Booked #3: What Exactly Is Neoliberalism?

“Thanks to globalization . . . the world is governed by market forces" —Alan Greenspan (Aspen Inst.)

Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by Dissent contributing editor Timothy Shenk. For this interview, he spoke with Wendy Brown about her new book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, 2015).

Climate change, a crippled welfare state, the 2008 financial crisis, skyrocketing income inequality, political disappointments reaching back decades, terrible superhero movies grossing billions of dollars, and Tinder—these are just a few of the sins attributed to neoliberalism. But what exactly is neoliberalism? An economic doctrine? The revenge of capitalism’s ruling class? Or something even more insidious?

Wendy Brown takes up these questions, and more, in her latest work, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. A searching inquiry, the book is part historical study, part philosophical treatise, and part engaged polemic. Scholarship on neoliberalism is booming, but Undoing the Demos highlights a subject too often neglected: the political consequences of viewing the world as an enormous marketplace. Her conclusions are grim, but that makes grappling with them all the more urgent.

Timothy Shenk: You note early in Undoing the Demos that while references to “neoliberalism” have become routine, especially on the left, the word itself “is a loose and shifting signifier.” What is your definition of neoliberalism?

Wendy Brown: In this book, I treat neoliberalism as a governing rationality through which everything is “economized” and in a very specific way: human beings become market actors and nothing but, every field of activity is seen as a market, and every entity (whether public or private, whether person, business, or state) is governed as a firm. Importantly, this is not simply a matter of extending commodification and monetization everywhere—that’s the old Marxist depiction of capital’s transformation of everyday life. Neoliberalism construes even non-wealth generating spheres—such as learning, dating, or exercising—in market terms, submits them to market metrics, and governs them with market techniques and practices. Above all, it casts people as human capital who must constantly tend to their own present and future value.

Moreover, because neoliberalism came of age with (and abetted) financialization, the form of marketization at stake does not always concern products or commodities, let alone their exchange. Today, market actors—from individuals to firms, universities to states, restaurants to magazines—are more often concerned with their speculatively determined value, their ratings and rankings that shape future value, than with immediate profit. All are tasked with enhancing present and future value through self-investments that in turn attract investors. Financialized market conduct entails increasing or maintaining one’s ratings, whether through blog hits, retweets, Yelp stars, college rankings, or Moody’s bond ratings.

Shenk: Discussions about neoliberalism often treat it as an economic doctrine, which also means that they concentrate on its economic ramifications. You shift the focus to politics, where, you argue, neoliberalism has “inaugurate[d] democracy’s conceptual unmooring and substantive disembowelment.” Why does neoliberalism pose such a threat to democracy?

Brown: The most common criticisms of neoliberalism, regarded solely as economic policy rather than as the broader phenomenon of a governing rationality, are that it generates and legitimates extreme inequalities of wealth and life conditions; that it leads to increasingly precarious and disposable populations; that it produces an unprecedented intimacy between capital (especially finance capital) and states, and thus permits domination of political life by capital; that it generates crass and even unethical commercialization of things rightly protected from markets, for example, babies, human organs, or endangered species or wilderness; that it privatizes public goods and thus eliminates shared and egalitarian access to them; and that it subjects states, societies, and individuals to the volatility and havoc of unregulated financial markets.

Each of these is an important and objectionable effect of neoliberal economic policy. But neoliberalism also does profound damage to democratic practices, cultures, institutions, and imaginaries. Here’s where thinking about neoliberalism as a governing rationality is important: this rationality switches the meaning of democratic values from a political to an economic register. Liberty is disconnected from either political participation or existential freedom, and is reduced to market freedom unimpeded by regulation or any other form of government restriction. Equality as a matter of legal standing and of participation in shared rule is replaced with the idea of an equal right to compete in a world where there are always winners and losers.

The promise of democracy depends upon concrete institutions and practices, but also on an understanding of democracy as the specifically political reach by the people to hold and direct powers that otherwise dominate us. Once the economization of democracy’s terms and elements is enacted in law, culture, and society, popular sovereignty becomes flatly incoherent. In markets, the good is generated by individual activity, not by shared political deliberation and rule. And, where there are only individual capitals and marketplaces, the demos, the people, do not exist.

Shenk: It’s easy to depict neoliberalism as a natural extension of liberalism, but you insist that the relationship is much more complicated than that. You illustrate the broad transformation by examining the intellectual history of homo oeconomicus, a term whose meaning you claim has shifted radically since the time of Adam Smith. How has “economic man” changed in the last century?

Brown: You’re right, the relationship is quite complicated, especially if one accepts Foucault’s notion that neoliberalism is a “reprogramming of liberalism” rather than only a transformation of capitalism. Here are the simplest things we might say about the morphing of homo oeconomicus. Two hundred years ago, this creature pursued its interest through what Adam Smith termed “truck, barter, and exchange.” A generation later, Jeremy Bentham gives us the utility maximizer, calculating everything according to maximizing pleasure, minimizing pain—cost/benefit. Thirty years ago, at the dawn of the neoliberal era, we get human capital that entrepreneurializes itself at every turn. Today, homo oeconomicus has been significantly reshaped as financialized human capital, seeking to enhance its value in every domain of life.

In contrast with classical economic liberalism, then, the contemporary figure of homo oeconomicus is distinctive in at least two ways. First, for neoliberals, humans are only and everywhere homo oeconomicus. This was not so for classical economists, where we were market creatures in the economy, but not in civic, familial, political, religious, or ethical life. Second, neoliberal homo oeconomicus today takes shape as value-enhancing human capital, not as a creature of exchange, production, or even interest. This is markedly different from the subject drawn by Smith, Bentham, Marx, Polanyi, or even Gary Becker.

Shenk: You mentioned Foucault just now, and you devote two chapters to him in the book, where you also call Birth of Biopolitics—the volume that emerged from lectures he gave in the late 1970s on neoliberalism—a “remarkable” work of “extraordinary prescience.” But he also comes in for a hefty amount of criticism. What do you think Foucault got right, and what did he miss?

Brown: What’s amazing about Foucault’s lectures is that he grasped neoliberalism as Europe’s present and future in the 1970s—before Reagan or Thatcher were elected, and before the Washington Consensus. What’s also extraordinary is his appreciation of neoliberalism as a form of political reason and governing that reaches from the state to the soul, and not simply as economic policy. Then there’s simply the fact that Foucault is a fearless, deep, and profoundly original political-historical thinker, who probes archives or a single utterance with equal brilliance and imagination. These features make Foucault’s lectures illuminating despite the fact that he is mostly discussing neoliberal ideas, not neoliberalism as it has unfolded over the past three decades.

But there are some distinctive gaps in Foucault’s account of what neoliberalism is and does resulting from his allergies to Marxism at the point in his life when he’s giving these lectures. For Foucault, as I said, neoliberalism is fundamentally a “reprogramming of liberalism,” not of capitalism, and there is astonishingly little discussion of the latter. He is also largely indifferent to my own central concern, democracy, which was true across his work. So one takes the useful insights and then builds on them. It would be silly to be an “orthodox Foucauldian” on the subject of neoliberalism, or for that matter, on any subject.

Shenk: What about the politics of Foucault’s analysis? There’s been a lot of debate recently about whether he was so attuned to neoliberalism’s rise because his own work was compatible with neoliberalism. What’s your position on this?

Brown: Well, on the one hand, Foucault’s degree of sympathy with what he was studying is not, for me, particularly important. The usefulness of certain historical accounts and theoretical formulations turns on their capacities for illumination, not on the theorist’s political affinities. (No one who mines the history of political theory to think about our present can draw only from theorists whose affinities line up with contemporary progressive values. None would survive the test, and that’s also a poor approach to learning from great minds.) Moreover, he didn’t and couldn’t have anticipated the neoliberal formations we are grappling with today. On the other hand, the idea that Foucault was deeply attracted to neoliberalism for its “emancipatory” dimensions strikes me as incompatible with a careful reading of his lectures where, among other things, he considers neoliberalism as a novel form of governing human beings that requires the individual, as human capital, to become a “portfolio of enterprises” and that makes us into both “producers and consumers of freedom.” Foucault’s signature theoretical move is to grasp human beings as produced by governing powers, not “freed” by them.

Shenk: Homo oeconomicus is a fairly common term; less common is the notion you oppose it to, homo politicus. What’s the genealogy of homo politicus, and how is it related to its more famous counterpart?

Brown: To understand what neoliberalism is doing to democracy, we have to return to the point that, until recently, human beings in the West have always been figured as more than homo oeconomicus. There have always been other dimensions of us imagined and cultivated in political, cultural, religious, or familial life. One of these figurations, which we might call homo politicus, featured prominently in ancient Athens, Roman republicanism, and even early liberalism. But it has also appeared in modern democratic upheavals ranging from the French Revolution to the civil rights movement. Homo politicus is inconstant in form and content, just as homo oeconomicus is, and certainly liberal democracy features an anemic version compared to, say, Aristotle’s account of humans as realizing our distinctively human capacities through sharing rule in the polis. But it is only with the neoliberal revolution that homo politicus is finally vanquished as a fundamental feature of being human and of democracy. Democracy requires that citizens be modestly oriented toward self-rule, not simply value enhancement, and that we understand our freedom as resting in such self-rule, not simply in market conduct. When this dimension of being human is extinguished, it takes with it the necessary energies, practices, and culture of democracy, as well as its very intelligibility.

Shenk: Some of the major interpreters of neoliberalism, especially those who approach it from a Marxist perspective, depict it as a straightforward byproduct of 1970s economic turmoil and backlash against welfare states led by a revanchist capitalist elite. It seems like you’re not satisfied with that interpretation. This is a big question, but do you have an alternative explanation for how we got here?

Brown: That’s too long and complicated a story to rehearse here but I can say this. For most Marxists, neoliberalism emerges in the 1970s in response to capitalism’s falling rate of profit; the shift of global economic gravity to OPEC, Asia, and other sites outside the West; and the dilution of class power generated by unions, redistributive welfare states, large and lazy corporations, and the expectations generated by educated democracies. From this perspective, neoliberalism is simply capitalism on steroids: a state and IMF-backed consolidation of class power aimed at releasing capital from regulatory and national constraints, and defanging all forms of popular solidarities, especially labor.

The grains of truth in this analysis don’t get at the fundamental transformation of social, cultural, and individual life brought about by neoliberal reason. They don’t get at the ways that public institutions and services have not merely been outsourced but thoroughly recast as private goods for individual investment or consumption. And they don’t get at the wholesale remaking of workplaces, schools, social life, and individuals. For that story, one has to track the dissemination of neoliberal economization through neoliberalism as a governing form of reason, not just a power grab by capital. There are many vehicles of this dissemination—law, culture, and above all, the novel political-administrative form we have come to call governance. It is through governance practices that business models and metrics come to irrigate every crevice of society, circulating from investment banks to schools, from corporations to universities, from public agencies to the individual. It is through the replacement of democratic terms of law, participation, and justice with idioms of benchmarks, objectives, and buy-ins that governance dismantles democratic life while appearing only to instill it with “best practices.”

Shenk: Undoing the Demos covers a sizable amount of ground in just over 200 pages, but, as your discussion of governance just now indicates, you also spend a lot of time with specific instances of neoliberalism in action. My favorite of these more focused studies is your extended analysis of Citizens United. What does that case tell us about neoliberalism more generally?

Brown: Progressives generally disparage Citizens United for having flooded the American electoral process with corporate money on the basis of tortured First Amendment reasoning that treats corporations as persons. However, a careful reading of the majority decision also reveals precisely the thoroughgoing economization of the terms and practices of democracy we have been talking about. In the majority opinion, electoral campaigns are cast as “political marketplaces,” just as ideas are cast as freely circulating in a market where the only potential interference arises from restrictions on producers and consumers of ideas—who may speak and who may listen or judge. Thus, Justice Kennedy’s insistence on the fundamental neoliberal principle that these marketplaces should be unregulated paves the way for overturning a century of campaign finance law aimed at modestly restricting the power of money in politics. Moreover, in the decision, political speech itself is rendered as a kind of capital right, functioning largely to advance the position of its bearer, whether that bearer is human capital, corporate capital, or finance capital. This understanding of political speech replaces the idea of democratic political speech as a vital (if potentially monopolizable and corruptible) medium for public deliberation and persuasion.

Perhaps what is most significant about the Citizens United decision, then, is not that corporations are rendered as persons, but that persons, let alone a people, do not appear as the foundation of democracy, and a distinctly public sphere of debate and discussion do not appear as democracy’s vital venue. Instead, the decision presents speech as a capital right and political life and elections as marketplaces.

Shenk: You’re clear that democracy is an ideal that deserves defending, but you’re skeptical about actually existing democracy, which you describe as a system where “the common rage of the common citizen has been glorified and exploited.” And you worry that matters could get much worse, with democracy as we know it giving way to “a polity in which the people are pawns of every kind of modern power.” Do you see a tension between your tributes to democratic ideals and your grim assessment of its current state?

Brown: Democracy is always incomplete, always short of its promise, but the conditions for cultivating it can be better or worse. My point was that democracy is really reduced to a whisper in the Euro-Atlantic nations today. Even Alan Greenspan says that elections don’t much matter much because, “thanks to globalization . . . the world is governed by market forces,” not elected representatives. Voting has been declining for decades everywhere in the Western world; politicians are generally mistrusted if not reviled (except for Varoufakis, of course!); and everything to do with political life or government is widely considered either captured by capital, corrupt or burdensome—this hostility to the political itself is generated by neoliberal reason. Thus, today, the meaning of democracy is pretty much reduced to personal liberty. Such liberty is not nothing, but could not be further from the idea of rule by and for the people.


Wendy Brown is Class of 1936 First Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books).

Timothy Shenk is a graduate student in history at Columbia University and a Dissent contributing editor. He is the author of Maurice Dobb: Political Economist.

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