In this post I have put together some features that various authors have identified as characteristic of what is often called ”neoliberalism”, but sometimes also more generally just ”modernity”. In the last section I add more of my own thinking and draw some conclusions.
The necessity of construction
What makes neo-liberalism different from traditional liberalism is the conviction that ”The conditions for [the good society] must be constructed” (Mirowski, 2013, p. 53). Competition is not seen as natural, no benign ”invisible hand” will emerge of itself. Rather, when left to themselves, humans act irrationally, form oligarcies, succumb to fascism, nazism, communism and start wars. Markets need to be brought into existence to avoid such idiocy and put society on a path of improvement.
A general point I think could be made here is that this conviction of the necessity of construction is based on what can be called an ”ethical pessimism” as regards humans. They are assumed to be in need of external guidance to contribute to the common good, and this external guidence is not aimed at making them ”do good”, but at the construction of a social dynamics that makes good out of the individual’s non-ethical behavior. John Milbank identifies this as typical for modernity, i.e.
the novel project of trying to rule entirely by appeal to people’s worst instincts of fear, pride, possessiveness and rivalry, rather than to their better ones of seeking morally to improve themselves and to seek social recognition precisely for such attainment
The necessity of States
As a consequence of the necessity of construction, neo-liberalism (which is carefully defined by Mirowski, 2013, pp. 53-67) needs states (or some other powerful institutions that can set down and police rules for collective life). Neo-liberalism is thus not ”anti-state”. What makes it special is what it want the state to do.
One false impression that one might get from public discourse is that neo-liberalism want to ”de-regulate”. That is not the case. In The Utopia of Rules (2015, pp. 5-6) David Graeber put it thus:
As the language of antibureaucratic individualism has been adopted, with increasing ferocity, by the Right, which insists on ”market solutions” to every social problem, the mainstream Left has increasingly reduced itself to fighting a kind of pathetic rearguard action, trying to salvage remnants of the old welfare state: it has acquiesced with – often even spearheaded – attempts to make government efforts more ”efficient” through the partial privatization of services and the incorporation of ever more ”market principles”, ”market incentives”, and market-based ”accountability processes” into te structure of the bueaucracy itself. The result is a political catastrophe. There’s really no other way to put it. What is presented as the ”moderate” Left solution to any social problems […] has invariably come to be some nightmare fusion of the worst elements of bureaucracy and the worst elements of capitalism.
Markets are constructed by means of regulation, by means of rules. Markets take form together with bodies of administration, of law, of police, that make the market hold (as Latour would put it). Neo-liberalism can be seen as a celebration of ”game-like” behavior (Graeber, 2015, p. 196), and in comparison to everyday life, games require much more specific rules. Neo-liberalism makes life into a game into which we are ”free” – but only to follow the rules. In the language of anthropology, e.g. of Roy Rappaport (Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, 1999) or Robert Pfaller (The Pleasure Principle in Culture , 2014) this transformation can be called ritualization.
In Undoing the Demos , (2015) Wendy Brown talks about the transformation of the role of the state in terms of a ”tacticalization of law” (p. 66). Law becomes subordinated to the market principle, as a means of constructing and sustaining markets. Instead of saying what to do, it constructs systems of cause and effect, a dynamics that only indirectly generates a desired behavior that cannot be encoded in law and not even be known beforehand. Culture is treated as a complex system, consisting not of human subjects that have control over themselves, that can understand and do good, but as consisting of humans as animals, ”thinking fast”, as Thaler and Sunstein but it in Nudge (2008), which in the first approximation means: does not think at all – in particular: does not reflect. Markets can be seen as elaborate systems of nudging.
To avoid the formation of other ways of organizing collective life – such as fascism and socialism – the fundamental principles of neo-liberalism should not be within the purview of democratic decisions; ”democracy, ambivalently endorsed as the appropriate state framework for an ideal market, must in any case be kept relatively impotent, so that citizen initiatives rarely are able to change much of anything” (Mirowski, 2013, p. 56). This follows naturally from the assumption that when humans get control over the future, things end badly.
What the state needs to be able to do, according to neo-liberal doxa, is to enforce rules and punish deviations. The function of the state is to make rules immutable. Interestingly, as Mirowski notes, this is more important in the case of the poor than for the rich. Because it is the poor who have the strongest incentives to break the rules constituting the market. Law is thus contrued of as a means of preventing ”cheating” in the market game.
The function of politics, in the neo-liberal regime, is to formulate the best possible rules for the market, to optimize its performance. According to the logic of neo-liberalism this is a goal everybody should reasonably be able to agree with. It thus makes sense to see consensus as the only conceivable political ideal.
I think here of how Karl Popper conceived of the sphere of science (In The Logic of Scientific Discovery ), and science based ”piece-meal improvements” of society (In Open Society and its Enemies ). This is the neo-liberal vision of politics: a gradual consensual process of market improvement, of ever better regulations, towards an ever better market dynamic.
What I am talking about here is, to make that clear, the tendency of neo-liberalism to ”de-politicize” everything. The economy, of course, is put beyond what can be decided upon politically, but so is too the sphere of science, that of education – and one can add here questions of human rights, and of health. What happens is that goals become established as incontestable and politics as a matter of means. But then, politics can be disposed of altogether, because means are matters of scientific reason only. I come to think of secularization – when God was stuffed into nature, and then forgotten, as Michael Allen Gillespie (2009) explaines in The Theological Origins of Modernity. What we do now is to dispose of homo politicus, which is an unsurprising next step after having disposed of God, because homo politicus is modelled on the God; as political, the humans is supposed to have the capacity to change the future; it is this human that must be Built, in the image of God, the democratic Citizen.
As the market principle as established as the highest good, the State, all states, become responsible in front of this judge. Jean-Pierre Dupuy – in his somewhat strange book Economy and the Future (2014) – talks about his ”shame at seeing politics allowing itself to be humiliated by economics”, and quote (in the preface, p. x) as an illustration Le Monde (2011-11-06):
The future head of the Italian government, Mario Monti, appealed to the markets yesterday for a bit of time in order to form a cabinet and to implement an austerity program. He announced that Italians might have to make ’sacrifices’ once he had taken the oath of office and put his program into effect. His appointment was welcomed by the markets, but anxiety persisted and soon regained the upper hand.
The aim of the state shifts from realizing aims choosen by its people, to promoting itself in an international market. States become managed as firms, only with the unfortunate problem that they are stuck with their population.
The Market as the Good and the True
As we have seen, the principle of the market is, by neo-libearlism, elevated to a realm where it is conceived of as untouchable by political deliberation. It is given an position in modernity that is similar to that of science, as being anchored in something given, non-human, and thus as inevitable.
Mirowski claims that the ”neo-liberal thought collective” quite consciously operated with a double standard, where they internally recognized that markets needed to be constructed, but in public rhetorics promoted the image of markets as natural, drawing on ”natural science metaphors” (p. 55) such as those of evolution, of complex systems and of auto-poeisis.
The market is conceived of as an ”information processing system”, an anonymous entity that understands – in place of humans – what people want and need and how resources should be distributed for these wants and needs to be met. What the markets ”says”, thus, is equated with Truth, and, like the that of the Christian God, a Truth that is sometimes incomprehensible to mere humans. The truth of the market is in fact, according to neo-liberalism, something like the very definition of Truth itself, impossible by principle to contest.
Coming back to the idea of ethical pessimism mentioned above, absolutely central to the neo-liberal narrative is a corresponding epistemological pessimism, concerning the capacity of humans to transcend the localicy and temporality of their individual existence. The theme cuts through many sides of modernity. It is clearly brought out by Gillespie who, with reference to the 13th century, talks about three realms – that of humans, that of nature and that of God – and claims that it is constitutive of modernity to be ambivalent concerning the positioning of humans. Sometimes humans are conceived of as Gods. In the neo-liberal regime such God-humans are generally present but invisible, as the policy-making architects of the market dynamics (or as the ”decision-architects” of Sunstein and Thaler in Nudge, 2008). A much more visible presence has the humans-as-dominated by Nature. Such humans are, by nature, subordinated to nature: they cannot think truth (as for instance Descartes human, who was conceived of as having the thoughts of God in his mind when thinking mathematically).
It should be noted that this same epistemological pessimism is foundational for the objectivity-oriented philosophies of science that became dominant in the 19th century (as described by for instance: Herberg Schnädelbach, Theodor Porter, Lorraine Daston, George Levine, Jan Golstein). For complex reasons, the human subject, the subject as productive and imaginative, came to be seen as problematic and dangerous (as revolutionary, among other things), and in need of restriction.
Clearly, a good portion of optimism is also present in the philosophies of the 19th and early 20th century. What is at stake as regards the image of human nature become particularly clear in the clash between Heidegger and Cassirer (and some of the logical positivists, such as Carnap). This has been nicely described and analyzed by Michael Friedman (2000) in A Parting of the Ways and by Peter Gordon in Continental Divide (2010). In An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought (2010), Stefanos Geroulanos connects the position made popular by Heidegger to the ”anti-humanistic” strand in 20th century philosophy.
This strand, then, complicatedly, become a popular movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. It is complicated because on the one hand the fight against scientific authority and expertise, against hierarchy, took place in the name of humanity, but on the other hand, it was based on a conviction of the non-homogeneity of humanity, celebrating diversity, individuality, multiplicity. In The New Spirit of Capitalism (2005), Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello calls this kind of critique ”artistic”. It was with this movement that neo-liberalism took center stage in modern society.
From epistemological and ethical pessimism follow naturally the idea that humans should never dominate each other because to obey another human being is to obey evil and stupidity. Strangely, thus, for Friedrich Hayek, one important neo-liberal, the only way to humanity to emancipate themselves from the power of others, is ”a general surrender to ’the blind forces of the social process'” (as quoted by Jean-Pierre Dupuy, 2014, p. 10). Subordination to something non-human becomes the only means for humanity of emancipation from itself. Because of the construal of markets as non-human, they cannot count as coercive in the same sense as conventional laws. They are instead positioned as laws of nature, being as little ”coercive” as for instance gravity or electro-magnitism. They are instead conceived of as natural and inevitable limits to freedom. As Dupuy (2014, p. 10) puts it: ”subordination can be escaped only if every member of society willingly subjects himself (sic) to an abstract, impersonal, and universal rule that absolutely transcends him (sic).”
Alaisdair MacIntyre (After Virtue,  2007) talks about this diminuition of humanity in terms of emotivism, the idea being that ethics and morals should be conceived of as expressions of individual emotions, devoid of reason. For this view of humanity, it becomes a matter of brain juices wether we consider democracy or nazism best, or wether we like Starbucks or McDonalds more. Politics becomes a matter of detecting and adding signals of such emotion – something that could today be done by means of ”sentiment analysis” perhaps. MacIntyre (2007) notes ”the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations” (p. 23) in this modernity. It is not surprising, since non-manipulative relations in the world of these animals is even difficult to understand. What would that be, one human signalling to another without wanting to achieve anything?
Built into the notion of the market is that it can have no boundaries. Ideally, there can only be one global market, including everything by means of well regulated translation beween different sorts of values (such as the value of happiness, the value of time, the value of the climate, the value of coffee and the value of management consultant services). Neo-liberalism makes work on overcoming borderas, of fascilitating flows, of translations, seemingly necessary and inevitable. Limits are arbitrary, indefensible.
Since the market principle transcends the human realm it cannot be in error. It is assumed a priori that all problems are caused by parts of human life not functioning as a market, or by markets not being appropriately regulated. All problems can be solved by means of the construction of markets, or, more exactly, the extension and improvement of the one Market.
A more specific consequence of the universality of the market principle is that entities acting on a market can never be ”do wrong”. I think here of the distinction made by Deleuze with reference to Spinoza (in Spinoca, Practical Philosophy) between ethics as attribution of moral worth and ethics as cause and effect. Within a market, morality is irrelevant. You can, and should, do what you can to win. But you are obliged to take the consequences of your actions. Thus, the ”punishment” of corporations are not, within the neo-liberal regime, to be interpreted morally, but as part of a system of incentives, made to be known and acted upon. Even if corporations break the law, such events should be interpreted as ”part of the game”, in the same way as free-kicks are part of soccer: it is part of the game to include rule-breaking in the calculation of the best strategy.
Culturalization of Work, Marketization of Culture
Wendy Brown, primarily, focus on how neo-liberalism should not be understood as only being about economy and money, but instead how it elevates the market to a principle of all modern life.
In the culture of neo-liberalism thus, humans are no longer primarily conceived of as equals, but as different. Inequality is not seen as bad and unfortunate, but as good, as a driving force of competition and progress. Markets are made to generate difference, to make difference visible, to amplify and increase difference, to intensify its presence, to make people act on difference.
A number of the authors I follow here has noted that Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), explicitly note that envy is the central driving force of capitalism. Markets are installed to make differences matter rather than content, and to make people shift their focus to comparisons between each other, to become envious, to desire to conquer, to win, to vanquish – all the things John Milbank takes to be central to modernity (he provides references in Theology and Social Theory ). In Dupuys analysis, the market is a mechanism designed to contain these impulses, that he calls ”evil”, and to transform them, to – in the best of worlds – actually invert them, as is the idea of the ”invisible hand”, and make something good out of them.
Put shortly, thus, within neo-liberalism ethical goods such as equality cannot be pursued directly. That is impossible because of human nature. We need to be smarter than that. We can, so the story goes, trick ourselves, by making policy, by constructing dynamics, that make is do good to ourselves involuntarily. The good can be achieved, according to this vision, only as a side-effect.
Wendy Brown talks about neo-liberalism as a ”rationality” that is infused into all parts of culture. We come to understand our search for a girlfriend or boyfriend as an activity taking place in a market. We see politicians as fishing for votes on a market – and their result as the rightful consequence of their marketing strategy.
We come to understand our inter-personal relations, our life in common, collective life, as relationships within a market. As agents on markets, or on the one Market, we come to understand ourselves not as ”autonomous subjects”, a la Kant, but as investment portfolios, as capital. What is good about a human being is equated with what she is worth. Humans may have ”human rights”, but that is a bottom line. Above that line, humans are to be compared.
What is valued in a human is productivity. A potentiality to produce. To produce, within neo-liberalism, is, interestingly, to create something that has impact on the market, which is, in a particular way, something new. What is valued is thus, very much, creativity in the sense of having the capacity to generate things – ideas, artefacts – that are recognized as new on the market. Such capacity of production is what is recognized in humans when they are contracted and payed. This, too, becomes the dominant definition of the value of the new, that it is recognized as such (an idea formalied in the institution of ”peer-review”).
This image of the human transforms the meaning of education into a planned act of capital investment. Schools are built as places for capital growth, interpreted as the growth of humans.
Complicatedly, neo-liberalism is connected to the idea of the value of a well-formed personality, of Bildung in a sense that should perhaps be called perverted, but still: a personality that is cosmopolitan, in that it can move effortlessly between contexts (as defined by Richard Sennet in The Fall of Public Man), a personality that is flexible and open, creative of course, productive – good not at one particulat thing but good at being good at anything. Education is conceived of as the producer of such humans, to be released after various numbers of years, on the market, to the benefit of the owners of schools, be it Sweden or the European Union.
Important to note, but difficult, is that neo-liberalism cannot be meaningfully opposed to ”ethical” goals such as the fight against poverty, the fight for sustainability, for a fight for health. Neither can it be opposed to freedom, autonomy, authenticity or even the value of sharing. As Boltanski and Chiapello explains, these values are today actively promoted from within capitalism. What happens is only the twist that they are promoted within the particular framework described above, with its particular image of human nature and its particular idea of how the problems created by the deficiencies inherent in humans can be mitigate. Neo-liberals whant the good just as much as anybody, and often the same goods as others. They only understand them selves as realist as regards the inevitabilities of humanity.
Optimization and Inversion
I will not come to my own analysis, which is not so much my own actually, as inspired by Ivan Illich, in particular The Rivers North of the Future, put together after Illich’s death by David Cayley.
What is happening, within neo-liberal modernity, is that it becomes increasingly difficult to discuss goals publicly. This is of course not a new phenomenon. Habermas talks about it in ”Dogmatism, Reason, and Decision” (1964) – about how focus has been shifted from goals towards means, and means, then, is also excluded from deliberation because they can be decided upon rationally, scientifically. But we seem to have another version of that today, pointed to by Geinsing and Reisin in Der Präventivstaat, and as discussed in Sweden in terms of the ”åsiktskorridor” (opinion-corridor). It is related to the ”evidence” movement that wants everything to be ”based on science”, even public policy.
What happens is that subordination under publicly and commonly recognized norms become obligatory and connected to being ”reasonable” in both an epistemological and ethical sense. It becomes a prerequisite for being part of the community, which is then structured as regulated competition. To disagree becomes to set yourself apart, and thus to exclude yourself from any prospect of recognition. Adherence to norms becomes a matter of police work. I think here of norms pertaining, for instance, to the value of education, the evils of poverty, the value of health, the value of science, the impossibility of communism, the evil of nazism, the value of cultural tolerance, and so on.
When, then, the goals are taken to be inevitable and agreed upon, public action, politics, policy-making, is reduced to furthering improvement, to realization. As mentioned above: consensus becomes the natural aim for political action. Consensus, and then, communication, so that everybody understands what and why – because disagreement cannot be understood as caused by anything but lack of information, lack of communication, lack of understanding.
In Hatred of Democracy (2006, p. 41)) Jacques Rancière says that:
Democracy first of all means this: anarchic ’government’,
one based on nothing other than the absence of every title to govern.
How inconceivable isn’t this from the perspective of neo-liberalism. Why would just anyone, basically nobody, be set to govern? That would be the worst of evil.
The biggest problem I see in this situation is that it amounts to a collective limitation of reflexivity. Since certain aims are made obligatory, and also quite invisible because they are taken for granted, our capacity to see through the culture of which we are part, gets lost. We are not only contrained practically, by the rule of law, but also in thinking, by images of the good.
This is the situation described by Adorno and Horkheimer in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. It is connected to Weber’s analysis of rationalization, which has been further developed by Detlev Peukert in Max Weber’s Diagnose der Moderne. The point is that when the pursuit of optimization takes hold of a totality, it tends to lead to a state opposite that aimed for.
To this analysis, Ivan Illich the thesis that: Corruptio Optimi Pessima – that the corruption of the best is the worst. His thesis, put shortly, is that modernity is a perversion of Christianity. From Christianity modernity inherited the ambition to good. The idea that the principle of love could be universalized, extended beyond the tribe. But then, with the best of intentions, moderns increasingly made love obligatory, that is, connecting to what I wrote above, adherence to the Good, subordination under the Good, became increasingly obligatory, typically in the act of paying taxes for the well-fare state.
What then happened, is that people were realeased from any possiblility of being lovable themselves, as the work of love, became a work performed collectively, by a system.
It is thus exactly when the Best, what we cherish the most, is incorporated into the neo-liberal logic, that we get the worst kind of corruption.