Thursday, May 16, 2019

Breaking the Curse: On Three Recent Attempts to Theorize Neoliberalism

Moose and Lon Chaney Jr. on the set of The Wolfman
I could justify this by the way I have written about werewolves and capital, but the truth is that I just like it

To begin with something of a dialectic. The strength of neoliberalism as a concept is how expansive it is; it offers not just an account of capitalism, of economic relations, but culture, politics, and even subjectivity. The weakness of neoliberalism as a concept is how expansive it is, making it possible to call everything and anything from Uber to yoga neoliberal. It proposes a night when all cows are black, or, more to the point, when all cows are entrepreneurs of their direct farm to market line of organic milk products, as competition and entrepreneurial relations are everywhere. However, to borrow a line from Marx, this excess and limitation does not go from text books into reality, but from reality to textbooks. The instability and expansiveness of the concept might just have something to do the reality of the thing. 

The expansiveness of neoliberalism does open up a disciplinary border war of sorts between different approaches. Neoliberalism could be understood in terms of its intellectual history, charting the Mount Perelin Society and the Walter Lippmann colloquium; through economic history, detailing it as response to secular stagnation; or in terms of its political effects, as rights are reduced to costs and freedoms to competition. These different disciplinary approaches begin to resemble the proverbial blind men and an elephant; neoliberalism looks different viewed from history, politics, economics or culture. These differences begin to matter now in neoliberalism's strange afterlife as neoliberalism lingers on."There is no alternative" is less a rallying cry than somber statement about where we are now. Different perspectives on neoliberalism begin to take a strategic and not just an epistemological significance: they are searching for an exit or a weakness. 

Three recent, or fairly recent books, offer different points of view on neoliberalism that are also different ways of thinking its end. They are Adam Kotsko's Neoliberalism's Demons, Barbara Stiegler's Il Faut S'Adapter: sur un nouvel impératif politique, and the recently translated Never Ending Nightmare by Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval. 

First, Adam Kotsko's examines neoliberalism from the perspective of political theology. Kotsko spends the first chapter of his book explaining what political theology is, which is useful if, like me, you read some Schmitt back when fascism seemed more of a historical period than a looming question, but do not really know what is meant by political theology. Kotsko argues that political theology is less the theological basis of political concepts, from God to Sovereign, or the theological elevation of political concepts, from the sovereign to God, than the point of indistinction where the theological becomes political and vice versa. Specifically in the case of neoliberalism the specific theological dimension concerns less God and the sovereign than the devil and the subject. We are all responsible for our lot in life, for our failures. What makes this responsibility theological (or demonological) is precisely the point at which it exceeds any rational basis. If God's created can be held responsible for their sins despite all of the paradoxes this entails, then surely individuals can be held accountable for their inability to act correctly in an unpredictable and uncertain world. If the devil cannot blame his creator for his transgressions than you or I cannot blame society for our failures. 

The turn towards the theological, towards the underlying logic of responsibility takes neoliberalism at its most expansive, as not just an economic doctrine, or a political strategy, but an entire world view. As Kotsko writes, 

"Neoliberalism is a social order which means that it is an order of family and sexuality and an order of racial hierarchy and subordination. It is a political order, which means that it is an order of law and punishment and an order of war and international relations. And it is above all a remarkably cohesive moral order, deploying the same logic of constrained agency (demonization), competition (in which there must be both winners and losers), and conformity ("best practices") at every level: from the individual to the household to the racial grouping to the region to the country to the world."

Kotsko states that he is primarily interested in political theology as a logic of demonization but he is also less explicitly interested in it as total phenomena. (Kotsko does not say much about Benjamin, and does not cite Paolo Virno, but there is another tendency of political, or rather economic theology, that insists on just this point: that capital, like religion, is a total phenomena encompassing ever aspect of human life). The strong point of this totality effect is that Kotsko is able to see beyond the divisions that would pit Hilary Clinton, the neoliberal against Donald Trump, the populist. Trump continues the same focus on demonization and competition that defines neoliberal thought only now it is an ideology of decline. Hence, his obsession with labeling all enemies as cheaters and fake. There is a racist supplement to this kind of neoliberalism. White men should be winning and if they are losing it must be because someone is cheating. 

Kotsko's emphasis on the underlying theological logic, the demonology, is not to be confused with a more empirical investigation of the points of intersection between religion and politics. (Something Kotsko knows quite a bit about and has written on elsewhere). There is no need for a nightmare logic by which neoliberal indifference to morality is sutured to conservative moralism, they are already sutured together at a deeper level, at an insistence on a responsibility so unworldly that even those who have cancer are suspected of being responsible for their fate. However, in making neoliberalism so expansive, making it our new religion it is hard to imagine an outside. Kotsko argues that overcoming it will entail a new understanding of collective agency and action, but is unclear on how this will come about. 

If Kotsko blows neoliberalism up, making it an entire religion and dominant cultural sensibility, Barbara Stiegler shrinks it down to a rather minor historical moment. She focuses on the debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey. Why attach so much importance to the debate between Lippmann, better known as a columnist and pundit than philosopher, and Dewey, a pivotal figure of American Pragmatism? Barbara Stiegler argues that part of what makes this debate important is what happened before the two addressed each other, and that is the reaction of philosophy to two revolutions. The conceptual revolution of Darwin and evolution that put humanity and its relation to the world within the field of history and the industrial revolution that fundamentally altered that relation, forever altering what human beings experienced. Darwin’s discoveries of the evolution of the natural world eventually filtered through the philosophy of Graham Wallas, Herbert Spencer, and Henri Bergson to transform understandings of society, humanity, and progress. As Stiegler illustrates, the language of contemporary of neoliberalism, the vocabulary of adaptation, competition, disruption, and evolution, are framed at the intersection of Darwin and political economy. Their sense and their authority is framed between the natural sciences and politics. The competition that is alluded to by adherents of neoliberalism is the unholy offspring of the invisible hand and the survival of the fittest. 

As Stiegler argues part of the debate between Lippmann and Dewey stems from how we understand our evolutionary inheritance. For both Dewey and Lippman the industrial revolution, and the accelerated path of cultural transformation, the process by which “all that is solid melts into air,” poses a stark challenge to our senses and minds that have developed at a much slower pace. It is the industrial revolution that has forever displaced our sense of place, and the division of labor that divides human beings from any cohesive picture of the world. I hesitate to compare Barbara Stiegler to her father Bernard Stiegler, but it is worth noting that there is a fundamental overlap between father and daughter. Both focus on the relationship between philosophical anthropology and contemporary society, examining the extent to which human beings are overwhelmed by an economy geared towards consumption and specialization rather than adaptation and adoption. Both Stieglers are focused on the “default” that defines contemporary human life, as a finite being finds itself overwhelmed and marginalized by a cultural inheritance aimed towards profit. This similarity of theme only underscores their immense difference in terms of method. Barbara Stiegler writes very clearly and patiently drawing out concepts from a careful and close reading of a few central texts. Moreover, she does not indulge in the indulgences of neologisms and eclecticisms that define her father’s work. Barbara Stiegler is a clear writer and a careful reader. 

Returning to the debate between Lippmann and Dewey we can see that Lippmann won. Lippmann saw two possible political responses to society forever accelerating after the industrial revolution. First, since the accelerated pace and fragmented nature of social life makes any agreement on substantial goods impossible, the procedures must themselves become the basis of consensus. This is generally what is meant by neoliberal in the politics today, an emphasis on procedures, on rule of law, rather than the outcome of the procedures. The latter, and more pessimistic procedure, is to leave governing to the experts, including the experts at generating and mobilizing public opinion that enable such a government to function. This perspective is not outside of contemporary neoliberalism, and even encompasses the supposed “populist” alternatives to neoliberalism which are not without their experts on opinion and advertising strategies. Is Trump even possible without television? 

How is Dewey an alternative to this? As Stiegler argues Dewey’s alternative is found not at the explicit political strategies, but at the root of the problem: of the idea of a human animal that is fundamentally out of sync, and lagging behind and increasingly complex world. Dewey propose a different solution to this deficiency at the heart of our culture and society, not a fetishization of rules or a new elite of rulers but a collective practice of inquiry and planning. As Stiegler argues, education is at the center of Dewey’s politics not in the Platonic sense of producing subjects who would not need rulers, but in the sense that education exposes and lays bare the collective conditions of our intellectual existence. Dewey’s emphasis on education, as the passive moment of individual and collective life, the shaping of perspectives ideas, and planning as the active dimension shapes the basis for culture. Education and planning are intended to break the vicious circle that tether what is doable to what is thinkable, making new thoughts and action possible. 

One of the difficulties of theorizing neoliberalism is that the more one looks for it the more one finds it. It is not only everywhere from politics to popular culture, but it recedes back in time without ever ending. How to make sense of the zombie like life of neoliberalism? That is one of the questions of Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval’s Never Ending Nightmare. The book was initially published as Ce Cauchemar Qui n’en finit pas seven years after their monumental study of neoliberalism, La Nouvelle Raison du Monde (Translated 2013). The first question then is what remains to be said about neoliberalism less than a decade later. The title and timing of the book suggests that its central question is a matter of understanding how neoliberalism has survived the 2008 economic crisis. In this way it would be similar to Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste. However, as much as Dardot and Laval are writing and examining neoliberalism in its post 2008 articulation, their concerns are less oriented towards understanding why neoliberalism persists, than its effects as it continues to restructure political life. In fact, the first is a rather simple question for Dardot and Laval. There was no critical reassessment of neoliberalism after the 2008 recession because neoliberalism still functions as mode of exercising class power. Nothing had gone wrong from the perspective of those who ruled because they still ruled. 

Dardot and Laval return to democracy in its ancient Greek reading, Aristotle as understood by Moses Finley, in which democracy has to be understood as opposed to oligarchy. Despite this citation Dardot and Laval are not interested a classist evasion of contemporary politics; the citation of the ancient Greek definition is used to foreground the class basis of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is not a new mode of government, but a hybrid form of power that works to reinforce the power of a small elite of experts in the service of a classes accumulation of wealth. Dardot and Laval’s use of the classic definition of oligarchy and democracy also makes it clear what kind of democracy is at stake here. It is not the liberal democracy in which rights were protected against profits, or homo politicus in the sense of Wendy Brown, but the rule of the many and poor. That is what neoliberalism undermines. Neoliberalism is a class based project of economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement. While much of the critical discussions of neoliberalism are in some sense divided between those who grasp its political function, its mode of governmentality, and those who focus on its economic function, as a regime of accumulation, Dardot and Laval stress that it is a response to a crisis of governmentality as well as accumulation. 

Dardot and Laval outline two basic elements of the neoliberal strategy. The first is the rule of insecurity, the second is the privatization of the law. The “rule of law” in neoliberalism does not refer to public law, to the constitution, but to private law, to private property as the foundation of the law. This not only puts class interests first and foremost, but leads to the creation of a new idea of security and authority. The defense and protection of property becomes the basic norm of an antidemocratic politics. 

In the final pages of the book, Dardot and Laval focus on how neoliberalism changes the relationship between the state and the market. Far from being a libertarian fantasy of laissez-fair, neoliberalism involves a state that takes an active role, but its active role is defined in terms of the ideals of competition. This leads to the most relevant aspect of the book, the discussion of elites. As Dardot and Laval argue, elites are often the point of intersection between market demands and political power, speaking in terms of innovation and competition, while passing between the doors of economic and political power. The rule of these elites is reinforced by the intersection of  a politics of security and private property. As Dardot and Laval argue the emphasis on security and private property creates an ideal of democratic accountability that is less the representatives being held accountable to the represented, but the represented to the representatives. The standards of reasonable and acceptable politics are defined by elites, the electorate then must go along with these decisions. Dardot and Laval demonstrate how the corrosive effects of this oligarchy have undermined the new democratic movements associated with Syrizia and Podemos. 

The focus of Kotsko, Stiegler, and Dardot and Laval's books are so different as to challenge the supposed unity of this thing called neoliberalism, is it an underlying cultural logic? the effect of a forgotten chapter of intellectual history? the political strategy of the elites? The answer would seem to be that it is all three, but that is precisely what makes it seem so daunting, so monolithic. I am reminded of J.K. Gibson-Graham's discussion of the "Christmas effect," the way in which Christmas time is marked by schools, churches, radio stations, and shopping centers playing the same tune and adorned with the same decorations. Neoliberalism and its tenets of competition and responsibility often appear the same way. Maybe the first step to breaking neoliberalism is seeing less the points of harmony than the points of tension, of producing discord in this harmony. 


  1. Very helpful overview of different ways of thinking about neoliberalism. Have you read Quinn Slobodian's "Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism"? If not, I definitely recommend checking it out.

    P.S. Lon Cheney Jr. (born Creighton Tull Chaney) played the Wolf Man. Cheers!