Review of Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution
By Nicholas Gane
Abstract: This review of Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos considers the claim that contemporary processes of neoliberalism are damaging the core principles of democracy. It is argued that Brown is right to follow Foucault in defining neoliberalism as a form of political rationality, but that core arguments of the book could be developed further through attention to the following points: 1). The operation of neoliberal politics and practices outside of the US context; 2). The position of Austrian thought within the history of neoliberal reason; 3). The problematic status of homo economicus within the neoliberal thought; 4). Why the ‘soft power’ of neoliberalism has proved so effective; and 5). How a Marxist theory of capital might be developed alongside Foucauldian critique of neoliberalism.
There are many good books on neoliberalism but this one stands apart. This is a dark, haunting text that questions the fate of democracy under a new regime of neoliberal governance that understands the value of human life purely in economic terms. The starting point of this undertaking is Michel Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics, which analyses the extension of market principles into the state and beyond into civil society and, seemingly, everything ‘social’. In the first chapter of Undoing the Demos, Brown develops a position that is broadly sympathetic to Foucault’s concerns. She writes:
To speak of the relentless and ubiquitous economization of all features of life by neoliberalism is…not to claim that neoliberalism literally marketizes all spheres, even as such marketization is certainly one important effect of neoliberalism. Rather, the point is that neoliberal rationality disseminates the model of the market to all domains and activities – even where money is not at issue – and configures human beings exhaustively as market actors, always, only, and everywhere as homo economicus (p.31).
Neoliberalism, then, is not simply about markets, money or social class (which is barely mentioned in this book, except to say that it has disappeared, see p.38); it is rather a condition under which a raw economic rationality is applied to all forms of human activity and becomes the basis of a certain style of political governance. For Brown, nothing is now sacred or exempt from this process. Using Obama as her primary example, she argues that democratic principles of equality or liberty are today being displaced by new concerns for ‘economic growth, competitive positioning, and capital enhancement’ (p.26). The fabric of political life is thus said to be changing for the worse: we are losing our appetite for democratic values not least because liberty is being individualised and recast as a form of market conduct.
Brown’s stark portrayal of these developments is disturbing. There are points in this text when you sit up and take notice. One comes on p.44, where she observes that ‘neoliberalism is the rationality through which capitalism finally swallows humanity…’. Another is on pp.110-1: ‘In place of the liberal promise to secure the politically autonomous and sovereign subject, the neoliberal subject is granted no guarantee of life (on the contrary, in markets, some must die for others to live), and is so tethered to economic ends as to be potentially sacrificible to them’. At the core of this book, then, is an analysis of the biopolitics of contemporary neoliberalism that goes well beyond anything found in Foucault’s lectures. This is not surprising as while Brown uses Foucault as her starting point, she expresses deep dissatisfaction with key aspects of his work. She states, for example, that ‘Foucault’s relative indifference to democracy and to capital constitutes the major limitations in his framework for my specific purposes’ (pp.76-7). While Foucault was remarkably insightful in mapping out different historical trajectories of neoliberal reason, there are recent developments that, for Brown, take us well beyond the limits of his work. These include, for example, ‘The rise of finance capital, the financialization of everything, and the importance of debt and derivatives in shaping the economy and political reason as well as transforming neoliberal rationality itself – its formulation of markets, subjects, and rational action’ (p.70). Increasingly, Brown argues, both states and subjects are cast in the image of firms; as forms of human capital that can be understood in the financial language of speculation, leveraging and risk-taking. For Brown, it is necessary, at this point, to move beyond Foucault’s work on governance by reconsidering the work of Marx, in particular his theory of capital, which is said to exist ‘in excess of its economic operations and circulations and in excess of its aims’ (p.76).
It is hard to disagree with Brown’s diagnosis of the contemporary conditions of neoliberalism, or her aim of working both with and beyond Foucault. But there are some aspects of this book that are frustrating. One is that there is no engagement with contemporary writings on democracy, post-democracy and neoliberalism by figures such as Jodi Dean and Colin Crouch. Instead, Brown has a tendency to return to classical political-philosophical sources (from Aristotle to Rousseau to Hegel to Marx and so on, see pp.87-99) to make an argument about the ‘vanquishing’ of homo politicus in the present. One wonders whether such historical excursions are strictly necessary and whether they really help bolster the core argument of the book or in fact hinder an extended reflection on the type of politics and political engagement that can be developed in the face of neoliberalism’s latest ‘revolution’. Brown does ask, in the final three pages of the book, whether ‘another world is possible?’, through the course of which she briefly considers the value of non-economic forms of exchange. But surely there is more to say here? Little indication is given, for example, of how, exactly, the political Left is to combat ‘neoliberalism’s perverse theology of markets’ (p.221), or of why the neoliberal revolution has been, and continues to be, so successful. A key question is why has the ‘soft power’ of neoliberal reason been so attractive to so many, and why has it met with such feeble opposition from the political Left, which too often seems to have been seduced by the neoliberal reason that it initially set out to oppose (as documented by Stuart Hall)? Brown observes, quite rightly, that ‘neoliberalism governs as sophisticated common sense’ (p.35), but what exactly is the relationship between neoliberal governance and common sense, and how does it work so effectively?
Another point of frustration is that the book, to large extent, is written with a North American reader in mind. Many of the examples discussed in Part Two (‘Disseminating Neoliberal Reason’) reflect this geographical specificity, including the legal cases (such as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) that are used to illustrate what Brown calls the ‘economization of politics through law’ (p.164), and the examples selected to show that the damage done to democracy by the neoliberalization of higher education. To some extent, this is fine as there is nothing wrong in writing about the things that are closest to you, and clearly these are important examples of the practical workings of new forms of neoliberal reason. But, nonetheless, some reflection is needed on the extent to which it is possible to generalize from these examples. Is it the case, for example, that the US is at the forefront of a neoliberal revolution that the rest of the world is destined to follow? And is it possible to extrapolate a universal understanding of neoliberalism from the US experience? Clearly this is not Brown’s intention as she writes that neoliberalism is paradoxical as a global phenomenon: ‘ubiquitous and omnipresent, yet disunified and nonidentical with itself’ (p.48). But there is a danger in starting with a definition of neoliberal reason as something that is ‘ubiquitous’ (‘in statecraft and the workplace, in jurisprudence, education, culture, and a vast range of quotidian activity…’, p.17) and then illustrating this mainly through reference to the North American situation, when in fact neoliberal reason is no single thing and is being rolled-out in subtly different ways in different national contexts.
Where this really becomes an issue is in the definition of neoliberalism that lies at the core of this book. Quite rightly, Brown argues that ‘neoliberal political rationality does not merely marketize in the sense of monetizing all social conduct and social relations, but, more radically, casts them in an exclusively economic frame, one that has both epistemological and ontological dimensions’ (p.62). For this reason, Brown follows Foucault in placing homo economicus at the centre of her argument, but in order to make this move the epistemological underpinnings of different types of neoliberal thought need closer attention. For while this figure might be central to Gary Becker’s writings on human capital, homo economicus does not occupy a similar place within all forms of neoliberal reason. Hayek, for example, who barely features in this book and who is characterised, mistakenly, as someone ‘raised on Ordoliberalism’ (p.59), is hostile to the idea of homo economicus because he sees instead the rational powers of individual actors to be limited, which is why we should look to the market for answers. Ludwig von Mises, Hayek’s early mentor, was even more scathing of homo economicus because it was an idea that came originally from John Stuart Mill; a figure he despised for corrupting classical liberalism with socialist ideals under the influence of his wife, Harriet Taylor. These nuances are missed by Brown who follows Foucault in neglecting the influence of Austrian thought and instead constructs a genealogy of neoliberal reason that leads, ultimately, to Gary Becker and ideas of human capital. This means that the concept of homo economicus is set up as something of a straw man when in fact the underlying epistemologies (in the plural) and resultant politics of neoliberalism are far more complex (including, for example, psychological developments in behavioural economics that take Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments rather than The Wealth of Nations as their starting point).
The point to take from this is that the politics and epistemologies of neoliberalism are mobile and slippery, and can be both for and against a conception of homo economicus at the same time (depending upon which strand of neoliberal reason you read and the effects, at the moment, that it is trying to produce). At the level of politics, however, Brown does a fine job of capturing the double standards of neoliberalism, both in theory and in practice. She writes:
In the economic realm, neoliberalism aims simultaneously at deregulation and control. It seeks to privatize every public enterprise, yet valorizes public-private partnerships that imbue the market with ethical potential and social responsibility and the public realm with market metrics. With its ambition for unregulated and untaxed capital flows, it undermines national sovereignty while intensifying preoccupation with national GNP, GDP, and other growth indicators in national and postnational constellations (p.49).
This statement provokes the following question: what is the best strategy for dealing with a body of thought that, on one hand, is riddled with internal contradictions and tensions and yet, on the other, is highly coherent and effective (for example, through the transformation of human subjects into financialized forms of capital)? Should we seek to destabilize neoliberalism by exposing its internal inconsistencies, or reject its market rationalities by embracing forms of sociality and politics that cannot be reduced to economic principles such as price, or perhaps both? These questions are, to some extent, left hanging, and the book leaves one with the feeling that the battle against neoliberalism is being lost, and perhaps even that there is an air of inevitability about where things are heading. This book, then, is at the same time enlightening and disheartening: it provides a brilliant insight into some of the darkest developments of our times while at the same time providing little hope for social and political change of a different kind.
Nicholas Gane is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK. His current research addresses the history of neoliberalism and the sociological implications of the recent financial crisis. His publications include Max Weber and Contemporary Capitalism (Palgrave, 2012).