Follow Us

Follow on Twitter    Follow on Facebook    YouTube Channel    Vimeo Channel    Tumblr    SoundCloud Channel    iPhone App    iPhone App

Neoliberalism's Forked Tongue

[Protest in Egypt; Image From Unknown Archive] [Protest in Egypt; Image From Unknown Archive]

I want to start with an image of a protest that has revolutionary aspirations. This protest is full of people of all ages wearing different kinds of clothing and from all different regions of Lebanon, Egypt or Tunisia. As with all of the protests that the Arab Middle East witnessed in 2011, different signs are held up and different chants are shouted, often interrupting each other. As with protests in Egypt and in Tunis, signs are held up side by side demanding jobs for citizens and demanding that the “human rights” of citizens be respected. In the crowd there is even a sign tying these two demands together; the right to a job, the right to a living, the “human rights” that should buffer a citizen from the ravages of structural adjustment imposed by international lending agencies.

Many articles on the Egyptian revolution of 2011 have focused on how the uprising exposed the failures of neoliberal economic policies and thus, perhaps, authors foresee the dampening of neoliberal practices in post-Mubarak Egypt. Missing in this analysis is an appreciation of the multiple registers of neoliberal ideology and practice. These practices and discursive circulations both engender and are engendered by a notion of the subject often described as “liberal” by critical theorists; rational, autonomous, legally and litigiously constituted, rights demanding, and freedom seeking. I suggest that when discussing the Egyptian revolution we should pay attention to the linked practices of the citizen (or the subject more broadly) and of the economy that occur within the larger material, discursive and ideological framework of “neoliberalism.” When we focus on only one of these domains; the subject or the market, we unknowingly use neoliberalism to critique itself, thus re-scaffolding the hegemonic place this discourse occupies in the practice of life today.

Perhaps, in order to understand the phenomenon to which I am trying to draw attention, it is best not to approach it with overdetermined words such as “neoliberalism” or “liberalism” or “capitalism” in mind. No matter what the larger framework is called, it is undeniable that international human rights corporations such as Human Rights Watch are important agentive political bodies in Egypt and in Lebanon, for example. Similarly, other “international bodies” such as the UNDP (see the Arab Human Development Reports for examples of these "common sense" recommendations), the IMF and the WorldBank are actors in the reconfiguration of life worlds across the region. This reconfiguration does not come only through market adjustment, but also through World Bank and UNDP “recommendations” as to “optimal” fertility rates, systems of education that are needed, and the types of family structure (nuclear, urban, double income) that should be promoted in the name of development. These organizations and their local allies intervene in a connected economic/social sphere, and they play a role in the conditioning of subjects vis-à-vis global market processes. To put it bluntly, organizations such as the IMF and Human Rights Watch are uncomfortable allies in a global and ideological project to shape practices of life, economy, and of citizenship. In addition, the proliferation of the local-global NGO capital networks and their attendant languages and institutions translate questions of justice into questions of rights, a translation which ties a citizen ever more intimately to the state. Thus, the question of economic justice becomes one of economic rights, the question of gender justice becomes one of women's and/or gay rights, and questions of violence are transformed into calls for bodily rights. In this framework, states are posited as potential human rights abusers, yet only the state can ensure the redress of these rights. Hence, the paradox of human rights reports; after spending pages outlining how, for example, the state of Iran is abusing the human rights of its citizens, towards the end of the report “recommendations” are made to said author of those abuses. In these reports, invariably the state is asked to transform (or reform) itself from a human rights abuser into a human rights defender. The move from justice to rights, as authors such as Zizek and Fraser have argued, is a feature of late capitalism that depoliticizes inequality and posits the state as the arbiter of said inequality. Thus, the state is “good” or “bad” depending on how well it regulates the lives of their citizens or, as anthropologists have suggested, depending on how well they perform “good governance.” Such depoliticization should be understood as a political process that aims to separate the messiness of shared life into compartments such as “culture,” “government,” “economy,” “personal life,” and, my personal favorite, “civil society.” Once segregated into neat, independent packages, we, as liberal/neoliberal subjects, are told that our “political” involvement begins, and ends, as participants in “free”, “fair” and “transparent” elections.

While the Egyptian revolution, was, as another Jadaliyya writer pointed out, a revolution against neoliberalism it was also, in very important ways, a neoliberal revolution. The ravages of market restructuring were highlighted by the brave protestors who were daily risking their lives in challenging the regime. Their demands were voiced in a grammar that would be familiar to neoliberal (or late liberal) subjects everywhere; an end to corruption, and increased transparency, accountability, and rights for citizens. Human rights discourses were invoked by protestors, and the internet's promises of stranger sociality, anonymity and disembodied reason were highlighted by many as a main component of the revolutions' success. Rather than demanding the end of neoliberal market practices, demonstrators demanded the reform of those practices and assurances that economic opportunity would be shared more widely. Ultimately, the head of the Egyptian regime was forced to resign. Thus far, the institutions of the regime not only remain, but are tasked, to adopt Human Rights Watch language, with “reforming” themselves.

Let us revisit the image I began this train of thoughts with. A would-be revolutionary is standing in Tahrir square before the ousting of Mubarak. She is carrying a sign that ties Husni Mubarak's corruption with her inability to find a job that she deserves as a college graduate. She claims that her economic, political, and bodily rights are violated daily by a corrupt and inefficient regime. Her neighbor may be holding a sign that highlights the alleged 70 billion dollar price tag of Husni Mubarak's corruption, implicitly stating that were it not for rampant corruption, this windfall of structural adjustment would have been distributed more equally among Egypt's citizens. As observers, we should not be too quick to applaud the defeat of neoliberalism in Egypt. Instead, we should pause and dwell on the irony of hearing neoliberal/liberal discourses mobilized to critique neoliberal economic practices. We should dwell on the irony of a revolution that has, too quickly, been captured into the language of reform. We should ask whether a lexicon of revolution that engenders radical political transformation (such as the Bolshevik or the French Revolution) is still intelligible to a broad constituency. We should wonder if it would have been possible in today's world to have a revolution not expressed in the language of reform. We should recognize that when a revolutionary couches her demands for political and economic change in a grammar of rights and good governance, she is speaking in, and through, neoliberalism's forked tongue.


For work that adresses some of the themes I have raised here, see

Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts

David Harvey, A Brief Introduction to Neoliberalism

Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming

Patty Kelly, Lydia's Open Door

Biehl, João Guilherme. Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment

Latest posts in Politics:

6 comments for "Neoliberalism's Forked Tongue"


Excellent article. Even so, the academic phrasing is unhelpful. The author might be advised by friends that decent journalistic prose would help to get her important message across.

Reuven Kaminer wrote on May 18, 2011 at 03:50 AM

An exquisite piece of analysis. Pinpointing a particular phenomenon and slotting it into a wider context of present day reality. I would go further to suggest that what we are experiencing and witnessing are the older structures and values of neorealism, shrouding themselves into the ambiguity of post-modernist narrative in order to preserve the modernist core. The revolution (not this one) failed because it was simply absorbed. "Things have to change in order to remain the same".

Milos Milosavljevic wrote on May 19, 2011 at 01:17 AM

Excellent article. Even so, the academic phrasing is unhelpful. The author might be advised by friends that decent journalistic prose would help to get her important message across.

Reuven Kaminer wrote on May 19, 2011 at 06:20 AM

I have tried to read past the post-doc terminology, but I am still not sure I understand the argument. Where is the "forked tongue" of liberalism? what prevents Egypt's workers today from mobilizing along class lines? Maybe because I work for an "agentive political body" (though not sure what that is -- but i am told it is a corporation). There is definitely room to question the ability of human rights discourse to challenge structural economic forces. But I don't see it in this piece. In the spirit of the piece, I should sign as "neo-bourgeois human rights spoiler of authentic class struggle."

Nadim houry wrote on May 23, 2011 at 10:55 AM

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my suggestions on neoliberalism and the way it is expressed in multiple registers, including, but not limited to, attempts to restructure economic, social and political practices of life. Nothing structural prevents Egypt's workers from mobilizing along class lines---and in fact, as I am sure y­ou know, for years many Egyptian workers have been organizing against, for example, conditions in state-business elite owned asbestos factories. An illustration of the "forked tongue" can be that IMF policies are not seen as human rights violations in and of themselves. So, a big HR organization will not hesitate to criticize a third world country drowned in debt and poverty and corruption due to the IMF and World Bank's policies for not securing adequate health care for its citizens, while refraining from condemning the material and structural reasons they are unable to. However, this is not to say that smaller, grassroots activist groups don't see the bigger picture and demand change on both ends, using, among other things, a human rights framework. Used alone and by itself it may not be very effective in dealing with these sorts of problems, but in conjunction with other frameworks some progress can be made. The problem is that hr discourse has become so hegemonic that it has become synonymous with justice, and all the international and legal mechanisms for redress only understand the language of human rights because in the end it is a body of law. Those other issues don't receive the same attention or enjoy the same legitimacy. As for groups such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International being powerful political bodies acting with interest and agency, just today these groups “urged” that wonderful “protector” (just look at its record in protecting, for example, the human rights of Iraqi citizens by imposing a brutal sanctions regime) of human rights, the UN Security Council, to take “action” on Syria. There is also the (by any measure imperialist) issue of getting the world's powerful nations to "condemn" and apply pressure on the world's less powerful to abide by human rights -  the argument being "we don't do politics, if this gets the job done, then we will do it". The implicit assumption is of course that the powerful nations (US, Europe) are self-regulating democracies and so simple criticism is enough to get them to change their ways without resorting to political pressure - of which there is none in this case anyway. So, for example, asking the US to pressure the Iraqi government into respecting the rights of Iraqis becomes a legitimate demand, with no sense of irony whatsoever.

I find it odd that you are responding as if personally attacked by this article, when all I was trying to do was show how the egyptian revolution does not spell the end of neoliberalism in Egypt, and the dangers of making such simplistic analysis. I am sorry Nadim, if this analysis makes you uncomfortable, but I think you are too quick to flagellate yourself as a "neo-bourgeois human rights spoiler of authentic class struggle." I think it speaks more to the insecurity you may feel over your own work rather than any critique that I wrote. After all, some of my nearest and dearest work for human rights corporations.

Maya wrote on May 26, 2011 at 12:11 PM

The forked tongue and controlled unrest are used in conjunction.

Cases in point: 1. Serbian anti-Milosevic revolution: 1997 - 2000 2. Ukrainian Orange revolution 3. The 'Arab Spring'

Following these spontaneous uprisings, the governments of all these states will fall (one way or another), their economies will be privatized, deregulated and structurally adjusted to plug into the world capitalist system, as typical resource hinterlands and secondary and tertiary consumer markets.

When this doesn't work, you get bombed, like Libya or beaten back to the stone age, like Iraq.

Milos Milosavljevic wrote on June 14, 2011 at 07:32 PM

If you prefer, email your comments to




Apply for an ASI Internship now!


Political Economy Project

Issues a

Call for Letters of Interest


Jadaliyya Launches its

Political Economy




F O R    T H E    C L A S S R O O M 

Roundtable: Harold Wolpe’s Intellectual Agenda and Writing on Palestine


The 1967 Defeat and the Conditions of the Now: A Roundtable


E N G A G E M E N T