Rights Without Bounds: An Interview with Wendy Brown

Rights Without Bounds: An Interview with Wendy Brown

The contemporary right has inherited two seemingly contradictory impulses from the neoliberal era: anti-democratic politics and a libertarian personal ethic.

Anti-vaxxers rally at the Lincoln Memorial January 23, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Published in 2015, Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos was a major theoretical contribution to the study of neoliberalism. Since then, the neoliberal order has been rocked by a series of crises: among them the rise of right-wing, authoritarian regimes across the world; rapidly intensifying ecological devastation; and the COVID-19 pandemic that is now entering its third year. These events have also opened the door to new social movements, both on the left and the right, challenging the political and economic foundations of the previous fifty years. In her latest work, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, Brown reflects on these developments and considers the possibility of a democratic and emancipatory politics for the present.

Rafael Khachaturian: Much of your recent work has focused on analyzing neoliberalism as a specific form of normative reason and governance—an outgrowth of capitalist modernity that can’t be reduced to it. What do you think has changed about the neoliberal order since you published Undoing the Demos? Have the social, ecological, and political crises we are currently living through made it clearer which elements of social life have been fully integrated into the logic of neoliberalism, and which haven’t?

Wendy Brown: We know neoliberalism has to do with dismantling the social state, deregulation, privatization, regressive taxation, and suspicion of public goods in favor of entrepreneurial, privatized, and for-profit endeavors. However, there are two other things that I want to bring into the frame.

Foucault, among others, taught us to think about neoliberalism as more than a set of policies, and rather as a form of governmental reason. By that he meant a form of reason that shapes our conduct across every dimension of life, from schooling to healthcare, to thinking about leisure or retirement, to survival itself. For example, do we understand education as a good oriented toward making a democracy or as an investment that an individual makes in order to enhance their human capital? By grasping neoliberalism as a form of governing reason, we can understand how it orients individuals as self-investing subjects.

But neoliberalism also remakes state and society. One of its crucial features as a form of reason is its understanding of the state as facilitating or supporting the economy. Neoliberalism is often understood as anti-statist, but in fact it opposes the regulatory state. The state gets employed all the time to prop up or create markets in particular fields. That is perfectly legitimate in a neoliberal order of things. But it’s a de-democratized state, rather than a representative state, a state where political equality among citizens is organized into institutions and practices through which we govern ourselves. The state is a manager of economic life and what we often today call biopolitical life.

Neoliberalism, as Margaret Thatcher famously declared (paraphrasing Hayek), seeks to disintegrate the notion of society or the social. Thatcher’s famous line is, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” In other words, we are reduced to individual units not bound or connected socially, either in terms of being responsible to associates or of reckoning with the powers of society (whether it’s the powers of capital or of race, gender, and sexuality). There are only individuals, and our freedom rests on being able to do what we want as individuals.

There are two important things to say here about more recent changes. One is the rise of extreme right formations and regimes, associated with figures like Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán, and Jair Bolsonaro. We also see them in political mobilizations and parties across both the Global North and the Global South, even where they haven’t risen to the status of ruling regimes. These populist, nationalist formations are often understood as a reaction to neoliberalism, because they oppose globalization and free trade and stand for ethno-nationalism. They present themselves as opposing the imagined ideal of neoliberalism: the absolute free flow of goods, labor, and capital around the world.

I want to contest that. William Callison and Quinn Slobodian have correctly argued that it’s a terrible mistake to see these right-wing regimes as openly anti-neoliberal, as opposed to a form of what they call “mutant neoliberalism.” In In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, I argue that we need to understand the anti-democratic force of these right-wing regimes. As political mobilizations, they are very much born from neoliberal rationality. What distinguishes them from classical fascism is that they are authoritarian politically and libertarian civically and personally.

I call this a form of authoritarian liberalism, which is for many people a contradiction in terms. Yet I think we need to see them as a form of anti-democratic liberalism that prizes individual liberties and rights almost without bounds, whether it’s the right to spurn health mandates, the right to buy whatever kind of object you want regardless of how it pillages the earth, or the right to say whatever you want regardless of how violent and how damaging it may be. We have that libertarian heritage from neoliberalism. These right-wing regimes have an absolute belief in capitalism and a ferocious anti-socialism, and they subscribe to an authoritarian statism inherited from the neoliberal attack on popular sovereignty and the representative-democratic state.

Obviously, the pandemic challenged the premises of what “the state” and “the economy” should be in a neoliberal order. States everywhere were called upon from right to left to respond to the pandemic, to provide healthcare testing, vaccines, and so forth. Even anti-vaxxers aren’t radically antagonistic to state provisioning. The pandemic wrought a mix of ham-handed challenges to neoliberalism. But I don’t think it by any means finished neoliberalism off.

On the other hand, we have the rise of left social movements very explicitly opposing neoliberal privatization and depoliticization. For example, in the most recent election in Chile, Gabriel Boric ran on a program of anti-neoliberalism, and a 2020 referendum established the need for a new constitution dedicated to clearing out the Pinochet-era legacy of neoliberalism.

Khachaturian: In In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, you characterize neoliberalism as facilitating the creation of both anti-democratic state power from above and an anti-democratic political culture from below. How do these two processes reinforce each other, and what contradictions exist between them? It seems like these new right-wing movements are fine with deploying state power to repressive ends, so long as its power is directed not toward people like themselves, the members of the allegedly authentic political and social community, but toward the internal other.

Brown: I would argue that it’s a mistake to see neoliberalism as responsible for everything that we associate with the right. A totalizing analysis that suggests neoliberalism is at the heart of all social problems is not going to help us think through our current predicaments, from climate change to U.S. foreign policy, the rise of China, the continued U.S. support for the occupation of Palestine, and so on.

But it’s also a mistake to not understand the neoliberal structure or framing of a number of right-wing positions today, or to bracket it out completely from our understandings of, for example, how in the United States it is fine to round up immigrants, to use police brutality against those who are not white, to use the force of the state in all kinds of ways to clean up cities and neighborhoods, and to regulate the bodies of women. The question is how this anti-democratic feature of neoliberalism, both at the level of the state and the citizen, conditions the structure and the energy of the right.

I find it quite significant that today when journalists discuss citizenship and voting, more often than not they use the language of the electorate rather than that of citizenship. It is a language of a constituency that has to be organized, managed, targeted, massaged, created, and oriented, rather than educated. I think that the diseducation of democracy at this crucial time is essential to understanding how the disintegration of society happens. Once education is no longer about creating an educated democracy but instead about an individual investment in an income and a future, you start to lose the capacity to educate citizens for citizenship. Instead, you produce the capacity of power—economic power, political power, technological power, financial power—to manipulate, manage, and organize those who are seen as not having the capacity to be citizens. We act as if the vote—enfranchisement and legality—is what constitutes citizenship. What makes citizenship meaningful in a democratic order is being thoughtful, deliberative, and educated enough to be able to decide with others who we ought to be together and what we ought to do.

I should add that today we talk about neoliberalism and financialization without disarticulating them. It has become clearer and clearer that even if neoliberalism were to be roundly rejected by whole nations or parts of the world, not only as economic policy but as a governing form of reason, we would still be dealing with the beasts it has unleashed, including the deregulation of money and banks. Financialization is every bit as much a ruling order as a neoliberal form of reason—one that wasn’t anticipated by Hayek or any of the neoliberal architects from the Mont Pelerin Society. It is something distinct to our time. There’s no better discussion of this than The Asset Economy by Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper, and Martijn Konings. It is the best primer on how financial capital is now structuring politics, inequality, and futurity for the entire world.

Khachaturian: How successful has the right been in carving out an autonomous space from the prevailing neoliberal logic? Is it still grounded in the same social rationality of neoliberalism, albeit in a different register?

Brown: When we talk about the right and the left today, it’s incredibly important for us to see that both are in total disarray. It may seem like the right has a coherent project because it’s doing awfully well. We on the left ask: with a shrinking demographic base and those idiots at its fringes, how has it been so successful at the levers of power—economic power, social power, political power? It can’t just be the evangelical church, because that doesn’t help us explain other cases like the Muslim right or Hindu right—in other words, the rise of the right beyond the United States. And it can’t just be neoliberalism, because neoliberalism has cracked in so many ways: the financial crisis, the pandemic, and continued recessions have highlighted the obvious need for the state.

It’s important to see that not only is the right not coherent, but there is an incredible oscillation between investment in global channels of power, especially financial power, and ardent nationalism. Trump tried to build a nationalism from finance capital, as a real-estate developer who parlayed debt and bankruptcy into his wealth. So where is the right in relationship to globalization and financialization? It’s trying to make headway on the project of reasserted national interests and playing hardball for those interests. At the same time, the best minds on the right are trying to remain savvy about the ways that finance and other international and transnational forces work. They have no illusions about being able to put the globalization genie back in the bottle. The racism, the hardcore ethno-nationalism, is a way of mobilizing a base, but the plutocrats on the right are making moves between a nationalistic rekindling of power politics on the world stage and a reckoning with Davos as the future.

Khachaturian: In your 2010 essay “We Are All Democrats Now,” you noted that one of the effects of neoliberalism has been the co-optation and dilution of the language of democracy; it is now a signifier that can be claimed for any number of incompatible political projects. How have the conditions of the pandemic and climate emergency affected your thoughts about this subject? Is “democracy”—or, for that matter, related terms like popular sovereignty, socialism, or communism—recoverable for an emancipatory political project, or are we at the point where the legacy of these terms has been exhausted and we need a new political vocabulary?

Brown: If we give up on democracy, we give up on the aspiration of democracy—on the aspiration of ruling ourselves. Democracy always stands for the possibility of the people ruling themselves (even if its various forms kneecap that possibility), rather than being ruled by another, whether through colonialism, tyranny, despotism, or domination. It is also not the same as being ruled by what the neoliberals dreamed of: the forces of the market and traditional morality—those “spontaneous orders” that have their own hierarchies and forms of domination, but which, in Hayek’s view, left us free because we aren’t forced to subscribe to them by the state.

I am thus reticent to give up either the language or the struggle for democracy, but I’m not so much a fetishist that I think it has to be the operative word. In many parts of the world, democracy equates to the hypocrisy of Global North imperialism, racism, exploitation, and various kinds of plunder. I understand why it’s greeted with a shrug by younger people. And my attachment is not to what we’ve conventionally called constitutional or liberal democracy—I’ve had my critiques of that for a very long time. But I do think the aspiration of the people ruling themselves is worth hanging on to and continuing to fight for.

There are a lot of hard questions: What level? What venue? How can democracy operate in a globalized world? The European Union’s experiment shows just how meaningless it was to call that transnational forum democratic—it’s not. Even at the nation-state scale, the limitations are huge.

Democracy works best in small face-to-face orders. We know this when we sit in a room, whether it’s a classroom, workspace, or a collective cooperative, and decide together how we will make decisions and how we will live by them together. That was Rousseau’s conception. Can that order of things be in some modest way scaled up or connected to other democratic forms? Can we have lots of democratic pods in connection with one another that leave us some honest control over the conditions, the terms and principles, and the rules we give ourselves—and at the same time reckon with a truly globalized world?

This is terribly important for dealing with the climate crisis. Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s Climate Leviathan tries to lay out the various predicaments for thinking about democracy in the context of climate change. Their odds for a democratic response are pretty low. But some of the most interesting and promising climate crisis responses are happening at local levels. Yes, we need transnational standards and serious agreements to stop carbon emissions, to leave fossil fuels in the ground, and to figure out renewable sources of energy we can turn to that do not renew the plunder of the Global South. But we also need sustainable ways of life that people can happily and enthusiastically participate in, without reactionary hatreds. The new models for this sort of thing are the smallest places, such as Costa Rica, or parts of Montana or California, or parts of the Caribbean, that are wrestling with how to protect their ecosystems. I don’t want us to say that democracy is incompatible with transnational enforceable standards for emissions. But most of the work we need to do on the climate crisis is beyond that.

Khachaturian: You’ve remained deeply concerned with feminist theory and politics over practically the entirety of your work. How do you see your relationship to feminist theory now? What is the future of feminist politics and activism, particularly given the ability of states and corporations to coopt feminist language and identity markers toward neoliberal ends, and the diverse and heterogeneous character of feminist struggles?

Brown: Both of these predicaments for feminism—the diversity and maybe even antagonism among different feminist endeavors, and the susceptibility to cooptation—are not new. The dangers of cooptation and the difficulty of generating a “unified” feminist movement were already discussed endlessly by early second-wave feminists. Everything from the right to education for girls and freedom from sexual violence to the renewal in this country of the fight for the right to control our reproductive existence—all of those have the capacity to have life in their local existences without being built into a unified feminist movement. There will be antagonisms, as there are today between certain feminist endeavors and certain queer and trans efforts to rethink or rename what some of those feminist efforts ought to be doing or should be emphasizing. That’s part of left politics.

I hope that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single time we come up against each other in these kinds of struggles, but I’ve also come to accept that we probably do. I have a better understanding now than I did when I was twenty of why the old left was so irritated with the new left. We thought we were making an emancipatory, egalitarian, democratic socialist, feminist, ecological form of politics. They thought they had done that, and we thought they were a bunch of old Leninists, Stalinists, and white patriarchists. That was wrong; there was more going on there, and we were reinventing wheels. But that is part of what social movements do.

I think that what’s happening right now with gender and sexuality in social movements is thrilling. The feminist movements of today mostly belong to a younger generation, from #MeToo to struggles in Afghanistan and Turkey and really all over the world. We have the biggest feminist mobilization probably in the history of the world in Latin American states with Ni Una Menos and all of its spawn, which are, of course, fighting with themselves and going through internecine struggles. Those fights may demolish this wave of it, but it is still something that, partly through social media, has generated similar actions and mobilizations around the globe and has managed to bring causes such as reproductive rights, freedom from sexual violence, and LGBTQ rights together with an anti-neoliberal and socialist agenda. It is probably not going to succeed tomorrow, but it is a feminist mobilization on the left that is not to be trifled with.

Khachaturian: Your point about generational differences is also relevant to the revival of the American left over the last decade, which has occurred in the wake of an earlier loss of institutional, political, and organizational knowledge. From the decline of the new left in the late 1970s up through the first decade of the 2000s, we lost a lot of theoretical and practical knowledge. As movements and organizations came apart, that loss of institutional memory also created a generational gap.

Brown: There are pros and cons to that loss. The con is that when you are twenty to thirty, you are not usually as smart as you need to be about the ways of the world and the ways of social movements. I saw this around Occupy Wall Street. People just couldn’t believe it evaporated after it was seen as a revolutionary force that was going to transform the world. Those who’d been around the block were less surprised, because they had seen how non-institutionalized, spontaneous movements work, and had ways of accounting for that evaporation that were not just about cooptation, the bad winter, or burnout from too many council meetings. On the other hand, there’s so much energy, creativity, and inventiveness in the generations that are creating social movements, from the Movement for Black Lives to Indigenous and feminist movements to Extinction Rebellion, and of course the Democratic Socialists of America. There’s an explosion of left political energy and determination. Some of that comes from the fact that many people in in their twenties and thirties do not see a future for themselves economically or ecologically. For them the only thing to do is fight for a different world. The only way to break up that despair is through political activity.

Yet, as you say, there was a period in the 1980s and the 1990s that is lost, which makes it seem like the era of digitalization has been here forever, as though it’s the ground we walk on and the air we breathe. We know it’s not going away, but this way of being human together is so novel, and it blinds us to other ways humans could live and work and care. Having lost those earlier decades has done something perverse to contemporary political thinking.

Khachaturian: Higher education has been one of the institutions most affected by the neoliberalization of social life. Looking back, how much of your perspective in Undoing the Demos was informed by your background in higher education? Do you think the current mobilization of graduate students and non-tenured faculty to be recognized as academic workers is potentially turning the university into a site of social struggle against neoliberal rationality?

Brown: My thinking about neoliberalism has been very much affected by watching the near total neoliberalization of a great public university, namely UC Berkeley and the University of California system as a whole. The UC higher education system was an amazing thing. It came to us through the so-called Master Plan of the early 1960s, which was going to offer an absolutely free education to every high school student in the state who wanted one. It was going to do it through a three-tiered plan of community colleges, state colleges, and the University of California. You could move fluidly between them. And it was going to be fully public infrastructure, paid for by the taxpayers of California.

It worked brilliantly, until neoliberalism began to take it apart. It led to the precaritization of the labor force—both faculty, lecturers, and graduate students, on the one hand, and all the other workers in the university who lost secure positions with full benefits, as those jobs were outsourced and made part time. Public divestment replaced investment, students’ tuition went up and up, and that changed students’ orientation to education. They became consumers, and then investors. What they expected and imagined education was for also transformed—from becoming a more well-rounded person to making more money (and being willing to go into debt for that). Subjects like business, economics, engineering, and other STEM fields became more desirable, while the humanities, the arts, and the rest were trivialized. We all know the story, but I lived through those years: I taught at UC Santa Cruz in the 1990s, at Berkeley in the 2000s and 2010s. There was a general indifference on the part of most faculty to this phenomenon, even though those of us in the proto-union faculty association were constantly trying to wake people up to it. People became more and more concerned with their own status, rankings, and remuneration. My perspective was affected by witnessing how neoliberal language governed us, and how divestment devolved responsibility for surviving down to departments.

I will also add a personal part, which is that I come from a lower-middle-class background in central California. My parents were divorced and had no ability to negotiate between themselves. Had education not been free when I went to college, I wouldn’t have been able to go, to have access to the university and to the vocation that I am so lucky to have now. I’ve been so conscious throughout my teaching at the University of California about the difference between the essentially free education that I had access to in the 1970s and the extremely expensive, crowded, and degraded one now.

Nevertheless, the university is a site of social struggle. It’s really important that we’re fighting for wages and conditions for those who are at the bottom of the hierarchy, and to protect what remains of public universities, even as most of them are pretty thoroughly privatized. But I also think it’s really important to think about what the university could be in terms of educating for democracy—and that does not always mean just teaching what you want, or what you’re interested in, or what’s at the cutting edge. It is time for those on the left to join with those in the center to think about the place of universities in the job of educating for the future—and not just through specialization and in STEM fields, nor just through protecting fields under duress like special languages and poetry. All of that is important, but we have to consider what we really think undergraduates need to know, and how we might take a place at the table in sculpting curricular and majors’ thresholds for that project, rather than just being defensive about our academic freedom, our free speech, and our right to teach the classes that we want to teach. We have to see the degradation of higher education itself as our problem.

Khachaturian: Given the challenges facing us—as citizens, societies, and species—what should the mission and purpose of critical theory be? How might it inform current social struggles, and how can those same struggles remain open to learning from its insights?

Brown: Critical theory, as I understand it, is any theoretical work that does not take existing relations of power—social, economic, political, psychological—as given, but rather understands them as contingent, historical, and malleable. It takes as its task diagnosing the dangers and the damages of those powers, and limning the possibilities immanent to these powers that could take us somewhere else.

It is very tempting in critical theory circles, and I include myself here, to speak to one another. We’ve read roughly the same books, and we have the same touchstones and lodestars. It is tempting, as it is in all academic niches, to stay inside that linguistic and disciplinary order, but it’s really important for us to come out of it. We need to do this so that we can better think about what students, those who we would write for and teach, might need to learn or know to have an effect in this world.

It is also important not to stay inside our tiny circles because most of our inherited traditions of political theory, including critical theory, have in them the masculinism, the whiteness, the colonialism, and, above all, the anthropocentrism that have brought us to our current predicaments with racism, with the planetary crisis, with democracy, with gender, which is still always a secondary consideration. We need to have deep encounters with the works and the movements that are pressing against these things to dislodge ourselves from those traditions.

Critical theory is an orbit of the academy that resists the positivism that largely governs the academy, but I want it to be an orbit that does not police its borders, that stays porous and moves out from its center all the time and learns from other kinds of conversations.

Wendy Brown is currently the UPS Foundation Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, and Professor Emeritus at the University of California Berkeley. Her most recent book is In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Anti-Democratic Politics in the West.  

Rafael Khachaturian is a Faculty Lecturer in the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania, and Associate Faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.

Originally recorded for the podcast of the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania.