This chapter adopts a ‘cultural political economy’ (hereafter CPE) approach (Sum 2004; Jessop and Sum 2006; Fairclough 2006: 27-9) to examine the emergence from the mid-1990s of ‘competitiveness’ as a hegemonic discourse in Hong Kong/Pearl River Delta (hereafter PRD). Theoretically, my approach to CPE takes the ‘cultural-discursive’ turn seriously by using a synthesis of Gramsci and Foucault to explore both the making of intersubjective meanings and the material tendencies of capital accumulation (on Gramscianizing Foucault, see Sum 2009). This involves studying the production of hegemony (as opposed to the hegemony – or causal primacy – of production) in neo-liberal capitalism. More specifically, it focuses on the discursive-strategic moment in the fashioning of neo-liberal hegemony – asking not only how subjectivities and identities are constituted but also ‘who’ and ‘what’ are involved? It addresses these issues through ten partly overlapping heuristic questions: (1) who gets involved in the discursive networks that construct objects of economic governance？ (2) what ideas or knowledge brands are drawn upon to recontextualize and reformulate the referents of these objects？ (3) how do these objects enter policy discourses and everyday practices？ (4) how do they remake power relations, their logics, and dynamics in and across diverse social fields？ (5) what identities get constructed in the production of hegemony？ (6) how do these modes of thought discipline and governmentalize diverse subjects？ (7) how do they integrate both intellectuals and laypersons？(8) how do they marginalize potentially antagonistic meanings? (9) what agencies and informal networks are able to enter hegemonic negotiations and/or power bloc formation? and (10) how does all this affect power reconfigurations, hegemonic struggles and alternatives? These are hard questions to answer briefly but doing so illustrates the use-value of the overall approach (see also Sum 2004; Sum and Jessop 2009).
This chapter explores CPE’s contribution to understanding the articulation of discourse and materiality by giving some preliminary answers to these questions. Its starting point is that the production of hegemony is mediated through the selection of particular ‘economic imaginaries’ by networks of actors unequally embedded in a real world comprising various socio-material terrains. Together, these actors define the ‘economy’ as objects of calculation, management and governance in the restructuring of global capitalism. Specifically, I examine the development of ‘competitiveness’ as a crucial economic imaginary both globally and within the Hong Kong/PRD region from the mid-1990s onwards. For it has emerged as an important body of (cultural) knowledge with the meaning-making power to guide economic restructuring in the remaking of global capitalism.
Interest in ‘cultures of competitiveness’ has passed through three stages – from theoretical to policy paradigm and then to ‘knowledge brand’. The transition to the third stage has been mediated by the rise of academic entrepreneurs, consultancy firms, and policy think tanks. For nowadays academic knowledge is no longer so tightly confined to universities. Knowledge, especially when bundled with claims to problem-solving competencies and methodologies, is packaged and marketed in branded form by consultancy firms; and is then brought as quickly as possible to policy markets. This can be seen from the course of the ‘hollowing out’ [of manufacturing] debate in Hong Kong in the 1990s. Faced with manufacturing decline, strategically placed entrepreneurs, think tanks and policy makers sought new knowledge and visions that could provide plausible explanations for the crisis, new economic imaginaries, and new strategies. In particular, strategic actors in the manufacturing and service sectors in Hong Kong commissioned their own consultancy reports that drew on the corresponding transnational policy paradigms and knowledge brands. These brands were: the MIT-Berger-Lester's 'industrial performance'/’technology’ models (1997) and Harvard-Porter's 'competitive advantage' (1990) respectively. I focus below on the two overlapping moments in the regional recontextualization of the Harvard brand and mention the MIT brand only in passing. This does not mean that the latter is unimportant (especially given its reinvention since 2005 around the deepening of economic integration with the Mainland) (for more detail, see Sum 2006).