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Finding the Political: The Ethical Consumer and Neoliberalism

Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

Over the course of the last thirty years in the United States and Britain there has been a pronounced shift toward neoliberal governmentality that has rendered problematic the relationship between neoliberalism and the political. Neoliberal governmentality has drastically reduced our perceived sense of what is politically actionable as it relates to state intervention in the economy. From the perspective of those that value "public goods", neoliberalism has a two-fold depoliticization problem: (1) it shrinks our political imagination, our capability to cognize public goods or the potential substance of political action; and (2) it narrows the actual public space from which to politically act and speak in front of others. In the place of a vigorous political realm is a disengaged and atomized citizenry who build and secure their lives via the market as responsible consumers.

Though this characterization is certainly not incorrect, the following dissertation seeks to problematize the idea that neoliberalism only ever depoliticizes or is anti-political. Rather, I argue that neoliberal government is quite capable of rendering political opportunities in its own market-oriented way. It is my contention that the particular relationship between the state and the economy in neoliberal government results in channeling more political action through economic modalities. Here, I focus on neoliberal governmentality's production of the ethical consumer as an example of the type of political actors that may emerge and the political possibilities afforded to them in a neoliberal society. Ultimately, I contend that our inclinations to view the political as a sphere only coterminous with the state often prevents us from seeing the way in which neoliberal governmentality actually opens up political possibilities within the market itself. While it is certainly true that neoliberalism diminishes political action in important ways, this significant pitfall should not excuse us from a more nuanced understanding of the political and its relationship with neoliberal forms of government. This dissertation hopes to move the discussion in a way that fundamentally forces us to confront biases in our understanding of political action.

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