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Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty

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Neoliberalism is commonly viewed as an economic doctrine that seeks to limit the scope of government. Some consider it a form of predatory capitalism with adverse effects on the Global South. In this groundbreaking work, Aihwa Ong offers an alternative view of neoliberalism as an extraordinarily malleable technology of governing that is taken up in different ways by differ Neoliberalism is commonly viewed as an economic doctrine that seeks to limit the scope of government. Some consider it a form of predatory capitalism with adverse effects on the Global South. In this groundbreaking work, Aihwa Ong offers an alternative view of neoliberalism as an extraordinarily malleable technology of governing that is taken up in different ways by different regimes, be they authoritarian, democratic, or communist. Ong shows how East and Southeast Asian states are making exceptions to their usual practices of governing in order to position themselves to compete in the global economy. As she demonstrates, a variety of neoliberal strategies of governing are re-engineering political spaces and populations. Ong’s ethnographic case studies illuminate experiments and developments such as China’s creation of special market zones within its socialist economy; pro-capitalist Islam and women’s rights in Malaysia; Singapore’s repositioning as a hub of scientific expertise; and flexible labor and knowledge regimes that span the Pacific. Ong traces how these and other neoliberal exceptions to business as usual are reconfiguring relationships between governing and the governed, power and knowledge, and sovereignty and territoriality. She argues that an interactive mode of citizenship is emerging, one that organizes people—and distributes rights and benefits to them—according to their marketable skills rather than according to their membership within nation-states. Those whose knowledge and skills are not assigned significant market value—such as migrant women working as domestic maids in many Asian cities—are denied citizenship. Nevertheless, Ong suggests that as the seam between sovereignty and citizenship is pried apart, a new space is emerging for NGOs to advocate for the human rights of those excluded by neoliberal measures of human worthiness.


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Neoliberalism is commonly viewed as an economic doctrine that seeks to limit the scope of government. Some consider it a form of predatory capitalism with adverse effects on the Global South. In this groundbreaking work, Aihwa Ong offers an alternative view of neoliberalism as an extraordinarily malleable technology of governing that is taken up in different ways by differ Neoliberalism is commonly viewed as an economic doctrine that seeks to limit the scope of government. Some consider it a form of predatory capitalism with adverse effects on the Global South. In this groundbreaking work, Aihwa Ong offers an alternative view of neoliberalism as an extraordinarily malleable technology of governing that is taken up in different ways by different regimes, be they authoritarian, democratic, or communist. Ong shows how East and Southeast Asian states are making exceptions to their usual practices of governing in order to position themselves to compete in the global economy. As she demonstrates, a variety of neoliberal strategies of governing are re-engineering political spaces and populations. Ong’s ethnographic case studies illuminate experiments and developments such as China’s creation of special market zones within its socialist economy; pro-capitalist Islam and women’s rights in Malaysia; Singapore’s repositioning as a hub of scientific expertise; and flexible labor and knowledge regimes that span the Pacific. Ong traces how these and other neoliberal exceptions to business as usual are reconfiguring relationships between governing and the governed, power and knowledge, and sovereignty and territoriality. She argues that an interactive mode of citizenship is emerging, one that organizes people—and distributes rights and benefits to them—according to their marketable skills rather than according to their membership within nation-states. Those whose knowledge and skills are not assigned significant market value—such as migrant women working as domestic maids in many Asian cities—are denied citizenship. Nevertheless, Ong suggests that as the seam between sovereignty and citizenship is pried apart, a new space is emerging for NGOs to advocate for the human rights of those excluded by neoliberal measures of human worthiness.

30 review for Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jim Rossi

    Academic snoozefest... I read this book for a graduate seminar at UC Berkeley. Important subject, but it was so opaque and academically written it was painful to read. And I love to read. I love to read so much I haven't had a TV since childhood. I read almost every day.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Crystal

    read the introduction/first part for one of the better discussions/lit reviews re: neoliberalism (that slippery term we all love to (mis)-use

  3. 5 out of 5

    EmpressKoh

    Read the intro for a paper I was writing; had interesting theories and I would reccomend reading the introduction for anyone who might want to view another side of neoliberalism. I did not read the rest of the book, but from what I skimmed through, it appeared to be heavily academic which, is to say, appeared quite boring, unless you have an unparalleled interest in the subject.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen McRae

    Interesting Book but will have to read more to really understand what the author is expressing.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ines

    "Neoliberalism as Exception" offers a view from the global south on how neoliberalism as a malleable technology of governing is taken up in different political regimes, by communist, democratic or authoritarian countries in order to position themselves in the global market. Ong's work can also be understood as a critique of Agamben's concept of the state of exception, which however is very much focussed on the paradigm of the nation state. I have previously used Ong's work in a law thesis I wrot "Neoliberalism as Exception" offers a view from the global south on how neoliberalism as a malleable technology of governing is taken up in different political regimes, by communist, democratic or authoritarian countries in order to position themselves in the global market. Ong's work can also be understood as a critique of Agamben's concept of the state of exception, which however is very much focussed on the paradigm of the nation state. I have previously used Ong's work in a law thesis I wrote on the breaches of the rights of workers on container ships in international waters, flying flags of convenience; critiquing in this specific legal case a conceptualisation of the state of exception producing bare life exclusively within the framework of the nation state. Ong stipulates that neoliberalism as such / as an economic system creates the "exception". Therefore it also creates "bare life" as Arendt described it: humans deprived of their rights as humans and ultimately their humanity. As the question of sovereignty is something very intriguing for me, Ong not only in this book has helped me broaden my understanding on how economy shapes zones of sovereignty, providing also a basis for understanding how within the current economic system, the coming technological disruption / AI revolution, sovereignty and structures of citizenship closely tied to how the market operates will change (although this is not what she specifically speaks about in her book). Within the neoliberal logic, those whose skills and knowledge are not "assigned significant market value" are denied citizenship and this structure will certainly increase with the increasing irrelevance of certain forms of human labour and lack of negotiating power of a "working class" which might one day no longer struggle against its oppression but irrelevance to the ruling class (if we do not propose alternative ways of managing our economy, for example by shifting power away from the private sector, creating a federal job guarantee program, strengthening the monetary and economic sovereignty of countries in the global south, focussing on sustainable prosperity as it is e.g. recently proposed in several drafts of a Green New Deal etc).

  6. 4 out of 5

    Sara Salem

    Very interesting book that challenges the view that neoliberalism is an overarching framework that defines everyone and everything within it. Rather she argues that many states use neoliberalism in some instances and not in others.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    323.601 O5884 2006

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jack

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kyle

  10. 5 out of 5

    The Reader

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  13. 5 out of 5

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  14. 4 out of 5

    Alexis Coe

  15. 4 out of 5

    Chonti Valenzuela sauder

  16. 4 out of 5

    C. Meade

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mathieu Pln-Lmrr

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sam Kasten

  19. 5 out of 5

    Brendan

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    Zach

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ma'ayan Rosas-Artigas

  22. 4 out of 5

    Phagspa

  23. 4 out of 5

    Meiver

  24. 4 out of 5

    Blue Lotus

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jane

  26. 4 out of 5

    Yu

  27. 5 out of 5

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  28. 4 out of 5

    Jelena Petrovic

  29. 4 out of 5

    Erkan Saka

  30. 5 out of 5

    J.

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