Beyond the Ruins
This is the first 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).
With now two book-length interventions on neoliberalism and contemporary antidemocracy, Wendy Brown has become the leading social theorist diagnosing the ills of neoliberalism and, in particular, its deleterious effects on public, political, and democratic life. In Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, Brown aimed her formidable analytical and rhetorical skills precisely at the neoliberal political and economic agenda that hollowed out citizenship, democracy, and public goods, as liberty was methodically “relocated from political to economic life.” The undoing of political life and the state by neoliberal rationality, she concluded, “eliminates the very idea of a people, a demos asserting its collective political sovereignty.” Brown’s more recent sequel, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West picks up where Undoing the Demos left off. Providing a corrective to what she refers to as the overly economistic interpretation of her previous volume, she broadens her diagnosis to include a deep dive into the moral and social underpinnings of neoliberal rationality and the legal-political pathologies of social conservatism and reactionary populism.
Brown deftly displays the scale of neoliberal wreckage and ruin. In Undoing, we get this litany of political-economic discontent:
Deregulation of industries and capital flows; radical reduction in welfare state provisions and protections for the vulnerable; privatized and outsourced public goods, ranging from education, parks, postal services, roads, and social welfare to prisons and militaries; replacement of progressive with regressive tax and tariff schemes; the end of wealth distribution as an economic or social-political policy; the conversion of every human need or desire into profitable enterprise, from college admissions preparation to human organ transplants, from baby adoptions to pollution rights; . . . and the financialization of everything and the increasing dominance of finance capital over productive capital in the dynamics of the economy of everyday life.
In Ruins, the damage escalates and broadens in a “composite Left account” that surveys a vast wasteland of scorched-earth neoliberal policymaking, including “devastated rural and suburban regions”; the emptying of “decent jobs, pensions, schools, services, and infrastructure as social spending dried up”; “an unprecedented cultural and religious divide”; “enduring racism as new immigrants transformed suburban neighborhoods”; “abandonment, betrayal, and ultimately rage on the part of the new dispossessed”; “patriotism as militarism, Christianity, family, racist dog whistles, and unbridled capitalism”; the rise of “white nationalist, libertarian, antigovernment, and fascist” movements; and the “neoliberal intensification of inequality”—all leading to “the political earthquake of November 2016.”
The horror show reaches its final reel as she presents the “resonances” between contemporary evangelical Christianity and capitalist culture courtesy of William Connolly and Tim Alberta—a “spiritual disposition to existence” featuring “vehemence and ruthlessness” “ideological extremism,” and the strange alliance of “Bible-thumping working-class whites and the rich, vainglorious, nonreligious, thrice-divorced, ‘pussy-grabbing’ former casino owner they supported for President.”
It is the goal of In the Ruins of Neoliberalism to offer not merely a description or an accounting of this unfortunate state of affairs, but an explanation or interpretation of “what went wrong” along so many dimensions. For that, she returns primarily to thick and critical readings of the original masterminds of neoliberalism: Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and the so-called ordoliberals (also noting in passing that “Hannah Arendt didn’t help”). For Brown, our twenty-first-century neogothic, dystopian condition was not so much the original objective of post-war and Cold War neoliberals, but rather its “frankensteinian” result. Brown submits that the moral-political-economic project intentionally designed by such thinkers as Hayek to preserve social order in a world dominated by mass markets, has itself become weaponized and turned fundamentally against democracy in toto. In the opening chapters of Brown’s book, we hear the angry cries of this new monster unleashed upon an unsuspecting demos: “Society Must be Dismantled,” “Politics Must Be Dethroned,” “The Personal, Protected Sphere Must Be Extended.” Beyond more conventional accounts, Brown emphasizes the absolute centrality of radical anti-democracy to the neoliberal takeover: the demonization of the social and the political, the disintegration of society and the discrediting of the public good by neoliberal reason, the attack on equality, and the curious way in which “assaults on constitutional democracy, on racial, gender, and sexual equality, on public education, and on a civil, nonviolent public sphere have all been carried out in the name of both freedom and morality.” This is the thing to be explained.
In the epilogue to Undoing the Demos, Brown stated that her “critique of neoliberalization does not resolve into a call to rehabilitate liberal democracy, nor, on the other hand, does it specify what kind of democracy might be crafted from neoliberal regimes to resist them.” But one cannot read her rich portraits of the neoliberal dismantling of society, dethroning of politics, and decentering of equality without seeing the outline of a potential alternative. And both of her books end with calls not only for continued Left political critique, but with a substantive “hope” or “vision” of a more “just, sustainable, and habitable future.” The overwhelming impression emanating from both books is that such hope and vision hinges on a re-prioritized and re-radicalized social and political democracy—a rebuilt and re-revolutionized demos. Indeed, if social and political re-democratization is not central to some kind of a critical-progressive-left reconstruction, it is unclear why we should pay so much attention to the total and methodical nature of neoliberal de-democratization.
And Brown certainly pays the latter theme ample attention. “Political equality is democracy’s foundation,” she writes, and “democracy without the political is an oxymoron.” Brown suggests that the primary goal of the neoliberals, especially Hayek and Friedman, was to dismantle the broad, substantive, and socio-economic conception of the democratic political that had risen to prominence in the West with victories over depression, fascism, and—according to Thomas Piketty—basic deprivation and economic inequality. In particular, the linkage of the social, the democratic, the political, the public, and sovereignty drew early neoliberal attention and almost incessant critique. And Brown understands the stakes of that early neoliberal critique, suggesting that the neoliberal removal of sovereignty was tantamount to “dedemocratizing the state.” For Brown, “the neoliberal state is dedemocratized and divested of sovereignty,” resulting in a neoliberalized democracy with “little left to do and little power to do it.” As she puts it, such a conception of the political, “divested of sovereignty and the public interest, is confined to generating universally applied rules and techniques that have the status of being practical.” The neoliberal state eliminates both “political sovereignty and the sovereignty of the political.”
Brown is absolutely correct about the original target of neoliberal intellectual energy. And her portrait is in complete sync with a veritable cottage industry of intellectual histories that has now grown up around the topic of the rise of neoliberal political economy. The target of neoliberalism was explicitly the so-called “new liberalism” of early 20th century social democracy and progressive reform. Friedrich Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty began by taking direct aim at what he called “appalling jugglery” of progressives like John Dewey, whom he accused of spreading “an ideology in which ‘liberty is power, effective power to do specific things,’ and the ‘demand of liberty is the demand for power.’” New liberals and progressives like Dewey had advanced a vision of robust substantive, critical, public, and social democracy that rejected juristic and formalistic renderings of freedom, laissez-faire, and classical liberty. With a commitment to democratic publics and their pressing socio-economic problems, they constructed a broad program of public action, socio-economic provisioning, and regulation and administration. It was this progressive revolution in pragmatic and democratic statecraft directed towards solving public problems and preserving a variably defined public interest that drew the fierce ire and direct fire of the first neoliberals.
When viewed within this primary historical context of dedemocratization and depoliticization, the neoliberal agenda—as advocated by people like Hayek, Friedman, and the Chicago school—appears concrete, discrete, and to some extent wholly manageable and remediable. The neoliberals’ accomplishments in reverse-engineering the progressive social-democratic imaginary and re-establishing the neo-classical priority of economy to polity and democracy are noteworthy and to some extent surprising (the New Left of the 1960s and 70s envisioned a center-left future; and neoliberalism bequeathed us a new-right one). But in scale and scope, when held in proper perspective, neoliberalism’s achievements are no grander or dramatic than the earlier critical-realist, social-democratic agenda that sealed the fate of late 19th century social Darwinism and laissez-faire liberalism (and their own utterly ruinous socio-economic consequences) for half a century. And indeed, as scholars and commentators have reckoned with neoliberalism primarily as a particularly robust historical form of anti-democratic politics, it has not been difficult to imagine and begin reconstructing equally robust forms of intellectual, legal, and policy-oriented rebuttal.
The Tocqueville 21 blog and the Center for Critical Democracy were founded on the hope and vision of a thorough-going and critical re-democratization for the twenty-first century. So too, the Law and Political Economy movement and the LPE blog are replete with anti-neoliberal and critical-democratic policymaking and agenda-setting proposals. The number of grassroots and mass social and political movements dedicated to renascent social-democratic activism continues to grow, mobilize, and energize dissent. Held in proper relief, this anti-democratic form of neoliberalism looks less like a frightening new monster on the move, than an aging boxer on the ropes. From the democratic and political perspective of Undoing the Demos, neoliberalism’s negative consequences are glaringly apparent and its vocabulary of anti-democratic, anti-public, and anti-social politics seems already stale and exhausted.
Having convincingly established the lineaments of neoliberalism’s not-so-stealthy anti-democratic revolution in her first book, one hoped that the second book would begin to lead us out of the ruins rather than further into them. But, in fact, as suggested above, Brown’s goal in In the Ruins is to broaden her critique beyond political economy and, in fact, beyond anti-democracy. In the process, “frankensteinian” neoliberalism in In the Ruins grows less contained, less constrained, and, in a sense, less understandable.
As more and more factors are added to the analysis and neoliberalism is stretched to cover more and more deplorable conditions across sectors ranging from public to private, social to economic, corporate to democratic, class and race to gender and sexuality, the clear and crisp lines of a demos being undone become shadowy and murky. Crucial passages on the relationship of sovereignty to “the political,” the state, and ultimately democracy reflect an underlying ambiguity in the way Brown understands and interweaves conceptions of “the public,” “the social,” “the state,” “the public things,” sovereignty, and democracy in a now more totalizing critique of neoliberalism. In In the Ruins, these things are brought together as mutual bêtes noires of neoliberal rhetoric without specifying exactly what they represent, how they are related, how they change over time, and their varying implications across a wide range of democratic social and economic policymaking. This elusiveness only magnifies as Brown stretches her critique to now also incorporate as key characteristics and consequences of neoliberalism: tradition, morality, First Amendment jurisprudence, and “an intensifying nihilism that challenges truth and transforms traditional morality into weapons of political battle.” So many factors and so many ruinous consequences. Could they all be bound together in something called “neoliberal rationality”?
As a consequence of complexification, further tensions develop in and between Brown’s narrations of neoliberal crisis. In Undoing the Demos, Hannah Arendt’s robust conception of the political, the public, and “the potential of the human species . . . beyond the struggle for existence and wealth accumulation” was an antidote to neoliberalism’s thoroughgoing privatization and economism. In In the Ruins, Arendt’s critique of “the social” is part of the problem. So too, at one point, Sheldon Wolin’s conception of social democracy is highlighted as a moderating force, particularly through state policies of “public education, social security, and expanded health care” which mitigate divisiveness, promote shared contributions, and encourage “a moderate rather than enraged form of majority rule.” A bit further, however, and Brown disentangles democracy and the state via Wolin: “There is no such thing as a democratic state, since states abduct, institutionalize, and wield ‘surplus power.’” Consequently, “democracy always lives elsewhere from the state, even in democracies.”
Brown has been one of the most formidable social theorists to think through neoliberalism from both Foucauldian and neo-Marxist approaches. Along with Foucault, she has unearthed the rationalities—the “reprogramming of liberalism”—that drive our present neoliberal condition. Yet her emphasis on sovereignty and her alignment of one of Foucault’s most famous maxims regarding the political (i.e., “in political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king”) with Hayek’s neoliberal critique of sovereignty also problematizes the genealogy and the diagnosis. For it goes without saying that the interrelationship of sovereignty, the political, the state, and democracy either as a positive social-democratic project or as a target of neoliberal critique is neither a simple nor a straight-forward matter.
A further ambiguity concerns the relationship of democracy, the political, and the social. At times, Brown laments the politicization of certain types of social action in neoliberal rationality. For example, she decries the way that “morality – and not only rights themselves – becomes politicized.” Similarly, she regrets that “traditional values are politicized, tactalized, and commercialized”—“politicized as ‘freedoms.’” For Brown, the politicization of traditional values in contemporary neoliberalism is a danger for democracy. But is it possible to “democratize the state” by depoliticizing some values and not others? Such a solution would seem to implicate the kind of separation of public and private, state and civil society, central to the classical liberal imaginary still at the center of so much antidemocratic, neoliberal ruin.
Such tensions and ambiguities are, of course, part and parcel of any total attempt to grasp our present and its seemingly infinite publics and problems. Wendy Brown’s books on neoliberalism and antidemocracy attempt nothing less than that supremely difficult task. And they illuminate the democratic challenges of our contemporary moment as well as any other texts. There is enormous work to be done.
On that note, we close with one final caution. If held in proper perspective, neoliberalism’s antidemocratic agenda is relatively easy to see, to assess, and to begin to counter. And a host of creative thinkers, activists, and policymakers are currently hard at work on neodemocratic alternatives to neoliberal rhetoric and reaction. But there lurks a clear and present danger in the burgeoning literature on neoliberalism of making a whole larger than the sum of its parts—a frightening behemoth responsible for seemingly all the unspeakable evils that plague our current society and polity. In short, we should take care not to render neoliberalism an even larger, ungovernable monster than the one actually ushered into the world by Hayek, Friedman, and the like. Else, in place of the possibility for hope and vision with which Brown closes her powerful books, we might see ever more retreat into the nihilism, fatalism, and ressentiment that ultimately preserves the ruins of neoliberalism.
Photo Credit: Alex Radelich, via Unsplash.