This is the second 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 In the Ruins of Neoliberalism is a pithy and brilliant read by a key thinker on these matters. Rather than rehearse the main arguments, I will hone in on a few key points that open the text to fruitful inquiry.
First, we know from Walter Benjamin, Michel-Rolph Truillot, Ann Stoler and Derek Walcott that ruins are not just sites of contemplation, but remains of the past that might be activated for other futures. The brutally dark final chapter—on “Nihilism, Fatalism, and Ressentiment”—makes the stakes of Brown’s ruin-gazing clear. There will be no easy consolations or clarion calls to be found here. Rather, Brown offers a critical genealogical method to help us reconsider “the forces overdetermining the radically antidemocratic form of the rebellion” against a set of objects constructed at an earlier conjuncture: “the social” and “the political,” and “the economic” as, for a time, “the national economy.” To understand contemporary antidemocratic politics, Brown argues, we must think alongside Friedrich Hayek, asking what became of the early-twentieth-century neoliberal hopes of the spread of markets and traditional (Christian) morality, and we these dreams have been deformed. This twisted journey is the object of Brown’s study—“in the West,” as she provocatively and perhaps unnecessarily adds.
Second, from my vantage point, much hinges on the powerful forces—conceptual, practical, world-making forces—that emerged from the prolonged crises of imperial capitalism between the 1870s and the Great Depression. “In the West,” this was the crucible of anarchism and communism from the Paris Commune to the Russian Revolution and its wide-ranging effects. But this was also the era of Trans-Atlantic Progressivism, which prompted experiments in social imperialism across the colonial world. Brown is right to trace neoliberal thought back to this time, but there is more to be done in thinking of its emergence in relation to a complex social and intellectual conjuncture. Karl Polanyi reflected on the early part of this conjuncture with the perils of post Second World War Europe in mind. Brown draws inspiration from Michel Foucault’s unfinished speculations on this period from the beginning of our age of political and economic crisis since the 1970s, differently experienced across the world but with new forces bringing geographically-situated crises into relation.
Less hopeful of statist resolution than Polanyi, Foucault sought to diagnose the links between liberalism, neoliberalism, and “biopolitics” with more political uncertainty. On my reading, his great insight was that the articulation of biopolitics and sovereignty in both welfare capitalisms and actually existing socialisms required a partitioning of society through new forms of “state racism.” Decisively undercutting the notion of a Golden Age, the queer militant pinned his political hopes on the struggles of scorned social and sexual exiles of socialist and welfare capitalist regimes alike. Indeed, Foucault’s militant anti-carceral activism was perhaps key to his turn to biopolitics, and his militant critique of the midcentury racial capitalist state. This is not Brown’s argument, but I do read her body of work as continuing to pick up the gauntlet that Foucault’s untimely death left behind, and in this book she retraces the specific journey of neoliberal praxis into its deformed shape in the Trumpian catastrophe.
Third, theoretically and methodologically, the argument builds on aspects of Foucault’s thought by attending to neoliberalism’s enduring “architecture of reason” while also attending to what Foucault would have called its subjugated knowledges, or in Brown’s words the “return of the repressed in neoliberal reason – a ferocious eruption of the social and political forces that the neoliberals at once opposed, underestimated and deformed.” Brown also notes but does not fully analyze the relations between this eruption and “neoliberalism’s accidental unleashing of the financial sector.” Brown does not clarify why this was accidental, but she does assume that it was not by design that “financialization profoundly undermined neoliberal dreams of a competitive global order lightly tended by supranational institutions, on the one hand, and facilitated by states fully autonomous of economic interests and manipulation, on the other.”
Financialization is a key element of the foreclosed dreams of individual sovereignty—the promises of a mid-century Golden Age that never quite was, through a nexus of stable homeownership, employment, heteronormative marital reproduction, and segregated white privilege, all undergirded by uneven state investment in education, healthcare, pensions, and policing. Brown’s analysis makes space for further research on the precise relations between financialization and the eruption of white-supremacist, misogynist, neo-fascism in the ruins of the putative Golden Age of welfare capitalism. Indeed, the last chapter offers a provocative reading of this “eruption” through Nietzsche and Marcuse, but rhetorically and analytically this appears as an afterthought, with little analytical purchase on financialized subjectivation.
As a corollary, there is an opportunity here to theorizing the eruption of subjugated knowledge—or the return of the repressed—alongside the notion of “racial capitalism,” which has seen something of a renaissance in the past decade. Racial capitalism refers not just to the quasi-racial origins of capitalism in Europe (in Cedric Robinson’s formulation); it is a reminder that capitalism always revives prior forms of difference in its fitful, uneven, and ever-differentiating dynamism. There is much to be done in deepening this formulation as well, but what is clear is that the term “racial capitalism” refuses capitalism’s own self-representation as an eternal present by pointing to many kinds of damage in its wake. Benjamin’s angel of history is a more appropriate leitmotif in this precise sense. Foucault’s genealogical method is consistent with the task of working through the ruins to understand the key forces that have led to our plight. I would hazard that this is where Foucault’s genealogical method and Marx’s conjunctural method can be complementary, with Benjamin and Black Marxism as kindred spirits. Indeed, while Brown poses her task as thinking beyond “neo-Marxist and Foucauldian approaches to neoliberalism … to redress their mutual neglect of the moral side of the neoliberal project,” I will argue that the neo-Foucauldian tendency to reduce the complexity of the world to an idealist tracing of “rule” does some injustice to this attempt at thinking with Marx and Foucault, as indeed we must.
Fourth, turning to the emergence of “the social,” “the political,” and “the economy” in the early twentieth century, Brown’s text opens several questions that she has been working through throughout her distinguished career. What is “the social” that is the object of neoliberal “dismantling” in Brown’s first chapter? A rich body of historical work shows us that “the social” was the (fuzzy, provisional) object of expertise in “social politics” circuiting through networks of Trans-Atlantic Progressivism. We know that when Progressivist experiments traveled to the wider imperial world, they floundered without the combination of an indigenous middle class of experts, reliable statistical data, or broad-based acceptance of social science as mandate for change. We know that colonial transformations of Progressivism were therefore routinely violent, and blatantly racist and sexist, particularly in the name of protecting white virtue. We know that the intellectual and practical trajectories of Progressivism and segregation were intertwined in public health, urban planning, social welfare and agrarian reform, across colonies and metropoles. And we know that astute contemporary observers like W.E.B. DuBois could see the contradictions of “the social” at a time when biopolitical government was being instrumentalized by socialist and welfare-capitalist states. Hence, the ageing W.E.B. DuBois abandoned Progressivism for what he thought was the more foundational critique of racial capitalism offered by communist internationalism. In a wider imperial frame, we can appreciate the prescience of Foucault’s insight that when “the social” became an instrument of state and capital in the early twentieth century, in different ways in different places, became part of a new form of institutional racism, a harbinger of prolonged catastrophe.
In her tracing of what happens to “the social,” Brown begins with a defense: “an orientation to democracy in the context of nation-states and capitalism requires state support for public goods.” She then shows how Hayek offered a far-reaching critique of this argument, proposing instead a form of freedom through markets and morals, “freedom without society… a pure instrument of power, shorn of concern for others, the world, or the future.” Conceptually, this is congruent with neoliberal discourse’s attempt “at limiting and containing the political, detaching it from sovereignty, eliminating its democratic form, and starving its democratic energies.” I am in complete agreement with Brown’s normative position on rethinking the social as the cornerstone of democracy but with a different rationale: on my reading, a critical genealogy of the triad of abstractions shows us that the division of “the social” from “the political” and “the economic” has been fundamental to diverse forms of racial capitalist, state, and imperial power. “Bringing the social back in” is therefore a task of rearticulation that cannot be borne by the homilies of midcentury state socialism or social democratic capitalism.
However, the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century conjuncture has more to say on the internal contradictions of “the social” as well as on the histories of struggle repressed within neoliberal discourse. These contradictions and histories are not discussed in In the Ruins, but they are central to its project. I have gestured to the historical scholarship on Progressivism and social imperialism—biopolitics by other names—as terrains of struggle over capitalist imperialism and morality: in moral panic about “white men’s countries,” “white slavery” and “the poor white problem,” or in the phased extension of suffrage to white women at the edges of settler colonial capitalism. Specific articulations of race, gender, sexuality, class, and coloniality that were at stake in constituting the social a century back return with a vengeance in the “eruptions” of our time. In this light, I suggest that tracing Hayek’s thought as Brown does is necessary but insufficient, and that neoliberal discourse must be read in relation to Progressive and radical praxis, attentive to spatial unevenness and struggle.
This is where the strength of Foucault’s insights can bolster Marxist method precisely when, in Brown’s terms, it is used to understand its “architecture of reason,” or the rhetorical or formal aspect of hegemony. Might the racialization of Progessivist notions of the social have played into the Hayekian assault, for instance, precisely through a shared architecture of reason? Both traditions share a structure of thought generally (though not always) disdainful of the capacity of workers and poor people to theorize radically different futures. Indeed, the fate of the “social question” might fruitfully be read with wider work on struggles over the fate of the social, including obviously unpleasant ones: South African apartheid, for instance, was a self-consciously overt form of racialized welfare capitalism bolstered by Cold War ideology. It is striking how quickly several orthodox Marxists remade themselves as neoliberals in a short period of time at apartheid’s end. What was at stake in movement debates in the transition to democracy were precisely the articulation of a putatively nonracial “social” to a Leninist conception of “the political” as managing “the economy,” but at a moment of deep cynicism about “the national economy” that helped enable capital flight, financialization and deepening inequality. A praxis-centric approach to struggles over the social—attentive to architectures of reason—might also help us understand precisely what has been ruined, and how these ruins are activated in contemporary eruptions of subjugated knowledge and power. This would help fill out Brown’s claim that “the neoliberal attack on the social … is key to generating an antidemocratic culture from below while building and legitimating antidemocratic forms of state power from above.” Brown is absolutely correct here, and that is why we need work on how this happens differently in contemporary Kashmir, Assam, California, England, Turkey, and the list goes on.
In the Ruins forces us to rethink the genealogy of the “social” in relation to “the political”: as another ideological construction meant, in neoliberal theory, to be the means for an expert class, a kind of capitalist nomenklatura, to keep capitalist democracies working without the consolations of social reform or social justice. Brown argues that disarticulating “the political” from “the social” relied on the third key object: “the economy,” or following Tim Mitchell, the idea of a fetishized, depoliticized “national economy,” the object of macro-economic regulation, management, and intervention. But “the economy” in this sense also had a more unstable and contested past and future, as “the economic” of macro-economics was replaced by econometric expertise divorced from reality, and thereby complicit with forces enabling capital flight, tax evasion and the emergence of an uneven but global plutocracy. The management of “the national economy” was bolstered by Cold War thought, by Walt Rostow’s “anti-communist manifesto,” and its antecedents in the Soviet industrialization debates. We see that conceptions of “the social” in early Soviet socialism were fundamentally at stake in notions of state intervention in something that was not yet called the national economy, but the “deepening home market.” I point to this only to suggest that the relations between “the social,” “the economic” and “the political” as separable objects of analysis, management, struggle, and neoliberal attack might be thought relationally and in a more spatially disaggregated way. We might then find that depoliticization across these domains have proceeded in fits and starts, as has their repoliticization in oppositional struggles.
Brown gestures at various moments to spatial dynamics, to a conception of “spatial semiotics” in Schmitt, and to “tectonic shifts in the organization and consciousness of space.” Both of these are invitations to consider the production of space in a more fully material and discursive sense, to rethink the triad of “the social,” “the political,” and “the economic” as produced differentially through the ever-dynamic, uneven, contradictory, and contested geographies of our restive present. “Because the political has been disparaged and attacked, but not extinguished,” Brown writes, antidemocratic forces have grown stronger. But the uneven depoliticization of “the political,” ‘the social,” and “the economic” point to the work of rethinking cartographies of these domains in a more spatially disaggregated way.
There is much more to say about In the Ruins. Chapter 3, on “the personal, protected sphere,” includes some gems on the devaluation of moral value, as Hayekian thought is twisted to accommodate the forces that shape actually-existing neoliberalism in the United States. This chapter comes closer to thinking of how subjugated knowledges reshape neoliberal discourse. The brilliant analysis of gay wedding cakes and pregnancy centers in the penultimate chapter provides us a glimpse into the struggles between multiple forces and tendencies. Here, we begin to see an eruption of white masculine class power, but also its vulnerabilities and contradictions. There is also an argument here about the transformations of political speech that bears careful and critical engagement, but which I cannot do justice to here.
In the Ruins of Neoliberalism is a generous text for dire times. It is required reading for the many battles in defense of rearticulating the social within and for political economies and ecologies that must persist even in our perilous age.
Photo Credit: Thor Alvis, via Unsplash.