On exactitude in social science: A multidimensional proposal for investigating articulated neoliberalization and its ‘alternatives’


This article proposes an innovative analytical framework for investigating processes of neoliberalization and its articulation with ‘alternative’ governance arrangements. It is by now well-established that neoliberalism is a variegated process that manifests differently in diverse contexts. Yet how to actually conceptualize and investigate this variegation remains unclear: we lack a comparative framework for analyzing how different dimensions of neoliberalization manifest within a given context as well as how these articulate with non-neoliberal modes of governance. To address this lacuna, the framework proposed here begins with a multidimensional understanding of neoliberalization as comprising an overarching philosophy, a set of general principles through which this philosophy is expressed, the specific policies via which these principles are implemented and the forms of subjectivity all of this seeks to cultivate. It then integrates an approach to distinguishing ‘multiple governmentalities’ derived from recently published work by Michel Foucault to understand neoliberalism as a particular governmentality that may articulate with others. To complete the ensemble, it draws on ‘diverse economies’ perspectives pioneered by J.K. Gibson-Graham to assess the relationship between particular governance strategies and on-the-ground practices. The resulting synthetic framework affords multidimensional investigation of the complex ways that different elements of neoliberalization may articulate with distinct forms of governance in both planners’ visions and concrete execution by practitioners. Its utility is illustrated through a case study of Costa Rica’s payment for environmental services (PES) program, which exbibits a complex form of articulated neoliberalization in practice.


It is by now well-established that neoliberalization is a ‘variegated’ process that manifests quite differently in diverse contexts in syncretism with pre-existing institutions and ideologies. Yet this has led some critics to contend that if neoliberalism is indeed such a diverse process then it may exist only within researchers’ minds. While others have responded by asserting that there remains sufficient commonality among different processes of neoliberalization to warrant investigation as a common pattern, debate remains concerning how far analysis in these terms can be extended before it becomes untenable. In particular, researchers have identified a need to explore how neoliberal processes and institutions ‘articulate’ with other forms that cannot be reduced to mere epiphenomena or residual effects of neoliberalization, however variegated.

In responses to all of this, this article proposes an innovative analytical framework for investigating processes of articulated neoliberalization and their ‘alternatives’. This framework combines several existing conceptual approaches into a unique synthesis that allows each to compensate for certain gaps in the others, producing a robust holistic perspective. It begins with a multidimensional understanding of different aspects of neoliberalization as comprising an overarching ‘philosophy’, a set of general ‘principles’ and more specific ‘policies’. It then includes an approach to distinguishing ‘multiple governmentalities’ derived from recently published work by Michel Foucault to understand neoliberalism as one of a number of different governmentalities that may articulate in different combinations. It finishes by integrating ‘diverse economies’ perspectives, particularly work by J.K. Gibson-Graham and their Community Economies Collective, to assess the complex ways that governance visions play out in on-the-ground practices. The resulting synthetic framework allows for multi-dimensional investigation of the complex ways that different elements of neoliberalization may articulate with other forms of governance both in planners’ visions and in concrete execution by practitioners.     

Scholarly research addressing neoliberalism is by now vast, hence rather than providing a comprehensive review I focus on the subset, arising predominantly from human geography, that has debated the utility of analysis from the perspective of ‘variegated neoliberalization’. I begin by describing how research concerning neoliberalization has documented an increasing diversity of such variegation. I then discuss a backlash to this by critics questioning whether there actually exists a cohesive process at the centre of this analysis. I follow with my own effort to chart a middle ground between these extremes, retaining a focus on variegated neoliberalization but contending that there are limits to the utility of analysis in these terms. I contend that our understanding must be expanded to include equally nuanced understanding of how neoliberalization articulates with alternative forms of governance that cannot be considered merely residual effects of the former. Subsequently, I outline the components of the synthetic framework introduced to operationalize this perspective and show how it can be productively applied in empirical study by offering a schematic analysis of a payment for environmental services (PES) progamme in Costa Rica. I finish by pointing to further uses of the perspective proposed here for future research concerning articulated neoliberalization and associated processes.

The varieties of neoliberalism

While research concerning neoliberalism had been in gestation since the mid-1990s, it was greatly stimulated by publication of David Harvey’s influential A brief history of neoliberalism in 2005[1], which Harvey claimed to have been inspired to write by recognition that within the growing literature ‘what is generally missing – and this is the gap this book aims to fill – is the political-economic story of where neoliberalization came from and how it proliferated so comprehensively on the world stage’ (2005: 4). While Harvey had sought to describe the key general principles of neoliberalism as a global political economic programme, others have increasingly explored how this programme manifests differently in specific contexts in syncretism with preexisting institutions and ideologies. This has resulted in a robust body of research, pioneered by Brenner and Theodore’s (2002) edited volume Spaces of neoliberalism, documenting the constitution of ‘actual existing’ neoliberalism(s). In the same year Peck and Tickell (2002) published their influential distinction between successive phases of ‘roll-back’ and ‘roll-out’ neoliberalism, demonstrating the neoliberal programme’s mutation over time as well as through space. Brenner et al. have since positioned themselves at the center of a prolific literature describing ‘variegation’ in a processual neoliberalization to which they remain the most energetic contributors (see esp. Brenner et al., 2010a, 2010b).

Researchers have also documented considerable variation among the particular views espoused by different theorists commonly deemed central to the neoliberal project. Broadly, Foucault (2008) distinguishes between the Austrian/German ‘Ordo-liberals’ epitomized by Hayek and the U.S. ‘Chicago School’ represented most centrally by Friedman. Birch (2015) develops more fine-grained distinctions within these two camps as well as how their proponents’ thinking changed over time. Cahill notes ambiguity in terms of the policy prescriptions offered by prominent theorists including Friedman and Hayek themselves (see Cahill, 2014). Jessop (2002, 2013) distinguishes among four primary neoliberal project entailing wholesale system transformation, restructuring processes largely administered by external institutions (i.e. in Third World structural adjustment), less dramatic regime shifts, and even more modest policy adjustments. Within policy discussion specifically, Robinson and Harris (2000) identify three main strands of neoliberal thought: 1) free market conservativism demanding a purely laissez- faire approach to economic governance; 2) neoliberal structuralism advocating a global regulatory framework to stabilize the economy without direct intervention; and 3) neoliberal regulationism contending that a global superstructure is necessary to internalize externalities and direct market behavior in socially desirable ways. To this could be added a fourth category of authoritarian neoliberalism promoting strong state direction of a market-based economy as on the Chinese model (see Harvey, 2005; Doane, 2012).

There is also extensive documentation of widespread divergence between theory and practice in neoliberalization, that is, an often profound difference between the policy advise offered by neoliberal economists and other ideologues and the character policies and projects informed by or claiming allegiance to these ideas assume in actual implementation. This divergence takes different forms. At the most general level it applies to disjuncture between the common description of neoliberalism as promoting ‘free’ (self-regulating) markets and the reality that most ‘actual existing’ markets entail substantial regulation of the sort that would seem to contradict this free market ideal (McNally, 2006; Cahill, 2014). In part this is due to a widespread misconception that neoliberals eschew all efforts to direct markets when it is clear, as copious research shows and most nuanced researchers now acknowledge, that in fact neoliberal economists have commonly seen state oversight as essential to functioning markets (Harvey, 2005; Foucault, 2008). Others contend, further, that neoliberalism does not necessary entail deregulation per se so much as ‘reregulation’, the displacement of governance from conventional state institutions to new, more diffuse ‘non-state’ actors and bodies (Igoe and Brockington, 2007; Castree, 2008).

Even given this more nuanced understanding of the relationship between markets and states, however, it is clear that ostensibly neoliberal markets are often governed in ways that transcend the more hands-off interventions beyond which ‘the state should not venture’ (Harvey, 2005: 2; see also Brenner and Theodore, 2002). Harvey thus highlights ‘a creative tension between the power of neoliberal ideas and the actual practices of neoliberalization that have transformed how global capitalism has been working over the last three decades’ (2005:19). Peck describes the history of neoliberalization as ‘one of repeated, prosaic, and often botched efforts to fix markets, to build quasi-markets, and to repair market failure’ (2010a: xiii, emphasis in original). Steger and Roy (2010) outline a long series of failed efforts of neoliberal policies to achieve intended results in diverse contexts, from Chile’s dramatic 1982 recession following nearly a decade of aggressive liberalization through the second US President Bush’s plunging of the global economy into the current persistent recession.

The 2008 economic crisis further complicates this discussion. While in the midst of the crisis a variety of commentators quickly claimed that it signaled the end of what Stiglitz (2008) termed ‘free market fundamentalism’, subsequent years revealed ways that neoliberal processes seemed to reviving and even intensifying in its wake (Brenner et al., 2010a; Hendrikse and Sidaway, 2010; Crouch, 2011; Mirowski, 2014). This led Crouch (2011) to describe the crisis as neoliberalism’s ‘strange non-death’ and Peck (2010b) to pronounce the rise of a ‘zombie neoliberalism’. Hendrikse and Sidaway (2010), likewise, contend that the 2008 crisis signified not the end the neoliberal project but rather its transmogrification into a novel ‘neoliberalism 3.0’ (Peck and Tickell’s roll-back and roll-out phases constituting versions 1.0 and 2.0, respectively) while Jessop (2013) calls this a new ‘blow-back’ phase. To add to the confusion, at the same time that academic discussion of neoliberalization was reaching its apex in the first decade of the twenty-first century, a number of political regimes – particularly in the Andean region of South America – began to advocate a renovated form of state-led developmentalism that inspired growing description as the advent of ‘post-neoliberalism’ as well as mounting criticism concerning the accuracy of this term (Yates and Bakker, 2013).

The limits of ‘neoliberalization’

All of this has given rise to growing debate concerning the appropriate scope of the term ‘neoliberalism’ itself. In their emphasis on the essentially variegated, context-dependent nature of neoliberalization understood as a processual unfolding, Brenner et al. (2010b) insist that recognition of the diversity of its ‘actual existing’ forms does not challenge a conceptualization of these as variants of a more general process. Indeed, they assert that one of the features that most characterizes neoliberalization is precisely its inherent flexibility and adaptability to local circumstances. The authors thus contend that:

empirical evidence underscoring the stalled, incomplete, discontinuous or differentiated character of projects to impose market rule, or their coexistence alongside potentially antagonistic projects (for instance, social democracy) does not provide a sufficient basis for questioning their neoliberalized, neoliberalizing dimensions. (ibid.: 332)

Yet others complain that this perspective threatens to create a hermetically-sealed conceptual framework impossible to falsify (Barnett, 2005, 2010; Ong, 2008; Bakker, 2009; Fletcher and Breitling, 2012; Weller and O’Neill, 2014). Such debate raises the question of how far analysis of neoliberal variegation can be extended before it becomes untenable:

What remains unclear is why, if neoliberalism never appears in pure form, and when it does appear it is always a compound with other projects and processes, the outcome of any neoliberal ideational project should continue to be called ‘neoliberalization.’ What is it that makes the hybrid compounds through which these specific ideologies make themselves felt always liable to be named ‘neoliberal’, if this is only one of their components? (Barnett, 2010: 8-9)

In consideration of all this, some go so far as suggest that the very concept of neoliberalism may be merely a fiction conjured by critical analysts themselves (Castree, 2006; Weller and O’Neill, 2014; Birch, 2015). Most recently, Birch (2015) thus asserts that ‘we have never been neoliberal’ at all since policies labeled neoliberal have so often diverged so substantially from the way the concept is commonly characterized. What we call ‘neoliberalism’, he contends:

has always been evolving, becoming something new, something different. Thus we can’t actually be neoliberal because we can’t identify a neoliberal rationality as opposed to neoliberal rationalities – there are too many choices, too many changes, too many variations on a theme to make any sensible claim otherwise. (ibid.: 51)

As a result, Birch asks, if ‘the notion that neoliberalism, even as a process, is something we can actually identify; if it is hybrid, if it is uneven, how do we know it is neoliberalization and not another process?’ (ibid.: 146).

Response to this critique, however, asserts that it goes too far (Brenner et al., 2010; Springer, 2012, 2014). Springer (2014), indeed, considers it a form of ‘neoliberalism in denial’ in its effacement of the neoliberal aspects of the very dynamics it addresses. In response, he calls for exploration of an ‘articulated neoliberalism’ (Springer, 2011) that ‘attempts to locate neoliberalism within a particular context as but one component to the unfolding of a complex political economic story’ (ibid., 2014: 156). In his own critique of the neoliberal lens, Castree had himself suggested something quite similar, advocating investigation of ‘articulation between certain neoliberal policies and a raft of other social and natural phenomena’ (Castree, 2006: 4). Others have offered similar suggestions to study the articulation between neoliberal and non-neoliberal institutions, an approach alternatively termed institutional ‘blending’ (Hodge and Adams, 2012) or ‘bricolage’ (De Koning, 2014).

Charting a middle ground

In what follows, I outline a framework for investigation of such articulated neoliberalization and that seeks a productive middle ground between the two poles in the debate outlined above. In the face of extreme critiques of the neoliberal lens, I believe it is clear that something dramatic and transformative has indeed occurred over the past several decades, beginning in North America and Western Europe and quickly spreading throughout the world, overseen and championed by a relatively small group of interconnected actors and institutions and informed by – if not wholly consistent with – a varied yet nonetheless relatively coherent constellation of ideas. It is this ‘vast tidal wave of institutional reform and discursive adjustment’ (Harvey, 2005: 145) that analysis from the perspective of neoliberalization seeks to understand. All analytical concepts become ‘fuzzy’ when one tries to precisely define their boundaries, and hence our inability to do so in this case does not necessarily diminish the importance and utility of the concept under contention (Springer, 2014). While Castree points out that ‘[u]nlike, say, water – which in one of its three states remains water wherever and whenever it is – neoliberalism does not possess stable characteristics’ (Castree, 2006: 4), the same is true of most analytical categories that require abstraction from concrete phenomena to describe more general tendencies. Mounting assertions that the very concept neoliberalism has no coherent referent risk undermining our ability to discuss and critique the processes to which it points, thus potentially aiding the neoliberal project itself in becoming the unspoken and invisible background common sense of our times (Springer, 2008). If neoliberalism is now seen everywhere, as critics lament, this is likely because (a partial, contingent, variegated) neoliberalization has in fact occurred almost everywhere in the world over the past several decades of its ascendance to global hegemony (Harvey, 2005).

On the other hand, I agree with critics that questions concerning the limits of analysis in terms of variegated neoliberalization remain pertinent (Fletcher and Breitling, 2012). More than a decade on, Castree’s (2006) first call to address this issue has not been sufficiently answered. As he pointed out then, we still lack a framework able to address these key questions:

What comprises the ‘neoliberal component’ of a complex situation? Can this component be rightly identified as a defining component of such an overdetermined situation? If not, is the mere existence of this component sufficient to warrant using the term ‘neoliberal’ to characterise that situation’s specificity? (ibid.: 6).

Yet I do not agree that asking such questions means that ‘when we identify specific variants of neoliberalism we are not examining varieties of a really existing, homogenous genus’ (ibid.: 4, emphasis in original). Indeed, the fact that ‘we are examining contingently occurring processes and outcomes that may well have operated differently if the ‘neoliberal component’ had not been present’ (ibid.) is precisely the point, calling us to examine the ways in which patterns of similarity in otherwise disparate processes might speak to the influence of a common process of neoliberalization at work.

What remains needed is thus a conceptual framework capable of riding the fine line between the two extremes of expanding a processual neoliberalization to encompass all manner of disparate phenomena and pronouncing the whole exercise a work of imaginative fiction, one that recognizes the contingency and specificity of particular projects ‘at all geographical scales’ (Castree, 2006: 4) while also appreciating the commonality and interconnections among them. Fortunately, we already have the building blocks of such a framework at our disposal, some of the most useful provided by Castree (2010) himself. In the face of the debates outlined above, Castree and others have sought to clarify what exactly the term of contention designates. In what follows, I endeavor to bring these different discussions together to develop a comprehensive framework for understanding the precise nature of the neoliberal project, the different dimensions of its expression, and its articulation with ‘alternative’ projects.

Refining neoliberalism

We start with the broad distinction between Marxist-derived understandings of neoliberalism, epitomized by Harvey, as a particular phase of capitalism, and a Foucault-inspired perspective on the project as a novel governmentality. For Harvey, of course, neoliberalism is first and foremost a particular mode of accumulation. Subsequently, many researchers have followed Harvey in his characteristically Marxist framing of neoliberalism as a project of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ directed by a transnational capitalist class (Sklair, 2001).

From a Foucaultian perspective, on the other hand, neoliberalism is a much more general phenomenon, constituting a particular ‘art of government’ or ‘governmentality’ seeking to ‘conduct the conduct’ of target populations (see Foucault, 1991, 2007, 2008). In the more common understanding of this contentious term in the copious literature that has developed around it (see Rose et al., 2006 for a useful overview), ‘governmentality’ is viewed as a form of governance in which power is exercised via indirect means (schools, hospitals, scientific texts, etc.) that compel individuals to internalize control rather than merely obeying direct commands from without. A specifically neoliberal governmentality, on the other hand, aims to construct and manipulate the external incentive structures in terms of which individuals, conceived as self-interested rational actors, evaluate the costs versus benefits of alternative courses of action (Foucault, 2008; Fletcher, 2010). It is, Foucault describes, ‘an environmental type of intervention instead of the internal subjugation of individuals’ (2008: 260); ‘a governmentality which will act on the environment and systematically modify its variables’ (ibid.: 271). Seen from this perspective, neoliberalism is not merely a form of capitalism but an overarching approach to human motivation and governance in general that can inhere within but is not reducible to capitalist production and social relations (see Fletcher, 2010).

These understandings, while certainly not mutually exclusive, are distinct, and while they cannot be separated they cannot be simply merged together either (Barnett, 2005, 2010). They can, however, be integrated in mutually-enhancing ways, as a number of researchers have proposed (Larner, 2003; Lockwood and Davidson, 2009; Ferguson, 2010; Springer, 2012, 2016; Wacquant, 2012; Fletcher, 2013). As Ferguson (2010) points out, this integration allows us to cast light on the different ways in which neoliberalism can alternately manifest as a means of governing human behavior in general and as an approach to managing economic affairs in particular, as well as how these two aspects may intersect, either reinforcing or contradicting one another.

This theoretical integration can then be brought into conversation with recent attempts to move beyond a monolithic understanding of neoliberalization to parse different dimensions of the process. Castree (2010), for instance, distinguishes what he terms the ‘3 p’s’ of neoliberalism as simultaneously an overarching philosophy or worldview, a general political-economic programme, a set of specific policies or mechanisms. In this formulation, these various dimensions of neoliberalization can of course be differentially emphasized in particular variegated projects. Yates and Bakker (2014), meanwhile, distinguish between neoliberal (and post-neoliberal) principles and practices, the former corresponding roughly to elements of Castree’s general programme and the latter to his policies as well as their on-the-ground effects. Larner (2005), finally, describes neoliberalization as a project simultaneously focused on transforming geographical spaces, socialities (social networks and institutions), and subjectivities (a dynamic Castree (2010) also briefly noted but included within his programme category).

Synthesizing these different interventions thus yields a comprehensive four-part typology of neoliberalism as: 1) an overarching philosophy, 2) a set of general principles through which this philosophy is expressed; 3) the concrete policy instruments via which these principles are implemented; and 4) the forms of subjectivity nurtured in this way. When brought together with a Foucaultian perspective as described above, these categories can be considered analogous with a similar distinction common within governmentality studies between an overarching governmentality (philosophy), the particular rationalities (principles) this embodies, the specific technologies (policies) through which it is implemented, and the particular forms of subjectivity that a given governmentality seeks to cultivate (see esp. Miller and Rose, 2008).

As a general philosophy or worldview, neoliberalism can be understood as ‘in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade’ (Harvey, 2005: 2). This perspective also resonates with Foucault’s understanding of neoliberalism, particularly in the U.S context, as a ‘whole way of thinking and being’, a ‘general style of thought, analysis and imagination’ (2008: 218) promoting a ‘truth-regime of the market’ (2008: 144). This philosophy also embodies neoliberalism’s particular governmentality seeking to create external incentive structures within which actors can be motivated to exhibit appropriate behaviors through manipulation of incentives.

As a general political-economic programme, neoliberalism can be seen to pursue a core set of interrelated principles, which Castree (2010) summarizes as: 1) privatization; 2) marketization; 3) deregulation and reregulation (both away from and through state actors); 4) commodification; 5) use of ‘market proxies’ in state processes; and 6) encouragement of civil society ‘flanking mechanisms.’ As elements of a variegated process these different principles are of course not necessarily always bundled all together in a single package but may be variously emphasized and combined in particular projects (Larner, 2003, 2005). Moreover, particular principles (e.g. marketization) may be enacted in various ways (Birch and Siemiatycki, 2016). The point, then, is to investigate which combinations of principles are promoted in which ways within projects advocating an explicitly neoliberal philosophy.

In terms of specific policies, Castree (2010) distinguishes a variety of modalities advanced within particular neoliberal projects. These include: macro-economic policies; industrial and business policies; labor market policies; education and training policies; social policies; civil rights policies; and governance policies. Neoliberal environmental policies in particular are focused on promotion of so-called market-based instruments (MBIs), among which Pirard (2012) distinguishes six main categories: 1) direct markets (e.g. ecotourism); 2) tradable permits (e.g. cap-and-trade systems); 3) reverse auctions (in which landowners bid for specific land use rights); 4) Coasean-type agreements (e.g. in which price, supply and demand are negotiated through market engagement); 5) regulatory price signals (e.g. ecological taxation schemes); and 6) voluntary price signals (e.g. fair trade certification).

With respect to subjectivities, neoliberalism is commonly understood to promote (although certainly not always succeed in cultivating; cf. Barnett, 2005; 2010) a Homo economicus: an understanding of people as rational actors who coolly ‘assess the costs and benefits of a certain sort as opposed to other alternative acts’ (Lemke, 2001: 201). As Foucault phrases it (2008), under neoliberalism subjects are encouraged to become ‘entrepreneurs of themselves’. A penchant for competition is thus key to this subjectivity as well. Castree (2010: 10) further points to neoliberalism’s promotion of ‘“free”, “self-sufficient”, and self-governing individuals’, while Lemke (2001: 203) emphasizes a neoliberal focus on ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘self-care’.

While these various categories are somewhat arbitrary and the distinctions among them not necessarily absolute, the typology provides a useful heuristic to distinguish different dimensions of a variegated project. Understanding neoliberalism in this multidimensional perspective thus allows us to avoid dichotomies and strict limits, to sidestep the impossible task of adjudicating whether a given situation is or is not neoliberal in its entirety and instead assess which particular elements of a given process – at different scales and in different dimensions – reflect common neoliberal tendencies. Importantly, this also allows us to highlight disjuncture among these different dimensions in implementation of a particular project. While Weller and O’Neill contend that ‘[f]or a regime to be adjudged neoliberal, it has to demonstrate the presence of articulated economic, political and social actions involving neoliberal logic in both intention and enactment’ (2014: 110), from the perspective advanced here a given regime could in fact be neoliberal in one or other of these dimensions alone. This nuanced perspective thus allows us to capture the common discrepancy between theory and practice within neoliberal policy highlighted earlier.

While this typology affords a fine-grained view of the ways that different elements of neoliberalization may mix and match in particular contexts and projects, however, we still lack a similarly fine-grained means of comparative analysis of ‘alternative’[2] processes and institutions with which neoliberal elements may articulate. Hence, while we can now parse the particular elements of neoliberalization within a given process, we lack similar vocabulary to understand the different forms of governance with which these intersect, again risking the impression that these are merely ‘residual’ phenomena grafted onto a neoliberal core. Moreover, even this expanded conceptual framework describes merely the design of neoliberal policy, lacking a similarly nuanced means of describing and documenting the diverse ways that such policies are actually implemented and play out in practice. In the next section I thus integrate this multidimensional typology for understanding neoliberalization with other perspectives that offer tools to better illuminate these important dynamics. 

Multiple governmentalities

In The birth of biopolitics, Foucault (2008) contrasts the neoliberal governmentality he introduces there with the more conventional form developed in his initial discussion extracted from his lecture series of the previous year (see Foucault, 1991, 2007). While there remains a strong debate concerning how Foucault intended this concept (Rose et al., 2006; Lemke, 2012), initially situated within his iconic ‘sovereignty-discipline-government’ triad (1991: 102), it has been widely interpreted to operate according to his Panopticon model of power that compels subjects to internalize societal norms and values by means of which they discipline themselves and others (Foucault, 1977). Hence this can be understood as a disciplinary governmentality. Distinguishing this from his novel neoliberal governmentality, Foucault then goes on to identify two additional arts of government: a sovereign form entailing top-down creation of command-and-control regulatory structures; and what he calls ‘art of government according to truth’, defined as ‘the truth of religious texts, of revelation, and of the order of the world’ (2008: 311, emphasis added). In this way, Foucault arrives at a fourfold typology of distinct governmentalities that are seen to:

overlap, lean on each other, challenge each other, and struggle with each other: art of government according to truth, art of government according to the rationality of the sovereign state, and art of government according to the rationality of economic agents, and more generally according to the rationality of the governed themselves. (ibid.: 313)

Indeed, Foucault suggests that what we call politics consists largely of debates concerning the relative merit of these different strategies.

Within this expanded perspective, the meaning of governmentality thus ‘progressively shifts from a precise, historically determinate sense, to a more general and abstract meaning’ (Senellart, 2007: 388), becoming something of a generic category encompassing a variety of particular strategies for the conduct of conduct (see also Elden, 2007). In the process, Foucault’s ‘sovereignty-discipline-government’ triad collapses as well, with sovereignty and discipline instead becoming distinct governmentalities.

Over the last several years this ‘multiple governmentalities’ framework has been productively employed to analyze a diverse range of phenomenon (see Fletcher, 2017). Here it contributes to expanding the framework initiated in the last section. Integrated with the multidimensional typology introduced there, discipline, sovereignty, and truth can all be seen as alternative philosophies of governance contrasting with the neoliberal form previously outlined. From this perspective, each of these different philosophies can be seen to prescribe their own particular principles, policies and forms of subjectivity as well.

However, Foucault’s governmentality analytic has become subject to growing criticism that even an expanded understanding still privileges the top-down exercise of power and thus underappreciates the ways that subjects may organize to self-govern collectively in the absence of external authority (Barnett, 2005; Cepek, 2011; Singh, 2013; Forsyth and Walker, 2014; Haller et al., 2016) – a dynamic explored as common property regimes (CPRs) by Eleanor Ostrom and her followers (see esp. Ostrom, 1990; Agrawal, 2003). Yet in his Biopolitics lectures Foucault had already pointed towards the possibility of understanding such arrangements as an additional, alternative governmentality, which he called ‘a strictly, intrinsically, and autonomously socialist governmentality’ (2008: 94) and Ferguson (2011) terms a ‘left art of government’. Such a governmentality, Foucault pointed out (2008: 94), does not yet exist in widespread form and ‘is not hidden within socialism and its texts. It cannot be deduced from them. It must be invented’.

Subsequent researchers have begun to explore what this type of alternative, bottom-up governmentality emphasizing democratic self-governance and egalitarian distribution of resources might look like (see esp. Singh, 2013; Haller et al., 2016). Hence, we can add a fifth, communal governmentality to the four previously distinguished.

Integrating these multiple governmentalities with the multidimensional typology previously outlined, we can productively describe how different modes of governance articulate within particular institutions and processes. As ‘alternative’ governing philosophies, different governmentalities can be understood to embody divergent principles or rationality that in turn prescribe different policies and forms of subjectivity. A classic sovereign governmentality, for instance, commonly endorses a principle of ‘command-and-control’ intervention materialized within policies emphasizing direct regulation, such as taxation for purposes of centralized appropriation and redistribution of funding, as well as creation of subjects who are principally expected to obey external commands due to threat of punishment. A disciplinary governmentality, by contrast, characteristically adheres to the principle that promotion of a particular value orientation through appropriate education and other disciplinary measures will form subjects who self-regulate via an internal ethical compass. Governmentality according to truth, on the other hand, tends to be grounded in a conviction that one is acting in accordance with the order of the world, as revealed through sacred texts, divide revelation, traditional knowledge, and so forth. The subject that follows from this is one who can recognize this truth and serve as a vehicle for its execution. In terms of potential for an emergent communal governmentality, Yates and Bakker (2014) highlight principles of ‘re-socialization’ and ‘deepened democracy’ at the heart of many post-neoliberal projects that have inspired a variety of novel social, economic and political policies. Meanwhile, Singh calls for a new subject that transcends ‘political-economic rationalities’ to emphasize ‘affective relations’ (2013: 197) grounded in a ‘logic of gift, reciprocity’ and care (2015: 59).

Yet even this more nuanced framework remains limited in its emphasis on the design of different governance strategies rather than complexities of their execution in practice. A governmentality perspective, after all, characteristically seeks less to understand ‘what happened and why’ than ‘to start by asking what authorities of various sorts wanted to happen, in relation to problems defined how, in pursuit of what objectives, through what strategies and techniques’ (Rose, 1999: 20). There is, however, frequently a significant gap between design and execution in governance projects (Carrier and West, 2009). To round out our conceptual framework, therefore, we must include a nuanced framework for investigating the different forms of practice engendered by different governance strategies as well.

Diverse economies

Challenging the common depiction of capitalism in general as a monolithic system, J.K. Gibson-Graham instead envision a ‘landscape of radical heterogeneity populated by an array of capitalist and non-capitalist enterprises; market, non-market, and altermarket transactions; paid, unpaid, and alternatively compensated labor; and various forms of finance and property – a diverse economy in place’ (2011: 2). They thus describe capitalist relations as merely the tip of an economic iceberg concealing a wealth of alternative arrangements illuminated by micro-analysis of the multi-dimensional ‘community economy’ operating beneath the visible surface. These diverse practices, however, ‘have been relatively “invisible” because the concepts and discourses that could make them “visible” have themselves been marginalised and suppressed’ (Gibson-Graham, 1996: xi). This marginalization is seen to result, in large part, from what Gibson-Graham (1996) call ‘capitalo-centric’ thinking: ascribing what they consider a false homogeneity to a given situation such that ‘other forms of economy (not to mention noneconomic aspects of social life) are often understood primarily with reference to capitalism: as being fundamentally the same as (or modeled upon) capitalism, or as being deficient or substandard imitations’ (1996: 6).

Gibson-Graham’s perspective has become quite influential within human geography and related fields, having been supported and extended by a substantial body of research conducted by the founders’ students and others (e.g. Pavlovskaya, 2004; Cameron and Gibson, 2005; St. Martin, 2005; Hill, 2011; Roelvink et al., 2015). Yet it has also been criticized on a vareity of grounds, particularly in terms of its potential to impart an inflated sense of potential to ostensibly post-capitalist practices and difficulty in distinguishing progressive forms of diverse economy from oppressive ones (e.g. Castree, 1999; Kelly, 2005; Samers, 2005; North, 2008). White and Williams (2016), on the other hand, fault the framework for not presenting this potential strongly enough. Meanwhile, others have taken similar forms of analysis in different directions, producing more variegated diverse economies perspectives (see Gritzas and Kavoulakos, 2016 for a recent review of this growing literature).

Within this literature, Gibson-Graham’s remains the most detailed and nuanced framework for empirical analysis. It maps five interconnected dynamics: labor; transactions; property; enterprise; and finance (see Table 1). For each of these, Gibson-Graham subdivide processes into mainstream, alternative, and more radical forms. In terms of labor, for instance, the framework distinguishes paid, ‘alternative’ paid (e.g. self-employed, in-kind), and unpaid (e.g. volunteer, housework) varieties. With respect to enterprise, similarly, the framework distinguishes capitalist, ‘alternative’ capitalist (e.g. state-owned, socially responsible) and non-capitalist (e.g. worker-owned cooperative) forms.

In terms of property, Gibson-Graham distinguish private, alternative private, and open acces forms. Yet the CPR litertaure has highlighted the need to further distinguish between truly open access regimes and communal property – commons – in which access and use of land is regulated by local norms and institutions (see esp. Feeny et al., 1990). This is currently included in Gibson-Graham’s ‘alternative private’ modality, as is state-managed land, which the CPR discussion designates as its own category as well. Combining these perspectives, therefore, yeilds a four-part property typology comprising private, state, communal, and open access forms.

Table 1: The diverse economy. Source: http://www.communityeconomies.org/Home/Key-Ideas 

Integrating all of the different discussions outlined above, the resulting framework is depicted in its entirety in Table 2.

Within this framework, different governmentalities can, via particular programmes and associated policies, articulate with diverse arrangements of labor, enterprise, property and so forth in more or less conventional or radical forms. In turn, these diverse economic formations can embody different governmentalities, prescribing distinct strategies for how to implement the particular arrangements envisioned. For instance, different forms of labour (wage, alternative paid, and unpaid) can be pursued via various governance strategies, including state-centered (sovereign), incentive-based (neoliberal), and appeals to ethical standards (disciplinary). These diverse labor arragements can be integrated into different policies informed by different modes of governance as well. The complex formations analyzable in these terms can range from voluntary labor recruited for a weekend road-side trash pick-up through a state-sponsored ‘good samaritan’ campaign to private finance mobilized for a community-based carbon sequestration project by an international cap-and-trade scheme. In this way, the fromework outline here allows for fine-grained parsing of the specific mechanisms employed in the type of complex, overlapping processes characterizing many forms of political-economic intervention today. The framework can also be applied to understand governance processes at different scales simultaneously as well as the interconnections among these. Hence, the intricacies of community-level processes can be linked with the national politics shaping them, the international forces influencing national politics, and the global governance fora in which these international forces are debated and institutionalized – as well as how such global discussions are affected by ideas and positions projected upwards from local-level processes through national governments, external actors (e.g. NGOs, social movements) with an international presence, and so forth.

Table 2: Variegated neoliberalization and its ‘alternatives’.

Focus on payment for environmental services

The framework’s utility for analysis of articulated neoliberalization is illustrated by a case study of Costa Rica’s payment for environmental services (PES) programme, a focus of my own empirical research (Fletcher and Breitling, 2012). PES programmes, in which landowners are commonly paid to conserve the ‘ecosystem services’ their land is seen to provide, are increasingly popular means of addressing environmental degradation, with more than 300 in existence worldwide (Pattanayak et al., 2010). Mirroring the discussion concerning neoliberalism generally outlined at the outset, within research addressing PES an ongoing debate concerns the extent to which PES can be considered a neoliberal form of environmental governance. In response to early research characterizing PES as a quintessentially neoliberal market-based instrument (MBI) (Pagiola et al., 2002; Wunder, 2005), subsequent analysis showed that in practice few ‘actual existing’ PES programs contain much direct market exchange, being instead mostly funded through state-based financing (McAfee and Shapiro, 2010; Fletcher and Breitling, 2012; Milne and Adams, 2012; McElwee et al., 2014; Van Hecken et al., 2015). Consequently, some researchers concluded that this meant that PES is not necessarily a neoliberal mechanism at all (Dempsey and Robertson, 2012; Muradian and Gómez-Baggethun, 2013; McElwee et al., 2014; Van Hecken et al., 2015). Responding to this, Fletcher and Büscher (2017) assert that PES can still be considered neoliberal in its overarching aim to incentivize conservation via monetary payments even if such payments commonly lack significant market engagement. Yet Van Hecken et al. consider this position tantamount to ‘essentializing a “neoliberal” monster into being’, contending that research should accept ‘the plurality of PES praxis without privileging any one form of theory over another in explaining observed outcomes’ (2018: 316).

Central to this debate stands Costa Rica’s PES (called Pago por Servicios Ambimentales, or PSA) programme, which is indeed considered to have ‘pioneered the nation-wide PES scheme in the developing world’ (Daniels et al., 2010: 2116; see also Pagiola, 2008). As with PES generally, at the outset PSA was explicitly designed as a neoliberal MBI (see Heindrichs et al., 1997; Pagiola, 2008). Both the programme and law that founded it were in fact instituted as part of the conditionality attendant to a structural adjustment loan in the mid-1990s (Daniels et al., 2010). But like many other programmes, in its subsequent implementation PSA has come to rely primarily on state-based distributive funding rather than the international carbon markets it intended to generate (Fletcher and Breitling, 2012).

What does this mean concerning the programme’s ostensibly neoliberal character? The multidimensional framework proposed herein helps to illuminate this issue. In PSA development, a strongly neoliberal vision endorsed by the World Bank and other influential actors was countered by an entrenched sovereign perspective on the part of some state representatives, resulting in a mechanism (and the legal regime establishing it) embodying both approaches at once (Brockett and Gottfried, 2002). This hybrid governance philosophy is expressed in an equally hybrid set of principles embodying, on the one hand, core neoliberal rationalities including privatization, marketization, commodification, re-regulation and development of civil society ‘flanking’ mechanisms in paying landowners to conserve. At the time, however, the program expresses key sovereign principles of direct regulation and centralized resource appropriation and redistribution via a legal prohibition on land use change and funding through mandatory taxation (Sánchez-Azofeifa et al., 2007). This has led to the development of a constellation of more specific policies in which PSA functions in part like Pirard’s (2012) Coasean-type agreement and in part like his regulatory price signals, while also going beyond this to dispense with markets entirely in exercising direct control regulatory over private land use decisions.

But the situation is even more complicated than this, since several actors involved in PSA administration claim that the mechanism is not intended only to incentivize forest preservation but that it is also expected that payments will eventually convince landowners, and then the general public, of conservation’s intrinsic value (what economists call ‘crowding in’ motivation; Rode et al., 2015). In this way, neoliberal governmentality is effectively promoted as the precondition for a disciplinary strategy as well. Three distinct governmentalities, in short, are advanced as complementary in the program’s overall administration.

In PSA’s actual practices, moreover, the situation becomes more complicated still. With respect to finance, for instance, the program is grounded in a classically welfare state mechanism whereby a mandatory tax on fossil fuel use is collected then redistributed for various uses including funding PSA. In the program’s initial neoliberal framing, however, this was intended as merely seed money to get the initiative up and running, after which it was expected to be replaced by direct market transactions whereby polluters (both domestic and international) would pay to offset their negative impacts. Such market transactions never developed on a significant scale, however, so reliance on the fuel tax has become institutionalized as a foundational funding source (Daniels et al., 2010). Yet even so this provides less than half the program’s total required revenue, so it is supplemented by various others founts, including a more recent tariff on water use (which as Matulis (2013) points out seeks to intensify neoliberalization in its targeting particular watersheds), a tax on vehicle registration, a voluntary contribution from private bank transaction, grants and loans from IFIs, and offset payments from other national governments. As with the initial fuel tax, these funds are commonly justified in neoliberal terms as temporary support until a substantial market for actual offset payments finally develops. Additionally, of course, a small percentage of funding does come from direct market transactions, both domestic (e.g. payments from private hydroelectric plant operators and beverage manufacturers) and international (offset purchases on the voluntary carbon market). In Gibson-Graham’s terms, then, we can observe in PSA finance a complex combination of market, alternative market, and non-market sources.

Then there are the program’s property relations to consider. The main purpose of PSA has been to encourage conservation on private land beyond the state’s direct dominion, of course, and this is indeed the dominant form of property the program encompasses. But it also includes a significant portion of parcels managed by non-profit organizations, in addition to land held communally by peasant farmers as well as indigenous peoples occupying state-designated reserves, and even some private land that is also officially included in the national system of protected areas via the National Wildlife Refuge modality (which regulates land use in exchange for reduced property tax). So various forms of private, communal, and even nominally state property (although this last is technically excluded) are included in the programme.

In terms of transactions one finds similar diversity. Most, as I have shown, are decidedly non-market, comprising taxes, tariffs, grants, and other forms of direct finance. Most voluntary offset payments can be considered alternative market transactions since they are neither mandated nor usually direct benefit-cost decisions but intended to address environmental damage from an ethical or aesthetic perspective. Domestic payments from hydroelectric producers, on the other hand, are closer to conventional market transactions since they are ostensibly about preserving production inputs in pursuit of direct business interests. Offset payments from foreign states can be considered something in between all of the above – partial or pseudo-market transactions – since they are for services rendered, in a sense, yet are conducted between national governments, thus representing state marketization more than market transactions per se.

This analysis, while schematic and cursory, demonstrates the utility of the multidimensional framework developed in this article, offering a fine-grained description of the ways that different combinations of philosophy, principle, policy and practice intersect in particular ways within this popular initiative. Rather than simply calling all of this variegated neoliberalization, or conversely denying the coherence of neoliberalism entirely, a multidimensional perspective affords a much more nuanced analysis of the specific ways in which different forms of governance intersect within concrete institutions and processes.


The analytical framework proposed in this article offers a relatively comprehensive foundation for analyzing the complexities of contemporary governance, serving as the basis for site-specific study as well as comparative analysis across cases at different governance levels in both material and discursive dimensions, in terms of a combined conceptual perspective linking politcial economic structures with collective discursive formations and the beliefs/desires of discrete subjects. More modest combinations of a subset of various of these elements can be examined as well. This framework thus has potential to facilitate fine-grained analysis of the complex intersection among overlapping approaches to governance within a given context as well as among interrelated sites. In more practical terms, by highlighting differences in governance strategies and the structures through which specific approaches are enacted, the framework can facilitate understanding of conflicts and/or miscommunications that may arise among various planners on the basis of fundamental differences in belief and values of which they themselves may be unaware.

Ultimately, the goal of an emancipatory politics, like Gibson-Graham’s community economies project, must be to support initiatives that challenge the dominant neoliberal capitalist order, helping to develop and open space for imagination and enactment of viable ‘alternatives’, both those already existing in the institutional interstices and those that have yet to manifest. In this sense, the overarching aim must be to champion direct democratic decision-making and egalitarian access to resources. Identifying and nurturing elements of such a ‘communal’ governmentality (and associated policies, practices and forms of subjectivities) is thus the grandest ambition of the multidimensional framework proposed herein. How to achieve this is a vital question for future research and practice.


[1]     This work drew heavily on Duménil and Lévy’s (2004) Resurgent capital, published the previous year, but has become far more widely cited.

[2]     White and Williams (2016) assert that use of the descriptor ‘alternatives’ to describe such projects risks diminishing their potency by reducing them to mere responses or reactions to mainstream processes rather than independent visions in their own right. Hence I will continue to place the term in quotation throughout.


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the author(s)  

Robert Fletcher is Associate Professor in the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. His research interests include conservation, development, tourism, climate change, globalization, and resistance and social movements. He is the author of Romancing the wild: Cultural dimensions of ecotourism (Duke University, 2014) and co-editor of NatureTM Inc.: Environmental conservation in the neoliberal age (University of Arizona, 2014).

Email: robert.fletcher AT wur.nl