Simon Springer, Violent Neoliberalism: Development, Discourse, and Dispossession in Cambodia, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, $100.00, 219pp. Softcover, ISBN 978-1-349-50363-6.
Although the Brexit shock dominated news headlines this summer, readers of the June 2016 edition of Finance & Development (Ostry, Loungani, and Furceri, 2016), the flagship quarterly magazine of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), may have also been shocked by the Fund’s apparent admission that the benefits of over 30 years of neoliberal economic policy have been “oversold.” After years of growing economic inequality, political discontent, and financial catastrophe (all of which likely contributed to the Brexit outcome), was the IMF finally admitting, as some economists have declared, that neoliberalism is dead? Not quite. The brief report by leading researchers at the IMF focuses on just two aspects of neoliberalism, namely free flow of capital and austerity policies. Financial openness, the authors confess, may promote growth but it also increases inequality as well as the likelihood of a financial crash. Both forms of instability are economically costly. Likewise, although the report argues against austerity policies and advocates for some form of redistribution, the authors clarify that this only applies to “fiscally responsible” countries like the US, UK, and Germany, and not to countries in southern Europe, for example, where the market demands nothing short of “fiscal consolidation.” Indeed, while the article is a noteworthy crack in neoliberalism’s facade of technocratic consensus, the criticisms presented therein are predictably limited in scope and call for selective reforms rather than broad-ranging policy shifts. Likewise, the macroeconomic data on inequality and financial instability suggest very little about how neoliberal economic policies take shape in particular places and affect the lives of everyday people.
Against the totalizing gaze of IMF expertise, Simon Springer’s (2015) book Violent Neoliberalism: Development, Discourse, and Dispossession in Cambodia bears witness to the violence that ordinary Cambodians endure as a result of neoliberal economic policies. Specifically, the book offers a “critical appraisal of neoliberalism’s capacity for violence,” toward the broader goal of articulating an empirically grounded and theoretically informed emancipatory politics connecting disparate struggles to shared experiences of dispossession and abandonment. This fine-grained analysis of the lived effects of neoliberal policies sheds light on how such policies, once posited as a palliative to Cambodia’s violent past, exacerbate the legacy of violence by furthering land displacement, worsening inequality, and blocking paths to social justice. Through the voices of Cambodian women and men, Springer draws a continuous line between the Khmer Rouge genocide and the violent effects of current Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s neoliberal agenda. In particular, Springer argues that the massive transfer of public land holding into private control in Cambodia reveals the authoritarian potential of neoliberal economic policies. Moreover, combining a Marxian political economy approach with a poststructuralist critique of neoliberalism as governmentality, Springer demonstrates how neoliberal hegemony is established through the violent, exemplary exclusion of unwanted Others who stand in the way of economic progress. Given the notorious history of the Chilean military dictatorship’s implementation of radical neoliberal reforms, the compatibility of neoliberal ideology and state violence should not come as a surprise. However, as Springer points out, despite the ubiquity of critiques leveled against neoliberalism, the relationship between violence and neoliberalism remains under-theorized. This book offers a correction to this oversight.
While Violent Neoliberalism aims to contribute to a broader critique of neoliberalism, one of the book’s undersold, yet significant, contributions is to the burgeoning literature on critical geographies of peace. Following the end of the Cold War, the United Nations embarked upon an ambitious mission of transitional governance in Cambodia seeking to repair the destruction caused by decades of political violence and proxy war. Coming at the height of Washington Consensus triumphalism, neoliberal policies were baked into the transition plan. A classic example of liberal peacemaking, UN experts assumed that economic liberalization would bring about greater global integration and prosperity, and with it, peace and democracy. Cambodia’s markets were opened to foreign capital, public land was made available to private investment, and state agencies were organized under the logic of “good governance” meaning minimal state intervention and increased oversight by foreign donors and financial institutions. These policies had the predictable effect of increasing inequality, stoking land conflict, and enabling unaccountable political elites to enrich themselves through land sales and foreign investment. One of the clearest examples of how neoliberal policies have provoked violence and unrest comes in the book’s penultimate chapter, which examines the legal violence of land evictions. Since Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law opened up public land to private property speculation, a staggering 45 per cent of Cambodia’s land has been purchased by private investors. In most cases land usage in these areas was customary and collective, as people began cultivating plots of land in the wake of genocidal violence and forced displacement. With little legal recourse, farmers and fishers have again been subjected to displacement, this time at the hands of property speculators.
Beyond the turbulent effects of these structural changes, Springer provides fascinating and infuriating insight into how the notion of neoliberalism as humanitarianism is put into the service of property development and place-based marketing through a series of urban beautification projects. Urban beautification, the Cambodian government has claimed, is necessary for curing Cambodia’s chaotic aesthetic and fostering a new “culture of peace.” Of course, the production of this orderly optic necessarily involves the erasure of disorderly squatter settlements through military force, securitization, the construction of barriers, and aggressive gentrification processes. The production of beauty, understood in the neoliberal logic of market value, thus involves the use of exceptional violence to exclude those whom the market has deemed valueless: human refuse to be removed from sight. What makes this violence all the more cruel, and what connects it to the genocidal violence of the Khmer Rouge, is that ruling elites have exploited the legacy of social atomization and distrust left in the wake of massive state violence and displacement in order to carry out their neoliberal agenda. The trauma of past violence, which systematically targeted familial and community bonds, has reduced the capacity for resilience and solidarity. In the new logic of neoliberal governmentality, people must either fend for themselves on the labor market, open themselves up to the exploitation of financial lending, or, more likely than not, rely on the patronage of newly enriched political leaders. As Springer points out, having never benefited from state provisions and protections, people look to political patronage as a “security blanket.” While the country has not returned to outright civil war since its transition, it is hard to characterize the status quo as one of peace and democracy.
If neoliberal policies advanced by international institutions and foreign donors and seized upon by the Cambodian government have fostered violent social relations, Springer argues that there is also a form of symbolic violence at work in the discourse that circulates among non-governmental organizations regarding Cambodia’s “culture of violence.” Springer argues that the claim that Cambodia suffers from a culture of violence serves to frame Cambodia as a bounded site sitting outside of external historical and economic processes. Although it is unclear whether the culture of violence discourse implies that Cambodian culture is inherently violent, or whether, given the country’s bloody past, violence has become normalized, acceptable and commonplace in society, Springer claims that this orientalizing discourse others Cambodians as barbaric and irrational, in contrast with “our” civility. Importantly, this culture of violence discourse can be used to justify continuous external intervention by international NGOs and donors. In particular, NGOs and International Finance Institutions rely upon orientalist notions of Cambodia’s irrational penchant for despotic violence in promoting neoliberal “Good Governance” policies, which are portrayed as “common sense” rationality. Springer argues that this is a form of symbolic violence in that it universalizes a very particular market rationality while also treating violence, a universal phenomenon, like a trait particular to Cambodians.
Although Springer is quick to characterize civil society in Cambodia as operating under the dominant logic of neoliberalism, he also acknowledges that NGO workers often have views that diverge from the language adopted in NGO policies and documents. For example, in one particularly interesting interview that Springer references, a World Bank official in Phnom Penh gives insights into the messy and disjointed process of report writing, revealing how various internal discussions and disagreements were glossed over in the production of a particular report that blamed inequality more on individual corruption than structural failures in the economic system. Even the experts appear to recognize the problems with knee-jerk neoliberal orthodoxy. This would seem to raise the possibility that dominant hegemonic concepts like good-governance, anti-corruption, or even the culture of violence thesis could be repurposed to advance the needs and interests of ordinary people, rather than those of financial institutions and political elites. Could notions like natural resource transparency be considered a form of good governance? Could the culture of violence discourse be used to argue for greater oversight of the police? Could the language of beautification be used to advocate for upgrading slums rather than demolishing them? In other words, is it possible to construct new rationalities in the shell of the old (to repurpose an old Wobbly slogan)? Unfortunately, the political possibilities of the internal contradictions of neoliberalism are tantalizingly hinted at but largely unexplored in Violent Neoliberalism.
Indeed, throughout the book, Springer’s interlocutors seem neatly arranged into three categories: handmaidens of neoliberal economics, pawns of neoliberal governmentality, or victims of neoliberal violence, with Springer alone being able to see past the veil of false consciousness and misrecognition. Interviews are not used so much to expose contradictions and throw open questions but to advance a priori assumptions. For all the book’s theoretical richness—and it is rich, for example, though Springer does not engage much with contemporary anarchist philosophy, he breathes new life into Proudhon’s theory of property—empirics often gets short shrift. As Springer puts it, empirics are used to merely “signpost” a theoretical discussion. Following Foucault, Springer refers to this as a diagnostic approach, a method of theoretical analysis that creates space for a resistant politics. This is not uncommon practice among critical geographers, and at times, it feels as though places are mere backdrops for theoretical debates. In a way, this is itself a form of violence against the very people with whom we often claim solidarity. Springer’s method of “global ethnography” admirably seeks to connect “local concerns to their broader political economic implications.” However, the latter seems to take hierarchical precedence. For nearly a decade, Springer has conducted over 100 interviews with NGO workers, policy makers, financial elites, and ordinary Cambodians. The reader can be forgiven for feeling slightly cheated by not getting to read more from these interviews. There is a tension that runs throughout this book between how neoliberalism gets reified as an abstract “global” issue and how everyday life in Cambodia is shaped by policies and practices that can be traced to particular neoliberal tools of governance. One wonders how Violent Neoliberalism would be different if, following Lila Abu Lughod’s (1990) use of resistance as a diagnostic of power, the book began with an examination of resistance to the violence of neoliberal policies as a way of understanding their operation and how they can be reinscribed to produce alternative modalities of power. This approach might also help shed light on how state violence and political patronage are specifically gendered. Indeed, examples of resistance and discussions of gender are curiously absent from a text that draws from the anarchist and feminist traditions in its critique of violence.
Nevertheless, Springer’s book Violent Neoliberalism delivers exactly what its title promises. This ambitious book, as its introduction makes clear, is neither a purely theoretical exploration of the violence of neoliberalism (broadly conceived), nor a thoroughgoing empirical analysis of the violent effects of particular neoliberal policies. As such, this book will inevitably disappoint some readers looking for a more definitive theorization of the violence of neoliberalism as such, or readers with a particular interest in the empirics of the Cambodian case study presented in the book. However, given the country’s violent history and its centrality in post-Cold War peacekeeping and development efforts, critical peace studies and development scholars would do well to give Springer’s account of the relationship between violence and (neo)liberal peacebuilding in Cambodia a close read. Violent Neoliberalism makes it clear that while neoliberalism may not be dead, it does smell that way.
Abu Lughod L (1990) The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women. American Ethnologist 17(1): 41-55.
Ostry JD, Loungani P, and Furceri D (2016) Neoliberalism: Oversold? Finance & Development 53(2): 38-41.