The Moral Neoliberal: Welfare and Citizenship in Italy

The Moral Neoliberal is a robust exploration of neoliberalism’s “extraordinarily ethical” (p. 19) face discovered through an ethnography of volunteerism in post-industrial Northern Italy. Andrea Muehlenbach counters a prevailing scholarly view of neoliberalism as instrumentalist, thrifty, sober, and dystopic, finding in public discourse and NGO praxis an abundance of charity, utopianism, and virtue. Yet this book does not seek to defend neoliberal policies: it aims to provide a “sustained interrogation of neoliberal moral authoritarianism” (p. 6) that is highly critical of the Italian state’s endeavors, abetted by the Right and Left alike, to remake Italian souls. An outcome that should concern everyone, Muehlenbach argues, is the production of hidden inequalities and new stresses induced by shifting conditions for belonging.

The book consists of three parts. Part One includes an introduction that describes the de-industrialization, yet remarkable wealth, of the Lombardy region around Milan and reviews recent literatures on neoliberalism and citizenship. The second chapter examines the arrival of the moral frame in response to a perceived crisis of isolation and loneliness in Italian society. Part Two consists of a single chapter on the significant influence of Catholic morality, despite its historic tensions with the state, on the emergence of neoliberal senses of duty and the sacred. Part Three is the longest, consisting of four chapters that explore NGO trainings in compassion; volunteering by pensioners; Communist reentrenchments of utopian practice; and the sobering invisibility of immigrant-provided home health care. These chapters tack between fine-grained ethnographic observation, interviews, and big picture contextual analyses of recent Italian history.

These three parts walk the reader through a carefully interwoven account of how specific constituencies have contributed to the dramatic dismantling of public services in the Lombardian milieu of Muehlenbach’s fieldwork and in Italian society, typical of neoliberal reforms documented around the world. Muehlenbach’s keen ethnographic sensibilities and deft engagement with recent literatures on neoliberalism and citizenship support her argument that forging these new ideologies of market rule cannot take place, paradoxically, without persuasive appeals to care for others. This potentially slippery logic finds surprisingly firm footing in Catholic and Communist ideas and practice alike. Many have to this ideological foundation: the free-giving practices of local Catholic charities, the ideas of the Vatican’s post-Washington consensus Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences, and Catholic advocacy for “subsidiarity” throughout European institutions. Various practices of Italy’s Left have contributed as well, from council and appeals to solidarity to a pragmatic local Communist leadership looking to accommodate traditions of praxis in a landscape in which NGO-structured voluntarism has become a hegemonic form of social action.

While the book is about neoliberalism’s hidden paradoxes, it also traces a shift from “social” to “ethical” citizenship, from an a priori compact of shared (national) welfare to collective belonging that must be actively made through localized participation (pp. 42-3). Her close reading of Catholic and Communist activities alike shows the power of ethical citizenship as a form of neoliberal belonging that “can also be generated from within a tradition that at first glance seems incommensurable with it” (p. 172). Muehlenbach’s insightful readings of Hannah Arendt on modern capitalist labor and Marcel Mauss on the gift illuminate the relational fabric with which these new social ties are being sewn, which is great consequence to old lexica of political mobilization.

If the book falls short anywhere, it is in its intriguing account of Italy’s place in the emergence of neoliberalism. For a book that engages quite richly with history, there are curious historical absences. The paired problems of Italy’s debt and an aging population feel underreported: given recent economic catastrophe in Greece and Spain, Italy’s associates in the set of countries unfortunately labeled as PIGS, to what extent is the welfare state being unwound because of serious political mismanagement? Second, Muehlenbach choose not to include Antonio Gramsci’s seminal writings on civil society as an extension of the state, a natural for a book on civil society and on Italy. This omission made this reader wonder about a possible ahistorical reading of the outsourcing of state responsibilities to NGO’s in Italy as a recent neoliberal development. Finally, I was disappointed that the author did not incorporate perspectives from post-socialist Eastern Europe in her account. For a book that seeks to challenge common binaries in the study of neoliberalism, when Muehlenbach writes about “Europe,” such as how “[m]any of Europe’s most famous public intellectuals have long engaged in their own acts of grieving [for a moral order lost],” (p. 5) she clearly means Western Europe. Failing to engage with the ever-growing literature on socialist and post-socialist Eastern Europe detracts from the author’s global claims as well as some of the originality of her analysis. The collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe opened a vast playground for what sociologist Michael D. Kennedy (2002) has called “transition culture,” including experiments in remaking labor (Elizabeth Dunn, 2004) and property (Katherine Verdery, 2003). Yet there are also signs that Johanna Bockmann (2011) has identified of neoliberal experiments which originated in the socialist bloc even well before the collapse. Another example, talk of love has emerged as a public discourse in Europe not only from recent capitalist dispossession (as Muehlenbach suggests), but earlier as protest against a non-capitalist modernity in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. Muehlenbach’s explorations of ethical practice informed by both religious faith and Communist ideology in a shifting economic regime might have benefited from Douglas Rogers’s work on ethics in Russia (2009). The author’s contribution to anthropological understanding of neoliberal logics is significant, but these absences in her account may limit the duration of its influence.

My criticisms of these omissions should not obscure the book’s many contributions. This book should be read widely. Muehlenbach’s brilliant identification of vocabularies and practices of care in Italy’s neoliberal transformations, and her gracefully executed study of volunteerism are likely to shift how scholars think and write about neoliberalism and citizenship.

Jonathan L. Larson, University of Iowa

Muehlenbach, Andrea. The Moral Neoliberal: Welfare and Citizenship in Italy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012. Read more at the University of Chicago Press.

About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an anthropologist and historian of science and medicine in the United States. He is author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine & Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (UMN Press, 2019), and Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (UMN Press, 2020). He blogs at and

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