Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty / Edition 1

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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 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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Aihwa Ong’s keen ethnographic perspective brings into sharp relief some of the differences that are essential not only for understanding the contemporary global economic and political systems but also for struggling against them to make a better world.”—Michael Hardt, coauthor of Multitude and Empire

“Armed with big ideas and a sharp sense of where the fault lines lie, Aihwa Ong examines a variety of instances which illuminate the changing relationship between those who govern and the governed. These are brilliant essays.”—Saskia Sassen, author of Territory, Authority, Rights

“This book by a leading scholar in development studies clearly documents the fact that governments and institutions have a more decisive role than markets in the successful experiences of development in the new global economy. It will become mandatory reading for students and policy makers around the world.”—Manuel Castells, Wallis Annenberg Chair of Communication Technology and Society, University of Southern California

Kathy Powell

Neoliberalism as Exception offers an elegant and vigorous argument which relates and interprets exceptionally dynamic and complex processes with great dexterity, and offers pertinent challenges to thinking in a range of fields—governance, sovereignty, neoliberal rationality, ethics. . . .”
Maila Stivens

“Ong's arguments are made vigorously and with her customary linguistic verve and virtuosity. . . . This book will be of considerable interest to a wide range of readers interested in exploring neoliberal rhetoric and its complex translations, irrationalities, and contradictions.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822337485
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 7/28/2006
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,527,209
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Aihwa Ong is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her books include Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems (coedited with Stephen J. Collier); Buddha Is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America; and Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality, winner of the Association for Asian American Studies’ Cultural Studies Book Award and also published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt


By Aihwa Ong


Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3748-5

Chapter One

Sisterly Solidarity: Feminist Virtue under "Moderate Islam"

In the aftermath of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, many internationalist feminists felt triumphant as they headed for home. Bina Agarwal, an Indian economist, declared, "Many Northern women today are finding common ground with Southern women.... This is not to argue that the North-South gap has disappeared. But among women's groups there is growing recognition of the importance of forging strategic links. One could say 'romantic sisterhood' is giving way to 'strategic sisterhood' for confronting the global crisis of economy and polity."

Strategic Sisterhood

Strategic sisterhood is a new mechanism to confront the entangled issues of globalization and women's rights. The term implies a contingent North-South feminist partnership for intervention in countries where the gender gap is huge. Because of their participation in a transnational feminist public, feminists can draw on their international alliances to hold their own government to account.

Yet alacuna remains in this strategic sisterhood intervention. Cosmopolitan feminism focuses on the unequal distribution of gender rights across the world, but its focus on feminist individualism comes into direct conflict with alternative ethics that are rooted in collectivist norms and goals. Strategic sisterhood is a concept that seeks to disseminate democratic principles of gender equality throughout the world. Drawing on Kantian democratic liberalism, the strategic sisters' notion of gender citizenship is conceptualized in absolute, universalistic terms of individual freedom and equality, regardless of the geopolitical inequalities and diverse ethical systems. Mantras from the North like "women's rights are human rights" propose global human standards without regard to other moral systems and visions of ethical living. While feminists may think their challenge is to find a universal solution to the plight of women across the world, we need to ask how these messages will be received in places that have emerged from Western colonial domination and are just now forging their own postcolonial identities and ethico-political future. Northern feminists and many of their elite Southern counterparts often skirt the issue of how to improve women's conditions without being seen as the new imperialists. Besides being more sensitive to an imperialist logic in promoting their transnational system of civic virtue, internationalist feminists may also recognize that their own self-image as autonomous individuals depends on their "liberation" of oppressed sisters in the Third World.

In internationalist feminist discourses, women in postcolonial situations are framed as the dual victims of age-old cultural traditions and postcolonial nationalism. This formulation is supported by the view that the women's question is inseparable from national emancipation in emerging countries. In countries like India, women and the home represent "the original site on which the hegemonic project of nationalism was launched." Because colonial and postcolonial struggles have been based on national ideologies of community, any discussion of the women's issue is always framed in terms of the national project and collective interests. Postcolonial scholars maintain that outsiders talking about women's rights are tampering with "the inner spaces of community" and thus "the life of the nation." We need to understand, therefore, how a national discourse of community is able to negotiate with subaltern ones on its "own terms for the purposes of producing consent." Narratives of nation and community position women within special conditions for expressing their moral agency. For instance, a patriarchal dimension in the rise of Asian tiger countries mobilized young women as a cheap labor force for multinational corporations. For postcolonial leaders and their citizens, women's emancipation, far from just being a question of individual rights, is fundamentally about the national project and the nationalist prestige of cultural difference. These issues are especially potent at the historical juncture when many postcolonial countries are finally emerging as economic competitors to the West, and they are especially sensitive to having women's rights ideology imposed from the West.

But postcolonial situations are dynamic sites of change, and over time the local and transnational variables have shifted in relation to each other. Because postcolonial milieus are constantly unfolding, the question of women's emancipation is becoming less of a stark choice between universal feminist values or domestic political agendas. Instead of a dichotomy between feminist internationalism and female-dominated nationalism, the postcolonial milieu in Southeast Asia is shaped by the intersection of nationalism, capitalist development, and religious institutions. The women-state patriarchal link is itself undergoing change, thus creating an opening for feminist claims against religious patriarchy. In the Malaysian case to which we will now turn, the state exception of "moderate Islam" promotes public conditions of possibility for women's status to be problematized in relation to Islamic patriarchy. This triangulated nexus between nationalism, women, and religion shapes the ground for feminist articulation of claims and their transformation into rights.

Women Wrestling with Ethics

Across the Islamic world, Muslim feminists are struggling against both Islamic patriarchy and authoritarian governments that have been unwilling or unable to support women's quest for gender equality. Malaysia, a developing country dominated by a Malay-Muslim majority, seems to be an exception. Malaysia is considered the most affluent and progressive Islamic (but resolutely multicultural) nation, one that has positioned itself as a bastion of enlightened Islam. This exception of "moderate Islam" has multiple political implications-a kind of soft nationalism that reins in the excesses of Islamic radicals, grooms its population for global labor markets, and supports a rigorous female public presence. The mix of Islamic nation and capitalist culture is reflected by the self-representations of Malay-Muslim women-many in body-conscious dresses and jeans, and some in full pardah (veil)-in the streets, workplaces, and leisure centers. The state-capitalist partnership also creates a public space that allows Muslim feminists to challenge ulamas (Islamic scholars and officials) and to wrestle with Islamic ethics in order to express a situated form of gendered Muslim citizenship.

In postcolonial Muslim nations, male reason enshrined in political institutions is not the only mode of systematic exclusion. Because indigenous Muslim leaders adhered tightly to a juridical-legal view of Islam as a defense against colonial rule, male power entrenched in religious authorities has endured in postcolonial formalization of Muslim practice. The anticolonial nature of juridical Islam has thus eroded more contingent and flexible religious notions of gender relationships throughout Southeast Asia. Thus, after decolonization, religious authorities, as the defenders of the cultural community, continue to challenge state projects that could undermine their domination in the realm of ethics. Thus, despite capitalist development and democratic elections, male religious authorities dominate the postcolonial public sphere as a site of religious ethics.

Access to the modern economy allows women to challenge the reigning rationality and ethics of the public sphere. In her study of the French Revolution, Joan Landes argues that male reason, as the basis of civil rights, was counterposed conventionally to "femininity"-a cluster of attributes that included domesticity, frivolity, and eroticism-and was the basis for women's exclusion from the political realm. The gendering of the public sphere was premised on the exclusion of women from civil rights and the silencing of their voices in public. But the private-public divide that is the basis of national politics also includes the exclusion of women by "public" religions that continue to subordinate women through ethical practices.

Male reason is thus aligned not only with civil citizenship in the public domain but also with religious reason, that is, with determining the ethical norms of gendered self-conduct and public behavior. Women's entry into the public sphere thus entails not only a challenge to male rationality and control of politics, it also plunges women into debates about the ethics of female self-management and their role in society. I borrow Jürgen Habermas's ideal-type formulation of the public sphere as a realm of debate and negotiation, without his strict normative criteria of rationality and communicative competence. Indeed, Homi Bhabha has highlighted the crucial temporal dimension of public rhetoric and claims, the "to-and-fro" nature of the symbolic process that "reveals the discursive ambivalence that makes 'the political' possible." The "ambivalent juxtaposition[ing]" of the factual and rhetorical creates an interstitial relationship of alternative possibilities in political interpretation and negotiation. I can only allude here to a fraction of the highly complex ongoing interplay between ulama claims and feminist counterclaims as to what constitutes appropriate gender ethics. The interstitial ambivalence in this public swordplay produces contradictory instances in which feminists gain some ethical points against die-hard patriarchs but also compromise on some aspects of embodied freedom.

Malaysia's emergence as an industrializing country presents an interesting case study of the qualified success of Muslim feminists in wresting control of Islamic ethics regarding female behavior. Within two decades, state development policies have filled industrial zones, campuses, and cities with young Muslim women drawn mainly from villages dominated by Islamic clerics and teachers. But for Islamic authorities the mass presence of women in the public domain poses a number of problems. Malay-Muslim men confront a historically unprecedented number of unmarried Muslim women in the public domain. Muslim women's entry into the modern economy is seen as a challenge to male authority and economic dominance, the basis of their virility. There are feverish visions of unregulated female sexuality freed from the ethical order maintained by fathers, brothers, and husbands. As elsewhere in the Muslim world and beyond, some men perceive women's participation in modern public life as a form of "erotic aggression." Furthermore, educated and working women have begun to challenge the male monopoly in deciding ethical precepts and practices for all Muslims.

In an immediate backlash, resurgent Muslim movements demand that women in public should adhere to even stricter norms of ethical conduct than were in force before. But women-as students, teachers, professionals, government officials, and entrepreneurs-cannot so easily be retraditionalized and forced to submit to regimes of control. The deployment of "male reason versus female passion," however, poses the biggest challenge to feminists. While Muslim feminists are not afraid to claim gender equality as supported by Islam, they wrestle with the ethics of proper female conduct permissible within the strictures of Islamic teaching and image of community, or umma. I argue that only when the state reins in the power of clerics and ulamas can feminists make public claims for a female citizenship that reinterprets both Islamic tenets and universalist ideals of gender equality. But while official moderate Islam firmly connects Muslim women's laboring bodies and the body politic, feminists, in their ethical negotiations, can only claim a kind of contingent Muslim feminist body that is always open to alternative interpretations in the umma.

Moderate Islam and the Ulamas' Backlash

Malaysia, a former British colony, has over the past two decades emerged as a booming "Asian tiger" economy. The country has a majority population of Malay-Muslims who are generally happy to be governed by technocrats dedicated to capitalism and expanding a consumer culture. Rapid development and social change has increased class differentiation among the Muslim-Malay majority (also called bumiputera), giving rise to a growing professional Malay middle class (the Melayu Baru [new Malays]) and a small corporate and ruling elite.

Although the official religion of the country is Islam, there is a clear separation of state and religion. The country is governed according to civil law, but Islamic courts based in individual states control marriage, divorce, family, gender, and sexual matters pertaining to all Muslims. These Islamic courts are run by religious judges (kadis), who both interpret and implement Islamic laws. They are advised by religious counsels (muftis) who have the power to issue religious rulings (fatwas) covering Muslim behavior. There is thus a division of labor when it comes to the social citizenship of Muslims, with Islamic authorities insisting on an Islamic definition of social rights and behavior within the family and the state protecting the social rights according to universalistic criteria of equality.

By soft-peddling nationalism, the country continues to attract foreign investors, who are not frightened away by masses of women in black robes or hot-headed Muslim radicals. "Moderate Islam" became the slogan for Malaysia, a country that has maintained its firm attachment to capitalist markets and to Western democracies by resolutely controlling backward-looking Islamic radicals, both local and foreign. The ethos of moderate Islam has helped foreign companies develop a vibrant high-tech manufacturing sector and has encouraged young Muslim women to work alongside non-Muslims and under the supervision of foreign men. But increasingly, as moderate Islam continues to promote female participation in all levels of society, its policies are challenged by radical interpretations of Islamic laws, especially in the area of women's conduct in public.

Because the ruling party derives its legitimacy from the Muslim-Malay majority, it has to be careful in its handling of tensions between the modern state bureaucracy and the religious authorities represented by the Islamic courts. Instead of launching a frontal assault on Islamic judges and theologians, the state has supported feminist groups like Sisters in Islam, a small but active group of professional women who publicly challenge many of the courts' interpretations and decisions concerning Islamic law, or shari'a. While the Sisters' rigorous responses to the religious authorities have created the space for a genuine debate-one that is filled with religious, legal, and sexual language-in many ways they act as surrogates for the government, and its vision of a corporate Islamic culture that promotes self-discipline, capital accumulation, and loyalty to the state.

In everyday life, Malaysian Islam has always been infused with a kind of customary (adat) liberalism and tolerance of gender difference and cultural diversity; what has been striking in recent cultural changes is not so much the rise of a new Muslim feminism but rather the radicalism of the social claims made in the name of Islam by religious leaders. The spread of higher education for Malays has increased the number of lower kadis who administer a network of family courts throughout the country. By using their interpretation of the sharia'a as the absolute criteria for issuing religious ruling and punishments in the area of family and gender relations, the kadis and muftis play a role in defining what is "authentic" Malay-Muslim culture. They have become the official articulators of Islamic truths, used to shape public opinion on a wide range of issues pertaining to Malay-Muslim modernity.

As Malay society becomes further transformed by capitalism and consumer culture, kadis and ulamas-many of whom work as teachers, civil servants, and public activists-have vociferously articulated an Islamic masculine ethos that counters women's widespread participation in the public life and increase in social power. Ironically, this religious radicalism is born at once of the ulamas' new bureaucratic power and of their simultaneous decline in social authority. The emerging urban educated and professional classes, the "New Malays," exposed to a range of knowledge and to diverse sources of authority, have become less susceptible to ulama injunctions about how they should conduct their everyday lives. Increasingly "othered" as a culturally backward, premodern moral authority by the technocratic leaders of a market-driven society, Islamic authorities seek to recuperate their moral power over "their" women by imposing a regime of renewed religious morality. Brackette Williams has argued that subordinated male agency seeks redemption through the "retraditionalization of wayward women" by calling for the revival of domestic feminine virtues and for women's protection from outside dangers. In Malaysia, Muslim clerics' call for the retraditionalization of women in the home even includes demands that they submit to an expanded polygamy. Such religious radicalism seeks to recuperate declining ulama power and to fend o the state's attempts to limit the traditional power of Islamic authorities in everyday life. The ulamas' reassertion of ethical control thus involves a strategy of relocalization, whereby spatial practices reinstall a rigid public-private divide already broken by the mass influx of women into the secular public domain.


Excerpted from NEOLIBERALISM as EXCEPTION by Aihwa Ong Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : neoliberalism as exception, exception to neoliberalism 1
1 Sisterly solidarity : feminist virtue under "moderate Islam" 31
2 Cyberpublics and the pitfalls of diasporic Chinese politics 53
3 Graduated sovereignty 75
4 Zoning technologies in East Asia 97
5 Latitudes, or how markets stretch the bounds of governmentality 121
6 Higher learning in global space 139
7 Labor arbitrage : displacements and betrayals in Silicon Valley 157
8 Baroque ecology, effervescent citizenship 177
9 A biocartography : maids, neoslavery, and NGOS 195
10 Reengineering the "Chinese soul" in Shanghai? 219
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