Sunday, 4 December 2016

Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos

I want to say a few words on Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, 2015). The strong point of this book is that it grasps neoliberalism as more than an economic doctrine. It is a governing rationality that disseminates itself throughout the social body, transforming the states as well as individuals into images of the firm, thereby crowding out the image of human beings as citizens that is indispensible to democracy. 

Unlike Marxist critics of neoliberalism like David Harvey, she is comparatively uninterested in the economic effects of neoliberalism - widening inequality, commodification and so on. Inspired by Foucault and governmentality theory, she instead sees it as a rationality transforming every human domain - from education to dating and social media - so that they become “framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized” (p. 10). Her claim is not that neoliberalism necessarily privatizes or marketizes all spheres, but rather that the model of the market is dissemminated to all domains and activities. Supplanting concepts like citizen, political public sphere and democracy itself by market terms, neoliberalism becomes "profoundly destructive to the fiber and future of democracy” (p. 9).

A good example of the new practices of self-investment and attracting investors is the university. Universities turn into companies catering to consumers and investors, forgetting their role as providers of public higher education for citizens. Scholars have to be entrepreneurial and investment savvy while students are presumed to be oriented primarily to augmenting their human capital.

Brown's account is clearly useful. She provides the theoretical tools needed for understanding the subject's need today for continuous, compulsive self-investment. She also makes it eminently clear why the spread of New Public Management throughout the sector of public services is part and parcel of neoliberalization. Even if these practices of self-investment and pseudo-market behavior are not monetarized, they all orient themselves to the market as a model and site of truth or veridiction, as Foucault would say. Seeing them as part of the same process, it also becomes possible to diagnose a wide variety of protests - e.g. campus protests - as resistance against neoliberalization.

It's evident that Foucault is central to her account. Above all, she takes over his claim that neoliberalism's central trait is that it generalizes the enterprise form. This doesn't mean that she accepts Foucault uncritically. Above all, she criticizes him on two scores. Firstly, there are no citizens in his account. He lacks a concept of a “demos acting in concert”, making it seem that governing only emanates from the state. As a result, he never reflects on the effect of neoliberalism on democratic political life. Secondly, his aversion to Marxism made him neglect the role of capital (p. 73ff). It is tempting to see Brown as attempting to wed Marx and Foucault, but that would hardly be correct. The latter plays a far more predominant role than the former in her account. Despite her criticism that Foucault neglects the role of capital, capital is almost wholly neglected in her own analysis as well.

My major dissatisfaction with the books is that Brown says nothing of why neoliberalization happens. Why is the enterprise form generalized throughout the social body? Brown is very clearly issuing a sort of call for resisting neoliberalism and defending democracy, but to resist something effectively you need to understand its causes. All we get is a kind of negative delineation of what sort of explanation she rejects - mostly Marxist explanations focusing on economic causes such as Harvey's well-known thesis that neoliberalism should be understood as an attempt to restore class power to the capitalist class in the face of declining profitability. Brown empahsizes the new and revolutionary character of neoliberalism, but gives us few clues as to why this revolution occurs.

A final reflection. In these days it may seem as if the greatest threat to democracy is coming not from neoliberalism but from rightwing populism. Especially after the Brexit referendum and the "Trump shock" it may easily seem as if neoliberalism is defeated. I'm not going to repeat here the pertinent argument that neoliberal policy during the last decades has probably paved the way for these populist triumphs. Instead I'd like to add a thought that came to me the day that the results of the US election came in. I was doing some reading about a particular kind of neoliberal urbanism, namely the "entrepreneurialist" policy of attracting capital to a city by promoting its "brand", usually by creating an image of the city as clean, safe and creative. Here, incidentally, we have the enterprise form again - the city behaving like an enterprise. I asked myself while reading what rightwing populism on the level of urban policy would mean. Evictions of homeless people and penalization of begging? The adulation of "strongmen" mayors? And zero tolerance against graffiti? But these are things that that we've also been told characterize neoliberal urbanism. Isn't it precisely in order to promote the "city brand" that these policies of exclusion and so on are employed?

Neoliberalism may be associated with globalist elites and rightwing populism with the nationalism of "common" people, but on the level of city policies they mesh pretty well. Isn't this reflected in a surprising convergence between the subjectivities of rightwing populism and neoliberalism? The rightwing populist subject and the neoliberal subject both delight in excluding unwanted others. Both believe they have the right to things for which they have paid dearly and which they certainly won't share with freeloaders. The mad chant "Out with the immigrants" is the distorted echo of the neoliberal subject's irritated demand that nothing should be allowed to disturb his or her consumer experience. I have yet to see a rightwing populism that resurrects the idea of a citizenry or demos. What it does is to vent anger at unwanted competitors in a race that remains exactly as neoliberal as before. Urban policy helps us visualize what the rather abstract statement that neoliberalism paves the way from rightwing populism may mean. It is hard to see in what sense the latter implies a threat to the former.

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