Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 15, May 2007

Aihwa Ong

Neoliberalism as Exception:
Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty

Duke University Press, Durham NC and London, 2006, pp. 292,
6 b&w photos and 2 tables
Cloth – $79.95, ISBN 0-8223-3736-3, ISBN 13 978-0-8223-3736-2
Paperback – $22.95, ISBN 0-8223-3748-7, ISBN 13 978-0-8223-3748-5

reviewed by Maila Stivens

  1. Aihwa Ong's new book Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty brings together essays mostly published over the last decade. The core of Ong's argument opposes the common view that neoliberalism is an economic doctrine that seeks to limit the scope of government, with some considering it a form of predatory capitalism with adverse effects on the global South. She makes a forceful counter argument, that it can instead be seen as an extraordinarily malleable technology of governing that is taken up in different ways by different regimes, be they authoritarian, democratic, or communist. Ong suggests that East and Southeast Asian states are making 'exceptions' to their usual practices of governing in order to position themselves to better engage and compete in the global economy. In non-western contexts, neoliberalism as exception articulates sovereign rule and regimes of citizenship, formulating a constellation of mutually constitutive relationships that are not reducible to one or the other. The new mode of political organisation, neoliberalism—with a small 'n'—is reconfiguring relationships between governing and the governed, power and knowledge, and sovereignty and territoriality (p. 3). It can be conceptualised, she argues, as a new relationship between government and knowledge through which governing activities are recast as nonpolitical and nonideological problems that need technical solutions. She outlines clearly a variety of neoliberal strategies of governing which she sees as re-engineering political spaces and populations, seeing two neoliberal optimising technologies: technologies of subjectivity, relying on an array of knowledge and export systems; and technologies of subjection, informing political strategies that differentially regulate populations for optimal productivity, including through such regulations as 'fortressisation' of urban space, the control of travel and the recruitment of certain kinds of actors to growth hubs (p. 4).She cites approvingly Nikolas Rose's argument about the proliferation of techniques to remake the social and citizen-subjects, with neoliberal logic requiring such subjects to be free, self-managing and self-enterprising individuals in different spheres of everyday life (p. 14). She also points to the investment of techniques of economic globalisation with a moral calculus about more or less worthy subjects, practices, lifestyles and visions of the good. This renewed ethical project has been noted by a number of scholars concerned with both the turn to neouniversalisms like rights and with the return of the sacred within modernity. She suggests that a key procedure of the volume is to use ethnographic case studies to examine experiments and developments, arguing that an ethnographic perspective reveals specific alignments of market rationality, sovereignty and citizenship that mutually constitute 'distinctive milieus of labour and life at the edge of emergence.' The cases provide examples of the relationship between Islamic corporate modernity and women's rights in Malaysia; of China's creation of special market zones within its socialist economy; Singapore's repositioning as a hub of scientific expertise; and of flexible labour and knowledge regimes spanning the Pacific.
  2. The volume comes with fulsome recommendations from some very well-known scholars of emerging global orders, including Saskia Sassen, Michael Hardt and Manuel Castells. Ong's arguments are made vigorously and with her customary linguistic verve and virtuosity. But the use of ethnographic cases points to an important question in such studies: how effectively is neoliberal rhetoric translated into social action and into the production of its envisioned neoliberal subjects? What are the limitations of the Foucauldian governmentality perspective? What is neoliberalism exactly and does the Real match the hyperactive imaginaries of the neoliberal? As Ong notes, in the global popular imagination American neoliberalism is viewed as a radicalised capitalist imperialism—e.g. savage neoliberalism in Latin America—whereas neoliberalism is seldom part of popular discourse outside the academy in the United States. Ong's projects, reflections on an anthropology of the global and of neoliberalism in particular, however, are contested, and indeed invoke some scepticism within the discipline both from conservatives and for those looking for more grounded accounts of globalisation. But others outside anthropology share these doubts about the extent to which neoliberal imaginaries are translated into neoliberal 'realities', seeing extensive problems for regimes in effecting this. It is undeniable that Malaysia, for example, is awash with pronouncements about the desired subject of modernity. Thus family life is presented by state, corporations and indeed religion alike as a site of renewed moral endeavour to produce ideal citizen-subjects, and the bureaucratic models of managing family life presented to the citizenries of both Malaysia and its neighbour Singapore are notable. But has such rhetoric in fact been effective in producing such imagined subjects? Ong suggests that global business rarely paid attention to the actual work involved in introducing management ideas and practices in Asian sites (p. 119). She notes the widespread assumption that neoliberal knowledge flows smoothly into new contexts and is seamlessly internalised by recipient authors and citizens alike. In this respect, the volume is clearly valuable with its emphasis on ethnographic case studies, although the results must as yet be inconclusive. There is, for example, one full-length ethnographic study of the on-the-ground-workings of these new imaginaries among the entrepreneurial middle classes of Malaysia, Patricia Sloane's Islam, Modernity and Entrepreneurship Among the Malays,[1] which provides detailed empirical material on some of these questions, although not discussed in those theoretical terms. This book is not cited by Ong, but would have provided her with an excellent body of detailed first-hand material about exactly how such imaginaries have been working out in everyday behaviours of segments of these classes. Sloane recounts, for example, the details of the ways in which her informants in Kuala Lumpur saw the refashioning of their selves that had occurred with the drive to an Islamic modernity: duty to others and to Allah seemed increasingly framed by the theme of progress and morality elaborated in modern economic action—entrepreneurship for her informants; it was in modern economic action, her informants insisted, that they were actually discovering more of their Malay and Muslim selves (p. 67). An entrepreneur was the 'public symbol of a modern, moral Islamic economic and social actor.' But Sloane also depicts the complex actualities, in which segments within this entrepreneurial class are attuned to an ethics that consciously derives from the romantic idyll of the kampong [village] that has featured so strongly in Malay cultural politics: reconstituted kampong 'values' are recast as 'corporate' and civil.[2]
  3. For the purposes of this journal a focus on the gendered dimensions of these complex debates will be of most interest, especially Ong's accounts of the Malaysian Muslim reforming group Sisters in Islam (SIS) and of 'foreign maids' in the region. Her piece on SIS explores the encounters between women's rights claims in Malaysia and what she suggests with other scholars we can term an Islamic modernity. She nominates an Islamic (neoliberal) exception, which she sees as supporting Muslim women in their quest for political and gender equity. The piece usefully explores the triangulated nexus between nationalism, women and religion which shapes the ground for feminist articulation of claims and their transformation into rights. She suggests that the tensions among neoliberal values, religious patriarchy and local and transnational feminisms constitute the public sphere: she sees women's claims as both politically enabled and morally constrained in this sphere, a space that allows Muslim feminists to challenge the ulamas (Islamic scholars and officials), to wrestle with Islamic ethics in order to express a situated form of gendered Muslim citizenship and to challenge the reigning rationality and ethics of the public sphere. But the ulamas' language is seen as providing the symbolic terms whereby women engage in the invention of a modern political identity. The discussion of public and private nonetheless could also have explored the complexities of Islamist understandings of the place of the 'public and private' and the contesting conceptions of that highly contested divide. The resistance to and contestations with the new orders by groups like SIS are important issues for models of governmentality; they point to limitations of the model identified by a number of critics who see outcomes as far more muddled than the imagined neoliberal templates might plan and hope for. Ong does acknowledge that SIS seek to enlarge the public space for debates over Islamic truths, but might we not allow the women a greater political force in at least attempting to redefine that symbolic language and sphere? We could here see SIS as in part producers of that version or dimension of Malaysian modernity. The piece also runs the risk of embedding some of the old polarities between north and south which the group's activities specifically attempt to engage with—and bridge. Ong suggests that the northern mantra of women's rights as human rights proposes global standards without regards to other moral systems and visions of living (p. 31). This is to some extent the case, but the Sisters' own engagements and those of many other southern women's rights claims arguably are more complex, with a strong attachment to reconfigured ideas of rights in their seeking after versions of mediated ideas of rights claims that are themselves a version of grounded cosmopolitanism, something that Ong has elsewhere approved.[3] Perhaps we might allow the Sisters more credit for working in a very savvy manner to forge such political spaces within the constrictions of a soft-authoritarian state? There are many other frameworks for analysing the pressures such groups face: the piece does not engage with some of interesting writing from Europe-based feminists who have looked at ideas like transversal feminisms and more global invocations of cosmofeminisms.
  4. The other chapter of direct interest is the one on domestic workers: this looks at the parasitic articulation of a neoliberal Asian lifestyle that reduces a multitude of foreign domestic workers—'maids'—to slave-like labour. As Ong rightly argues, the underpaid, starved and battered foreign maid [sic] has become the image of the new inhumanity in the Asian metropolis even though such mistreatment is not actually the statistical norm. The juxtaposition of go-getter citizens and neoslaves is seen as creating a humanitarian crisis of original scope which attracts NGO resolutions attuned to situated moral economies. She explores the workings of NGO interventions into the 'knotted tapestry of situated power and ethics'(p. 198) that this labour forms, in which workers are not guaranteed decent working conditions, minimum earnings or even rest days and are situated in a transnational field of labour exchange and traffic that strips them of the most basic political rights. She argues that an interactive mode of citizenship is emerging, one that organises 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 have little market value—like the migrant women domestic workers in many Asian cities—are denied citizenship. This discussion traverses ground quite well-trodden by others, but goes on to suggest that the seam between sovereignty and citizenship is being pried apart, providing an emerging space for NGOs to advocate for human rights. Such NGO engagements, however, can be very uneven and highly specific.
  5. 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.


    [1] Patricia Sloane, Islam, Modernity and Entrepreneurship Among the Malays, Houndmills, Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1999.

    [2] Sloane, Islam, Modernity and Entrepreneurship Among the Malays.

    [3] Aihwa Ong, 'Strategic Sisterhood or Sisters in Solidarity? Questions of Communitarianismand Citizenship in Asia', in Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 4 (1) (1996):107-35.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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