Certify Everything: the everyday entanglements of practical neoliberalism(s)

Tad Mutersbaugh
University of Kentucky

This paper will argue that contemporary neoliberalisms are shaped by, and inseparable from, the “practical institutionalities” with which they are entangled. To put it another way, in addition to thinking of neoliberalism as a political economic form that shapes institutions, it may also behoove us to ask how new management technologies work to reconfigure neoliberalism(s)“with respect to practical effects, ideologies, and semiotics. As a case in point, I will argue that forms of ”external“, socially-mediated quality verification have become integral to, and have reshaped, neoliberalism. I first explore how, under neoliberalism, certification has become a global industry in its own right, with transnational norms and institutions that set out a political economy of, among other socio-economic aspects, quality norms and commodity-chain linkages. I then take up the cases of two institutions within which certification has become a central component: ethical coffees and US universities. For these institutions, as a consequence of certification: (i.) the sorts of projects envisioned have been constrained by the requirement that they be ”certifiable“; and (ii.) new spaces for social action have opened within certification practice”although the character of these novel agencies has not been well characterized (and may not be particularly progressive). The paper concludes with an assessment of several questions raised by entanglement of certification and neoliberalism, such as the consequences for spaces of autonomous social action, the import of certified subjectivities on workaday lives, and the social-institutional effects of reconfiguring institutions within which we work.