“Neoliberalization in Cambodia has hindered the potential for social justice, exacerbated poverty and inequality, and is now increasingly thrusting thousands of Cambodians into a position of landless proletarianism.” This sentence is extracted from the Introduction section of a book entitled “Violent Neoliberalism: Development, Discourse, and Dispossession in Cambodia,” which was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015. The book explores the nexus between neoliberalism and violence based on a critical poststructuralist perspective with particular focus on Cambodia.
This book is a major contribution to particularly the field of peace and conflict studies and human geography studies, and is of great interest to those who want to inquire more into how neoliberalism can be understood and how violence and economic development intersect in the era of neoliberal globalization, especially in the case of contemporary Cambodia.
Dr. Simon Springer is the author of the book. He is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Victoria, Canada. He also serves as a co-editor for ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies and Transforming Capitalism Book Series, Rowman & Littlefield. He has previously taught at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and the National University of Singapore.
A well-trained human geographer whose main research interests focus on geographies of neoliberalism, geographies of violence, anarchist geographies, and more importantly geographies of contemporary Cambodia, Dr. Simon Springer has produced several publications including authored books, edited books, book chapters, peer reviewed journal articles, etc. His journal articles have appeared in leading geographical journals such as Progress in Human Geography, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Antipode, Environment and Planning A, Political Geography, Area, Geoforum, Dialogues in Human Geography, Space and Polity, and Geography Compass.
Dr. Springer has recently responded to NCSEAS’s inquiries about the book. His responses help those interested in reading the book understand about what the book is all about, and provide insight into particularly the relationship between neoliberalism and violence in Cambodia. While answering question about his vision for a better Cambodia, he asks “Is the consolidation of wealth into fewer and fewer hands desirable, or do Cambodians want to see a system where everyone is taken care of and has an equal opportunity to contribute to society?”
What is the book mainly about?
“Violent Neoliberalism” explores the relationship between neoliberalism and violence through a critical poststructuralist lens. The book seeks to expose the supposed humanitarianism of what has become the world’s most dominant political economic model as a process of transformation that is shot through with a significant degree of cruelty. In making this argument I employ a series of theoretical dialogues informed by my ongoing research in Cambodia. In particular I seek to upset and disturb the ‘commonsense’ assumptions about development and dispossession in the country by examining the discourses that are being deployed. In looking closely at these processes I argue that the ongoing patterns of neoliberalization have become engrossed with violence, not only in Cambodia, but beyond as well.
Why was this study important to undertake?
It is critically important to look critically at neoliberalism and the various ways it has been taken up across the globe. All we hear in mainstream accounts are positive messages about free markets and the opportunities they provide. What isn’t often depicted is the fact that while there undoubtedly are opportunities for the rich to make a lot of money off of things like real estate investment, the poor are left in the lurch as they bear the brunt of spikes in rents and forced evictions to make way for new developments. Cambodia has been particularly good at protecting the interests of an elite and wealthy class of well connected individuals, but the majority of Cambodians are still struggling with poverty, increasing debt, and economic marginalization, which has only been exacerbated over the last two decades of intensifying neoliberalization.
Why do you think this book is a must-read?
I don’t want to assume this is a ‘must read’ book. I certainly hope that it will be taken up and appreciated, but I recognize that books on Cambodia aren’t necessarily at the forefront of the world’s concern or interest. The appeal for scholars and students of Cambodia should be evident, and I think folks in the NGO community will also find something useful here too, but I hope the appeal extends beyond a country study as I’m trying to make a wider theoretical argument about the ways in which processes of neoliberalization are intimately connected, or at the very least have a capacity for profound violence.
The world is on a crash course, where intense capitalism, presently in the form of neoliberalism, is literally threatening our ability to survive on the planet. I’d like to think that my book contributes to a chorus of academic voices that are crying out in defiance of this trajectory. My specific contribution is to suggest that we are only heightening our capacity for violence by remaining complacent in the face of greater neoliberalization.
To your own definition, what is neoliberalism?
My short answer is that neoliberalism is violence. I’m being cheeky here given the focus of my book, but I also mean that quite literally. My longer answer is that it is very difficult to pin neoliberalism down.
To most scholars, the word ‘neoliberalism’ generally refers to a new political, economic, and social arrangement emphasizing market relations, minimal or deregulated states, and individual responsibility, but I think there is more too it than that. In particular I’m keen to emphasize its performative aspects. Accordingly, I consider neoliberalism as a discourse. It is a mutable, inconsistent, and variegated process that circulates through the discourses it constructs, justifies, and defends. This performative quality counteracts the mainstream assumptions about a ubiquitous and supposedly omnipresent ‘thing’ called neoliberalism that acts like a bulldozer. For me, I think we simply can’t neglect the internal constitution, local variability, and the role that ‘the social’ and individual agency play in (re)producing, facilitating, and circulating neoliberalism. This too is its discursive quality. The result is that we see neoliberalism play out differently in different contexts.
I take a lot of critique for calling Cambodia a neoliberal country, but I stand behind that assessment because those making that critique are typically not well versed in what neoliberalism is, thinking instead that it is a bogeyman type figure, rather than a discursive performance that is necessarily hybridized and mutated according to the context it is operating in. So neoliberalism in Cambodia, in a discursive reading, is never going to be the same as neoliberalism in Canada, Japan, Germany, or Turkey. It has it’s own unique formations that are contingent upon existing historical contexts, geographical landscapes, institutional legacies, and embodied subjectivities.
In short, neoliberalism is an ongoing performance that utilizes the idea of the market to justify and legitimize inequality and certain forms of violence.
How do you think about the relationship between neoliberalism and violence? How do you think about that in the case of Cambodia?
There is an integral relationship between neoliberalism and violence. We need to start by understanding that violence is more than an ‘act’, and can’t be defined as simply as someone clubbing someone else over the head. Yes, this is one form of direct violence, but the phenomenon is far more complicated than this and I advocate for a view that considers violence as a relational assemblage. What this means is that we have to understand that there is a spatio-temporality to violence that is very diffuse, where one single ‘act’ is actually constituted by a whole series of occurrences. It is almost impossible to talk about cause then, and I’m much more interested in violence as a process.
This is similar to Johan Galtung’s notion of structural violence, but it places the continually unfolding geographies of our social world at center stage. So for example, we know that violence is structural to capitalism because of the inherent exploitation that is embedded within this political economic system. Some people win and the majority lose as wealth is increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. Those on the losing end suffer. They struggle with the stress of not being able to make ends meet, which then manifests itself as a variety of social ills, such as domestic violence. But it isn’t simply the end product that we should be concerned with. We can teach people about the tragedy of domestic violence until we are blue in the face, but this particular form of violence won’t be resolved until the other links in the chain are also rectified.
The geographies of one form of violence (i.e., capitalism) must be recognized as relationally connected to other forms (i.e., domestic violence), where solving one can only be done by solving the other. So we see a proliferation of violence in so may forms across Cambodia today because of these connections. When people struggle with their livelihoods it seems obvious that social tensions will escalate, yet as a society, we refuse to take a close, hard look at capitalism. Instead, we foolishly assume it is our only option for the organization of society and thus blind ourselves to the violence in entails. Neoliberalism simply intensifies this vicious relationship.
To what extent do you think neoliberalism is not the cause of or associated with social conflict or violence? Why? How do you think about that in the case of Cambodia?
The question of causation has never interested me and it is one that I think is actually irrelevant. It is an idea that is too determined, assuming that the world is black and white, where solutions are easy. Unfortunately the world we live in is infinitely complex and so we need a much broader view to account for the phenomena we see and experience.
From my perspective, I think we are better placed in making meaningful interventions against violence when re recognize that inequality and violence are mutually constitutive. Inequality begets violence, and violence produces further inequalities. If we want to disempower the abhorrent and alienating effects of violence and inequality then we need to drop the calculative approaches and consider them together as an enclosed and resonating system. Overcoming neoliberalism then demands that we recognize it as a system that is meant to exacerbate inequality, and it is here too that we find it’s inherent violence. So it is not a case of neoliberalism causing violence, but rather a recognition that neoliberalism actually is violence.
How do you think about Cambodia’s contemporary development in the era of neoliberal globalization? And what is your vision for a better Cambodia?
My vision for a better Cambodia is largely unimportant. For me to assume the arrogance of knowing what’s best for Cambodians would only recapitulate the current model of authoritarian governance. My argument is that this question should be in the hands of everyday Cambodians, and not relegated to a domain that concerns only the political elite.
For Cambodia to overcome its haunting past and flower into what it wants to become, it first needs to decide what kind of society is desired. Is the consolidation of wealth into fewer and fewer hands desirable, or do Cambodians want to see a system where everyone is taken care of and has an equal opportunity to contribute to society? There is a false dichotomy in contemporary Cambodian politics that assumes there must be a choice either between capitalism or communism, where the former is linked to democracy, while the later is linked to authoritarianism. Yet there is no reason why capitalism can’t be authoritarian or communism can’t be democratic, but even more important is the idea that we don’t need to actually choose between these ready made existing political models.
Humans are creative creatures, and I think we are capable of finding new paths and alternative opportunities and outcomes. We just need to summon the courage to explore these various paths and carve them out for ourselves. So the question for Cambodians is what are they willing to do? There seems to be a hunger and an awakening that another Cambodia is possible, and certainly those on the losing end of the neoliberal game (i.e., the homeless, the dispossessed, and the downtrodden) are ready for something new, but whether this desire can be transmuted into a wider social movement in favor of social, political and economic change remains to be seen.
I’m optimistic for Cambodians, but there is a difficult struggle ahead as elites will not easily give up their place at the head of the table.