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Vulnerability as Hegemony: Revisiting Gramsci in the Age of Neoliberalism and Tea Party Politics

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The concept of ‘vulnerability’ – a descriptor attached to those under a given set of oppressive circumstances – has by now become a familiar part of the political lexicon. This article examines recent academic, cultural, and political formulations of ‘vulnerability’, a dexterous category to be sure, and how what I call ‘vulnerability discourse’ has functioned in neoliberal times to describe a conceptual shift from the state as guarantor of rights to protector of private property. Analysing the terrain of vulnerability discourse sheds light on the dynamics of what Gramsci has termed the ‘integral state’ to elucidate how this discourse works to obscure the innovative ways the state and capital collude to consolidate class power. Through a reading of recent cultural and political phenomena – including academic discussions on precarity as well as the Tea Party movement – I argue that vulnerability discourse is a specifically neoliberal development whose magnitude invigorates both liberal and reactionary political agendas. As such, a critical approach toward vulnerability discourse provides an important explanatory opportunity that reveals the overlapping interests of several political tendencies. Vulnerability discourse puts forward an analysis of the human subject that renders unexplorable the correlation between that subject's vulnerability and the structures of capital that continue to produce unmet needs. In short, attention to this discourse highlights and articulates new terrains of struggle for materialist scholarship in neoliberal times.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: November 1, 2012

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