This article expands Michel Foucault’s genealogy of liberalism and neoliberalism by analyzing the concept of competition. It addresses four key liberal conceptions of competition in turn: the idea of competition as a destructive but progressive and thus necessary force (roughly 1830–90); economic theories of market equilibrium that theorize competition mathematically (1870 onwards); socio-biological ideas of competition as something natural (1850–1900); and sociological arguments that see competition as adding value to the social (1900–20). From this starting point, the article considers the ways in which three main trajectories of neoliberal thought that emerged from the early 1920s onwards – Austrian, German and American – developed and responded to these conceptualizations of competition. In conclusion, it is argued that this history of the concept of competition leads to a new understanding of the tensions that lie at the heart of neoliberal thought, and which are largely missing from Foucault’s account.
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