Conference Report - After Neoliberalism: Scotland and Alternative Political Imaginations

The recent Soundings conference in Glasgow – After Neoliberalism: Scotland and Alternative Political Imaginations, 12 December 2015, Kinning Park Complex, Glasgow – provided a forum for debate and discussion about neoliberalism and alternative futures that reflected on perspectives emerging from the post-referendum Scottish context and also from a broader international perspective. The day-long programme was designed to respond to the provocations of the Soundings publication After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto. In particular the conference delegates were encouraged to reflect on some of the key themes of the book as they related to a Scottish context.

The conference was organised by David Featherstone and Lazaros Karaliotas, with support from the Lipman-Miliband Trust and the Human Geography Research Group at the University of Glasgow. Discussion ranged from theoretical and abstract reflections on neoliberalism to critical reflections on Scottish independence movements and further struggles and experiences drawn from international contexts. This combination provided a fitting balance to the papers and discussion enabling critical perspectives on three themes to emerge.

The first and most obvious theme was linked to the Kilburn Manifesto: establishing a shared notion of the importance of challenging common-sense neoliberalism. Secondly, critical reflections on Scottish movements for independence were a crucial part of the analysis that emerged during the day. Thirdly, many speakers stressed the importance of articulating alternatives and international solidarities. Each of these areas is considered in more detail below with reference to some of the key contributors during the day.

Neil Davidson began the conference with a helpful summary of the history of neoliberalism that provided an introductory context for much of the discussion during the day. His assertion of the three key phases of neoliberalism – vanguard neoliberalism, social neoliberalism and crisis neoliberalism – introduced the audience to a range of useful theoretical tools. This allowed other contributors to question many aspects of neoliberalism not least the common-sense hegemony which is central to its functioning.

Doreen Massey elaborated on the idea of ‘common sense’ linking her analysis back to the Kilburn Manifesto where notions of ‘common-sense neoliberalism’ were considered in her article about ‘Vocabularies of the Economy’. She argued for the importance of challenging these normative ways of thinking. Her integration of the everyday aspect of this challenging was particularly helpful in stressing the need to always resist politically and to think critically at every conjuncture – whether engaged in conversation with a neighbour or a fellow passenger on a bus, or through engagement at a more formal level such as party politics and through critical policy making.

Andrew Cumbers stressed the need to challenge neoliberal hegemony with his arguments for a return to public ownership. This reassertion of public ownership provides one form of challenging common-sense neoliberalism and Cumbers argued for a need for the left to be less defensive or reactive and to instead construct alternative economies (such as the public ownership he endorses in his book Reclaiming Public Ownership). Further provocations regarding common-sense were made by Giovanni Bettini who argued for increased recognition and the introduction of social justice within climate change debates and also by Graham Campbell who provided a useful history of neoliberalism through the political-economic experiences of Jamaica.

These discussions regarding the nature of neoliberalism fed into papers reflecting on the multiple threads across the movement for Scottish independence. These provided important critical interventions regarding the 2013 movement which, in diverse ways, challenged much broader common-sense regarding the state and political economy.

Satnam Virdee’s paper provided a useful reflection and critique of ‘Scottishness’ by questioning who is included within both the SNP’s and the ‘yes’ movement’s political positioning. His paper questioned the usefulness of the ‘us-them’ dichotomy and the emerging myth that there is no race problem in Scotland. His paper drew on the work of Stuart Hall to question whether the emancipatory politics of Scottish nationalism can be stretched to include black and brown Scots; in his paper asserted the importance of colonial histories in analysing the neoliberal present. Jenny Morrison made a similarly important intervention with her reflections on the complexities of gender within the movement and the online spaces of a new kind of activism. Despite these important and complex power relations, Gerry Mooney pointed to some of the progressive imaginations and alternative visions which emerged from the movement for independence by indicating the centrality of social justice within the movement. These tensions and possibilities of political movements within the particularities of a Scottish context, provoked much discussion throughout the day.

Developing this sense of challenging neoliberal common-sense was a further theme regarding alternative futures, which drew upon a mixture of interesting examples from international contexts. These gave an impression of some of the existing practices working within, against and beyond neoliberalism. Angela Last and Lazaros Karaliotas gave some insight into this with their discussion of parallel institutions as a means of negotiating austerity economics. Athina Arampatzi continued this engagement with alternative futures by considering political movements in Athens, whilst Ross Beveridge addressed some earlier discussion regarding alternative forms of ownership through an analysis from a German context. During the day as whole, it should be noted that all talks that drew upon social movements, including three discussion workshops, argued for the importance of articulating and asserting alternatives alongside a need for trans-local forms of solidarity.

Given the context of post-referendum Scotland, the geography of these engagements emerged as an important link between the themes considered above. Doreen Massey stressed the importance of thinking about how we define the political frontier and this emerged as a central discussion point through the day. Populist movements have the potential to develop as what Ernesto Laclau described as ‘empty signifiers’ which, whilst important and holding potential to promote social justice, must be approached critically to uncover their multiple meanings and consequences. In this regard, contributions throughout the day indicated a clear need for a critical engagement with the different channels of common-sense neoliberalism and the continual articulation of alternative futures. This conference began to offer some of these alternatives but also challenged some of the more problematic aspects of populist politics. By doing so, it opened up the possibility for further conversations between Soundings and Scotland.