Notes on a bad-faith critique of neoliberalism

In a recent article in America magazine, Nathan Schneider alleges that the left’s ideas about consent are eerily reminiscent of neoliberalism — and then jumps to the conclusion that the left should lurch toward a more traditional understanding of sexuality. I want to explain in detail why this is a bad-faith use of the critique of neoliberalism.

My primary critique of neoliberalism is the way that it entraps us through the illusion of free choice, effectively blaming us for any bad outcome we experience on the grounds that we freely chose it and need to live with the consequences. Consent discourse in leftist circles does not function in that way at all. It is a negative safeguard, based on the principle that any participant in a sexual act has the right to opt out at any time for any reason. This means that contemporary consent discourse is actually the opposite of the neoliberal rhetoric of choice, in that you explicitly don’t have to live with the consequences of a previous choice (consenting to begin a sexual encounter) if it did not turn out the way you hoped.

Rather than giving everyone just enough agency to be blameworthy, it empowers them in an ongoing way. And in this sense, it is not a contractual way of thinking, because as Carole Pateman reminds us, a contract removes agency — once agreed to, it effectively binds the contracting party. From this perspective, the “traditional” view of sexuality is much more neoliberal because more contractual: once you agree to marry someone, for instance, you are obligated to service them sexually in perpetuity. And while this would fall outside Schneider’s desired sexual morality, the old-fashioned patriarchal view that a woman who consents to sex basically signs herself over to the man for the duration would represent the same kind of neoliberal-style entrapment.

As for whether consent discourse can ground a more positive ideal of sexuality — obviously it can’t, but it doesn’t claim to. With its negative gesture, consent discourse is opening up a space for experimentation, grounded in a trust that if a culture of consent truly takes root, people will naturally tend not to consent to acts that are harmful or destructive. That is, it opens up the possibility of developing a sexual ethic not based on arbitrary taboos or scapegoating of sexual minorities, but upon lived experience.

The article does have a small sliver of a good point, because consent language does carry the danger of slipping into contractual thinking. And yes, at that moment, consent language devolves into an echo of neoliberalism — but at its best, it models an anti-neoliberal way of thinking about free choice and agency.

Louis CK bent over backwards to tell us he was a creep

[Note: This is an excerpt from my book Creepiness, available wherever fine books are sold. I post it now mainly because I have been tempted to write something in response to the revelations about Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct, but realize I would not say anything I didn’t already say in this analysis.]

Louie has become known for stretching the boundaries of the sitcom format, telling stories of widely differing length and tone. In a given episode, one could just as easily see a series of short sketches or a segment from a multi-episode arc—or some combination of the two. This bold experimentation gave Louis C.K. a reputation as a true sitcom auteur, and by the time the show reached its third season, there was an emerging critical consensus that Louie was on pace to become one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. The cultural critic Chuck Klosterman even went so far as to claim that watching Louis C.K. hit his stride showed us what it must have felt like to witness the Beatles’ greatest achievements as they unfolded in real time. Truly, the man could do no wrong.

Hence all indications pointed toward the fourth season being an utter train wreck of narcissistic self-indulgence—and yet even the most pessimistic critic could not have predicted how bad it actually turned out to be in practice. Continue reading “Louis CK bent over backwards to tell us he was a creep”

Defence Mechanisms

When conservatives hear the suggestion that they should do something good, they hear it as an accusation and a threat. Instinctively, they turn it around on the accuser, exhorting them sarcastically to do this supposedly good thing and predicting that disaster will fall on their heads as a result — and rightly so.

When liberals hear the suggestion that the law should directly pursue just ends, they hear it as an accusation and a threat. Instinctively, they turn it around on the accuser, predicting that they themselves will be excluded and violated in a legal order that sought substantive justice — because the only alternative to empty formalism is a positive evil.

When neoliberals hear the suggestion that they should do something good or the law should directly pursue just ends, it doesn’t even register and they just continue on with their “best practices,” oblivious and content.

The debt of shame

How does a system of domination maintain its hold? If it wants to stand the test of time, it will need to use multiple strategies. For those who are expected to implement and enforce it, a system of domination will use some combination of rewards and moralism — the latter to make sure that the elites believe that they and their subordinates all deserve what they get (or don’t). For the bottom rungs of society, it will rely on force and the ever-present threat of deprivation, sometimes seasoned with a discourse of victim-blaming.

Yet these methods are not sufficient, because no system of domination that was so starkly divided into oppressor and oppressed would long endure. A buffer group is necessary, a vast middle that can simply “go with the flow.” The most durable orders of domination have controlled this middle group through a combination of impotence and guilt. These two ingredients will be apportioned differently to each individual. For some, the sense of impotence will be so strong as to completely eradicate any sense of moral responsibility — all we can do is try to provide for ourselves and our families. For others, guilt will lead to a ritual of self-sacrifice, morally distancing the protestor from the current order while also rendering unthinkable the idea of actually exercising power. Most of the middle is, suitably, stuck between these two extremes, or rather, constantly bouncing between the two as the occasion demands.

In any case, the combination of impotence and guilt leads to shame: the sense of being morally stained by something one cannot help. It feels like guilt because it is reflected in what we choose to do or omit — to turn a blind eye to that homeless person, to show a “reasonable” skepticism about accusations of sexual harassment or assault, or more generally to go along with something that you can’t feel good about. It feels like shame because the magnitude of the problem expressed in each particular instance is overwhelming and debilitating — it’s not as though I can end homelessness, or stop all future sexual harassment or assault, or make the world a better place.

Every time we make that compromise, a debt of guilt builds up inside us. We know we are not merely passive observers or victims, that we do make choices and could have done otherwise. We feel shitty, and we get tired of feeling shitty, and that makes it harder to do the right thing the next time — because doing the right thing would be a tacit admission that we had been wrong all those many times before.

And so guilt shades into impotence, as the system paints us ever further into a corner of moral complicity. We come to resent those who do the right thing as hypocrites — because doing the right thing is impossible — and scolds — because the only function of moral discourse is to make people feel bad and assert superiority. We become defensive, whether we cringe in anticipation of a punishment that we believe, at some level, that we deserve or whether we lash out preemptively in order to redirect that punishment onto someone else (someone equally deserving, if not more so).

The burden of shame can become so great that the only way to alleviate it is to lean into it and do something truly shameful — but such gestures always carry a ring of patheticness, as we quickly realize that we’re such fuckups we can’t even transgress properly. Or we claim to be the “real victims,” to draw attention to ourselves and our plight — but our obsession with ourselves and our plight is precisely the problem we’re trying to escape. Or we make it our occupation to say all the right things and hold all the right opinions, so that our Father who sees in secret can judge our pure intentions and reward them — paradoxically tainting the very intentions that we are relying on to save us.

The problem is that we can’t recognize that the problem is not each of us individually, but all of us in our concrete relationships to one another — or rather, in the complex articulation of those relationships that we call society, which has become a machine for making the vast majority of us hate each other because we hate ourselves.

Every God wants to die: Belated reflections on Westworld

At the time that Westworld first aired, I wasn’t interested. I partly blame the marketing, which presented it as an anchor-style show on the scale of Game of Thrones — and the premise made it sound like it would be just as nihilistically exploitative as Game of Thrones as well. The whole thing sounded exhausting, all the moreso given that the show would surely attract a high level of attention from online critical culture.

Mark this day on your calendar, because it could very well be the first time someone on the internet has openly admited he was wrong. Westworld is absolutely excellent. I think it would have been fun to participate in speculation about where the plot was heading as it happened, and meanwhile I probably could have ignored most of the articles worrying about whether each individual character was given the exactly correct level of agency in every single scene, etc.

The marketing really is to blame, though, because Westworld is not like Game of Thrones. It is more of a niche-market piece, on the scale of Leftovers. And it is the opposite of exploitative or nihilistic. Many shows try to have their cake and eat it too, shaming the audience members who wish that women were not fully human, for example, while still satiating their lusts. Westworld refuses that gambit. There is plenty of nudity, but not of the sensual or tittilating kind — it is the nudity of the slave ship or the concentration camp, the nudity of the morgue. Its violence is at times impressively choreographed, but it is all the more horrifying in that its victims can never escape or effectively fight back.

Westworld already preempts the horrifically ill-conceived Confederate by showing us an unromanticized picture of slavery — and allowing us to understand how such a regime could be tempting and could even seem self-evident. Continue reading “Every God wants to die: Belated reflections on Westworld”

Fantasies of Violence

This week, we discussed the Oresteia in the Shimer capstone course. I have always marvelled at the conceptual daring of the Eumenides, which attempts to depict the transition from a divinely-sanctioned cycle of violence to a system of civil law. What Aeschylus does not foresee, however, is what is happening all around us: the weaponization of the system of civil law for the sake of vengeance, in which the system itself becomes not an alternative to civil war but the terrain of civil war.

In an ideal system of civil law, outcomes are based on persuasion and evidence, with the goal of depersonalizing disputes among citizens. That ideal is only ever approximated in practice, but there is still room to judge whether a given system is doing a better or worse job at any particular time. In our present moment, the American system is not even trying to approximate that ideal. Continue reading “Fantasies of Violence”

A pessimistic prediction on the Supreme Court partisan gerrymandering case

I am not optimistic that the Supreme Court will rule partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional. This is not only because the majority is Republican and the phenomenon benefits Republicans, though that is also a factor. Basically, I think Constitutional logic and neoliberal patterns of thought will make it impossible to overthrow.

First, there is no Constitutional principle that requires the courts to guarantee the viability of the two-party system, much less to seek rough parity between the two parties (as “fair” maps would do). The Constitution was designed under the assumption that there would be no permanent parties, and our legislators remain much more entrepreneurial and autonomous than in a classic parliamentary system, even with increasing partisanship and party discipline. The only question that is Constitutionally accessible is whether the system is rigged for individual legislators.

And that brings us to neoliberal logic. Wendy Brown has shown how deeply neoliberal thought patterns affect Supreme Court arguments, even on seemingly non-economic matters. And Will Davies has demonstrated how the romance of entrepreneurialism has affected neoliberal thought on anti-trust. Whereas the early neoliberals were strongly in favor of anti-trust laws, the Chicago school — which actually had the most direct impact on legal and policy thinking on anti-trust — maintained that as long as some kind of “disruptive innovation” (to use the term somewhat anachronistically) remained conceivable, there was no reason to break a monopoly. I imagine the same reasoning will carry through to the topic of maintaining competitiveness in the market for legislators: as long as it’s conceivable that someone could come along and dislodge a given legislator, the demand for competitiveness is satisfied.

And if we accept the focus on the individual legislator, they’re not even wrong. The same party that has engaged most in partisan gerrymandering has also proven to be most susceptible to primary challenges — so a mechanism for replacing undesired legislators already exists and is fully functional. Yes, it’s hard to replace a Republican with a Democrat, but from the Constitutional perspective, there’s no such thing as a Republican or Democrat, there are just individual members of Congress.

This is not the outcome that I want, but I think it is the outcome that is most likely. If they do overturn partistan gerrymandering, I predict that the reasoning will be either very vulnerable to challenge, very narrow in its possible application, or both.