Before (and after) neoliberalism: Tacit Knowledge, Secrets of the Trade, and the Public Sector in Egypt

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For anthropologists, the term neoliberal often becomes a shorthand for indicating all that is wrong with the present. But such usage of the term can foreclose our ability to imagine different futures. In this article, I go back to a time before neoliberalism, when economists and philosophers were engaged in debates about the rationality of economic planning within market economies, and in which the concept of "tacit knowledge" was pivotal. These 1920s and 1930s thinkers, especially Hayek and von Mises, were convinced that collectivism and planning would not work, and their work is cited still today as having established the basis for laissez-faire (neoliberal) capitalism. I critically juxtapose their findings with a historical analysis of the public sector in Egypt, with a short excursis into management theory (and research on tacit knowledge), and with my own ethnography. Looking at the case of a successful public sector banker I worked with in Cairo, I show how he relied on tacit knowledge as a collective inheritance that was embodied in collective subjects and "secrets of the trade." My findings thus call into question Hayek's argument about the irrationality of collectivism and economic planning. They also point to the importance of tacit knowledge practices as collective and public goods in our economic imaginary of the future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)76-96
Number of pages21
JournalCultural Anthropology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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