The Moral Neoliberal: Welfare and Citizenship in Italy

The Moral Neoliberal: Welfare and Citizenship in Italy

by Andrea Muehlebach


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Morality is often imagined to be at odds with capitalism and its focus on the bottom line, but in The Moral Neoliberal morality is shown as the opposite: an indispensible tool for capitalist transformation. Set within the shifting landscape of neoliberal welfare reform in the Lombardy region of Italy, Andrea Muehlebach tracks the phenomenal rise of voluntarism in the wake of the state’s withdrawal of social service programs. Using anthropological tools, she shows how socialist volunteers are interpreting their unwaged labor as an expression of social solidarity, with Catholic volunteers thinking of theirs as an expression of charity and love. Such interpretations pave the way for a mass mobilization of an ethical citizenry that is put to work by the state.
Visiting several sites across the region, from Milanese high schools to the offices of state social workers to the homes of the needy, Muehlebach mounts a powerful argument that the neoliberal state nurtures selflessness in order to cement some of its most controversial reforms. At the same time, she also shows how the insertion of such an anticapitalist narrative into the heart of neoliberalization can have unintended consequences. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226545394
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/12/2012
Series: Chicago Studies in Practices of Meaning Series
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Andrea Muehlebach is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto. 

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The Moral Neoliberal

Welfare and Citizenship in Italy

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-54539-4

Chapter One

An Opulence of Virtue

Death of a King

Sometime during the early hours of January 24, 2003, the king of Italy died. This was the way one of the twentieth century's most powerful industrialists, Gianni Agnelli, was referred to by the Italian press—a king who led the country's postwar trajectory toward modernization, industrialization, and massive economic growth. As the heir to the legendary car manufacturing company Fiat, Agnelli introduced American-style assembly-line production to the country, making Fiat the world's third-largest car producer after General Motors and Ford. "For a long time," as one journalist put it, "economic power in Italy had a very simple structure. At its center was Fiat. And at the center of Fiat was Agnelli" (Luzi 2003: 4). The story of Fiat, then, was not just the story of one Turin-based company or of one larger-than-life figure. It was the story of a nation.

The days after Agnelli's death were characterized by a remarkable media frenzy. Journalists referred to the king as "the patriarch," "grandfather," "father" or "the padrone" (the boss or master) of Italy. Hundreds of obituaries were published nationwide, commemorating this fabulously famous member of Italy's capitalist aristocracy who was also a senator, a personal friend of the Kennedy family, the owner of Juventus, one of Italy's major football teams, and a number of national daily newspapers. But what caught the media's attention most was the spectacular number of ordinary Italians who flocked to the mortuary chapel where the body was kept. When the doors of the chapel swung open in the morning of the funeral, thousands of people who had stood in the cold for hours were waiting to pay their last respects. By the end of the day and late into the night, more than 100,000 mourners, many of them wearing blue factory workers' overalls, had thronged past the coffin. How could one explain what one journalist dubbed this "strange case of a capitalist loved by the people"? How should this moment of collective grief be understood in a country that "does not love capitalists and harbors great suspicions toward the rich" (Ottone 2003: 18)?

Some sought to solve the riddle by pointing to the man's seminal charisma. Others, including the famous journalist and Agnelli biographer Enzo Biagi, dug deeper to reveal what was really at stake: the death of Agnelli signaled the death of an era. Indeed, there was perhaps no other event in early twenty-first-century Italy that provided a more deeply resonant symbol for a widely experienced paradigm shift—the irrevocable passing of one order and the ascendance of another. No one articulated this sense of collective grief more poignantly than the mourners themselves. The snippets of interviews they gave and notes of condolence they left as they waited in line served as eloquent testimonies to the significance of the moment. A pensioner, demonstratively wearing his blue overalls, exclaimed: "He was our father. He fed the entire family. He gave people work for life, and their pensions" (Offeddu 2003: 5). A woman, described as having carefully applied makeup to her face, weary after a lifetime of work, said: "Of course I got up this early [at three o'clock in the morning, to come to the funeral]! This is a man who took care of us all. He gave us health insurance and housing, of course!"(D'Avanzo 2003: 2). Another mourner explained that "he was a great man. His greatness has become even more evident today, in an era where big business has no sense of morals. Agnelli still believed in the value of work" (Strippoli 2003: 6). Indeed, Agnelli's sense of style, love of art and philosophy, notorious boredom with the management of the company, and a dress-sense so distinctive that it was imitated by his workers, were evoked repeatedly to imply that his worldview "went far beyond a balanced budget at the end of the fiscal year." Agnelli embodied a type of capital that was propelled by more than a brute desire for profit; a capitalist with class who cared for his employees. His death was a spectacular instantiation of a disappearing moral order built around the core pillars of work, pensions, and the stability and dignity that the mourners identified with an era lost. This was an era widely associated with a historic social contract—between labor, capital, and the state—all of which had crystallized into the securities of the modern welfare state. Agnelli was iconic of this state. As a "benign," "temperate," "democratic," "fatherly," and even "poetic" capitalist, his death had made, as one paper put it, "orphans of the Italian people" (Bocca 2003: 1).

It did not matter to the mourners that the relationship between the king and his people had historically been fraught. On the contrary, Agnelli served as a potent template against which Italians measured and bemoaned current insecurities. When prime minister Silvio Berlusconi arrived at the funeral—late and in an Audi—he was loudly booed. For the mourners, Berlusconi's reign had become associated with a merciless US-style form of deregulation and privatization—the fl exibilization of Italy's labor market, the birth of a new stratum of poor, and the dismantling of welfare.

Yet it is not only Agnelli's workers in Italy who mourn a moral order lost. Many of Europe's most famous public intellectuals have long engaged in their own acts of grieving; a grieving quite ambivalent in that it is directed toward an object never quite loved (Brown 2003). These scholars have produced a melancholic account of twentieth-century welfare as a "Golden Age" now in demise, an age marked by an expansion of public services, education, health, unemployment and old-age benefits, and an increase in real wage income (Hobsbawm 1996). This was an age of full citizenship, consolidated not with the electoral reforms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but with the social reforms of the twentieth (Marshall 1992 [1950]). Lamenting the loss of a "social and moral economy" (Harvey 2007: 11), scholars have portrayed the era past as one where capitalism for once did not thwart the Republican promise to include all citizens as equals before the law, but instead made a relatively high degree of collective justice possible (Habermas 1989). This epoch represented "a triumph of ethical intentions" and "one of the greatest gains of humanity" (Bauman 2000: 5 and 11).

Tightly intertwined with such nostalgic ruminations is the argument that an immoral order of "competitiveness, cost-and-effect calculations, profitability, and other free-market commandments rule supreme" (Bauman 2000: 9). The new order has killed off all "utopian possibility" (Bourdieu 1998: 66) and exhausted utopian energies (Habermas 1989). Zygmunt Bauman has gone so far as to urge an "ethical crusade" in favor of the "morality" of welfare—a morality that he counterposes to the immorality of our times (2000: 11).

Such stark distinctions between today's amoral market fundamentalisms and the moral economies of twentieth-century welfarism circulate widely in both the popular imagination and in scholarly writing. The drawing of such distinctions between the market and its less alienated (or even nonalienated) counterparts has a long history in leftist thought. One seminal iteration of this distinction is, of course, E. P. Thompson's work on the moral versus the market economy, which he describes as "de-moralizing," "heartless," and "disinfested of intrusive moral imperatives." To Thompson, capitalism does not have the capacity to let "questions as to the moral polity of marketing" enter, "unless as preamble and peroration" (1993: 201–202). Markets, in short, are only marginally or epiphenomenally accompanied by morals. "Real" morals are for Thompson located outside of the market in a sphere heroically pitted against it. Thompson's model, in short, hinges on a conceptualization of morals as either epiphenomenal or as oppositional—as preamble, as mere afterthought, or as always already resistant.

This book explores morality as neither epiphenomenal nor as oppositional but as integral, indeed indispensible, to market orders. If neoliberalism consists of a mixture of neoclassical economic fundamentalism, market regulation in place of state intervention, economic redistribution in favor of capital, international free trade principles, and an intolerance toward trade unions (Moody 1997: 119–120), it also at its very core entails a moral authoritarianism that idealizes the family, the nation, God, or, in the US especially, right-to-life issues (Berlant 2007; Moody 1997; Comaroff and Comaroff 2000; Comaroff 2007). Many scholars have thus insisted that morals do pulsate at the heart of the market; that the gospel of laissez-faire is always already accompanied by hypermoralization. Atomization, for David Harvey, is always paired with a propagation of "an overweening morality as the necessary social glue to keep the body politic secure" (2007: 82–83).

This book is a sustained interrogation of neoliberal moral authoritarianism, though of a very particular kind. The moral authoritarianism I focus on comes in the form of a highly moralized kind of citizenship that has emerged in the northern Italian region of Lombardy at the very moment that social services are being cut and privatized. The Italian state has in the last three decades sought to mobilize parts of the population into a new voluntary labor regime—a regime that has allowed for the state to confl ate voluntary labor with good citizenship, and unwaged work with gifting. Many of those invested in the creation of this voluntary labor regime think of it as a sphere located outside of the realm of market exchange, animated not by homo oeconomicus but by what one might call homo relationalis, not by self-interest but by fellow feeling, not by a rational entrepreneurial subject but by a compassionate one. The state tends to frame voluntarism in Catholic terms and volunteers as subjects touched by the grace of the divine. The rise of voluntarism, in short, has thus allowed for an insertion of the fantasy of gifting into the heart of neoliberal reform. Hyperexploitation is here wedded to intense moralization, nonremuneration to a public fetishization of sacrifice.

The story I tell is thus a story about the neoliberal state's investment in the creation of zones of nonremuneration seemingly untouched by the polluting logic of market exchange. But this is also a story about labor, for the state has marshaled citizens—particularly "passive" and "dependent" citizens such as retirees and unemployed youths—into working to produce communities animated by disinterestedness. The mobilization of "dependent" populations into unwaged labor has rendered the purportedly unproductive productive through what many volunteers call lavoro relazionale—relational labor. As citizens central to the production of a postwelfarist public morality, their labor is part of a much larger resignification of the meaning of work in a Europe confronting the specter of growing unemployment rates and the growth of an increasingly precarious, low-wage labor market. In Italy, this crisis prompted a number of sociologists to produce a set of reflections infused with both anxiety and utopic promise—a promise that translates the crisis of work into a sacralization of "activity." Relational labor allows ostensibly dependent populations to purchase some sort of social belonging at a moment when their citizenship rights and duties are being reconfigured in the profoundest of ways.

They do so by providing what one could simply read as the unwaged iteration of the "immaterial" labor that has become prototypical in the post-Fordist era. Voluntarism in the social service sector is indeed an activity "without an end product" (Virno 2004: 61; Hardt 1999; Hardt and Negri 1994). But the crucial difference here is that everyone—politicians, policy makers, volunteers themselves—thinks of this immaterial labor as valuable because it is located outside of the wage nexus. Everyone interprets it as a redemptive force emerging in the midst of generalized atomization and anomie. As a regime of accumulation, the unwaged labor regime produces and accumulates the value of the relation. Relational laborers help recuperate and reactivate solidarity under neoliberal conditions and create a form of living that appears not as atomized or isolated, but as intent on building social relations through acts of intense moral communion and care.

I use "care" deliberately here because the moral neoliberal hinges on a particular kind of ethical subject. To some degree, this caring subject is engaged in acts of care in the Foucauldian sense—a care of the self that entails specific forms of self knowledge and self-detachment "whereby one's innermost feelings become object of scrutiny and then articulation" (1997: 223), and whereby the acquisition of certain attitudes with the goal of self-transformation are central to becoming an ethical being (1997: 225). But at the same time, my stress here lies not on this souci de soi, this care of the self, but on the making of ethical citizenship as something that relies on a souci des autres, a care for others. The ethical subject I am interested in performs two kinds of labors of care at once; it feels (cares about) and acts (cares for others) at the same time. This subject is one that the state and many other social actors—nonprofit organizations, government experts, the Catholic Church, labor unions, and volunteers themselves—imagine to be animated by affect rather than intellect, by the capacity to feel and act upon these feelings rather than rational deliberation and action. As the state marshals unremunerated labor by publicly valorizing sentiments such as compassion and solidarity, it sentimentalizes highly feminized forms of work that are today decreasingly provided by the state and female kin. By mobilizing sentiments as productive force (Yanagisako 2002: 7) the state is attempting not only to mediate the effects of its own withdrawal, but to craft an anticapitalist narrative at the heart of neoliberal reform.

The goal of my exploration is to treat markets and morals as indissolubly linked and to propose that the contemporary neoliberal order works to produce more than rational, utilitarian, instrumentalist subjects. On the contrary, I show that some forms of neoliberalization may simultaneously posit an affective, that is to say a compassionate and empathetic, self as the corollary center of their social and moral universe. Such attention to the moral neoliberal allows us to grasp neoliberalism as a form that contains practices and forces that appear as oppositional and yet get folded into a single order. It not only allows us to see the versatility and malleability of neoliberal projects but also lets us explore their limits—the unexpected ways in which new kinds of collective living may emerge out of, and despite, new forms of difference and inequality.

An ethnographic study of such processes of moralization is vital for understanding not only processes of neoliberalization, but also how and why such post-Keynesian forms of citizenship, based on free labor, can become persuasive and desirable to people in their everyday lives. Morality must be thought of as the very vehicle through which subjects—often very clear-eyed ones at that—get drawn into processes they might not be in agreement with. This process is a complicated one in that it sometimes allows for even neoliberalism's critics to ambivalently participate in its workings. I thus differ from those who view morals as doing little more than performing the labor of socially repressing the "objective truths" of economic activity and of masking the calculative aspects of all forms of exchange (Bourdieu 1977: 171–172). Here, morals cloud reality and perform only the numbing work of the opiate. Nor are morals a mere social palliative in moments of social dislocation, allowing people to "flee anxiety" (Geertz 1973: 201). What I want to do here, in contrast, is to document a larger shift in social conventions of moral responsibility, a shift that is shared across the political spectrum and thus points to the emergence of a new culture of ethical feeling and action that is intrinsically linked to the intensification of marketization (see also Haskell 1985a: 353). The moral neoliberal thus hinges on the creation of a new sense of self and good citizenship, of interiority and action, of sensitivity and agency—a sense broadly shared by many northern Italians I met. If morality masks, it does so not as an instrument of class interest that produces false consciousness (Haskell 1985a: 353), but because it is wrought out of existing cultural materials such as Catholicism and Socialism, thus allowing those uneasy or explicitly critical of neoliberalization to render these novel practices of citizenship meaningful and graspable in their own terms. And if morality operates as palliative, then not in the sense of allowing for an escape from bitter realities, but on the contrary as a means to attempt to build practices of insubordination in opposition to these realities. (Continues...)

Excerpted from The Moral Neoliberal by ANDREA MUEHLEBACH Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Part I
Chapter 1: An Opulence of Virtue
 Death of a King
 Markets and Morals
 An Opulence of Virtue

Chapter 2: Ethical Citizenship
 A Crisis of Loneliness
 Who Cares?
 Ethical Citizenship
 The Moral Neoliberal

Part II
Chapter 3: Consecrations: From Welfare State to Welfare Community
 The Oath
 Welfare Community
 Sacred Social
 Sacralizing “Activity”
 A Temple of Humanity
 The Ethical State
 Social Capitalism
 The Catholicization of Neoliberalism

Part III
Chapter 4: The Production of Compassion
 A Heartfelt Citizenship
 The Production of Dispassion
 The Production of Compassion 1: The Public Management of Virtue
 The Production of Compassion 2: Education of Desire
 The Production of Compassion 3: Arts of Suffering, Feeling, Listening
 The Production of Compassion 4: Empowerment
 Privatizing the Public Sphere

Chapter 5: An Age Full of Virtue
 Super Seniors
 An Age Full of Virtue
 Labor, Life Cycle, and Generational Contract
 Learning to Labor, or, Citizenship as Work
 Care of the Self
 A New Generational Contract

Chapter 6: Aftereffects of Utopian Practice
 The Question of Solidarity
 Lavoro or Impegno? Work or Commitment?
 Passions at Work
 Aftereffects of Utopian Practice
 From Politics to Ethics
 From Ethics to Politics; or, the Social Life of Social Citizenship

Chapter 7: The Private Face of Privatization
 Enemy in the House
 The Professor and the Angel
 Ethical Citizenship as Relational Labor
 The Ethics of Relational Labor
 Appearing in Public
 Wounding and Healing


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