Book Forum: In the Ruins of Neoliberalism

When we first started Tocqueville 21 in early 2018, Wendy Brown was one of the very first people we reached out to for insights into our contemporary democratic world. Her 2015 book Undoing the Demos quickly became the definitive account of how neoliberalism has undermined much of what makes a democratic politics and society possible. When first spoke with Brown two years ago—in what remains one of our most popular pieces on this site—she was already beginning to reflect on some of the profound changes that have taken place in global politics over the past five years. The result of these reflections is her newest book, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism. As the reviews in this series make clear, In the Ruins does not so much revise the approach of Undoing the Demos, but rather approaches the relationship between neoliberalism and democracy from a different angle. While the first book explored the hidden anti-democratic impulses of neoliberalism’s “economizing” logic, Brown’s latest work tackles head-on how neoliberal theory and practice have given rise to political agendas that aim explicitly to dismantle democratic deliberation and governance.


We begin with a review by William Novak and Stephen Sawyer, who—recalling their earlier manifesto for this site calling for “neodemocracy” as an alternative paradigm to neoliberalism—find in Brown’s critique a rich basis for a program of re-democratization in the twenty-first century. At the same time, however, they wonder whether the term “neoliberalism” has come to stand in for too many of the ills of our time, risking to overwhelm efforts to build a new political consensus.


Next, Sharad Chari’s review raises a number of questions to push Brown’s critique further, including clarifications of the status of financialization in Brown’s analysis, and ways to combine her approach with the critique of racial capitalism. As Brown describes the neoliberal assault on both the political and the social, Chari also raises the danger of a movement to think beyond neoliberalism’s returning to paternalistic nineteenth- and early-twentieth liberal conceptions of social progress.


Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins asks whether Brown’s understanding of neoliberal places her within a theoretical tradition of thinkers who insist on the “primacy of the political”—something Brown ultimately rejects—and seeks to situate Brown’s intervention within current debates in the intellectual history scholarship of neoliberalism. Examining Brown’s reading of the American Christian Right, Steinmetz-Jenkins wonders whether Brown’s analytical paradigm is a fundamentally secular one, which might have benefited from a deeper engagement with theological sources.


Finally, Emma Stone Mackinnon compares In the Ruins to some of Brown’s past work and notes how the grounds have shifted since 2016. Brown’s latest analysis makes clear that we’re not just in the ruins of neoliberalism, but also democracy. Here Brown’s main claim is not so much that neoliberalism is anti-political but, rather, that it’s anti-democratic. But where does that leave us if angry populists keep winning elections? Mackinnon raises the possibility that the solution may lie in “the social.”


In a conversation with blog editors Danielle Charette and Jacob Hamburger, Brown responds to her four reviewers and offers some of her thoughts on the stakes of global politics today. To top it all off, she concludes with as eloquent a statement for why we need to read Tocqueville to understand democracy today as we could ever hope to write.


Photo Credit: Viktor Talashuk, via Unsplash.


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