The straw man critique of neoliberalism in Cambodia

It recently came to my attention that the subject of my research on neoliberalism in Cambodia had become the focus of a commentary on New Mandala. I read Maylee Thavat’s (2010) ‘The neoliberal bogeyman of Cambodia with a combination of amusement and bemusement. I was amused at how an account so full of holes could pass itself off as adding anything of value to scholarly discussion, and bemused in the same sense by the caricature that has been painted, not only of my own work, but of the significant gains that human geographers in particular have made to theorisations of neoliberalism over the past decade. Elsewhere, Thavat has taken to hijacking the title of my recent book, “Cambodia’s Neoliberal Order: Violence, Authoritarianism and the Contestation of Public Space” for use in her own research (see Thavat 2011), which is fair game I suppose, but one might expect that in being so bold, there would have been some communication between the two of us, where our positions were clarified, debate ensued, and due to some irreconcilable disagreement, Thavat would have felt no choice but to take my research head on and use it as the primary focus of her own work. The reality is that nothing even remotely as dramatic as this has actually occurred. Thavat and I have never communicated, she has never sought to engage me on any level, and has instead decided to throw down the gauntlet in cyber realm after what appears to be only a very slight engagement and ‘liberal’ reading of my work. That being said, it excites me that my work has made some sort of impact, and I would like to take this opportunity to clear up some of fallacies that Thavat constructs both with regards to my own arguments, and the way in which neoliberalism (or more accurately neoliberalisation) has been theorised in the academic literature.

One of the primary myths that Thavat seems content to perpetuate is the idea that neoliberalism is nothing more than a top-down juggernaut, imposed from somewhere ‘outside’ on seemingly hapless and unwitting states. She suggests that, “Neoliberalism is yet another catchall phrase that appears to say everything but nothing.” This falls in line with some of the standard critiques that have emerged in the literature, which suggest that neoliberalism suffers from promiscuity (i.e., involved with too many theoretical perspectives) and omnipotence (i.e., identified as the cause of a wide variety of social, political and economic changes) (Clarke 2008). Indeed, there are commentators who have been troubled by the ‘larger conversation’ that neoliberalism invokes, or disillusioned by the potential explanatory power of the concept, and there now exists a willingness to proclaim neoliberalism a ‘necessary illusion’ (Castree 2006) or simply that ‘there is no such thing’ (Barnett 2005). These misgivings differ from Thavat insofar as they are centered on the contemporary pervasiveness of neoliberalism in academia and a concern that by constituting neoliberalism as a powerful, expansive, and self-reproducing logic, we lend it the appearance of monolithic and beyond reproach, which is in fact the exact simplistic and ill-informed version of neoliberalism that Thavat appears to encourage.

What is missing from Thavat’s account then is appropriate consideration for the problematics of representing neoliberalism as an omnipresence (i.e., treating it as a universal or global phenomenon). Peck and Tickell’s (2002) processed-based analysis of neoliberalisation along with Brenner and Theodore’s (2002) concept of ‘actually existing neoliberalism’ have been instrumental in contributing to a complete overhaul in the way that scholars theorise neoliberalism, as emphasis is now placed on multiple hybrid forms. In other words, in concentrating exclusively on an externally produced neoliberalism, Thavat purposefully neglects the local geographies of existing political economic circumstances and institutional frameworks, where variability, internal constitution, societal influences, and individual agency all play a role in (re)producing, circulating, and facilitating neoliberalism’s advance. While a distinct lack of recognition for this character of neoliberalism demonstrates just how little reading Thavat has done on the subject, this does not dissuade her from throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater as she calls neoliberalism “a handy, off the rack, explanation that appears to be ‘one size fits all,’” where “proponents of the term have sought to escape this criticism by arguing that neoliberalism, like globalisation before it, gives way to ‘local articulations.’” She says she “find[s]this disclaimer somewhat disingenuous.” Yet the real insincerity here is more obviously Thavat’s willingness to ignore the literature. In impetuously dismissing the idea of ‘local articulations,’ she actively rejects the profound theoretical insights that scholars have made over the past several years in rescinding the caricatural version of neoliberalism. In one fell swoop of epistemological grandeur, Thavat reconstructs this effigy by suggesting, “neoliberalism, like globalisation and modernisation before it, is the new academic bogeyman.

To Thavat, “as a lens of analysis or methodological framework [neoliberalism] is insufficient to adequately uncover or understand the complexities of state society relations, especially at the micro level of people’s lives, their labours and livelihoods.” This would be a worthwhile point of departure in critiquing the way neoliberalism has been applied in academic inquiry, except for the fact that those scholars who investigate neoliberalism and its manifold implications have already beaten her to the punch. Human geographers in particular have long recognised that to exclusively focus on external forces is insufficient in accounting for the profusion of local variegations that presently comprise the neoliberal project. It is imperative to recognise and account for the traction of neoliberalisation on its travels around the globe, and to attend to how neoliberalism is always necessarily co-constituted with other existing circumstances. Such polychromatic thinking has prompted a growing tendency in the literature to move away from discussions of neoliberalism and towards a new language of ‘neoliberalisation,’ which acknowledges the multiple geographies of neoliberalism on the ground, through attention to contextual specificity and local experimentation, or in other words the complexities of state society relations and the micro-politics of people’s lives (see Brenner et al. 2010; England and Ward 2007; Purcell 2008; Smith et al. 2008; Springer 2010c). As a series of protean processes, individual neoliberalisations are considered to ‘materialise’ quite differently as mutated and hybrid forms of neoliberalism, depending on and influenced by geographical landscapes, historical contexts, institutional legacies, and embodied subjectivities (Peck 2001; Peck and Tickell 2002). I am hard-pressed to understand how such focused attention on the particularisms of place relates to the simplistic narrative of an over-generalised global neoliberalism that Thavat wants to construct.

Despite Thavat’s problematic assumption of a sweeping dispersion of a ‘pure’ or ‘paradigmatic’ neoliberalism that has supposedly been slapdash blanketed over Cambodia in my work, I follow the single most important idea geographers have lent to theories of neoliberalism, which is to acknowledge that ‘neoliberalism’ itself is an abstraction. The discourse of neoliberalism proceeds in such a way that it conceals the geographical variations and contingencies that necessarily exist between different political economic contexts. Thus, by recognising the transfigurations and articulations of neoliberalism as it spreads around the globe, including into Cambodia, I have attempted to engage a critical geopolitics whereby it only makes sense to speak of a series of partial, shifting, and thoroughly hybridised ‘neoliberalisations,’ rather than a rigid, universal, and fully realised ‘neoliberalism.’ For geographers to insist that in every specific instance where neoliberal ideology has been adopted, there will necessarily be messiness that results in a series of geopolitically distinct hybrids should not actually be all that difficult to accept or envision. Such thinking simply reflects the actual nature of any policy legacy or institutional inheritance. For example, colonialism’s arrival into an array of political economic situations was in every instance an untidy and thoroughly contingent process, including its penetration into Cambodia. The violence meted out in the promotion of colonialism, the different actors and agents involved in its advance, and the varying degrees of accommodation and resistance colonial governments were ultimately met with demands that we acknowledge a sense of heterogeneity in any consideration of a location as ‘colonised.’ Such messiness does not suggest that colonialism was unsuccessful in Cambodia or any of the specific contexts in which this version of capitalism unfolded. Most scholars recognise that Cambodia was in fact colonised, where attentiveness to its particular geographies, contested uptake, hybridised forms, and mutated institutional matrixes in comparison to other parts of Indochina, or more dramatically to English or Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia, simply serves to highlight the plurality that colonialism engendered. Thus, instead of ‘colonialism’, we have ‘colonialisms,’ whereby any notion of a singular or pure form in these instances is easily recognised as an illusory generalization. The same multiplicity must likewise be acknowledged with respect to neoliberalism, so that we may speak of ‘neoliberalisms,’ or ‘neoliberalism with Cambodian characteristics,’ as grounded examples of the variegations and mutations of theory in practice, rather than of neoliberalism as bulldozer from some mysterious external dimension.

In what is presented to her audience as an ostensibly revelatory moment of ‘I told you so,’ Thavat suggests that, “from the top-down neoliberalism may seem like an inevitable and unstoppable juggernaut unleashed from its regulatory masters of government, and conspiring against basic human rights. But from the bottom up, the construction of the private sector is laboured, uncertain and often failing.” The question here though is ‘so what’? This statement offers nothing new under the sun in terms of the way neoliberalisation operates, whether in Cambodia or elsewhere. In fact, despite her unavailing attempts to paint neoliberalism as a monolithic force, she inadvertently acknowledges what geographers working on neoliberalisation have long recognised: that there is no pure or paradigmatic form of neoliberalism, where instead it is always shot through with contradictions and inconsistencies. Neoliberalism in actual practice is a mutated, hybridised, and protean assemblage that always deviates from neoliberalism as an ideology. This is in fact one of the primary reasons why there is so much resistance to neoliberalism. In other words, people in various parts of the globe have coordinated street protests precisely because neoliberalism does not function in actually existing circumstances in the same way that its economic theory says it will. The utopia that has been promised via market reforms and the ‘trickle down effect’ has failed to materialise, which doesn’t mean that neoliberal ideas haven’t been adopted by governments, including the Royal Government of Cambodia, it simply means that neoliberal ideas write a cheque for society that the people can never cash. Why? Because neoliberalism allows elites to informally manage the process of marketisation, which effectively gives them unofficial license to asset strip society as former communal and state holdings are sold to the private market, where in the Cambodian instance, patron-client relations mediate privatisation though successful bids on contracts, which inevitably go to those ‘on the inside’ so to speak (see Le Billon and Springer 2007; Springer 2010a).

Thavat’s misunderstandings go even deeper when she attempts to discredit the idea that neoliberalism has penetrated the political economy of Cambodia by suggesting that the continuing presence of the Cambodian state is in and of itself ‘proof’ that neoliberalism is irrelevant. She correctly indicates that “the state is plainly everywhere in Cambodia. For those who have lived in Cambodia the unavoidable inconvenience is that the state permeates almost all forms of everyday life.” I do not take issue with this statement, as contra popular representations, neoliberalism is not in fact diametrically opposed to the state. Nonetheless, Thavat directly quotes my argument which cautions that interpreting neoliberalism as tantamount to economic reform overlooks its capacity as a political order (Springer 2009c), and then sarcastically quips, “Apparently, neoliberalism can now also mean an extension of the state.” This kind of derisive argumentation carries little weight, as Thavat never gets around to explaining how or why neoliberalism might be considered inimical to the state. We are instead encouraged to take her ‘witty’ dismissal at face value. Discourse analysis has allowed scholars to appreciate the internalisation of neoliberal logics not simply at the level of the state, but also at various institutional and even individual or embodied scales. In contrast to the doctrinaire interpretation Thavat promotes, there now exists a considerable literature on neoliberalism which foregrounds the role of governmentality (see Ferguson and Gupta 2002; Larner 2000; Lemke 2001; Mitchell 2006; Ong 2006; Springer 2010b). Thus, while the basic tenet of neoliberalism in theory is that it involves less rather than more government interference, its actual practice as neoliberalisation is a much different beast. Neoliberalism is now more accurately regarded as a process of transformation purposefully engaged by states to remain economically competitive within an international milieu. It proceeds along both a quantitative axis of destruction and discreditation entailing the ‘roll back’ of state capacities, and a qualitative axis of construction and consolidation, which sees the ‘roll out’ of reconfigured economic management systems, and an invasive social agenda centered on urban order, securitisation, surveillance, and policing (Peck 2001; Peck and Tickell 2002), elements of governance that are unmistakable in contemporary Cambodia (see Springer 2009b, 2010a).

To lend credence to her argument that neoliberalism is supposedly irrelevant in the Cambodian context, Thavat argues, “the kleptocratic government elite of Cambodia further entrench their positions of power through more than simply economic means. The ‘shadow state’ that emerged under the UNTAC period has grown large and casts a very dark and foreboding shadow indeed (Hughes 2000).” Despite having laughed off the idea that neoliberalism has a political component to its makeup—which her preceding statement actually accommodates as I have in fact argued that the kleptocratic means of the shadow state are instrumental in the character of Cambodian neoliberalisation (Springer 2009c, 2010a)—Thavat consolidates her confusion by perpetuating the idea that neoliberalism is nothing more than an economic program. It is a true testament to her selective reading of my argument that Thavat quotes Hughes in this instance, rather than citing my own work on the shadow state in Cambodia. She further relates Hughes’ (2006) account of gift giving within local political economic practice, but fails to consider how in her recent book, Hughes (2009: 8 ) in fact adopts elements of my argument, even if I am curiously never cited. Specifically, Hughes (2009: 8, 31) contends that “the intrusions of donors take place within a neoliberal framework that works against the prospects for popular participation in a public sphere of political engagement and debate,” and she further argues that the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party used “the advent of a neoliberal aid regime in the early 1990s as a means to shore up its crumbling patrimonial structures.” The problem with Hughes (2009: 3) account is that she actually does treat neoliberalism as a monolithic juggernaut, suggesting that neoliberalism “function[s] as a political straitjacket.” If neoliberalism were actually understood and applied in the literature in the reductionist way that Hughes uses the term, then perhaps elements of Thavat’s critique might actually make some sense. Unfortunately, as should by now be clear, understandings of neoliberalism are far more sophisticated than either scholar seems to recognise.

But Thavat’s confusions don’t even end there. In attempting to dissuade the idea that neoliberalism has had any impact upon contemporary Cambodia, she plays into what I have dubbed the discourse of “the Angkorian present,” by problematically asserting that “Cambodia’s current political structure… draws on traditions which hark back to the empire of Angkor and draw on cosmological forces.” I have actually addressed this idea head on in my previous work (Springer 2009a: 314) in arguing that:

Such invocations of the past are… fashioned as moments of revelation, where through the swiftness of analytic movement from past to present, we are encouraged to overlook the preposterous contortion of space-time. Cambodia now is configured as Cambodia then, and the Angkorian present is called into being through the suspension of temporality. … Yet such a culturalist position cannot adequately account for the socio-cultural disarticulation wrought by 30 years of civil war, American bombing and autogenocide. Under these conditions, how could Cambodians cling to a ‘traditional’ socio-political organisation in spite of the profound violence and upheaval of their lives? Chandler (2008) paints a picture of hierarchy and violence in the Angkorian era, but he also recognises that the Khmer Rouge regime served as an historical disconnect from earlier eras of Cambodian history. It was not a complete erasure of the past and return to ‘Year Zero’ as Pol Pot claimed, but given the mayhem of the time, how could the Khmer Rouge era be anything but a disjuncture? The very social, political and economic fabric of Cambodian life was torn apart by a murderous revolution that found its logic not in the grandeur of Angkorian kings, but in a geopolitical malaise of extreme paranoia, distorted egalitarianism and American bombs (Kiernan 2004). Moreover, Cambodian culture underwent profound changes through the processes and associated violences of French colonisation (Osborne 1997), and thus regardless of the upheaval of the Khmer Rouge period, it is absurd to suggest that Cambodian political culture has passed through 1200 years of history virtually unchanged. This shows a remarkably unsophisticated view of culture, presenting it as a static concept, when the anthropological work of the last two decades has made great gains in illustrating that if there is one ‘true’ thing to be said about culture, it is its dynamic character (Clifford 1988; Gupta and Ferguson 1997).

Yet Thavat evidently felt that none of these considerations were worth pointing out, perhaps because they cannot be reconciled with the caricature she seems so intent on painting. Rather than coming to terms with the ways in which Cambodia’s societal processes, cultural patterns, economic ideas, and political ideologies have been radically transformed through monumental ruptures in its historical trajectory, and how these factors continue to evolve at all scales of analysis through ongoing negotiations and contestations of processes like neoliberalisation, Thavat presents us with a temporal gloss. Ongoing political economic patterns and sociocultural processes that are continually reshaping our world be damned, because to Thavat, that what was, is now, and forever will be. Accordingly, she views neoliberalism as nothing more than a perverse generalization suggesting, “it is perhaps a sufficient term to describe an overall ideological framework or policy mode of many western governments at a unique point in history.” As already mentioned, Thavat is correct that neoliberalism is an abstraction, but it only functions as such through a rendering that she problematically perpetuates by presenting neoliberalism as a singular and fully realised policy regime, ideological form, or regulatory framework. Instead, cutting edge inquiries into neoliberalism demand that ‘actually existing neoliberalisms’ are considered as plural and mutable geohistorical outcomes, embedded within national, regional, and local process of market-driven socio-spatial transformation (Brenner and Theodore 2002).

Finally, to make my message as clear as possible, it is important to understand that a straw man argument proceeds through the following general pattern:

  1. Person A has position X.
  2. Person B disregards certain key elements of position X and instead presents the superficially similar position Y.
  3. Position Y thus represents a distorted version of position X based on a misrepresentation and oversimplification of Person A’s actual argument.
  4. Person B then attacks position Y, concluding that position X is false, incorrect, or flawed.

Understanding this to be the case, and applying it to the current issue at hand we accordingly have the following scenario:

  1. Springer maintains that neoliberalism is never a pure or finished project, but instead represents a variegated, dynamic, and ongoing process of market-driven socio-spatial transformation, which proceeds as a series of articulations within actually existing political economic circumstances. Existing political economic arrangements and institutional frameworks necessarily have implications for the uptake and unfolding of neoliberalism in various spatial settings, and as such, to speak of neoliberalism in the sense of a singular idea is an abstraction. Springer recognises neoliberalism, not as an end-state, but as a diverse series of protean, promiscuous, and processual phenomena occurring both ‘out there’ and ‘in here,’ with differing and uneven effects, yet retaining the indication of an overarching ‘logic’ due to its diffusion across space (Peck and Tickell 2002). Springer encourages a geographical theorisation though the emergent language of ‘neoliberalisation’ (England and Ward 2007; Springer 2010c) in recognising neoliberalism’s hybridised, polychromatic, and mutated forms as it travels around our world. Such an understanding of neoliberalisation appreciates the consequences of inherited historical contexts, geographical landscapes, institutional frameworks, policy regimes, regulatory practices, and ongoing political struggles as continually redefining neoliberalism through processes of articulation (Peck 2001; Smith 2007). While neoliberalism entails the ‘roll back’ of state capacities in the domain of social welfare and places a substantive focus on market relations and the transfer of public holdings over to the private sector of corporate interest, it also proceeds through the ‘roll out’ of reconfigured forms of governance that introduce new state capabilities of surveillance, ‘expert’ managerial systems, and a bellicose social agenda, wherein the poor and marginalised are coerced into a flexible labour regime of low-wage employment and perilous work.
  2. Thavat willfully disregards the notion that neoliberalism articulates with existing political economic frameworks and institutional matrixes, purposefully overlooks neoliberalism’s capacity to produce new patterns of governance and reconfigure state forms, sneers at the idea that elites adopt elements of neoliberal discourse and mediate its actual implementation in adapting neoliberalism to meet particular characteristics that suit their own interests, and refers to such sophisticated theorisations of neoliberalism as “disingenuous.” Instead Thavat presents the superficially similar idea that neoliberalism is a juggernaut imposed exclusively from the ‘outside,’ that it is a detached economic theory with no political content, that it has no relation to the state other than through attempting to rescind it, and that neoliberalism is ultimately a “bogeyman” figure.
  3. Thavat’s position represents a distorted version of neoliberalism based on a misrepresentation and oversimplification of Springer’s actual argument and a complete disregard for the actual literature on neoliberalism.
  4. Thavat then attacks her own pale version of neoliberalism, concluding that Springer’s position is false, incorrect, or flawed.

In the end, Thavat seems to have entirely absorbed and regurgitated the unsophisticated understanding of neoliberalism that pervades in the mainstream media, while ignoring altogether the penetrating and precise theoretical and empirical analysis that scholars have advanced through accounts of neoliberalisation. ‘Neoliberalism with Cambodian characteristics’ is not an “excuse” for anything; rather it is an attempt to come to terms with the ways in which a globally circulating and manifold political economic discourse has been taken up, resisted, and altered within and through the local practices and circumstances of existing institutional arrangements, political structures, and socioeconomic frameworks in contemporary Cambodian society. Thavat’s uncanny willingness to sweep aside the multiple ways in which neoliberalism articulates on the ground allows her to construct neoliberalism as a straw man. Yet by attempting to burn neoliberalism as an effigy, what Thavat has actually lit on fire is her own credibility as a serious academic. It is one thing to critique the way that neoliberalism has been used in the literature, something that I welcome and have myself participated in (see Springer 2008, 2010c), but one would expect that at the very least, the individual making the critique would have read and understood that literature.

[Simon Springer is currently a Lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Otago. He was previously an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore. He has been conducting research in Cambodia for the best part of the last decade and has published extensively on the relationship between violence and neoliberalism both as a theoretical exercise, and through the empirical lens of Cambodia. Simon is the author of Cambodia’s Neoliberal Order: Violence, Authoritarianism, and the Contestation of Public Space published by Routledge.]


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About Simon Springer, Guest Contributor