Neoliberalism as Exception

Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty

Neoliberalism as Exception

Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: 6 b&w photos, 2 tables Published: July 2006

Author: Aihwa Ong

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Globalization and Neoliberalism, Sociology > Social Theory

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.


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. . . .” — Kathy Powell, Dialectical Anthropology

“This book is brave in offering a thesis which explores neoliberalism beyond its direct economic results. . . .” — Ioannis Glinavos, Development and Change

“This is a rich text that is full of interesting ideas, subtle observations and clever asides about neoliberalism, citizenship and sovereignty in ‘exceptional’ conditions. I am quite sure that serious analysts of the topics Ong discusses will want to consult her book for inspiration and provocation.” — Noel Castree, Progress in Human Geography

“This subtleness and wealth of insight—particularly her illustrations of neoliberal citizenship, subjectivity, and state strategy—rather than theoretical unity, that constitute the strength of the book. Furthermore, Ong’s openness to ambiguous political possibilities, and to both optimism and pessimism, make this book a durable source of insights and tools for understanding the peculiar times we live in.” — Federico Helfgott, Comparative Studies in Society and History

“In this inspiring, wide-ranging volume, we are indebted to Aihwa Ong for skillfully unmasking and persuasively destabilizing the over-confident certainties of our own troubling era.” — David Ley, Pacific Affairs

“Ong shows that neoliberalism is not only a set of doctrines that affect economic policies by de-emphasizing state power; it is a set of mechanisms, a ‘mobile technology’, that enhance, constitute and also graft themselves on to the management of the entire society. . . . [Ong] convincingly shows the plasticity of traditional political theoretical concepts in an economically globalised setting.” — Alexander D. Barder, Political Studies Review

“Ong’s great strength as an essayist, this book makes clear, is her focus on contradictions: making them both plain to see and addressing how they must be attended to if we are to understand the cultural and social complexity of neoliberalism as exception and exceptions to neoliberalism, not only in ‘emerging countries’, but also in the West.” — Don Mitchell, Gender, Place & Culture

“Ong’s revelations in Neoliberalism as Exception are so numerous, empirically engaged and imaginatively engaging that at least this moderately informed reader of the developmental and globalization literatures is inclined to regard her as a leading theorist of the global economy in the new millennium. . . . Every student of globalization, neoliberalism, economic sociology and global culture, politics, sociology and political economy might read Ong’s Neoliberalism as Exception to great intellectual enjoyment and advantage” — Alexander Hicks, Contemporary Sociology

“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.” — Maila Stivens, Intersections

“Ong, who grew up in Malaysia, brings a fresh, decidedly non-Western perspective to the question of neoliberalism's role in East and Southeast Asia, with an emphasis ‘on the active, interventionist aspect of neoliberalism’ across a spectrum of emerging countries, from liberal democracies to authoritarian regimes.” — Barry Bergman, Berkeleyan

“The anthropologist's art is to make the anecdotal seem convincing. Ong's strength has always lain in generating new insight by connecting observations in diverse arenas in surprising ways. The cases covered in the chapters criss-cross the Pacific, covering enormous geographic and intellectual ground, and most of them trigger what the Germans call the 'aha effect'.” — Pal Nyiri, The Australian Journal of Anthropology

“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


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgements ix

Introduction: Neoliberalism as Exception, Exception to Neoliberalism 1

I. Ethics in Contention

1. Sisterly Solidarity: Feminist Virtue under “Moderate Islam” 31

2. Cyberpublics and the Pitfalls of Diasporic Chinese Politics 53

II. Spaces of Governing

3. Graduated Sovereignty 75

4. Zoning Technologies in East Asia 97

III. Circuits of Expertise

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

IV. The Edge of Emergence

8. Baroque Ecology, Effervescent Citizenship 177

9. A Biocartography: Maids, Neoslavery, and NGOs 195

10. Reengineering the “Chinese Soul” in Shanghai? 219

Notes 241

Bibliography 261

Index 279
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3748-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3736-2
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