Wendy Brown: “Who is not a neoliberal today?”

18 January 2018

Since its original publication in 2015, Wendy Brown’s book Undoing the Demos has become a standard reference for those seeking to understand the relationship between neoliberalism and democracy. Brown’s central argument is that neoliberalism—which she characterizes as a “political rationality,” both following and revising Michel Foucault—has undermined democratic forms of participation by casting the market as the model for the entirety of society. On the occasion of her book’s 2017 paperback reissue, Tocqueville 21 Blog editor Jacob Hamburger spoke with Brown about how neoliberalism and democracy have continued to evolve—or devolve—together in recent political developments in the United States. This is the first of several interviews with contemporary thinkers on neoliberalism and democracy that will be featured on the Tocqueville 21 Blog in the coming weeks.

Jacob Hamburger: Let’s start with a methodological point. Why choose to view neoliberalism as a “political rationality”? Why should we not just call it a school of thought in economic theory or policy, or perhaps in a more polemical sense, as a political ideology?


Wendy Brown: First, as your question indicates, it’s important to recognize that there are many dimensions to neoliberalism. We can certainly look at it as a set of policies, or as an ideology. But the notion of political rationality reveals the extent to which we are governed by forms of reason, and not only by policy, material forces (such as those identified by Marx), or by belief, misguided or otherwise. Rather, as Foucault has taught us, governing forms of reason carry norms that shape and constrain our conduct—his phrase is “conduct our conduct”—and do so imperceptibly, immaterially, as it were. If we just treat neoliberalism as a set of policies, or as a mystification of certain imperatives of capital, we will miss the extent to which it has brought new kinds of subjects, new forms of subjectivity, and new social relations into being. Under neoliberalism, we understand ourselves through and orient our actions around certain values. These values not only inform who we are and what we are worth—what we pursue or value in ourselves and others—they also determine what we can expect from political orders, and indeed what we think politics and democracy are and are for. The concept of political rationality identifies these ways of being governed normatively, which are as important as specific policies that favor capital, undermine organized labor, impede states from provisioning the basic needs of populations, or erode national sovereignty.


My particular concern in the book is to move beyond neoliberalism as a specific set of policies or ideas in order to grasp what neoliberalism has done to democracy—its meanings, its institutions, its values and promises. This requires moving beyond platitudes about democracy being bought or corrupted by concentrated wealth, and instead studying the ways in which a number of democratic fundaments have been attacked or undermined by neoliberal reasons.


I want to add something here. My argument is not that Hayek, Friedman, and the ordoliberals—the founding neoliberal intellectuals—were against democracy or wanted plutocrats to control society in order to enrich themselves. In many ways, what has unfolded in “actually existing neoliberalism” would be appalling to these founders. They did not want to see political life fused with economic life. They certainly did not want populist sentiments animating politics or legitimating governing. They did not want economic interests monopolizing policy either. They understood all of these things to be dangerous, as things that could lead to fascism.


The neoliberals rather sought to keep markets untouched by politics, to keep politics insulated from the emotional demands of the uneducated masses, and to avoid rent-seeking behavior from capitalists. But they also sought deregulation, privatization and an end to redistribution through taxation. In addition to redistribution, they opposed other measures of what they decried as “social justice.” They bore a general hostility to politics and the social in favor of a world dominated by what they believed was the spontaneous order produced by markets and traditional morality. These are the norms by which we live today. So while “actually existing neoliberalism” is very different from the dream of the founders, it was nonetheless spawned by that dream.


In just the two years since your book was first published, the term “neoliberalism” has entered public discourse after many years of being confined to academic and left activist circles. Many critics of the term today have accused it of being too broad, covering too many aspects of society. So let’s try to be specific: who is a neoliberal today?


I would invert the question to ask who is not a neoliberal today. A governing rationality like neoliberalism organizes and constructs a great deal of conduct and a great many values without appearing to do so. It produces “reality principles” by which we live without thinking about them. Thus, almost everyone in workplaces, social media presentations, educational institutions, non-profits, the arts, and more is governed by neoliberal norms. It’s quite hard to escape neoliberal rationality, including for those who imagine that they are radically critical of it. Consider, for example, how many left intellectuals use their social media profiles—Twitter, Facebook, etc.—not to build the Revolution, but to promote their books, speaking gigs, and ideas in order to boost their market value. This has become so ubiquitous that we hardly notice it.


Of course you are right that very few people acting in neoliberal fashion—that is, constantly attending to their human capital portfolio—call themselves neoliberals. Nor do economists and behavioral social scientists and policy makers, almost all of whom are working in a neoliberal framework today, use the appellation very often. It’s a loose and adaptable term, but I don’t think this means we should abandon it, any more than we should abandon the terms “capitalism,” “socialism,” or “liberalism” just because they are open and contestable in meaning. Neoliberalism is semiotically loose, but designates something very specific. It represents a distinctive kind of valorization and liberation of capital. It makes economics the model of everything, which is why in Undoing the Demos I spoke of its economization of democracy in particular and politics more generally. It has brought a libertarian inflection of freedom to every sphere, even, strangely, the sphere of morality.


The main argument of Undoing the Demos is that neoliberalism has led to a “hollowing-out” of democracy, a slow destruction from within. You write that neoliberalism’s effect on democracy is “more termite-like than lion-like,” and compare the result to the “gentle despotism” that Tocqueville warned of in Democracy in America. The election of Donald Trump in America and the rise of far-right “populist” movements in many other countries are often ascribed to violently and openly anti-democratic impulses. Do you see these elements of contemporary politics as a reversal of neoliberalism’s quiet undermining of democracy?


On the one hand, I would argue that only when democracies have already been devalued, weakened, and diminished in meaning—as they have been under neoliberalism—could a full-scale assault on democracy from the right take place as we see today. So this authoritarian—I’m wary of using the term “populist”—contempt for liberal democratic institutions and values we see sweeping across the Euro-Atlantic world has a lot to do with three decades of devaluing and diminishing democracy. But on the other hand, many of these assaults on democracy take place in democracy’s name. Their claims are made in the name of freedom and patriotism, which in turn are equated with democracy. These claims are continuous with the neoliberal notion of democracy. They come from the insistence that markets and morals are what ought to be governing us, and that statism ought to be used to promote that.


So this is not a radical break from neoliberalism. You’re right that it’s no longer the “hollowed-out” neoliberal democracy we saw under Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, but it was made possible by it and extends important aspects of it. Trump was certainly not able to mobilize conservatives and Evangelicals to vote for him because we’ve suddenly become “overrun” with immigrants from the South. The ground for Trump’s rise was tilled not just by neoliberalism’s destruction of viable lives and futures for working and middle-class populations through the global outsourcing of jobs, the race to the bottom in wages and taxes, and the destruction of public goods, including education. This ground was also tilled by neoliberalism’s valorization of markets and morals and its devaluation of democracy and politics, Constitutionalism and social justice.


 You wrote your book at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, at a time when perhaps what appeared so radical about the critique of neoliberalism was also what stifled it: liberal democracy in its post-Cold War form appeared to be stable and non-negotiable. Today, this is no longer case. Do you see this shift as an opportunity for opponents of neoliberalism? 


Today I believe people on the left are frightened and disoriented, having trouble getting their bearings in a world where new right-wing movements and leaders have ascended so quickly. And liberals are really having trouble getting their bearings: they’re appalled and horrified but don’t know how we got here or what to advance as an alternative. So you get a lot of rehashing of Keynesian and New Deal values, and, alas, a lot of nostalgia for good old non-nationalist, non-fascist neoliberal policy. At the same time, there’s a lot of exciting left activism today. There’s been a fresh eruption of feminism since Trump’s election, for example, which was already brewing before his election, but has grown ferocious in the past year. And the cross-class, cross-race militancy of this eruption is striking. In terms of organizing a specifically anti-neoliberal left in the US, much of it has centered on the attempt to challenge the mainstream of the Democratic Party, especially to challenge the neoliberalism comprising that mainstream. This, of course, was the heart of the Bernie Sanders campaign, which itself was very much a product of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In short, anti-neoliberal politics are present both in party politics and movement politics.


One of the hardest questions for the anti-neoliberal left is one of venue. Should this politics be local? Should it be national? Global? I don’t believe either that local politics is inherently provincial, or that national politics is inherently nationalist. Even in the digital age of social media, the most effective forms of organization and change are often local; and national imaginaries continue to be absolutely crucial battlefields. When locals take a stand for a particular neighborhood, wilderness, water supply, or educational system that they need or cherish, or fight against a particular industry (from real estate to coal) that is threatening or destroying their existence, a lot of important connections—analytic and human—get made. These sorts of movements are also important for building a sense of the viability and importance of democratic action and accountability, especially at a time when that sense is so decayed. Global movements are also important, but I think they are harder to sustain: everyone likes the idea, but it’s hard to continuously tend abstract global connections and solidarities. Of course, the most promising political movements are those that resonate both locally and globally. But we cannot always expect this, and we need to affirm those rare and wonderful instances of radical democratization, those take-downs of neoliberalism, racism, or fascism that happen in rural hamlets, isolated workplaces, or lone Southern states (like Alabama!). We need to affirm both the variety and peculiarity—and sometimes even the singularity—of anti-neoliberal rebellions and experiments today.


Photo credit: Ralph Alswang, Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


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