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.

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.

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.

Worst practices in curriculum design

The current “best practice” for course/curriculum design is to start from the learning objectives and then fill in gradually more detail, only supplying the actual course content at a relatively late stage. When Shimer was going through some curriculum debates a few years ago, I opportunistically seized upon this principle as a way to open up a little more space for thinking about new and different readings, but it was a way of thinking that just didn’t work, ultimately. We had one meeting when everyone seemed to be on board, and then we got back to the traditional debates over particular readings and how we can’t remove this one thing that really “works,” etc. And I don’t think this was because my Shimer colleagues are especially hidebound — the way they do curriculum design is just the way everyone does it.

The so-called “best practices,” as usual, have virtually never been done, and that’s because they presuppose a very simplistic, unidirectional version of curriculum development. Continue reading “Worst practices in curriculum design”

Political polarization in the family

I have written before about my struggle to come to terms with my parents’ decision to vote for Trump, and I have it relatively easy. My family has tended to avoid politics over the years, and few if any of them appear to be pure Fox News zombies. Many other people — such as this black author who has had major conflict with his Trump-supporting white mother — have had it much worse and have reached the point where they need to break off contact.

I don’t claim to know what’s going on in people’s heads in specific cases, but this trend of family strain related to right-wing indoctrination does seem pretty widespread. As we know, systemic effects have systemic causes, and the biggest systemic cause for the last forty years of American life has been the radical reworking of the economy through the bipartisan consensus known as neoliberalism. It is well known that that consensus has favored capital mobility and concentration in a way that has led to a hollowing out of the economic prospects of vast swathes of the country while benefiting a handful of urban areas, which have become basically the only place to find any real opportunity.

What is less noted is the way that this dynamic tends to tear families apart — and to create braindrain as the urban centers basically poach the most talented and creative members of other communities. In a setting like this, going to college, adopting more liberal values, moving to the city, etc., take up a very fraught status. On the one hand, it’s the only way to get ahead in life, and families are often proud of their children who “get out” and make a life for themselves. On the other hand, that means that the parents who have done the “best job” are often punished with the effective loss of their children — not only through less frequent contact, but through a changed lifestyle, values, and expectations. They did everything they were supposed to, and the reward is that their children hardly visit and look down their nose at them when they do. For how many Fox News viewers, I wonder, is the archetypal smug liberal elitist their own child?

The way they react to this pain and loss often isn’t healthy, but I’m less interested in judging individuals than in pointing out the ways that right-wing media have exploited this grief by pushing it toward anger and resentment. Becoming a Fox News zombie of course only exacerbates the problem, as it becomes increasingly impossible to talk about important national events or, more broadly, about values or ideas. Every episode of conflict only hardens the dynamic, until it becomes very unclear for the children what this relationship is even supposed to be about. I suspect parents know what’s happening, but they can’t help but double down — and what are we in the younger generation really offering them? Should they uproot and move to the city, too? Would the problem be solved if they watched “All In With Chris Hayes” religiously instead of O’Reilly or whatever?

We talk about broad-strokes when assessing the slogan “Make America Great Again,” but what if — alongside the racism and toxic nostalgia — there is a more intimate way people are hearing it: make my children love and respect me again, make my community a place where people don’t automatically want to leave and never come back again, make America a place where getting ahead in life isn’t synonymous with dissociating yourself from me. Right-wing media — and here I am thinking of Trump fundamentally as a media phenomenon, which is how our parents experience him — has exploited this situation in a despicable and probably unfixable way, but they didn’t create the underlying dynamic. In other words, ultimately Fox News isn’t what’s tearing families apart, but it’s profiting from the fact that they’re already being torn apart by the geographic concentration of wealth and opportunity.

The rot in our public discourse is neoliberalism’s fault

Whenever I picture talking to my Republican parents about Trump, I always anticipate an “I know you are but what am I”-style response. Obama was narcissistic, too. Democrats have supported racism in the past. You only think that because you rely on biased liberal media. Etc., etc., etc. It’s exhausting and almost impossible to break through, and it’s hardly limited to my parents — conservative media has cultivated those rhetorical habits for literally decades at this point.

It’s worth pausing to consider the sheer moral nihilism of this rhetorical stance. On the surface, it seems logically contradictory — if both sides are equally bad (to a stunningly consistent degree, on every single issue!), then what possible basis is there for choosing one over the other at all? How is such a view compatible with passionate, lockstep support of one of the equally bad sides? This common sense view misses the real dynamic at play, though. False equivalency turns partisan identification into a sheer act of will, inaccessible to reason. Both sides are equally bad, and yet we support different sides — so it must be that we support those sides simply because we support those sides.

And hence no one is in a position to judge, because everyone is an arbitrary ideologue nihilistically rooting for their team. If there is a shade of difference to be discerned, it’s that conservatives are “at least honest” about the nature of their identification. In other words, everyone’s political stance is structured exactly like conservatism, but liberals won’t admit it to themselves because they are seeking out some illusory social prestige through “virtue signalling.” After all, no one can really care about people outside their own group — once again, everyone is secretly a conservative underneath it all.

From the other side, liberals are addicted to hypocrisy attacks and other demonstrations that their opponents are stupid, uncouth, or otherwise disqualified from consideration. This may initially seem more intellectually promising, insofar as it makes use of something like logic, but even on its own terms, this strategy doesn’t make sense. Would more consistent racism be better?

As with the conservative version, the liberal rhetorical stance presupposes that everyone is a liberal, but the conservatives are just not as good at it or something. And it is every bit as much a defense mechanism. If we stay on the purely formal level of judging the structure of their discourse, then we don’t have to actually confront their ideas — which would open up the possibility of real, principled conflict. This is the true nightmare of the liberal position: that we would somehow discover that white supremacists are behaving perfectly “rationally” given their initial premises, that the formal safeguards of logical consistency and public deliberation are not enough to guarantee automatically “good” results.

And this brings me to the title of this post: where did this dynamic come from? I think we can point the finger at neoliberalism. After the inital triumph of neoliberalism, the window for serious, principled political dispute rapidly closed — all the most important questions about how the economy and political order should be structured had been answered. At that point, politics really did become a question of arbitrary identification based on tribal loyalties, stylistic preferences, “virtue signalling,” etc. And now that the neoliberal order is breaking down and we really do need to find some way to hash out serious differences and make collective decisions about how our society is going to look, we find that a generation of neoliberal anti-politics has left those muscles completely atrophied.

This is why the younger generation is leading the way, because they are the only ones who haven’t yet had a chance to get worn down to the nub of “I know you are but what am I” or knee-jerk hypocrisy attacks. And it’s also why both the US and UK left have been led by members of an older generation — they remember a time before neoliberal zombification, and they heroically stood their ground against it. But in the vast middle swath that currently holds power and is in a position to maintain it for the foreseeable future, there has been a terminal brain drain that leaves them incapable of solving real problems.

Better Skills

As political slogans go, “Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages” is in many respects… suboptimal. Yet I do think that it represents mainstream Democrats’ vision in an authentic way. They agree with the Republicans that all of life should be a ruthless competition, for all eternity. They agree that the individual should be responsible for every decision and outcome, as a matter of principle. The difference is that the Democrats want to set things up to slightly decrease the chances that you will irrevocably screw up, whereas the Republicans want to leave losers to die. Hence Democrats come up with a plan whereby people are forced to buy health insurance, while the Republicans openly muse about how maybe having a preexisting condition means that you are a bad person who deserves to die. On the job front, Democrats want to help people become more competitive on the job front, while Republicans think colleges should be burned to the ground.

What we’re dealing with here, fundamentally, is two different strategies for bringing the job market into equilibrium and restoring America’s global competitiveness. The Democrats are dangling the prospect of short-term advantage for particularly industrious individuals, but the end logic of their plan is to commodify those in-demand job skills, converting ever more occupations into disposable cheap labor. Democrats are opening up the possibility of economic survival to more people, but not really increasing the number of slots available. The Republican strategy, by contrast, appears to be to let the dying communities just die — not to drive up wages for those left behind, but apparently out of a sheer desire to make sure that the losers lose.

It’s as though the Democrats are Chigurh from No Country for Old Men: you’re most likely going to die, but you do have the option of a coin toss. The Republicans don’t offer the coin toss. Which one is better? The Democrats, obviously! But if you were someone in a dying community that had been starved for jobs for a generation, the kind of place where everyone leaves if they can, would you bother getting up in the morning to pull the lever for that option?