with that
stock’s underlier, but rather resting on the serial and imitative behaviour
of investors, whose “language becomes an instrument [in the] production
of real facts” (Marazzi 2008: 29, 53). Here is Marazzi: “The financial
market organizes the confrontation between the personal opinion of

investors in such a way as to produce a collective judgement that has the

status of a reference value” (Marazzi 24). Ergo, in the market, facts “are
created by speaking them” and by virtue of the market’s “public force”
(Marazzi 2008: 26, 33). The autonomist case, in which the procedures of
finance become thoroughly semiotic, implausibly omits the military
dimensions that would complicate the financial referent, locating military
labour within financial enunciation and placing pain at the core of the sec-
tor’s linguistic instruments. But how might the speech habits of one sector
(finance), not to mention that sector’s undeclared affiliation to another
(military), be said to permeate more generally the semantics of its long
historical moment?
Step two: V.  N. Volosinov argues that “the organizing centre of any
utterance, of any experience, is not within but outside – in the social milieu
surrounding any being” (Volosinov 1973: 93). He adds that “[c]onse-
quently, the whole route between inner experience (‘the expressible’) and
its outward objectification (the utterance) is entirely across social terri-
tory” (90). Even allowing that media coverage of financial matters has
rendered finance part of our vernacular, and that the proliferating proxim-
ity of declared and undeclared wars, and of attendant inland security
responses, sets risk and its military control at the end of the street, it
remains the case that the sectors in play appear to play in separate “social
territor[ies],” which separation renders their structural conjunction inex-
pressible, and so seemingly unavailable to the semantics of every day. That
said, let us suppose, care of the work of Desai and Hudson that monetized
war and militarized money (since Korea) form a growing substrate of the
US economy.2 Let us suppose also, in the spirit of Volosinov, that whispers
may multiply, extending through the social milieu and linking Eisenhower’s
“military industrial complex” of 1961 to the IMF-WTO-Treasury-Wall
Street nexus by the century’s end. Such whispers could only amplify as the
Towers, dedicated to deficit based global mercantilism (American in all
but name, and less tall than tall tales as to US hegemony) fell to military
attack: an attack inducing a pre-conceived and pre-emptive military
response in tacit defence of twin bubbles, these associated with military
hubris and rising house prices.3 Between September 2001 and September
2008 (The Crunch), the Bush administration invoked a New Empire and
a New American Century (each lasting seven years), resting on unprece-
dented military expenditure and mortgage-backed securities, both
financed by way of credit from abroad.
186  R. GODDEN

Yet whisper or no, it remained the case that “while soldiers fought,
people consumed” (Bacevich 1984: 62–63), and that accordingly the cost
of militarism and consequent deficits stayed off the political agenda, par-
ticularly since, house prices rose and capital-intensive warfare appeared to
return few American bodies from Iraq and Afghanistan. Nonetheless,
whatever proves structurally sound, no matter how obscure—here, the
conjunction of the apparently separate financial and military sectors (given
that such a conjunction is neither momentary no accidental)—cannot
remain unsounded, albeit at “the very edge of semantic availability”
(Williams 1977: 35). Addressing the semantics of “vague and undevel-
oped experiences,” Volosinov suggests that such “ideological scraps,” or
“idle and accidental words that flash across our minds,” amount to “nov-
els without heroes, performances without audiences.” At a loss for text or
theatre, Volosinov’s “hero,” though “difficult to detect” (Volosinov 1973:
90), amounts to a figure for the unthinkable as it becomes the under-­
thought or disavowed (that which is … and is not). Might not such a fig-
ure, or figurative amalgam—the G. I. in the financier’s throat, the financier
in the G. I.’s wound—be particularly attractive, wandering among whis-
pers, to a novelist attuned to where unreturned bodies lie?
With the unthinkable historically specified as a mode of disavowal capa-
ble of producing shared ambivalence and accompanying semantic division,
Phillips may be read as attending to what we all might hear, had we but
inclination and ear. I am reminded of what I take to be the fourth and
unused epigraph to Lark and Termite, a passage from Middlemarch, “If
we had a keen vision and feeling for ordinary human life, it would be like
hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of
that roar which lies on the other side of silence” (Eliot 1872: 351).
Termite, all but silent, hears the grass cut and listens to the low-slung-gut
of ginger cat (both, frequently and at improbable distance). His favoured
place of audition—a tunnel—grants him access to the “roar” of passing
freight trains, a “roar” through which he attends, as though sonically, to
the “roar” of friendly fire as it kills Leavitt, sheltering in the tunnel at No
Gun Ri among his South Korean charges. The vibration is, therefore,
complex: simultaneously, an index of military action (1950) and mercan-
tile transfer (1959), a “tunnel inside the tunnel” (111). But before pursu-
ing Termite’s ear for the layered “roar,” I had best return to the military,
and more particularly to the alliance between the military and financial

Though size matters in military matters, it matters less than the manner in
which assets are deployed. For Martin, militarized liquidity—in a time of
deficit and its instruments—requires the derivative war. Let us suppose
that the Iraq wars were fought (and are being fought) not for oil or influ-
ence, but as investments in terror. Consider the suicide bomber, one for
whom, by way of leverage, minimum investment results in maximum yield
(Martin 2007: 61). US occupiers exist at risk of such terror; theirs is a
labour-intensive embrace of risk, one that effectively extends risk as a
“tradable entity” (Martin 2007: 60). By the deep logic of the derivative
war., US forces must hope never to find the weapon of mass destruction;
never to terminate the last terrorist; never to complete national recon-
structions, since any and all the above would curtail risk.
Fighting terror unleashes it elsewhere, just as a well-placed put or call
(to sell or buy) would send ripples of price volatility through the market.
Drops in price can be hedged against, turned into derivatives, and sold for
gain. The terror war converts both wins and losses into self-perpetuating
gain (Martin 2007: 98).
To extend Martin’s link between financial instrument and military prac-
tice: for Karen Ho, ethnographer of Wall Street, “investment banks’ par-
ticular approach to risk involves not so much ‘managing’ it, as leveraging
and spreading it in hopes of … heightening rewards” (Ho 2009: 259). In
banking, therefore, much as in military strategy, “risk rules… [and] risk
must not be allowed to slip away.” Ergo, “the war without end [or object]
is its own triumph” (Martin 2007: 98). Meanwhile and elsewhere, US
deficits during the 1980s and 1990s, translated into securitized debt-­
packages, for sale and resale throughout the financial system, spread risk
globally. Risk fostered the rise and rise of derivative instruments, designed
to profit from uncertainty deemed calculable. Meanwhile, a glut in world
productive capacity, initiated during the 1970s, but resulting in long-term
stagnancy for the manufacturing sector, prompted state-aided capital flight
into finance. About 95% of all regulatory changes during the 1990s
(according to the UN World Investment Report) sought to liberalize capi-
tal controls thereby promoting transnational monetary flows; while a
threefold increase in American bilateral investment treaties, during the
first half of that decade, was driven by a determination to remove “barri-
ers” to US outward investment (the investment, I would stress, of deficit
funds) (Retort 2005: 72–73). Much capital fled into US Treasury Bonds,
188  R. GODDEN

tacitly underwritten by high levels of military spending. In effect, armed

with automatic credit from the world’s credit nations, the United States
became the world’s bank, sub-contracting liquidity, on the basis of neolib-
eral principles (deregulate, privatize, financialize) to those national class-­
fragments most inclined to collaborate with the IMF-WTO-Treasury-Wall
Street nexus in the forcing open of the worldwide market, the fire-sale of
national assets, and the accompanying freeing-up of further liquidities
(Harvey, 2005: 137–82). Greg Albo, Sam Gindin, and Leo Panitch offer
a useful summary: by 2000, “the penetration by American finance of for-
eign countries and the inflow of foreign capital into the US has given it
access to global savings, shored up its role as the greatest global consumer
and reinforced the U. S. state’s power and options” (Albo et al. 2010: 22).
The collective, Retort, describes the process as an exercise in primitive
accumulation, allied to a theft of the global commons, adding (care of
Marx) that primitive accumulation requires “the power of the state,”
wielded in this instance under the sign of “military neo-liberalism” (Retort
2005: 76, 72).
In his account of interest bearing capital, Marx anatomizes the move-
ment of monies lent by the money capitalist to the industrial capitalist as
“reflux” (Marx 1981: 341), a double-movement whereby sum A (the
loan) passes through the space and time of manufacture, briefly to assume
the form of the commodity which at the point of sale realizes a surplus
value from which the industrious borrower takes an element (sum B),
prior to returning A + B on the due date to the lender. Hence, “reflux”
(from ‘flux,’ ‘movement of physical properties in space’; “reflux,” ‘move-
ment that returns.’): M, in departing the lender’s hand, returns to that
lending hand as M1, or money capital plus rent, growing by way of its
movement. Yet Marx insists that, for the money-capitalist, money capital
realizes itself not in its movement, but only, “at the moment when the
point of departure appears simultaneously as the point of return, in
M-M1.” At which point, and come to hand, the capital in question would
seem to have “preserv[ed] and expand[ed] itself” (Marx 1981: 342).
Cancelling the dash, and rendering space and time illusory, (MM1) appears
at once philoprogenitive (made from itself) and endogamous (containing
nothing that is not itself). To speak in riddles and equations: M-C-M1
becomes M-M1-M2, and M-M1-M2 becomes M2M3M4. This surely
amounts to the fantasy of a class fragment whose imaginary, at least within
the financial service sector, achieves material form as the century turns.

Master of such sleights of mind over hand, high frequency traders use-
fully instance the atopic matter of which Marx speaks, and in which they
trade. Witness that trade: a broker reveals her customer’s desire to sell a
stock on the Chicago Exchange. Financial analysts, elsewhere, care of
automated access to that wish and its price, and using the same routers
(Security Information Processors [SIPs]) identify a buyer and make the
trade. The put and the call, as signals of interest, will cause shifts in the
price of that stock before the deal is done. And into the price differential,
the high-speed trader slips his smart order router, a technological fix faster
than a SIP, enabling him to recognize the seller, find the buyer, and pro-
pose the trade in nanoseconds. But the fast broker buys at the lower price
(the price first offered) and sells at the higher (the price raised by market
interest): the difference, invisible to SIP, is his. Michael Lewis published
his account of high frequency trading and the technologies that enabled it
in 2014. By 2009 faster, because straighter, cables were being quietly laid.
As early as 2008, Verizon was known (by some) to control the swiftest
electronic route between Chicago and New York—a “golden route” that
permitted exploitation of price discrepancies between those Exchanges.
Lewis notes, “given the speed of light in fibre, it should theoretically be
possible for a trader to be in two places at once” (Lewis 2015: 9). His
point catches the best hope of every merchant: what trader in titles (be
they attached to C or M) would not wish to emulate the faster trader—he
who has a buyer in hand, to whom, having bought cheap, he will sell dear,
and who goes nowhere to do so, and spends no time doing it. Such a one
holds time and space compacted in his hand: his medium—empty hypos-
tatized and atopic (or unable to extend itself through space and time)—
would be the purest liquidity; his means, apparent telepathy.

“Telepathy,” from the Greek ‘tele’ (‘far off’) and ‘pathy’ (‘suffering; feel-
ing’): ‘felt communication across distance.’ The telepath knows what he
cannot know, in a manner that links places and times whose linkage appears
beyond reason: for him there becomes here, and then now. In 1959
Termite knows, or better senses Leavitt’s death in 1950, his sensitivity set-
ting Korea within West Virginia as “a tunnel inside the tunnel,” which
tunnel proves to be the site of his own birth through his father’s wound.
As Leavitt dies, so natal and fatal liquids, “the salt and the blood” (220),
190  R. GODDEN

yield Termite as their “tincture”: “It’s now, he can feel it. His baby is born,
deep inside him where the pain throbs. It’s all wrong and it’s true, his legs
are dead and his guts are torn apart but his spine opens up like a star. He
can feel Lola split apart, the baby fighting her, tearing his way” (220).
Prior to his complex death, and running with a disabled Korean child,
precursive of Termite, into the tunnel at No Gun Ri, Leavitt feels that
boy’s “small body go rigid, his apprehension heightened to a nearly audi-
ble pitch; Leavitt imagines the clear high tone of a tuning fork struck in
midair…. So sharply true that nothing else exists” (29). The Korean child
hears the planes whose fire will tear Leavitt’s body before the planes can be
heard, the manner of his audition vibrates with an earlier text: Gatsby’s
kiss, recalled by Carraway, involved the briefest of hesitations, “so he
waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been
struck upon a star” (Fitzgerald 2004: 73). Leavitt’s spine, ‘kissed’ by artil-
lery fire, will “open… like a star” (220), though Phillips’ “turning fork”
emits its “pitch” without the preposition “upon,” as though agitated air
alone were sufficient source for an air-strike, materializing “ton[ally]”
from between, without recourse to “struck.” Such air, holding “the roar
that lies  on the other side of silence” and Termite’s birth cry, operates
obstetrically. Leavitt’s unit, young, confused, unaware of their officer’s
presence in the tunnel, but convinced as to the presence of North Korean
infiltrators among the refugees they have led south and who are sheltering
there, open fire, re-enacting the historical massacre at No Gun Ri (for
which no evidential bodies have been recovered). Search light and artillery
fire, the overt means to massacre and birth, impact acoustically. Leavitt,
who “can’t see but… can hear acutely” hears, “the click of the search
lights come on. Impossible, but he hears it” (219–20); he hears,

in slow deliberate measure, the sound of the machine guns turning on their
pivots. He hears, surrounding them on all sides, a deepening pressure an
approaching density, like the roar of a vast train so wide and heavy it can fall
forever, a barrage of fire to scream over and through them. (220)

The “roar” that “can fall forever” effectively “pours”—a synonym

deployed four lines earlier in relation to light (“Light pours through
them”); that which “pours” as it “roars” proves pregnant with “rain,”
drawn from it by “train,” particularly given that four pages earlier, Termite,
responding to “moving air… full of dense wet cloud…. Hears it rain and
rain the story of the train” (216). A transposition between passages

(Termite in the flood [July 28, 1959]; Leavitt in the tunnel [July 28th,
1950]) reflects telepathic communication both at the level of episode
(1959 contains 1950, even as West Virginia contains Korea) and at a pho-
nemic level (‘r’ contains ‘t,’ even as “rain” contains “train,” allowing
“roar” to retain “pour”). An implicitly metaphoric relation between sound
and liquid, latent within such phonemic mobility, requires that phonemes,
as indices of their sources (sound and liquid) be seen relationally: we are
invited to see, the better to hear, the ‘r’ in the ‘t’ and the ‘t’ in the ‘r,’ an
impossibility that proposes a conceptual need (Ricoeur 1978: 148–149).
Strictly speaking, neither sound nor liquid results as a semantic outcome;
rather, we hear, in the tension of their relation, a “between” caught as
vibrancy by the phrases, “deepening pressure” and “approaching density.”
So annotated the vibration projects from its immanent matter, Termite as
an apt register for that matter: a body born less to Lola and Leavitt—the
parents who are surrogates—and more properly speaking, of a contradic-
tion deep within the “roar.” Precisely to describe the generative contradic-
tion, I must return to earlier remarks about pain as that which lies
unacknowledged at the core of the financial turn, pain being the chief
constituent and product of the “roar” in question.
In her study of the body in pain, Elaine Scarry seeks to describe how
pain as “a structure of unmaking” may yet possess “a frightening capacity
of substantiation” (Scarry 20, 126). She observes that, “[w]hen an
American is blown apart in the field… the unmaking of an American sol-
dier has just occurred… as well as the unmaking of a civilization [or state]
as it resides in that body” (Scarry 1985: 122). Nonetheless, the hurt of the
wounded or dying GI serves to anchor the idea of the regime in the sub-
stance of the pain suffered on its behalf, thereby, in an act of transubstan-
tiation, giving body to the disembodied purposes of the state. It is my
contention that the wound, as detailed and transgenerationally extended
in Lark and Termite, substantiates not ‘a world made safe for democracy,’
but ‘a world made unsafe for derivatives wars,’ whose purpose, after
Clausewitz, is “neither to conquer the enemy country nor to destroy its
army, but simply to cause general damage” (Clausewitz 1974: 93): which
damage ensures maximization of risk and volatility, those mediums
through which financial instruments extract profit from price, thereby
granting credence to the deficit funded liquidities from which the New
American century took brief shape—and all latently readable in single
vibrant syllables.
192  R. GODDEN

Put abstractly, pain is both the labour power and the ontological sub-
stance of military work, a substance (or “precious”) necessary to the illu-
sory value of dollar-denominated global flows. Hence Leavitt’s long pain
generates as its correlative the waters surrounding Termite’s disabled sen-
sorium. It may be objected that I replace real bodies (albeit in a fiction)
with abstractions. However, I seek not to displace but to incorporate indi-
cating how abstract ideas (in the shape of an historical contradiction) con-
dition existential bodies, rendering those bodies concrete through the
lived abstractions in question. So, Leavitt’s valueless labour gives chimeri-
cal value to the dollar as world money whose flows, divorced from any-
thing but price (and so from that labour which generates surplus value),
represent “a form of appearance”4 figured by Termite’s hypostatized,
impaired, and seemingly empty head.

1. See Harvey, Companion to Marx’s Capital, Vol. 2, 212–215.
2. See Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism, particularly Ch.9, “The Permanent
Arms Economy and Late Capitalism,” 274–309; Peter Custers, Questioning
Globalized Militarism particularly, Epilogue, Part 2, “The War of Aggression
in Iraq and The U. S. Business Cycle,” 285–305; Paul Koistinen, State of
War: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1945–2011, particularly,
Ch.8, “National Security and the Economy,” 189–228. As Koistinen puts it,
“For decades, the armed services have drained America’s human and physi-
cal resources without any positive return and have had a destructive effect
on the nation’s economic, political and social system. Until DOD
[Department of Defence] spending is brought under control, the United
States has no prospect of regeneration and faces continuing economic
decline” (217).
3. Dsai argues that a Hegemonic Stability Thesis (HST) grew up in the US,
specifically to counter the declinism of the 70s, after the nominally golden
age of the 50s and 60s. HST was both prospective and performative, a veil
obscuring US attempts to undergird the dollar’s world role, attempts,
mainly “dangerous” and “malign,” to “postpone the inevitable” decline
(125). “[The] Hegemonic Stability Thesis could not obscure imperialism:
only [by] dignifying it as ‘hegemony,’ could it write combined development
out of the geopolitical economy’s script… [thereby] render[ing] other
states’ economic roles ineffective, unnecessary or undesirable” (123). For
the falling towers as felled by military counter-attack see Retort, 98–99, and
more generally, Ch.3, “Permanent War,” 78–107.

4. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 682. Marx notes that, “the general and neces-
sary tendencies of capital must be distinguished from their forms of appear-
ance” (433). Yet it remains the case that, for Marx, capital’s “general and
necessary tendencies” (or “inner nature”), though “not perceptible to the
senses,” remain immanent in its “forms of appearance.” The “form of
appearance” therefore contains what it veils, proving as double-bodied as its
very many manifestations —commodity, price, wage.

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A Bubble in the Vein: Suicide, Community,

and the Rejection of Neoliberalism in Hanya
Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Miriam
Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows

Amy Rushton

This chapter discusses how contemporary fiction opens up new ways of

understanding suicidal depression, not only as symptomatic of an unsus-
tainable neoliberal worldview but also as offering critiques of, and possi-
bilities of resistance to, neoliberal logics of success. Both Hanya
Yanagihara’s A Little Life (2015: hereafter ALL) and All My Puny Sorrows
by Miriam Toews (2014: AMPS) feature narratives that disconcert the
reader: Yanagihara’s second novel has been criticized for its melodramatic
elements, whilst AMPS continues Toews’s autofictional insertion of her
immediate family’s tragic experiences with suicidal depression. Rather
than viewing such formal choices as self-indulgent or naval gazing, I argue
that these fictional explorations of suicidal depression and, crucially, the
community around individuals who wish to no longer live can be inter-
preted as a protest against neoliberalism’s placatory myths of the individ-

A. Rushton (*)
Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

© The Author(s) 2019 195

S. Deckard, S. Shapiro (eds.), World Literature, Neoliberalism, and
the Culture of Discontent, New Comparisons in World Literature,

ual and the attainment of personal ‘success’ (what Oliver James refers to as
neoliberalism’s characteristic of “selfish capitalism”: 2007, 2008). Rather
than distressing, I read both ALL and AMPS as narratives that disconcert
neoliberal values and assert their discontent with unsustainable ideals.
Instead of being at the mercy of an inhumane world and unsupportive
institutions, these fictional narratives dramatize the productively disrup-
tive potential of depression.
It is my contention that fictional narratives of suicidal depression can
disrupt neoliberal approaches to wellbeing: whereas nonfictional narra-
tives of severe, chronic, and suicidal depression are structurally bound to
expectations of progress and recovery, fictional narratives are not bound to
such structural predictability—it is, to use Russian Formalist terms, a story
without a plot. Indeed, ALL and AMPS are disturbing narratives due to
their depiction of suicide as, ultimately, rational. It is entirely possible that
AMPS and ALL cannot allow for a ‘happy ending’ because such an out-
come seems impossible under current societal and institutional conditions.
Yet neither novel isolates the distressed individual at the heart of their nar-
ratives. In fact, both frame the suicidal individual through the perspective
of their familial community: AMPS is narrated entirely by Yoli and devel-
ops her empathy with her sister’s desire to die, whilst ALL frequently
views Jude through the perspectives of Willem (his closest friend) and
Harold (his mentor and later adoptive father). Inevitably, the emphasis on
community is at odds with the neoliberal fixation on individualism and
demands for self-responsibility: both novels make it clear that individual-
ism is a convenient yet morally bankrupt dumping ground for responsibil-
ity, instead offering community and radical empathy as strategies of
resistance to an inhumane and irresponsible neoliberal society.
When published in the United  Kingdom, the United  States, and
Canada, AMPS and ALL caught the attention of literary press and awards
panels. Both novels portray the agonized turmoil of central characters
who increasingly see continuing to live as unbearable and yet live in a
social milieu where suicide is unconscionable—both legally and within
their familial communities. Yanagihara’s second novel was much discussed
in literary conversation online and on podcasts, eventually ending up as a
shortlisted title on major literary prizes in the United States and Britain
(the 2015 National Book Award in Fiction and the Man Booker Prize for
fiction, respectively). ALL follows four friends in New York—Willem, JB,
Malcolm, and Jude—from their dorm-room days at university through to
their late-middle age. As the narrative proceeds, it increasingly focuses on

Jude, whose tragic childhood and adolescence of shocking emotional,

physical, and sexual abuse is slowly revealed to the reader through his
memories. Yanagihara’s novel provides detailed descriptions of Jude’s
inner anguish and self-hatred, which manifests itself in lifelong self-harm.
After a few incidents where his self-harm tips into suicide attempts, Jude
eventually kills himself at the age of 56 (Yanagihara 2015: 717). Far from
universally lauded, ALL provoked extreme responses; readers and critics
seemed either to love or hate the novel’s length, its seemingly overwrought
or melodramatic style, its lack of historical context, and especially its depic-
tion of abuse and self-violence. Alex Preston’s review is a neat summation
of the discomfiture experienced by readers, stating that there is “some-
thing chillingly relentless about the way that Yanagihara subjects the
reader to Jude’s suffering. It is unremitting and it is ghastly, and I had to
put the book down several times when I was reading it” (Preston 2015).
Such a notion of ‘too much’ and of physically abandoning the novel are
common experiences for those who detest or love ALL, an affective
response I will discuss in the latter part of this chapter.
Whilst by no means as attention grabbing and polarizing as Yanagihara’s
novel, All My Puny Sorrows was similarly lauded (winning two major
Canadian literary prizes, as well as shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize
in Britain) and received with some critical bafflement over its tragicomic
portrayal of psychological suffering and suicidal depression. AMPS
recounts the relationship between two sisters in Canada from the point of
view of the younger sister: Yoli’s narration carries the reader through the
last few months of her elder sister’s life, Elf, a celebrated pianist who is
funny, intelligent, beautiful—and suicidally depressed. After multiple
attempts to end her own life throughout her adulthood, Elf finally suc-
ceeds by jumping in front of a train, a method that the sisters’ father also
chose (Toews 2014: 48). AMPS is Miriam Toews’s sixth novel and one
that continues her arguably auto-fictional style: throughout her career
thus far, Toews often draws inspiration from her childhood and adoles-
cence in the Mennonite community in Canada, as well as her immediate
family’s tragic history with suicidal depression. Toews’s father and elder
sister both killed themselves and AMPS draws heavily on events leading up
to the suicide of her only sibling, Marjorie, in 2010. The tragic circum-
stances around Toews’s family could be a source of morbid fascination or
a reason to avoid reading her fictionalized narratives of her experience
with suicidal loved ones. The latter was certainly true for me: the idea of
reading a novel based so heavily on watching a sibling watch their sister

repeatedly attempt suicide, and knowing the outcome, was ‘too much’ to
contemplate. What changed my mind was also the quality that many critics
noticed about AMPS: its tragicomic and empathetic tone.
On its publication, Stevie Davis noted that the novel’s “compulsive
readability is all the more remarkable since the story issues from such a
dark place in the author’s heart. […] Starvation, pills, slitting her wrists,
drinking bleach: none of this is remotely funny. Nevertheless, as I read, I
laughed aloud even as tears rose in my eyes” (Davis 2014). Make no mis-
take, however: AMPS is not simply a touching comedy of mourning.
Reading AMPS, one is struck that the ‘dark place’ in Toews’s heart is not
simply a space of grief but of righteous anger at a system and society that
could not help her sister in any meaningful, long-lasting way. Undoubtedly,
these are novels that are difficult to read at times. However, I argue that
both are providing provocative contemporary narratives of mental health.
ALL and AMPS both question the ethics of survival at all costs and add an
empathetic viewpoint on debates about the right to die for those suffering
psychological distress. Specifically, I read these novels as contesting the
impact of neoliberal logic—ideological and economic logic—regarding
ideas of what constitutes “good” mental health and treatment.
Since the 1970s, neoliberalism has been the dominant economic view
of those nations which exert the greatest influence across the globe (Chang
2014: 69). As the character of capitalist accumulation significantly shifted
from the 1970s onwards—coinciding with the rise of neoliberal policy and
praxis—I view neoliberalism as the latest, possibly final, chapter in the
overarching, ongoing historical process of capitalism (Harvey 1989:
39–65, 170–72; Arrighi 1994: 1–6, 16–23). Currently the dominant
hegemonic force within the capitalist world-system, neoliberalism has
been the central ideology and economic justification for policies concern-
ing mental health in Europe and North America, policies that arguably are
not as interested in the wellbeing of a mass populace as they would like to
appear. Ultimately serving the interest of the globe’s wealthy elite, neolib-
eralism is no mere economic theory: neoliberalism is best understood as
hegemonic ideology, “an ongoing attempt to mobilize a particular set of
ideas and governmental practices […] in the pursuit of a particular set of
interests, neutralising and forestalling the emergence of political threats to
this endeavour”—the “particular set of interests” being the retrenchment
of elite power (Gilbert 2013: 18). To further protect and serve its interests
in fostering inequality, neoliberalism handily perpetuates a view of human
nature as atavistic. Such a view of humanity as utterly self-interested in
accumulating status and capital inevitably means that neoliberalism is

largely unconcerned with collective responsibility, least of all matters of

structural inequality. The reciprocity between cultural ideology and eco-
nomic praxis creates a sustaining framework for neoliberalism, presenting
its entrenched ideology as if it is a universal and predetermined system of
thought and government. As such, “neoliberal habits and styles of
thought” present themselves as “operat[ing] spontaneously as a kind of
common sense and institutionally as a mode of governmentality” (Gilroy
2013: 24). The false ‘common sense’ rationality of neoliberalism provides
the justification for institutions to distance themselves from concerns over
structural inequality, thus accentuating how capitalist success is achieved at
the expense of other people. The emphasis on individual responsibility
helps neoliberalism to ignore its wider structural responsibility: in a neo-
liberal world, failure (such as unhappiness or severe distress) “is just a
consequence of a bad attitude rather than structural conditions” such as
“the titled scales of race, class, and gender” (Halberstam 2011: 3).
Neoliberal ideology is dangerous due to its fundamentally irresponsible,
unaccountable nature. Far from being the rational, detached, and neutral
discourse it purports to be, neoliberalism deliberately overlooks its long-
term impact on individuals and communities.
Neoliberalism’s refusal of responsibility is symptomatic of its theoretical
insistence on non-interference by the state, but the theory and practice of
neoliberalism means the ideology is inherently contradictory. Although
neoliberalism advocates a separation between state and society, in practice
the neoliberal state will endeavour to interfere with society, normally for
economic advantage. Hence, I am sceptical of the recent interest in mental
health concerns conveyed by mainstream political discourse on both sides
of the Atlantic. The efforts to destigmatize experiences of mental health
issues such as (but not limited to) depression, anxiety, self-harm, and sui-
cidal behaviour have led to calls for more provisions in workplaces, schools,
and universities—at a time of economic recession and mass cuts to public
services including health care. Such a rise in discussion could be seen as a
response to such cuts; however, politicians have, somewhat suspiciously,
embraced the concerns around mental health provisions. UK Prime
Minister Theresa May’s second-term promises include the prioritising of
mental health services—albeit without pledging more money, stating that
“it is always wrong for people to assume that the only answer to these
issues is about funding” (Stone 2017: n.p.). Instead, May insists that it is
stigma rather than a lack of funding at the heart of problems with mental
health services (Ibid). Arguably, the discussions around destigmatizing

mental health are so prevalent that it would be impossible or foolish for

those in power to ignore or suppress. However, I follow the lead of those
who note that neoliberal policies have a vested interest in mental health
due to economic necessity. May’s notion that stigma can be divorced from
mental health provisions is contradicted by Dominic Sisti, a behavioural
health care specialist in the US. Sisti suggests that the stigma around men-
tal health is perpetuated by economic concerns over “high-cost patients
who maybe are difficult to treat or noncompliant” so “actually emerges
out of [the US] health care system more than from the public” (Raphelson
2017: n.p.). Such stereotyping of mental health patients as burdensome is
firmly located within neoliberal ideology: as Elise Klein notes, “neoliberal-
ism reduces subjectivity to that of the rational, self-sufficient, economic
actor,” so it is therefore vital that “individuals are able to freely conduct
themselves in relation to economic efficiency and effectiveness”—meaning
that any psychological conditions which prevent such efficiency and effec-
tiveness must be addressed (Klein 2017: 52–53). Neoliberalism needs to
look after its economic actors, and therefore it is not surprising that May
announced that the current UK government’s plan is to tackle mental
health “not in our hospitals, but in our classrooms, at work and in our
communities” (Stone 2017: n.p.). In other words, to further increase the
distance between mental health issues and state responsibility.1
As economic and social policy turned towards neoliberalism through-
out the twentieth century, its particular interests in decoupling welfare
from state responsibility and rampant individualism have arguably influ-
enced the pathologizing and treatment of mental health. The focus on the
individual and self-responsibility has been absorbed into European and
American psychiatric practice and psychological models, with the earlier
scientific-rationalist approach (although problematic in itself) steadily
transforming into “moralising critiques of individual development” (Smail
2005: 10). By the second half of the twentieth century, “the emphasis was
always on what the individual should do to overcome or compensate for
personal inadequacies” rather than “considering the material circum-
stances of people’s lives” (Ibid). David Smail, an NHS psychologist whose
life’s work was spent advocating for a social materialist model of clinical
psychology, readily connects the move towards these self-responsible psy-
chological models with the rise of neoliberal policies and ideologies.
Indeed, Smail argues that the privileging of self-responsibility is core to
psychology’s “suppression of the social,” making it nigh-on impossible
“to conceive of responsibility as anything other than the application of

personal influence which has its origin entirely within the individual agent”
(Smail 2005: 75). Such an onus on responsibility lying entirely with the
individual benefits those in power (not necessarily politicians but those
they ultimately serve, the beneficiaries of the capitalist world-system), for
it “is the feeling of responsibility (conscience) that the powerful seek to
exploit in others in order to divert attention from the actual (distal) causes
of their discomfort” (Smail 2005: 77).
In the history of depression as an identifiable condition in Europe and
North America, Ann Cvetkovich notes that its construction as a “treat-
able disease” has largely disregarded any suggestion of social and cultural
readings, “especially in the context of the practical urgencies of treatment
and new pharmacological discoveries” (Cvetkovich 2012: 90). It is this
medical model that is commonly replicated in mainstream culture—not
just political but also in literary, cinematic, and televisual narratives
(Ibid). Cvetkovich notes that the pathologizing of depression has a twin
appeal: depression is framed as a manageable “disease that can be
detected, diagnosed, and treated,” yet such a “model based on biology
relieves people of individual blame or responsibility” (Cvetkovich 2012:
90–91). ALL and AMPS are exceptional, then, in their dramatization of
suicidal depression: whilst they depict the pathologization of depression
and the emphasis on self-responsibility for one’s life (or suffering), these
novels also critique the societal problems that deepen severe depression
as well as gesture to the absence of a meaningful way to live in a neolib-
eral world.
Before turning to how ALL and AMPS problematize neoliberalism via
the depressive perspective, it is important to understand how neoliberal
ideology also informs the character of mental health conditions, such as
depression—or at least how depression is read within a particular historical
moment. We can read states-of-mind like depression as an affective
response to the unsustainable logic of neoliberal capitalism; after all,
depression is a term applied to severe economic downturn. Less flippantly,
China Mills forcibly contends that neoliberal society has a very real, direct
impact on psychological wellbeing across the globe:

the distress caused by a neoliberal rationale of [economic] reforms and

inequality is mediated through a bio-psychiatric lens as ‘illness’, opening up
interventions that are individual and often pharmaceutical and that are,
thus, part of the same neoliberal rationality as that which may have caused
distress initially. (Mills 2014: 50)

Thus, our contemporary understanding of depression is caught in a vicious

cycle of neoliberal rationality, policy, “big pharma,” and inequality. How
is one ever meant to escape? Such a question suggests that neoliberalism
has an interest in overcoming mental distress; the truth is that a neoliberal
economic order benefits from the depressive condition. Cvetkovich views
depression as not only an “affective register” of societal discontent but
also “one that often keeps people silent, weary and too numb to really
notice the sources of their unhappiness” (Cvetkovich 2012: 12, my
emphasis). The typical characteristics of depression—silent, weary, and
numb—are perfect conditions for the perpetuation of neoliberalism.
Contemporary depressive subjects struggle to see the reasons for their
unhappiness or distress beyond themselves; messages reinforced by a neo-
liberal society and bio-psychiatric model tell us that the fault lies within us
and not to look beyond ourselves. Yet mental health issues are not simply
responses to an irresponsible and inhumane neoliberal worldview: depres-
sion and suicidal depression also reveal neoliberalism’s unsustainability. If
depression can be read as symptomatic of neoliberalism, then AMPS and
ALL also enact a critique of the neoliberal, pathological cycle.
A common element of the neoliberal model of mental health is the
artificially moral emphasis on self-responsibility; failure to recover inevita-
bly means “personal failure: either a moral failure of will (refusal to take
responsibility) or falling short as a human being” (Smail 2005: 10–11).
However, it is notable that both Jude and Elf are presented as exception-
ally talented individuals whose struggles very rarely impact their profes-
sional lives in corporate law and classical music, respectively. One of the
ironies shared by both novels is that Jude and Elf are viewed as highly
successful individuals in the public sphere—and a privileged, upper-­
middle-­class, bourgeois sphere at that. Both are famous and respected in
their professions, with careers going from strength to strength, are beloved
by colleagues and acquaintances, socially popular, physically attractive, and
highly intelligent. Jude is self-conscious of his physical disability (his legs
are permanently injured after a horrific attack as a teenager) but it is appar-
ent that no-one in his professional world perceives his cane and later
wheelchair as anything that lessens his power: “In his life at the firm, he
was assessed only by the business he secured, by the work he did: there,
[…] he felt at his most human, his most dignified and invulnerable”
(Yanagihara 2015: 501, 502). Similarly, there are references throughout
AMPS of Elf being “saved,” transported, or at least kept sane by her con-
cert performances (Toews 2014: 25, 60, 303). And yet successful careers

and their attendant wealth are not reason enough to keep their suicidal
feelings at bay, flying in the face of neoliberal logics of success. Instead,
AMPS and ALL show the tragic lack of a meaningful answer to the ques-
tion of why Elf and Jude need to stay alive.
Neither novel affirms that “it gets better”; it is clear that Elf and Jude
are always spiralling towards their next suicide attempt. For all the black
humour and sadness of AMPS and the graphic depiction of self-harm and
memories of relentless horror in ALL, it is the inevitability of their deaths
that is probably the most upsetting and discomforting element of both. At
the time of ALL’s publication, I read and heard readers expressing anger,
disgust even, that Yanagihara ends with Jude’s inability to ‘get over’ his
trauma and eventual suicide. This is why AMPS makes a useful companion
piece to ALL: whereas ALL concerns itself with suicidal depression as a
consequence of trauma and PTSD, AMPS recounts a similar, inevitable
decline towards a completed suicide with flashbacks to Elf’s early life and
young adulthood. Although frustrated by life in their somewhat isolated,
patriarchal, Mennonite community, Yoli’s memories show Elf as a capri-
cious teenager, spirited although prone to solemn reflection and sombre
moods. There is no triggering event in Elf’s life; Yoli, and thus the novel,
makes no attempt to offer an explanation for her suicidal depression. Elf is
a chronic depressive whose severe depression has plummeted to increasing
cycles of suicidal behaviour. From the novel’s beginning, Yoli knows that
there is more chance of Elf killing herself than of her recovering. Elf and
her family have no idea what form recovery could even take. The angry
heart of Toews’s novel is that the medical and legal worlds demand that
Elf remains alive but offer no narrative about how her life can be made
Whereas ALL steers away from implicating institutions due to Jude’s
extreme privacy regarding his past and his health, AMPS directly tackles
the contradictory emphasis on self-responsibility for high-risk patients in
the Canadian mental health system. In an interview, Toews describes how
her family’s experience drove the representation of Elf’s hospitalization:
“I had so much anger towards the mental health system in Canada, the
cruelty of it, the way patients are treated, infantilized, it almost seems
criminalized. It was burning a hole in my heart and mind” (O’Keefe 2015:
n.p.). The anger in AMPS stems from frustration of institutions which
demand that Elf remains alive at any cost—as long as that cost falls under
that year’s budget for mental health care. AMPS lays bare the cyclical reali-
ties of psychiatric care: the always understaffed wards with their seemingly

endless rotation of nurses, the disinterested consultants, and the exhausted

family at the centre. Elf’s immediate family—Yoli, their mother, Elf’s hus-
band—carry the burden of watching her as the nursing staff change rota-
tion too frequently to keep a consistent watch on Elf’s movements. Yet as
the novel continues, the focus of Yoli’s anger increasingly aligns with Elf’s
anger at not being offered any concrete, meaningful reason to continue
living as a suicidally depressive person. All the treatments she is offered are
merely band-aids that inevitably peel and fall away, so that the suicidal
cycle begins again:

We were trying to assemble a team of caregivers who would work with Elf
when she was released from the hospital. […] What would this team do with
her? she asked. What would Elf do with the team? Make lists? Set goals?
Embrace life? Start a journal? Turn that frown upside down? She kept
unearthing huge fundamental problems with the whole concept. […] Elf
was up in arms, gnashing her teeth against the smarmy self-help racket that
existed only to sell books and anaesthetize the vulnerable and allow the so-­
called “helping” profession to bask in self-congratulation for having done
what they could. They’d make lists! They’d set goals! They’d encourage
their patients to do one “fun” thing a day! (Oh you should have heard the
derision in Elf’s voice when she said the word fun like she’d just spit out the
word Eichmann or Mengele.) (Toews 2014: 49–50)

Whereas her family needs to cling to these ultimately short-term solu-

tions to suicidal depression in the hope that something will keep Elf alive,
Elf has no such illusions. But as AMPS reaches its conclusion, Yoli has
begun to grasp Elf’s perspective on suicide as she wrestles with the ethical
and legal possibilities of helping Elf to end her life: after another attempt,
Elf asks Yoli to help her to get to Zurich so that she can undertake assisted
suicide (Toews 2014: 88, 90). Initially horrified, Yoli begins to contem-
plate what it means that her sister would ask for such assistance:

Did Elf have a terminal illness? Was she cursed genetically from day one to
want to die? Was every seemingly happy moment from her past, every smile,
every song, every heartfelt hug and laugh and exuberant fist-pump and tri-
umph, just a temporary detour from her innate longing for release and
oblivion? (Toews 2014: 90).

Elf asking Yoli to take her to Switzerland to die is the turning point for
Yoli: after years of tearfully, furiously, bullyingly imploring her elder sister

to stay alive, she seems to comprehend how exhausted Elf is by continuing

to live. Unfortunately, such a realization does not come to Jude’s family
until after his death. Late in ALL, Harold painfully reflects “how hard it is
to keep alive someone who doesn’t want to stay alive”:

First you try logic (You have so much to live for), and then you try guilt (You
owe me), and then you try anger, and threats, and pleading (I’m old; don’t do
this to an old man). But then, once they agree, it is necessary that you, the
cajoler, move into the realm of self-deception, because you can see that it is
costing them, you can see how much they don’t want to be here, you can
see that the mere act of existing is depleting for them, and then you have to
tell yourself every day: I am doing the right thing. (Yanagihara 2015:
709–710, 717; emphasis in original)

Harold’s realization is excruciatingly painful, more so than the news that

Jude has indeed finally succeeded in killing himself. Harold’s self-­deception
does not save him or Jude from pain; if anything, it adds to both their suf-
fering. The narrative perspectives of Yoli in earlier parts of AMPS and
Harold in ALL reflect an observation by David A. Karp: in his study of
caregivers for individuals with mental health issues, Karp notes that
although family are aware that “they have no control over mental illness,”
such an awareness still “does not insulate caregivers from experiencing
suicide attempts as a rejection of their love” (2001: 187). As such, although
hard-won and still enormously painful, Yoli’s shift in perspective shows the
ethical value in reading suicide from the perspective of those who wish to
die. Of course, Yoli does not want her sister to die—but she recognizes
that society offers Elf no meaningful alternative. And here we hit upon the
resistant potential of suicidal depression in these fictional narratives.
In ALL and AMPS, suicidal depression shows the depressed subject and
the reader what is absent in society—a meaningful narrative beyond neo-
liberal capitalist expectations of individualism and “personal” success,
including career, wealth, private property, biogenetic affinity, and hetero-
normative family structures. Disability scholar Dan Goodley observes that
“an individualized view of maladaptive behaviour ignores the possibility
that such behaviour constitutes rational and resistant reactions to mal-
adaptive environments” (Goodley 2001: 215; my emphasis). Mills posits
that it might be possible to read suicides “as responses to social inequali-
ties and economic reforms in different contexts,” so that self-harm and
even suicide can be understood as “psychopolitically” meaningful (Mills

2014: 38–39). That is, suicide and self-harm may be entirely rational and
resistant reactions to an increasingly inhumane neoliberal social order. In
these novels, severe depression is a condition which responds to something
missing in society, not in the individuals. For Jude and Elf, the lack of a
meaningful narrative beyond their immediate experiences points to what
is lacking, what is absent.
An absence of a meaningful narrative for living is not inherently a nihil-
istic perspective; it is important to remember the role absence plays in
utopian thinking. This is not to suggest that suicide is a utopian act, at
least not in the abstract sense: in other words, utopia is not to be under-
stood as an imaginary dreamland in the realm of the “fantastic and com-
pensatory” but as something we know to be lacking, something that
indicates unrealized potential not yet available to us (Levitas 1990: 15).
According to Ernst Bloch, in order to be socially and politically useful, the
utopian function needs to be grounded in recognition of the possible
(concrete utopia), must exhibit “militant optimism” and educated hope
(docta spes), and, crucially, is anticipatory (“Not Yet”) (Bloch 1986: 137,
146–47). Crucial for Bloch’s understanding of utopian thinking is its
emphasis on possibility, thus confronting the reasons that make the pro-
duction of utopia so difficult. Bloch stresses that hope is vital in thinking
about utopia, not a passive strain of thinking positively:

Hope is critical and can be disappointed. […] Hope is not confidence. Hope
is surrounded by dangers, and is the consciousness of danger and at the
same time the determined negation of that which continually makes the
opposite of the hoped-for object possible’. (Bloch 1988: 17).

This understanding of hope is one of tough optimism. It is to have faith in

a future that you cannot foresee. As such, utopian thought is wilful and
committed, not simply wishful and purely optimistic. Such Blochian hard-­
fought optimism is a perspective that Jude identifies with: earlier in the
novel, the narrative reveals that Jude thinks of himself as “an optimist”:

Every month, every week, he chose to open his eyes, to live another day in
the world. […] He did it when he was so exhausted of trying, when being
awake and alive demanded such energy that he had to lie in bed thinking of
reasons to get up and try again. (Yanagihara 2015: 143–144)

Of course, as his life goes on, it becomes increasingly harder for Jude to
justify continuing to live. Yet this moment in ALL flags up the simultane-

ous utopian impulse of the suicidal depressive: suicidal thoughts can con-
tain a wish for absence—to absent oneself from a life without a
meaning—and optimism for the future. The future will either fulfil the
desire for absence (completed suicide) or a renewed attempt to continue
living. Both acts can only be achieved by having faith in the future, that
the next moments in time will bring relief, rather than impasse. The
strangely utopian impulse of suicidal depression, then, is why the denial
of death is so damaging to Jude and Elf: both know that they can end
their suffering. The problem is that societal expectations will not allow
them to do so, yet offer no long-term alternative to their suffering. As
Cvetkovich observes, this short-sightedness creates a sense of impasse, of
feeling stuck, suggesting “that things will not move forward due to cir-
cumstance—not that they can’t, but that the world is not designed to
make it happen or there has been a failure of imagination” (Cvetkovich
2012: 20; my emphasis). Neoliberalism’s relentless presentism and rejec-
tion of collective responsibility is at odds with the need to imagine a bet-
ter future, an imaginative act that the suicidally depressive subject requires.
In other words, neoliberal ideology and praxis have no scope for utopian
If neoliberal society offers no meaningful, imaginative narrative beyond
its narrow confines of personal attainment and self-responsibility, then it is
important to ask what does prevent Elf and Jude from delaying their inevi-
table acts of suicide. Of course, society demands that they stay alive but
their exhaustion and increasing withdrawal demonstrate that societal
demands are not justification enough. Something else is tethering them to
life: their feelings of responsibility to others, chiefly, their familial
­communities. Towards the end of his life, Jude reflects that although he
has never believed his life to be meaningful, he recognizes that if his family
and friends “wanted him to stay alive, then he would”; “He hadn’t under-
stood why they wanted him to stay alive, only that they had, and so he had
done it” (Yanagihara 2015: 686–688). Although not immediately obvi-
ous, the very title of Toews’s novel is an acknowledgment of the important
role of familial bonds: AMPS is derived from an acronym that a teenage
Elf uses as a graffiti tag around Winnipeg:

She came up with a design that incorporated her initials E.V.R. (Elfrieda
Von Riesen) and below those the initials A.M.P. Then, like a coiled snake,
the letter S which covered, underlined and dissected the other letters […].
[T]he A.M.P. stands for All My Puny… then the big S stands for Sorrows
which encloses all the other letters[…]. (Toews 2014: 8, 10)

The significance of “sorrow” dominating the design is perhaps too obvi-

ous: Elf’s sorrow is what overwhelms her sense of self, even her love of and
talent for music. What is less obvious is the origin of Elf’s tag: Yoli recalls
Elf telling her that the phrase “all my puny sorrows” is taken from “To A
Friend, With An Unfinished Poem” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1794),
a poem the adult Yoli later finds when browsing their mother’s

I too a SISTER had, an only Sister—

She lov’d me dearly, and I doted on her!
To her I pour’d forth all my puny sorrows
(As a sick Patient in his Nurse’s arms)
And of the heart those hidden maladies
That shrink asham’d from even Friendship’s eye. (quoted in Toews
2014: 237)

Elf’s choice is an unspoken tribute to sisterly love and support; such a

notion of sisterly devotion in the face of “hidden maladies” suggests an
alternative to the emphasis on self-responsibility demanded by neoliberal
models of success and mental wellbeing. Although ultimately not enough,
the feelings of responsibility to a collective group are what provides Jude
and Elf with the long-term justification to try and stay alive for as long as
they do. We know that utopia cannot be born of success: the lessons
imparted by failure are vital to the educated hope and militant optimism
of the utopian function. Whilst communal support and collective
­responsibility cannot save Elf and Jude, it is the experiences of those who
witness their struggle—who feel that they have failed Elf and Jude—that
receive powerful lessons of the importance of empathy and its potentially
transformative political resonances.
We know that neoliberalism’s modus operandi for its durability is the
undermining of collective action and feelings of solidarity. The ramifica-
tions of such a prioritizing of individualism in the neoliberal world can
arguably be seen in the rise of mental health issues that emphasize feelings
of isolation, loneliness, and antisocial withdrawal: depression as the neo-
liberal condition du jour. Smail notes that the divorcing of any possible
communal empathy and solidarity has led to “Margaret Thatcher’s much-­
cited view that ‘There’s no such thing as society, only individuals and their
families,’ find[ing] an unacknowledged echo in almost all approaches to
therapy” (Smail 2005: 11). As such, “affective life is forced to bear an
increasing burden as the state divests itself of responsibility for social wel-

fare and affective life is confined to a privatized family” (Cvetkovich 2012:

11). Both ALL and AMPS show the demands placed on familial groups
when one of their own becomes suicidal and how ‘it takes a village’ to
keep someone safe and alive. However, the role of community in its
demands for life, no matter what the cost, varies significantly across the
two novels; it is this difference in approach that I believe is the most sig-
nificant contribution to reframing suicidal depression in our contempo-
rary moment.
The central tragedy of ALL is arguably not Jude’s traumatic past or his
inability to miraculously overcome his demons but that his family cannot
countenance a life without Jude, so continually pressure him into living
longer. At the novel’s conclusion, Harold admits that his fear of life with-
out Jude prevented him from truly acknowledging Jude’s desperation to
be released from his painful inner life:

[I]f he killed himself, if he took himself away from me, I knew I would sur-
vive, but I knew as well that survival would be a chore […]. And of course I
knew how badly I would miss him, because although there had been trial
runs for his eventual departure, I had never been able to get any better at
dealing with them, and I was never able to get used to them. (Yanagihara
2015: 708)

By the novel’s end, there is a horrible irony in the number of core familial
members who have died too young and before Jude, including Andy,
Jude’s doctor and confidante. Along with Harold, it is Andy who effec-
tively bullies Jude into a narrative of ‘wellness’ throughout the novel. And
yet Jude, suicidally depressed for most of his life, ends up outliving Andy.
Whereas the novel’s relentlessly grim and melodramatic tone has been a
chief criticism for ALL’s dissenters, I believe that is necessary in order to
empathize with Jude: the more over the top and tragic the narrative
becomes, the more it becomes impossible to ignore that wanting Jude to
continue living is not only wishful fantasy but cruel: “Sometimes he thinks:
I can do this. But more and more now, he knows: I can’t” (Yanagihara
2015: 664). The novel’s conclusion aims to provoke radical empathy in
the reader, simultaneously dreading but wishing for Jude’s end. After all,
Jude’s death not only releases him from the relentless narrative but also
the reader.
AMPS is more explicit in its radical empathy for the suicidal actor.
Towes’s narrative shows Yoli’s anger shifting focus from her sister’s wish
to die to the social and legal demands to stay alive. What is different to

ALL’s invocation of empathy is that, in AMPS, it does not matter if the

reader disagrees with Elf’s wish to die: AMPS is a thorough exploration of
Yoli’s radical empathy for her family. The final third of Toews’s novel is
Yoli addressing the now-deceased Elf through her thoughts and via letter.
The extent to which Yoli’s empathy has developed over the course of the
narrative becomes clear when she recounts her turning on a friend who
expresses strong views about suicidal actors:

She told me that she’s been worrying about me so much, it must be awful,
everything I’ve been going through, and that in her opinion “to die by
one’s own hand” is always a sin. Always. Because of the suffering it causes
the survivors. […]
I said, selfish? How could it be selfish? Unless you’ve seen the agony first-­
hand you can’t really pass judgment. […] [H]ow could you understand
what another person’s suicide means? […]
I quoted Goethe the way my mother did […] “suicide is an event of
human nature which, whatever may be said and done with respect to it,
demands the sympathy of every man, and in every epoch must be discussed
anew”… (Toews 2014: 277–278)

In its portrayal of Yoli’s developing empathy for her sister’s wish to die,
AMPS is probably one of the most confrontational yet also nuanced con-
temporary representations of suicide. Rather than expecting Yoli—and, by
extension, the reader—to wholly understand and accept Elf’s need to end
her life, Toews’s choice to focus on a non-suicidal narrative perspective
allows the focus to shift from individual responsibility (you need to stay
alive for us) to the importance of community for the suicidal actor and
their loved ones. Yoli cannot prevent her sister from dying, but she can
lessen the pain by accepting her sister’s absence as desired and, in some
ways, necessary for her own life to continue. Rather than torn asunder by
grief, Elf’s death brings the remaining family closer together:

[Mom] had her arms around me. I pretended she was you [Elf] and dad and
[…] all the people I’ve lost along the way, and then she whispered things to
me, all about love, about kindness, and optimism and strength. And about
you. About our family.
How we can all fight really hard, but how we can also acknowledge
defeat and stop fighting and call a spade a spade. (Toews 2014: 313)

It may seem odd to suggest that suicide can be an act with positive effects,
one that strengthens communal feeling. Yet ALL shows how the lack of

acceptance of absence and resistance of suicidal rationality leads to more

individual blame, distress, and guilt. As a protest novel, AMPS concludes
on a stronger basis for potential utopian thinking and action: if neoliberal
society offers no concrete, meaningful alternative, then something else
must be sought in new understandings of what it means to survive, what
it means to feel real empathy and solidarity, what alternative ways of being
and seeing we can discover through the relationships and connections
with one another:

In order to rehabilitate the world, human beings will need to structure their
ideals in accordance with the realities of their mutual interdependence. To
this end, magic is useless, but utopianism—forms of re-enchantment that
depend on human rather than divine effort—is not. (Smail 2005: 107–08;
my emphasis)

Neither novel—nor this essay—is thinking through suicide as an abstract

exercise in wishful thinking or presenting death as a preferential option to
living; utopia is not to be found beyond the veil. The willingness of AMPS
and ALL to confront an uncomfortable reality of our contemporary soci-
ety—the growing awareness of mental anguish and suicidal ideation, if not
increase in occurrences—enacts a radical empathy for Elf and Jude. Such a
connection is becoming increasingly necessary in a neoliberal world where
isolation and disengagement from a wider social body are encouraged by
political forces. And yet—radical empathy and social connection have the
potential to act as an air bubble injected into the artery: a small, seemingly
infinitesimal act whose actions can overwhelm the dysfunctional body.2

Acknowledgments  I presented my initial ideas at “Fast Forward: Women’s

Writing in the 21st Century” at Sheffield Hallam, September 2017. My colleague
at NTU, Dr. Nicole Thiara, was an enthusiastic and attentive reader of this essay.
Many thanks to Nicole and the conference organizers and participants for their
generous feedback.

1. Although Canada largely escapes the international scrutiny of the UK and
the US, recent reports by research think-tanks have focused on the relation-
ship between mental health and employability: Conference Board of Canada
2017: “Improving Youth Mental Health a Priority for Society and the
Economy;” Cision Canada (28 November); Mental Health Commission of
Canada. 2017: “Commission of Canada Statement on Human Rights Day,”

Cision Canada (8 December)

day-662783083.html, both accessed 17 December 2017.
2. This is the unusual, painful course of action which Jude undertakes to finally
succeed in ending his life (Yanagihara 2015: 717).

Works Cited
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Origin of Our Times. London/New York: Verso.
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Plaice, and Peter Knight. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
———. 1988. Something’s Missing: A Discussion Between Ernst Bloch and
Theodor W.  Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing. In The
Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, 1–17. Trans. Jack Zipes
and Frank Mecklenburg. Cambridge: MIT.
Chang, Ha-Joon. 2014. Economics: The User’s Guide. London: Penguin.
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University Press.
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Tragicomedy. The Guardian, July 9.
fizzing-­tragicomedy. Date accessed 17 December 2017.
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80/81: 7–22.
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Goodley, Dan. 2001.  ‘‘Learning Difficulties’, the Social Model of Disability
and Impairment: Challenging epistemologies’, Disability & Society, 16 (2):
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———. 2008. The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza. Reading: Vermilion.
Karp, David A. 2001. The Burden of Sympathy: How Families Cope with Mental
Illness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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New York: Routledge.

Levitas, Ruth. 1990. Educated Hope: Ernst Bloch on Abstract and Concrete
Utopia. Utopian Studies 1 (2): 13–26.
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Majority World. New York: Routledge.
O’Keefe, Alice. 2015. Miriam Toews: ‘I Worried People Would Think, What Is
Wrong with This Family?’. The Guardian, May 2. https://www.theguardian.
mennonite. Date Accessed 17 Dec 2017.
Preston, Alex. 2015. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara Review–Relentless
Suffering. The Guardian, August 18.
2015/aug/18/a-little-life-hanya-yanagihara-review-man-booker-prize. Date
Accessed 17 Dec 2017.
Raphelson, Samantha. 2017. How the Loss of U.S. Psychiatric Hospitals Led to a
Mental Health Crisis. NPR, November 30. https://www.npr.
led-to-a-mental-health-crisis. Date Accessed 17 Dec 2017.
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Understanding of Distress. Monmouth: PCCS Books.
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Toews, Miriam. 2014. All My Puny Sorrows. London: Faber & Faber. Kindle
Yanagihara, Hanya. 2015. A Little Life. London: Picador. Kindle Edition.

Futures, Inc.: Fiction and Intellectual

Property in the (South) African Renaissance

Matthew Eatough

South Africa has often been held up as a prototypically “neoliberal” coun-

try. In the eyes of Naomi Klein, for example, South Africa is “a living testa-
ment to what happens when economic reform is severed from political
transformation” and replaced by “a neoliberal shock therapy program”
(Klein 2007: 251, 264). Patrick Bond echoes Klein in claiming that after
apartheid officially ended, “not only were free enterprise and property
rights enshrined in every major economic policy statement and the
Constitution itself,” but “full-blown neoliberal compradorism became the
dominant (if not universal) phenomenon within the ANC [African
National Congress] elite.” A “small corps of nationalist politicians emerged
to hijack most of the country’s mass popular movements … [and imple-
mented] policies and projects … that were profoundly hostile to the
majority” (Bond 2014: 13–14, 198–9).
To support this argument, most critics point to the adoption of the
1996 Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) programme.
Written by a group of mainstream economists and then quickly rolled out

M. Eatough (*)
New York City, NY, USA

© The Author(s) 2019 215

S. Deckard, S. Shapiro (eds.), World Literature, Neoliberalism, and
the Culture of Discontent, New Comparisons in World Literature,

as official ANC policy by then-Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, GEAR

represented a hard shift to the right in ANC economic policy. The
­document argued that the best way to “redistribute” wealth to the poor
was to encourage “job creation” (Department of Finance 1996: 1). But in
order to create jobs, the drafters warned, South Africa would have to
entice “foreign investment” by implementing a number of classic neolib-
eral measures: cuts to state spending, the privatization of state-run utili-
ties, elimination of tariffs, lowering of the corporate tax rate, and the
removal of financial controls (Department of Finance 1996: 6). All of
these initiatives spelled an end to the socialist principles expressed in the
ANC’s 1955 Freedom Charter, which had dreamed of transferring all
“banks and monopoly industry”—including the nation’s vaunted mineral
industries—“to the ownership of the people” (Congress of the People
2014: 321). They also represented an about-face from the more recent
Reconstruction and Development Programme (1994), which had made
vague calls to “decommodify” and “destratify” such basic goods and ser-
vices as housing, health care, and education (albeit within an otherwise
free-market macroeconomic framework) (Bond 2014: 72).1
And yet, if South Africa is a “neoliberal” country, it is certainly an odd
one. When juxtaposed against the canonical definitions of neoliberalism,
South Africa falls short in several key respects. Take, for example, David
Harvey’s widely influential taxonomy of neoliberalism, A Brief History of
Neoliberalism (2005). According to Harvey, neoliberalism can be identi-
fied with 4 general trends:

1. A rolling back of the Keynesian welfare state, and especially of its

redistributive tax codes, its protections for organized labour, and the
social services it provides to citizens (Harvey 2005: 5–38);
2. An emphasis on “individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills

within an institutional framework characterized by strong private
property rights, free markets, and free trade” (Harvey 2005: 2);
3. Deregulation of state commercial and environmental oversight, usu-
ally paired with aggressive “corporate welfare programmes”
(through, e.g., subsidies and tax cuts) (Harvey 2005: 165);
4. A “strong wave of financialization,” aided and abetted by deregula-
tion and by the growth of new information technologies (Harvey
2005: 3–4, 161).

Some of these criteria fit South African quite well, but others are either
absent or barely recognizable in their present incarnation. For instance,

while the post-apartheid government has went about privatizing many

parastatals, including steel (Iscor), electricity (Eskom), petroleum (Sasol),
and telecommunications (Telkom) providers, it has also enacted a sweep-
ing series of new credit laws designed to protect borrowers from predatory
financial institutions.2 Similarly, South Africa has witnessed a massive out-
flow of capital as it has loosened restraints on capital mobility3—a com-
mon occurrence under neoliberal finance laws—at the same time as the
ANC government has been actively expanding social welfare programmes
(partly in keeping with the ANC’s longstanding commitment to social
justice, and partly in recognition of the peculiar problems that South
Africa’s high levels of unemployment pose to austerity measures [see
Ferguson 2015: 1–33]). The most significant of these programmes, the
Old Age Pension system and the Child Support Grant project, are part of
a radical new welfare politics that has sought to alleviate poverty by mak-
ing direct “cash transfers” to low-income citizens—a policy that seems to
fly directly in the face of Harvey’s claim that neoliberalism is by nature
antithetical to redistribution.4 Even Harvey’s vaunted “entrepreneurial”
subject, which in his account was the vital cog in eliciting consent for neo-
liberal economic policies, has never really found a purchase in the country:
as numerous anthropologists and political economists have noted, the lan-
guage of entrepreneurialism has never gained a firm foothold in African
countries, where most discussions of the economy tend to be framed in
terms of formality versus informality.5
None of this is to say that the concept of neoliberalism is a poor starting-­
place for an investigation of contemporary South African culture. The
continued use of the term across a wide range of social, political, and liter-
ary criticism shows that it retains a good deal of descriptive and analytic
utility—illuminating, for example, how the rise of different types of specu-
lative and financial industries in Europe and North America exist in con-
versation with local developments in South Africa, with the two forming
part of a complex web of interconnections within a larger neoliberal
world-system. What this means, rather, is that any account of the culture
of neoliberalism in South Africa requires us to do two things: first, to for-
mulate a working definition of what exactly South African neoliberalism is
and what distinguishes it from the normative Euro-American model of
neoliberalism; and second, to explain the role that culture has played in
consolidating, contesting, and, at times, even creating a neoliberal polity
in South Africa.
To do so, this chapter sketches an account of South African neoliberal-
ism that centres on the ideology’s relationship to the future. As I show,

financialization, deregulation, and privatization were not the only chan-

nels through which neoliberalism gained a foothold in South Africa; nor
were they necessarily the central characteristics of an evolving post-­
apartheid economy. More so, the South African encounter with neoliber-
alism has consisted primarily of an intensive engagement with new
industries that aim to commodify, monetize, and profit off of the future:
expanded credit-lending services, community-based savings clubs, and
new ethno-enterprises that stake their future claims to scarce resources
through the language of intellectual property (IP) law. Over the last
20 years, South Africa has experienced a huge growth in these industries,
most of which feed on the speculative frenzy that we normally associate
with Euro-American neoliberalism, but which funnel these speculations
towards a messianic future that is framed as the negation of an abject pres-
ent day. From credit companies willing to float unsecured loans to low-­
income borrowers to patents holders banking on a future commercial use
for “indigenous knowledge,” the South African economy is replete with
enterprises whose sole commercial good is an imagined future that they
have been able to package into a marketable commodity.
Just as important for my purposes, this push to transform the future
into a marketable commodity has been intimately bound up with new
forms of cultural production. Indeed, one of the constitutive features of
the future is that it can only be actualized in the present through various
species of fiction—whether these are the fictive numbers of economic pro-
jections, the more imaginative narratives of scenario planning, or the pro-
phetic visions passed down by religious traditions. As a result, as South
Africa has come to depend more and more on speculative industries, its
cultural scene has become rife with fictional narratives that place them-
selves into direct conversation with neoliberal futurity—from fictions of
aspiration that rework the future into a site of hopeful plenitude, to magi-
cal realist narratives that reflect on the ontological dimensions of this
intangible-yet-present future.
In this chapter, I flesh out the connections between fictional narrative
and neoliberal futurity by turning to one prototypical post-apartheid
industry: the trade and speculation in IP. The first section of the chapter
focuses on how Thabo Mbeki’s dream of an “African Renaissance” chan-
nelled South Africans’ aspirations into future-oriented ventures, including
various types of ethno-enterprise that sought to patent rights to cultural
practices for future investment. In the following sections, I then show how
such enterprises relied on culturalist understandings of writing as a means

whereby they could instantiate intangible “futures” in the present. The

chapter concludes with an extended close reading of Zakes Mda’s 2000
novel Heart of Redness, which I treat as a sustained reflection on how cul-
ture can be translated into IP.  As I show, Mda’s novel uses the generic
conventions of magical realism to sequester culture into an anterior realm
of value—one wherein culture becomes an “intangible” possession owned
by “believers,” and one wherein this very intangibility enables Mda to
imagine culture as an object whose full value will only be realized in a mes-
sianic future. As such, the novel highlights the ways in which regimes of IP
are constitutively bound up with fictional tropes relating to time, proph-
ecy, and the future.

The Speculative Economies of the African

Perhaps the best place to begin an investigation into South African cul-
ture’s connections with neoliberal economics is with the Thabo Mbeki’s
highly touted “African Renaissance” project. In a speech before the United
Nations University in Tokyo on April 9, 1998, then-Deputy President
Mbeki outlined the particulars of this project for his captivated audience.
In an address ranging from classical antiquity to the present, and touching
on everything from the importance of democratic governance to the pros-
pects for economic growth, Mbeki envisioned “an African continent” that
was on the cusp of a social, political, and economic revolution (Mbeki
1998: 242). As he explained, the previous 40 years had not been kind to
the majority of African countries. Between widespread poverty, the rise of
military dictatorships, and Cold War neocolonialism, African nations had
not experienced the “genuine liberation” that had been promised by inde-
pendence (Mbeki 1998: 245). Yet in taking stock of these developments,
Mbeki proposed that Africa was better poised than at any previous moment
to throw off these shackles and reinvent itself on principles taken from
“our own past, as Africans” (Mbeki 1998: 242). Pointing to the recent
creation of the Organization for African Unity (OAU), the Central Organ
for the Prevention and Resolution of Conflicts, and the Southern African
Development Community, Mbeki foresaw a new era of cooperative
growth. The near future, he insisted, would benefit from “the building of
regional peace-making and peace-keeping capacity,” “new economic poli-
cies which seek to create conditions that are attractive to domestic and
foreign investors,” and “the development of infrastructure throughout

the region” (Mbeki 1998: 247–8). Taken together, these projects would
“create the basis for further development and … a sustained improvement
in the standard of living of the people” (Mbeki 1998: 248).
Almost immediately, critics pounced on Mbeki’s use of Africanist rhet-
oric to dress up what was in reality a fairly standard call for business-
friendly economic policies. Writing in the African Security Review,
Howard Barrell described Mbeki’s African Renaissance as “a self-imposed
structural adjustment programme … fairly ruthlessly applied” (Barrell
2000). In spite of the laudable—if abstract—appeals to democracy and the
fight against government corruption, Mbeki’s concrete proposals boiled
down to little more than the same policies that the World Bank and the
IMF had been peddling for years: lower tariffs, less state intervention in
the economy, and freedom of movement for capital. If anything, Mbeki
seemed most interested in using these neoliberal measures to consolidate
South Africa’s regional dominance within a pan-African economy. He
assured his audience that the “economic integration” provided by a south-
ern African “free trade area” (modelled on NAFTA and similar trading
blocs) was necessary for “any significant and sustained economic growth
and development to take place”—a remark that stoked fears that the
African Renaissance was nothing more than “a Pax Pretoriana in disguise”
(Mbeki 1998: 247; Maloka 2001: 5). Such self-serving proposals were
supplemented by what appeared to be genuine gestures towards moral
leadership—among them, calls for the “emancipation of women” and
“protection of the environment” (Mbeki 1998: 249). But within the
larger structure of the speech, these social issues tend to be subordinated
to Mbeki’s economic vision for the continent, such that he ends his
address by stressing that “Africa reborn” will yield first and foremost new
“products of human economic activity”—with social changes apparently
following in the wakes of this more general economic transformation
(Mbeki 1998: 251).
Mbeki’s African Renaissance was about more, though, than just priva-
tization and austerity—even if these facets were more familiar (and there-
fore more easily identifiable) to most commentators. The entire ideology
of the African Renaissance, which Mbeki continued to promote into the
early 2000s, rested on a belief that social and economic “renewal” would
take place in an as-yet-undefined future (Mbeki 1999: xiii). Critics were
quick to dismiss this rhetoric as ideological obfuscation (see, e.g.,
Ferguson 2006: 113–118), but for the African Renaissance’s supporters,
this futural dimension was the single most indispensable plank of Mbeki’s

platform. Elias K. Bongmba, for example, praises Mbeki for emphasizing

“political and economic renewal in the post-colonial state” (Bongmba
2004: 295). “Such a society,” Bongmba writes, “would emerge out of the
rubble of the present post-colonial state shaped by colonial domination
and post-­colonial arbitrary rule” (Bongmba 2004: 296). In other words,
it would “need … to reconstruct the future”—a sentiment that Moeletsi
Mbeki echoes when he points out that the “optimistic picture” painted by
Thabo Mbeki depends upon a conception of the African Renaissance as
“not yet arrived, but … coming” (Bongmba 2004: 296; Mbeki 2000:
The role that the future played in Mbeki’s ambitious programme was
perhaps best conveyed in a 1998 keynote lecture at the African Renaissance
Conference, a two-day event sponsored by SABC2 and Mafube Publishing.
Speaking to a mixed audience of academics, politicians, and business lead-
ers, Mbeki summed up his project with a motto borrowed from a group
of Afrikaner youth he had met with a few days earlier: “Yesterday is a for-
eign country—tomorrow belongs to us!” (Mbeki 1999: xiv) The confi-
dent tone is emblematic of the early years of the post-apartheid era, when
enthusiastic allusions to the “New” South Africa and the “Rainbow
Nation” reflected a pervasive sense that the advent of democracy had
opened new doors for the nation. Yet in declaring himself for “tomor-
row,” Mbeki also frames the future as a possession—a type of incorporeal
property that could be owned in the multivalent sense imparted by the
verb “belong.” Indeed, while the motto clearly trades on the language of
democratic rights and popular empowerment,6 it also hearkens back to the
rhetoric of “sustainable development” and “economic growth” that
Mbeki deployed in his speech at United Nations University. It is specifi-
cally the “future” that can “belong to us,” he suggests, because in the past
“the further reproduction of wealth by the countries of the North has led
to the creation of poverty in the countries of the South” (Mbeki 1999:
xvii). What this means, for Mbeki, is that economic prosperity is only real-
izable in the future. The past is represented as a site of utter economic
abjection, one that is “foreign” to the people it disempowered, whether
these are the black South Africans who were legally excluded from eco-
nomic opportunity or the wider African population that suffered under
structural-adjustment programmes. Any authentic form of ownership will
need to overcome this historical abjection by “growing” the very objects
and capital that constitute prosperity—which, from the vantage of Mbeki’s
present, are simply not there.

This call to seize the future was more than just a metaphor. In the years
following the end of apartheid, what little economic growth South Africa
experienced was confined almost entirely to financial industries whose pri-
mary goal was to monetize and commodify various types of “futures.”
From 1994 to 2007, the financial sector almost doubled its share of South
Africa’s GDP (up from 6.5% in 1994 to 12% in 2007), and by 2009 that
number would soar to almost 20% (Marais 2011: 130). Unlike the post-­
1970 US economy, which has relied heavily on stock-trading, hedge-­
funds, and debt-financing for large purchases (home buying, college
education, and so forth), South Africa’s financial sector has been directed
towards much smaller ventures: microloan lenders, savings clubs, and
other similar enterprises. In one way or another, all of these industries ask
their customers to undertake financial transactions based on a belief that
their futures will be better than their present. Either borrowers will be
earning more money in the near future—in which case they will be able to
pay back their loans—or savings clubs will have helped investors to pur-
chase expensive items that will improve their daily lives (cars, refrigerators,
and so on). Such sentiments enable businesses to generate profits in a
country where capital is severely lacking, with an unemployment rate con-
stantly hovering around 22–25% and household incomes that are in
decline (Marais 2011: 179). Even though most South Africans do not
have the means to fund a robust consumer economy, or to invest in
­high-­risk speculations, financial industries make such transactions possible
by commodifying their customers’ future prospects. They seize on con-
sumers’ optimistic beliefs in upward mobility and route them into specula-
tive transactions, thereby transforming the future into a tangible object
with a precise economic value—one that can then be sold to financial-
services providers in the present.
The rise of speculative trading on “futures” also extended into other,
more abstract arenas. Following an intense US-led campaign to force
South Africa into adopting the US’s narrow interpretation of the
Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights
(TRIPS)—a campaign that was sparked by US pharmaceutical companies’
worries over clauses in South Africa’s 1997 Medicines and Related
Substances Control Amendment Act that allowed for parallel importing
and the licensing of generic alternatives7—South Africa set about consoli-
dating its own IP laws. Many of the laws and amendments that were passed
in the next 16 years were expressly designed to extend copyright protec-
tions to valuable pharmaceutical and tech patents. But the South African

government also used to opportunity to incorporate clauses that would

reclassify “traditional” culture as “indigenous knowledge” that “should be
recognised and protected by … intellectual property laws” (Intellectual
Property Laws Amendment Act of 2013: Preamble). As part of a global
effort to harness IP laws to the interests of non-Western peoples,8 South
African’s new copyright laws granted IP protections to “indigenous bio-
logical resources,” “genetic resources,” and “artistic works … capable of
being performed” (Patent Amendments Act of 2005: Preamble;
Intellectual Property Laws Amendment Act of 2013: 1.a). In laymen’s
terms, this meant that ethnic groups could patent the plants used in “tra-
ditional” medicine, as well as customary performances, handicrafts,
foods—even their own genetic codes. And these “indigenous knowledges”
were often valuable: pharmaceutical companies continue to this day to be
engaged in a furious scramble for substances for new drugs, and the IP
rights to these substances can lead to large settlements—as was seen when
the British firm Phytopharm was forced to pay 6% of all royalty income to
the San people of South Africa, on the basis that the San had been using
the primary ingredient in Phytopharm’s new weight-loss drug, the Hoodia
gordonii cactus, as a hunger suppressant for hundreds of years (Comaroff
and Comaroff 2009: 86–94). Similarly, the new statutes accorded local
communities some degree of control over the use of their image for pur-
poses of tourism, entertainment, and marketing. The San, Makuleke, and
Bafokeng peoples, among others, have all laid claims to shares of South
Africa’s tourism industry—which accounted for 7.9% of South Africa’s
GDP in 2009—on the basis of their right to license representations of
themselves and their cultural practices (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009:
92–97 and 109–114).
Such ethno-enterprises were ideally suited to the mood of Mbeki’s
African Renaissance. On the one hand, the turn backward to cultural “tra-
ditions” resonated with Mbeki’s Africanist rhetoric, which insisted on the
feasibility of an alternative model of development rooted in “African val-
ues.”9 On the other hand, the rebranding of culture as a source of “indig-
enous knowledge” pointed towards the potential for future, as-yet-­unknown
applications in medicine, entertainment, and tourism. As Melinda Cooper
notes, this forward-looking dimension of IP-based enterprises is struc-
tured upon what she calls the temporality of the “promise” (Cooper 2008:
24). By allowing ethnic groups to patent cultural practices, South Africa’s
IP system enabled them—and the multinational corporations that they
partnered with—to generate revenue based on the “promise” of a future

product that may or may not ever materialize (Cooper 2008: 28). In the
case of the Hoodia gordonii, for example, the idea to use the plant in a
weight-loss supplement was initially patented in 1963 by the South African
Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a government
think-tank. The idea was then licensed to Phytopharm, whose stock price
soared as speculators rushed to invest in the up-and-coming new drug. As
is common practice with IP-based enterprises, these stock sales helped to
fund the research, testing, and production needed to bring the drug to
market. At the same time, though, the results of such drug trials are obvi-
ously not known beforehand, which means that investors are betting that
the “promise” represented by the patented idea—the future that will come
to be if the idea can be successfully realized—will in fact come to pass. In
other words, they were betting that the Hoodia gordonii plant could in fact
be used successfully in a new medical supplement.
What follows is a perfect illustration of what Jane Guyer calls the decline
of the “foreseeable future” in economic and public policy discourse (Guyer
2007: 410). Where the Keynesian economics of the post-WWII era tended
to stress “the short run and its intermediate forms of governance,” the
speculative industries that make use of IP protections are directed at
unknowable “long term” prospects (Guyer 2007: 412). Not surprisingly,
this focus on the long term resembles the logic at the heart of Mbeki’s
African Renaissance, which similarly locates the possibility of economic
fullness in a future that is cut off from the immediate prospects of the pres-
ent day. Just as Mbeki’s programme for an African Renaissance projects
“sustainable” economic growth into a distant future, so too do neoliberal
regimes of IP characterize the future as a site where intangible ideas can be
transformed into tangible rewards. After all, the San use of the Hoodia
gordonii does not possess economic value in and of itself. It is only when
this “indigenous knowledge” is patented and opened to speculative invest-
ment that it is transformed into a marketable product—based not on its
present use, but on its future prospects. Its status as IP is thus cemented
when it is translated into the language of neoliberal futurity—a process
that, as we will see, relies on the unique status of writing in Western law.

Fiction, IP Law, and the Culture of Writing

As the San case makes clear, IP law emphasizes the “promise” secreted
within cultural practices. And yet, it is also important to recognize that
for this system to work, the ideas contained in patents first need to be
elaborated in a fictional form. This is because the entire point of IP is that

it exists only as an idea, and not as the sort of tangible object that it nor-
mally protected under Lockean property laws. Thus, in order to convert
such intangible ideas into a substantive legal form, patents must produce
a ­species of writing that we might call “plausible fictions.”10 By recording
their ideas in a proliferating series of documents—patent applications,
government-­approved patent licences, trademark registrations, and so
on—IP holders endow their creations with a substance that they would
lack if they remained simply immaterial “ideas.” They acquire a value that
is on the one hand imaginary—as we would say that a novel or a film is
“imaginary”—but which is also real in the eyes of the law.
It is in this sense that the literary critic Ian Baucom can speak of a
speculative capital/fiction matrix. In Baucom’s account of the rise of the
novel, fiction’s staking out of an imaginary realm that is neither “referen-
tial truth telling” nor “lying” constitutes the necessary epistemological
foundation for any imaginary values to emerge in the first place (Baucom
2005: 68).11 By helping readers to conceive of imaginary persons and
events that are nevertheless “real,” fiction eased the transition to other
types of speculative objects: in the first place, to the eighteenth-century
financial revolution in credit, insurance, and finance capital that Baucom
traces in Specters of the Atlantic; and in the second place, we might add, to
the development of IP law that began in the eighteenth century and con-
tinued on into the early nineteenth century (Baucom 2005: 72). Readers
were trained to see value as a phenomenon that could be detached from
any stable referent and set adrift in a sea of representations, all of which
were only secured by a collective belief in their existence. Credit, for
instance, depends on “an economy of trust”: if a lender simply refuses his
or her obligation to pay back a debt, then its entire system of imaginary
value quickly collapses (Baucom 2005: 64). In the same way, IP law only
works if the rest of the public respects the patent holder’s monopoly on a
given product. If not, rampant piracy ensues—as was the case with pirated
American editions of British novels in the nineteenth century, or with the
more recent clashes over bootlegged films (see, e.g., Baldwin 2014:
The connection between fiction and IP also indicates the extent to
which speculative values are dependent on longstanding beliefs about
writing and culture. The practice of recording IP rights in specialized
genres of writing goes back to the eighteenth century, when IP law was
largely concerned with protecting imaginative writing through new leg-
islation. As this copyright system continued to evolve during the
Romantic era, it came to stress writing as a medium in which the artistic

“genius” could create original works ex nihilo (Saint-Amour 2003: 3–9).

“[E]very author,” William Wordsworth argued in the first collection of his
Poems, demonstrates his genius through “the introduction of a new ele-
ment into the intellectual universe” (quoted in Saint-Amour 2003: 31–2);
and legislators agreed by repeatedly extending authors’ legal control over
their writings, from 14 years to 28 years (in 1814), to 42 years (in 1842),
and to 50 years after the author’s death (in 1886). Later IP laws have con-
tinued this tradition by stressing that it is writing that confers originality
and substance onto immaterial ideas. South Africa’s Patents Act of 1978,
for example, explicitly states that patents can only be granted to unique
“discoveries” or “inventions” that would not be “obvious to a person
skilled in the art” and that are “capable of being used or applied in trade
or industry or agriculture” (Patents Act of 1978: V.25.1–2 and 9). In
order to successfully register for a patent, though, interested parties must
be able to record these “inventions” within written applications “lodged
at the patent office and … open to public inspection” (Patents Act of
1978: V.25.7).
This continuing insistence on the written expression of immaterial ideas
shows just how closely IP law is tied to Romantic understandings of cul-
ture. Just as Wordsworth assumed that the written letter could provide
direct access to an “intellectual universe” filled with “original” ideas—one
that was explicitly opposed to the material world of mechanical, reproduc-
ible objects—so too does IP law see writing as a medium designed to fix
what would otherwise be intangible objects into a commodifiable form. By
characterizing patents as ideas that are only “capable of being used,” but
are not yet in use (i.e., not yet so pervasive that they are “obvious to a
person skilled in the art”), South Africa’s Patents Act sequesters writing
into an anterior realm of value—one whose contents can be owned as a spe-
cies of property, but which will only exist in the physical world in the future.
In doing so, the Patents Act raises important questions about the nature of
time, property, and commerce. But it also raises even deeper questions
about the very function of imaginative literature in neoliberal times.

The Ontology of Cultural IP: Writing, Prophecy,

and the Lure of Magical Realism

Given IP law’s Romantic conception of writing, it is hardly surprising that

literary authors would engage with the theoretical underpinnings of IP in
their work. For many South African writers, imaginative literature

­ rovided an ideal vehicle for thinking through the larger stakes involved in
IP—from its role in Mbeki’s African Renaissance project to the ethical
implications that it held for South Africa’s citizens. What did it mean, for
example, to say that a particular future could be “owned” by its patent
holders? Or that intangible “ideas” about future objects could take on a
substantive legal presence in the present? Or that one’s cultural “heritage”
could serve as the basis for a speculative investment in the future?
All of these were questions that were particularly well-suited to the
genre of magical realism. Although there is still wide debate about what
magical realism actually is, with some scholars seeing it as a specifically
“postcolonial” mode of storytelling with close ties to postmodernism, and
with others viewing it as little more than a “kitschy commodity” (Ilan
Stavans, quoted in Schonfeld), most agree that the genre’s distinctive fea-
ture is the way in which it “literalizes” certain intangible phenomena
(Quayson 2006: 741). In, say, a Gabriel García Márquez novel or a Miguel
Angel Asturias novel, cultural beliefs are treated as if they have a physical
existence on par with that of the more familiar empirical world: villagers
transform into ants and coyotes, as per Mayan legends; magicians success-
fully practise the art of alchemy; and angelic characters ascend directly to
heaven, as in the Bible and the Qur’an. Similarly, the past and the future
are granted a solidity in the present that contrasts with the more common
Newtonian understanding of absolute time: mystical prophecies pull the
future into the present and give it a physical shape, just as ghosts literalize
the well-known precept that the past is never really past, even when its
effects are no longer visible to the naked eye.
In each of these respects, magical realism seems to take up the project
initiated by fictional narrative in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Just as the early novel helped readers to believe in the real value of imagi-
nary objects—up to and including the type of writing that we find in pat-
ents—so too does magical realism seek to describe a realm where intangible
phenomena possess substantive value. In the case of magical realism, how-
ever, the objects being invested with value are not simply “ideas” per se,
but entire systems of collective being which, in the past, had been defined
by their exclusion from capitalist modernity. We should therefore see magi-
cal realism as a sort of dialectical reversal of the early novel. Where the
early novel had trained readers in the reality of imaginary phenomena,
magical realism uses the resources of realist epistemology to code actually-­
existing cultures in the language of patent law (as, e.g., immaterial beliefs
that can only be “literalized” in writing).

It makes sense, then, that magical realism spiked in popularity during

the years of the African Renaissance. By the late 1990s, magical realism
had already evolved from its earlier associations with 1960s radicalism into
a somewhat clichéd marker of cultural difference (see Denning 2004:
51–72), and South African writers quickly made use of the genre’s popular
association with non-Western beliefs to interrogate the status of culture in
an IP-driven world. In the hands of such notable South African authors as
Zakes Mda (Heart of Redness 2000), André Brink (Devil’s Valley 1998),
Etienne van Heerden (Die Swye van Mario Salviati 2000), and Ingrid
Winterbach (Niggie 2002), magical realism became a readymade tool for
packaging cultural practices in the language of intangible goods—a lan-
guage that, as we have already seen, was deeply embedded in the aims and
ideology of Mbeki’s African Renaissance. Indeed, the close connection
between the African Renaissance and magical realism is reflected in magi-
cal realism’s rapid eclipse in the early 2000s—not coincidentally, the same
time when the African Renaissance was beginning to lose some of its lus-
tre. As the South African literary field shifted towards a more direct
engagement with the realities of AIDS, crime, and economic inequality in
the mid-2000s, magical realism’s fixation on future speculation, and its
interest in the economic possibilities of cultural heritage, no longer
appeared to be quite as attractive as in the immediate post-apartheid years.
Of the many novels that embraced magical realism during the 1990s
and early 2000s, it is Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness that reflects most
explicitly on the connection between speculative enterprise, the African
Renaissance, and the future. More so than many of his contemporaries,
Mda regularly mixes his novels’ fantastical elements together with percep-
tive social criticism, and Heart of Redness is no exception. In this text, Mda
juxtaposes a historical romance about the nineteenth-century prophetess
Nongqawuse with a present-day debate about how to “develop” South
Africa’s impoverished rural areas (Mda 2000: 91). The novel contains a
series of extended flashbacks to the famous Cattle Killing of 1856–7, when
the prophetess Nongqawuse claimed that the amaXhosa’s ancestors would
soon return from across the sea and drive out the occupying British
forces—if the amaXhosa would first demonstrate their faith by slaughter-
ing all of their cattle and letting their fields lie fallow. The rest of the novel
shows how the villagers of Qolora-by-the-Sea, the original site of
Nongqawuse’s prophecies, continue to clash over their differing interpre-
tations of the Cattle Killing. One group of villagers, the Unbelievers,
blame Nongqawuse for the mass starvation that followed in the wake of
the Cattle Killing. Their opponents, the Believers, instead insist that it was

the Unbelievers who caused the suffering of the so-called “Middle

Generations,” since it was their refusal to slaughter their own cattle that
prevented the prophecy from coming to pass.
Mda uses this debate over the nature of “prophecy” to accentuate the
“long term” vision that Guyer sees as central to modern neoliberalism—
and, in particular, to emphasize how this futural orientation is expressed in
IP-based ethno-enterprises.12 In the late-1990s present of the novel, the
war between the Believers and the Unbelievers has evolved into a conflict
over the proper way to bring “development” to Qolora (Mda 2000: 91).
The Unbeliever sect, led by Bhonco and his daughter, Xoliswa Ximiya,
have become the prime supporters for a new resort-casino project, which
they hope will “bring money to [the] community” and “create employ-
ment” (Mda 2000: 92). Bhonco and Xoliswa Ximiya base their expecta-
tions on a rather simplistic picture of Western modernity—one in which
“civilization” is treated as isomorphic with “western civilization,” Xhosa
culture “represents backwardness,” and “progress” will inevitably triumph
over “the forces of darkness” in a distant future (Mda 2000: 71, 92, 234,
248). Mda quickly deflates these pretensions, however, by stressing how
the ideology of modernity relies on a form of Christian-inflected secular
prophecy. The very fact that Bhonco and Xoliswa Ximiya can speak of
“progress” as something that will materialize in the future transforms their
project into a type of promise. And while this promise of eventual “prog-
ress” differs in its particulars from Nongqawuse’s anticolonial prophecies,
structurally they operate according to the same basic principles: a lacking
present, a more fulsome future, and a blueprint for how to achieve this
future. The only major differences that distinguish the two projects, in
Mda’s mind, are Western civilization’s relentless push to “destroy”
­indigenous culture, and its appropriation by wealthy elites, who have
transformed this particular future into an object designed to benefit them
(Mda 2000: 116). As the Believers point out, if the casino development
project goes ahead, the results will be disastrous for the villagers them-
selves: all of the casino’s jobs will go to outsiders who are already experi-
enced in the workings of casinos; “poor people” will “gamble their money
away, hoping to hit the elusive jackpot”; and the villagers will be forced to
pay for basic resources that were once free (e.g., the right to fish and swim
in the local lagoon) (Mda 2000: 103, 117).
As an alternative, the Believers propose transforming Qolora into a
national heritage site. Their campaign is led by Camagu, a trained expert
in communications and economic development who comes to Qolora in
search of a beautiful woman he once met at a funeral in Johannesburg.

After arriving in Qolora, Camagu is quickly convinced by Qukezwa, the

daughter of the Believers’ leader, that the village needs to invent a new
type of “development” that will be grounded in its unique cultural “heri-
tage” (Mda 2000: 160). For Camagu, the heritage industry satisfies this
demand perfectly: because the “wonders of Nongqawuse that led to the
cattle-killing movement of the amaXhosa happened here,” Camagu
argues, the village can be designated as a site of national historical signifi-
cance (Mda 2000: 201). Such a designation would prevent the casino
developers from tearing down the local forests and privatizing access to
the village’s lagoon. At the same time, the designation would enable
Qolora to establish a number of tourist operations: a “backpackers’ hos-
tel” for “tourists who like to visit unspoiled places”; a dining room with
“Authentic food” for cultural tourists; and guided tours to Nongqawuse’s
pool, the site where the amaXhosa ancestors were supposed to have spo-
ken to Nongqawuse.
Mda draws the general outlines for this project from a much-publicized
land-restitution case. In December 1995, lawyers representing the
Makuleke people lodged a claim against the Kruger National Park (KNP)
under the new Restitution of Land Rights Act of 1994, requesting that the
Makuleke be allowed to resettle the Pafuri region of the KNP, which the
apartheid government had forcibly removed them from in 1969. The
claim was opposed by a number of conservation groups, who worried that
a settlement could end up removing 240 square km of the KNP’s land
from protected status, as well as undermine recent efforts to create a trans-
frontier conservation area spanning the South Africa-Zimbabwe-­
Mozambique border.13 To allay such fears, and to facilitate the processing
of the claim, the Makuleke agreed to the stipulation that “no part of the
land may be used for residential purposes” or “agricultural purposes; the
land is to be utilised and maintained solely for purpose of conservation,
and associated commercial activities” (Agreement Between the Makuleke
Community, Ministers and the South African National Parks 1998: 6; my
emphasis.) The Makuleke would be allowed to capitalize on various species
of eco-, culture, and heritage tourism, but in all other respects the land
would continue to operate under the KNP’s mandate.
The idea behind this arrangement is quite similar to what we saw with
regard to the San patenting of the Hoodia gordonii. Because the Makuleke
were said to possess an ancestral connection to the land, they were granted
the exclusive authority to issue licences to wilderness lodges, luxury camps,
and safari tours. This licensing system encouraged private corporations to
invest funds into the development of key infrastructure—electric, water

and sewage services, up-to-date housing, and so forth—in the hopes that
these speculative expenditures would yield profits in the long term. Such
concrete investments were then supplemented by a more amorphous
commitment to marketing Makuleke culture, which continued to remain
the vital link connecting conservationism to neoliberal speculation. “Part
of any visit to Pafuri,” one exemplary advertisement for RETURNAfrica
reads, “is learning more about the rich traditions and culture of the
Makuleke people” who had occupied this land for hundreds of years
( The larger message
here is that environmental conservation is coextensive with cultural con-
servation; the two operate in a feedback loop, with attention to Makuleke
“traditions” naturally leading to an eco-friendly economic policy.
Heart of Redness leans heavily on this ideological convergence of con-
servationist rhetoric and ethno-enterprise. At the same time, though, the
novel asks us to reflect on the ontology informing such notions of cul-
tural property. We see this especially clearly in the novel’s depiction of
cultural “heritage,” which Mda consistently figures as a speculative exten-
sion of past customs into the future. As Camagu and Qukezwa struggle
to formulate an alternative to the casino scheme, they regularly appeal to
the need to “work out a plan of how the community can benefit from
these things we want to preserve” (Mda 2000: 119). The echo of conser-
vationism’s custodial language that we glimpse in the verb “to preserve”
speaks not only to Mda’s desire to frame culture as a “heritage” in need
of similar protection but also to the presumed complementarity between
heritage preservation and environmentalism. Thus, when Camagu pitches
his tourism plan to the Qolora community, he emphasizes its roots in an
ecological attentiveness to the “unspoiled nature” of the “indigenous for-
ests” (Mda 2000: 201). By embracing the spirit of King Sarhili, “a very
strong conservationist” who in the nineteenth century “created Mayube,
a conservation area where people were not allowed to hunt or chop
tress,” Qolora, Camagu insists, can discover a model of economic devel-
opment that would work hand-in-hand with the natural world, treating it
as part of the community’s cultural heritage rather than as raw material
for capitalist resource-extraction. Indeed, in Camagu’s eyes a proposed
national heritage site is a direct descendent of Sarhili’s earlier conserva-
tion efforts, since it, too, would ensure that “no one will touch” the land
(Mda 2000: 201). This genealogy is absolutely essential to Camagu’s
project, as it is what allows him to characterize conservationism as an
inherent part of Xhosa cultural traditions, and not a Western import (as it
is often described) (see, e.g., Beinart 2003). Conservationism  and

nature become cultural properties “owned” by the amaXhosa, and eco-

tourism simply another variant of heritage tourism.
This may or may not be an accurate description of amaXhosa environ-
mental thinking. But what is certain is that Mda uses the language of
prophecy to puzzle out the contradictions inherent in neoliberal notions
of culture-as-IP. If culture is an intangible object that can be “preserved”
by being redesignated as a type of IP, as the Makuleke settlement and
Mda’s novel both seem to believe, then culture becomes an object that can
only fulfil its economic “promise” when it is detached from an organic,
self-sufficient world and projected into a global marketplace. After all, for
as much as Mda loves to talk about “customs” that have been handed
down from “generation” to “generation,” these customs can only prevent
environmental degradation if they can produce a source of revenue that
will replace the profits generated by casinos and luxury hotels (Mda 2000:
241, 286). For this reason, all of Camagu’s proposed business ventures
depend on a two-step process: first, the official licensing of Xhosa culture,
as reflected in the government’s decision to name Qolora a national heri-
tage site; and second, the monetizing of that immaterial “heritage”
through a number of discrete tourist enterprises. Without the funds raised
by these enterprises, Camagu would not be able to articulate a model of
development based on cultural continuity and historical sameness. His sys-
tem only works if it keeps one eye resolutely fixed on the past, where cul-
tural practices first congealed into their present form, and the other eye on
the future, where those same practices will be transformed into marketable
For Mda, this manner of discontinuous development is the essence of
prophetic temporality. When Camagu succeeds in convincing the villagers
to join in his plan, Qukezwa’s father, Zim, sees this as the ultimate fulfil-
ment of Nongqawuse’s prophecy: “I knew that Nongqawuse would one
day save this village!” (Mda 2000: 201) From Mda’s perspective, this
statement is literally true. Even if the ancestors have not risen from the sea
to drive out the British, they have, in sense, returned: after generations of
neglect by the outside world, their culture is now being valued for its
“beautiful artistic cultural heritage”—“cabinet ministers [wear] isikhakha
skirts at the opening of parliament,” and tourists pay to come into contact
with places of “historical significance” to the amaXhosa (Mda 2000: 160,
240). In this sense, Zim’s gleeful declaration drains Qukezwa’s prophecies
of their otherworldly content and reinscribes them as an exercise in eco-
nomic messianism. The manifest contest of Nongqawuse’s visions are left
to the side, but the temporal structure of her prophecies—the belief that

what existed in the past will return at a later time to save the present—is
retained. Mda’s larger point here is that the language of prophecy better
describes this process than the rhetoric of classical modernization theory,
which can only understand history as the gradual unfolding of a single
linear process. The way in which ethno-enterprises speculate on cultural
customs by patenting them for future uses requires a form of historical
thinking that can draw the future back into the present, making that future
into a commodity in the present. And what does Nongqawuse do, if not
precisely that? Her prophecies produce an image of the future that her
followers invest their livelihoods in, in hopes of a return on their invest-
ment at a later time. In other words, the prophecies are promises that will
only be cashed in on after they, too, have been patented—in this case, as
an official part of South Africa’s “national heritage.”
And yet, this merging together of custom, IP, and the future only really
works within the generic confines of magical realism. Mda sidesteps the
question of whether Nongqawuse’s prophecies are factually true by
describing them as an expression of “the spiritual and material anguish of
the amaXhosa nation” (Mda 2000: 245). Rather than asking whether the
ancestors that Nongqawuse and her followers saw were really there, or if
there were simply delusions bred of mass starvation, Mda insists that the
prophecies are an authentic form of cultural property as long as the villag-
ers are “sincere in their belief” in them (Mda 2000: 240, 245).14 This
compromise depends on magical realism’s vaunted ability to erase any dis-
tinction between literary figures, cultural beliefs, and an empirically verifi-
able world. When Mda shows Nongqawuse’s followers listening to their
ancestors, he doesn’t need to specify whether this is fact or fiction. All such
encounters are confined to an anterior realm of value, where all that mat-
ters is whether they are part of Xhosa culture or not, and where culture is
treated as synonymous with intangible “beliefs.” On a formal level, this is
done by refusing to insert any authorial commentary on the status of these
beliefs: the narrator simply notes that “visitors … never heard the spirits,
for the spirits could be heard only by the chosen ones,” without specifying
whether this is free indirect discourse or an objective statement of fact
(Mda 2000: 80). This translation of Xhosa culture into fictional writing,
and the collapsing of fiction into magical realism, enables Mda to repre-
sent the prophecies as true-but-not-true (to borrow Salman Rushdie’s cul-
turalist reading of Islam in The Satanic Verses: “It was so … It was not”)
(Rushdie 1988: 558). The prophecies are “true” for those who believe in
them, but only for those people. Their status as an “intangible” form of
property depends on cordoning the prophecies off into a separate realm of

beliefs and ideas—one that is defined by its distance from the physical
world of mechanical reproduction and consumer goods.
What we need to recognize is that this move mimics the internal work-
ings of IP. Just as Mda uses his magical realist frame to make culture into
a prophetic commodity, so too does IP rely on an anterior realm of ideas,
one whose objects could similarly be described as “true-but-not-true.”
The convergence of magical realism and IP fashions Heart of Redness into
a parable of the rise of IP in South Africa, as well as into a parable of the
African Renaissance more generally. The novel shows us how neoliberal-
ism has striven to actualize various “futures” in the present, which it can
then open to the processes of commodification and monetization. But it
also shows us how these economic processes are not separate from cultural
production, but instead adopt many of the same techniques common to
contemporary fiction: the use of writing to instantiate otherwise “intan-
gible” ideas; the marking out of culture as a realm of value anterior to the
empirical world; and the tracing of nonlinear temporalities. The IP-fiction
dynamic is thus a two-way process, with fiction serving as an essential
component of neoliberal future-making, but also as a vehicle that can per-
haps shape these neoliberal industries into new, and more utopian, forms.

1. See also African National Congress 1994.
2. For more on these laws, see James 2015, 60–91.
3. For a detailed account of capital flows in post-apartheid South Africa, see
Bond 2003.
4. The most extensive account of South Africa’s cash transfer programmes
can be found in Ferguson 2015. As Ferguson points out, cash transfers
programmes have proliferated across many African countries and are espe-
cially common in southern Africa.
5. Ferguson 2006, 15–19 surveys these studies.
6. Mbeki makes this connection clear after his first use of the phrase, when he
mentions the “disempowerment of the masses of our people” as that which
“we must make foreign” (Mbeki 1999, xiv).
7. “Parallel importing” describes the system whereby generic versions of
products are imported from countries where IP protections are not in
place. It is a relatively common practice when dealing with potentially life-
saving drugs.
8. These efforts have not been overly successful in breaking up the Western
monopoly on IP rights. As Joseph Slaughter notes, by 1999 “97 percent of
the world’s intellectual property [was] held by the industrialized countries

in the North,” and “80 percent of the patents registered in the Global
South [were] held by alien residents of industrialized countries” (Slaughter
2011, 182). For more on recent efforts by indigenous peoples to reappro-
priate IP rights, see Geismar 2013.
9. See, for example, the essays collected in the section “Moral Renewal and
African Values” in Makgoba 1999, 137–169.
10. I adapt this term from Catherine Gallagher’s influential account of fiction
(see Gallagher 2006).
11. Baucom is quoting from Catherine Gallagher’s classic account of the rise
of the novel, Nobody’s Story (Gallagher 1994, xvi).
12. My reading of Heart of Redness will be focusing on the economic implica-
tions of Mda’s prophetic temporality. For more general accounts of Mda’s
use of prophecy, see Wenzel 2009, 173–194, and Still 2014, 154–185.
13. For a broader discussion of these concerns, see Ramutsindelda and
Shabangu 2013.
14. This also leads us to another point of intersection between Heart of Redness
and international IP rights. In 2008, the historian Andrew Offenburger
accused Mda of plagiarizing Jeff Peires’s historical account of the cattle-
killing movement, The Dead Will Arise (1989) (Offenburger 2008).
Subsequent defenses of Mda have stressed how his novel can be seen as an
“intertextual” appropriation similar in form to the borrowings common to
Xhosa oral traditions (see, e.g., Highman 2016). At the center of this
debate, I would argue, is a fundamental difference in how IP is defined—as
the property of a single individual, or as a type of collective property open
to all members of a society.

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Trains, Stone, and Energetics: African

Resource Culture and the Neoliberal

Sharae Deckard

A pressing task for critics of neoliberal world-culture must be to explore

how the dynamics of the neoliberal regime of the capitalist world-ecology
are mediated in cultural forms from outside Euro-American core zones,
where neoliberalization might be enacted through a particular intensity of
coercion and force, but where forms of resistance might also be concen-
trated. Particularly stark in the era of late neoliberalism’s reconsolidation
are the intensified technics of hyper-capitalized resource extraction, the
rapid enclosure of ecological commons via accelerated modes of accumu-
lation by dispossession driven by the short-term temporalities of finance
­capital, and the “combined and uneven disasters” produced by the inter-
section of economic shock doctrines and disaster capitalism together with
­climate crisis (Dawson 2017). Extractivism in the current phase of neolib-
eralization is characterized by the emergence of new iterations of global
inter-state hierarchies and resource imperialism in which industrializing
semiperipheral economies have come to play a central role. These include
the ­commodity frontiers of South-South uneven development, visible in

S. Deckard (*)
Dublin, Republic of Ireland

© The Author(s) 2019 239

S. Deckard, S. Shapiro (eds.), World Literature, Neoliberalism, and
the Culture of Discontent, New Comparisons in World Literature,

the  “neo-extractivist” tendencies of Chinese mining and infrastructure

projects in South America and the Caribbean, or the influx of Indian,
Chinese, and Brazilian investment in resource-rich zones of continental
By way of approaching these dynamics, I focus on one aspect of the
neoliberal ecological regime—the political ecology of intensified extractiv-
ism—by examining representations of mining in contemporary African
resource fictions and cultural production, using Claire Westall’s formula-
tion of “energetic materialism”: “a Marxist-inflected historical, relational
and dialectical approach to the material culture of capitalism’s resource-­
bound work/energy systems that helps move thinking beyond the
resource-conflict dystopias and benign world-ending consensual paralysis
synonymous with neoliberal capital” (Westall 2017: 267). One of the
most salient expressions of the neoliberal ecological regime can be seen in
what Pádraig Carmody has called the “new scramble for Africa” in the
twenty-first century, a series of land, resource, and data grabs driven by
intensified inter-state competition between capitalist cores and the expand-
ing needs of industrializing rising powers such as China for inorganic rare
earths, metal ores, fossil fuels, as well as organic resources such as land,
water, and industrial cropping of palm-oil, and resulting in waves of dis-
possession across the continent (Carmody 2011).
Extractivism typically takes place in peripheralized zones, from which
raw materials are removed and exported to cores for processing and pro-
duction into commodities. Far from functioning as an alternative path to
the hegemony of finance capital, as some boosters of neo-extractivist
development policies in the Global South during the 2000s commodity
price boom fantasized, extractivism should rather be understood as inex-
tricable from the dynamics of financialization that shape the logistics of
the circulation of commodities and price volatility on international stock
exchanges. Nor should extractivism be reduced to describing the opera-
tions that transform inert materials into commodities, but should also be
understood as encompassing the whole matrix of relations enabling the
extraction of value from the life and labour of both human nature and
extra-human nature (Gago and Mezzadra 2017: 579). In Jason W.
Moore’s terms, the exploitation of waged human labour within the eco-
nomic nexus is always accompanied by forms of unpaid appropriation of
both human and non-human work/energy outside the cash nexus (Moore
2015: 294).

Resource competition across the African continent has been intensified

by the ecological crisis of the neoliberal regime, in which extracting miner-
als and metals is rendered both more costly in terms of capital investment
and more toxic, producing forms of “extreme” mining. Moore calls this
the “decline of the four cheaps” of labour, food, raw materials and energy,”
heralding a transition from “surplus-value” to “negative-value,” which he
defines as “the emergence of historical natures that are increasingly hostile
to capital accumulation, and which can be temporarily fixed (if at all) only
through increasingly costly and toxic strategies” (Moore 2015: 98). Cheap
is not the same as low cost or price; rather, cheapening is “a strategy, a
practice, a violence that mobilizes all kinds of work—human and animal,
botanical and geological—with as little compensation as possible” in order
to transmute “undenominated relationships of life making into circuits of
production and consumption” and manage capitalism’s cyclical crises
(Patel and Moore 2017: 22).
The scramble for African resources is not simply an issue of physical
depletion, resource scarcity, or the end of geographic frontiers as it is
sometimes framed by critics such as Michael Klare who coined the phrase
the “race for what is left” (Klare 2012), but rather the expression of the
intertwining resistances of human and non-human nature, and of the con-
tradictions of the non-linear temporalities of capitalist extraction and

The temporality of nature-as-tap differs significantly from the temporality of

nature-as-sink. […] Capitalist technological advance not only produces a
tendency for industrial production to run ahead of its raw materials supply—
Marx’s “general law” of underproduction. It also produces a general law of
overpollution: the tendency to enclose and fill up waste frontiers faster than
it can locate new ones. […] As “resource quality”—a wretched term—
declines, it is not only more costly to extract work/energy, it becomes more
toxic. Thus the transition from placer to cyanide gold mining, or the rising
share of strip mining in world coal production. (emphasis original; Moore
2015: 279–80)

Neoliberal extractivism might be more aptly termed not the “new” but
the latest phase of the “enduring” scramble for African resources, land,
and labour, given the long durée of exploitation, extraction, and dispos-
session on the continent, of which the neoliberal regime is only the latest
phase, even if one with the potential for the epochal exhaustion of the
relations enabling “cheap” metals, minerals, and energy.

The opening of Congolese author Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s novel Tram

83 (2015) underscores this long durée with its quasi-biblical invocation of
the orginary violence of resource imperialism:

in the beginning was the stone, and the stone prompted ownership, and
ownership a rush, and the rush brought an influx of men of diverse
appearance who built railroads through the rock. (caps original, Mujila
2015: 1)

Here it is not logos which is the ontological basis of reality, but material,
the enclosure, and transformation of stone into private property, which
prompts the formation of new social relations, an ecological regime orga-
nized around the commodity frontiers of mineral and metal extraction
that transform inert material into exchange-value, enabled by the infra-
structure and technics of the railway, and articulated through violent com-
petition: “conflict minerals, this cow-dung elevated to a raw material,
in the beginning was the stone…” (Mujila 2015: 7).
Tram 83 is set in the twenty-first century in “The City-State,” a fiction-
alized version of Lumambashi in the region of Katanga in the Democratic
Republic of Congo, a province notorious for its rich deposits, from
columbo-tantalite, cassiterite and tungsten, to diamonds, gold, and ura-
nium. But this wealth has always been siphoned away. The Congo is a
prime example of the kind of nested cycles of capital accumulation that we
discussed in our introduction to this volume and of a zone peripheralized
within the world-system, held in reserve for multiple cycles of exploita-
tion. As Jennifer Wenzel has memorably written,

If the Congo did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. Time and again,
whatever natural resource became indispensable to European capitalist expan-
sion and technological innovation as to be found in the Congo in vast stores,
beginning with slave labor in the sixteenth century… In the nineteenth cen-
tury, the Congo had ivory, which as Adam Hochschild notes, was like an
expense ‘plastic,’ capable of being carved into numerous items (74). Then, in
1890, wild rubber, ready for harvesting to meet the booming demand for
tires, hoses, and electrical and telegraph insulation. In an era of electrification
and industrial manufacturing, copper for wires and cobalt for alloys. At the
dawn of the nuclear age, the uranium the United States used in the bombs
that marked the transition from World War to Cold War. In the age of global-
ization, driven in part by telecommunications technologies […] the Congo
has coltan, or columbo-tantalite, a heat-resistant conductor used in the capac-
itors that power cell phones, pagers, and laptops. (Wenzel 2006: 1–2)

The features of late neoliberal extractivism organized around rare earths,

minerals, and metals in the Congo have a genealogical preformation in
earlier forms of primitive accumulation, dating back to the first “extraction
industry” of the slave-trade in the “resource” of human labour. It is no
coincidence that many of the main slave entrepôts in Africa for the
eighteenth-­century Atlantic slave-trade, such as the Niger Delta or the
Congo, become in the neoliberal era zones for modes of extraction orga-
nized around new commodities—whether those of the petro-economy or
the nuclear and IT economies. As Patel and Moore write, “Through fron-
tiers, states and empires use violence, culture, and knowledge to mobilize
natures at low cost” (Patel and Moore 2017: 19). Over the longue durée
of the capitalist world-ecology, the Congo has been repeatedly subjected
to the most savage forms of frontierization in a series of recursive captures
of “cheap” nature prepared for by its structural peripheralization within
the larger world-system. At same time, the brutal mode of extraction has
been conjoined in the millennial period with a mode of virtual subsump-
tion underwritten by the technics of algorithmic governmentality that
enable novel forms of mapping and surveillance of terrains, resources,
populations, and labour productivity. This new form of “data colonialism”
conjoins abstract and scarring forms of accumulation by combining land
grabs and data grabs across the African continent, revolving around the
production of data points that technology providers “‘grab’, aggregate,
compute and/or sell” (Fraser 2018: 1), as in the use of new laser tech-
nologies in aerial mapping to penetrate rainforest cover.
This chapter explores the symbolic magnetism of motifs of trains and
stone in African resource fiction, and examines varieties of “locomotive
culture” bound up with resistance to the infrastructure underlying fron-
tierization. I trace the aesthetic registration of the different politics and
affects corresponding to the regimes and energetics of resource extractiv-
ism and contestation as the neoliberal era advances and the utopian pos-
sibilities of the era of decolonization recede. I compare a series of cultural
artefacts from different sites and periods of resource extraction in Africa:
Senegalese novelist Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood (1962) and
South African jazz-funk trumpeter Hugh Masekela’s song “Stimela
­(Coal-­Train)” (1974) from the Bandung era, then moving to South
African artist Dillon Marsh’s photograph, “Rhodium  – 13 million troy
ounces,”(2014) and DRC novelist Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83
(2015) as examples of dystopian portrayals of resource conflict under late
neoliberalism, and concluding with Afro-diasporic writer Nisi Shawl’s s/f

novel Everfair (2016), set in an alternative-history Congo in the nine-

teenth century. Through the evolving politics and aesthetics of these
depictions of resource extractivism, which chart the gamut from the revo-
lutionary “striking energies” and collectivities imagined in Sembène’s
socialist-realist “strike epic” and the anti-colonial force of Masekela’s
“Stimela,” to the neoliberal political paralysis and “resource conflict dys-
topia” of Mujila’s Tram 83 and the utopian horizons re-summoned by
Shawl’s turn to speculative fiction in Everfair, I trace the bloody history of
mining and resource imperialism on the continent, both as violence and
exploitation, and as resourceful contestation and insurgency, while explor-
ing the changing political horizons and capacities of form to imagine
I am particularly interested in how we might seek to detect in the
resource cultures of the neoliberal world-system what Anna Bernard has
recently called “the resource-value of cultural activism,” reading not only
for the aesthetics of discontent, but also to “recuperate liberationist
expressions of international solidarity” that are “explicitly resistant and
often combative” (Bernard 2017: 370). Such an approach celebrates
affects of “directness [and] sincerity” (Brennan 2014: 389) that are often,
in Mark Bould’s marvellous phrase, “joyously didactic,” with didacticism
understood as homiletic virtue rather than aesthetic flaw. As such, I am
thinking of the necessity to think resources and resistance together,
whether Rob Nixon’s pairing of “resource enclaves” vs. “resource rebels”
(Nixon 2011: 41), or Byron Caminero-Santangelo’s injunction to conjoin
political ecology with literary fiction in order to “look in new ways at the
literary project of imagining effective struggle for environmental justice
[….] in Africa” (Caminero-Santangelo 2014,
At the same time, my comparative approach to the world-culture of
neoliberal extractivism attempts to extend the purview of world-literary
criticism beyond analysis of the novel to analysis of world-culture by con-
joining analysis of fiction, music, and visual art. I explore how some of
these texts incorporate formal experimentation with the intermediality of
music and language to express political energies, drawing on Michael
Denning’s formulation in Noise Uprising of the “audiopolitics of a world
music”: a “cultural revolution in sound” that “prepared the way for the
decolonization of legislatures and literatures,” and whose musical form
could be understood to be combined and uneven, emerging from an
“archipelago of polyphony” across  semiperipheries of empire (Denning
2015, I conclude by positing that to examine the capacity of

resource culture for depiction of resource sovereignty and anti-extractivist

movements in world-culture is also to question the extent to which cul-
tural forms can interrogate and bring into awareness their own “energy
unconscious” (Yaeger et al. 2011: 306).

Locomotive Culture and Resistance

in the Bandung Era

The train haunts African resource fiction with a symbolic magnetism

drawn from its centrality to the infrastructure of resource extraction.
Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood (1962), one of the most famous
African “strike novels” to emerge in the Bandung era, portrays the
1947–1948 workers’ strikes across the Dakar-Niger railway in colonial
“French West Africa.” The socialist realist epic describes the strike, with its
total cessation of railway transport, as enabling the revelation of the imma-
nent reality of resource imperialism:

And so the strike came to Thiès. An unlimited strike, which, for many, along
the whole length of the railroad, was a time for suffering, but for many was
also a time for thought. When the smoke from the trains no longer drifted
above the savanna, they realized that an age had ended- an age their elders
had told them about, when all of Africa was just a garden for food. Now the
machine ruled over their lands, and when they forced every machine within
a thousand miles to halt they became conscious of their strength, but also
conscious of their dependence. They began to understand that the machine
was making of them a whole new breed of men. It did not belong to them;
it was they who belonged to it. When it stopped, it taught them that lesson.
(Sembène 1962: 32–33)

The depiction here of machinic subjectivity—of a locomotive conscious-

ness—is not couched in technological determinism, in which technology
is imagined as some ahistorical, apolitical force determining social devel-
opment, but rather a recognition that the whole of nature-society in Thiès
has been reorganized by incorporation into an ecological regime based
not on pastoral agriculture for subsistence, but on the exchange-value and
mobility of commodities. At the same time, the train is part of the mode
of production which they can and do seize in the attempt to gain auton-
omy over their own ecology. To interrupt the mobility of commodities
and labour is also to interrupt the empty, homogenous space-time of capi-
talism and to reinscribe futurity.

Moving ahead a decade, the figure of the train is invested with a simi-
larly dialectical energetic materialism in “Stimela,” or “Coal Train,” by
Hugh Masekela, the great South African trumpeter, composer and singer,
first released on his 1974 album I Am Not Afraid. Fiston Mwanza Mujila
has written that he played this song incessantly as he wrote Tram 83, that
its aesthetics and political ecology profoundly influenced the polyphonic
form of his own composition:

The freewheeling writing of Tram 83 comes from a retrospective reading

of the colonial situation. Trains were part of the colonial landscape and
architecture. They had a whole other symbolism than in Europe. They
symbolized the taming of African nature, deportation, forced labor, exploi-
tation, the transport of minerals, looting, etc. Interviewed for a documen-
tary, the South African trumpet player Hugh Masekela said that “the train
was South Africa’s first tragedy.” I think that is also valid for the Belgian
Congo. You could write a whole other history of colonization based just
on railroads. It wasn’t without reason that Stanley, the explorer commis-
sioned by Léopold II, declared: “Without the railroad, the Congo is not
worth a penny.” I needed to use a language that was dislocated, abrupt,
slithery, in order to describe these freight trains and the reality of the
uncontrolled exploitation of minerals. When I was working on this novel,
I listened a lot to “Coal Train,” a track by Masekela that speaks of a train,
a train that wends its way across the whole of southern Africa, transporting
men forced to go work in the Johannesburg mines for nothing. (Cited in
Samatar 2015,

In “Stimela,” Hugh Masekela wields trumpet and words like weapons,

introducing a deeply political consciousness of class struggle and social
justice into his fusion of AfroBeat and jazz-funk. Masekela and his band
Hedzoleh Soundz transformed—or indeed, helped inaugurate the emer-
gence of the genre of world music on the world stage, a decade before its
subversive potential would be defanged and appropriated as colourful
background for Western pop music albums. Masekela’s trumpet runs and
spoken word poetry are by turns blistering and mournful, infused with the
energies of resistant peoples.
As such, they are well-described in the words of Michael Denning’s
brilliant book Noise Uprising, as charged with the “audiopolitics of a world
music,” a “cultural revolution in sound” that prepared the way for the
decolonization of other cultural and legal forms:

Inheriting the harmonies and instruments of colonial musics, they embod-

ied the contradictions of the anticolonial struggles: as ‘modern dance
musics’—a common phrase of the time—they were scarred with the hierar-
chies of class and spectrums of color that shaped the dance halls and night-
clubs, shebeens and streets, they inhabited. But if they prefigured what
Fanon called ‘the trials and tribulations of national consciousness,’ they also,
with their travelling if untranslatable names—son and samba, tarab and
marabi, kroncong and jazz, rumba and hula—prefigured a new world, a
‘third world, culturally as well as politically independent. Music did not sim-
ply sustain the soul in the struggle; the decolonization of the territory was
made possible by the decolonization of the ear. (Denning 2015,

The coal train of Masekela’s “Stimela” is not confined to some reverent

reworking of John Coltrane, which some American critics initially assumed
it to be, though the pun offers deliberate homage, but rather foregrounds
the train as haunting icon of imperialist resource violence enduring into
the twentieth century. The song evokes the forces of contestation-from-­
below shaping the emergence of neoliberalism across the Third World in
the 1970s, as new strategies of accumulation via dispossession were being
pioneered, and the revolutionary energies of decolonization were being
confronted by new forms of neo-colonial domination as well as the endur-
ing legacies of imperialism which lingered undone, as in apartheid South
The song’s imaginary is pan-African, traversing Southern and Central
Africa, using the train as metonym of the massive infrastructural reorgani-
zation of the continent through the creation of the railroads to extract
commodities, “that shiny mighty evasive stone,” from the “hinterlands”
and transport precarious worker to South African mines and centres of
capital, where they endure profoundly immiserated conditions of labour
and social reproduction. That this new semi-proletarianized and interna-
tional workforce of miners was forged through the dynamics of disposses-
sion and enclosure of indigenous lands, Masekela makes ferociously clear
when he sings that the riders of the train think about their lands and herds
“That were taken away from them/ With the gun, the bomb, the teargas
and the cannon” (Masekela 1974, But the song is also sonically
charged with the euphoric possibility of uprising, from the insistent loco-
motive percussion building in intensity and speed, the chuffing sound of
the train’s wheels also the mounting friction of contestation, to Masekela’s
extraordinary imitation of the train’s steam-whistle, voiced as ululation of

protest, to the lyrical conclusion “And when they hear that Choo-Choo
train/ They always curse, curse the coal train/ The coal train that brought
them to Johannesburg” (Masekela 1974,
Denning points out that the spatiality of the “vernacular music revolu-
tion” arose from the new “archipelagos of polyphony” formed by com-
bined and uneven development under imperialism:

The new vernacular musics of the era of electrical recording emerged on the
edges and borders of the empires of global capitalism, in the barrios, bidon-
villes, barrack-yards, arrabales, and favelas of an archipelago of colonial
ports, linked by steamship routes, railway lines, and telegraph cables, mov-
ing commodities and people across and between empires. (Denning 2015,

If the coal train drains the resources of the periphery, both human and
mineral, it also forges the material and spatial conditions for new potenti-
alities of internationalist solidarity and collective action, and for the emer-
gence of new cultural forms such as this combined and uneven music,
electrified with what Michael Niblett has recently called in the context of
fiction, “striking energies”: the kinetics, vectors, and velocities generated
by mass strike action and the collective attempts of workers to transform
ecologies “by seizing control of the flows of energy they generate” (Niblett
2017: 307).
We might recall here again Sembène. In invoking the collective sense of
solidarity and revolutionary totality needed for the general strike to suc-
ceed, Bakayoko deploys a locomotive metaphorics:

When I am in the cabin of my engine, I take on a sense of absolute identity

with everything that is in the train, no matter whether it is passengers or just
freight. I experience everything that happens along its whole length. In the
stations I observe the people. But once the engine is on its way, I forget
everything else. My role is nothing except to guide that machine to spot
where it is supposed to go. I don’t even know any longer whether it is my
heart that is beating to the rhythm of the engine, or the engine to the
rhythm of my heart. And for me, that is the way it has to be with this strike—
we must all take on a sense of identity with it… (Sembène 1962: 210)

Here, the rhythmic energetics of revolutionary totality are engendered in

a “locomotive consciousness” which is exhilarating in its sense of mobility
and forward-momentum, but which also betrays the extent that even such

an image of resource autonomy relies on the incorporation and re-­

fashioning of the revolutionary political subject’s body and affect within
the capitalist energy regime—that of the coal powering the steam engine,
and of the oil that would soon after replace it. Later, even more explicitly,
as Bakayoko addresses a crowd in Dakar, we are told that “It was no lon-
ger the crowd he saw in front of him, but two shining rails, tracking a path
into the future. Even his voice seemed turned to steel” (Sembène 1962:
However, against this image of heroic, masculinized futurity, Sembène
crucially opposes the role of women in the strike: firstly, their struggle to
perform their own unpaid labour of social reproduction as food prices
spike, access to water is cut off by the coal and railway companies, and
their husbands spend their time on strike in idleness; secondly, their insur-
gency against privatization and famine in the form of food and water riots
and theft of supplies; and thirdly, their decision to leave the domestic
sphere and become political actors, despite the consternation of their
patriarchal husbands. They walk in protest to Dakar, going on strike, as it
were, from housework:

Ever since they left Thiès, the women had not stopped singing. As soon as
one group allowed the refrain to die, another picked it up, and new verses
were born at the hazard of chance or inspiration, one word leading to
another and each finding, in its turn, its rhythm and its place. No one was
very sure any longer where the song began, or if it had an ending. It rolled
out over its own length, like the movement of a serpent. It was as long as
life. (Sembène 1962: 192)

The women’s ambulation is slow and torturous, as they suffer the priva-
tions of famine and thirst on the road, and are beaten by police. The
organic metaphor of the serpent, even as it alludes to the ‘iron snake’ of
the railtracks they walk alongside, counters the hypermasculinism of
Bakayoko’s locomotive consciousness, invoking an ecology of circular
reciprocity, rather than linear development and vehicular momentum. It is
generative and collective, rather than helmed by one charismatic or mes-
sianic male driver, and insurgent audiopolitics are evoked through their
invention of new music through which both to express and to fuel the
march. At the same time, the text intelligently examines the increasing
incorporation of women into informal economies of sex work when they
are denied formal employment, and foregrounds the gendering of the

labour of social reproduction, by showing how the long march is led and
conceived by Penda, who chafes against both European and traditional
African patriarchal norms of gender, and who sometimes sells sex in order
to survive without a husband; as such, she must overcome the censure not
only of the striking men, but of their wives.
If Sembène’s novel is set in the colonial period, retrospectively examin-
ing the great workers’ insurgencies of the 1940s in search of future pros-
pects of anti-colonial liberation, Masekela’s “Stimela” was first recorded in
1973, the same year of the mass strikes in Durban, when 100,000 African
workers came out in protest against the racist legislation and denial of
human and socio-economic rights at the heart of the apartheid regime:
from pass laws, forced removals and the refusal of the right to organize, to
the low wages and hardships of back-breaking migrant labour. In the first
large-scale protest since the political “stay at home” of the 1950s, Durban
workers sang and marched to make their demands heard. The insurgent
music of Masekela’s “Stimela” could thus be understand as both engen-
dered by and engendering the spirit of rebellion suffusing this watershed
moment, which re-opened the possibility of collective struggle not only in
the nationalist context of the apartheid regime, but against the larger con-
text of capitalist extraction on the continent. As such both cultural pro-
ductions invite interpretation in light of Jennifer Wenzel’s call for
counter-history that recognizes the “anti-apartheid struggle as a war
waged on—and for ENERGY,” in which power is understood in “two
senses”: power as energy and power as the empowerment of the people
through collective action (Wenzel 2017: 2–3).

Stone and Dystopia Under Late Neoliberalism

Fast forward to 2014, and Dillon Marsh’s photograph, “Rhodium – 13
million troy ounces,” from his series For What It’s Worth, which depicts a
digital agglomeration of all the platinum group metals extracted from
South African mines since operations began in 1924, set on the ground of
the Marikana koppie, where police opened fire on a group of striking
mineworkers on 16 August 2012, killing 34 men and injuring 78 others.
If the striking energies of workers were a crucial part of the apartheid
struggle, in post-apartheid South Africa, as in the decolonization struggles
in many of the post-colonial states of Africa, the liberation projects which
drove their protests have not been rewarded with an emancipatory revolu-
tion in the socio-ecological organization of human and extra-human

natures: the unequal ecological exchange and constellations of race, class

and gender on which the political ecology of mining is founded continue
in the neoliberal era, while the violence of extraction has been intensified
and renewed in new forms, under the administration of new national
political elites, but with equal subservience to transnational capital, aided
by technological innovations in the biopolitical capacity of states and cor-
porations to surveil and repress resistant populations.
In the photograph, the glimmering sphere of rhodium, a metal most
commonly used as an anti-corrosion agent in jewellery, looks like an alien
artefact, a giant lump of metal that parodies the logic of commodities
made from certain metals as possessing higher aesthetic or monetary
“worth” in contrast to the devalued lives of the humans who mined or
made it, or of the work/energy of the earth that produced it. The conflu-
ence of lightning strike and electricity pylons in a postindustrial, denuded
waste-scape lends the atmosphere an ecogothic charge. But here, the
threat alludes not to some ecophobic concept of a vengeful “Nature,”
though the activity of extra-human forces is certainly present in the form
of the storm, but rather the repressive force of the neoliberal state exercis-
ing its monopoly on violence to crush the strike and preserve the ecologi-
cal regime of extraction.
The photograph invites us to think of resources as actants “bundled
with the relations of class, empires and appropriation” in the process of
becoming mass commodities (Moore 2015: 196). It invokes the “mining
uncanny” in three polyvalent senses: uncanny because it rematerializes the
raw materials taken from underground and transported far away, and thus
reminding us of the hollowness that underlies what appears solid ground;
uncanny, because the human labourers who have co-produced this envi-
ronment and have protested in it have been forcibly erased, their “striking
energies” present only in the allegorical “strike” of lightning; and uncanny
because it mobilizes the wider energy unconscious of the capitalist world-­
ecology, its dependence not only on metals and stone, but the energy
regimes of fossil fuels and nuclear energy perpetrating their own severe
inequities of extraction, access, and pollution, the uneven infrastructures
characteristic of peripheral zones that exclude many Africans from the
gridlife of global petro-modernity, while also contributing to the degrada-
tion not only of local mining ecologies, but of the very capacity for life on
the planet in the age of capitalogenic climate crisis.
The collective writers of After Oil note that “Nearly 97% of those who
live without electricity, about 22 million people, are in sub-Saharan Africa

and Asia. A vast divide characterizes energy access; in the simplest terms
there are those who expect to be ever on the grid and those who have
lived entire lives being off the grid. These are fundamentally different
encounters with energy” (Petrocultures Research Group 2016: 58). If, as
Rebecca Solnit argues, climate change would better be called “climate
violence” (Solnit 2014,, then Dillon’s artwork evokes not only the
spectacular violence of the Marikana massacre, but the “slow violence” of
climate injustice (Nixon 2011). Yet one of the formal limitations of the
photograph’s emphasis on landscape is its depiction of frozen or static
time—the absence of motion, except for that of the lightning is of course
a political critique in itself—but the photograph can offer only its negative
critique of commodity-form and value; there is no intimation of an
So too in Mujila’s twenty-first-century novel Tram 83, with which I
opened the essay and to which I now return, is there no exit from the
violence of neoliberal capitalism, only the resourcefulness of language, an
audiopolitics of formal experimentation with the intermediality of music
and language—what Mujila calls “noise engineered.” This draws both on
local musical cultures and on wider traditions of African music but is unac-
companied by the potential for solidarity.
Mujila’s Tram 83 is a quintessential boom fiction, churning with the
aesthetics of the neoliberal mineral and metal rush in the Congo, describ-
ing the whole of the city as organized around the regime of extractivism:
“Administrative offices, banking, postal services, all sprang up around
twelve miles away. … In the beginning the stone and the stone, the rail-
roads, and the railroads and the arrival of men of diverse nationalities
speaking the same dialect of sex and coltan” (Mujila 2015: 24). The nar-
ration is prone to breathless lists, which try to capture an excessive and
teeming totality through litanies (rather than point of view characters or
plot, indeed, it is barely plotted at all), in a great forward-rush of language
and sound, whose noise self-consciously imitates the polyphonies and
polyrhythmic syncopations of African vernacular musics, both eulogizing
and refiguring the musical form of rumba.
The fictional “City-State” in the novel is the  semiperipheral zone
where migrants and jobbers from the hinterland congregate to sell their
labour to the visiting bosses and managers from Northern cores and to
translate raw materials from the mines into commodities. At the same
time, it is the site of cultural mixing and innovation, as in the exuberant
polyphony of the Tram 83 music hall and hooker club where the novel’s

primary action is set, literally situated at the train juncture where lines
meet, and where musical forms and oral culture from across the African
continent and diaspora collide and are re-mixed. A microcosm of the social
life of the City-State, the music hall is where all the workers, miners, and
diggers, “their bodies stiffened with radioactivity” (Mujila 2015: 4), con-
gregate together with the unemployed, the hustlers, the brokers, and the
bosses and “tourists.” The latter is Mujila’s sarcastic term for the represen-
tatives of transnational corporations, humanitarian NGOs, and foreign
state-owned mining concessions. Chinese and Brazilian bosses and work-
ers populate the bar alongside European and American elites and African
workers from across the continent, an example of the way representations
of non-European mining transnationals and South-South development
are beginning to be invoked in African resource fictions.
Mujila’s Tram 83 is motific in its organization, repeating refrains, many
of which invoke the spectre of the railway as symbol of the cyclical drain-
ing of the continent and the enduring inequities of capitalist civilization;
the very repetition of the motifs is both redolent of the musical riffs of jazz
improvisation and of the recurrent periodicity of boom and bust cycles. As
the miners lament in chorus, “We are of the railroad civilization” (Mujila
2015: 25). The opening two pages foreground one of the most prominent
of these motifs, “the railroad built by Stanley,” describing the decaying
colonial infrastructure of the train station next to the music club:

The Northern Station was going to the dogs. It was essentially an unfinished
metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called
to mind the railroad built by Stanley, cassava fields, cut-rate hotels, greasy
spoons, bordellos, Pentecostal churches, bakeries, and noise engineered by
men of all generations and nationalities combined. […] According to the
fickle but ever-recurring legend, the seeds of all resistance movements, all
wars of liberation, sprouted at the station, between two locomotives. As if
that weren’t enough, the same legends claims that the building of the rail-
road resulted in numerous deaths attributed to tropical disease, technical
blunders, the poor working conditions imposed by the colonial authori-
ties—in short, all the usual clichés. (Mujila 2015: 1–2)

The locomotive here is dialectical, invoking both the long history of impe-
rialist exploitation and the resistance movements which arose in opposi-
tion to it, but through the jaded eyes of political disillusion, in which both
associations have taken on the dimensions of weary cliché. The political
exuberance of a text such as God’s Bits of Wood is wholly lacking here.

Similarly, in protagonist Lucien’s nightmares of locomotives on the

night before he steals into the Hope Mine to illegally scrape out ore in
order to gain enough money to subsist, extractive modernity in the era of
late neoliberal capitalism is portrayed as a nightmare from which the novel
cannot awake:

Nightmare 1: a locomotive crammed full of minerals makes an infernal

drone as it leaves platform 18 for horizons unknown. Nightmare 2: his
grandfather asks him to jump into the first boxcar, otherwise ‘you’ll die like
a homeless dog for wanting to hang onto a town that is no longer suited to
you.’ Nightmare 3: dissident rebels confront striking students allied with
diggers beneath a hail of stones not far from the Tram. (Mujila 2015: 116)

This is characteristic of the tendency of Mujila’s novel towards resource

conflict dystopia—cataloguing the violence and excess attending the
extraction of conflict minerals—but grown wary of the earlier dreams of
liberation movements and unable to conceive of social and environmental
justice beyond chaotic outbursts or the endless competition of rebels and
warlords for profitable monopoly over territories.
Earlier historical moments of possibility from the era of decolonization
are invoked—the promises and betrayal of Lumumba, the strikes of work-
ers and students—but all are stymied. Furthermore, in contrast to
Sembène’s strikingly complex portrayals of female subjectivity, interiority
and political agency, the Mujila’s representation of women is wholly con-
strained to the “baby-chick” and “single-mama” sex-workers in the Tram
83 club. Acting as the chorus to the soliloquies and solo litanies of
Requiem and Lucien, the women’s speech is confined to pick up lines
from their trade: “Do you have the time?” (15); “I like money” (19); “I
love to give head” (Mujila 2015: 19). Their physical appearances are
reduced to the shape of their breasts and buttocks, described in grossly
objectified terms “as pineapples, avocados, balloons, or baseballs” (20)
and they are denied point of view characterization. As such, the book has
rightly drawn fire for its gender representation, which attempts to critique
the pervasiveness of misogyny and sexual violence, including the epidemic
of rape, which accompanies conflict mineral mining in the Congo, but
because it cannot conceive of female agency outside of objectification,
only replicates the virulence of sexist rhetoric and conditions, in sharp
contrast to Sembène’s earlier-mentioned portrayal of the singing, march-
ing women on strike from housework, led by Penda, an unmarried woman

who occasionally resorts to selling sex in order to keep her financial inde-
pendence, and who becomes radicalized in the course of the strike.
The foreclosure of the book’s political horizons and its turn to pyro-
technical experimentation and mimicry of musical rhapsody as a kind of
aesthetic compensatio