In critical work on neoliberalism, there’s probably two or three main schools of thought. One approaches the subject as a matter of political economy. David Harvey, whose analysis is explicitly Marxian, is the most well-known figure in this approach; another prominent author in that camp is Philip Mirowksi. The other major school is broadly Foucauldian, taking its cue from Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics lectures. A third group, represented by autonomist Marxists like Paolo Virno, Franco Berardi, and of course Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, attempt a synthesis (I won’t have much to say about them here). All sides have methodological critiques of the other; here I just want to note that the Foucauldians generally tend to be concerned with a topic that seems neglected in political economy: granted that neoliberalism expects us all to behave as homo economicus, defined as a risk-calculating, utility-maximizing investor in himself (gendered pronoun deliberate), how does neoliberalism get people to actually do this? After all, it is not a natural human set of behaviors. More specifically, not just how does neoliberalism get people to do this, but how does it get them to do so enthusiastically, treating the definition of the human as homo economicus as the true, correct and only way to be human? In other words, Foucauldians insist that critiques of neoliberalism need an account of subjectification.
Wendy Brown’s new(ish) Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, 2015) makes a substantial contribution to the Foucauldian camp by focusing on “Foucault’s innovation in conceiving neoliberalism as a political rationality” (120). The political rationality is “governance” as “the decentering of the state and other centers of rule and tracks in its place the specifically modern dispersal of socially organizing powers throughout the order and of powers ‘conducting’ and not only constraining or overtly regulating the subject” (125).
Why does this matter? Her overarching thesis is that neoliberalism demands an economization of all aspects of thought (not far, really, from Harvey’s definition of neoliberalism as the “financialization of everything” or the autonomist “complete subsumption”), which is to say that the entire horizon of human experience is to be understood according to the rules of (neoliberal) economics, where all decisions are presented as consumer market choices (Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste does a good job in showing how neoliberalism constitutes itself as an only loosely coherent set of demands and values, only some of which map neoclassical economics). Among other problems, this has the effect of making the agonistic world of politics impossible, since “political” behavior isn’t something homo economicus engages in. Since democracy depends on political behavior, neoliberalism poses a genuine threat to democracy. Indeed, however flawed various versions of democracy have been - and Brown acknowledges that we have certainly never approached the ideal - democracy has been able to function at the very least as a regulatory ideal or a vehicle for critique. Neoliberalism risks all of this:
“The neoliberal economization of the political not only divests the terms of liberal democratic justice of their capacity to contest or to limit the reach of market values and distributions into every quarter of life. Economization inverts this capacity into its opposite as it makes justice terms consecrate and confirm market values and distributions …. The point is simply that as long as it operated in a different lexical and semiotic register from capital, liberal democratic principles and expectations could be mobilized to limit capitalist productions of value and market distributions: they could be a platform for critiques of those values and distributions, and they could gestate more radical democratic aspirations. When this other register is lost, when market values become the only values, when liberal democracy is fully transformed into market democracy, what disappears is this capacity to limit, this platform of critique, and this source of radical democratic inspiration and aspiration” (208).
I take it as a general statement of what’s wrong with neoliberalism, this would be acceptable to nearly any Foucauldian, but it does point to a shortcoming of a lot of Foucauldian analysis: granted that neoliberalism has economized all our social categories (or that we live under the “complete subsumption” of society by capital, as the autonomists would have it), how did this subjectification happen?
Put differently, by what institutional mechanisms and tactics did neoliberalism succeed in changing the truth value of humanity into homo economicus? How does neoliberalism make subjects? Foucault’s lectures were in 1978, which means that they were prescient, but they also were confined to the academic texts of neoliberal theorists like Becker; the usual Foucauldian practice of looking at policies and institutions is conspicuously absent for the understandable reason that those didn’t really intensify until after he died. For Brown, “governance reconceives the political as a field of management of administration” to the point that “a hostility to politics becomes palpable” (127). Indeed, “democracy becomes purely procedural and is detached from the powers that would give it substance and meaning as a form of rule;” and “civic participation is reduced to ‘buy-in’” (128). And how are people convinced of all that? Some of the work is done by union-bashing, and other measures to install precarity in the workplace by putting workers in competition with one another for scarce jobs. Some of it is done by exerting subtle institutional pressures, as has happened in the hard sciences. Some of it is done by promulgating a psychology of happiness and redefining psychic health in terms of happiness that individuals should undertake as a form of self-investment (“self-help” on your bookstore shelf). Some of it, as Brown (also) notes, is by making individuals responsible for themselves, including having to deal on their own with social problems that they did not cause. In this way, the idea of a structural or class problem becomes impossible to articulate.
Brown’s book makes a fundamental contribution by extending our understanding of the range of ways these subjectification processes have operated institutionally. I’ll focus on one here: she notes that modular theories of benchmarking and “best practices” have become a corporate lingua franca, which is currently being exported to all other parts of society (don’t believe me? Be a part of your university’s strategic planning or assessment processes. Or just read whatever demands about outcomes assessment are currently emanating from your administration or accrediting bodies). As she notes, “a key premise of benchmarking is that best practices can be exported from one industry or sector to another and that some of the most valuable reforms will happen by creatively adapting practices in one field to another” (137). Thus:
“The presumed interchangeability of processes and practices across industries and sectors and the consolidation of best practices out of many different sources have several important implications for neoliberal rationality’s dissemination of economic metrics everywhere, its generation of the basic contours and features of human capital, and its subsumption of formerly public institutions into enterprise” (137)
More specifically, as she details over the next couple of pages, practices are separated from products, enabling their move into the public sector (in other words, “best practices” for diversity training can be exported from car manufacturing to universities). Also, given that the aim of everything is to be market competition, the adoption of benchmarking from successful enterprises and adapting their best practices becomes a necessary means of competing. These practices are in terms of market values, and thus spread the contagion of market values into new areas. The endeavor is then sugar-coated with “ethics” and “inclusion.” But those words have been redefined in terms of market values of competition, and “ethics” never questions those values. Those values are political, and politics is not a best practice:
“How do you contest a winning practice that claims (by virtue of being only a practice) value neutrality? How would you do so in the name of a (nonmarket) value or purpose that the practice spurns or does not recognize? It is through carrying market values while claiming only to be techniques that best practices promulgate certain norms and foreclose arguments about norms and ends” (141).
In other words, neoliberalism is political through and through, and its values are as constructed as any other political theory’s. It’s just very good at disguising that fact, as Brown demonstrates with the Bremer Orders forcing Iraqi agriculture to neoliberalize. The result, of course, was the utter destruction of Iraqi agricultural self-sufficiency, and its subsumption into global markets or patented seeds and other things that Iraqi farmers could not afford.
There’s a lot more in the book - the following chapter deals with the economization of law by way of an extended analytis of the Citizens’ United decision, which Brown notes does not just let a lot of money into politics - it converts the entire framing of elections into economic terms. Doing so (of course) both disenfranchises those without a lot of money, and makes this look politically neutral:
“There is no limit to how many people may enjoy speech rights in the abstract, but there are limits to how much speech may be bought and sold in a given venue at a given time. Submission of democratic politics to the market thus subverts equal rights to participation, or, put the other way around, when rights to political participation are marketized, political equality is the first casualty” (167).
She also looks at the decline of class certification in law (as in a case where a large number of people underpaid by Wal Mart were declared by the Supreme Court not to be sufficiently similarly situated to constitute a class, in the sense of a “class action” suit), and its replacement by mandatory arbitration clauses.
One more comment: Brown explains how neoliberalism manages to intensify gender disparities, at the expense of women: “with only competing and value enhancing human capital in the frame, complex and persistent gender equalirty is attirbuted to sexual difference, an effect that neoliberalism takes for a cause. Consequently, an impoverished single mother is framed to fail in the project of becoming a responsibilized neoliberal subject.” That is, “the freedom tendered by neoliberal rationality … is literally inverted into new forms of gender subordination as women remain chief providers of unremunerated and undersupported care work outside the market and are increasingly solo income streams for themselves and their families” (107). Could she have added more discussion of race here? Yes, but the fundamental point would be extended, I think, not altered: black women would find themselves facing the most intense disparities of all, with the possible exception of the transgendered (but neoliberalism doesn’t care about gender identity: witness the broad corporate denunciation of North Carolina’s anti-LGBT law)
At any rate, if you care about neoliberalism and haven’t read this book yet, it should go on your summer list. It’s not a difficult read, but it does a lot of good work both explaining what neoliberalism is, and in showing both how it is managing to take over everything and why that takeover matters.