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Neoliberalism Has Eviscerated the Fabric of Social Life

By Adam Ostolski , Wendy Brown

In 2016, we witnessed a series of political earthquakes, with Trump and Brexit as milestones, and more such troubling events are expected in 2017 and beyond. Is it a crisis of liberal democracy? And what has it got to do with the insecurities of globalisation and neoliberalism? An interview with Wendy Brown by Adam Ostolski

Adam Ostolski:  A mainstream narrative about the current situation is that people are experiencing fatigue with liberal democracy and reject it in an effort to get rid of the insecurities of globalisation. They have allegedly traded freedom for security, the promise of ‘taking control’ or restoring their country to its lost ‘greatness.’ Is liberal democracy really in crisis?

Wendy Brown: Most of those who are reacting very strongly, both from the Left and the Right, against what you would call liberal democracy, do not regard themselves as anti-democrats. But there have been important factors producing the left- and right-wing populisms that have rejected certain dimensions of neoliberalism as well as liberal democracy.

First of all, there is neoliberalism itself, which has not only produced new inequalities, but new insecurities through the precarity of work and life. A left-wing response to this inequality and precarity would claim that neoliberalism is a poor form of organising and providing for human beings, and that we need a different way to organise and provide for ourselves. Another reaction to this, from the Right, would understand what has happened as a series of invasions: by immigrants, non-whites, those who demand entitlements, criminals, or simply ‘others.’

Neoliberalism treats popular sovereignty, or decisions based on human agreement and deliberation, as inappropriate interference with the efficient market and the price mechanism.

Combined with globalisation, neoliberalism has eviscerated the fabric of social life, produced mounting economic insecurity, and provided tremendous fuel for the sentiment that the nation itself is endangered. Globalisation not only involves control by global finance and global corporations and a loss of nation-state sovereignty; it has also meant an unprecedented movement of peoples, goods, ideas, cultures, and religions. These developments have been quite destabilising – both for those who are on the move and for those who feel that their country is being stripped of its imagined past homogeneity.

Neoliberalism and globalisation are of course not identical, but it is their convergence that has given rise to a new reactionary formation calling for nationalist, xenophobic, and protectionist policies – from Brexit in the U.K. to the ascendance of the right in countries like Germany and France, to the rise of Trump in the United States.

In your most recent book, Undoing the Demos, you describe how neoliberalism itself has undermined our democracies. In your view, is Trump, along with similar phenomena, a negation of the neoliberal order, or a continuation of its tendencies?

Neoliberalism is essentially a form of governing that sees democracy as an obstacle, at best, or as an illegitimate intervention into the rule of the market, at worst.  For neoliberalism, rule by markets is understood as a form of governance that should be applied everywhere, not just to marketised goods, but to education, prisons, the organisation of state, and so on. So neoliberalism treats popular sovereignty, or decisions based on human agreement and deliberation, as inappropriate interference with the efficient market and the price mechanism.

This neoliberal understanding has devastated both democratic institutions and democratic shared understanding. In addition to the social and economic effects of neoliberalism, this devastation over the past three or four decades has produced the conditions for an antidemocratic, populist response.

One can clearly see this in the support for Trump. The belief that a ‘business leader’ was needed – even if this person had zero political experience, much less any interest in being substantively informed about myriad political issues – reveals how ‘business’ is viewed as a means to displace the messiness of politics and democracy.

How long Trump will succeed is another matter. But the concept of a ‘businessman’ in power, someone who can bring a ‘business sensibility’ to office, did not start with Trump. You can see in the presidential discourse from the 1980s onward that what’s important is knowing how to make a good ‘deal,’ which is precisely what Trump says he’s really great at: knowing how to be a tough ‘negotiator’ or, even better, a tough dictator, in conflictual situations. I don’t mean a political dictator; I just mean someone who can dictate the terms of a deal, as a good CEO would. This is not someone who is understood to be an executive of the law, as in classical liberal democracy, but instead someone who can bully the opposition and defeat opponents. Or, in the conventional market terms, someone who can beat competitors into submission.

You mentioned economic and social insecurities produced by the neoliberal order, like precarious work, foreclosures, and forcing people to study or live on credit. But there is also a different brand of insecurity nowadays, such as military, terrorist, and criminal insecurities. How have they been addressed by neoliberal governance?

There is no question that terrorism has become a predominant concern of populations around the world, adding to the sense of an unprotected and precarious existence. Terrorism conjoins with neoliberalism to heighten a sense of insecurity and even a sense that the nation state now fails to provide for the security of the people. That said, the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack remain very low in the order of possible dangers that a human being can face. A person is more likely to be killed by their own furniture than by a terrorist.

So, we have fear and panic about improbable yet dramatic and unpredictable dangers, which is how terrorism works. It is supposed to make you frightened in a routine way by non-routine events, and it’s effective in that sense. At the same time, securing against terrorism is nearly impossible, because most terrorist incidents remain home-grown. Certainly, in the United States, almost all terror incidents have occurred at the hands of legal citizens, and most mass shootings have been by white guys.

Terrorism conjoins with neoliberalism to heighten a sense of insecurity and even a sense that the nation state now fails to provide for the security of the people.

The question of securing the nation against terror is of course politically instrumentalised by those who aspire to power, who use the anxiety about terror to generate xenophobia and racism, to close borders to refugees and to all forms of immigration, and to reinvigorate – I’m going to just say it bluntly – white supremacy as the basis of Euro-Atlantic nationalism. This particular set of moves is of course what allows figures like Trump to mobilise a base that can be whipped up on those issues without actually delivering anything for them at all. They will not get their jobs back; their communities will not become safer; they will not actually be made more secure in any significant way. But they have a president who speaks to and soothes their identity as white people, who bathes them in a sense of entitlement both to their privileges and their prejudices. In short, someone like Trump can successfully use these issues to produce a mass base of support while essentially looting the country for the rich.

In the current discourse on security, some concerns are seen as more legitimate than others. For example, when citizens demand affordable housing or job security, this is presented as something unachievable, but if they want the government to be “tough on crime,” or to fight against terrorism, this is seen as much more legitimate. On the other hand, you can distinguish between genuine threats and fantasised ones. For example, a ban on the burka is perceived by many as legitimate since this is construed now as a security issue, yet there are no calls for governments to ban trucks, despite them being used in several terrorist attacks. How should the Left and the Greens react to this? How does one address the popular feelings of fear and anger without losing sight of what we stand for?

What you are describing is a discursive order in which the goal of meeting basic human needs in an inclusive and equitable way has become illegitimate. The market-driven attack on “discredited socialism” is one part of the equation. Another part is challenging particular cultural practices, and such attacks are legitimised by concerns about crime and security. This push has identified Islam with crime, terror, insecurity, and the disintegration of civilisation. Here we can observe the fusion of a discourse on security with a discourse on whether Islam is compatible with European values. These two discourses are not identical, but they obviously borrow from each other extensively.

How might we contest this? One approach is attempting to contest it with facts. For example, in the United States, new immigrant communities tend, for the most part, to be much safer, to have higher levels of employment and educational aspiration, and to be more law-abiding than other kinds of communities with a similar socio-economic level. That sentence took a long time to say, and such facts do not seem to make much of a difference to the popular debate. So probably what’s needed even more than these facts is an argument that will change the discourse itself, an argument for the kind of world we want to live in, a vision for the kind of world we want to affirm.

This doesn’t mean we are likely to win back those already captured by the extreme right. Once someone has begun to invest in a neo-fascist discourse, is there a road back? Or does it rather become its own self-confirming world? I admit that I am sceptical about retrieving those who have already gone down that particular road.

In Regulating Aversion you analyse liberal discourses of toleration as a means of neoliberal governmentality, which do not so much benefit those being tolerated as represent them along a spectrum of the ‘barbaric.’ In the wake of both Trump and Brexit, there are voices on the Left blaming identity politics for these outcomes. Is identity politics really the culprit?

The idea that left-wing identity politics has brought us down this path is ridiculous. Why? Because the identity politics that really matters is on the other side – the Right. White supremacist politics brought Trump to power. Of course, people voted for him for a variety reasons. There were people who supported him because he promised tax cuts, or improvements to health care, or to eliminate abortion, and the rich of course voted for him for their own reasons. But for the most part this must be understood as a white male supremacist revolt…or last dying gasp.

 What this white male revolt was in part rebelling against is the idea that there are all these people – LGBTQ, people of colour, people with disabilities, women, and others – who have become eligible for inclusion through a promise of egalitarianism and justice. Not that they are actually treated as equals, but that they have become eligible.

So, the perception is that minorities have somehow become equal or even, as the Right puts it, privileged, makes some people feel very insecure in their own lives and they entrench themselves into their own identities…

The perception on the part of many of those who voted for Trump is that African Americans in our country have gotten all the privileges and all the benefits, from affirmative action to the welfare state, over the past 35 years. Yet, in fact, not only has affirmative action been substantively dismantled by law over that same period of time, but so has the welfare state. And the African American population as a whole has suffered greater socio-economic decline – due to the disintegration of secure jobs, labour unions, quality public schools, city services, and the privatisation of public goods. But of course the perception is that all the benefits, privileges, and all the attention has moved in that direction while the white guy has been passed over, left behind. The whole damn country except those at the top have been left behind!

For the most part this must be understood as a white male supremacist revolt…or last dying gasp.

Now we are speaking the language of facts. You mentioned an alternative story we need about the world we want to live in. Is it possible to claim the rights, equality, and dignity of minorities, without antagonising those who feel insecure because of this? Can we think of a world in which it would not be so easy to pit the rights of some groups against those of others?

This is a complex question. How can you approach that psychologically, sociologically, and politically? There are two questions here. How does one work with the perception that one’s own identity, or one’s own family, neighbourhood, village, or town has been left behind while everybody else is getting ahead? And how does one at the same time also build compassion for a world, for peoples in the world, and for species of the world, which are severely jeopardised by both the policies and political culture of the Right?  How do you reach people on both of those kinds of claims, addressing both their own status and some kind of connection and compassion for the world? This is one of the key questions for our time.

It’s become a commonplace that there is a trade-off between freedom, on the one hand, and security, on the other. Is there really such a trade-off?

There can be such a trade-off if the focus is exclusively on the permeability of networks, cyberspace, nations, neighbourhoods, buildings, and so on. If we’re thinking, for example, about whether cybersecurity involves certain incursions into individual privacy – then probably, yes. If we’re thinking about whether one is being searched at the entry of a building, and if that building might be susceptible to a terrorist attack, say, a Holocaust museum or a mosque – then surely, yes.

But this reduces both freedom and security to technical matters. What if freedom is understood not simply as the right to privacy, but as human beings actually controlling their terms of existence – through popular sovereignty, through sharing in power, through modes of collective self-determination? Understood in that way, freedom and security are not opposed — quite the opposite. Conversely, if security is understood as reducing precarity, persecution, and vulnerability to attack or displacement, then it’s not opposed to freedom. Instead of thinking about security and freedom in a technical way, we would do better to think about what it would mean to be human beings who are really free and secure.