Neoliberalism Renders Us Powerless — and Blames Us for It

As the 1 percent internalized the sense that they alone were responsible for their success, so too was everyone else made to feel like the cause of their own failure. This formula was baked into the neoliberal philosophy from the beginning.

Neoliberalism was conceived as a fundamentally moral project to make the world safer for property while fashioning individuals into entrepreneurs of the self. (Etienne Girardet / Unsplash)

There are few things more awful than feeling disposable.

When Joseph De Maistre described the French Revolutionaries as satanic and destructive, he at least granted them the dignity of making an impact. José Gasset might have been wary of the “revolt of the masses” of mediocre people against the aristocracy, but occasionally expressed admiration for the permanence and sweep of their uprising.

But when the proto-neoliberal Ludwig von Mises wrote to Ayn Rand, who herself dismissed the majority of the human race as mediocre at best and “second handers” at worst, he made no bones about it. Most people were “inferior” and owed any and all improvements in their lot to the “effort of men who are better than you.”

What makes this particular brand of aristocratic disdain so inherently nihilistic and ugly is precisely that sentiment that most people don’t lead lives that are worth much of anything. We serve as replaceable forms of human capital, put to work by the handful of exceptional individuals who actually know what we should doing with our lives, before we die and the next generation takes our place.

To invoke the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in his Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, the paradigmatic object of the neoliberal era is trash. The mass of “inferior” people serve their function, and when used up get chucked away. How else can one describe the remarkable moments during the pandemic when, faced with the possibilities of economic downturn or sending workers to contract the virus and die, plenty on the Right signaled their enthusiasm for the latter?

Neil Vallelly’s superb new book Futilitarianism: Neoliberalism and the Production of Uselessness is a polemic against the emptiness of the neoliberal era. It examines both its ideological roots, history, and political culture.

Deeply inspired by the similarly grim Mark Fisher (of Capitalist Realism fame), the book is often sobering and even melancholic. Indeed in some of its more scathing passages, Futilitarianism reads like the academic equivalent of a primal scream against the injustice and alienation of the futilitarian era. But this passion drives and deepens Vallelly’s analysis, and the book will no doubt be welcomed by all of us who seek a better alternative to the despair of neoliberalism in the age of COVID-19.

Utilitarianism and Capitalism

Vallelly locates the roots of neoliberalism in the moral and political theory of Utilitarianism, which has long antecedents, but was generally given systematic form by the English polymath Jeremy Bentham in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Bentham began his intellectual career with a scathing denunciation of English common law, which he saw as irredeemably traditionalist and littered with irrational prejudices. While in hindsight progressives should actually agree with many of his criticisms, Bentham already displayed a worrying tendency to boil things down to a very basic set of moral and psychological principles, that struggled to account for historical and human complexities.  This was best reflected in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation when Bentham proclaimed, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”

Since then, for all his insistence on its rationalistic simplicity, many have complained about deep tensions in Bentham’s position. Was he making a psychological claim about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain simply being fundamental human motivations, a moral claim about how they should be the fundamental human motivations, or both? But Bentham was convinced of the power of his argument, and claimed that the best moral and political system would be one dedicated to achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, as determined through a kind of felicific calculus.

As Vallelly points out, the most obvious tension in Bentham’s utilitarianism is between its individualism and concern with “a form of wellbeing that extends beyond the individual. Utilitarianism, after all, intends to maximise utility for the greatest amount of people, with, theoretically, no individual’s happiness prioritized over another’s.” Put another way, if it is psychologically true that each individual is egoistically motivated by the pursuit of pleasure for herself, how do we move from there to a moral argument that she should put her desires aside if that would secure greater happiness for others?

The later philosopher Henry Sidgwick described this as the enduring inconsistency between “rational hedonism” and “rational benevolence,” or as it’s sometimes called “psychological” vs “ethical” hedonism. It was sufficiently thorny that Sidgwick labeled it the “profoundest problem in ethics.”

For many capitalists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the solution lay not in moral or political philosophy but economic theory — which nonetheless had a quasi-utilitarian ethos. Importing the evolutionary idea of the market as a mechanism that had emerged over time to maximize utility, figures like Francis Edgeworth argued that a society where individuals competed with one another in the production and sale of goods would maximize utility over time. This is because capitalist firms would be incentivized to gratify the greatest number of human needs, while individual consumers would be free to consume whatever goods gave them the highest levels of pleasure.

Despite the appeal of this synthesis of utilitarianism and capitalism, it was never uncontroversial. In the twentieth century, Vallelly observes, there was a climatic struggle between socially minded utilitarians, mostly inspired by J. M. Keynes, and the increasingly strident neoliberal economists. For a while, the socially minded utilitarians were successful, and largely justified the creation of extensive welfare states on the grounds that a more even distribution of goods and services would make people happier and prevent needless suffering.

But as Vallelly points out, it was not to last.“The neoliberals won the long game,” he writes. “The economic stagnation and political crises of 1970s crippled Keynesian logic. In its place, [Friedrich] Hayek and the neoliberal cabal of the Chicago School of Economics chewed the ear of sympathetic politicians in the US, UK, and further afield.”

Neoliberal Futilitarianism

There is a clear sense in which neoliberalism constitutes a continuation of this utilitarian tradition, for instance by retaining an emphasis on utility maximization. But Vallelly rightly points out that neoliberal theory and practice stripped utilitarianism of whatever social conscience it had, and refocused its energies entirely on remaking the individual into a form of social capital totally beholden to market forces and increasingly denied even a minimally responsive state for protection.

What was left of utilitarianism was a belief that “individual choice and flexibility” were integral features of the market economy. Moreover, linked to this reconsideration of utility was a reconceptualization of freedom as nothing more than these kinds of consumer choices and flexible capitalist conditions. Neoliberals felt that by encasing the market from democratic pressures and disciplining the population by gutting agency-enhancing social programs, the narrow freedoms remaining to individuals — to compete and consume in the market — would lead them to become immeasurably more productive, often by necessity in a sink or swim world.

Jessica Whyte and Wendy Brown are two of the most important theoretical influences on Futilitarianism, and rightly so. They warn us to avoid understanding this turn along purely economistic lines. This has long been a favored rhetorical trope of neoliberal politicians, who often insisted they were operating beyond ideology, or simply letting the natural “laws” of the market run their course. In fact, neoliberalism from the beginning was conceived as a fundamentally moral project to make the world safer for property while fashioning individuals into entrepreneurs of the self.

This is sometimes made comically explicit, as in Tom Peter’s 1997 article for Fast Company “The Brand Called You,” which urges people to stop thinking of themselves as complete persons or even as workers clocking in and out. Instead we were literally a brand that needed be invested in, marketed, and adapted to new circumstances.

The dark side to this is the responsibilization of the individual for all their problems, even those that don’t fall under their control. Worried about global warming? Don’t blame big oil, think of how often you tossed a can into the trash rather than recycle. Can’t get insurance or pay your medical bills? Consider cutting back on alcohol and bad food to save money and improve your health. The result was not just a depoliticization of life, but a dynamic of disempowerment through futility. As the 1 percent internalized the sense that they alone were responsible for their success, so too was everyone else made to feel like the cause of their own failure.

This leads to the sense of futility and emptiness Vallelly powerfully diagnoses as emblematic of neoliberal capitalism. Communities and political movements are disaggregated into atomized individuals. They are paradoxically made to feel that relentless but narrow self-improvement, the pursuit of wealth, power, and status within the system is all that matters, and that they are powerless to change that same system.

In a sense neoliberalism is defined by what Hannah Arendt artfully called a kind of impotent bigness, in which people have enough agency to satisfy their pleasures but but not enough to reclaim the world around them. This is reflected in what Vallelly calls the “semi-futility” of the culture around us, which is for the first time stamped by a sense of permanent hopelessness in the face of its own alienation.

Where classical Marxists once believed in the inexorable historical arrival of a better tomorrow, one of the most alienating features of neoliberalism is how it naturalizes history out of existence. Since there is “no alternative” to the world as it is, aesthetics becomes the endless recycling of cultural images and symbols from the past, a pastiche of postmodern nostalgia for a time where people could actually make a difference. Even language becomes increasingly incapable of bearing the gravitas of meaning we need it to, as communication is flattened by digital discourse and the rich texture of the world becomes liquidated into two hundred eighty digestible characters.

Politics Against Futility

I’m not convinced Vallelly has truly done justice to the utilitarian tradition, which as he grudgingly acknowledges often had a more radical side than comes to the fore in Futilitarianism. Bentham himself may have been an awkward guy with a bad habit of saying “shut up and calculate.” But he was also an early proponent of political democracy, women’s equality, and animal rights. This flows quite organically from the egalitarian ethos at the basis of utilitarianism; after all, each is to count as one, and no one as more than one.

Bentham’s successor J. S. Mill innovated on Bentham in important ways that Vallelly skips past too quickly, and even embraced an explicitly socialist politics in the last decades of his life. Indeed Mill’s denunciation of capitalism and moralistic responsibilization in his pamphlet Socialism echoes many of the arguments in Futilitarianism. And indeed Mill’s expressive individualism and insistence that people develop many sides of their nature through experiments in living sits very uncomfortably within the monological mania of neoliberal markets.

Another gap which bears addressing is the link between neoliberalism and the broader political right, which receives scant attention in Futilitarianism. We must not get into the habit of assuming that all forms of reaction and defenses of inequality are the same, which is the conceptual twin of assuming that any and all responses to a phenomena like neoliberalism are radical.

Trumpism, or what I’ve called “post-modern conservatism,” is indelibly stamped by the neoliberal era, particularly its defining division of the world into deserving winners and pathetic losers. But it’s also a reaction to neoliberalism that channels the resentment of the powerful against the increasingly demanding weak in novel ways. This has included the nostalgic appeal to pre-neoliberal symbols and romantic ideas, such as the nation and the conservative religious community, coupled with a thin but real attack on market society’s permissiveness and decadence. Vallelly’s argument would be strengthened by addressing these issues in some depth.

But these are small complaints in light of the book’s great virtues. Futilitarianism is a rare book that speaks to the reader on both a personal and intellectual level. We are living in a futilitarian world, and Vallelly powerfully reminds us that we deserve far, far better.

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Matt McManus is a lecturer at the University of Calgary. He is the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism and Myth, the coauthor of Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson, and editor of Liberalism and Socialism: Mortal Enemies or Embittered Kin?.

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