The Moral Neoliberal Welfare and Citizenship in Italy
by Andrea Muehlebach
University of Chicago Press, 2012
Cloth: 978-0-226-54539-4 | Paper: 978-0-226-54540-0 | Electronic: 978-0-226-54541-7


Morality is often imagined to be at odds with capitalism and its focus on the bottom line, but in The Moral Neoliberal morality is shown as the opposite: an indispensible tool for capitalist transformation. Set within the shifting landscape of neoliberal welfare reform in the Lombardy region of Italy, Andrea Muehlebach tracks the phenomenal rise of voluntarism in the wake of the state’s withdrawal of social service programs. Using anthropological tools, she shows how socialist volunteers are interpreting their unwaged labor as an expression of social solidarity, with Catholic volunteers thinking of theirs as an expression of charity and love. Such interpretations pave the way for a mass mobilization of an ethical citizenry that is put to work by the state.
Visiting several sites across the region, from Milanese high schools to the offices of state social workers to the homes of the needy, Muehlebach mounts a powerful argument that the neoliberal state nurtures selflessness in order to cement some of its most controversial reforms. At the same time, she also shows how the insertion of such an anticapitalist narrative into the heart of neoliberalization can have unintended consequences. 


Andrea Muehlebach is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto. 


The Moral Neoliberal is an outstanding book addressing with great precision and authority a decisive series of transformations unfolding in Italy and, by extension, across Europe. The ethnographic narrative is vibrant, the argumentation is crisp, and the analysis is persuasive. Andrea Muehlebach’s investigation is premised on a forceful rejection of the conventional understanding of contemporary social order that is awkwardly and imprecisely glossed as ‘neoliberal.’ She provides an alternative architecture of a ‘moral neoliberalism’ populated by engaged, reflexive subjects who are experimenting with the imperatives of what she terms ‘ethical citizenship.’ The results are breathtaking.”--Douglas Holmes, State University of New York
— Douglas Holmes

“This book makes the provocative argument that neoliberal capitalism, although it has been unjust and disruptive in Italy as elsewhere, has also embraced a new kind of social solidarity based on volunteer care-giving. Dr. Muehlebach takes us inside the daily practices of retiree volunteers caring for frail elderly in a declining factory town near Milan. Through her keen eye and beautiful prose, we discover how they differentiate what they are doing from charity; how they define themselves as morally emancipated; how they understand concepts like solidarity, pity, giving, compassion, commitment, materialism, and heart. Her attention is an eye-opener for all of us trapped in easy judgment and provides a study with wide implications beyond the Italian case.”
— Jane Schneider, City University of New York

“In a book that is both carefully documented and beautifully conceptualized, Andrea Muehlebach has explored a question of great relevance for contemporary debates about the forms of governmentality and subjectivation associated with the rise of neoliberalism: the new ‘ethical citizenship,’ which substitutes public systems of social security with voluntary forms of collective caretaking. Running contrary to some influential recent analyses of ‘self-entrepreneurship’ as a modality of voluntary servitude in a society entirely governed by market rules, she does not, however, contribute to the complacent image of the new mass consumption society. Rather, she describes a social dynamic of great indetermination, both ethically and politically.

Her inquiry, focusing on a famous working class municipality in the periphery of Milan, where catholic and communist solidarities are now assuming new functions, also provides a fascinating insight into the history of contemporary Italy, explaining why it remains a ‘laboratory’ of social change which has world-wide significance.”

— Etienne Balibar, University of California, Irvine

“In this astute ethnography of voluntarism in a working-class town in the de-industrialized periphery of Milan, Andrea Muehlebach demonstrates convincingly that contemporary neoliberal reforms produce not only rational, instrumental subjects but simultaneously compassionate, ethical citizens with deep moral commitments. Her acute and nuanced analysis of the pedagogical techniques employed in volunteer training classes and the quotidian practices and discourses of volunteers, shows how unremunerated voluntary labor, construed as intimate, compassionate acts of gifting outside the realm of commodified market exchange, is cultivated and managed by legal regimes and administrative policies just as the securities of the modern Italian welfare state are being dismantled.”

— Sylvia Yanagisako, Stanford University

“In The Moral Neoliberal: Welfare and Citizenship in Italy, Andrea Muehlebach invites readers to undo their assumptions about neoliberalism by showing how an ethical turn brings care, love, and the sacred deeply within the fold of its thought and practice. In her intellectually aggressive dismantlings, labyrinthine analytics appear straightforward, and in her lush prose, the contemporary becomes sensually tangible, gently hoisted right up to our faces. . . . Deftly theoretical and bountifully ethnographic, this outstanding book inaugurates new modes of inquiry and reengineers our thinking on these important problems.” 
— Noel Molé, American Ethnologist

“Relevant beyond the Italian case, Muehlebach’s book is as much a contribution to the anthropology of neoliberal humanitarian actors and the workings, tensions and ambivalences of their ethical journeys, as it is a brilliant example of an anthropology of the state from below, analyzing citizens’ subjectification and their participation in state-making. Much more is needed of this kind of anthropology in and of Europe, especially at this historical moment, when many European states actively produce their absence through politics of austerity. To ethnographically fathom which forms of care are produced in the absence of the state, by whom, through which kinds of social imaginaries and who is left behind are pressing research questions, ones which should take inspiration and guidance from Muehlebach’s book.”
— Janina Kehr, Social Anthropology

“Recounting the vicissitudes of Milanese Italians who have become gradually more involved in helping unprivileged people, Muehlebach magisterially illustrates the experience of individuals, collectives, a civil society and, in part, the postmodern condition of the West. . . . considering the lack of sociological and political imagination that seems to characterize the current political discourse inside and outside Italy, Muehlebach,with the post-Keynesian, post-welfarist idea of ‘ethical citizenship’, must be credited for a very powerful effort to enrich the debate.”
— Marco Briziarelli, Journal of Modern Italian Studies

“As has been recently remarked by Mathieu Hilgers, ‘while anthropology is a latecomer to the field, anthropological studies of neoliberalism are now displaying great theoretical and empirical creativity.’ A convincing demonstration comes from this thoughtful book by Andrea Muehlebach, whose very title looks provocative and paradoxical since it is almost axiomatic to regard neoliberalism as antithetical to morality. . . . Very incisively written and clearly argued even when it tackles complex questions, this book has the great merit of showing that [in the words of Muehlebach] ‘the contemporary neoliberal order works to produce more than rational, utilitarian, instrumental subjects,’ and that the privatization of care it promotes is able to draw – ambiguously but effectively—on highly different ethical practices, not least those of leftist men and women who are openly critical of capitalism and neoliberalism.”

— Pier Paolo Viazzo, Anthropos




Part One

- Andrea Muehlebach
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226545417.003.0001
[neoliberalism, moral authoritarianism, citizenship, labor regime, market exchange, northern Italy]
This chapter introduces the concept of neoliberal moral authoritarianism, though of a very particular kind, which comes in the form of a highly moralized kind of citizenship that has emerged in the northern Italian region of Lombardy. The Italian state has in the last three decades sought to mobilize parts of the population into a new voluntary labor regime—one which has allowed the state to conflate voluntary labor with good citizenship, and unwaged work with gifting. Many of those invested in the creation of this voluntary labor regime think of it as a sphere located outside of the realm of market exchange. This book aims to treat markets and morals as indissolubly linked and to propose that the contemporary neoliberal order works to produce more than rational, utilitarian, instrumentalist subjects. On the other hand, it shows that some forms of neoliberalization may simultaneously posit an affective, that is to say a compassionate and empathetic, self as the corollary center of their social and moral universe. Such attention to the moral neoliberal portrays neoliberalism as a form that contains practices and forces that appear as oppositional and yet get folded into a single order. (pages 3 - 30)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Andrea Muehlebach
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226545417.003.0002
[ethical citizenship, collective existence, social citizenship, national collectivity, public fund, sense of responsibility]
Ethical citizenship, which represents, to borrow Émile Durkheim's phrase, a species of solidarity quite different from its twentieth-century (welfarist) forebear, is a fundamentally novel way of conceptualizing collective existence, how it ought to be reproduced and shaped. Scholars of welfare have come to think about citizenship as a set of rights that got rearticulated over time through a series of “citizenship projects.” Social citizenship hinged on an awareness of the generalization of interdependence that linked “all members within a national collectivity, coupled with a sense of responsibility which does not impel to personal action” but which instead required the poor to be cared for by the state and out of public tax funds. (pages 31 - 52)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Part Two

- Andrea Muehlebach
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226545417.003.0003
[welfare state, welfare community, ethical citizens, social realm, market, legal reform]
This chapter shows that the public production of ethical citizens relies on the sacralization of the social realm, at the center of which stands the figure of the freely laboring citizen volunteer. This social realm is in contrast with the state and the market in that many Italians—scholars, policy makers, politicians, ordinary citizens—endow it with the capacity to transcend social particularism and to encompass a fractured citizenry. Drawing on legal reforms, media texts, public statements made by politicians and policy makers, conference pamphlets, and policy papers, the chapter explores the public contrastive work that goes into coding the social as intrinsically moral. It also shows that the rise of the public reification is accompanied by the decline of another—that of the putatively withdrawing, or, as policy makers in Lombardy sometimes prefer to call it, “externalizing” state. The making of the moral neoliberal welfare community relies on the carving out, resignification, and reification of these realms, such that they can be drawn back together into a fantasy of organically linked, contractually bound “partners” equally invested in and responsible for the common good. (pages 55 - 100)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Part Three

- Andrea Muehlebach
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226545417.003.0004
[compassion, legal regime, state, welfarist functions, sympathetic citizenry, public virtues]
This chapter reflects on the state—how it has inscribed compassion into its own rationalities through a legal regime surrounding voluntarism, and how it has hyperinvested in the production and standardization of an empathetic figure and sector while at the same time withdrawing its welfarist functions. The production of a sympathetic citizenry is, in short, accompanied by a corollary process whereby the state (embodied not only by the law but also, for example, by the social workers among whom the author conducted research) makes itself appear as dispassionate. This is not to say that the state has withdrawn altogether, but that its public moral authoritarianism around voluntarism is matched by a concomitant relativization of its own commitment to care. Put differently, state absence must be actively produced by the state itself. The effect is a humanitarianized public sphere that makes individual compassion and private empathy primary public virtues. (pages 103 - 135)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Andrea Muehlebach
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226545417.003.0005
[moral neoliberal, public opinion, paradigmatic expression, younger generation, retirees, social citizens, ethical citizens]
This chapter tracks the ways in which the moral neoliberal is differentially extracted from across the generational spectrum, as public opinion construes the elderly as a privileged locus of publicly valuable affect and action. It shows that the moral neoliberal finds its paradigmatic expression in a segment of the population that law and other public interventions figure as wealthy in both material and temporal senses, and which can therefore be cast as continually obliged to society in ways that younger generations cannot. The transformation of retirees from social into ethical citizens relies on a dual strategy that draws first and foremost on the public cultivation of a sense that pensioners are socially positioned as a leisure class, “owning” an excess of time that ought to be socially redistributed. (pages 136 - 164)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Andrea Muehlebach
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226545417.003.0006
[utopia, ethical citizenship, Catholic doctrine, ethical practice, leftist norms, market relations, compassion]
This chapter explores the ways in which ethical citizenship operates as a depoliticizing tool while simultaneously opening up new political possibilities. Almost all the volunteers the author spoke to tie their current sense of belonging and self-worth to past leftist solidaristic practice. The promise entailed in the welfare community—that of a moral community laboring outside the purview of commodified market relations—resonated hugely with people like Nullo and Mirella, for whom voluntarism was a paradigmatic anticapitalist act. At the same time, it is precisely these unalienated acts of labor, these acts of compassion, care, and solidarity, which were being put to work in the welfare community. The neoliberal project—ideologically omnivorous when it comes to Catholic doctrine—also converges with and draws upon leftist ethical practice. The chapter thus shows how ethical citizenship allows for leftist norms and practices to become simultaneously done and undone. (pages 165 - 200)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Andrea Muehlebach
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226545417.003.0007
[privatization, migrant labor, ethical citizenship, everyday care, proimmigrant groups, migrant–volunteer encounter]
This chapter explores the migrant–volunteer “labor encounter” in order to explore the domestic sphere as a space fraught with a set of distinctions that volunteers make between their own labor and that of migrants; distinctions which allow for migrant labor to serve as a catalyst for the appearance of ethical citizenship. For even as immigrant caretakers can sometimes appear as virtuous figures in public cultural debate, especially when proimmigrant groups represent these women as a last bulwark against the total abandonment of the country's old, many Italians still devalue the labor these women perform. The chapter tracks the problem of everyday care, so seemingly banal in its quotidian nature, to show how volunteers categorically distinguish between different kinds of value and personhood—that is to say, between different kinds of intention, desire, and will. (pages 201 - 228)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online


Works Cited