American Dreamwork

Emma Mackinnon
20 March 2020

This is the fourth post in our review forum of Wendy Brown’s In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Anti-Democratic Politics in the West (Columbia University Press, 2019).


Wendy Brown’s latest monograph, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, is an important new entry in the political theoretical literature on neoliberalism from an author who has been one of neoliberalism’s leading critics. As a follow up to Brown’s earlier work, it also offers a moment to take stock of how that literature has changed, from an earlier heyday following the 2008 financial crisis, through the various crises of the present. While the book is in many ways continuous with her 2015 Undoing the Demos, it also breaks from that book in important ways, allowing Brown, in particular, to address the interconnections between neoliberalism, race, and gender, as well as, not unrelatedly, the rise of Donald Trump and what often goes under the name of right populism.” Throughout, Brown moves away from her 2015 diagnosis of neoliberalism as primarily antipolitical, and toward a description of it as profoundly antidemocratic. In the process, she offers clues to what sort of politics might be adequate in response.


The book begins with three chapters outlining neoliberalism as an intellectual vision, drawn from its high theorists (Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and the ordo-liberals)though with reference to neoliberalism as a political and economic force as well. Chapter 4 tracks the implementation, and also perversion, of that vision in two recent US Supreme Court cases, one involving wedding cakes and the other so-called pregnancy crisis centers. The final chapter draws on the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Herbert Marcuse to diagnose the “nihilism” and “ressentiment” of the electoral majorities that have installed recent right-wing leaders. Notably, this allows her to treat Trump and right populism not as aberrational, or as reactions against neoliberal hegemony, but as continuous with neoliberalism’s recent past.


This already helps to update Undoing the Demoswhich appeared just prior to Trump’s election. That work came at the tail end of an earlier wave of literature on the topic, a wave which largely followed the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers and the pursuant financial crisis. This was a period in which terms like financialization, dispossession, and precarity came into the standard lexicon of American political theorists. Much of the literature in that moment sharednarrative of neoliberalism’s historical rise, tracking its ever-upward ascent from the 1970s through the present. It also largely shared what we might call the depoliticization thesis, of which Brown’s Undoing the Demos was the crowning articulation: that neoliberalism treats political questions as economic ones, rendering core public concerns as problems to be solved through markets or optimized through behavioural interventions.


In Undoing the Demos, Brown described the hollowing out of politics by a hegemonic “neoliberal reason,” tracking the rise of “homo oeconomicus” as both intellectual tradition and the dominant form of contemporary subjectivity. “Homo oeconomicus,” Brown argued there, was distinct from “homo politicus,” which, she told us, it had successfully vanquished. The book drew heavily on a set of lectures by Michel Foucault at the Collège de France, published in English translation in 2008 under the title The Birth of Biopolitics. Brown drew in particular on Foucault’s description of neoliberalism as a “political rationality.” It was in the specification of homo politicus as an alternative rationality, and one supplanted by neoliberal reason, that she proposed to go beyond Foucault’s position. Undoing the Demos does not suggest that politics is gone for good, but calls for reviving homo politicus, closing by pointing to the Occupy movement of 2011 as one possible source of inspiration and invoking the motto of the World Social Forum, “Another World is Possible.”


Undoing the Demos does not read the same way now as it did when it first came out. With the 2016 defeat of Hillary Clinton in the United States and repudiation of the EU in the Britain, neoliberalisman economic regime and ideological formation that was allegedly so hegemonic and totalizing—appeared to suffer a meaningful defeat [1]. Politics, it seemed, was back with a vengeance. But if 2016 represented neoliberalism’s comeuppance, rather than taking the form that may of neoliberalism’s critics had hoped—the homo politicus Brown had seen a glimmer of in Occupy—that repudiation instead came in the form of so-called right populism. Debate shifted to the viability and desirability a “left populist” counter-response, and to what that might mean.


But had neoliberalism suffered a major loss—and did right populism really represent a reaction against it? From the title alone, one might expect In the Ruins of Neoliberalism to answer both questions in the affirmative, and perhaps to double down on the need for left populism now. Indeed, the book begins by sketching roughly the story above. And yet, even as it claims to offer only a minor addendum, I read Brown’s book as telling a very different story. We are not in the ruins of neoliberalism, Brown insists, but the ruins of democracy, the destruction of which was enabled and accelerated by the combined forces of neoliberalism and neoconservatis—themselves far more compatible than the standard story takes them to be. Today’s right-populist political champions are, she claims, neoliberalism’s “Frankensteinian creation,” and they continue to parrot its hollowed-out conceptions of freedom.


This isn’t to say Brown had entirely failed to foresee the forces she describes in the 2019 book. In many ways, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism hearkens back not to Undoing the Demos, but to Brown’s 2006 article in Political Theory, “American Nightmare.” In that article, she warned against the “unholy alliance” between neoconservatism and neoliberalism evident in the George W. Bush Administration’s dual emphases on the faith-based and the market-based over and against the “focus groups” of mass politics (a reference to Bush’s infamous and derisive description of the February 2003 protests against the then-impending US invasion of Iraq). Invoking Stuart Hall, and so also Freud, Brown described there her approach to understanding the intersection of neoconservatism and neoliberalism as following the model of “dreamwork,” such that ideas which appear contradictory can be understood as “symbiotic.” Such an approach, she argues, allows one to avoid understanding that contradiction, condescendingly and inadequately, as a matter of false consciousness. And yet, she tells us in the introduction to the most recent volume, in 2006 she underestimated both the expansiveness of the neoconservative project and its historical continuities with conservatism more broadly. The nightmare has gotten only more horrific.


Brown’s central objection to neoliberalism, clearer now than in the 2006 article, is not that it is directed (disingenuously, of course) against politics, but that it is directed against democracy. One explanation for this change in her argument would be that neoliberalism itself has changed in the last few years: that the neoliberalism portrayed in Undoing the Demos is different than the one portrayed in In the Ruins. In Undoing, neoliberalism is about the application of supposed “market logic” to questions that are properly, and unavoidably, political. That version is acknowledged in the 2019 volume, where she associates it with Clinton-era welfare reform, and with arguments for expanding the definition of marriage in the name of family values. But now she tells us it has been surpassed by something far scarier: a version of neoliberalism that has converged with right-wing politics, including with politics of white supremacy and male superordination (her term).


At the same time, the change in her diagnosis is not only a product of neoliberalism’s post-2016 mutations; it is also a changed assessment of neoliberalism as an organizing concept. Some of this reflects a growing critical historical literature that has highlighted the political projects with which neoliberalism has long been involved. But Brown is saying more than that unified theories should do more to account for the polyvalence of practice: what she proposes entails changing both how we theorize neoliberalism as a political phenomenon and how we read its canonical theorists. Drawing on work by her former student and research assistant on the book, William Callison, she argues that neoliberal thought, rather than anti-political, is characterized by a “political deficit”: that its political commitments and implications go underspecified, making it both vulnerable to right-wing capture, as well as, in other ways, flexible enough to adapt to the rise of a populist right [2].


The first three chapters, reviewing Friedman, Hayek, and the ordo-liberals, are the most recognizably continuous with Brown’s previous work on neoliberalism. The first is focused on Hayek and the argument, with references to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which Brown summarizes as “society must be dismantled”a neat inversion of Foucault’s title from another volume of the Collège de France lectures. The chapter describes “the social” as a sphere that is essential to democracy, the sphere in which much of social reproduction takes place, and which also provides the vocabulary for contesting inequality and injustice. It is the source of a sense of shared fate, of solidarity. This is the clearest addition to her previous schema: that neoliberalism attacks not only the politics, but the social as well. She includes some criticisms of Hannah Arendt for her denigration of the social, paraphrased as “Arendt didn’t help”though the sharpest barb in Arendt’s direction is the assertion of her wider irrelevance to politics, particularly in contrast to Hayek. The chapter closes with a reference to Carl Schmitt, in order to make a point about our relationships to space, and technological transformations thereof, as relevant for political imagination. Chapter 2 tracks the attack on “politics,” much along the lines of the depoliticization thesis advanced in Brown’s 2015 book. Chapter 3 then shows what neoliberalism, or its allies both witting and unwitting, have elevated in its place: the personal realm, grounded in “tradition,” which is to say in a particular conception of Christianity.


The answer to what makes neoliberalism antidemocratic, despite its apparent popularity, unfolds across these first three chapters. This is a central part of the argument: understanding neoliberalism as anti-democratic rather than anti-political (or depoliticizing) requires a further specification in how we think about democracy. “American Nightmare” cautioned that “all sides adorn themselves in the robes of democracy,” before asking in closing: “Are we really democrats—do we believe in or want popular power anymore?” But what is popular power, exactly?


At a minimum, for Brown, popular power must mean more than winning elections—something which those Frankensteinian right-neoliberals are notoriously good at doing. How can neoliberalism be antidemocratic when it has the affirmation of electoral majorities? One answer follows on, but refines, her earlier thesis: neoliberalism, by shrinking the domain of the political, serves to constrain popular sovereignty. This isn’t to say neoliberals don’t have a theory of the state; Hayek, Friedman, and the ordo-liberals, she argues, each did. Those theories were each different in significant ways, but shared a notion of the need to protect markets, individual liberties, and traditional morality from popular sovereignty. For Friedman, this came close to libertarianism; for Hayek, she claims, it was an inverted Schmittian fear of sovereignty; for the ordo-liberals, the vision was more technocratic, a Schmittianism with an enhanced interest in using the law to preserve the realm of politics.


But more than just attack the realm of politics, and so constrain the reach of popular power, she argues, neoliberalism denigrates the social, denying both the principle of equality and the vocabulary in which to demand it. In attacking both the political and the social, it elevates not just the market, but, especially for Hayek, a particular notion of traditional morality. On Hayek’s view, tradition had evolved to hold society together organically. With that organic traditionalism, he hoped to “recolonize…the civic and social where democracy once ruled.


In dethroning democracy, Brown claims, the neoliberals have succeeded—but “the effect has been the opposite of neoliberal aims.” That effect has been threefold: the state has been captured by the powers of capital; the people rendered susceptible to demagoguery; and “traditional morality” stripped of its meaning as it has become not foundation stone but cudgel. Hayek especially failed to anticipate traditional morality’s vulnerability to “weaponization” through the discourse of rights and civil liberties, in which it would becomedisembedded from tradition” and so stripped of what had made it valid and valuable in the first place. In the final chapter, she interprets support for Trump as a manifestation of revenge and ressentiment. She does not pull punches here: Trump’s supporters see themselves, pace Schmitt, as land-dwellers, in need of bigger walls; “Blut und Boden, she suggests, is not a far step beyond.


To review: for Brown, democracy is about popular sovereignty, expansively understood and premised on ideals of social equality; neoliberalism seeks to constrain the political and colonize the social. The “traditional morality” Hayek upholds is antidemocratic in its reliance on heteropatriachal and white supremacist social forms, which she argues is not incidental to the rest of his theory, but baked in through the concept of “organic” tradition.


In addition to its hierarchical content, neoliberalism was also hollow in practice, making it vulnerable to even more nefarious projects. As the analysis moves to wedding cakes and pregnancy centers in chapter 4, we get a better view of what those projects were. The cases Brown considers involved attacks on robust public accommodation laws, equal and plentiful access to health care grounded in science, and the principle of truth in advertising. In attacking those principles, advocates, as well as Supreme Court justices, deployed appeals to “conscience, but in a perverted form. They used ideas of conscience to justify the imposition of so-called traditional Christian morality, rather than understanding conscience as a private and internal realm. In a broader sense, they deployed “conscience” not to preserve the realm of the social, but to undermine it.


There are moments in the final chapter when it starts to sound as if, in attempting to avoid a diagnosis of “false consciousness,Brown is flirting with a “basket of deplorables” one. The latter is, rather infamously, not a good look. Perhaps, relative to the former, it is a bit less condescending, and in this sense a bit more democratic: after all, part of democracy is taking people’s decisions seriously, rather than writing off those decisions as symptomatic. Better to say that people are deplorable than that they are dupes. Still, this is tricky territory.


Brown navigates this issue in part with a turn, in the latter part of the chapter, to delineate between the deplorable causes of resentment—mostly corresponding with white supremacy and male superordination—and the more justified ones. The latter category involves resentment of the so-called one percent, but also of what Brown calls “Boarding Groups 1 and 2.” Here, Brown identifies resentment as a part of everyday affective life. The rhetoric of airline boarding processes presents a euphemism for class that isn’t even particularly euphemistic. It is a metonym for what she describes as “the tiered pricing of service, access, and treatment for everything everywhere [which] accustoms all to inegalitarianism and makes us more feudal than democratic in subjectivity and ethos.


One major strength of the book is that it can explain neoliberalism not just as a project of class domination, or as a market fundamentalism alone, but as a concept complicit in racialized and gendered forms of domination. The question of the centrality of a project of gendered domination, centered on ideas of so-called “family values” and encompassing ideas about education policy, has been a running one in the literature on neoliberalism: is this just some hangup particular to a handful of neoliberalism’s adherents, or is it an inherent part of neoliberalism’s economic theorization? Brown presents herself as following on, but also supplementing, Melinda Cooper’s account in Family Values. Brown’s use of Hayek’s notion of organic tradition, in particular, offers a compelling account of why forms of gender and racial domination are part of the formal structure of neoliberalism, not just smuggled-in content in an otherwise content-free and purely formal system which makes markets the primary sites of decision-making. Understanding neoliberalism as antidemocratic, rather than simply antipolitical market fundamentalism, helps allow Brown to explain the mutual symbiosis of neoliberal ideas with, among other things, ideas of a “traditional” family.


A more robust conception of neoliberalism also yields, in relief, a more robust conception of the rationality it opposes and replaced, one more highly specified than “homo politicus” alone. Here, Brown presents neoliberalism as opposed not only to popular sovereignty and social equality, but also to what are classic liberal ideals—and in their own way, surprisingly traditional ones—involving individual internal conscience and secularism (a belief in science as distinct from politics may also, more debatably, belong in this category). In this way, Brown’s account implies an understanding of democracy that, while in many ways consistent with a republican conception, also incorporates liberal aspects focused on minority rights and private conscience.


This has consequences for how we might think about a politics that might be adequate in response. If we understand neoliberalism as a depoliticized market fundamentalism, or if we understand it as a project of class domination, an adequate response might take the form of republican claims for popular sovereignty over and against the rule of a wealthy elite—a kind of left populism, and an affirmation of homo politicus. But once we understand right populism as actually neoliberal, and neoliberalism as anti-democratic in part for its opposition to core liberal principles of minority rights and internal conscience, democratic politics must imply more than the revival of homo politicus.


Does a democratic politics require recovering and affirming the liberal ideals displaced by neoliberalismthe ideals, that is, that ran counter to neoliberalism’s anti-democratic politics? This, presumably, would not be Brown’s preferred approach. Indeed, her previous work has traced the ways in which liberalism involves pathologies of its own, and is more closely related to apparently illiberal structures than it might appear. Brown’s classic book States of Injury (1995) can be read as presenting such an argument with respect to the investment in certain categories of identity, for which she coined the term “wounded attachments”; Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (2010) makes a somewhat similar argument for investment in state sovereignty. But certain liberal ideals that emerge in In the Ruins as neoliberalism’s targets seem to receive surprisingly noncritical treatment themselves. For some, like equal rights to public accommodation, this may not be a problem. But for others, it may befor example, when it comes to secularism, which often appears in connection with ideas of private individual conscience. (This connection should already be a clue to the non-ecumenical nature of that would-be secularism.) (For more on In the Ruins and religion, see Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins’ contribution to this forum.)


Where Undoing the Demos seemed to praise homo politicus as in need of revival, the basic structure of In the Ruins would suggest that the social, and not just the political, is in need of defending for any truly democratic politicsFor me, there is the lingering question of whether the problem Brown diagnoses concerns the devaluing of the social, or its reification as a distinct sphere (a reification, I would suggest, in line with the sanctification of inner conscience as a sphere beyond politics). Notably, on Brown’s account, what Arendt got wrong was her denigration of the social. But isn’t the distinction between the social and the political itself the bigger problem, such that Arendt could positand veneratea certain political revolution precisely for having not addressed itself to poverty and economic inequality? That is, isn’t the separability of politics and the social part of why democracy and inequality might appear compatible in the first place? And isn’t it precisely that supposed separation which Hayek’s appeal to organic, traditional morality belies?


Of course, Brown is not exactly advocating that we defend, under the banner of democracy, the social, or the secular, or private conscience. The book is primarily diagnostic. But to leave it at that would be too easy. I take Brown’s point, in 2006 and now, to be in part that there is no firm separation between political diagnosis and political prescription. After all, if we are living a terrible dream, “dreamwork” refers not just to the images in our minds, but the ways we work through them as well. It includes, that is, our practices of meaning-making in recounting a history of the present.


[1] I include the EU here, though the book is very much a consideration of neoliberalism and its history in the United States. It is from this perspective, as Brown diagnoses, that Chile and Iraq can appear as a pair, with Augusto Pinochet and L. Paul Bremer III as examples of a singular phenomenon.

[2] Also see William Callison’s volume, co-edited with Zachary Manfredi, Mutant Neoliberalism: Market Rule and Political Rupture (Fordham University Press, 2019), which includes a contribution from Brown.



Photo Credit: Raph Howald, Temple Ruins in the Jungle of Cambodia, via Unsplash.


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