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Recent Discussions of Neoliberalism

People seem to have trouble defining neoliberalism adequately, and especially when it comes to labeling Hillary Clinton as a neoliberal. In a recent article at Jacobin Corey Robins gives a short history of the neoliberal version of the Democratic Party, specifically aimed at the Clinton/DLC/Third Way. Billmon discussed this article in this storify piece, in which he describes three current factions in the practice of neoliberalism, There is the Neo-Keynesian version, as with Krugman; the Monetarist version, that of Milton Friedman and his many followers;, and the Supply Side version, like Paul Ryan and his economic advisors. Each of the factions has attached itself to a political ideology. Both of these pieces should be read by anyone seeking to clarify their thinking about neoliberalism.

Underlying all of them is the broader program described by Michel Foucault, which turns in large part on the notion of governmentality, a point made by Mike Konzcal in this review of Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste. After I read that book, I wrote several pieces at FDL trying to comprehend the idea of governmentality and make it comprehensible. Here are links to several of those posts.

1. How We Govern Our Selves and Ourselves.

2. The Panoptic Effect.

3. Discipline for the Benefit of the Rich.

4. Control of Markets in Foucault’s The Birth of Biopolitics.

5. Liberalism and the Neoliberal Reaction.

The idea of governability is present in the texts I’ve been looking at. In Polanyi, we saw the transformation of the farm-dwelling peasant into the city-dwelling factory worker. Arendt touches on it with her discussion of people who cannot find a place in the productive sector of society, the superfluous people. Veblen writes about the enormous productivity of machine culture, and the changes it demanded of the worker, about which more later. The great problem is that machine culture required a tremendous amount of self-discipline from the workers to make factories function. The principal institutions of society were remade to enforce that self-discipline, from the Army to the schools to the government. Other tools included prisons and mental institutions.

In one way or another, all of these writers on neoliberalism seem to agree that the goal of neoliberalism is to replace the notion of the self as reasonably free citizen, responsible for the self, the family, the community and the state, with the notion of the self as a buyer and seller engaged in zero-sum competition with all other buyer/sellers. We are consumers of any and all goods and services, and entrepreneurial sellers of the self seen as a bundle of skills on offer to the highest bidder. Each separate transaction, buying and selling, is an opportunity for judgment by the all-knowing market. If we are successful, it’s because we are winners. If we are losers, we are superfluous. It’s an even harsher transformation of the human being than the one from peasant to factory worker.

UPDATE: The excellent Paul Rosenberg discusses the rise of neoliberalism in the sense used by Robins in this Salon article.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

24 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The all unknowing market. We are people. We have social, political, economic and cultural needs. These versions of economics make us subservient to business, to business managers and to their collective conductive, which they describe as the market. It’s a framing that intentionally strips humanity to the role of customer, one to whom the job of customer service has been delegated. It strips the enterprise of any responsibility to people (except to enrich top managers) and the costs associated with that. It’s a funhouse mirror that allows managers to see people as inputs, outputs, efficiencies or, more likely, inefficiencies. Neoliberalism is a justification for ignoring humanity that is far more brutal than Social Darwinism. It has been astonishingly successful. It’s time to make it less so.

  2. PeasantParty says:

    This Peasant agrees completely, and as the Earlofhuntindon says above it is more brutal than ever.

  3. Alan says:

    For anyone interested in neoliberalism I would strongly suggest reading Foucault’s text on liberalism and neoliberalism: The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979 (Lectures at the College de France), starting with the lectures from the prior year, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–1978. (Both books are quite readable for anyone worried about reading ‘French intellectuals’.) The ideas in these lectures are taken up in the governmentality literature. The lectures weren’t available in translation until fairly recently, except in parts in texts such as The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality.
    *
    Foucault’s analysis has been assimilated into Marxist analysis in some quarters, which makes no sense. If you read Birth of Biopolitics there is an important section where he argues that socialism doesn’t have a form of governmentality and that socialist government must adopt a form of governmentality from elsewhere. For the discussion of the various uses and meanings of the term neoliberalism see Terry Flew: Six Theories of Neoliberalism and Foucault, Weber, Neoliberalism and the Politics of Governmentality.
    *
    For other works on neoliberalism that take up Foucault see William Davies’ The Limits of Neoliberalism and various other essays, including an essay on The Governmentality of New Labour (i.e. Blairism). I’d also suggest papers and essays by Colin Gordon, Nikolas Rose, Peter Miller where you can find them online.
    *
    I found the Corey Robin essay bizarre:

    Now, neoliberalism, of course, can mean a great many things, many of them associated with the Right. But one of its meanings — arguably, in the United States, the most historically accurate — is the name that a small group of journalists, intellectuals, and politicians on the Left gave to themselves in the late 1970s in order to register their distance from the traditional liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society.

    I think most historians would connect the term back to the activities of the Walter Lippmann Colloquium and the Mont Pelerin Society. Milton Friedman used the term in publications as late as 1961, I believe, before abandoning its use. Linking it to Democrats or for that matter the British Labour Party in the 1970s may be perfectly valid but there is 30+ years of prior history in the US, Europe and elsewhere. For histories see Mirowski’s edited volume on the MPS, or the Angus Burgin and Daniel Stedman Jones histories.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I agree about The Birth of Biopolitics; it’s readable, and at one point I found a copy on-line, which I think was taken down.
      .
      The point of the Robins essay was to identify the source of the use of the term neoliberal among Democrats as opposed to the overall program. I think there is a specific Dem variant, one that focuses on social issues as a sop to the consciences of the people whose interests it serves. It is aimed not at the top .01%, but rather at the 95-99+%, where there is plenty of money and many more people with vestiges of conscience. The Robins article explains its genesis. I don’t fully agree, because I think a big part of the break between the target group and the working class has roots in class conflict over a number of issues, including the Viet Nam War. The working class, especially the older men but plenty of younger people, were disgusted by the hippies who opposed the war. The hippies turned into yuppies when the pressure of the draft and the end of the war ended, and they returned the disgust. They were predisposed to dislike the unions and the working class, so the ideas of Robins’ small group appealed to them.

      .
      The thing about Foucault is that his work is important to the theory, but less so as to the practical politics of implementation. The Robins and Billmon pieces aim squarely at operational issues.

      • Alan says:

        Point taken. I just don’t think it was very well written.
        *
        I think one of the things to remember when reading Foucault is that it isn’t a state-based or class-based analysis. There is a lot of writing on the Left that tries to assimilate his writings to socialism or some variant of Marxist analysis which is exactly what he’s trying to escape because he’s arguing that the analysis is fundamentally mistaken and not an effective basis for any type of resistance. So I disagree with your last statement. Foucault’s writings are all about disrupting accepted narratives and making space for resistance.
        *
        I actually think it helps to see him writing much more in the tradition of a Weberian rationality critique. For example, D&P opens with a horrific description of public torture, an expression of sovereign power. And then there are the descriptions of reforms that come about in the new order of science and reason (The Panopticon etc.). The new type of power is more efficient and humane (one could argue) but the new types of knowledge and the associated practices create new structures of power with new types of oppression. Much of his work is associated with the human sciences (compare with Kuhn) and the way those sciences create man as an object and subject of knowledge and structures of power relations.
        *
        (As an aside, the Panoptic model of power/knowledge is not the most significant mode for us now. He states this very explicitly in STP and then lays out a very different mode of surveillance.)

        • Ed Walker says:

          I see your point about Foucault trying to open space for action. It’s hard to see how to move forward when most people are locked into a specific discourse about society, whether capitalist or Marxist or Dem vs. Repub/Tea Party. The problem is getting people past those fixed positions to the point where they can even think about other possibilities. Maybe the current impasse has opened that door a crack.

          • Alan says:

            Regarding being “locked into a specific discourse” this interview with Foucault is quite revealing of his thinking about power and resistance: Power, Moral Values, and the Intellectual.
            *
            The discourse of freedom is itself slippery and dangerous. In Foucault’s genealogy of liberal and neoliberal thought, the idea of liberty, is itself a construct within an evolving governmentality that develops in response to certain problematics arising in earlier regimes of power. The action of power need not be oppressive in the obvious sense that it is portrayed in the Panoptic form discussed in D&P. There are multiple modalities. In STP, BB, and later works power is often discussed as operating through freedom and getting a grip through desire.

  4. Bay State Librul says:

    Business model’s flavor of the month
    —-
    Ben and Jerry’s Veblen Good Raspberry Ripple:

    “The challenges facing our democracy have gotten out of hand: Low income and minority voters are having their voting rights infringed upon, and money from wealthy donors is corrupting the system. There is hope, though. Because every individual has a hand in creating democracy. Our democracy does not belong to politicians. Or businesses. Or to wealthy donors. It belongs to you.”

  5. Ron Kuriloff says:

    The only NON-neoliberal running to be president is Bernie Sanders.
    Urge him to run as the Green Party Presidential candidate.
    Jill Stein is willing to take the VP slot beside him.
    The Green Party platform is totally ANTI-neoliberal.
    That is, of course if he loses the Dem Primary. Let him not demoralize all the Young, the
    Independents and others supporting him now. Continue the Political Revolution.

  6. Alan says:

    I may have been wrong with my 1961 date for Friedman’s last use of the term. Maybe 1951: Neo-Liberalism and its Prospects. This is quite a nice discussion of the the role of the state in neoliberalism. If you want to dig, you can trace this back through Hayek to Carl Schmitt. The latter, most people would characterize as deeply antithetical to liberal values.

    • bevin says:

      ” If you want to dig, you can trace this back through Hayek to Carl Schmitt. The latter, most people would characterize as deeply antithetical to liberal values…”
      That is the trouble with liberalism: in fact Schmitt is well within a tradition which includes Hobbes, Locke, Bentham and Mill(s).
      Mill famously excepted most of humanity from those capable of governing themselves. And thus requiring the guidance provided by agents of benevolent despotism. Bentham followed his brother, a General in Catherine the Great’s service, to Russia. The Panopticon is said to have been developed from Samuel’s desire to supervise shipbuilding tradesmen working for him, first in Russia, later in England.
      Naturally liberals have never described their purpose as being to facilitate the efficient exploitation of working people (and in particular those childlike creatures from cultures which had not graduated from the successive schools of pastoralism, agriculture, mercantilism into the palace of industry, and who had not thrown off the trammels of feudalism) but that is what it has always been about.
      The society in which we live perfectly conforms with the liberal vision of the Benthamites: it has the appearance of being democratic and thus its legitimacy whilst actually being controlled by those elites which understand the bounds of possibility and human nature.
      The underlying contradiction is between an ideology which preaches freedom and self rule and a practice which cannot, in the end, allow either: fascism is liberalism with the mask off. It comes when society takes the ideas of liberalism seriously enough to attempt to put them into practice. That cannot be allowed because it threatens private property, the rock on which the liberal church is founded.

      • Alan says:

        There are different versions of liberalism. Most people would hardly start with Bentham, who is better known for utilitarianism, a philosophy that is ultimate at odds with that of liberals like Smith. And I think one of the points here is that if you go back to 18th C. liberalism and then work your way forward there are a whole series of transformations and changes ending up where we are now with ‘neoliberalism’ that is fundamental at odds with the values liberal philosophers articulated in the 18th C. Claiming “fascism is liberalism with the mask off” strikes me as silly.

        And one has to ask, if not x or y, then what? Care to suggest? And how do you get there? Just remember Foucault’s warning: everything is dangerous.

        • bevin says:

          You cannot separate Bentham from liberalism, (if you review what I wrote you will see that I begin my rough list with Hobbes and Locke) the philosophical radicals certainly did not and the personal ties between the Westminster Reviewers and liberal Political Economists, from Ricardo to Martineau down to Spencer indicate that C19th Liberals-in Britain at least- took great care to marry the calculus of Utility with the “laws” of political economy.

          There were of course exceptions and, as time passed and the tensions between two irreconcilable systems became more apparent a new liberalism, of the sort that the Fabians, Hobson and the Hammonds espoused, grew up and became a major source of criticism of the cold Chadwickian liberalism that Dickens skewers so brilliantly in Hard Times.
          Hence ‘neo-liberalism’ a return to the original tough minded liberalism of Nassau Senior and the first generation of those who knitted together the Whigs and the utilitarians, the Edinburgh Review and the Westminster.

          As I argued liberalism and neo-liberalism are all about government being used to protect private property. And, so, in times of mass awakening, when the people-as Madison and other opponents of democracy, feared that they would- begin to explore the possibility of socialising property, particularly that on the “Commanding Heights” of the economy, liberalism tends to give way to more muscular defenders.

          Is not that what happened in Italy leading to the March on Rome? Is that not what mobilised the ruling castes of Spain to call in the army from Africa to redress the wrongs of the newly elected Republican government? Is that not what prompted the cabal of industrialists and military men surrounding President Hindenburg to call in the despised corporal to protect their wealth and their hierarchies from ‘communism’?
          The problem with theory is that it is derived from the observation of history, as soon as it ceases to be entwined with actual experience is loses its vitality and as., I am told that Goethe said, becomes ‘grey” brittle and static.

          As neo-liberalism becomes found out, as people increasingly realise that its nostrums of empowering the wealthy and empowered are disastrous (cf Kansas and Louisiana) ideas challenging private property are likely to become more popular (Sanders?) and those with the most to lose (whose identities are very well known) are likely to be driven to respond to the new challenge by trying something a trifle more robust than papers from think tanks and soliloquies from the shades of Scalia.
          So please don’t be shocked if fascism, a native son ideology if ever there was one in America, displaces neo-liberalism at the top of Capital’s list of favourite songs.
          My grandchildren have a way of beginning our games “Ready or not, here it comes.” I’d say “Silly or not, here it comes.”

          • earlofhuntingdon says:

            That’s a useful quote, which comes in many guises, about the willingness of the elite to protect their property from the people whose work generated it:

            “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

            Trump, Gingrich, Falwell, Limbaugh. Take your pick. Or fascism will be called “anti-fascism” or be sold as the need to fight the latest invented foreign (usually little, brown and adhering to another religion/culture) enemy. The schema is nativist, exclusionary, and usually pits one non-elite discriminated group against another, rather like the Siamese fighting fish in From Russia, With Love. The point is to exhaust one’s opponents by convincing them to fight each other rather than the elite, who hold most of the marbles. Trump sells this snake oil. Older versions pitted the most recent immigrant group to America against an earlier one. One need only change the sign: “Blacks/German/Irish/Italians/Chinese Not Allowed”; this land is preserved for an earlier immigrant group that stole it first.

            The important point is to keep focused on the opponents with whom much of America is competing for its daily bread. Sure, we can live together. But let’s not pretend we’re not competing for the same place at the table.

          • Alan says:

            They are clearly connected but it is also true that there are liberalisms than don’t involve utilitarianism. It’s not an essential feature. An important historical and political question for us is how liberalism comes to be equated with utilitarianism in economic theory.
            *
            As for what comes next, one can only speculate. I agree that it may be very unpleasant.

  7. bloopie2 says:

    This comment I’m blatantly pilfering from the Guardian says nsomething I’d not considered, but it seems to be so on point.
    .
    he amusing thing that’s going to make this November so interesting is that Trump is actually the candidate that represents the people achieving victory over the party, while Hillary represents the party achieving victory over their people.

  8. Ed Walker says:

    I updated this post with a link to an interesting Paul Rosenberg piece on the rise of the Clintons and their form of neoliberalism.

    • Bay State Librul says:

      Fuck, Back Rub changed their name to Google; Nike was once called Blue Ribbon Sports.

      Neoliberalism needs to be redefined and rebranded

      Clarity first

  9. galljdaj says:

    Well boys and girls, its really about ‘strip mining the Peoples, especially those that are straggling the herd! And. Those herd(s) that can be raced off the plateau to their deaths!

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