Lies and neoliberalism

Under neoliberalism, lies become an accepted feature of political leadership. The goal is purely to instrumentalize democratic legitimacy, in order to gain the power to make the necessary decisions that ordinary people can never understand or be persuaded of.

The fact that Obama was so astoundingly honest compared to all presidents in recent memory contributed to his weakness, because he was surrounded by habitual liars and cheats. He thought he could make the neoliberal consensus positively legitimate again, instead of just a default option supported by “spin” and demonization. That the lies that propelled Trump to the presidency were specifically about Obama is thus fitting — as is the fact that they propelled him to the presidency in an obviously democratically illegitimate way.

As ever, Trump is the parody of the neoliberal consensus, which shows us the truth of its intellectual and political bankruptcy. And the neoliberal Democrats’ answer is not to mobilize the population in protest, not to take direct action against an obviously illegitimate political structure — but to double down on elitism and technocracy by imagining that the FBI will somehow save us.

We are not the ones we have been waiting for

A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine published an article about how “we” almost stopped climate change. It is a remarkable piece, rich with detail, about how scientists and public officials raised the alarm on climate change and nearly succeeded in getting a binding international treaty capping carbon emissions. I am among those who was very critical of the framing of this story, which concludes with breezy generalizations about human nature that would be more at home in an undergraduate essay than the paper of record. In reality, the general public is not heard from at any step along the way — this is all a story about a power struggle among elites. And all the evidence points toward an obvious conclusion: hardline conservatives in the first Bush administration, following up on the climate nihilism of Reagan, wound up torpedoing the effort, with results that are by now familiar to us.

This critique is obvious. What I wonder about, though, is why the author would choose this framing when it is such a poor fit for the story he is telling. Clearly one motive is to avoid “politicizing” the issue and alienating conservative readers. Indeed, perhaps there was even an effort to highlight the fact that Republicans and industry representatives contributed positively, to encourage them to do so in the future. But it is interesting to me that this attempt to avoid partisanship should take the form of a gesture toward collective guilt. After all, there is evidence that pro-corporate Democrats also stood in the way of action, so why not go for standard both-sidesism? Why blame the people at large for something that happened almost exclusively behind closed doors?

The author of this piece is hardly alone in gesturing toward collective blame, which is one of the most characteristic gestures of contemporary political discourse. For instance, today on Twitter I learned that “we” made a mistake in adopting an ad-driven model for the web. I do not recall being consulted on that decision, nor on so many others where “we” are reportedly to blame. This discursive tic becomes most absurd, of course, when we are talking about the actions of the Trump administration, which was installed against the wishes of the American people, who continue to despise him at record levels. But since an election happened, whatever resulted from it, however perverse, must be “our” collective fault — presumably “we” should have arranged for a population transfer of tens of thousands of liberals into the Rust Belt states in anticipation of the election. Shame on “us” for not thinking of that!

In Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown talks about the neoliberal strategy of “responsibilization,” which systematically invests formal decision-making power in the bodies least equipped to exercise it. In her example, a university decides to shift health care costs onto individual departmental budgets rather than handling them on an institution-wide basis. The predictable result that departments move toward more part-time labor to avoid ballooning health care costs was presumably what the upper administration was aiming at, but by using the strategy of “responsibilization” they get to blame the individual departments for their “choice” of adjunct labor.

The gesture of collective blame, where “we” are all responsible for political and economic outcomes, is the ultimate extreme of “responsibilization,” and like all strategies of “responsibilization,” it aims ultimately to displace blame for decisions that are made elsewhere. This is a hard-and-fast rule of neoliberalism, as I discuss in my forthcoming book: whenever someone talks to you about freedom and choice, they are looking for someone to blame. The strategy reaches a point of absurdity in the gesture toward collective blame, because the people at large actually have no meaningful moral agency whatsoever. We have no tools of collective action or deliberation — indeed, we are systematically deprived of them, and any new technology that might enable the development of collective action or deliberation is immediately corrupted and rendered unusable. If “we” can’t make reasoned collective decisions to take collective actions, then “we” are not a moral agent, full stop.

The illusion that “we” do have collective agency is actually one of the most effective strategies to prevent such agency from emerging. After all, “we” have apparently messed things up pretty badly — how can we be trusted with that kind of responsibility? Shouldn’t “we” instead hand that agency over to the nice technocratic elites, or the not-so-nice self-styled deal-makers, so that they can take care of everything for “us”?

This dynamic is not limited to neoliberalism — in fact, we can see the same basic logic at work in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, where “We the People” make a brief cameo appearance to legitimate a self-enclosed and largely unaccountable power structure where “the people” have no explicit powers or responsibilities. Indeed, in Federalist 78, Hamilton can even argue, paradoxically, that the Supreme Court is the branch of government with the most direct connection to “the people,” insofar as the will of the people is identified with and reduced to the continued enforcement of the federal Constitution. It is in this sense, I suppose, that “the people” elected Trump, because even though the result went against the immediate will of the people as expressed in the voting totals, it still reflected “our” deeper will-to-have-a-Constitution insofar as it followed the procedures laid out in that august document.

How do we — in the non-scare-quoted sense of actual people with actual identifiable collective interests — respond to this situation? Two possibilities present themselves. The first is to call the elites on their bullshit. “We” didn’t torpedo climate change action, Bush’s asshole chief of staff did. “We” didn’t despoil the planet, corporate elites did. Human civilization has been placed on a trajectory toward extinction by identifiable individuals with institutional power. But to make good on those accusations, we need to take the bad-faith accusation of collective responsibility as a prophecy and become the collective agent that they say “we” already are. That will require developing new institutional forms and modes of leadership, with many contemporary movements giving us promising models. If “we” have any genuine responsibility at the present political moment, it is precisely to become a non-scarequoted we that can really take responsibility.

The Decline of the West

In the New York Times, David Leonhart worries that Trump is consciously attempting to destroy the West. Now I have no great affection for the Western alliance or the global free trade regime — and in any case, the Bush years teach us that neither can do much to restrain US excesses. So I could see a kneejerk case to root for Trump’s bull-in-a-China-shop routine.

The problem is that Trump is trying to construct a world order that doubles down on everything that is worst about the NATO-IMF-World Bank regime and gets rid of even the faintest illusion that some kind of ideals may be remotely involved in any of it. You may say that the Trump version has the virtue of being honest, but I wonder how “refreshing” or “clarifying” that honesty feels to the inmate of an ICE concentration camp.

It’s similar to the delusion of a left-wing version of Brexit — it’s not that I am rooting for the EU as such, but the people who are in a position to administer the alternative are psychotic austerians who want to use “freedom” from the EU to brutalize immigrants and turn the UK into an open-air work camp for the poor.

Economics cannot solve politics

I recently read William Clare Roberts’ book Marx’s Inferno. I was attracted by the notion that Marx structured his work according to Dante’s poem, but that connection proved to be a framing device for Roberts’ attempt to recontextualize Capital within the socialist debates of his own time. The upshot of this rereading of Capital, vol. 1 (which Roberts treats as a self-contained unit that represents Marx’s mature views on every topic it addresses — a move that I know many will find questionable) is that several classical features of Marxism are undermined. First, there is no intrinsic necessity for the progress from capitalism to communism, no teleology. Capitalism is a hell, not a purgatory — we need to escape it, not go through it as some kind of necessary penance. Second, he completely rejects the idea that Marx thinks capitalism is cool because it lays the foundation for a post-scarcity society. Instead, Marx sees in the capitalist mode of production (especially factory production) a novel social form that makes possible a new form of collective agency and control.

From this perspective, it seems that the blind alley of 20th Century Communism was its effort to create a post-scarcity society by using planning mechanisms that would supposedly deliver higher rates of growth than unplanned capitalist development. In the case of the USSR, that led them down a path of developing “heavy industry” almost as an end in itself and demanding endless sacrifice — ranging from political freedoms and everyday creature comforts — on behalf of the future generations who would enjoy “the material conditions of full communism.” Every political decision was justified by reference to the magical post-scarcity future that would answer every political question automatically. This utopia of pure economics is similar to the promise of neoliberalism, which attempts to deactive all political participation and decision-making by imposing economic standards and constraints. The supposedly automatic mechanism of the market makes decisions for us, removing any possibility of principled dispute or conflict.

As you will see in my forthcoming book Neoliberalism’s Demons, I am a huge critic of “Arendt’s axiom” on the absolute qualitative distinction between the political and the economic, which I view as a fatal flaw in Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos. So I don’t want to say here that we need to favor the political over the economic or resist the eclipse of the political by the economic or anything like that. The two realms really are inseparable, and I shouldn’t have to belabor that point. What I want to suggest here is that the idea that economics can replace or solve politics is a fantasy generated by capitalism itself — a strategy for legitimating its power structures as something other than power structures, its forms of oppression as something other than oppression.

If Marx really did believe that a sufficient level of economic development would automatically solve all serious political problems, then he would be the ultimate capitalist ideologue — and the 20th Century Communists who believed that was his teaching wound up becoming fodder for capitalist ideology, because the primary ideological lesson we are taught to take away from the experience of the USSR and pre-Deng China is that any alternative to capitalism is (in one of those grand ideological self-contradictions) simultaneously terrifying, boring, and impossible. One wishes — even taking into account the impossible situation in which they found themselves — that they had spent more time developing the machinery of collective decision-making and a little less laboriously reinventing the machinery of churning stuff out for the sake of churning stuff out. If there are any lessons to be drawn from that experience, it is not that planning, done right, with computers this time, can finally bring us the post-scarcity paradise, but in the very gesture of planning itself — collective planning not as a way of churning out more stuff, but as a way of taking collective responsibility for ourselves and the conditions of our life together.

On having a fake culture

On a certain level, every human culture is fake, in the sense of being made up by human beings. Greater authenticity means little other than greater success in covering one’s tracks. That being said, there are some cultures that are more overtly fake than others. In The Total Art of Stalinism, Groys describes Soviet culture under Stalin as very self-consciously artificial — creating new cultural forms, new approaches from the past, even (improbably enough) new clichés, with no pretense to authenticity or rootedness. Indeed, the artificiality was the whole point. When the Soviet leadership de-Stalinized beginning in the 1950s, then, that meant that the “native” Soviet generation was informed that their entire cultural tradition — the only culture they had ever known — was not merely artificial, but defunct. And a big part of Groys’ motivation in writing the book was to share late-Soviet artists’ attempts to grapple with having been formed from the ground up by a political project that had run aground.

Groys’ argument resonates for me, because I, too, was raised in a fake culture: American evangelicalism. This point was really brought home to me by my reading of Lauren Berlant’s The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, where she deconstructs the cultural fabrications of the Reagan reaction. The fate of American evangelicalism is deeply intertwined with that act of cultural construction, to the point where I have been willing to declare that “evangelicalism” as we know it today has no authentic connection to pre-“religious right” movements.

Continue reading “On having a fake culture”

Doing the math on Facebook

For many people, the Cambridge Analytica revelations are the last straw, leading them to delete their Facebook accounts or at least radically scale back their participation. And I am tempted. Facebook is often annoying, and it does tend to be a timesink — in fact, I sometimes find myself just scrolling and scrolling and scrolling without really reading anything. As a late adopter, who only joined after being forced from Twitter by right-wing harassment, I missed much of what made Facebook trying for others (constant contact with relatives and long-forgotten high school friends) and have found it mostly beneficial. It has given me a chance to connect with other academics, who are much better represented than on Twitter, and it has resulted directly in speaking invitations and other opportunities. And while we would all love to Make Blogs a Thing Again, the spell is broken: blogs and blog comments simply no longer function as the free-wheeling conversation they once were, and we can’t just will that back into existence.

For me, I’m not sure my outrage about Cambridge Analytica is enough to make up for all I would potentially lose. Some form of social media presence feels like a career necessity, especially given my somewhat tenuous situation. More substantively, I don’t see any other venue that allows for the kind of open-ended discussion that happens in the best Facebook threads. I can post about Haydn or obscure points of Hebrew grammar, and a lengthy thread will spring up that rivals the very best threads that I ever saw in the golden age of blogging. What am I gaining by quitting Facebook that would make up for that?

More broadly — and realizing that this can sound like a cop-out — I’m always skeptical of demands for me to change my personal behavior to solve systemic problems. People have come to expect the forms of connection social media makes possible, and simply demanding that they give it up without offering anything to replace it (or, even worse, making moralistic appeals to “get off your phone and participate in real life” or whatever) doesn’t seem like much of a solution.

The core problem is the ad-driven, click-counting model of the internet. Realistically, someone probably needs to create a range of competing alternatives that are not “free” and hence not ad-driven, which will then realign the incentives and give users a more direct way to influence corporate behavior. One reason Apple is marginally better on privacy than most tech companies is that they are primarily selling hardware, so you are not “the product,” as they say. If there was a moment we all collectively sold the store, it wasn’t when we clicked on the wrong news story or took a quiz on Facebook, it’s when we let ourselves be seduced by “free.” This whole fiasco is the price of the “free” internet. Even if Facebook as an individual company dies — and I would not mind it by any means! — the “free” internet will lead inexorably to another Facebook.

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Donald Trump

Next term, I am planning to use selections from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire in Shimer’s senior capstone course, and yesterday I spent some time working through the text. Part of my motivation in using it is obviously its contemporary relevance in the Trumpocene — something that many others have picked up on, particularly given the uncanny coincidence that Election Day was (at least by some reckonings) the Eighteenth Brumaire. As the apparent coiner of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Sarah Palin, I felt I should weigh in on this important cultural reference.

Aside from the fact that Trump is as ridiculous and incompetent as Louis Napoleon, I think the core parallel between the two events is that each exposes the truth of the state in their respective eras. For Marx, Louis Napoleon exposes the fact that the bourgeoisie cannot coherently wield the power of the state, which stands as a power over against them. In our era, I would suggest that Trump exposes the limits to the neoliberal state, which tends to become a purely coercive apparatus whose sole goal is to guarantee capitalist profitability. The fact that Trump’s instinct for cruelty finds such easy outlets — above all in brutalizing immigrant populations — is evidence of this truth, and the fact that he can use the state as a platform for his petty resentments and crackpot schemes demonstrates that there really is no “there” there. The fantasy of the Deep State filled with principled public servants serving the public good is precisely that, a fantasy. To the extent that the American state apparatus ever had something like the public good in mind, that ethos has been systematically destroyed. Trump’s open profiteering is one logical endpoint of the development that has been underway since Reagan and even before.

Even “progressive” neoliberalism is caught in this bind. Obamacare is exemplary here, as its key innovation was to expand access to health care by coercing people into supporting the profitability of the hated private insurance companies. From one perspective, their profits were capped by the law; from another, they were encoded as an entitlement. The other two prongs of the attack were to coerce private employers into providing health insurance (unless they were not large enough to do this while maintaining profitability) and to strongarm the states into expanding Medicaid (which has increasingly become a disciplinary apparatus rather than a public support program). Seemingly the entire thing was engineered to prevent the direct provision of health insurance by the one level of government that was in a position to finance it. And when the Great Recession backed Obama into a corner, forcing him to use Keynesian stimulus techniques, he tried to render it as invisible as possible — providing “stealth” tax cuts that people wouldn’t notice (ostensibly so that they would spend it routinely rather than treat it as a windfall) and financing only “shovel-ready” projects that had already been planned. It’s as though the fact that government spending could be directly beneficial was an embarrassment that must be hidden from the people — presumably because awareness of the possibility of collective economic action independent of “the market” would undercut labor discipline and the profitability of capitalist firms.

My hope is that the lesson we can draw from the Trump era is that the left will give up the easy opposition between “the state” and “the market,” as though it is inherently progressive to favor the former over the latter. Trump shows that there is no inherently progressive impulse behind state power — perversely enough, we must now look to the corporate world for any institutional progressive gains in the coming years. A real transformation will not consist of favoring one side of the state/market, political/economic dyad over the other, but by refusing the distinction and rethinking from the bottom up the form and goals of the institutions we need to organize our collective life.