Culture and Neoliberalism

My last series summarizes the state of my neoliberalism project. It turns out that I have mostly focused on the economics of neoliberalism. Another aspect of the project was to learn how we as a society got caught up in neoliberalism. None of the work I’ve done so far has given me much of an answer to that, let alone the question of how we get out of this mess.

That part was relatively straightforward. I had a basic understanding of how to read and learn about neoliberalism. I have a background in dealing with the actual economy; I knew most of the mainstream economic ideas from College where I took several courses; and from continued readings over the years; and I’m reasonably fluent in college-level math. When it comes to culture as a field of study I’m pretty much at ground zero, and to tell the truth, I was surprised to see the emphasis on culture in Critical Theory. So, this will be a different kind of reading.

I’m going to start with Pierre Bourdieu, a French Sociologist of the second half of the 20th Century. Bourdieu and Foucault are perhaps the best known French thinkers of that period today, as existentialism and indeed most straight philosophy have fallen out of intellectual favor. Their kind of thinking is not that common in the US; we don’t exactly have an intellectual class, and we never really valued the life of the mind. We have a lot of experts and a lot of smart and well-trained people, but they are rooted in specific fields, and the number who think usefully beyond their areas is small. Historically, the intellectual was a recognized class in France, and even today many French politicians aspire to the title. Can you imagine a US politician who wants to be thought of that way? We elect regular folk just bursting with common sense, which probably explains something about our inability to solve problems.

But there is another factor: David Brooks. I read parts of Brooks’ New York Times column regularly as a check on my own ambitions. One common form of column is “I read this article and it proves conservatives like me are right and liberals are killing society.” Here’s a lovely example of High Brooksism. I think wants to say that neoliberalism is a bad theory because it emphasizes the isolated individual and rejects communal and social values, but he can’t because neoliberalism is at the heart of conservativism. Too bad, because it would enable him to criticize Republicans and most Democrats, and it would move him outside the boundaries of “both sides do it” and into an open policy space. But, as he says, people over 56 years old like him are clueless, so we get this absurd conclusion from the incoherent mess above it:

Congressional Republicans think a successful tax bill will thwart populism. Mainstream Democrats think the alienation problem will go away if we redistribute the crumbs a bit more widely. Washington policy wonks build technocratic sand castles that keep getting swept away in the cultural tides.

I absolutely don’t want to be like Brooks with his unmoored rationalizations and his pretense of intellectualism. My goal is to see what other people think and try to make sense of it. To that end, I think someone who sees things from a perspective outside my own culture will give me more distance, as was the case with my earlier readings.

I first heard of Bourdieu some time ago, I don’t remember where or when, but the gist was that his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste was a must-read. Now I want to read it, because some of the issues around taste seem important in the US, where all our choices seem to define us. But as with Critical Theory, I’m going to start with an overview of Bourdieu to learn some of his basic concepts. So, the next book is David Swartz’s Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. I’ve started it, and it seems very readable.

I have a couple of basic thoughts to start with, and we’ll see if they hold up.

1. I’m pretty sure that culture isn’t the outcome of the economy, as might be the point of early Critical Theory. It seems likely that people’s natural creativity just pours out. I read The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Tom Wolfe years ago, and came away with the idea that the people in that car culture, just like the surfers, the anti-war groups, and the disco dancers in Saturday Night Fever were happily living in the shadows of the economy, not straining for success in the broader world, but creating their own milieu with what was at hand. Of course, corporate culture sucked the life out of those cultures, or they died on their own, but the impulse to use the conditions of life in new and inventive ways never dries up. We can watch the process as gaming culture grows up and gets turned into an ESPN sport. I’m sure the kids will be moving on, leaving the olds farther out of touch.

2, When I was growing up, there was this trope about lowbrow, middle-brow and high-brow taste. We have plenty of classifications of people today: tribalists, angry white people, Evangelicals, Berniecrats; personality types like INTJ, and authoritarian submissives; and of course all the marketing categories, like these in Wikipedia. These characterizations feel ad hoc and instrumental, and no matter how fine the segments are, they hardly seem adequate to the complexities of most of the people I have ever met. But we can’t think clearly about a population of 320 million without categories, so some kind of classification seems important.

3. The first book about psychology I read was I’m OK, You’re OK, by Thomas Anthony Harris. I thought I knew something when I was done. Then I read some Freud, Jung, Adler and other actual psychologists (badly, I should add), and realized I had been sucked into a pop psych book. It wasn’t useless, but close. I want to avoid that. More pointedly, I don’t want a system. I think we all come in in the middle, including the Frankfurt School and Bourdieu and Foucault, and try to figure things out as best we can. What I’m looking for is some sort of starting framework that can be used and evaluated and reformed, over and over until it needs replacement by a better framework.

What I don’t want is sloppy, disjointed and internally inconsistent thinking, theories unconnected to data, or random collections of data interpreted ideologically. And no thought leaders, whatever the hell they are. And no David Brooks.

18 replies
  1. Bay State Librul says:

    Great topic.

    In my opinion, there is no one framework.

    I’ve tried and tried and still try, to fathom how society can get “out of the mess you describe — but it all comes back to what my old English Prof once said “Jack, one never knows.”

    How to “include” the excluded?

    Besides this most difficult task, as Anthony DeMello writes, are two others: returning love for hate, and admitting that you are wrong.

    I would like to see society focus on our third inalienable right — that of the “pursuit of happiness” — but who is listening?

    Thanks for tackling that “awareness” that something is radically wrong with America in 2017.




  2. Rapier says:

    Unless neoliberalism is defined by a core concept or principal, or a few of them, then “internally inconsistent thinking” is guaranteed. Let’s hear what this core principal is.

    What is the goal of this  project on neoliberalism?  No matter what the stated purpose is,  if it does not promise continued ‘growth’ then it will be absolutely useless in the political and cultural realms. The thing is a promise of endless growth is a lie. The lie at the heart of what we call Economics.


    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Indeed. Sustained growth in a world defined by limited resources is a physical impossibility.  The barely possible is for a few to sustain their growth at the expense of many others.  That is what we’ve seen since the dawn of the Reagan era.

      That takes us back a millenium, to way that the medieval church and nobility aggregated the wealth of many – farm laborers, stone masons, miners of gold, lead and tin, and a few recalcitrant nobles – into their tiny hands.

      Persuading the many to give up their few resources requires intense effort, like washing away a mountain to gather a few grains of gold.  It requires persuading the many to fight only each other over what’s left.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      One of the key concepts of neoliberalism is its vagueness.  Being hard to define, in the manner of Henry Kissinger’s best efforts, meant that more of the elite, to whom neoliberalism is directed, could interpret it as promoting their priorities.  After all, it was elite money that paid to create and promote it.  An added benefit is that being hard to define makes it harder to attack.  Some of its staunchest proponents even claim that they are not “neoliberals” at all.

      As with the devil, the trick is to convince opponents that neoliberalism doesn’t exist (despite the abundant evidence that it dominates the culture), and that there is no need to attack it or its proponents and priorities.

      That approach works – and “neoliberalism” as a tool remains useful – so long as neoliberalism corresponds with the priorities of the elite:  Shatter bonds of community, to avoid paying its costs and to disempower its  non-elite opponents and keep them vulnerable.  Elevate the moneyed elite further, in part by claiming, as did Social Darwinism, that their money and status were earned and deserved.  (About half of it is inherited – hence, the push to get rid of inheritance tax – and much of the rest is acquired by rigging the system, notably the tax system.)  Argue that the opposite is true: the poor and middle class deserve their lower places and priority in society and should willingly keep them.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    A significant development of post-war American academia, and especially from the 1960s, was the movement away from qualitative analysis toward the quantitative.  Understanding culture in the manner of Bourdieu or Mills, let alone Chomsky, was anathema.  Such studies would inevitably lead us to analyze and question the status and role of the elite and its principal government and corporate members.

    Understanding that our circumstances are the result of intention and choice, not iron laws, would encourage us to participate in that process and to establish different priorities.  Chalmers Johnson frequently lamented this development; it led him, in part, to leave Berkeley for San Diego and ultimately to become an independent commentator.

    Quantitative analysis was partly in imitation of physics, which had god-like status in post-war America.  Universities were scrambling to meet increased post-war demand, enabled by changes in social expectations and paid for largely by the GI bill.  Physics was the darling that brought in a trove of government spending; other disciplines attempted to show how much like physics they could be.  In a world built on scarcity, that meant limiting expenditure on other disciplines.

    Physics, and billions in taxpayer subsidies, had given us the bomb.  The bomb became the basis for research, and for our military and foreign policy.  Protecting its secrets became the basis for social control through normalizing wartime domestic surveillance and by establishing the elaborate bureaucracy of “clearances”, which has continued to metastasize.

    The newfound emphasis on the quantitative in academic, corporate and government thinking also owes it prominence to post-war economics, especially the Chicago School.  How odd that a social science like economics should become the basis for delegitimizing other social sciences and arts such as sociology, anthropology, geography, and history.

    Quantitative analysis taken to extremes undercut through ignorance our cultural understanding of the other, which is a necessary precondition to allow an expanding global empire to abuse and dominate others without the distraction of political opposition at home.

    It was important, for example, for the American people not to understand the victims of its empire, such as the Vietnamese or Indonesians.  It was even more important for them not to understand the empire’s principal enemies, Russia and China.  Keeping most of us ignorant about them, limiting our understanding of them to two-dimensional government caricatures, was essential to our military and foreign policy.  We might not be as willing to give up life, liberty and treasure to fight an enemy with whom we play football during a Christmas truce.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Nice put down of the eminently put downable David Brooks.  He has mastered the art of false framing and the straw man of false choices.

    Republicans, for example, are not attempting to change the tax code to “thwart populism”.  They are doing it to enrich themselves and to reward their demanding wealthy patrons.  They are doing it to economically, socially and politically disenfranchise those with whom their patrons are in conflict – most of America.

    “Mainstream Democrats”, that is, establishment and corporatist Democrats, do not oppose this particular GOP tax bill – with its generous rewards for a few thousand Americans and penalties for everyone else.  They support it, in private if not on the House floor.

    Populist democrats do not oppose this tax bill in order to “redistribute the crumbs a bit more widely”.  They want to change the tax code, and hence government policies, in order to create a fairer social system – one in which health care and education are within reach of the many, where government power is used to contain the excesses of profit-at-all-costs corporations, where the government is not rewarding them when such corporations send jobs overseas – instead of to reward the already wealthy.

    Brooks tag line about policy wonks and their sand castles being “swept away in the cultural tides” is just common or garden variety bullshit.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        One of driftlass’s comments quotes a recent Brooks and Limbaugh interview with Charlie Rose.  Brooks is in his usual “bothsiderism biosphere” and Limbaugh rushes inside it to tell us that our present “acceptance” of sexual predation starts with Bill Clinton – of course – “cavorting with a 19 year-old intern.”

        The best propaganda mixes a handful of truthful raisins with its doughy lies.  To wit:

        Sexual predation dates back to the dawn of time, or has no one read Clan of the Cave Bear or heard of Caligula?

        Only the wretched or the Stockholm-syndromed, the naive, vulnerable and occasionally Catholic accept paedophilia and sexual predation without a struggle. Some might lie back, grin and bear it – to paraphrase a nasty Republican’s suggestion about accepting rape – because they’ve been beaten and abused or because they know how vulnerable they are to shame, to disbelief, and to counter-attack by the predator.  In a way, Sally Hemmings was lucky.

        Monica Lewinsky was not 19 when she and Bill had sex; she was a 22 year-old college graduate.  She was not a 17 year-old high schooler Roy Moore pulled out of trig class to chat up, let alone an even more vulnerable 14 year-old child.  False equivalency?  Yeah.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Sexual predation is about power, sex is a tool with which to wield it.  (With apologies to Germain Greer.)

          I would add to my list of those who accept it lawyers, bureaucrats and politicians.  Some of them practice it.  Some of them find it too hard to grapple with because they lack courage or power, or because they are themselves vulnerable to the power of those who wield it.  That’s true whether they are inside the Vatican, the Capitol or a small town DA’s office.

          • bmaz says:

            I am one of those. Have been hired by both the Diocese and the Temple before. Never lost any sleep over it because criminal defense is a right. But there is (I hope!) a difference between criminal defense and civil support. We  shall see I guess.

            • earlofhuntingdon says:

              Never confuse a lawyer with his client, or a lawyer’s defense with her client’s conduct.

              That said, there are lawyers and then there are lawyers.  Clarence Darrow or Louis Brandeis – or the fictional Mickey Haller or Alejandro “Sandy” Stern – sometimes represented clients on society’s margins.  They are not the same as Kellyanne Conway, Alberto Gonzales or Roy Moore, whose conduct puts them in another category entirely.

  5. matt says:

    Wonderful post and comments all- these were the discussions that academics and policy makers used to have before the One True Market…

    Another qualitative question that has been avoided involves Labor vs. Marginal Use theories of value.  If value is only calculated by its usefulness in an “objective” economy, we don’t have to consider justice and ethics in human relationships.  From a Paul Mattick article from 1939:

    “The marginal utility school arose in defense of capitalism, and its apology consisted in the construction of a value concept which justified the prevailing class and income differentiations. The existing inequalities based on the exploitation of labor were explained as an undefeatable natural law of diminishing utility.”

    In addition to solving the problem of growth, which requires LIMITING our desires (in material terms), any viable long term economic system would hopefully consider once again, the role of human beings in political economy.  The question is can we have this discussion in the context of “Third Way” thinking- not stuck to the poles of dichotomy between Absolute Capitalism and Totalitarian State Socialism.

    Ironically, a Free Market can and does distribute wealth reasonably equitably in local markets where participants are known to one another. So how can we balance the maximum of individual liberty with a minimum standard of social and environmental welfare?






  6. lefty665 says:

    Don’t worry Ed, you will never be like David Brooks, for you are not a pretentious right wing twit.

    I would suggest a book by historian Thomas Frank “Listen, Liberal” for insight into the transformation of culture and the Democratic Party from New Deal champions of workers into neolibertarian champions of elites. The footnotes are a goldmine for readings on culture, culture change, and the rise of Dem neoliberalism. It also has the virtue of being cheap, currently less than ten bucks on Amazon.

    He tracks how, when and who drove the Dems to abandon the New Deal and to embrace neoliberal professional elites. It was in the McGovern Commission reforms after the 1968 debacle (some reforms were good – like primaries), a key player was Frederick Dutton, a Dem power broker, member of the McGovern Commission and author of “Changing Sources of Power”.

    A brief excerpt from Frank that addresses Neo-Liberalism:

    “The most exciting of these bright young thinkers were the tech-minded Washingtonians who called themselves the ‘Neo-Liberals’; in the early 1980s their bold thinkings were the subject of a manifesto, an anthology, a collective biography, and countless news stories. To the reader of today, however, what stands out in their work is the distaste they expressed for organized labor and their enthusiasm for high-tech enterprises. The 1983 Neo-Liberal manifesto, for example, blamed unions for the country’s industrial problems, mourned all the waste involved in the Social Security program, and called for a war on public school teachers… It was all so modern, so very up-to-date. ‘The solutions of the thirties will not solve the problems of the eighties,’.”

    In pop culture terms, labor was Archie Bunker aka the New Deal and Meathead was going to save us from their evils. It has been all down hill from there, for the Dems and the country both. Us geezers owe Monica a huge debt for saving Social Security from the tender mercies of Bill and Newt.



  7. Tom Irish says:

    “What I’m looking for is some sort of starting framework that can be used and evaluated and reformed, over and over until it needs replacement by a better framework.”

    I am new here. Have read Marcy for years though. Bill of Rights yeah.

    I suggest Heraclitus. Get a good edition, like CH Kahn’s (Cambridge, 1979). If you need historical and classical handholding, try GS Kirk, The Cosmic Fragments (1954).

    There is a deep misunderstanding that Heraclitus wrote cosmology. No: he was writing about the species. Instead of Hegel, try Feuerbach as someone who understands what it means to talk about the species.

    Also, learn to smell Platonic interpretations of Heraclitus (“you never step twice, etc”). Completely detached and unrelated and irrelevant.

    Heraclitus is a vital source of thinking about the common interest. The only modern comparison is James Madison.

    I’m sorry if this is all insufficiently data-driven. That might be your problem rather than mine.


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