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Wendy Brown, Neoliberalism, and Why Taking Your Work Email Off Your Phone Will Not Save Democracy

Neoliberalism: What is it?

I’m currently teaching a course on the Philosophy of Commerce.  I think of this course as an effort to get students to challenge the notion that everything could be economized.  Following Arendt, I’m trying to get students to see what is lost when pursuits of living or living large (when the pursuit of living becomes excessive) crowd out any consideration for living well, which is to say, for organizing and determining how life ought to be in conversation and contestation with others.  This determining how life ought to be is in contrast to just determining what to do in order to live.  This concern has been with us for some time, but in the last several decades a new and even more far-reaching economization of life has occurred, wherein individuals have come to think of themselves as entrepeneurial capital projects.

This development is neoliberalism, which is the subject of Wendy Brown’s new book, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution.   While “neoliberalism” is used to refer to the various ways economization has reached at an alarming rate into unexpected new domains (I’ve used it on these posts, for example), as an ideology, neoliberalism names the way that individuals have become motivated from below, one might say, to think of themUndoing the Demosselves in economic terms as subjects who need investment and who are a good investment.

Brown’s particular concern is that neoliberalism poses an imminent threat to democracy for a number of reasons including how pervasive and effective it has been as an ideology.  In his essay “A Genealogy of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity,” Jason Read explains the force of neoliberalism’s ideology:

Neoliberalism, in the texts that have critically confronted it, is generally understood as not just a new ideology, but a transformation of ideology in terms of its conditions and effects.  In terms of its conditions, it is an ideology that is generated not from the state, or from a dominant class, but from the quotidian experience of buying and selling commodities from the market, which is then extended from other social spaces, “the marketplace of ideas,” to become an image of society.  Secondly, it is an ideology that refers not only to the political realm, to an ideal of the state, but to the entirety of human existence.  It claims to present not an ideal, but a reality; human nature. (25)

Like Read, Brown turns to Foucault’s lectures on The Birth of Biopolitics to analyze the emergence of neoliberalism in the late 20th century.  (Sidenote of brief history of the brief histories on neoliberalism, mostly because when I went back to look at Read’s piece I was a bit surprised that Brown does not reference him since his piece came out in 2009 before most of the other work on neoliberalism emerged. David Harvey published A Brief History of Neoliberalism in 2005, after which followed a series of studies–Constructions of Neoliberal Reason, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics, The New Way of the World, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depressionespecially following the ‘economic downturn’ of 2008-2009.  Read helpfully reminds us of Brown’s earlier inroads into this conversation in “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservativism, and Democratization” which he reprises here).

Neoliberalism, following Foucault, organizes the many facets of human existence in terms of the market, making the human being herself no longer fundamentally a political being, but an economic being, no longer a citizen, but capital, “everywhere homo oeconomicus and only homo oeconomicus,” (33) forcing individuals to form themselves:

As human capital, the subject is at once in charge of itself, responsible for itself, yet an instrumentalizable and potentially dispensable element of the whole. (38)

Neoliberalism and Democracy

When this charge becomes the project of the subject, Brown argues, democracy itself is threatened.  Democracy is the rule of the demos, the people.  Brown argues that for the people to rule, the people need to understand the “powers and problems they are engaging” (175).  Public education has had this goal of cultivating public understanding and interest in the community as its goal in the United States for several centuries, but that goal is now being undermined by neoliberalism’s “governing rationality” that makes market values and metrics the reigning principles of public life.  In so doing, government becomes just another actor on the market not the domain of public concern or the body that executes the public will.  Equality, autonomy and freedom lose their political meaning and thus, their political reality, and become instead economic terms. Self-improvement is no longer a project for the sake of better contributing to public conversations and debates about what is best for the community, but rather a project of becoming appreciable as human capital and hedging against possible threats of depreciation.  It is only for these reasons that anyone cares to pursue knowledge and thinking.

Subjects, liberated for the pursuit of their own enhancement of human capital, emancipated from all concerns with and regulation by the social, the political, the common, or the collective, are inserted into the norms and imperatives of market conduct and integrated into the purposes of the firm, industry, region, nation, or postnational constellation to which their survival is tethered.  In a ghostly repetition of the ironic “double freedom” that Marx designated as the prerequisite of feudal subjects becoming proletarianized at the dawn of capitalism (freedom from ownership of the means of production and freedom to sell their labor power), a new double freedom–from the state and from all other values–permits market-instrumental rationality to become the dominant rationality organizing and constraining the life of the neoliberal subject. (108)

Brown argues that public secondary and higher education was initially a democratizing move, “one in which all became potentially eligible for the life of freedom long reserved for the few,” because “the ideal of democracy was being realized in a new way insofar as the demos was being prepared through education for a life of freedom, understood as both individual sovereignty (choosing and pursuing one’s ends) and participation in collective self-rule” (185).  Neoliberalism, by contrast:

retreats as well from the value of a citizenry educated for democracy, from the idea that education offers the prospect of intrinsically richer and more gratifying lives and from the idea that education fosters an enhanced capacity to participate in public life and contribute to the public good.  Thus, the popular contemporary wisdom that a liberal arts education is outmoded is true only to the extent that social equality, liberty (understood as self-governance and sharing in the powers that govern us together), and worldly development of mind and character are outmoded and have been displaced by another set of metrics: income streams, profitability, technological innovation, and contribution to society construed narrowly as the development and promulgation of marketable goods or services. 190

Previously shocking claims are no longer contestable:

  • Instead of the community having a responsibility for its least well off citizens, those who don’t contribute to the economic development of the community “may be legitimately cast off or reconfigured” (84) because
  • workers, students, consumers, indigent persons are responsible for their status in the world, which can improve if they better invest in themselves — their failures suggest poor investment strategies. (132-133)
  • stream-lining of best practices across industries is possible because every organized seeks competitive advantage in the marketplace (137)
  • social and career success requires individuals to develop a “brand” for themselves and to be “entrepreneurial” about all their activities and associations
  • all members of the society and economy are “potential victims of government interference or censorship” in a way that sees no difference in power positions and aligns everyone in the same position against the government – thus, corporations are victimized by government regulation, just as some citizens have been victimized by state racism and sexism.
  • There is no division between labor and capital because, “There is only capital, and whether it is human, corporate, financial, or derivative.” (161)

Brown’s book analyzes how neoliberalism works, tracing it through Foucault’s critique and offering her own revision to Foucault.  Brown shows how the replacement of homo politicus by homo oeconomicus presents a whole new prevailing “political rationality,” one that betrays its own claims to increase freedom by reducing all freedom to economic freedom.  She shows in particular how recent legal decisions and education policy embody the neoliberal thinking that is making democracy more and more of a precarious proposition.

I don’t know if Brown and I just read different things, but I was put off on several occasions by her failure to reference others who had previously engaged similar arguments.  Jason Read I mention above.  I thought Jodi Dean would have some things to say about Brown’s account of democracy and its confrontation with neoliberalism and was surprised to find her absent, especially because one critique of Brown’s account of democracy could be that it is already too liberal (in the social contract sense) a conception.  Another missing reference is Danielle Allen, whose book Talking With Strangers, addresses the way that sacrifice is unequally distributed to further inequality in American civil rights and race discussions.  Brown’s focus is on how sacrifice becomes the new political engagement of the citizenry in neoliberalism and how it operates to serve macroeconomic growth.  The elision of the reference to sacrifice as a crucial element of communal flourishing addressed through the example of Black Americans who though treated unjustly were asked by officials from President Johnson on down to “keep the peace” and “wait their turn,” or to bear the brunt of the work of integration as Allen argues is the case with Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock Nine, obscures the racialization of the logic of neoliberalism that Brown develops here.

Neoliberalism and Taking Your Work Email Off Your Phone

So what can be done?  Neoliberalism, like the disciplinary power that so interested Foucault, both comes from below and is pervasive.  Thus, resistance is not so easily achieved.  If increasing the productivity of labor and improving technologies have since Aristotle been understood as the ways to produce wealth, in neoliberalism, the commodity that needs to be increased by technology has become the individual subject herself.  If technologies of self are ways that subjects might strategically intervene in the processes of disciplinary power that variously produce subjects and subject them to the disciplinary regime to develop some resistance, subjects are now expected to call on these technologies to increase and improve themselves, where improvement always and only means more marketable.

Image result for email on phoneSo smartphones and work email.  Both aspects of this effort–the work-life balance aspect and the management of technology–are dual-edged.  The work-life balance issue is a concern for both employers and their employees.  Conversations about work-life balance generally seem to signal an institution or corporation’s concern for the well-being of its employees, and this concern seems welcome, though the irony of having more meetings to discuss how much we meet and how little time we have to ourselves is almost always remarked upon in every formal discussion of work-life balance I have participated in.  But the other hand of this first aspect is that better work-life balance has been shown to lead to increased productivity (this is disputed, but more and more evidence shows it to be the case and regardless, it seems the belief by institutions and corporations that it is true is what drives these efforts, which sustains my position).  Even if it doesn’t lead to the firm’s increased productivity, it prevents individual workers from burning out, which thus makes work-life balance integral for sustaining the investment that an individual needs to make to sustain herself as a worthy investment.

In January, a friend mentioned the idea of taking her email off of her smartphone in order to better achieve the elusive work-life balance.  She was just floating the idea, and I don’t think she ever did take hers off her phone, but I decided to do it.  I’ve now had my work email off my phone for ten weeks.  I’ve also been trying to close my email program when I am in both my work and home offices to prevent distraction.  I feel less stressed by email.  I no longer check email the first thing in the morning when I wake up, so I don’t feel the stresses of work until I’ve gone through my morning routine.  I think I’m doing a better job of leaving work at work, which is notoriously difficult for college professors.  I still have email on my iPad and my laptop, of course, so it’s not like I never check it at home.  But I feel much less on call than I did when I was notified with each incoming email on my phone.  So this all sounds good, right?  You should do it too?  Well, yes, maybe you should.  But doing it won’t get you out of neoliberalism, which reaches out its tentacles and manages to find a way to incorporate even your strategies of resistance into its ideology of homo oeconomicus.

Someone who was discussing tenure at his institution recently explained to me his openness about saying no to various projects.   His dean commended him for learning to say no to things and said that this ability to prioritize signals to the university that you are making wise decisions and managing your time well to be the best faculty member you can be.  I like that and I agree, but it still shows that you are making yourself into a better investment which will lead to better returns.  Taking your work email off your phone might lower your blood pressure but it won’t change the system precisely because lowering your blood pressure just makes you a better investment. Moreover, it shows that you are still adopting a way of thinking that makes judgments about what makes you look like a good investment.  There is no way out.

The technologies that were going to make work more efficient and productive have now come to make us more productive as human capital (heck, the technology of this blog is an example).  But jettisoning these technologies doesn’t allow us to escape the overarching logic of neoliberalism.  As in all critical theory, the critical efforts to understand neoliberalism analyze the historical processes and decisions that have led to this moment and characterize the contradictions between its reality and ideology, hoping to find within the critical work the site for freedom and disruption of the contradiction.

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