Liberalism's Others

Liberalism's Others

Project Directors: Lila Abu-Lughod, Elizabeth Povinelli, Anupama Rao

Liberalism's Others (2008-2011) used the knowledges and practices of those marginalized in liberal or liberalizing polities in order to understand liberalism not as it imagines itself but as it is practiced.  Combining humanistic methods to understand the meanings people attribute to their lives, including the concepts and categories that animate them, and ethnographic and analytical methods developed in the social sciences to track the relationships between individuals and institutions of governance, economic forces, and global dynamics, "Liberalism and its Others" brought together dynamic groups of historians, anthropologists, scholars of literature, law, politics, and health to explore alternative models of life and to develop new ways of thinking about the politics of the present.  This group of scholars drew on the deep intellectual resources of Columbia University, but also collaborated closely with colleagues in Turkey, India, the UK and elsewhere, who have interests in exploring new social and political formations in the aftermath of decolonization and in the wake of neoliberal regimes.

This project sought to better understand how and why, across various transformations in form and ideology, liberal markets, political formations, and law continue to focus—and depend—on the illiberal and the different “other.” The group examined the ways that liberalism has historically opposed the normative subject to the “politically inadequate” subject stigmatized by religion, culture, race, gender, or sexual difference, exploring questions such as, "How do such “others” continue to be salient in local and global forms of liberal reform?" Through case studies of particular regions and specific biosocial domains, we asked how liberal and neoliberal economic, state, and legal transformations produce and rely on social difference.

In a range of critical literatures--from those that examine the dark side of humanitarianism in colonial settings and human rights regimes in the present to those that uncover the legitimating functions of democratic reform or track the disjunctions created by global transformations such as the rise of Chinese economic power or the shifting of global economic flows to southern circuits--the pivotal role of social difference in the discourses and practices of power is clear. The emergence of neoliberalism in the 1970s, for instance, relied on the stigmatization of the “black welfare mother” in the U.S. and of the immigrant in Britain (where the working class was also vilified). Since then, in the US, Europe, and Australia, the immigrant, homosexual, and class radical have helped prop up conservative movements even as these neoliberal movements position themselves as the bulwark against the Islamic, colonial, and terrorist “other.” The challenge to secular states by some Christian and Muslim groups has simultaneously destabilized secularism as the self-evident mode of governmentality and provoked a complicated set of discourses and practices around liberal tolerance.

This project sought to understand how liberal and neoliberal economic, state, and legal transformations both produce and rely on social difference even as the content of that difference shifts. Through comparative engagement with case studies of particular regions and specific biosocial domains this group explored the sometimes incommensurate relationship between the representations of liberalism and facts on the ground.