Gender and Neoliberalism: Exploring the Exclusions and Contours of Neoliberal Subjectivities
by Christina Scharff
Gender intersects with neoliberalism in various ways and it is not my intention to provide an overview of these complex entanglements here. Such an overview would depend on our understanding of ‘gender’ and ‘neoliberalism’, which are concepts that have been defined and used differently, depending on disciplinary orientation, political outlook, and spatial and temporal context, to name just a few. Instead, I want to use this blog entry to hone in on discussions about gender and neoliberalism in contemporary Western European contexts. Feminist research has suggested that women, and in particular young women, have been constructed as ideal neoliberal subjects. By adopting a Foucauldian approach to neoliberalism – more on this later – this body of work shows that public, media and policy discourses have positioned young women as subjects of capacity who can lead responsibilised and self-managed lives through self-application and self-transformation. By drawing on the findings from empirical research, I will explore these gendered, neoliberal subjectivities, focusing on exclusions and the ways these subjectivities are lived out emotionally.
Neoliberalism is a contested concept and regarded variously as a theory of political economic practices that champions private property rights, free markets and free trade (Harvey, 2005), a historical thought collective of increasingly global proportions (Mirwoski and Plehwe, 2009), a political philosophy and ideology that affects every dimension of social life (Giroux, 2004), a cultural politics (Duggan, 2004), a form of common sense that revolves around the naturalness of the market, the primacy of the competitive individual, and the superiority of the private over the public (Hall et al., 2013), and – crucially – a process that is historically and geographically contingent (Peck and Tickell, 2002). To be sure, more approaches to neoliberalism exist (see William Davies’ blog entry). As John Clarke (2008) has argued, neoliberalism suffers from promiscuity. Indeed, he suggests that the concept has been stretched too far to be productive as a critical tool.
I agree that it’s important to define neoliberalism carefully, and to pay attention to its mobile, flexible and contingent character. However, I do not think that neoliberalism, as a concept, should be abandoned. Instead, I draw on Foucauldian approaches (Foucault, 2008) that regard neoliberalism as a mentality of government (Barry, Osborne and Rose, 1996). Here, neoliberalism is understood as more than a set of free market principles; amidst other dynamics, neoliberalism extends to the organisation of subjectivity (Brown, 2006). Under neoliberalism, individual citizens are construed as entrepreneurs of themselves and their lives (Brown, 2003; 2006; Gordon, 1987). Neoliberal subjects are entrepreneurial subjects who calculate about themselves and work on themselves in order to better themselves (du Gay, 1996). In the literature, both terms – neoliberal and entrepreneurial subject – are used; therefore, I will employ them interchangeably here.
Feminist research has demonstrated that women, and young women in particular, are increasingly positioned as ideal neoliberal subjects (Gill and Scharff, 2011; McRobbie, 2009; Ringrose and Walkerdine, 2008). As Angela McRobbie (2009: 15) has shown, young women have become “privileged subjects of social change” who capably maximise newly won opportunities such as access to the labour market and control over reproduction. This hopeful positioning of young women is well captured in the slogan of the Nike sponsored, and globally disseminated, project “the girl effect – the unique potential of 600 million adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves and the world” (www.girleffect.org; for a critical discussion, see Koffman and Gill, 2013). According to Bronwyn Davies (2005), the neoliberal self is defined by its capacity to consume, which further privileges the feminine through the long-standing association between women and consumption (Nayak and Kehily, 2008). The neoliberal incitement to self-transformation is also associated with femininity (Ringrose and Walkerdine, 2008). It is mainly women who are called on to transform themselves, which becomes particularly visible with regard to the management of the body and sexuality (Gill and Scharff, 2011).
There are stark contradictions between women’s hopeful positioning as subjects of capacity on the one hand and intensifying forms of governmentality on the other. This disjuncture raises a range of questions relating, for example, to the exclusions that neoliberal subjectivities (re-) produce. As several researchers have pointed out, the neoliberal self, closely tied to the ability to consume, is distinctly middle class (Ringrose and Walkerdine, 2008). In addition, the empowered, female neoliberal self is often constructed in opposition to allegedly powerless ‘other’ women. When I conducted research on how a diverse group of young, British and German women engaged with feminism and gender (in-) equalities, I found that they often presented themselves as empowered and that they did so by constructing the figure of the oppressed, ‘Muslim’ woman who was a passive victim of patriarchy (Scharff, 2011; 2012). I traced similar dynamics in media and public engagements with feminism, particularly in Germany (Scharff, 2011; 2013). Arguably, neoliberal subjectivity is formed through processes of abjection (see also Tyler, 2013), which position empowered and self-managing subjects as morally superior (Brown, 2003). The ‘other’ of the neoliberal subject – vulnerable, powerless, passive, and dependent – is often constituted along all too familiar hierarchies of power. Despite its inclusionary rhetoric – all 600 million adolescent girls have the potential to change the world – formations of neoliberal subjectivity seem to reproduce classed and racialised exclusions.
And how can we make sense of the privileging of the feminine under neoliberalism? How do neoliberalism’s subjects of capacity, namely young women, negotiate their positioning? More specifically, how is neoliberalism’s incitement to become an entrepreneur of the self registered and lived out emotionally? In order to answer these questions, and to gain a deeper understanding of the interplay between gender and neoliberalism, I have conducted over sixty in-depth interviews with individuals who may be the quintessence of neoliberal subjectivity. I interviewed young, female cultural workers because they are twice positioned as entrepreneurial: as young women and as individuals who work in the cultural sector. As Andrew Ross (2008: 32) has argued, cultural workers are “paradigms of entrepreneurial selfhood” due to the sector’s emphasis on the values of autonomy, self-realisation and competition. While my research interviews explored a range of contemporary issues, including the subjective experiences of precarious and creative labour with a specific focus on the classical music profession, inequalities in informal work environments, as well as the ways in which urban settings affect cultural work, they also provided ample empirical data on the ways in which entrepreneurial subjectivities are constituted in and through talk, subverted and lived out.
In particular, the study allowed me to map the contours of entrepreneurial subjectivities and their ‘psychic life’ (Butler, 1997). My analysis shows that entrepreneurial subjects relate to themselves as if they were a business, actively work on their selves, embrace risks and knockbacks, adopt a positive attitude, and hide injuries. Crucially, my analysis highlights that entrepreneurial rhetoric does not hold absolutely because entrepreneurial subjects draw on a range of discourses in their talk. Some discourses, however, are also markedly absent, such as political perspectives that highlight structural inequalities. As a result, desires for change and feelings of anger tend to be directed away from the socio-political sphere and turned inwards. Social critique is transformed into self-critique, resulting in a prevalence of self-doubt, insecurity and anxieties. Competition too seems to be increasingly internalised, suggesting that entrepreneurial subjects mainly compete with the self, and not with others. This process may lessen or render less visible competition with others, but may also indicate that power works on a ‘deeper’ level. Last but not least, entrepreneurial subjects repudiate those who are not entrepreneurial. Resonating with my argument about the construction of western, empowered female subjects through the ‘othering’ of allegedly oppressed victims of patriarchy, entrepreneurial subjects constitute themselves through distinction from those regarded as lazy, insufficiently hard working and vulnerable.
My empirical exploration of the contours of entrepreneurial subjectivity demonstrates that young women’s positioning as neoliberal subjects comes at a cost. This positioning rests on processes of abjection of those who are regarded as insufficiently ambitious and autonomous. As I have pointed out, these processes tend to privilege particularly classed and racialised subjects, thereby reproducing existing power hierarchies. In addition to exploring the exclusionary politics of neoliberal subjectivities, I have also attempted to shed light on their affective dimensions. How is the neoliberal incitement to become an entrepreneur of the self lived out? I have suggested that neoliberal subjects hide injuries and present themselves as proactive, hard-working managers of their own lives. And although neoliberal discourse – like any other discourse – does not hold absolutely, neoliberal subjectivity seems to evoke a range of affective states that are linked to anxiety, depoliticisation, the repudiation of vulnerability and an internalisation of competition. Of course, these emotional states may not only be experienced by women; my research has focused on young women, and cultural workers, because they are twice positioned as entrepreneurial and may therefore provide insight into how entrepreneurial subjectivities are lived out. The research does however suggest that the privileging of the feminine under neoliberalism, at least in the context described here, comes at a cost because it heightens the pressures associated with neoliberal governmentality.
Christina Scharff is Lecturer in Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London. She is author of Repudiating Feminism: Young women in a neoliberal world and, with Rosalind Gill, co-editor of New Femininities: Postfeminism, neoliberalism and subjectivity. Christina’s research interests are in gender, neoliberalism, cultural work and qualitative research methods. Her work has appeared in various international journals, including Sociology, the European Journal of Women’s Studies, and Feminism & Psychology. Most recently, Christina was awarded the prestigious ESRC Future Research Leaders Grant to conduct innovative research on young women, entrepreneurialism and the classical music profession.
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Scharff, C. (2011). The new German Feminisms: of Wetlands and Alpha-Girls. New femininities: postfeminism, neoliberalism and subjectivity. R. Gill and C. Scharff. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan: 265-278.
Scharff, C. (2012). Repudiating Feminism: Young women in a neoliberal world. Farnham, Ashgate.
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Further Reading in Theory Culture & Society
Nicholas Gane’s ‘The Emergence of Neoliberalism: Thinking Through and Beyond Michel Foucault’s Lectures on Biopolitics’:
William Davies’s ‘response’ to Nicholas Gane’s ‘The Emergence of Neoliberalism’
Nicholas Gane’s ‘Review Article: Trajectories of Liberalism and Neoliberalism’:
William Davies’s ‘When is a market not a market?: ‘Exemption’, ‘Externality’ and ‘Exception’ in the case of European State Aid rules’:
You may also be interested in reading more about William Davies’s forthcoming TCS Book ‘The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition’
Further Reading on Neoliberalism on the TCS Blog: