Mesocosm

"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Wendy Brown’s ‘In the Ruins of Neoliberalism’

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After decades of conflict, democracy had emerged by 1992 as the undisputed winner of the Cold War, holding a position of dominance so universal that the term “democracy” became synonymous with political legitimacy. Even authoritarian states often imitate its discourse to justify rule, using sham elections and fraudulent polls to shore up their legitimacy. 

Theo Balden's sculpture "Newspaper Reader"
Newspaper Reader, Theo Balden

Yet a few decades later, despite the complete absence of any serious external challenge or internal crisis, democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Turkey, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Germany, and France are awash with anti-democratic popular movements. Some of them openly flirt with abandoning democracy altogether, others have already done so. 

In the United States, the Republican party has openly embraced an anti-democratic platform on the national level. To take one of countless examples, in October 2020, GOP Senator Mike Lee from Utah tweeted “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” 

“Rank democracy”? 

Yet this statement from a US senator, which would have recently been regarded as inflammatory and shocking, provoked no controversy whatsoever. The question a lot of us are asking with increasing urgency is: “How the hell did this happen?” 

In seeking to provide a social-theoretical account of the historical process that led us to our current situation, Wendy Brown’s In the Ruins of Neoliberalism; The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West offers an indispensable contribution to the growing body of literature on the subject. I believe this important book deserves careful consideration and discussion, and I recommend it very highly. 

Brown’s argument is complex and wide-ranging, so in this review I will restrict myself to highlighting some of its principle features. 

Brown begins by sketching a typical account of the process leading to the 2016 election, highlighting factors like racial resentment, the government’s failure to redress inequality and misconduct following 2008 economic crisis, and the growing gulf dividing a globalized, urban, highly-literate majority from a displaced rural minority. She* argues that while such an account is useful, it has important omissions that fail to account for the novel characteristics of what we are seeing now.

The current wave of reactionary politics does not always accord with familiar political categories. Indeed, many of its features are difficult to account for with any coherent ideology, and as such, they have defied analysis and frustrated opposition: 

Failure to predict, understand, or effectively contest these developments is due partly to blinding assumptions about perduring Western values and institutions, especially progress and Enlightenment and liberal democracy, and partly to the unfamiliar agglomeration of elements in the rising Right – its curious combination of libertarianism, moralism, authoritarianism, nationalism, hatred of the state, Christian conservativism, and racism. These new forces conjoin familiar elements of neoliberalism (licensing capital, leashing labor, demonizing the social state and the political, attacking equality, promulgating freedom) with their seeming opposites (nationalism, enforcement of traditional morality, populist antielitism, and demands for state solutions to economic and social problems). They conjoin moral righteousness with nearly celebratory amoral and uncivil conduct. They endorse authority while featuring unprecedented public disinhibition and aggression. They rage against relativism, but also against science and reason, and spur evidence-based claims, rational argumentation, credibility, and accountability. They disdain politicians and politics while evincing a ferocious will to power and political ambition. Where are we?

Where, indeed? 

Cold-War-era tools of political analysis are insufficient to account for this nihilistic witch’s brew of characteristics, and understanding why that is so is an urgent task of theory, for the conventional responses that the left has reflexively relied upon have been ineffective. The rhetorical appeal to a putative sense of shared values of a kind exemplified by the editorial missives of Dan Rather have fallen on deaf ears, as have charges of hypocrisy leveled against the evangelists who enthusiastically support a man who has illegally misused campaign funds to silence a porn star with whom he had an affair. Countless attempts to replicate the moment of Joseph Welch’s “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” have failed, and we need to understand why. Specifically, we need to understand the ways in which such appeals no longer connect with their audience, psychologically or ideologically. 

It is this gap in understanding that Brown endeavors to fill, so that we can, at last, identify the real ideological battleground, and shift our focus there. Otherwise we will be left to ask Senator Lee in disbelief, “Surely you can’t be saying that democracy is secondary!” But he can, and he did, and we need to understand why. 

Democracy is the foundation of Brown’s analysis. Her initial salvo on this point neatly suggests the conceptual clarity and rhetorical precision that typifies her book: 

Political equality is democracy’s foundation. Everything else is optional – from constitutions to personal liberty, from specific economic forms to specific political institutions. Political equality alone ensures that the composition and exercise of political power is authorized by the whole and accountable to the whole. When political equality is absent, whether from explicit political exclusions or privileges, from extreme social or economic disparities, or from the manipulation of the electoral system, political power will inevitably be exercised by and for a part, rather than the whole. The demos ceases to rule.

The importance of political equality to democracy is why Rousseau insisted that differences in power among a democratic people must “not be so great that they can be wielded as violence” and also that none may “be so rich that he can buy another and none so poor that he is compelled to sell himself.” Rousseau’s point was that more than a matter of injustice or suffering, systematization of group violence or destitution puts an end to democracy. 

In Brown’s account, the novel attack on democracy that we see today is largely the unanticipated consequence of neoliberal economic theory, which she primarily interprets through analysis of the writings of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. Neoliberalism refers to a nebulous branch of social and economic thought associated with economists such as Hayek and Milton Friedman, and exemplified in the political arena by the anti-regulatory regimes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The movement is also associated with reduced government and laissez-faire economic policies, and, to a slightly lesser degree, with globalist policies intended to reduce international barriers to trade. 

In Brown’s analysis, two distinct features of Hayek’s neoliberal theory pave the way to today’s populist authoritarianism: his attack on the concept of the social as such; and his desire to drastically curtail the reach of the state as much as possible. Through aggressively promoting these viewpoints, neoliberalism has substantially helped to foster a social and economic climate that Hayek himself would have despised, in which the government is largely captured by economic titans, rather than markets and government functioning independently and autonomously. 

Hayek directly opposes his conception of freedom to the very idea of the social. Any situation in which individuals are “compelled” by the state to act against their will (or “against their interests” as he put it) is eo ipso a curtailment of their liberty. The concept of the social gives rise to a kind of tyranny of the majority. In his view, the only free society is one in which individuals are bound only by the traditional moral codes to which they voluntarily adhere. 

Neoliberalism, then, is not economically liberal, in the sense of advocating for state regulation of markets, it is politically liberal in the sense of aggressively seeking to curtail the reach of the state to intervene in individual choice. 

Like libertarian economic theory, an account of freedom that focuses exclusively on the individual right to chose completely disregards the problem of externalities. That is to say, my freedom to dump toxic chemicals into the river curtails your freedom to grow crops and to live cancer-free. When people share resources or a physical environment, it is not so easy to disentangle where one peron’s zone of autonomy ends and another person’s begins. 

This obvious fact can only become obscured by a willful act of ideological repression, which, in the case of neoliberalism, occurs largely by automatically resisting any act of mediated social compromise as transgressive against liberty as such. In the light of a neoliberal theory, the need to mediate competing rights and claims in the spirit of compromise is simply excluded, and, as a consequence, the realm of the social is abandoned. Attempts to appeal to the interests of society appear to be nothing more than content-free complaints by “social justice warriors.” As Brown put it: 

If there is no such thing as society, but only individuals and families oriented by markets and morals, then there is no such thing as social power generating hierarchies, exclusion, and violence, let alone subjectivity at the site of class, gender, or race. Outside of a neoliberal frame, of course, the language of the social is what makes inequalities manifest; the domain of the social is where subjugations, abjections, and exclusions are lived, identified, protested, and potentially rectified.… As every serious student of inequality knows, the social is a vital domain of justice because it is where the potted histories and hierarchies of a particular region, nation, or civilization are reproduced. Appreciation of social powers is the only way to understand ‘taking a knee’ or the claim that black lives matter, the high suicide rates among queer teens, or women working more for less. Moreover, the social is what binds us in ways that exceed personal ties, market exchange, or abstract citizenship. It is where we, as individuals or a nation, practice or fail to practice justice, decency, civility, and care beyond the codes of market instrumentalism and familialism. And it is where political equality, essential to democracy, is made or unmade. 

If we want the social to exist as a meaningful framework for understanding and evaluating experience and action, we are now in a position in which we have to explicitly defend it as such. Welcome to our wonderful future. 

As with the social, Hayek repudiated the concept of the political as such. Grounding political legitimacy exclusively in a concept of individual freedom constrained solely by voluntarily-accepted traditional moral codes and free markets, Hayek distinguishes between “liberal democracy” and “social or totalitarian democracy” and regards the concept of popular sovereignty as a “ nonsense notion.” To “protect democracy against itself,” the powers of “so-called legislators” must be restrained, and the coercion of individuals by the state must be absolutely minimized. Indeed, Hayek identifies an inherent paradox in the notion of a liberal democracy, as liberalism is concerned with “‘limiting the coercive powers of all government’ while democracy limits government only according to majority opinion.” 

It may be hard to believe that the near-equation of any legislative act with totalitarian coercion has much traction in society at large, but Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom sold more than two million copies, and both Hayek and Friedman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for their theories. 

Now we are at a point where we can begin to understand how an anti-regulatory and anti-government political theory such as neoliberalism can help explain the seemingly-contradictory co-occurrence of anti-government and authoritarian ideologies in contemporary right-wing movements. 

Above all, Hayek argues, democracy and liberalism have radically different opposites. Democracy’s opposite is authoritarianism, concentrated but not necessarily unlimited political power. Liberalism’s opposite is totalitarianism, complete control over every aspect of life. This makes authoritarianism compatible with a liberal society – freedom, traditional morals, a protected private sphere. And totalitarianism can be brought into being and administered by democratic majorities. 

Senator Lee’s opposition of “rank democracy” to “liberty” now makes more sense. We can also understand why so many appeals to shared values falls on deaf ears. The terms “freedom” and “liberty” mean substantially different things to different people, and the consensus on the essential nature of the American political system has fractured between the left and the right to a degree never seen since World War II. 

With a critique of the social and the political in hand, the neoliberal is in a position to argue that the sole legitimate spheres for deliberating and adjudicating values are the domains of the family and of the individual, and not in any kind of larger interpersonal domain, which has been rejected as such. This conception of values and their proper domain has increasingly become the basis for attacking laws or policies intended to redress inequalities or protect minorities. Such attempts are framed as an encroachment by the tyrannical majority into the private conscience of individuals, and are treated as an intolerable violation of the sanctity of moral, and, especially, of religious freedoms.

In one of the most disturbing sections of the book, Brown analyzes how this theory has been developed into a novel legal strategy which has been designed to advance a dangerous new legal framework, as seen in two cases that recently appeared before the Supreme Court: Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and National Institute of Family Life Advocates, DBA NIFLA, et al. v. Becerra, Attorney General of California

In the former case, a baker in Colorado claimed that a combination of his rights to free speech and his right to free exercise of religion excuse him from being compelled to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. 

In the latter case, a network of so-called Pregnancy Crisis Centers sued the state of California, which passed a law requiring such institutions to post notices stating that they are not medical centers, and to refer people to nearby free and low-cost reproductive medicine facilities. This law was passed in response to the fact that Pregnancy Crisis Centers, according to their own unambiguous claims, attempt to confuse pregnant woman into thinking they are neutral providers of health services, when they are in fact conservative Christian organizations that exist for the sole purpose of persuading women not to have abortions. 

Brown’s full analysis is essential reading, but the upshot is this – both cases were carefully designed by the claimants to provide the Supreme Court with an opportunity to affirm a novel reading of free speech and free exercise which would dramatically curtail the government’s ability to enforce a wide range of laws and regulations intended to protect vulnerable populations. As with Citizens United, the very concept of speech has been expansively redefined not just to include corporate political contributions, but the baking of cakes and the freedom not to post legally-mandated disclaimers. 

The cases are carefully formulated to invite this interpretation, and the conservative majority has shown itself more than willing to go along with this approach: 

Indeed, only through the artful conjoining of free speech and free exercise can one make sense of this otherwise bewildering summary of [Masterpiece Cake claimant] Phillips’s claim by the court: ‘requiring him to create a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his right to free speech by compelling him to exercise his artistic talents to express a message with which he disagreed and would violate his right to the free exercise of religion.’ 

In this sentence, the sheer number of prepositions and verbs and lack of subordinate clauses makes it nearly impossible to specify the site of the violation. Where, precisely, is the action? Requiring the creation of a cake does not violate a right to free speech. Compelling exercise of artistic talents to express a message with which one disagrees does not violate one’s First Amendment rights. (Commercial artists presumably do this all the time at the behest of their bosses or managers.) And creating a cake for a  wedding does not violate one’s free exercise of religion any more than being required, commercially, to exercise one’s artistic talents to express a message with which one disagrees. However, all of these phenomena pressed tougher – required creation of art expressing a message contrary to one’s religious beliefs – bolstered by the unmentioned right of commercial ownership, sets free exercise loose in the public and commercial sphere and generates the scene of its entitlement to discriminate, indeed, to abridge laws of equality. This is more than constitutional constructivism. This is the U. S. Supreme Court empowering a revolutionary antidemocratic force through a novel joining together of ownership, religion, and speech. 

In Masterpiece, the Supreme Court opted to rule narrowly, finding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not weigh the facts in a neutral and fashion. But in National Institute they took the bait, striking down a clearly-warranted public health and safety law on the grounds that requiring any disclaimer of any anti-abortion group whatsoever was tantamount to coercing compliance with one side of a matter of public controversy, as though a woman’s right to choose were not settled law and a guaranteed right, but merely a matter of disagreement. This is a terrifically ominous sign of things to come, and I think it’s likely the conservative super-majority on the Supreme Court is likely to reshape the American legal landscape to a degree that is currently difficult to imagine. 

In her final chapter, Brown leverages Nietzsche’s theory of ressentiment from his Toward a Genealogy of Morals and Macruse’s theory of repressive sublimation from his One-Dimensional Man to analyze the psychology of anger, resentment, and naked hatred motivating so much political discourse on the right. As this review has already gone long, I’ll mention only two key movements of this argument. In the first, Brown unpacks the relationship between resentment and a nihilistic crisis of values: 

It is significant that Trump himself identifies revenge as his sole philosophy of life: revenge and nothing else, revenge without end, because there is nothing else. Beyond efforts to destroy anyone who questions or opposes him, revenge saturates his so-called agenda and is also what satisfies the basest part of his base. It animates the drive to overturn every Obama-era achievement, of course, from climate accords to the Iran deal, but also to destroy what those policies aimed at protecting or preserving: the earth and its many species, the rights and protections of the vulnerable (LGBT, women, minorities), and the health of Americans secured through Obamacare. 

It is also significant that many Trump supporters, when interviewed about his lies, affairs, and flouting of truth or law, say ‘I don’t care. I’m tired of the disrespect his opponents have for him and for me.’ What kind of defense of your man is this? … In confessing that Trump embodies a retort to their pain, it explains why it does not matter what policies he pursues, only that he opposes those they hold responsible for their suffering. 

In describing the unique character of contemporary nihilism, Brown argues that the crisis of values that motivated so many philosophers and theorists in nineteenth-century Europe pales in comparison to the nihilism that haunts us today: 

Today … nihilism intensifies in a world that reflects humanity as having brought the species to the bring of destruction. ‘Man’ has not merely lost values or stable meaning, but is indicted by myriad powers generated, but not controlled by humans, powers that diminish, mock, reproach, and endanger us, not only devalue us. We appear not only without nobility and greatness, but without even the ability to provide for ourselves or clean up after ourselves. A species of giant toddlers, appetitive for power, pleasure, and play, we have yet to become responsible for our own creations, our history. 

There are no solutions suggested in this book, only an invitation to think and respond creatively and aggressively to the novel constellation of ideas that we oppose. 

As a final note, Brown does not do any of the hard work that would be required to extend this analysis beyond the borders of the United States. Despite her early assertion that her engagement with neoliberal theory is applicable to authoritarian movements around the world, she doesn’t spare a word for how it applies, say, to Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, or to Modi’s BJP. 

The closest she comes is a half-hearted attempts to generalize her arguments to ordoliberal theory in Germany, which, she argues, is analogous to neoliberal theory insofar as it mandates a political administration of technocratic experts who are not directly accountable to the public. Having lived in both in Germany and the United States, I found those arguments half-baked. I have little patience for her characterization of ordoliberalism as “a type of neoliberalism,” and the degree to which the actual operation of the government and the formation of policy must be directly representative is a question that she has not taken up on in this work. Certainly when it comes to democratic representation, the electoral system in Germany is far more representative than that of the United States. 

That said, as I have repeatedly urged, this short book contains many powerful ideas and is written with great clarity and force. I highly recommend it. 

* Brown has publicly invited the use of “she” or “they”. 

Written by Mesocosm

October 30, 2020 at 6:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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