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Neoliberalism: Between Utopia and Dystopia

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Organizer: Sean Connolly

Co-Organizer: Shoshana Knapp

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This panel seeks to examine utopian representations of (neo)liberalism in 20th century literature and culture, emphasizing comparative connections to (neo)liberal political philosophy and economic theory. 

In his famous work The Great Transformation, political economist Karl Polanyi writes “civilization will continue to exist when the Utopian experiment of a self-regulating market will be no more than a memory.” Critical of the pure market society, Polanyi argues that the 19th century utopian vision of the pure market society eventuates in the end of civilization itself, realizing a veritable dystopia of constant social unrest. Jaime Peck argues more recently that the “galvanizing utopian vision of freedom” neoliberalism promotes is nonetheless “a vagarious and crisis-strewn course.” In each case, the neoliberal utopian ideal of individual freedom in market society marks the impetus toward a dystopian society of alienation, inequality, and social instability. 

For most proponents of neoliberalism, however, it is the lack of market liberalism and individual freedom that has caused the “socially engineered” totalitarian dystopias of the past century. “The Utopian attempt to realize an ideal state,” writes Karl Popper,  “is one which demands a strong centralized rule of a few, and which is therefore likely to lead to a dictatorship.” Nonetheless, Robert Nozick outlines a theory of liberal utopia in his influential 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and Nobel economist F.A. Hayek argues in his Road to Serfdom that “we must be able to offer a new liberal programme which appeals to the imagination. We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia...a truly liberal radicalism.” 

Drawing comparatively from 20th century literary and theoretical texts, this panel welcome papers that focus on one or more of the following questions: How, if at all, has a (neo)liberalism conceived or represented utopia? Conversely, how has (neo)liberalism conceived of dystopia? How might (neo)liberalism itself be understood as utopian or dystopian? How are utopia and dystopia connected to the (neo)liberal notions of the “pure market society,” market anarchism, the minimal state, market fundamentalism, individual liberty, personal responsibility, negative liberty, property rights, property ownership, free trade, rational choice theory, “creative destruction”/“disruptive innovation,” “spontaneous order,” the achievement ethic, or Michel Foucault’s neoliberal “governmentality”?

Please submit paper/presentation proposals of 300 or fewer words to the ACLA website and before Thursday, September 20, at 9 a.m. EST.

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