New article: “Innovation and the Neoliberal Idioms of Development”

I have a new academic-ish article up at boundary 2 online in a special issue edited by David Golumbia on the “Digital Turn.” It’s on “social innovation” and the way that it circulates in the so-called “Third World” and in humanitarian and development agencies. It picks up on the argument of my first book, which explored the importance of “underdevelopment” in the evolution of U.S. nationalism, by tracing development’s successor concept: innovation.

Here’s a teaser:

As an ideology, innovation is driven by a powerful belief, not only in technology and its benevolence, but in a vision of the innovator: the autonomous visionary whose creativity allows him to anticipate and shape capitalist markets.

Given the immodesty of the innovator archetype, it may seem odd that innovation ideology could be considered pessimistic. On its own terms, of course, it is not; but when measured against the utopian ambitions and rhetoric of many “social innovators” and technology evangelists, their actual prescriptions appear comparatively paltry. Human creativity is boundless, and everyone can be an innovator, says Yunus; this is the good news. The bad news, unfortunately, is that not everyone can have indoor plumbing or public lighting.

Read the whole thing here.

On the tautologies of “centrism”

A recurring feature of the words I’ve written about here is tautology: some executives are resilient because they bounce back from hardship; the Harvard Business Review essays on the innovation of innovation; excellence is the pursuit of excellence (you’ll have to wait for the book for that one). This problem, I think, derives from the ideological function of business literature, which I have not found to be very self-reflective as a genre. Consequently, it is given much more strongly to jargon than something like literary studies, which is more famous for that problem.

As a result of this tendency towards self-affirming jargon, many such terms often have no independent meaning outside of the approving circles of their own circulation. Centrism doesn’t come from the business world, but it exhibits the same sort of tautological self-affirmation that derives from circulating, without much self-examination, in the airless intellectual basement that is most newspapers’ opinion pages.

The tautological structure of centrism comes from the fact that, in American politics at least, it is regularly presented as a coherent, stable position, even a brave one; and yet its meaning is completely subject to the things it is in the center of. The center is where “most voters are,” in the common phrase; the center is wherever the center is, in other words. But just because centrism is a politics of tautology doesn’t mean it can’t succeed, of course; vapidness is not disqualifying in U.S. political rhetoric. But as socialists make gains in U.S. electoral politics and President Trump upsets what used to be considered the decorum of US government, centrism is now being called to account for itself.

Read the whole thing here at Jacobin: “The Third Way is a Death Trap.”

“Innovation and the Neoliberal Idioms of Development” – out now at boundary 2 online

I have an essay in a great new collection edited by David Golumbia at boundary 2 online, on the Digital Turn–it’s a group of essays offering critical appraisals of the practice and history of technological evangelism in the present day. My contribution is called “Innovation and the Neoliberal Idioms of Development.”

“Human creativity and human capacity is limitless,” said the Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus to a darkened room full of rapt Austrian elites. The setting was TEDx Vienna, and Yunus’s address bore all the trademark features of TED’s missionary version of technocratic idealism. “We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world,” goes the TED mission statement, and this philosophy is manifest in the familiar form of Yunus’s talk ( The lighting was dramatic, the stage sparse, and the speaker alone on stage, with only his transformative ideas for company. The speech ends with the zealous technophilia that, along with the minimalist stagecraft and quaint faith in the old-fashioned power of lectures, defines this peculiar genre. “This is the age where we all have this capacity of technology,” Yunus declares: “The question is, do we have the methodology to use these capacities to address these problems?… The creativity of human beings has to be challenged to address the problems we have made for ourselves. If we do that, we can create a whole new world—we can create a whole new civilization” (Yunus 2012). Yunus’s conviction that now, finally and for the first time, we can solve the world’s most intractable problems, is not itself new. Instead, what TED Talks like this offer is a new twist on the idea of progress we have inherited from the nineteenth century. And with his particular focus on the global South, Yunus riffs on a form of that old faith, which might seem like a relic of the twentieth: “development.” What is new, then, about Yunus’s articulation of these old faiths? It comes from the TED Talk’s combination of prophetic individualism and technophilia: this is the ideology of “innovation.”

The rest can be found here:

Read the whole issue here: