I think that’s well-put, and that the similarity between the terms is no accident; hipsterism is an especially salient iteration of neoliberal subjectivity, one that gains currency by being slippery and inarticulable. These concepts become normalized by becoming boring and frustrating to talk about. The apparent vagueness in the terms seems to make them unalterable. The struggle to define them reflects the stakes of keeping them amorphous, capable of absorbing more and more behavior, making the way of thinking they describe feel inescapable, natural.

In a post called “We Are All Neoliberals” (just as no one is a hipster/neoliberal; everyone is), Jason Read argues that the inconsistent usage of the term neoliberalism hasblunted its critical usefulness, turned it into a euphemism rather than an analytical tool.

the meaning of the word has been reduced to a few vague inclinations about the truly bad kind of capitalism held together by invocations of competition, markets, and individualism. It has become what Althusser called a descriptive theory at best, and at worse a way to speak about capitalism without speaking about capitalism. In the worse case it became the name for a kind of nostalgia for an earlier kinder and gentler capitalism, one that we could get back to as soon as the full impact of the recession was felt and people started really paying attention to Paul Krugman.

When one looks at economic inequality or injustice or other forms of immiseration, one can drop in a “because neoliberalism” and bring the discussion to a futile close. The discussion can then dissolve into arguments about what that is supposed to mean.

If we use such terms as neoliberal and hipster affectively, as ill-defined pejoratives, we inadvertently strengthen the ideology behind them. This is not only because vague terms help naturalize the phenomena they are in the process of organizing. (Read notes that “this paradox defines much reactionary, or conservative thought, which always declares some hierarchy or principle natural while actively working to produce it.”) It is also because they make identification and description of the problem seem sufficient. That is to say, hipster (or neoliberal) describes an ideology (or a rationality) more than it does a person, and applying it to people can just make them scapegoats.  

So what is that ideology? Read, reviewing Dardot and Laval’s The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society in the aforementioned post, starts to trace their definition of the term, which they are anxious to differentiate from old liberalism, laissez-faire:

Neoliberalism is not the simple matter of leaving the market alone, of deregulation. Competition is not something that just exists, it must be actively produced and cultivated. As Dardot and Laval write, “Competitive capitalism is not a product of nature, it is a machine which requires constant surveillance and regulation." 

Neoliberalism is largely about fostering competition among atomized individuals and suppressing any sense of collectivity within society. Its tool for doing this, by and large, is quantification: surveillance to yield measurements. By combining an expanded Taylorism with entrepreneurial conceptions of the self as an enterprise, these measurements can be used to make efficiency a requirement of more and more of one’s life, effectively turning it all into work. When measured and circulated, all forms of behavior can become "productive” — can be recast as a kind of value that capitalism can capture. By making the self an enterprise, “growth” becomes the only means to make the self continue to seem real.

Of course, that surveillance is increasingly conducted through smartphones and social media, and through the passive collection of data assigned to individuated “users,” who are connected within networks as strictly discrete nodes. Surveillance articulates social networks (in explicit terms, in comprehensive archives) so that individuals are defined and isolated by the connections they make. This way, connectivity never leads to collectivity. The emphasis on efficiency and streamlined, mechanized social relations as a supposed form of convenience also reinforces this.

As Read notes in the review, the ideal of competitiveness is used to inculcate subjects with an “infinite demand for performance”: always be striving, always be trying. Contentment is turned into weakness, lack of imagination, cowardice, failure, the hallmark of an anti-entrepreneurial loser. And the denigration of collectivity in favor of personal responsibility makes risk a purely individual matter, and all failures personal failures. Fail more, strive harder.

Neoliberalist subjectivity, then, is about bringing a mentality of “winning” to every aspect of life — every little thing is a performance, a contest — while being forever discontented with the fruits of such success. The winning and losing is mediated by metrics, which induce one to assent to more invasive surveillance. The surveillance merely assures an audience for one’s performances and makes sure they are evaluated, given meaning. The metrics also overlay a veneer of objectivity to the endless evaluative process — numbers masquerade as a general equivalent. Neoliberal subjects want to “win” by amassing the most “human capital” across all the various dimensions of their lives, and they are invited to participate in the processes that harvest that capital as way of proving to themselves that it ever existed.

Talking about “hipsterism” is one way of evoking that kind of competitive self-production. Complaining about it is a muted way of complaining about neoliberal demands on identity to be productive for capital. Bemoaning “inauthenticity” seems a veiled way of talking about how the value of that self-production feeds the expanding capitalist system rather than the transcendent ego of the individual agent. Read notes that quantified “modes of evaluation are seen to be at odds with the qualitative missions of such institutions”; the spontaneous critique of hipsterism is likely a reflection of that, expressing dismay at the qualitative “mission” of having a self being turned into nothing more than a scoreboard.

The resilience of neoliberalism may have to do with how it allows criticism to be recast as opportunism: e.g., you are complaining about hipsters to score better than them on the same scale of distinction. You mock people for trying too hard, because it inflates the value of your effortful effortlessness. (See Prickett’s critique of this strain of Lana Del Rey’s critics; and Jennifer Pan’s critique of the criticism of marketing.) 

Anyway, I’ve been reading Dardot and Laval as well as William Davies’s The Limits of Neoliberalism and Jamie Peck’s Constructions of Neoliberal Reason, and I hope to synthesize it all into something that might help make the term neoliberalism less obfuscatory for me.


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