Monday 9 August 2021

Wendy Brown Defines Neoliberalism

Due to do something on the IPCC report tomorrow, but let us have a moment of relative levity. In between reading A Thousand Plateaus (423 pages in!), I have started reading another book. As you might have guessed from the post's title, it's one of Wendy Brown's celebrated neoliberalism books and this is 2015's Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution. For those not in the know, Undoing is an exploration and critique of the effects the neoliberal reconfiguring of human relationships has had on our already shaky and inadequate liberal democracies. To celebrate opening a book that isn't Deleuze and Guattari for the first time in several months, here's a flavour of what to expect:
... as a normative order of reason ... neoliberalism transmogrifies every human domain and endeavour, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic. All conduct is economic conduct; all spheres of existence are framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when these spheres are not directly monetised. In neoliberal reason and in domains governed by it, we are only and everywhere homo oeconomicus, which itself has a historically specific form. Far from Adam Smith's creature propelled by the natural urge to 'truck, barter, and exchange', today's homo oeconomicus is an intensely constructed and governed bit of human capital tasked with improving and leveraging its competitive positioning and with enhancing its (monetary and nonmonetary) portfolio value across all of its endeavours and venues. (pp 9-10).
What does this mean politically and culturally speaking? Here's something of an essay from me from 2016 thinking about it.

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Blissex said...

«as a normative order of reason ... neoliberalism transmogrifies every human domain and endeavour, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic.»

In the endless debates about defining "neoliberalism" it is often confused for victorian liberalism, as it is here, and also consider the lack of difference here:
emphasised free trade, little government intervention in the economy and equality of opportunity through institutional reform.
in the urgent need to remove rigidities and incorporate flexibility in capital, product and labour markets, we are all Thatcherites now

But neoliberalism as practiced within the IMF/"Washington Consesus" area has two characteristics that make it somewhat different from victorian liberalism:

* The maniacal focus on "labor market reform", that is cheaper wages and less secure jobs.

* Massive everyday state intervention in the stock market and the property market.

The second point is particularly relevant, because it is means that the "neo" prefix makes "neoliberalism" like victorian liberalism plus committed support, rather than opposition, for the modern equivalent to the Corn Laws. Victorian liberals would be horrified by the Right-To-Buy discounts, the Help-To-Buy loans, planning restrictions for the benefit of the NIMBYs, the hundreds of billions handed out to the welfare queens of the City, the giving of liquidity at very low interest rates to bankrupt speculators against the "security" of toxic paper.

As to your 2016 post, the illusion in it that "thatcherism" was merely an emergent phenomenon seems to be way optimistic:

«Thatcher's government went after the trade unions because they represented a challenge and threatened the interests of British business, not because Hayek and Friedman were opposed to the "distortions" collectivised labour exercised over labour markets.»

Actually we now know that Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher, Nicholas Ridley and others in the Selsdon group had a strong ideological programme backed by neoliberal think-tanks:

and that Margaret Thatcher had a long term programme to turn the UK economy into a Pinochet style economy as in this letter to Hayek from 1982:

«I was aware of the remarkable success of the Chilean economy in reducing the share of Government expenditure substantially over the decade of the 70s. The progression from Allende's Socialism to the free enterprise capitalist economy of the 1980s is a striking example of economic reform from which we can learn many lessons. [...] Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution. At times the process may seem painfully slow. But I am certain we shall achieve our reforms in our own way and in our own time.»

Andrew Marr, "A history of modern Britain", page 131:

«Without her the Tory government of 1979–83 would have been entirely different. Without that confrontational self-certainty and determination not to be bested, Britain would have been back with a pay policy, Keynesian public spending policies and a business-as-usual deal with the European Community within eighteen months.
Only a few had the chance to see the real Thatcher before she won power. The British ambassador in Iran was one. In 1978 he had been with her on a visit to Tehran, when she suddenly said that there were still people in the Conservative Party who believed in consensus politics. The ambassador, Sir Anthony Parsons, replied that most British people did, including him. ‘I regard them as Quislings, as traitors,’ she replied. Strong language? ‘I know. I mean it.’

Blissex said...

«Here's something of an essay from me from 2016 thinking about it.»

That article refers to another article from our blogger from 2008, and it has a section that seems so contemporary, just change "Brown" and "Ken Livingstone" to "Keir Starmer", "government" to "opposition" and "post office closure programme" to many of the recent government bills...
New Labour is in big trouble. It is a party going nowhere, except down in the opinion polls. The green shoots of renewal aren't anywhere to be seen either. Brown's government is bereft of vision and values. Its politics is a mere continuation of what went before, namely managerialism with a dour twist.

The fact only 19 members of the Parliamentary Labour Party voted against the government's post office closure programme illustrates how deep the neoliberal rot goes.

It's unsurprising party membership is in free fall, that working class voters prefer to stay at home than support "their" party as Ken Livingstone faces the fight of his political life against Boris Johnson.