Explaining Our Morbid Political Symptoms
We can’t talk about the rise of right-wing populists like Donald Trump, reactionary and bizarre conspiracy theories like QAnon, and the increasingly pervasive sense of nihilism across global politics without talking about neoliberalism.
- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
Why is so much of American culture pervaded by this intense nihilism, this thrill to the raw and transgressive exercise of power and domination and cruelty, from the president on down? In her book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, political theorist Wendy Brown argues that neoliberalism has played a powerful role. Not just as an economic program that crushes labor, privatizes public services, deregulates industry, unleashes capital mobility, and slashes tax on the rich. But also, as Brown puts it, as a force that has
prepared the ground for the mobilization and legitimacy of ferocious antidemocratic forces in the second decade of the twenty-first century. . . . [T]he rise of antidemocratic politics was advanced through attacks on society understood as experienced and tended in common and on the legitimacy and practice of democratic political life.
Brown warns against the intellectual temptation to rely on one big idea like neoliberalism to explain everything. The damage done by neoliberalism also explains much about liberal and Democratic troubles countering Donald Trump. Brown writes, “Outrage, moralizing, satire, and vain hopes that internal factions or scandals on the right will yield self-destruction are far more prevalent than serious strategies for challenging these forces with compelling alternatives.” That’s in part because liberals in the Democratic establishment have been looking for an exit from nihilism; Joe Biden, because he represents a sort of normalcy, appeared to offer just that.
But I think there’s also a form of liberal nihilism at play here, in the rationale that many offered for not voting for Bernie Sanders, even though they supported Bernie’s policies. That Bernie’s proposals or his candidacy were just impossible. That democracy, its promise of self-government, and achieving through such self-government a caring society and a humane future on this planet might be noble ideas, but there’s nothing we can do to implement them. It’s the task of the Left, then, to fight for the social and for democracy, to build power while expanding people’s horizons, to insist that our fates are linked, and that we can together, imagine, and fight for a livable future.
You write that debates over the causes of Trumpism have been confused in part because they often pit economic and social explanations against one another. “Understanding the roots and energies of the current situation requires appreciating neoliberal political culture and subject production, not only the economic conditions and enduring racisms that spawned it.” What sort of political culture and human subjects has neoliberalism made, and how does that in turn fit in with an economic analysis of the rise of Trumpism?
Let’s start with the familiar understanding of neoliberalism as a set of policies. Our standard understanding goes something like this: neoliberalism slashes the social state, privatizes public goods, turns progressive taxation into regressive taxation, smashes unions, and above all deregulates capital, locally and around the world. That’s true, but neoliberalism is much more than simply a set of policies; it’s also something that governs us — society, culture, ways of understanding ourselves, and ways of configuring social relations — as much as it transforms capital. Neoliberalism transforms what we might call a social state or a Keynesian economic order, not just at the level of economic policy, but at a much deeper level pertaining to how we are to understand freedom, the state, our relations with one another, society, and morality.
Why does this matter? Because neoliberalism delivers a full-frontal attack on the very notion of the public good and society. Margaret Thatcher said it best: “There is no such thing as society. There’s only individual men and women,” and then she paused, “and their families.” There’s no common, there’s no social, there’s no society, there’s only individuals and/or families.
What this does is paraphrases something that Friedrich Hayek spends pages, books on, which is attacking the very notion of society, and with it attacking the idea of a state that is oriented toward producing the good for society.
That means a state that might redistribute the wealth through progressive taxation or through forms of social goods, but also a state that might enact social justice through anti-discrimination and other forms of equality measures. A state that might rectify wrongs like systemic racism or systematic and institutional forms that make women everywhere subordinated, less well paid, less independent, and fundamentally less equal.
Neoliberalism does not just attack the idea of Keynesian economic order, but the very idea of the social state, at the level of the social. Why is that important? Because it rolls out in its stead the idea of economic freedom for individuals, but also the idea of a moral order that emanates from “traditional morality.” Instead of the state intervening in the hierarchies, the exclusions, the racisms, the sexisms, the heteronormativity that has so long secured our order, neoliberalism essentially makes way for a political culture that says no, freedom and the good rest in traditional moral orders.
What do we get at the moment that we are starting to get emerging authoritarian leaders like Trump around the world? We’re getting a population that for four decades has been steeped in the idea that the state should not be intervening in economic freedom or traditional morality.
We’re getting a deep suspicion of democracy as something that overreaches, that builds a state that legislates too much, that tries to push the common, tries to push social justice. We’re getting a population that has been fashioned by a form of reason in which social justice is simply wrong and actually an attack on freedom.
Combine that with the economic disaster that neoliberalism produced. Rampant and extreme inequalities, dislocations, deindustrialization in the North as capital fled to the South and to the East of the world, looking for cheap labor and cheap resources. You get a population that, on the one hand, is weaned on this form of neoliberal reason, and on the other hand, is full of rancor and resentment about its falling status, its collapsing economic future, and feeling more and more that something else in the world is getting what it was supposed to have.
Trump comes along and says, “It’s immigrants. It’s all these people who are jumping the queue. You’re the anointed ones. You ought to be having pride of place.” On top of that, you have all of this demonization of the global elites, the “politically correct,” multiculturalism, and so forth. All of that is born and bred out of a neoliberal economic and cultural political order.
What you’re arguing is that we can’t fully understand neoliberalism without both Marxist and Foucauldian analyses. What do both offer, and what’s missing if we just rely on one and not the other?
If we stick with the Marxists, we stick with the idea that neoliberalism is capitalism on steroids. It may be a particular form of capitalism on steroids, because financialization is born out of neoliberalism, so you get rent-seeking and other forms of “unproductive” wealth production. But it’s still basically about the exploitation of labor and the extraction of wealth from the poor concentrated in the rich.
That’s important. It’s absolutely right, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the larger order of reason that has produced a particular orientation toward that development on the part of the populations governed by it. It doesn’t tell us anything about the anti-democratic thrust of neoliberalism, the ways it frontally assaulted democratic institutions and the very idea of democratic decisions about how things ought to be ordered, how goods ought to be distributed, how the social and economic world ought to be approached.
It doesn’t tell us anything about what kind of subject formation, what kind of making of the human being neoliberalism generates — how it literally converts workers into human capital, not just by generating a gig economy, but also by disseminating the idea that your task is to enhance your own value, keep it from depreciating, and do this at every level, from your social media profile to your résumé, to the particular things you volunteer for, to your particular networks.
The entrepreneurialization of the self.
The entrepreneurialization is an earlier phase; then we get the financialization of the self, where instead of just entrepreneurializing your assets, you then start to get the move to present and brand yourself such that you attract investors in that self and calculate your own self-investments. It’s an interesting shift. This is where I’d have to leave Michel Foucault behind, but keep the framework that he offers, where we’re thinking about the relations of power through which the self or the subject is being made. He teaches us that neoliberalism gives us an order in which we’re entrepreneurialized — that was the Thatcher/Reagan idea. But now we’re in a financialized model, in which it’s not about literally having a financial portfolio, it’s about treating yourself as if you were one.
Your book analyzes the relationship between neoliberalism’s founding thinkers, people like Hayek and Milton Friedman, and the relationship between their ideas and the actually existing neoliberalism that we live under. Why do these ideas of these thinkers matter if, as you write, “Popular enthusiasm for autocratic, nationalist, and in some cases neofascist regimes, fueled by myth mongering and demagoguery, departs as radically from neoliberal ideals as repressive state communist regimes departed from those of Marx and other socialist intellectuals, even if, in each case, the deformed plant grew from soil fertilized by these ideas.”
Why do these thinkers matter then? Is it because, even though this was not their desired world, it is indeed the world that their ideas put into practice and made necessary?
We would not say Marx doesn’t matter, because after all, state communism veered so dramatically from the vision that he etches of communism as a form of emancipation, equality, and the withering away of the state, where we reduce labor time to a minimum and we are finally free to “express our human energies” in an utterly creative way.
No state communist regime looked anything like that, but we don’t say, “Oh, well, it doesn’t matter then . . . Marx doesn’t matter because these things veered.” No, the ideas really do matter, because they were inspirational.
Thatcher would thump Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty and refer to it as “our Bible” when she was arguing with some of her advisers about how to dismantle the social state of the UK. I don’t want to argue that all that matters is ideas. I’m not making that argument. But I do think the ideas matter. Certainly Friedman mattered in inspiring the first experiment in neoliberalism in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile. The guys who ruled out the neoliberalization of Chile were, as we know, called the Chicago Boys, they studied under Friedman. And the “ordoliberals,” that other, lesser known school of liberalism to most Americans, have been extremely influential in Europe and in the development and in the transformation of the European Union.
To the extent that some people call the EU an “ordoliberal state.”
Exactly. So the founding intellectuals matter a lot. They’re not all the same. They don’t all agree with one another, but they shared a vision of free markets and traditional morality organizing what they understood to be an emerging totalitarian state coming out of social democracy.
What I’m arguing is that these ideas really need to be grasped in detail for the vision and the organizing principles — what Foucault calls the “political rationality” of neoliberalism. At the same time, we need a little Friedrich Nietzsche. No founding idea ends up being realized without a lot of transmogrifications along the way and inversions of those ideas as they encounter other powers, appropriations of them, and distortions. Did the neoliberals dream of an antidemocratic authoritarian liberalism? Which is how I would describe a contemporary regime like the one we’re in with Trump right now. Did they dream of that? Absolutely not.
As opposed to a lot of QAnon-believing myth-mongering, rallying, high-energy, stupid masses, they hoped that the masses would be completely politically pacified, by reducing them to economic actors and moral actors tending their own lives. They were interested in depoliticizing the masses, depoliticizing the state, and casting the state as that which would tend construction and the stability of markets, the imperative of economic growth, the facilitation of global competitive orders, and the protection of a moral order that has gone so wildly off the rails — a reminder that ideas don’t make history. They may be an important part in generating new possibilities — that’s why we traffic in them, that’s why you and I believe in them, that’s why we think it’s important for students to explore them and think about them and why we think it’s important to circulate new ideas in a political culture dominated by ideas that we think are terrible.
But ideas themselves don’t fully shape history. They intersect other kinds of powers, and they generate effects that are often unintended.
You write, “The social is where we are more than private individuals or families, more than economic producers, consumers, or investors, and more than mere members of the nation”; that, you write, is “precisely what neoliberalism set out to destroy conceptually, normatively, and practically.”
What is “the social,” and why is it fundamental to democratic culture? And then, why do neoliberals like Hayek believe that society does not exist? And why does that lay the groundwork for totalitarianism?
When I tried to specify it in the passage that you just read, my aim was to remind readers that if we go to the kind of extreme individualism rooted in families and understand those individuals as simply economic and moral actors, in an order where they pursue their own good and pursue their own values and their own beliefs, and get rid of this domain we call “society,” we have eliminated two important things.
We’ve eliminated the domain where we actually live together, not just as individuals in households, but live together in a world. But we’ve also eliminated the space where thinkers like Marx and like other social theorists of equality and inequality identify the powers that subject some groups, elevate others, exclude or marginalize. We’ve eliminated the space where racism and sexism and, of course, class operate.
That’s exactly what the neoliberals wanted eliminated. They wanted to eliminate this idea that there is a web of connections among us that subordinate some and elevate others. They wanted to eliminate the web of connections and connecting powers among us, that both potentially bind us together in common, but also stratify and alienate, atomize, and put us against one another.
They fully believed that it was the social, the belief in the social and the tending of the social, that was the material of totalitarianism — that this is where we could be bound together by the state, tended but also dominated by the state and rearranged by the state in an utterly inappropriate fashion. That what we needed to do to get rid of that bloated state was first to attack the very idea that there was a domain of the social, a domain of society in which the state belonged, in which it ought to intervene. So that means everything was off the table related to racial or gender justice. And, of course, it meant getting the state out of the redistribution business. So, if you were rich or if you were poor, that had to do with your own individual entrepreneurialism or failure at it. The state certainly didn’t belong in the business of providing schooling or food stamps or anything else that would remedy or soften those inequalities.
One upshot of this disavowal of social power relations is that if society doesn’t exist, then those who complain of racism or sexism or exploitation are declared to be weak, whining snowflakes, who also somewhat, perhaps contradictorily, are would-be dictators bent on imposing “a tyrannical political correctness.” How does this denial of the social work to facilitate this remarkable inversion, whereby oppressed people are demonized as the true oppressors of real Americans’ liberty? And how does that, in turn,, fuel this grievance culture that is so pervasive on the Right, from evangelicals and their persecution complex to our extremely whiny and sensitive president?
It’s fairly easy to extend our understanding of the demonization of state intervention in society and the demonization of social justice. The first one to decry social justice warriors was Hayek himself. So the antagonists have a nice pedigree here.
Traditional morality is the proper ordering of relations, because it’s tested, evolved over the years; it’s our evolved form of living well on Earth, so it must be right. If the state inappropriately starts equalizing gender relations, legitimizing queerness, upsetting race relations, not only is this despotism, interfering with the freedom of evolved orders and the people in them, but it’s a mangling of the proper order of things. It’s statism, it’s totalitarianism, it’s dictating where there ought to be freedom. That gets summed up in the idea, too, of political correctness. But it’s also implicitly a kind of exoneration of the weak or the subject or those down on the bottom of the hierarchies, the snowflakes. Who complain about how they’re not getting ahead or how they’re not getting rich or how they’re not succeeding in school because of one vector of power or another that they say ought to be redressed. But actually, this is either their own doing, because they’re failing to simply be good entrepreneurs of the self; they’re not being the right kind of neoliberal subject, but also they’re whining and depending on the state for it. So we get that combination of rejection of social justice and political correctness, on the basis of it being both totalitarian dicta, and inappropriate, because it’s really about whining and complaining and being soft and weak when you ought to be tough and self-made like our president imagines he is.
What happens such that we get all of this grievance at the other end of the spectrum? How do you simultaneously reproach snowflake culture and totalitarian culture, and then claim that you’re victimized as an evangelical or Trump supporter? It seems to me that we have to track the way the Right understands that it was victimized for too long by political correctness culture. But it’s also a grievance against who they imagine controls elite institutions, including academic institutions. It’s a grievance against the so-called global elite and all that was identified with the Davos world. It’s a grievance against all of those who got stuff they shouldn’t have gotten, or who have power to hurt the little guy. Here’s where the aggrieved populism of Trump’s supporters melds in an interesting way with the anti-statism of neoliberalism. They’re not identical.
You’re seeing an interesting convergence of neoliberal anti-statism, and anti–social justice formulations merging with the displacements and the dislocations and dethronements of whiteness and white masculinity that have been part of our last forty years. That’s a little bit of a different story than just pure neoliberalism.
Let’s connect this all to how neoliberals saw politics. You write that political equality is the necessary basis for democracy, and that within a capitalist nation-state, creating the conditions for anything approaching political equality requires measures that foster social and economic equality. “More than an ideological persuasion, social justice — modulation of the powers of capitalism, colonialism, race, gender, and others — is all that stands between sustaining the (always unfulfilled) promise of democracy and wholesale abandonment of that promise.” How does this connect the discussion we’ve been having about the social to the political? How does the destruction or degrading of the social lay the groundwork for this attack on the political in general, and on democracy in particular, that’s so core to the neoliberal project?
Here, I would divide your question into two. One, why is attending to the social so important if we are to have any hopes of any kind of democracy? Forget constitutional or “bourgeois” liberal democracy. If we’re to have any twenty-first-century versions of democracy that are more satisfying and more effective, we still have to attend to that. But the second has to do with the neoliberals’ direct assaults on democracy. We forget sometimes that if democracy is about more than voting, if it’s really about sharing in rule, if it’s really about sharing in governing the powers that otherwise govern us, we have to have the capacity to be political equals. That’s not the same as being economically equal, but it is a capacity that requires that all voices matter, that ability to participate is something that’s afforded to all.
And that’s why attending to the domain of what we’re calling the social is so important. Everybody has to have the capacity to be sufficiently housed, fed, and tended to at the level of basic health, mental and physical. Everybody has to have an adequate education to be able to understand what’s going on in this world. So we need shelter, food, ability to participate, knowledge and education, or information sufficient for that.
This is not radical. Democrats have known for almost every century that democracy has been theorized or practiced in the West or elsewhere, until our own. Where democracy is either reduced to market forces or it’s reduced to voting, or it’s reduced to minimal enfranchisement — all of those things, of course, enfranchisement and voting may matter, but they’re insufficient to have democracy.
We have no better testimony to that than what has been the effect on democracy of the tremendous denigration of public education in the past forty years. Destroy an educated population, and you basically have destroyed democracy. Especially now, when we really need to be able to understand and know things, and sift information in order to be able to be part of the discussions and the powers that otherwise govern us. That’s why it’s important to think about the social in relationship to democracy. You don’t just leave home and then go and be a democrat.
Second, the neoliberals understood that if they could reduce democracy to voting, to bare liberalism, rights and voting, that they could get rid of what they considered the danger of the social state. They were very clear about it: if you enfranchise the masses, if you have universal enfranchisement, you’re going to get demands from the masses for a social state.
That’s an old-fashioned conservative view, that universal suffrage is a big problem.
It is, but they’re very blunt about it. But they didn’t try to get rid of it, at least the mainstream guys. They just said we need to reduce it. We need to get rid of democracy understood as popular sovereignty. It’s not about the people ruling, it’s just about the people voting and having rights. And those who are legislating must not legislate in the economy or in the social order — they must just legislate for it, to keep it propped up. They have to keep the train running. They have to keep markets competitive. They have to construct the laws that will help protect traditional morality and markets, but they can’t actually get in there and mess with those things.
And then, if they could restrict legislators from doing more than simply protecting markets and morals, they had reduced democracy without destroying universal suffrage. What did they reduce it to? They really just reduced it to liberalism, classic liberalism with a little neo turn. Because instead of assuming that markets run themselves and that a minimal state or no state is the best state, you need some state to keep the whole thing running, and you need some technocrats, but they weren’t interested in those people being democratic representatives.
That’s where we get to a crucial issue. They were perfectly happy, especially Hayek and the ordoliberals, with something they overtly called “liberal authoritarianism.” You could have an authoritarian in power, as long as that person respected both markets and morals and the civil liberties of the people.
Because for them, it was only totalitarianism that was illiberal.
That’s the problem: totalitarianism means for them an expansive overreaching state. Authoritarianism simply means an authority, and as long as liberalism is the constraint or the limit, then it’s okay. And that’s what we got. I mean, we don’t have the version they wanted, because they would hate Trump. It’s unsteady, it’s chaotic, it’s messing in markets, it’s messing in all kinds of things. He’s a good demagogue, he’s got mass energies that they want to deactivate. All of that they would loathe.
Instead of the political being constrained, it’s everywhere.
Right. But something like the EU, that’s okay, because that’s a technocratic operation that makes sure all the states and nation-states in the EU South are held to a strict liberalizing standard, austerity measures. They are essentially held to it by a technocratic form of governance. It’s literally governance by algorithm. If Greece or Spain submit a budget to the EU that is not properly balanced and looks insufficiently competitive, it will trip a bunch of algorithmic wires, and the budget’s rejected, and austerity measures get imposed. That would be fine with them.
Milton Friedman wrote, “The fundamental threat to freedom is power to coerce, be it in the hands of a monarch, a dictator, an oligarchy, or a momentary majority.” But we do, in fact, have an oligarchy, thanks to neoliberalism. How could Friedman and others deny that power relations exist within markets and that those private imbalances of power then become larger if unchecked by government? And that then such concentrated market power inevitably exercises political power, not only in terms of capitalist labor relations, which they would also deny, but also just directly, through the democratic state itself. Does Friedman do this just by tautologically defining coercion as repressive power exercised by the state?
From my reading and from reading others who read the neoliberal classics, not one of them would have endorsed the plutocratic or oligarchic regimes that we have today. They understood that not only will the masses demand a social state if you let democracy run rampant, but that the other great danger was monopolies and concentrations of economic power, unless the state intervened to keep those broken up. And their dream was not to have the state run by capital, but to have the state insulated from the demands of the people, on the one hand, and captured by capital, on the other. Neither one has happened. This is where we’re looking at the deviation of the revolution from the intellectual formations that inspired it.
But this is why the work of people like Thomas Piketty and others are so important. What they are revealing is the extent to which the capture of the state by plutocrats, by capital, has not only made the rich richer, but has also throttled economies at the level of productivity. That it’s made them into rent-seeking economies. We have one today that is constantly cutting tax breaks and subsidizing the rich while squeezing the poor. That’s not a market economy, that’s a state captured by capital. And in particular, the ordoliberals really argued that what you needed to insulate against that was a technocratic state. You need a technocracy that is not run by a vested interest.
I mean, the ordoliberals seem a lot more clearheaded in general about what sort of state power is required to get what they want accomplished.
Yes. That they were also a lot closer to the fascist. They’re the one group in the Mont Pelerin Society that did not see fascism as being as much an enemy as they saw socialism. It doesn’t mean they were fascists, but they didn’t have any trouble at all with a mass society organized by a very strong state that would tend to the people through particular moral political practices and establish a very technocratic state that had no responsiveness whatsoever to popular demands.
There’s kind of a multistep, mutually reinforcing process here. It makes this state less democratic, but then it also engenders hostility toward and disaffection with the very notion of democracy. This entails a sort of redpilling of people — oh, democracy is false, and now I understand that this is how things really operate, which paves the way for popular support for authoritarianism.
But to me, things seem quite different on the Left. The Bernie campaign, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise Movement, and the Green New Deal — they all seem fundamentally connected in their insistence on the primacy of the social. Bernie’s call to “fight for someone you don’t know,” Occupy’s collective occupation of public space as a means to reintroduce class politics into democracy, the massive multiracial character of this year’s anti-racist protests, or Sunrise’s insistence that we can indeed imagine and then build a livable future together.
Do you think that the neoliberal attack on democracy has had an opposite effect on this newly resurgent socialist left, which has instead been demanding a deeper form of democracy than we’ve ever experienced in this country, at the very same time that the Right is embracing kind of total antidemocratic nihilism?
Yes. Starting in this country, with Occupy, and then the first wave of Black Lives Matter, there is an insistence on democratizing political, social, and economic life. For Occupy, that identification of the 99 percent, and then what became a routine chant at every social movement for the next decade, “This is what democracy looks like.” When gathering in assemblies, when gathering in squares, when protesting, when shouting, but also when presenting as Black Lives Matter and Occupy and Extinction Rebellion and others, as a kind of naked demand on the part of the people for a better world and a world in which power was not concentrated, held, used against us, used against the planet. I agree with you that there is an emerging, radical democratic demand and vision from these movements.
We might pause, though, and think about whether the anti-statism of the neoliberals is one of those inadvertent inheritances that is also part of what shapes and contours some of the understandings that emerge from these movements. I think the emphasis on mutual aid today that’s coming out of the anarchist wing of a lot of these social movements, the absolute suspicion of state forms of distribution, the way abolitionism has moved across every domain of state power and the suspicion of any possibility of democracy, social justice, or socialism entailing state power or the use of the state — I think we at least have to worry about it.
I raise that because the reality of the Bernie campaign, which I supported from beginning to end, is that it was a campaign mobilizing the people for popular power, for social movements, for popular demands, for all the right things. Education, health care, transformation of the way we understand public goods and public provisioning — all of it, in the end, lands at the feet of the state. Making all of those things work would require not only a tremendous amount of state mechanisms for creating programs, for generating and distributing goods. We know that, and at the same time, all of them also require capitalism. All of them require a mode of financing, which depends on a mode of growth. I’m not saying they require competition in the deregulated form of the neoliberals, but they’re not about a radically new political economy.
They’re about a radically transformed or reregulated and redistributed capitalism, but it can’t be that radical without crumpling.
So there are some things that have been inherited by the Left. And in our visions of a more radical democracy, a more socially just world, a more sustainable one, we still have some of the anti-statism of the neoliberals in them.
Isn’t it also an age-old question for socialists, which is, how do you use social democracy, which is going to raise money from capitalism, skimming it off the top, while moving toward a horizon of something beyond capitalism?
It is an age-old question. It’s a really big question, now that capitalism is fully globalized and financialized. It means that we don’t get to imitate what the endlessly cited Northern European states represent, because that was a postwar production of a much less globalized capitalism and a pre-financialized capitalism with tremendous resources in those states. We’re in a different game now. We’re certainly in a different game in terms of where production takes place of most of the goods that most people in this country, and elsewhere in the North, depend on and want. And we’re in a different game because of the need to cut our relationship to fossil fuels yesterday. So it’s an old question with a novel set of challenges and predicaments.
We need to own up to it and not promise magic while, at the same time, responding to the emergency that the climate crisis and the devastation older forms of democracy have produced. Those twin crises mean something has to happen that’s pretty dramatic. But at the same time, the possibilities of snipping the threads of financialization are almost zip. And the possibility of being able to radically reconfigure globalized production and distribution, as even Bernie promised to do, to return jobs to Americans — that’s also magic. So we need to get real here, even while we need to be radical and utopian and urgent in the reality that we try to build.
Let’s turn to neoliberalism’s relationship with social conservatism, both in theory and in practice, which is really core to the argument you make in your book. For Hayek, both markets and morals are “[r]ooted in liberty and generating spontaneous order and evolution.” They “both ‘spontaneously’ yield order and development without relying on comprehensive knowledge or reason and without a master will to develop, maintain, or steer them.” Are markets and traditional morality, for Hayek and other neoliberals, similar but distinct things with a shared enemy, or are they more basically part of the same organic order that structures humans morally, and then relates those humans to one another through the price signal?
They’re only similar for the neoliberals in one important way, which is that they both have this quality that Hayek calls “spontaneous.” By this, he simply means that they emerge out of an energy of their own without being directed by the human mind or even human intention, and they don’t come from the font of human knowledge — they emerge from a system that they build on their own.
What works out, according to Hayek, is that an emergent system arises, and the emergent system of markets, the emergent system of morality, those are tried and tested. They evolve, they adapt, they change. They order our actions, but they don’t order our actions by telling us what to do. They order our actions through the incentives and constraints and mores and so forth that they harbor.
But that’s where the parallel probably needs to stop, because what Hayek wants to say about markets is that order is provided by competition. What they want to say about morals is that that order is provided by hierarchy, by order that is structured with everyone having a place.
Yet it’s not coercive, like markets. It’s a voluntary conformity, and somehow not coercive.
Exactly. It’s not coercive, because the hierarchy doesn’t actually entail a state. This is a sleight of hand, but I’m just trying to channel them for you here.
Amy Coney Barrett is perfect here. She was part of a religious order that was absolutely hierarchical. Submissive women agreed to everything, from being lower down on the hierarchy to providing sex on demand, yet agreed to it because it gratified a need for order. She could have walked away anytime.
What does that mean?
Probably we need to go back to Plato here. Finding your place in the order. Nothing is better than doing what you were fitted to do. So their understanding of this is not that markets are hierarchical. Markets are unequal. They have unequal results, and what happens in their mind is that people who are aggrieved about market results confuse results with the freedom that they had in the market itself — that results are a different matter from the fact that you’re free and equal in the market.
But moral orders are different. They’re not structured by equality and freedom in that way. They’re structured by hierarchy and an order that is stable, and comforting, and generative, and secure, because they’ve been tried and tested over time.
Hayek is the best theorist of this stuff. He goes the furthest on it. He does have an awareness that what he refers to as traditional morality, a Christian morality, a patriarchal morality, a private property–centered morality, family morality, is not the only morality in the world. He’s not unworldly. He knows there’s other things going on, not just in the West but outside of it. But he insists that the only moral orders that really last have three principles at their heart, the ones that survive the competition that goes on among moralities: family, private property, and individual freedom. So now we’ve got the complete ideology that makes traditional morality absolutely reconcilable with a principle of freedom, and a principle as well of the intact heteronormative family and private property, private ownership.
This rests on a pretty obvious misunderstanding of how tradition actually works. For Hayek, it’s this Burkean set of consensual norms that are refined through this almost Darwinian process of social evolution. When in pretty obvious fact, tradition is constantly being made and fought for.
As Corey Robin writes, it’s volitional, productive, forward-looking, a political reaction that seeks to maintain various forms of hierarchy. If we look to the most classic sort of tradition in US history, we can look to the antebellum and Jim Crow South. Ordoliberals, by contrast, are explicitly constructivists. They want a technocratic state ruled by experts to protect the market from democracy, but also this political and social program to demassify society, “countering proletarianization by entrepreneurializing (hence reindividuating) workers, on the one hand, and regrounding workers in practices of familial self-provisioning on the other.”
Is it fair to say that the version of neoliberalism that won out in the United States, that what it ultimately looks like is ordoliberalism reinterpreted through American Christian conservatism?
That’s a nice formulation. Yes and no. I would say yes to the extent that we see what we have long called neoconservatism conjoined with neoliberalism. That is the emphasis on family authority and a strong state that came through the neoconservative movement, conjoined with an emphasis on free enterprise, maximum individual liberty, and a very minimal state. That’s a version of ordoliberalism, except there’s an awful lot of anxiety about the overreaching state. But I think your formulation will do, because what we’ve ended up with is an endorsement of an authoritarian regime, protecting a market order and a traditional moral order. That move that the ordoliberals made to reground the individual in family, and even in a kind of agrarian pre-twentieth century of village-like life, that was a very specific ordoliberal thing. And it did come out of something that you mentioned in the first half of the sentence that you read out, which is that they were very aware of the danger of a highly atomized society that capitalism would continue to produce.
They worried about this under the rubric of proletarianization. What happens when you just turn workers more and more into appendages of capital and divest them from their families, from their farms, from their villages, and so forth. So they understood the need to have a kind of state program that would reinstall people in that order of things, while at the same time, turning them into bits of human capital.
There’s a real parallel there with godfather of neoconservatism Irving Kristol. He thought that capitalism was good in some ways, but also morally degrading and engendering of nihilism. So conservative morality’s role was to counter the moral rot that the market unleashed.
Right. Church and state. You need a state that has a strong, moral bent and a strong leadership in that direction, and you need people bound to the values that religion and the family values that emanate from it provide.
You write about how neoliberalism has shaped social conservative politics and jurisprudence by linking market freedom and traditional morality together in the protection of businesses’ private right to discriminate. Specifically, these recent marquee Supreme Court cases, like Hobby Lobby, Masterpiece Cakeshop, are revealingly animated by some of the very same sorts of ideas that people like Barry Goldwater articulated to explain their opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
How have conservatives managed to unite private property on the one hand, and traditional morality and the family on the other, and in doing so, use the First Amendment to both allow for private forums of religious domination and also more generally curtail government’s right to regulate private business?
In recent years, in Supreme Court cases concerned especially with pushing back against equality provisions — same-sex marriage, gender equality, women’s reproductive rights, Hobby Lobby, the wedding cake case, so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” that do not properly identify that they are not medical clinics but are in fact part of the pro-life movement — what we see is the Supreme Court using the First Amendment and its promise of freedom of conscience to expand the rights of corporations and small businesses. What we’ve seen is small businesses and corporations getting the right to freedom of conscience, the right to religious liberty, as a right that allows them to push against equal rights when they wish to.
It’s a clever move that needs to be understood as very much rooted in neoliberalism, because it has to do with granting economic actors, from corporations to small businesses, a status of persons, as persons themselves are reduced to human capitals.
One of the things that neoliberalism does is convert us from citizens to subjects and makes our subjectivity into the standing of human capital — that’s what we exist as, that’s what we exist to enhance, that’s what we exist to protect. At the same time, this personhood that is now human capital has extended the status of persons to capital. And in doing that, capital acquires civil rights — intended by the founders to be attached to individuals.
These include free speech, thanks to Citizens United. These include freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.
So what you get today is, on the one hand, the right of capital to do whatever it wants, and the right of capital to acquire the power of conscience and religious liberty to push back against equality mandates intended to secure the equality of those who previously didn’t have it — those who, by virtue of race or religion, minority religions, or gender, or sexuality, have been historically socially disenfranchised. The crisis pregnancy centers go out of their way to disguise what they are and to lure pregnant women in. They’re very explicit about this. I write about this in the book — they go out of their way to lure young pregnant women, usually in crisis, under the imagined auspices that they are places that will give women the whole story on all of their options. In fact, they’re there to keep them from making a decision to have an abortion.
But the case was about whether or not they had to have a simple statement saying that they were not medical facilities and that a full range of medical options were available at the following number, and whether they had to post that anywhere in their offices. And the Supreme Court said no, because these folks have the religious liberty to do the thing they want to do. So there’s a recognition that these are entities that are religious and have religious motivations, and what’s being expanded is their freedom as such entities. That’s how it works side by side with deregulation. They’re not being regulated. They’re being given more freedom to act as they want to act.
Perhaps the greatest seeming contradiction between aspirational and actually existing neoliberalism is the security state and all of its manifestations. We see it at the border, the carceral state, and abroad through empire. But you write that a “twin model of privatization,” economic privatization and also this familial and Christian privatization, “extends to the nation itself. The nation is alternately rendered as a competitive business needing to make better deals and as an inadequately secured home, besieged by ill-willed or nonbelonging outsiders.”
Explain this dual privatization and how it links up the secured private home to a secured private nation. Why does the neoliberal state turn out to be such a fundamentally securitized and deeply repressive one?
I do not believe that you can fully explain the security state, the police state, the increasingly militarized borders through neoliberalism. One theory can’t do all the work here. That said, though the founding neoliberals were not ardent nationalists — Quinn Slobodian has written the definitive work explaining that neoliberalism was always a globalist project — the nationalist turn can be explained not simply by old primordial attachments or the immigration crisis in Europe or the displacement onto racialized others of the problems of the white working and middle classes.
I think we also need to see the extent to which the privatization of everything, the attack on public goods and the attack on the social, made it fairly easy for authoritarian or right-wing politicians to emerge from the ruins of neoliberalism, the economic and social-political ruins, to make an argument for the belonging of the nation to an ethno-nationalist population, a white population, which was being invaded by outsiders. The clearest example of this is Marine Le Pen in France, who quite literally campaigned before she was defeated by Emmanuel Macron, on the slogan, “This is our house. We hold the keys. France is our house. We hold the keys. We have the right to decide whether the door is open, the door is closed, and who comes in.”
That notion of the nation as a house that belongs to those who are already here comports rather perfectly with the idea that there is no society, let alone global society, let alone global society stratified by colonialism, post-colonialism, and the aftereffects of American and European intervention on all the rest of the world. It comports perfectly with the idea that we own our house. We own our country. The borders, the walls of one are simply slightly magnified or ramified versions of the borders and the walls of another. No world state gets to tell us who comes in; no nation-state gets to intervene in my house. It’s an antisocial, anti-political, and obviously anti-inclusionist bit of rhetoric. But it is important to see the extent to which neoliberal privatization is very easily redeployed for something that it was not intended to be used for.
Your book tracks the destruction caused by neoliberalism and then closes with a truly fascinating discussion of what sort of reactionary subject emerges from neoliberalism’s ruins. That’s a nihilistic subject. The nihilism that pervades so much of Trump’s politics, from the rejection of the possibility of reasoned truth, to the thrill in causing offense and suffering and violence, and all the trolling, to the indifference to climate change, the incel movement, the celebration of Trump’s transgressive immorality as a sign of his strength in power, including the power to exact revenge — this is visible in and a result of all of these things we’ve been discussing from, “the explicit transactionalism and politicization of religious values,” to an MLK speech being used in a Dodge truck Super Bowl commercial, to the ability to pay for a VIP upgrade of anything, to more recently, Jerry Falwell Jr’s brazenly deviant sexual conduct. It’s not, you write, “merely the inegalitarian effects of neoliberalism,” but also “its relentlessly inegalitarian spirit.” Explain your explanation of this turn toward such pervasive and intense nihilism, and why you say it’s worse than anything that Nietzsche could have imagined.
Let’s begin by discussing nihilism a bit. It’s usually used to talk about a state in which nothing has meaning, there are no values, there’s just darkness. It’s used in a lot of millennial left culture to come close to fatalism or darkness, where it’s all just going to end badly anyway.
I’m using it a little differently, as the term comes to us from the nineteenth century, from a whole set of thinkers — Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nietzsche above all. What does Nietzsche teach us about nihilism? That it’s not a condition in which values disappear. It’s a condition in which values are toppled from their foundations. What he means is that, as science and other prizes of modernity, like reason and rationality, destroy the foundation for stable values and moral truths, that those truths and truth itself as a value don’t disappear, they become trivialized, they become fungible, they become instrumentalizable.
That is the condition we’re in today. They’re monetized, they’re branded, they’re wielded as weapons. And the examples you just gave are perfect. Jerry Falwell Jr really captured this at the end, saying essentially, I never believed any of this stuff anyway. It was just good business.
He was on this conservative talk show where he was like, I got caught. I’ve been a bad boy.
Exactly. And the fact that Trump is so easily exonerated for everything, from his contractual marriage to the sexual philandering. It’s a condition we need to grasp as something that is not simply describing those who are overtly engaged in deploying a set of hard-core moral or religious values, while cheating on the side. We need to understand this as a more general condition that besets our culture. It has a lot to do with why we are in a “post-truth” world.
What has happened over the last couple of centuries is the devaluation of values. As values were devalued but didn’t disappear, they also loosened the grip of conscience. Why? Because conscience requires a certain sublimation of, Freud called it “instincts,” Nietzsche called it “the will to power.” Conscience requires some throttling of human will, human instincts, human desire, human impulse. And when values are devalued, that conscience itself begins to lighten and loosen. Values are fungible and trivial and instrumentalizable; then they don’t have that same clamp on the making of the subject.
What happens then? What Nietzsche warned us about was “de-sublimation.” Those instincts or that will or that desire pops back up. But here’s where we need post-structuralism added into the mix. The idea of instinct, the idea of will as this unformed thing, is not very helpful. The idea of impulse or acting out from the wounds, from the particular formations that we have — rancor, resentment, rage, frustration — that’s another story.
One of the examples I use is the incel movement. Which is what? A movement of guys who feel like losers, who instead of just feeling like losers — as they might have eighty years ago, saying, “Oh God, we’re just the guys who can’t get a girl. We really feel bad about ourselves” — the rage comes out, the rancor, the resentment, the misogyny, the outrage at other men who are taking the girls. It’s an outrage that also has turned murderous. I
But you see the same thing in the Proud Boys, you see the same thing in other kinds of violent outbursts and everyday trolling. Just rage and rancor and resentment and aggression. So when people talk about us becoming an uncivil culture and needing to become nice again, there’s no reckoning with why we are uncivil. What has happened here is the melding of this form of nihilism that has grown slowly, then has been put on steroids by neoliberalism, with all the frustrations and the difficulties and the nightmares and the wounds and the suffering and the failures of living in this world in an everyday way.
I have a theory about QAnon that I wanted to talk to you about, that I came up with while reading your book. QAnon is, for Trump’s religious right base, the re-sublimation of Trumpist nihilism into this Trumpist world-historical moral purpose. Which might at first sound insane. But QAnon is a millenarian movement that identifies this maximally stark moral divide between an evil elite pedophile cabal, on the one hand, and on the other hand, Trump, the hero, who will destroy them and instantiate a blessed golden age.
Its popularity has exploded since the onset of the pandemic. So it seems to be operating at the same biopolitical level as the pandemic and the government response to it.
I suspect we’re going to have articles, then books, then mega books on QAnon. It’s all coming. But my own thinking is a little different, because first of all, we need to remember that QAnon is not just popular in the United States. I read a frightening statistic a few days ago, that one in four people surveyed in England finds QAnon perfectly believable. It has a big German following.
So, yes to the pandemic effect. And certainly one of the pandemic effects has to do with this idea that extracting a serum from these young children kind of parallels the anxieties about both the virus itself and its movement, but also the possibility of vaccines and so forth connects with the anti-vaxxers.
But I also think we shouldn’t get too hung up on the precise content of QAnon. Why? Because it keeps morphing. QAnon had the pedophile thing in place from the beginning, but a lot of its other content keeps changing and adapting, and the believers keep growing. So then we need to ask why a conspiracy theory — that, as you say, is very Manichaean and offers causal forces of bad and saviors for good — works right now. Why is it so popular right now? On some level, it feeds what all conspiracy theories and most religions do, which is offer an explanatory worldview amidst enormous complexity and powers of all kinds, amidst which people feel not only impotent but unknowing.
But I think the Trump thing is kind of interesting because, yes, it parallels Trump’s own constant invocation of the dark webs of forces that attack him, the media, the deep state, and it parallels his constant assertion of innocence, his invocation of innocence, and invocation of the innocence of his followers, amidst all the darkness and swamps and attackers. But Trump’s also less and less believable. I wonder to what extent QAnon, as a conspiracy theory, is helping to keep Trump supporters supporting him, while paying less and less attention to what he actually says.
That’s an odd thing to say about such a wild and nutty conspiracy theory. But I just wonder if, in addition to all those powers that we can’t sort today and that we feel helpless and powerless before, and in addition to the isolating effects of the pandemic, which many people have pointed out already that QAnon addresses through its sociality and alternate universe, because it gives people new friends and new worlds and new causes, that there’s also something about resurrecting the picture of the world that Trump drew and the idea of him as savior, even though he’s pretty much outrun the figure that evangelical Christianity made him out to be in the beginning: “Okay, he’s an unlikely savior, but he’s our guy, God sent him to us for a purpose.” QAnon takes that another step, and in some ways, moves it beyond anything Trump does or says.
I think we need to treat QAnon as on a kind of spectrum or continuum rather than as something wildly other and by itself. There is so much today that right and left have to sort in the way of what we might call invisible powers or powers that are beyond our comprehension. Russian trolling, the virus, surveillance capitalism, finance, who the hell understands it? Even the highly trained investment bankers don’t. But then also, lead in the water, and drug and sex trafficking, and 5G. Even Iran-Contra was hard for many people to follow.
There’s something about the modern force field of powers — it’s not surprising to me that, as we all try to piece together this world, some of the piecing together would take this particular form. A bit more extreme, but it’s not that wild as a deviation from the efforts more generally to map the powers that surround us, that organize us, and that threaten to kill us, including climate change.
And using actually the most mainstream, readily available material created by decades of childhood safety panics, stranger danger, sex panics.
Absolutely. And that links so beautifully with all the other ways in which moral panics and pro-life forces have painted the world. But here’s where I would end. If it’s true that the attraction to QAnon is some combination of a substitute figure for Trump himself — because even though Trump is in the picture, he no longer has to be listened to or believed, as I said, and it has to do with navigating contemporary powers when one feels so small and so frightened and so existentially threatened by them — maybe what we need here is something like a new psychosocial account of the structure of the fetish. Freud told us that structure was, “I know, but still”; that is, I know it’s not true, but still I believe; I know that carrying that little rabbit foot in my pocket is not going to keep me safe, but still, I can’t leave the house without it.
And since the content of QAnon and other conspiracy theories, including those organizing right-wing militias, keeps morphing, keeps changing, maybe that “I know, but still” is part of what’s working here. It’s really unfortunate that neuropsychology is on the rise today as a way of explaining human behavior, when what we really need are accounts of the psyche in a global population facing existential dangers. The powers I just described, they’re agentless. And there’s no reliable authority. Overwhelming waves of disaster and difficulty. I mean, even what we’re facing just here in California: the pandemic, the recession wildfires, rising seas — it’s overwhelming. Maybe what we need are developments of psychosocial accounts of our subjectivity, our desires, what we’re drawn to, what we’re oriented by, and not better neuropsychological accounts of the chemicals driving our brains.