Neoliberalism: Dream & Reality

Corey Robin, as usual, writes an insightful post. He explores neoliberalism, the dream and the reality:

“In the neoliberal utopia, all of us are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time keeping track of each and every facet of our economic lives. That, in fact, is the openly declared goal: once we are made more cognizant of our money, where it comes from and where it goes, neoliberals believe we’ll be more responsible in spending and investing it. Of course, rich people have accountants, lawyers, personal assistants, and others to do this for them, so the argument doesn’t apply to them, but that’s another story for another day.

“The dream is that we’d all have our gazillion individual accounts—one for retirement, one for sickness, one for unemployment, one for the kids, and so on, each connected to our employment, so that we understand that everything good in life depends upon our boss (and not the government)—and every day we’d check in to see how they’re doing, what needs attending to, what can be better invested elsewhere. It’s as if, in the neoliberal dream, we’re all retirees in Boca, with nothing better to do than to check in with our broker, except of course that we’re not. Indeed, if Republicans (and some Democrats) had their way, we’d never retire at all.”

The complexity of modern life, especially modern American life, is no accident. It is an intentional component, maybe even a cornerstone to the entire project that we are all living in. It is the dream of capitalists and plutocrats, of libertarians and conservatives, of Republicans and more than a few of Democrats. But I would point out that this neoliberal vision is a liberal scheme (a distorted and depraved liberalism, but liberalism nonetheless) and some self-identified liberals are on board with it or have submitted to it in compromise of dreaming small dreams. Many liberals, however, are increasingly waking up from the dream, some conservatives as well. But radical liberals and left-wingers have been awake for quite a while now.

I maybe first came across a good explanation of this issue in the book Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher (p. 20):

“The persistence of bureaucracy in late capitalism does not in itself indicate that capitalism does not work – rather, what it suggests is that the way in which capitalism does actually work is very different from the picture presented by capitalist realism.”

But it isn’t just neoliberalism for the monster has another head, neoconservatism (Fisher, pp. 60-1):

“In her essay ‘American Nightmare: Neoconservatism, Neoliberalism, and De-democratization’, Brown unpicked the alliance between neoconservatism and neoliberalism which constituted the American version of capitalist realism up until 2008. Brown shows that neoliberalism and neoconservatism operated from premises which are not only inconsistent, but directly contradictory. ‘How’, Brown asks,

“does a rationality that is expressly amoral at the level of both ends and means (neoliberalism) intersect with one that is expressly moral and regulatory (neoconservatism)? How does a project that empties the world of meaning, that cheapens and deracinates life and openly exploits desire, intersect one centered on fixing and enforcing meanings, conserving certain ways of life, and repressing and regulating desire? How does support for governance modeled on the firm and a normative social fabric of self-interest marry or jostle against support for governance modeled on church authority and a normative social fabric of self-sacrifice and long-term filial loyalty, the very fabric shredded by unbridled capitalism?”

“But incoherence at the level of what Brown calls ‘political rationality’ does nothing to prevent symbiosis at the level of political subjectivity, and, although they proceeded from very different guiding assumptions, Brown argues that neoliberalism and neoconservatism worked together to undermine the public sphere and democracy, producing a governed citizen who looks to find solutions in products, not political processes. As Brown claims,

“the choosing subject and the governed subject are far from opposites … Frankfurt school intellectuals and, before them, Plato theorized the open compatibility between individual choice and political domination, and depicted democratic subjects who are available to political tyranny or authoritarianism precisely because they are absorbed in a province of choice and need-satisfaction that they mistake for freedom.”

“Extrapolating a little from Brown’s arguments, we might hypothesize that what held the bizarre synthesis of neoconservatism and neoliberalism together was their shared objects of abomination: the so called Nanny State and its dependents. Despite evincing an anti-statist rhetoric, neoliberalism is in practice not opposed to the state per se – as the bank bail-outs of 2008 demonstrated – but rather to particular uses of state funds; meanwhile, neoconservatism’s strong state was confined to military and police functions, and defined itself against a welfare state held to undermine individual moral responsibility.”

Between neoliberalism and neoconservatism, the dominant worldview becomes an all-consuming vision. It preoccupies our media and our politics, our minds and our time. It defines our possibilites and choices, often giving us a forced choice and denying all else. As long as one thinks within the rules of this game, one can’t win for the entire worldview is a trap and its only purpose is to perpetuate its own social order, its own power and authority, to subsume all of reality into its narrative (Fisher, pp. 16-17):

“Needless to say, what counts as ‘realistic’, what seems possible at any point in the social field, is defined by a series of political determinations. An ideological position can never be really successful until it is naturalized, and it cannot be naturalized while it is still thought of as a value rather than a fact. Accordingly , neoliberalism has sought to eliminate the very category of value in the ethical sense. Over the past thirty years, capitalist realism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business. As any number of radical theorists from Brecht through to Foucault and Badiou have maintained, emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable. It is worth recalling that what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’: the slew of privatizations that took place since the 1980s would have been unthinkable only a decade earlier, and the current political-economic landscape (with unions in abeyance, utilities and railways denationalized) could scarcely have been imagined in 1975. Conversely, what was once eminently possible is now deemed unrealistic. ‘Modernization’, Badiou bitterly observes, ‘is the name for a strict and servile definition of the possible. These ‘reforms’ invariably aim at making impossible what used to be practicable (for the largest number), and making profitable (for the dominant oligarchy) what did not used to be so’.”

Corey Robin, from the same post linked above, offers a common critique from the left which brings the issue down to the human level:

“In real (or at least our preferred) life, we do have other, better things to do. We have books to read, children to raise, friends to meet, loved ones to care for, amusements to enjoy, drinks to drink, walks to take, webs to surf, couches to lie on, games to play, movies to see, protests to make, movements to build, marches to march, and more. Most days, we don’t have time to do any of that. We’re working way too many hours for too little pay, and in the remaining few hours (minutes) we have, after the kids are asleep, the dishes are washed, and the laundry is done, we have to haggle with insurance companies about doctor’s bills, deal with school officials needing forms signed, and more.

“What’s so astounding about Romney’s proposal—and the neoliberal worldview more generally—is that it would just add to this immense, and incredibly shitty, hassle of everyday life. One more account to keep track of, one more bell to answer. Why would anyone want to live like that? I sure as hell don’t know, but I think that’s the goal of the neoliberals: not just so that we’re more responsible with our money, but also so that we’re more consumed by it: so that we don’t have time for anything else. Especially anything, like politics, that would upset the social order as it is.”

This reminds me of two things.

First, I’ve often doubted the claim that the free market just gives people what they want. With PR, as with propaganda, the so-called ‘free’ market more often tells people what they want (and I would add punishes those who would seek something else). Actually, it goes further still. Through commercialized indoctrination of a corporate media that is society-wide infiltrates every nook and cranny of our lives, the capitalist worldview shapes our desires and fears from a very young age. The more fundamental wants and needs that are inherent to human nature continue to exist. No amount of PR can destroy that fundamental level of reality, but it can obscure it and misdirect our attention.

Second, what Robin describes touches upon my recent post about the morality-punishment link. As I pointed out, the world of Star Trek: Next Generation imagines the possibility of a social order that serves humans, instead of the other way around. I concluded that, “Liberals seek to promote freedom, not just freedom to act but freedom from being punished for acting freely. Without punishment, though, the conservative sees the world lose all meaning and society to lose all order.” The neoliberal vision subordinates the individual to the moral order. The purpose of forcing the individual into a permanent state of anxiety and fear is to preoccupy their minds and their time, to redirect all the resources of the individual back into the system itself. The emphasis on the individual isn’t because individualism is important as a central ideal but because the individual is the weak point that must be carefully managed. Also, focusing on the individual deflects our gaze from the structure and its attendant problems.

This brings me to how this relates to corporations in neoliberalism (Fisher, pp. 69-70):

“For this reason, it is a mistake to rush to impose the individual ethical responsibility that the corporate structure deflects. This is the temptation of the ethical which, as Žižek has argued, the capitalist system is using in order to protect itself in the wake of the credit crisis – the blame will be put on supposedly pathological individuals, those ‘abusing the system’, rather than on the system itself. But the evasion is actually a two step procedure – since structure will often be invoked (either implicitly or openly) precisely at the point when there is the possibility of individuals who belong to the corporate structure being punished. At this point, suddenly, the causes of abuse or atrocity are so systemic, so diffuse, that no individual can be held responsible. This was what happened with the Hillsborough football disaster, the Jean Charles De Menezes farce and so many other cases. But this impasse – it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate, systemic – is not only a dissimulation: it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism. What agencies are capable of regulating and controlling impersonal structures? How is it possible to chastise a corporate structure? Yes, corporations can legally be treated as individuals – but the problem is that corporations, whilst certainly entities, are not like individual humans, and any analogy between punishing corporations and punishing individuals will therefore necessarily be poor. And it is not as if corporations are the deep-level agents behind everything; they are themselves constrained by/ expressions of the ultimate cause-that-is-not-a-subject: Capital.”

Corporations are part of the structure of capitalism, but they are merely the outward form of the deeper social order. They express that deeper order. They are the results of it, not the cause.

This directly relates to issues of structural racism, specifically in terms of the New Jim Crow. Our prison-industrial complex isn’t just a system of social control. It is also a system of privatized for-profit companies. The connection of those two isn’t accidental, no more accidental than the disproportionate imprisonment of minorities. It is a system designed to be unequal and to continually reinforce that inequality. It isn’t a byproduct of the system. It is the modus operandi.

Neoliberalism and neoconservatism each form a bar of the Iron Cage. Together, they imprison our minds and bodies, our individualities, our families, our communities. But it is a prison of our own making. It exists because we believe in it. It demands our belief and we acquiesce. But what if we lost our faith in this system, not just partly or temporarily? What if looked beyond the bars and saw that a whole other world existed, a better world full of promise?

Since Nelson Mandela is on everyone’s mind, I’ll end with words by him that contain a moral force that is the antidote we need. There is no quibbling in his naked demand for justice:

“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.

“While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”

3 thoughts on “Neoliberalism: Dream & Reality

  1. I should clarify my own position a bit.

    I wasn’t offering a criticism of this vision of big biz and big gov because I had my own vision of big anything. I’m neither for or against bigness on principle, but I am always wary whenever power and/or wealth is concentrated. Based on this wariness, my critique is more akin to that of anarchism, although I would also find points of agreement with some libertarians.

    I was just now discussing with my father about federalism. I don’t have much interest in some of the states’ rights fantasies of right-wingers because I know some of the dark history behind them. Still, I think there is something to the federalist way of organizing American society where each state literally was treated as nation-state of sorts held in unity through close political alliance and cooperation.

    The core model of analysis by Mark Fisher is capitalist realism. That interpretive lense comes from that of communist realism. The idea is that the criticisms against Stalinist bureaucracy equally applies to capitalist bureaucracy. Beyond the propaganda, one system of power has a lot in common with the next.

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