Are Downshifters Resisting Neoliberalism?

This is a summary of Verdow: The subject who thinks economically? Comparative money subjectivities in neoliberal context

The findings below are based on a comparative study of the money values of 3 groups of Australian generation Xers -‘ordinary’ low and high income individuals and ‘downshifters’. The study is based on a sample of 41 interviewees from one region in Australia, using unstructured interviews with the question ‘what is the good life’ as a starting point.

The study looks at how neoliberalism it might shape subjective identity through the lens of money meanings, looking at respondents’ attitudes to money goals, money values, money boundaries and their relation to temporality. It shows that while ‘ordinary’ middle and low income participants’ subjectivities strongly reference lay (everyday) forms of neoliberalism, some aspects of downshifters’ money meanings proactively undermine them.

To couch this in more theoretical terms the study analyses the ‘particular manner of living’ (Read, 2009: 27) that participants narrate; or what Foucault (1997: 298) would call ‘the morality, the ethos, the practice of the self’ by which individuals regulate themselves.

Specific Findings

Key theories of neoliberalism are enacted through adult subjective money meanings of middle- and low-income groups in the following ways:

  1. Both value economic entrepreneurialism: having freedom, independence,self-reliance and the opportunity for consumer choice.
  2. Money is viewed as a form of personal security (from unpredictable life events, or anxiety)
  3. Participants emphasizeself-responsibility for the management and/or improvement of their circumstance. In line with Buchan (1997: 270), the values and goals of the middle- and low-income participants emphasize economic thinking as the ‘condition of moral health’. This is the subject who thinks economically, embroiled in a ‘manner of governing that is actualized in habits, perceptions and subjectivity’ (Read, 2009: 34).
  4. Economic ‘freedoms’ are envisaged as empowering projects for the middle-income participants, for the low-income participants they generate anxiety through the absence of a means to achieve them.
  5. Money use for the middle-income participants is limited to an intimate social sphere, including private use and extending to family and close friends, or whatBrown (2006: 42) names a citizenship of ‘self-care’. For the low-income participants – there is an imposed permeability to their money status; that they are part-owned by others. This dependence is experienced as stigma, or self-inadequacy.
  6. With respect to temporality, middle-income participants are confident of a clear linear future, including projects, goals and possibilities. Low-income participants emphasize the present, where, due to unachievable aspirations, future expectations are unclear and become anxiety generating.

Downshifter themes also present habits and perceptions that (in a few cases) fit with neoliberal tenets:

  1. Their emphasis on takingself-responsibility, and their agency around goals of health and personal growth (Joseph, 2013).
  2. The curtailing of collective transformation forneoliberal subjects (Read, 2009: 36) is also observed, in that there is no collective organization in their efforts towards behaviour transformation.

Notwithstanding these exceptions, downshifters in this study tend to challenge principles of neoliberalism.

  1. Downshifters’ money values demonstrate an activemoral rethinking of money priorities, demoting its value relative to quality of life and connectedness with others.
  2. Their goals are less material and they do not perceive a low income as a failure toself-regulate (Walker, 2011). Rather, downshifters emphasize quality and meaning in work, social contribution and personal and spiritual growth.
  3. Their money boundaries are permeable, as personal money is viewed as part of taking moral responsibility for a wider social sphere.
  4. Similarly, their confidence in the future is not economically oriented, and temporality tends to be non-linear. Their focus is on being adaptive and reflective in response to possibilities that life may, or may not, present to them.

Where theories and social critiques of neoliberalism state in variegated ways that its disciplinary power is near total (e.g. it is viewed as a ‘leviathan’ by Wacquant [2010: 211], which offers no ‘ameliorative outcome’ [Whitehead and Crawshaw, 2014: 24]), the downshifters offer an alternative possibility. Based on these terms, monetary values and goals are reoriented, and include taking responsibility for the other.

The downshifters’ subjectivity is transformed, but not in neoliberal terms of competition in order to maximize economic options and futures. Rather, their behaviour accounts for currencies of personal and social health, through strategies including working with and for others so that they, too, may experience social and economic opportunities for transformed futures.

This study demonstrates that neoliberalism does not psychologically govern everyone’s soul (Rose, 1990).


There is risk in romanticizing downshifter experiences, as if having a low income is preferable should the right attitude accompany it. Research shows that downshifters often have the ability to adapt to their low income because they can draw on a middle-income ‘tool kit’ of resources and networks.

Further research highlighting other ‘deviant’ cases, and in particular understanding their epistemological differences in terms of how they are resilient in the face of specific neoliberal subjectivities and agencies (Gershon, 2011: 138), would be an important contribution to this knowledge.

Also noteworthy is that the relationship between neoliberal money meanings and their effects on social relations captured by this data does not account for the presence of ‘relational work’ (e.g. see Zelizer, 2012; see also Block, 2012Tilly 1988), a salient dimension of the sociological study of money. Further study with a focus on participant money practices in the context of key relationships would provide greater depth to our understanding of how neoliberal subjectivities are embedded in specific social and relational practices

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