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.

Security, Territory and Population Part 1: Introduction

Security, Territory and Population is a collection of lectures given by the French thinker Michel Foucault at the College of France in 1977-8. Foucault describes the lectures as a work of philosophy, defined as “the politics of truth” (p. 3), a term which itself seems to require a definition. This creates two difficult problems for the reader. First, philosophy is hard. It involves carefully picking things apart, examining each element, putting the pieces back together, and then picking them apart from some other perspective, examining the new set of pieces and reassembling. It’s hard work, and it makes for difficult reading.

Second, these are lectures, not a polished work prepared for publication with the aid of editors and the time it takes to smooth out analysis. Foucault says that these lectures are part of a long program of study, of which other books and sets of lectures are parts. The earlier books include Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality for certain, and others as well. These are polished works, and they give an idea of the general program.

In this book, Foucault wants to talk about what he calls “bio-power” which he describes as “… the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object ofa political strategy, of a general strategy of power….” Note that I did not use the word “define”, but the word describe. We should understand this book and The Birth of Bio-Power which I plan to take up next, as tentative explorations, and not as a formal philosophical explication.

I haven’t written about Discipline and Punish or The History of Sexuality (except briefly), but I don’t think that will be a problem. The last three books I’ve written about, The Great Transformation, The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Theory of Business Enterprise, raise a similar set of issues. In each one of these books, we saw a massive change in the lives of the working people in Western Europe and the US beginning with the Industrial Revolution. These changes have produced amazing wealth for a few people, and have completely revamped the day-to-day lives of the vast group of working people. How exactly did these changes happen? Was there some great clamor for 12 hour work days in deep-pit mines? Did working people spontaneously decide to put their children to work in spinning mills at the age of 8? Was the demand for coal and cheap shirts so great that these things seemed like fair exchanges to the people whose lives were affected?

Polanyi seems to suggest that the changes were driven by economic duress both from the early capitalists and from the government. Arendt talks about the collapse of earlier social structure, and a combination of economic insecurity and random violence coupled with an appeal to nationalism and scape-goating of the Jews. Veblen doesn’t directly discuss the mechanisms of change but he does say that the industrial age demanded new structures to achieve maximum efficiency. Polanyi says that society resists these massive changes, and Veblen seems to agree. Arendt says that the people can be changed by a combination of force and rhetoric. I realize these are gross simplifications, but they are offered to show that these writers lead us to the problem Foucault wants to talk about. Foucault says that he is not interested in a theory of power, but that his investigations have the potential to expand into a discussion of major social trends.

Third, the analysis of these power relations may, of course, open onto or initiate something like the overall analysis of a society. The analysis of mechanisms of power may also join up with the history of economic transformations, for example. P. 2.

Human beings are a species, and in large groups can be understood and manipulated by those who have studied the species. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault gives us an early example:

[T]he ideas of crime and punishment must be strongly linked and ‘… follow one another without interruption…. When you have thus formed the chain of ideas in the heads of your citizens, you will then be able to pride yourselves on guiding them and being their masters.’ Foucault, Discipline and Punish, at 102, quoting J. M. Servan, Discours sur l’administration de la justice criminelle, 1767.

It reads just like Ivan Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning. We are much more refined than that now, of course. Almost every day we read a new theory about ourselves as a species. These insights are used by business to boost sales, by politicians to gain their own ends, and by each of us for our own purposes. For some of us, it is enough to know that. For Foucault, it was a signal that we need to think more clearly about power.

One good question might be, how did neoliberalism become the dominant discourse, not just of general societal power but of control over the self. Freedom is the most important thing in neoliberal rhetoric, but if we have to work to live, how free are we? If we have to take whatever is on offer as wages and employment, how free are we? People have internalized neoliberalism as a tool of self-discipline, and at such a deep level that they cannot even recognize it as an ideology. They think it is the natural way life should be, and anyone who questions it is anathema. This leads us to think about governmentality, which I discussed very briefly here, and which Foucault discusses in some detail in this book.

I believe that theory is important. The right wing is winning because so many people believe in neoliberalism, including a large number of Democrats. Kuhn points out that scientists can’t even do analysis without a theory with which to understand the observations they are making. I don’t think theories about societies or individual human behavior can ever have the kind of certainty we can get in the physical sciences, because as humans, any theory becomes an object of study and then of change. Even so, we can’t understand our society without some kind of theory. Foucault says that philosophy is about the politics of truth. Is neoliberalism a truth? What are the points about it where we can push back against the idea that it is a truth? Identifying those points is one of the goals of this series of lectures and of the next set, collected as The Birth of Bio-Politics.

In this post, I suggested the beginnings of a theory for the left. The same kind of analysis can and should be applied to that proposal. But that’s for the future. As I work my way through these books, I will try to remember that every proposal has points of struggle, as Foucault calls them, points that are contested. Let’s start with the recognition that for many people, neoliberalism has successfully concealed the points of struggle from the people whose minds it has colonized.

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.