Redoing the Demos? An Interview with Wendy Brown
Samuel Burgum, Sebastian Raza, & Jorge Vasquez
The following discussion with philosopher and political scientist Wendy Brown seeks to apply her provocative and indispensable ideas to recent political events and problems, in particular focusing on her work in Undoing the Demos (2015) and returning briefly to consider Politics Out of History (2001) in today’s context. The questions were collectively authored and the interview itself was conducted by Sebastian Raza via Skype on 23rd May 2017. We would like to thank Wendy Brown for the generous contribution of her time and for answering the questions so directly and clearly. This interview has also been published in Spanish with the journal Theorein.
Question 1: In Undoing the Demos (2015), you address the impossibility of radical or emancipatory politics whilst the market is the only source of ‘verification’ and its fiction, the Homo Oeconomicus, is the last figure standing. In order to grasp this problem, you develop an interesting triangular space between Foucault, Marx and Democracy, which proves to be fruitful, yet also finds opponents in each corner. Could you elaborate further on this theoretical space you have created? Why is it important, and how can we best tackle the critiques arising in each corner?
Brown: From Marx, we learn to think about political economy and learn to think about capitalism in its various iterations. Of course, we had to do some updating of Marx to grasp first Keynesian and then, more recently, neoliberal capitalism and now finance capitalism. But from Marx we learn to think about our world in terms of the organisation of the mode of production and what some have now called ‘the mode of prediction’ (that is, finance capital). We learn to think about it in material ways, and that seems really important for thinking about both where power and domination and exploitation are, and points of resistance.
From Foucault, we learn to think about how we are governed by orders of reason and, what he has come to call in later life, forms of ‘governing rationality’ or ‘governmental reason’. And, for Foucault, those cannot ever be reduced to modes of production or political economy and, importantly, become our common sense: the modes through which we are produced as subjects and also the modes through which we are governed as subjects. So, Foucault teaches us to keep our eye on the principles of common sense that any particular order of governing rationality generates and think about how to resist those: how to develop alternative principles, alternative discourses… but also how to think about resisting the subject that these modes produce. And that’s a very difficult practice but I think a really important one.
Now, for me, the problem is, those two thinkers are very powerful and very important in thinking about political resistance; but neither one is much interested in ‘democracy’, its institutions or its imaginary (Marx a little more than Foucault). But why do I care? Because the other thing that seems to me that’s been happening through neoliberalism is that we live in what Foucault would call a ‘governing rationality’ that has quite materially assaulted the institutions of democracy, the practices of democracy. Its turned democracies into political marketplaces, Plutocracies and Plutonomies, but also challenged the political imaginaries that democracy and democratic rebellions count on.
So, as you say, I’ve had to add a third corner to the map of our co-ordinates when thinking about our condition, but also thinking about points of resistance. I’m not quite as dark a thinker as you maybe suggested. I think effective political action will sometimes lean in one direction and sometimes another. It might be protesting assaults on democracy, it might be protesting particularly hyper-exploitative or colonising effects of capital – whether by banks or by factories or by states – or it might be challenging the very mode of reason by which, for example, public universities have been largely destroyed.
Really effective political action, I think, tries to have all those going at once. It tries to have a good analysis and an understandable way of teaching populations what kind of subjects they’ve become, what reality principles they are living by, and what alternatives might be… and at the same time, capturing modes of capitalism and devastation toward democratic institutions. But you know, you do what you can at any particular political conjuncture or any political moment, and I think we might be talking about the emergences of new right or proto-fascist movements later in the interview. Those are on everybody’s map now and that means at different times you’re protesting or challenging or trying to unseat governing modes of power in different ways.
Question 2: As you demonstrate in Undoing the Demos (2015), neoliberalism has changed the nature of law, education, and state governance. However, with the recent rise of neoconservatism, the role of the state is surely the more urgent of these, and you have found disturbing convergences between the operations of neoliberalism and fascism (2015, p. 219). Could you elaborate further on these convergences? Does the affinity between neoliberalism and fascism, for instance, help us in any way to understand the rise of President Trump?
Brown: When Trump was elected, but also when Brexit took place… when we’ve seen the emerging of either neo-fascist parties or just extreme right parties – the Front National in France, the Alternative For Germany in Germany etc… I think many people are inclined to see this as the end of Neoliberalism because they’re nationalist, they’re not in favour necessarily of strong free trade policies, and they’re premised on a new politics of racism, xenophobia, exclusion, nationalism, protectionism, and so forth.
I think it’s a mistake to see these as counters to neoliberalism, although they are a certain form of reaction. What I mean is this: neoliberalism has produced the conditions in which we are, among other things, witnessing an enormous rage from a largely white male (but also white female) population, that has had its economic and social sense of entitlement dethroned by neoliberal capitalism. What we are seeing is not just reactions to immigrants, but also reactions to declining standards of living, lost jobs, lost pensions, declines in neighbourhoods, disintegrating infrastructure… all the things brought to us by 4 decades of neoliberalism’s global race to the bottom in wages and in taxes and in other things that make working class and middle class life bearable (especially in the Global North where we are focused in our conversation).
So, part of what I would argue we are witnessing right now is a reaction to not just economic devastation of middle and working class existence, but also especially a sense of white entitlement and white supremacy that itself has been savaged not by explicit discourses within neoliberalism, but by the effects of neoliberalism which has moved jobs to other parts of the world, moved inexpensive labour forces into countries and neighbourhoods and cities that were a little bit more homogenous in the past. So, part of what we’re seeing is a rage against this.
What we’re also seeing is all of this take place under a rubric of freedom. That is, the rallying cry of ‘France for the French’ and ‘Germany for Germans’ and ‘America First’, shouldn’t distract us from the extent to which these extreme right parties also are claiming to be the parties of freedom. The parties of the freedom of the individual, the freedom of speech, freedom to claim your country and your neighbourhood and your nationality for those who understand themselves to own it. So, it’s a specific notion of freedom: it’s freedom as ownership, it’s freedom as private rights to make claims… that have been extended now to the nation itself: ‘France for the French’, ‘America First’… ‘we are the people who have the free right to make a claim on our own behalf’. And that notion of freedom came, as well, directly out of neoliberalism, so one of the things I’m working on now is trying to map the genealogies that have brought neoliberalism to this turn.
I’ll say one last thing here. I am not suggesting that the original neoliberals, the intellectuals who formulated this particular set of ideas – Hayek, Friedman, Ordoliberals and so forth – had in mind a neo-fascist or authoritarian turn. Quite the opposite, these were thinkers as you know who developed their ideas in the shadow of European fascism and totalitarianism, and understood themselves to be making a world in which anything but fascism was meant to be the next step. I am suggesting, however, that what we’re seeing is a kind of neoliberal Frankenstein at this point. That is a monster, a creation, that was not in the design of neoliberalism, but is now quite obviously one of its effects.
Question 3: One of the campaign slogans for the so-called ‘pink tie’ nations (initiated by Chavez when he was elected in 1999) was ‘The Return of the State’. When compared to the ‘withdrawal’ of the state in the 1990s, this was meant to indicate the strengthening of democratic institutions in order to establish mechanisms for economic redistribution and increased political participation. Some authors (e.g. Emir Sader (2008); Atilio Borón (2014)) therefore saw in this ‘return of the state’ an indicator of post-neoliberalism yet, as you point out in Undoing the Demos (2015), the state did not wither under neoliberalism, but simply operated under a different rationality. What is your position on ‘the return of the state’ as an anti-neoliberal gesture? What are your thoughts on claims that we are now moving towards a post-neoliberal era in these spaces of the Global South?
Brown: I think we have to be really careful in our thinking about ‘the’ state here. I don’t think there is a singular formation of the state and I think one of the great mistakes of Marxist and Neo-Marxist theory in the 60’s and 70’s that have tried to develop a theory of ‘the’ capitalist state, was precisely imagining that there was one form of the state and that the state itself was unified. With Foucault, what we get is a kind of early attempt to reject the state as the centre of power and push the state off the map altogether. And then, ironically, I think what you get in later Foucault is a kind of return of a figure of the state, that again is fairly un-deconstructed and not very complex.
So, what do we need to be doing now? We need to think about states in their specificity. Which is to say – to stay in the Global North for a second before moving south – there is obviously a difference between the Keynesian or social welfare or social democratic states and the neoliberal state. It’s not that one is the bigger than the other, or one is the real state and one is not; they’re performing different kinds of functions, including legitimation functions.
So, with Chavez, they understand the rhetorical effect of talking about ‘the return of the state’ for purposes of redistribution, of egalitarianism, of socialising the economy and society. But I think it’s a rhetorical gesture because, as we know too well from contemporary Venezuela, that same state can be deployed to other functions: police functions, military functions, administrative functions, corrupt functions, etc. So, I don’t think it’s a question of ‘yes or no?’ to the state. I think the question for the Left today, including in the Global South, is: how to deal politically with efforts to challenge neoliberal globalisation at a local level, without concentrating power – all kinds of forms of power – in states that end up being anti-democratic in their operation and in their mission?
I’m not saying that is a simple problem to solve. I think that states are still the form in which nations choose to either comport with or resist the forces of a neoliberalised global order, and I think the question of how to array a Left project in a local setting – whether it’s a national setting or a subnational setting (as many resistance projects in the south are now, efforts at local sovereignty or local political economics that try to even resist what the national project is) – those efforts too have to figure out what Foucault referred to as ‘a form of political rationality’ that won’t itself be profoundly anti-democratic or subversive of aims of emancipation. It’s a hugely difficult project, but I think it’s essential for the Left – North and South – to be addressing.
Question 4: Confronting a new political context in 2017, it seems that there may be a need to re-diagnose the state of the Left today. In the face of new (post-) feminisms, anti-fascist and anti-racist movements like Black Lives Matter, international solidarities, and the election in some places of ostensibly Left-wing politicians; we perhaps need to revisit the question of ‘Leftist melancholia’ as being attached to ungrievable losses that create political impotence, rage and righteous moralism. Is it still fair to criticise Leftist politics as possessing a slave morality, or a ‘stubborn clinging to a certain equation of truth with powerlessness or as acting out of an injured will’ (2001, p. 23) as you did in Politics Out of History (2001)? What’s more, should we continue describing the Left’s relationship with power as largely defensive – as one of a ‘siege mentality’ (2001, p. 39) – or are there more affirmative forms of politics beginning to rise to the fore?
Brown: That’s a great question. So, I wouldn’t put this as a narrative about different times, I want to instead suggest that when I was attempting to think about wounded attachments on the Left – left melancholia, a certain commitment to a status of innocence, purity, goodness, truth, and beauty (with all the evil arrayed on the other side) – each of those efforts in the past have been efforts to think about tendencies on the Left that I think debilitate it, that limit its powers. They were not intended as descriptions that would totalise the Left, that would explain everything about it. I think those tendencies are still always possible, they’re still there, I think we have to be wary of them. I think it’s been very difficult for the Left in the aftermath of the failed socialist and communist experiments in the 20th century, to address a set of problems that we have to address:
One, what vision do we have for an emancipatory, modestly egalitarian, sustainable form of political economy, and democratic self-governance? Is it local, is it national, is it global? How does it accommodate difference? How does it deal with the range of issues, other than class, that Marx didn’t sufficiently tend to and that communism has never sufficiently attended to? How do we deal with sexuality, with gender, with race, with colonialism, and so forth. And what kind of vision do we have which is genuinely compelling and that stands us in alternative to this nightmarish world of ours? That’s a tall order, but it’s really important.
The second that I think is very important for the Left today, is to think about how to work on projects of resistance or opposition that also have a vision of alternatives? A vision that extends beyond the ‘these people are terrible’, ‘this regime is awful’, ‘this oppresses us’ and so forth… that actually has an emancipatory picture that is a deep and relentless part of its politics.
I’m saying all of this, which is fairly obvious, because I think there are many many forms of political action today that actually are making efforts in this direction. I think there’s all kinds of experiments going on in prefigurative politics – that is, politics that is trying to anticipate another world, a different order. I think there are all kinds of oppositional efforts that are coalitional, that are multi-dimensional, and open, and pluralistic. But I think that some of the problems that I’ve spent my life also trying to call out in our Left politics are things that we still need to watch out for. I think there’s still potholes in the road. I think melancholia is still a danger: I listen too often to people talking not just about ‘the good old days’, but harking back to a Left project that doesn’t take on the challenges of a globalised world, that doesn’t take on the challenges of difference – irreducible and challenging to a Left vision of self-governance. I also think that I too often encounter in Left circles a continued sense that ‘we are the righteous, the true, the innocent…’ – I guess I almost want to say ‘the children of God’ in that we are fighting this kind of ‘Manichean evil’ on the other side – and I think that’s neither compelling nor very helpful in figuring out what some of the difficulties are inside a Left politics.
So yes, I agree with you that a lot of especially the youth-oriented or youth-built Left projects today are extremely promising, extremely exciting, and full of the kind of energies we need that link alertness, to race, to sexuality, to gender, to sustainability, to the survival of the planet, to indigeneity… and to capitalism, without reifying one of those, without fetishizing any one of those. And I think it’s still very difficult to figure out how to mount a serious challenge to a regime of globally integrated, finance-dominated capitalism that will take seriously that that existing regime will literally bring life to an end as we know it within a century if we don’t replace it with something else. But that’s a huge and difficult project and that’s the one we also have to keep on our shoulders and in our brains all the time.
Question 5: In the epilogue of Undoing the Demos (2015), you propose the idea of ‘bare democracy’ that cannot be part of any governmentality because ‘it features no continuous or consistent account of why people ought to rule, only the negative one that we should not be rule by others’ (2015, p. 203). Could you elaborate further on this idea of ‘bare democracy’? Can there be such a thing as a positive, productive part of democracy in the Foucauldian sense or, as it were, a ‘democratic governmental rationality’?
Brown: By ‘bare democracy’ I was simply referring to the thinnest possible meaning that one could attach to the notion of democracy, and really I was returning us to its etymological dimensions – democracy, demos cratia, rule by the people – as opposed to ‘rule by the one’, ‘rule by the few’, ‘rule by the corporations’, ‘rule by technocracy’, ‘rule by algorithm’, ‘rule by capital’… So, rule by the people is bare democracy, the thinnest possible meaning.
Now, after you’ve said the people should rule, everything remains to be thought and done. How do the people rule? Do they rule through the election of representatives? Well, we saw Marx and others remind us that that’s not really rule by the people, that’s handing-off or giving away your capacity to rule yourself to someone else. Do we rule directly? And what do we do when we divide into majorities and minorities? Are you still ruling yourself if you’re in the minority that finds yourself ruled or governed by a majority? Do we rule by legislating or do we rule by dictate? Do we govern ourselves, as Marx would have it, by collectively owning and controlling the means of production? Is that how rule by the people really happens? Or, as some political theorists suggest, does it happen through giving ourselves the basic principles, the basic laws by which we live? Is that a separate project than the question of a collective owned and controlled mode for subsistence and for providing for ourselves?
So, what I was trying to suggest is that to be committed to democracy is not to be committed to one form or another. It’s not to be committed to bourgeois democracy or even constitutional democracy. Nor is it to committed, necessarily, to a radical democracy in which every single decision we take must be deliberated about by everyone all the time. Democracy is itself, in other words, a contestable, debatable, notion and practice… and historically given shape and given content by different cultural, political-economic, religious and other modalities of existence. So ‘bare democracy’ for me was something I was putting out there just as a notion that we shouldn’t give up on the idea of ruling ourselves. Neoliberalism has given up on it, it says: ‘let’s be ruled by markets, its far better to be ruled by markets than to be ruled by people’. The European Union has given up on it, it says: ‘let’s be ruled by technocracy, let’s be ruled by algorithm, let’s be ruled by experts’. I think, certainly, the new authoritarian regimes are giving up on it, they’re saying: ‘let’s go back to some corrupt version of Platonism and be ruled by one authority presumed to know’.
I’m urging us on the Left not just to fight for equality or freedom from oppression, but to fight for a vision in which people really do govern themselves, really do rule themselves, and I also think that’s the only hope we have of keeping the planet alive, as well as being able to protect the great variety of life, including the great variety of human life, within it.
Borón, A. (2014). Twenty-first Century Socialism: is there life after Neoliberalism? Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.
Brown, W. (2001). Politics Out of History. Princeton University Press.
Brown, W. (2015). Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. New York: Zone Books.
Sader, E. (2008). Posneoliberalismo en América Latina. Buenos Aires: CLACSO.