Sunday, May 24, 2009

We Are All Neoliberals

This is something of a follow up to a previous post. It is actually awkwardly framed between reflections on “the current crisis” and some attempt to compile some notes on the work of Maurizio Lazzarato. In many ways the political terrain has changed; it is no longer true that there are no popular protests to the current capitalist crisis and the government response to it. There are the infamous Tea Parties, but these are not protests against capital, against profits, exploitation, and corporate power, but against government, against taxes, and “socialism.” Of course their status as actual political protests can be disputed, they have more of the status of simulated protests, advertised and televised. It is a perfect example of that all too clever neologism “astro-turf,” an artificial or simulated grassroots organization.

I do not want to discuss these protests here, but merely entertain a hypothesis. The current economic crisis is not only a crisis of neoliberalism but in neoliberalism as well. The first part of the statement should be fairly clear. As I stated earlier, it is a crisis of the idea of the market as a self-regulating system, capable of not only governing over itself but of all other areas of social life. This first aspect, this crisis of neoliberalism, is seriously complicated by it being a crisis in neoliberalism. By “in” neoliberalism I mean that this crisis takes place within a terrain in which the dominant common sense is shaped by neoliberalism.

In order to clarify what this means I take as a starting point a remark by Maurizio Lazzarato in Les gouvernement des inégalités: critique de l’insécurité néolibérale. Lazzarato argues, following Foucault, that neoliberalism has as a fundamental project a polarization of power and wealth that simultaneously seeks to neutralize the antagonisms that such a polarization risks producing. As Lazzarato points out, it does this through a disintegration of the social: health insurance is replaced by individual savings accounts and social security by individual investment accounts. Against everything that would produce a common problem and a common solution, neoliberal “social” programs reduce to individual solutions, solutions that demand different, which is to say unequal, results. On this point Lazzarato is repeating a refrain that can be found in Brown and Foucault.

Although it is worth pointing out that Lazzarato critiques the latter (and is most likely unaware of the former) for failing to adequately consider the role of “financialization” in the formation of neoliberalism. Lazzarato thinks that financialization should be considered not just as an economic strategy, as a mode of generating wealth, but as a political strategy as well, a transformation of subjectivity. Most importantly it is a manner of shifting the understanding of risk. He argues that Fordist policies of social security (in France) were legitimated by the asymmetry of power between employer and employee implied in every labor contract. It was compensation for subordination in the labor process. There was an understanding of an asymmetry of risk. Financialization transforms this social risk to an individual risk. It is no longer the risk of a class, but of the individual conceived no longer as a member of a class, defined by wages or profits, but the general figure of investment. Lazzarato then turns to Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of money, specifically the way in which the asymmetry of the two flows of money, payment and credit, are effaced by the same object, by money.

(Lazzarato’s turn to the discussion of money in Anti-Oedipus is interesting for two reasons, reasons that are somewhat peripheral to my discussion here. First, it represents a more nuanced engagement with Marx than Lazzarato suggested in Les Révolutions du capitalisme. Not that Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of finance capital is doctrinaire, but that is precisely the point; in Révolutions Lazzarato reduced Marx to a caricature of doctrine. Second, it turns attention to an important and overlooked dimension of Deleuze and Guattari, the theory of finance, which is important for a critique of neoliberalism.)

At the core of Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of money is that idea that money reduces the qualitative difference between wages and surplus value, or profit, represented by the equations C-M-C and M-C-M, to a simple quantitative difference. The only thing that separates the wage earner and the capitalist is a certain quantity of money, with a few dollars more my savings could become an investment. Financialization continues this trend by transforming the minimal elements of social welfare, pensions, health care, and social security, all which are the products of social struggles, into individual investments.

All of this culminates in “human capital” the term of the complete effacement of the difference between wage and surplus value, worker and capitalist. In another essay, Lazzarato cites a remark from Deleuze and Guattari in which capital is defined as a “point of subjectivation that constitutes all human beings as subjects; but some, the ‘capitalists’, are subjects of enunciation […], while others, the ‘proletarians’, are subjects of the statement, subjected to the technical machines.” Capitalist and worker are differentiated according the one who speaks and the one who is spoken. (I must admit that I have never really been interested in this distinction, I much more interested in the second point) human capital combines these two aspects, making everyone capitalist and worker.

“The transformation of a salaried employee into “human capital”, into an entrepreneur of her/himself, a transformation facilitated by contemporary management techniques, represents the fulfilment of the process of subjectivation and exploitation, since in this case it is the same individual who splits in two. On the one hand, the individual brings the subjectivation process to its pinnacle, because in all these activities s/he involves the “immaterial” and “cognitive” resources of her/his “self”, while on the other, s/he inclines towards identification, subjectivation and exploitation, given that s/he is both her/his own master and slave, a capitalist and a proletarian, the subject of enunciation and the subject of the statement.”

What does all of this have to do with protest or lack of protest in the current crisis? Up to this point much of the protest against the crisis of capital has been entirely within neoliberalism, framed entirely in terms of individual cost and responsibility. The bailouts have been criticized in terms that are entirely consistent with neoliberalism, as an improper response to a risk assumed, or an improper use of task money, understood as “our” money. As much as there have been positive effects to this criticism, as the excessive bonuses of Wall Street have come to light, bonuses that show themselves to be entirely disconnected from any moral justification of productivity (that old capitalist standby), this criticism has remained within the terrain of neoliberalism. Popular outrage has been able to swing easily from the cost of banker’s office renovations to autoworker’s health care, both of which are seen as an excessive public cost or a failure to assume individual risk. What is missing is not only some understanding of class, the difference between a banker and an autoworker, but the very idea of the social or collective goods. Everything becomes a profit, some gain on an individual risk.


Nate said...

hey UN,

"neoliberalism has as a fundamental project a polarization of power and wealth that simultaneously seeks to neutralize the antagonisms that such a polarization risks producing." I think that's well put, but I'd argue that some version of this is present in all government policies and large companies' and company associations' policies throughout capitalism from at least the first decade of the 20th century onward. I do think there's an important difference in neoliberalism which you/Lazzarato get at here, but it seems to me the difference is in how neoliberalism responds to that project; the difference is not in the having of that project.

With regard to human capital and the conflation of employer and employee, is this a claim about neoliberal ideology or a claim about what happens in the economy? Either way, this reminds me of what little I know about 19th century US labor ideology - the idea of free labor qua economic independence as either artisan or farmer. Likewise the stuff on individualization of risk reminds me of what I know about late 19th and early 20th century US labor/employment law - for much of the 19th century the prevailing idea at law was that work was basically safe, and if an accident or injury occurred it was no one's fault or was the fault of the individual involved. This began to change in the late 19th century, first an intensification of the idea of individual fault, then a debate of sorts over employers' liability, culminating in an embrace of no fault insurance plus collective/class collaborationist responsibility (mediated by the state) for injury with workmen's compensation insurance. That's at the level of legal doctrine and institutions, of course, not individual consciousnesses.

I like your point about lack of class analysis toward the end.

Re: D&G and money/finance, where is that, in A-O or 1000P? I've not read either, I've tried but find them really offputting. This post makes me consider trying again.


unemployed negativity said...


Thanks for your comments. I appreciate you taking me to task for my (borrowed) tendency to think in terms of huge epochal shifts. The funny thing is that when I sat down to write about Lazzarato's book I first started to write about the question as to whether a new age, a new epoch, necessarily demands entirely new concepts. This is the line that Lazzarato generally follows, from his writing on immaterial labor to his book on the Revolutions of capitalism. I should finish that post.

Deleuze and Guattari's remarks on finance capital are more or less buried in the capitalism section of Chapter three of Anti-Oedipus (reappearing slightly in the Apparatus of Capture section of Mille Plateau). They are following Suzanne deBrunhoff's work on a Marxist theory of money.

Nate said...

hey UN,

Thanks for the D&G info.

On this - "whether a new age, a new epoch, necessarily demands entirely new concepts" - my response feels unsatisfyingly formalist, but here's my take:

Insofar as a new epoch can be identified, that identification presumably requires concepts. If a new epoch has indeed come into existence and been correctly identified then its correct identification implies the relative adequacy of the concepts used to identify the new epoch. So, either our concepts are more or less adequate or we can't identify the new epoch using our concepts anyway. Overly schematic and too sharply drawn an opposition, but that's my opinion in a nutshell - no entirely new concepts are ever needed, only relatively new ones on occasion. :)

take care,