Ruins and Renewal: An Interview with Wendy Brown

24 March 2020

To conclude our book forum on In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Anti-Democratic Politics in the West (Columbia University Press, 2019), we spoke with Wendy Brown about some of the key questions raised by her four reviews. 


Jacob Hamburger: We wanted to start a bit like we began our last interview a few years ago—because Emma Mackinnon’s review gets right to the heart of this—by asking how you think the political world we’re living in has changed since when you wrote Undoing the Demos in 2015. How do you understand the changes in global politics that you’re responding to with In the Ruins of Neoliberalism?


Wendy Brown: I wrote the substance of Undoing the Demos in 2012-14, during the second Obama Administration, and I wrote In the Ruins in 2018-19, in the aftermath of Trump’s election, Brexit, and the rise of the right in Europe. Between those two periods, obviously, most of us have experienced the world as undergoing something of a sea change, especially in the surge of the right to elected power in the Euro-Atlantic world and also in parts of the Global South. At the same time, the two books are also part of my own continuous thinking about what forty years of neoliberal rationality have done to the state, society, economy, democracy, subjects, and culture. In the Ruins differs from Undoing the Demos not just because the world changed but because in the intervening period I thought more deeply and differently about this problematic.


I am not a thinker who restates a settled position over and over again but, rather, revises. For me, the second book involved not just reflecting on a new political circumstance but reflecting on neoliberalism’s assault on democracy from a different angle and rethinking some aspects of the earlier work. In Undoing the Demos, my emphasis was almost entirely on the phenomenon I called the economization of politics, of the subject and subjectivity, of everyday life, of education, of law, and so forth. In the second book, I examined the explicit critique of democracy on the part of the original neoliberals: the ordoliberals, Hayek, the American neoliberals, the Chicago school, the Virginia school. I also focused on how neoliberalism aimed at dismantling democracy as a legitimate form of policymaking, how this was expressed both by the original neoliberal intellectuals and in some of the actual rollout of neoliberalism.


In short, what separates the two books is not only a changed political landscape, but a change in my own theorization of neoliberal de-democratization: there is the economization of everything that I charted in Undoing, but there is also the attack on the social and the democratic, and the replacement of both with traditional morality as well as markets, that I chart in In the Ruins. Both angles are important depending on what you’re trying to illuminate or figure out. The neoliberal economization of the purpose and coordinates of higher education and of electoral democracy is crucial to understanding why the liberal arts are in peril, or why we don’t educate for democracy anymore, or the deep significance of Citizens United. Neoliberalism’s steady attack on the very principle of popular sovereignty and social justice legislation is important for understanding the profound disintegration of the most basic institutions of representative democracy—not to mention social democracy—over the past four decades.


Danielle Charette: You’ve been writing about neoliberalism for a while now. Could you say a bit by what you mean by the term? Bill Novak and Steve Sawyer are mostly sympathetic with your use of neoliberalism, although they note that the word, in contemporary discourse, risks becoming something of a “behemoth”—with a whole that’s larger than the sum of its parts. Has the definition taken on more than it can hold?


Like liberalism, like fascism, like nationalism or socialism, neoliberalism appears differently depending upon what aspect or effect of it you are trying to explain. These big terms do not fare well in the world of reductive definitions. Sure, you can stipulate neoliberalism as the rejection of social democracy or Keynesianism in favor of de-regulation, privatization and regressive taxation, or as a specific governmental rationality that valorizes markets and the use of political or administrative power to support and calibrate them, or as the ubiquity of homo oeconomicus across every sphere of life. Or you can try to identify it historically with a crisis of liberalism and capitalism (in the ’30s or in the ’70s) and frame it as a paradoxically state-centric and state-reductive response to that crisis, one that Foucault called a “reprogramming of liberalism.” None of these fully capture neoliberalism; all are elements of its existence. The inability to nail it with a short Investopedia phrase is testimony to its richness and importance, not its non-existence.


Even if neoliberalism cannot be stably and simply defined, I agree that it can be used in a sloppy way. It is silly to make neoliberalism responsible for or inclusive of imperial/humanitarian interventions, racist police violence, the rise of the Christian right, femicide, etc. This tendency to make everything “neoliberal” is embarrassing; it’s bad thinking or nonthinking. That said, because neoliberalism has been the governing rationality of a global economic and political order for four decades, everything is inflected by it—from the branding and entrepreneurship of the self to the terrible failure to stem climate change over the past twenty-five years as the problem was so heavily ceded to markets.


It’s also important that when we refer to “actually existing neoliberalism” or being governed by neoliberal rationality, we’re analyzing neoliberalism in its impure form. Neoliberalism is always intersecting other things, whether securitarian concerns, or, as I suggest in my most recent book, a heightened form and ethos of nihilism, or existential anxiety about viruses or about climate change. We’re never just dealing with pure neoliberal rationality; we’re always dealing with its intersection with other orders of power and reason. This is what Stuart Hall’s brilliant combination of Marx, Foucault and Gramsci offers us: a rich notion of historical conjunctures created by intersecting forces and discourses that cannot be simply reduced to one another, but at the same time don’t operate apart from one another. In the Ruins explores the extent to which certain logics of neoliberal rationality intersect other forces, other logics, other anxieties—including, for example, wounded white male supremacy in the Euro-Atlantic West. Exploring that intersection and the conjuncture it generates is not to say that the wounded supremacy of white maleness is itself neoliberal; it’s to say that neoliberalism gives that particular energy a certain shape and force, and vice versa.


JH: To focus a bit more on your theoretical influences, you describe your project in this book as trying to engage both the Foucauldian and the Neo-Marxist critiques of neoliberalism. As I’m sure you’re aware, in many parts of the scholarly discussion of neoliberalism, these two schools have been in tension. And there have even been some closer to the Neo-Marxist tradition, who have raised questions of Foucault’s sympathies with neoliberalism: was Foucault himself a neoliberal? Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins’s review touches on these debates, and I’m curious whether you have a position on them. Are these questions we need to grapple with if we want to follow your attempt to put these schools together in order to explain the world we’re living in?


Those debates about Foucault’s personal predilections aren’t terribly interesting to me, because what I draw from Foucault is his way of understanding neoliberalism as a novel form of governing rationality. That’s the brilliance of his Collège de France lectures on neoliberalism. These lectures help us understand how, for example, education, the workplace, nonprofits, prisons and hospitals, as well as states have all been transformed by neoliberal rationality, not simply marketized or privatized. This rationality profoundly transforms everything it touches, including the subject and citizen. Though it was not his concern, Foucault’s analyses of neoliberal rationality and the remaking of homo oeconomicus also illuminates how and why democracy itself loses its value in a neoliberalized order.


These insights into neoliberalism are, for me, largely detachable from the question of Foucault’s attraction to or repulsion by neoliberal ideas. Similarly, I use Nietzsche and Marx without obsessing endlessly about their views on women, Jews, Christians, democracy, the world beyond Europe and many other things. You think Tocqueville and Rousseau weren’t ambivalent about the democracy they theorized? That Fanon’s thought was emancipatory to the core? These are thinkers who can help us think, who open some feature of the world we need to understand. They are not “influencers” to follow, politicians to vote for or celebrities to take selfies with. At best, worry about Foucault’s personal relationship to neoliberalism is a category confusion, one symptomatic of our time. At worst, it is a sad little academic policing industry.


So how do you put together Marx and Foucault? Not easily, but I also want to suggest that we can’t think about the phenomena of neoliberal transformations of markets, states, subjects, cultures, institutions, and everyday practices without both. Why? Because what the neo-Marxist account gives us is the systematic transformation of capitalism entailed in the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s and 1990s brought by dismantling all the compromises of capital that had been put into place in the postwar period. These compromises limited profits, but also generated a certain kind of legitimacy for capitalism through the production of the social and regulatory state. The Marxist account illuminates the economic transformations, and their social and political implications, generating massive inequality and debt, depression of real wages, upheaval of whole industries and populations, and a general decline in the condition of the Euro-Atlantic middle class. We grasp this with the thinker who taught us to rivet our eyes on capitalism—its specific imperatives, contradictions, formations of class and class conflict, demands on the state, and more.


But if we stop with Marx, we can’t grasp what else neoliberalism achieved, what happened to our languages, expectations, and imaginaries of politics, democracy, society, social solidarity, social integration, and so forth. We can’t see the ways that states and institutions remade by neoliberal discourses themselves provide new possibilities, legitimacy and laws for capitalism. We can’t see precisely how gross inequalities in every dimension of life—not only wealth—become normalized. We can’t see the specifically neoliberal subjects and subjectivities or grasp their making. For all this, we need Foucault, or something Foucault-like, where the emphasis is on normative forms of reason and their capacity to contour institutions and practices. Do they go together easily—the Marxist and the Foucauldian? No! But if we need them both, then we just have to bring forward what we need in both; we do not have to reconcile or unify them methodologically. Methodology of that kind is so boring. For my own work, I also need other incompatible thinkers—those who help us grasp the psychic or psychocultural formations of our time, and especially those who help us understand the desublimated aggressions, ressentiment, and rancor that this conjuncture features. We also need histories and theories of racialization and misogyny to help us grasp enduring investments in whiteness and hyper-masculinism.


DC: Another provocative pairing in the book is between Friedrich Hayek and Michel Foucault. I wanted to ask about how you bring both together to discuss rationality, specifically what the book calls “neoliberal rationality” and “neoliberal reasoning.” For Hayek, “the knowledge problem” is a big deal. Hayek doubts any group of people could ever amass the knowledge to pull off centralized planning. Such rationality is impossible. Yet, when Foucault talks about rationality, he doesn’t mean there’s one person behind the curtain pulling the levers; rationality is about an overall system. If no one self-identifies as a neoliberal, can there still be “neoliberal rationality”?


Absolutely. My understanding of Foucault’s understanding of the neoliberal emphasis on rationality, especially that of the ordoliberals, is that it has nothing to do with the architect behind the architecture. Rather, the power rests in forms of reason that come through political and economic organization, discourse and debate. The evidence for that power and those effects are everywhere.


JH: To touch briefly on the question of financialization, Sharad Chari in his review finds somewhat perplexing your statement that the financialization of the economy was something neoliberal thinkers like Hayek did not imagine or anticipate. If we’re trying to reconstruct a neoliberal rationality, at least in part out of what these thinkers wrote, how do we understand this sort of radical gap between their vision and what you call “actually existing neoliberalism?


DC: Another way of putting this is to ask whether these neoliberal theorists had some notion of today’s financialized economy in the back of their minds without admitting it, or whether we should separate their logic from their actual influence.


The founding neoliberals, the original Mont Pelerin Society, didn’t have—couldn’t have—what we call financialization in the picture. They were thinking about competitive, productive economies. They were thinking about labor and capital, about the problems of proletarianization and corporate monopolies, about how to challenge welfare states and publicly owned industries. Neoliberalization rather accidentally unleashes financialization through a series of events and forces, not the least of which is deregulation of the banks. The rising importance of finance as a sector of the total economy, along with the financialization of the so-called productive economy and the financialization of the state—its conversion into a debt state—significantly alters the landscape for neoliberalism. It eliminates sovereignty of self and states, and shifts everything toward speculative value and rent-seeking. It is part of what generates the plutocracy that the neoliberal thinkers were actually trying to prevent. It is also part of what generates the politicization of the masses that they were trying to prevent. It is part of what disrupts the ordoliberal quasi-pastoral formulation of the individual nested in the family, tending its own needs from cradle to grave in a relatively rational and predictable fashion. It eliminates the possibility of states’ being able to simply tend to that kind of order, as opposed to having their chains yanked by finance capital.


In short, financialization makes a wreck of the political project of neoliberalism—the kind of individuals, states, economies and world order it aimed at. Part of what I’m arguing in the book is that neoliberal policies interact with as well as produce things that the neoliberals hadn’t planned on, and you get some pretty monstrous effects as a result. Should we call these monstrous formations, such as the plutocratic authoritarian liberal regimes that have come to power of late, neoliberal? No, but we need to see them as effects of neoliberalism, in the ruins of neoliberalism.


DC: You’re critical of both Marxist and neoliberals for sidelining “the political.” But, as Sawyer and Novak point out, you also take issue with Arendt and her definition of the political. Can you tell us about your frustration with Arendt?


To start with, let me be clear that I am not arguing for something like “the primacy of the political.” I don’t use the phrase and don’t believe in that primacy, so I’m not sure where Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins got the idea that I do. What we call the social, the economic, and the political are different faces of contemporary orders, not ever fully separable. Yes, there are some differentiated domains, but they don’t have deep moats between them, or exist apart from one another. That brings us to my quarrel with Arendt. I think Arendt is very much arguing, especially in The Human Condition, for a rarefied theater of the political. She imagines this as following the ancient Greeks, and decries the modern invasion of that theater by what she calls “the social”—which, for her, is the domain of the economic, the necessary, the laboring, the need-provisioning. The “social” has contaminated the sphere of speech and deed, action, recognition—all kinds of other things that she thinks are unique to the creature “man.” I use “man” on purpose, because, in Arendt’s understanding, part the problem is that women and laborers clawed their way into the political theater, bringing with them those bodies, needs and demands that women and laborers bring with them. This way of thinking is, to my mind, unhelpful for understanding either where we are or what we might need in order to establish the possibility of a political economy responsive to the needs of planetary life, including homo sapiens.


What is important to recognize is that neoliberalism itself identifies the political with some specificity, and attacks variants of the political that have to do with democracy. Neoliberalism also attacks what it calls the social: social justice and society itself. Borrowing directly from Hayek, Margaret Thatcher famously declared that there is no such thing as society. So, neoliberal rationality assaults the very notion of society and the social. It also assaults a democratic notion of the political.


Now, as a critical theorist, I think it’s important for us to deconstruct the putative distinctiveness of the political, the social, the economic, the familial. But as a critical theorist who also subscribes to genealogy, I think it’s important to see the extent to which neoliberalism itself has featured the political, the social, and the economic as if they can be pulled apart, and has also valorized markets while depoliticizing them, and demonized social justice in favor of traditional morality. That’s part of neoliberalism’s power, and that’s part of the power that we ourselves have to address. We can’t just make it go away by saying “we don’t believe in those distinctions.” It’s nice if you don’t, but that doesn’t vanquish how life is organized today.


JH: Sawyer and Novak’s review also picks up on the sense throughout your book that if neoliberalism has attacked the political, some form of repoliticization might lead to a redemocratization of our society. Is your notion of “the political” inherently democratic? To what extent do democracy and the political overlap? This question also ties into Emma Mackinnon’s point that as we’ve seen a “return of politics” in recent years—to pick up on some of the psychoanalytic themes of your book, a sort of “return of the repressed”—we have lots of far-right movements winning power. These movements are highly politicized, and they’re winning elections, but are they democratic in your sense?


I agree that there is the risk in the language of “depoliticization” of imagining that “repoliticization” is automatically a good thing. When a Marxist refers to a depoliticized sphere, what they’re describing is a sphere that is created and sustained by power, but is treated as if it’s natural or given. This is certainly part of the magic trick that neoliberal rationality does with markets, and I want to suggest that it’s also part of the magic trick it does with traditional morality. Part of my learning curve in In the Ruins was seeing how, going back to the original neoliberals, democratic politics was being displaced not just by markets, but also by traditional morality in the name of the non-coercive, spontaneous character of both. This is a masterful feat of depoliticization.


Repoliticizing what has been depoliticized, however, does not necessarily take us in a just or democratic direction. Rather, what we see today is a lot of repoliticization that fits perfectly well with Christian nationalism, authoritarianism, and other such things. Take, for example, the repoliticization of secularism, or the repoliticization of deindustrialization in the Midlands of England, the Midwestern United States, or northeastern France. Politicization of certain social or economic powers doesn’t necessarily issue from or yield a concern to democratize those powers.


JH: We also should talk briefly about the social. In your book you treat the neoliberal attacks on the political and social in very different ways. There’s a sense that the political has come back with a vengeance, but in a certain sense the neoliberal assault on the social has been successful—we don’t see the same return of the repressed. How does the dismantling of the social differ from the dethroning of the political, and what might it mean for the social to come back?


The attack on social solidarity, social justice, social redistribution, and social care was very thoroughgoing and very successful in the neoliberal revolution. This attack devastated many different kinds of institutions and practices, ranging from public provision of healthcare and education to any kind of restraints on financial speculation in real estate. The attack on the social underscores the serious humanitarian crises in many cities, especially American cities, where shelter has become so expensive that thousands of people are living on the streets. It not only had the effect of shrinking the social state, but it also had the effect of shrinking the imaginary and the ordinary understanding by citizens that we have a society to care for together.


However, the attack on society is not only an attack on social states and social justice but an attack on social solidarity. The attack on social solidarity legitimates punitive anti-immigration and anti-refugee politics, withdrawals from global climate accords and global humanitarianism. Rather than thinking about a return of the social, however, it seems to me our question now is: how might we format a set of social concerns—an appreciation for our connectedness as humans, but also as a species to other species and as a human species to the planet—how might we reformat these in a way that is apt to a globalized order that is still organized by nation-states? We’ve never done that before.


Many on the left believe that social solidarity must exceed national boundaries, but that democratic practices must be addressed to nation-states or within nation-states. This is not only because democracy requires some kind of boundedness in order to know who the “we” is that is self-determining, but also because the nation-state remains the field of power and contestation for most—not all, but most—policy issues. It remains the theater of power for democracy. So we’re in a very interesting time, in which social solidarity needs to be transnational in its focus, in its objects, in its reach, but democratic practices are more likely to be oriented to nation-states—or to entities like the European Union. That’s where we are in the twenty-first century. We humans ought to be capable of doing both at once. However, this may be a site in which the social and the political—though not literally divided, not literally separate spheres—have different end goals, and to some extent, features different spaces of activity, action, and concern. Social movements can be solidaristic, transnational; political demands are inevitably state-centered and need inhabit democratic language, which is not the same thing as solidarity language. Of course these two—social movements and political demands—can emanate from the same pool or flow into one another.


DC: As you mentioned, you’re interested in the way neoliberalism intersects with stories of traditional morality. Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins pushed you on the question of religion. In short, is Hayek the right theorist for analyzing the Christian Right? Steinmetz-Jenkins also suggests your portrait of the Religious Right might be too secular. On the flip side, I wonder if a problem with the Christian Right is that it’s currently privileging politics over the religious or the social.


Of course Hayek is not a theorist of religion. Nor is he somebody to think with about the contemporary phenomenon of hard-right white evangelicism, or the fusion of ethnonationalism with traditional Christian morality. It would be silly to try to refract those phenomena through neoliberal thought. My concern in the book was to analyze the original neoliberal effort to loft traditional morality in place of the social state, an effort that also appeared in the actual rollout of neoliberalism—especially in the UK, the US, and Latin America. The neoliberal concern with traditional morality was always already Christian, and they imagined it would help pacify a neoliberalized citizenry—not just by sending citizens to church, but by organizing and ordering subjects through moral authority and hierarchies that represented something of an opposite to egalitarian social justice projects and political demands.


Many believe that neoconservatism arose to offer a counterweight to free market orders advocated by neoliberalism, a way of containing the crassness and moral degeneracy of unbridled capitalist culture. But that misreads neoliberalism itself, because neoliberalism is already organized both by moral traditionalism and markets. Then, when you put a good dollop of nihilism into the middle of moral traditionalism—along with a good dollop of threatened or dethroned white masculinity—what you get is Christianity mobilized to secure supremacies threatened by everything from social justice to globalization.


Here, then, is another set of forces that converts neoliberalism into something very different from what the original neoliberals imagined. Instead of simply being a source of authority and order, so-called traditional morality becomes hyperpoliticized at the same time it is hollowed out internally. It becomes reactionary and shrill. And that’s what we have today in the United States, from evangelical political mobilization to Supreme Court decisions on religious liberty that aim entirely at empowering Christianity in the commercial and public sphere. Religious liberty jurisprudence is largely aimed at challenging egalitarian, justice-driven statutes, achieved over the past fifty years for racial minorities, women, and LGBT folks. This means that what the neoliberals imagined as the value of traditional morality has turned into something quite different. As it has been weaponized, it has been hollowed out of its ordering and stabilizing capacity. Above all, it has lost its unpolitical status. Instead, it has become part of the political battleground of the present.


Now, is that an adequate explanation of the emergence of the Moral Majority in the 1980s and its transformation into contemporary white right-wing evangelicism? Is it an adequate explanation of the hard-right turn of Protestant and Catholic churches and the near-elimination of their more progressive strains? No. We need religious studies for that, we need anthropology for that, we need detailed histories for that. I’m not trying to explain religion. All I’m trying to do with this problem in In the Ruins is to track the neoliberal aim of using traditional morality as a partner with markets to replace the social state, and to see what has become of that aim apart from what they intended.


JH: Novak and Sawyer once again raise a question that I think helps get at how we might move forward from this state of affairs. In the Ruins address how traditional values have been mobilized and hyperpoliticized by these nihilistic tendencies on the right today, and how this is a danger for democracy. Is the solution simply that we depoliticize these values? How do you reconstruct a politics once certain aspects of traditional and religious morality have been mobilized this way in this way?


That’s a really big question today. Are we looking at the possibility of transforming right-wing discourse or the possibility of civil war? Here, I think we just don’t know. Regardless of who wins the 2020 election, I think there are possibilities for renewing and elaborating in new ways democratic principles and imaginaries. Both the Sanders and Warren campaigns harbored that, and there are all kinds of social movements that express that possibility. But will it be effective in transforming cynically deployed moral discourse that aims at a Trumpian manipulation of the masses, or a sincere rage at urban elites and the imagined displacement of whites by immigrants and people of color? Can anything break into or break through the Fox News discourse? We don’t know.


I have friends who say, “once you’ve gone there—over to fascism, ethnonationalism, Trump, Le Pen, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro, Modi—there’s no retreat, you don’t come back. That’s what we learned in World War II.” Others of us argue that since there’s no endpoint in the development of political formations or political consciousness, changed consciousness might emanate from reestablishing social solidarity and social provisioning such as the very kind required by the coronavirus now. The dramatic need for this solidarity and provisioning of health, shelter, income and collective action in the form of social distancing could put serious cracks in right-wing formations. So civil war or civil transformation? We simply don’t know. And the former could cancel the possibilities for the latter.


DC: In the Ruins has a few references to Tocqueville here and there. I’m curious whether you take Tocqueville to be a helpful theorist of the political?


Tocqueville appreciates that what sustains democracy is democratic culture. He is a theorist unrivaled in his study of the kinds of ideas, practices, local institutions and other cultural supports required for what he took to be the tension-ridden, delicate balances that democracy must achieve to survive. I can’t think of another theorist who recognizes how vulnerable and fragile democracy is—and, at the same time, what is required to sustain it. For Tocqueville, these requirements are not limited to the integrity of its institutions, or the organization of law and administration, though he is interested in all of that too. Rather, democracy rests in the democratic hearts of the people. He did not take democratic hearts to be natural—especially in the era of large nation-states, and the era of what he referred to as commercial society and we would call capitalism. He knew that the more natural tendency was self-interest.


He did not posit self-interest as natural in the sense of human nature, but in the sense of what shapes our orientation in commercial society and large nation-states. Hence democracy has to be cultured in all kinds of ways, including through what he called “schools of democracy” such as venues for local participation. For him, these venues centered on the New England township, but in our time, these include city councils and towns, yes, but also workplaces, schools and neighborhoods where arguments about scarce lands, resources, problems of homelessness, clean water and more are all accessible to ordinary people. Wrestling with these questions in public venues where differences must be aired and settled is part of how we build democratic hearts. Learning how to think about and experience power, handle power, and consider the common as the frame for “what is to be done”—these too are part of building democratic hearts.


So is Tocqueville relevant? Absolutely. I don’t think we can build democratic possibility without thinking through a Tocquevillian lens about culturing democracy. Of course, we need lots of others to help us craft this for a complex, globally connected, diverse and existentially challenged twenty-first century.


Photo Credit: Alena Vavrdova, via Unsplash.


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