Letters

On Wendy Brown

Different scholars get curious about different things. It turns out that I’m curious about rather different things to Wendy Brown. Her new book, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, New York 2015) is very fine. Certainly the clearest and sharpest account of neoliberalism I have read so far. I’ll try to summarize its insights into neoliberalism, but also pose some questions regarding the things about which I am curious that get no mention in it.

Let’s start with an example. Brown discusses the 2003 Bremer Orders, issued by Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq after the United States and its allies defeated Saddam Hussein and occupied the country. The Bremer Orders appear at first blush to be a classic instance of neoliberal ‘shock doctrine’. The Bremer Orders decreed the sell-off of state enterprises, the opening of Iraqi companies to foreign ownership, the restriction of labor rights and a capital-friendly tax regime.

Brown concentrates on Bremer Order 81, the prohibition of re-use of crop seeds of protected varieties. The Iraq seed bank, located in Abu Ghraib, did not survive the war. The United States government handed out genetically modified seed in 2004. Iraqi farmers would now be permanently bound to agribusiness companies such as Monsanto, Dow and DuPont. Agriculture has existed in Iraq since 8000BC, but never like this before.

Through a small ‘legal tweak’, a domain not previously incorporated into the global market economy became subject to the ‘best practices’ of agribusiness. Brown: “Thus, Order 81 epitomizes the neoliberal mobilization of law not to repress or punish, but to structure competition and effect ‘the conduct of conduct.’” (148) Order 81 subordinates farming to a market ‘reality principle’.

Brown’s curiosity is about neoliberalism as a political rationality. As we shall see, it exceeds and even reverses some classic tenets of liberalism. “Neoliberalism is the rationality through which capitalism finally swallows humanity….” (44) Brown constructs a compelling case for the coherence of this political rationality as a force in the world. But she does so by not being curious about some other things along the way, and one might in turn be curious about how these other curious things and neoliberal political rationality might interact.

She is not curious about the relation between politics and war. Politics is a separate sphere in Brown. Quite a lot has to get bracketed off here to get down to Order 81 as a legal tweak, curious though that tweak may be. Nor is she curious about certain kinds of agency. It would appear that Order 81 was more or less drafted by agribusiness giant Monsanto, which had close ties to the Bush administration. Nor is she interested in the particular kind of business Monsanto represents.

This would be where the story invokes the particular things I am most curious about. Is Monsanto an example of ‘capital’ as traditionally understood, or is it some new kind of economic rationality? It is interesting to me that what is at the core of this story is patents on the germ lines of cereal crops. This is a kind of business based on making information a commodity, and controlling the physical product in which that information is embodied through law and coercion as much as through persuasion.

Hence to me it is a story about a new kind of ruling class, which elsewhere I call the vectoral class, whose power lies in the control not of the means of production but of information. As Peter Linebaugh shows so graphically in The London Hanged, the imposition of capitalist relations of production in England in the 18th century was as much a matter of coercion and violence as anything else.

So perhaps not surprisingly, the imposition of vectoralist relations of production are no less coercive. The thing I am curious about, but which Brown is not, is whether neoliberalism is a symptom of a mutation in the relations of production themselves. That might account for forms of law and politics that are “a meshing that exceeds the interlocking directorates or quid quo pro arrangements familiar from past iterations of capitalism.” (149)

For Brown, neoliberalism is a political rationality, a “normative order of reason” (9), the “conduct of conduct.” (21) Its effect is to convert the politics of democratic liberalism to an exclusively economic liberalism. Democracy is being hollowed out from within. Economic growth, capital accumulation, and competitive positioning become the sole project of the state.

Political rationality is not an intention of a power, not an ideology, or “material conditions.” (115) It works through a “regime of truth.” (115) “Political rationality is not an instrument of governmental practice, but rather the condition of possibility and legitimacy of its instruments, the field of normative reason from which governing is forged.” (116) It constitutes subjects (homo economicus) and objects (populations). It is not the same as a discourse – there can be many and competing ones. Nor is it the same as governmentality, which means a shift away from the power of command and punishment. Political rationality does not originate with the state but does circulate through it. It isn’t a normative form of reason so much as its implementation.

Perhaps the neoliberal renders moot a certain obsession in post-Marxist thought with the figure of The Political and of democracy as its ideal-type of procedure. In Agamben’s Homo Sacer, there is an ambiguity as to whether the demos is the whole political body or the poor. In Rancière’s Dissensus it is neither, but is rather the uncounted, the part that has no part. In Balibar’s Equiliberty equality and freedom are imposed by the revolt of the excluded in a never-ending struggle. It is curious to me that rare are the moments when anyone stops to question whether politics even exists, or whether like God, the Political is a myth, one about to go the way of Zoroaster in an era when the one true faith of the market is becoming the hegemonic faith of the world.

There’s no shortage of rear-guard actions by believers in The Political, for whom neoliberalism is a kind of heresy, an economic god masquerading as a political one. There’s attention to widening ‘inequality’ to the vulgarity of commercialism, the endless cycle of booms and crashes in a financialized economy. Strikingly, liberals and Marxists alike all assume this is all still covered by the concept of ‘capitalism’. There’s a general consensus that capital’s power has been rising, that labor suffered defeats, if rather less attention as to why and how. What made it possible for the ruling class to – quite literally – route around the power of labor and the social movements? It is striking how rarely the infrastructure of twenty-first century political economy ever comes up.

In Brown what we get is a clear articulation of a kind of fault line in political rationalities, but not much as to why it might have happened. Neoliberalism enlarges the terrain of what can be ‘economized.’ Contra classical liberalism, there is only homo economicus, which is then rethought as ‘human capital.’ There are only kinds of capital competing with each other, and these are imagined on the model of finance capital, as an unequal field of speculative units attempting to accumulate and augment their value. Neoliberal ‘liberty’ is economic, not political. The old values of equality, liberty fraternity are displaced by human capital, which is not even a humanism any more. What the young Marx called the “true realm of freedom” no longer beckons.

Brown: “Whether through social media ‘followers’, ‘likes’, and ‘retweets’, through rankings and ratings for every activity and domain, or through more directly monetized practices, the pursuit of education, training, leisure, reproduction, consumption, and more are increasingly configured as strategic decisions and practices related to enhancing the self’s future value.” (34) But notice the slippage here. This is about games and strategies, not human capital. As I proposed in Gamer Theory, this is a model of subjectivity in which we are all gamers, of which the speculator is just one model. Perhaps it is about the arrival of a kind of tertiary regime of information as value, where sign-value controls exchange value controls use value. This development would not then be well captured by the concept of neoliberalism to the extent that aspects of it are neither political nor economic.

Still, to the extent that an aspect of the present still appears political and economic, Brown shows how the neoliberal subject is no longer that of Smith, with its trucking, bartering and exchanging, nor a Benthemite maximizing of pleasure and minimizing of pain. The subject is now supposed to be a wise investor, calculator and networker, or as I would put it, a gamer, for as Brown acknowledges, “this does not always take monetary form.” (37) Even if she is not curious as to what form it actually takes. There’s not much attention here to the digital infrastructure undergirding the gamer-subject, “organizing its dating, mating, creative, and leisure practices in value-enhancing ways” (177)

Neoliberal political rationality is no longer about Kantian subjects who are ends in themselves and a value in themselves. The human is disposable. Here I am curious as to in what sense neoliberalism is actually a neofascism, a petit-bourgeois culture in which the ruling class buys-off the middle class through the repression of those below it. Fascism hardly appears at all in Brown’s account, in which liberal democracy is taken to be the normal model of modern politics.

But what if we took fascism as the norm rather than an historically quarantined exception? This would at least make sense of the casual acceptance not just of inequality but the possibility of the extinction of those units of ‘human capital’ that fail to successfully compete. It would also bring us closer to the exercise of state violence in our time and to social movements like #BlackLivesMatter, for whom the state remains a repressive apparatus of violence above all else.

To see everything as capital is a petit-bourgeois worldview. Labor disappears as a category. It is Marx inverted: for Marx capital was dead labor. For neoliberalism, labor is extinct and there is only capital. Supposedly there are many capitals, all competing with each other. There’s no foundation for citizenship, for a human capital can go bankrupt and cease to exist. (Unless of course it is ‘too big to fail’—a telling exception). There is no public good and no commons. Perhaps, when Donald Trump is a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, there is no politics, either. Or as I would read it, after Benjamin, we have again our old enemy the aestheticization of the political.

For Brown, the mission of the neoliberal state is to help economic growth, competitiveness and credit rating. Actually, I wonder of that is really the case. Perhaps ‘austerity’ is not about growth at all, but maintaining the transfer of wealth upwards in the absence of growth. It might help to be a bit more curious as to how much of neoliberalism is not a rationality at all but an ideology. Following in the steps of Foucault, Brown is interested in how neoliberal rationality is a regime of truth.

Certainly in its own terms it is a (semi) coherent set of norms for economic management. But perhaps the Nietzschian flavor is too strong here. I would not want to forego the tools with which to show its incoherence, irrationality and ideological special-pleading for an emergent ruling class, based on truth-claims made with methods outside its orbit, and derived from the struggles against it.

Undoing the Demos is among other things a reconstructive reading of Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics as an account of how liberalism became neoliberalism in the postwar years. This is not Foucault at his best. Here he is doing something close to old-fashioned intellectual history. Brown: “… neoliberalism for Foucault was intellectually conceived and politically implemented.” (50) And yet both he and Brown want to make claims for this as something more than an ideological and superstructural development.

As Brown candidly acknowledges, parts of the lectures read as an “anti-Marxist rant,” even as parts might lend themselves to a less than cautious reader to a sort of “neo-Marxist critique.” (55) But it can never be such. Nowhere does Foucault ask what transformations in the forces of production, putting pressure on the relations of production, might generate such a break in political and ideological forms. In that sense the lectures remain what Poulantzas would have called a regional study. The attempt is rather to make the political into a superstructure, indeed the superstructure.

In Brown’s account, Foucault begins with the question of limits to state power, with rights as a constraint on sovereignty, but along side which there was a second principle of limit: the market as not just an alternate form of organization but also of a certain truth: “market veridiction.” The neoliberal turn pushes rights aside and makes the market not just a limit to the state but its very principle of operation.

Unlike Marxists, Foucault is not interested in property rights, the occlusion of class by nation, or the state as ruling class in committee. Instead, the focus is on the market as truth and limit to government. For Foucault, neoliberalism emerges out of a crisis of liberalism – and in this he accepts its own narrative about itself. Neoliberalism does not want to be perceived as a response to the crisis of capitalism; it wants to present itself as a response to the failure of the state.

Here Foucault does some old-style intellectual history, linking the Freiberg school and the Chicago school with Hayek as the link between. The former contributes idea of state’s role in fostering competition, latter idea of human capital. Interestingly, Hayek is also the person who, whatever his ideological commitments, really thought about the problem of information in economic theory. But that would be to connect these intellectual developments to what was happening with the forces of production at the time, whereas Foucault wants to think The Political as autonomous and primary.

Brown: “Neoliberalism is not about the state leaving the economy alone. Rather, neoliberalism activates the state on behalf of the economy not to undertake economic functions or to intervene in economic effects, but rather to facilitate economic competition and growth and to economize the social, or, as Foucault puts it, to ‘regulate society by the market.’” (62) The missing concept there for me is information. It is no accident that neoliberalism has its moment in the postwar period, when the infrastructure of command and control through information that had developed during the war for managing complex systems was extended out of the military industrial complex into civilian industry.

Hayek had said that only the price signal could function as a rational management of information in a complex economy, and yet as Ronald Coase showed, market transactions are not free. In cases where the cost of market transaction outweighed its efficiency, the nonmarket organizational form of the firm would prevail. The corporation emerged as a truly enormous nonmarket form of resource allocation. The state is called upon to perform all sorts of functions to enable these behemoths to coexist and survive. Meanwhile, the ideological fixation on ‘competition’ covered up the lack of it.

For neoliberalism, “the economy is at once model, object and project.” (62) Precisely because it can only be an artificial construct at this point. Civil society seems to have worked its charms on Foucault. He could not see the other side of the picture. Looked at from the point of view of neoliberalism, the state has to become more like the market. (And one can celebrate or decry that proposition). But one can also see it the other way around: the market has to be propped up and kept going by the state. Ever since Kenneth Arrow, nobody could much believe that the market was always an optimal allocator of resources.

The developed world became the over-developed world. Commodification ran up against the limits of what it could claim to organize efficiently or effectively. Whole chunks of social life had to be hacked off and fed into the flames to keep the steam up. Commodification moved on from land to things to pure information. A whole infrastructure was put into place, of information vectors, backed up by the extension of the old partial rights into a comprehensive set of private property rights called ‘intellectual property’. This for me would be a sketch of a story that makes sense of neoliberalism.

If ‘economy’ is not a static, unmoving thing in the postwar period, neither is the ‘state.’ Both are transformed by the same techne. As Sandra Braman shows, the functions of the state start to work differently when what the state runs on is information. If there’s a connection between state and private organizational units in the postwar period, it is that they both run on the same computational infrastructure, from the mainframe era to the PC to today’s so-called cloud computing. One might wonder, pace Kittler, if these were the vector more of military rationalities than of market ones. This would help make sense of an aporia in Foucault and Brown: that the neoliberal subject is not only autonomous and self-managing, but also obeys commands. Autonomy is constrained. Initiative is welcome but only in fulfilling a task commanded from without. This is the essence of military organization.

One might also wonder if it is not at least in part from the generalization of military models that inequality becomes naturalized and normalized. It is certainly the case that another component of this, as Brown astutely observes, is a move away from the category of exchange to one of competition. In bourgeois economics, all exchanges are equal, including that of labor and capital. Barring a few outlier situations, the price at which an exchange takes place will tend to equilibrium. Or so it was once believed. Competition implies not equality but inequality. Some are just better than others and deserve more. It is as ideological and self-proving a nostrum as exchange, of course.

As already mentioned, capital replaces labor entirely as the agent of a worldview. There are only capitals, including human capital. All subjects are supposed to be entrepreneurs of the self. One can connect this to the observations of Franco Beradi about the disappearance of the figure of alienation. It is as if nothing is taken from the subject; its all about what the subject can get for itself. This entrepreneurial quality has less and less to do with production. Its not about trucking and bartering in things – except perhaps for Brooklyn’s retro-hipsters who want not to be traders of information but to make actual stuff again, like organic beard-oil. That counter-trend might be the sign that petit-bourgeois culture now knows itself to be playing a game of trading information and attempting to compete in that game for surplus information, which can be traded in turn for money and in turn again for things.

Success at this game becomes the only measure of success: “those who act according to other principles are not simply irrational, but refuse ‘reality.’” (67) It is a wild and unpredictable reality. The market is now frankly acknowledged to be convulsive. “The state must support the economy, organizing its conditions and facilitating its growth, and is thereby made responsible for the economy without being able to predict, control, or offset its effects.”

The politics that goes with this is a centrist extremism. You can be for gay marriage or for prayer in schools, but the market is not to be questioned. The market is not there to enable the good life; all of life is to be sacrificed to keeping the market going. Brown: “Where others saw only economic policy, Foucault discerned a revolutionary and comprehensive political rationality , one that drew on classical liberal language and concerns while inverting many of liberalism’s purposes and channels of accountability.” (67)

Brown points to rather different limitations to Foucault’s thinking than I would. For Brown, his view is state-centric. There’s only the state and its subjects. For Brown, it is the citizen who is excluded here (rather than labor, praxis.) Foucault tends to see things from the point of view of power. He is a little too fascinated with neoliberal ‘freedom’. There’s no subtending world of exploitation. Brown questions “his acceptance of the neoliberal claim that the economy constitutes the limit of government for liberalism and neoliberalism, that it must not be touched because it cannot be known.” (77)

For Foucault, homo economicus as a man of interest is a constant, but for Brown, self-interest does not quite capture the latest iteration. “Homo economicus is made, not born, and operates in a context replete with risk, contingency, and potentially violent changes, from burst bubbles and capital or currency meltdowns to wholesale industry dissolution.” (84) To me this is the subjectivity of the gamer, or the ‘Army of One.’

Homo politicus is not really a figure for Foucault, or perhaps just an episodic one. He sees things from the pov of state power. Brown: “Still, it is strange that sovereignty for Foucault remains so closely allied to the state and never circulates through the people – it’s almost as if he forgot to cut off the king’s head in political theory.” (86)

For Brown, homo politicus is the main casualty of neoliberalism. She explains this via the just-so story of political theory, for which homo politicus is something of an ironic founding myth. “In the beginning, there was homo politicus….” (87) Humans live together as political animals, where politics means the capacity for association, language, law, and ethical judgment (but not, as Steigler notes, techne).

Aristotle is quite candid about the prerequisites for political life: slavery and private property. The household is at the same time the model of rule and site of relations of production. But Aristotle is a bit troubled by household production, which might ground not homo politicus, but another kind of figure. There’s two different kinds of production, one natural, one unnatural. Unnatural wealth is accumulated for its own sake. Proper acquisition concerns the household; the improper the marketplace and money. The former has limits and grants leisure, the latter becomes an end in itself.

No mention is made here of war, which might ground the right to citizenship in the first place, and determine the extent of those rights. Nor is any mention made of techne. How is political communication actually and materially conducted? Are not the agora and rhetoric technologies of the polis? There is also a bit of an elision between the classical concept of man as political and the modern one, skipping the intervening millennia in which the leisure of the man of means was not for politics but for God.

Even modern liberal political thought respects the foundational fiction of homo politicus. In Smith we are not exactly political animals, but creatures of truck and barter – of exchange. But we’re not creatures of pure self interest. We might be homo economicus already in Smith, but also creatures of deliberation, restraint and self-direction – in a word, sovereignty. The rise of homo economicus is not incompatible with a presumed power of the political over economic. The state could choose mercantilism or free trade, for example. Smith was intent on proving why the latter was better state policy.

In Locke there is more strain between homo politicus and homo economicus. The danger of the latter is made clearer in Rousseau, who is perhaps the main source of the investment in The Political that persists in critical theory today. Rousseau is the prophet of the return of homo politicus in the form of popular sovereignty rising up against self-interest. In Hegel this becomes the universality of the state versus the mere particularity of civil society. The young Marx begins with the unrealized nature of sovereign political man. Mill offers a world of little sovereigns, choosing their own means and ends. Here the boundary between state and liberty is a political question. The state is beginning to recede as guarantor of liberty, equality, fraternity. It becomes rather the manager of what Foucault calls the biopolitical. But homo politicus still lingers in subjects relation to itself, even in Freud, for whom the superego is the politician of the self.

This thumbnail account of the mythic history of homo politicus is for Brown a story which shows the novelty of neoliberalism: “the vanquishing of homo politicus by contemporary neoliberal rationality, the insistence that there are only rational market actors in every sphere of human existence, is novel, indeed revolutionary, in the history of the west.” (99)

Brown shows that there’s a slippage in neoliberal though about the subject, between the individual and the family. Homo economicus is still imaged as a male head of a household, or at least one with the benefits of such a household. He may no longer have slaves, but someone tends the kids and does the dishes. The family remains a nonmarket sphere that cannot be economized. It’s a space of needs, inter-dependence, love, loyalty, community and care – where it is women who take care of all that ‘stuff.’ I might venture that for all its patriarchal faults, the family is the minimal unit of communism, not as a utopia of course, but strictly understood as a domain of shared or pooled resources outside of both exchange and even gift –as both Karatani and Graeber might see it.

Neoliberalism puts pressure on the family, and in particular on ‘women’s work’. “Either women align their own conduct with this truth, becoming homo economicus, in which case the world becomes uninhabitable, or women’s activities and bearing as femina domestica remain the unabowed glue for a world whose governing principle cannot hold it together….” (104) Neoliberalism intensifies gender subordination, not least because its demolition of social services leaves women propping up more than half the sky. Women’a domestic labor is incidentally the only time labor really appears as a category in Brown’s text.

If the point of liberalism was liberty, the point of neoliberalism is, perversely enough, sacrifice. “This is the central paradox, perhaps even the central ruse, of neoliberal governance: the neoliberal revolution takes place in the name of freedom – free markets, free countries, free men – but tears up freedom’s grounding in sovereignty for states and subjects alike.” (108) One is ‘free’ only to submit to market ‘discipline.’

Brown: “But when citizenship loses its distinctly political morphology and with it the mantle of sovereignty, it loses not only its orientation toward the public and towards values enshrined by, say, constitutions, it also ceases to carry the Kantian autonomy underpinning individual sovereignty.” (109) ‘Enshrined’ is a curious word-choice there. For believers in the political, neoliberalism really does appear either as an attack on the sacred or a heretical form of it.

It is, as Foucault predicted in a rather different context, the end of Man as sacred stand-in for the hidden God. No longer are people able to pursue the good life in their own way, as nothing adheres to ‘man’ other than as human capital, as servant of the market. It is, for Brown, “an existential disappearance of freedom from the world.” (110) When Weber attacked the iron cage of rationality and Marx the commodity as reification, both presumed a subjectivity outside of both rationality and commodity, although I am not sure that in the case of Marx that subject was necessarily a political one. I think for Marx that subject was labor, in its capacity to know and imagine and transform the world. And I am not sure that this other agency of Marx is erased by neoliberalism. It is more contained by a vectoral technology, in which all of labor’s agency is siphoned off as ‘creativity’ and captured as intellectual property for a new iteration of a ruling class that may not be strictly capitalist any more.

Brown thinks that Foucault’s sources for thinking the political rationality of neoliberalism are Max Weber and Hebert Marcuse. From Weber he takes the distinction between the rationality of means and ends, which was developed into a whole critique of modernity in Adorno and Horkheimer. In Marcuse, the object is more specifically a technological rationality, extending out of capitalist relations of production and colonizing other parts of life.

Here Foucault’s project is an explicitly anti-Marxist one. He restores the autonomy of the political that is questioned in Marcuse, but in the form of a rationality thought to extend beyond mere ideology. “For Foucault, political rationalities are world-changing, hegemonic orders of normative reason, generative of subjects, markets, states, law, jurisprudence, and their relations.” (121) Brown gives a bit more weight to agency in her version, where the agent is ‘capital’, but not much is said about its historical form, other than that it is now ‘financial’. We’re not told at any point how or why it became so.

One hint at what’s missing here is Brown’s account of governance, which she thinks converged with neoliberalism but is not of it. Governance is the move from hierarchy to network, from institution to process, from command to self-organization. As I suggested earlier, this is actually not that far removed from modern military organizational forms. And it shares with it an infrastructure of communication technology that makes information the key to both control and autonomy. This is contemporary logistics. The political is made technical – as indeed Marcuse had already suggested. There is a devolution of responsibility to smaller and weaker units. “Thus, responsibilized individuals are required to provide for themselves in the context of powers and contingencies radically limiting their ability to do so.” (134)

A particularly interesting part of Undoing the Demos is Brown’s discussion of law. For her, “… neoliberal law is the opposite of planning. It facilitates the economic game, but does not direct or contain it.” (67) her example is the 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This famously gives corporations the standing of people with unqualified free speech rights, and mobilizes even the constitution for the project of a neoliberal makeover of governance.

In Brown’s reading, Justice Kennedy’s decision in that case, writing for the majority, is essentially arguing that speech is like capital, and thus should be another domain of unfettered competition. Curiously, while for Brown, Kennedy’s proposition makes speech like capital, what speech is for Kennedy is information. This once again appears as the elided concept. It is curious that it shows up in nearly all of Browns quotations from the decision. Kennedy writes of the right of citizens to “use information to reach consensus.” (157) He in concerned with “where a person may get his or her information.” (160) Of situations where one is “deprived of information.” (165)

For Kennedy, speech is innovative and productive, which is a bit like capital, but are also attributes of information in a commodity economy in which it has become a commodity. Hence while Brown stresses that in Kennedy’s decision “There is only capital, and whether it is human, corporate, financial or derivative…” (161) this is a metaphorical leap which steps over the key word: information. And it is information that composes the means of control and accumulation of all the leading forms of corporate power now.

Information is what Monsanto and Wall st have in common, and have in common too with the tech companies, the drug companies, even Walmart, which is essentially a logistics company rather than a retailer. Corporations compete with their brandtheir supply chain management, rather than by trucking and bartering things, let alone making them. Of course there are still things for sale in the market, but never without their wrappings of information, not to mention the end user agreements protecting their proprietary code.

It is from the point of view of information that it makes perfect sense for corporations to have untrammelled rights to speech, for corporations ‘compete’ with, as and for information. This is the point of view from which it even makes perverse sense to Kennedy that corporations are a disadvantaged minority group in that the state curtails their speech rights in elections.

That the postwar commodity economy, having run out of things to sell, has to sell information is also a good way of making sense of the ‘neoliberal’ turn in education. Business now thinks it has the tools to take on, and make money from, things that just could not even be quantified with the old Fordist forces of production. In the neoliberal ‘truth’ regime, no amount of evidence will convince anyone that the charter schools and for-profit colleges are doing a mediocre to terrible job of this.

Brown’s focus is on the decline of liberal arts in higher education. College is now about ‘return on investment’ and “removing quaint concerns with developing the person or the citizen.” Here Brown strikes something of a nostalgic note. “Once about developing intelligent, thoughtful elites and reproducing culture… higher education now produces human capital.” (24) Anyone attentive to the aggressive purging from higher education of suspected reds during the cold war could question that rosy assessment of its recent past.

A liberal arts education was one appropriate to free men, not slaves. It lifted a student’s sights from the immediate and local to wider horizons. For Brown, the extension of such an education beyond a narrow elite was a significant achievement of postwar America. But one might wonder here, as in the ancient context, how citizenship is connected to war. The GI Bill could be seen as a way of recognizing and also defusing the demands the citizen-soldier makes on the polity it has risked itself defending. One might question how much this concern for educating citizens was a cold war project, sustained by the Soviet ‘menace’. And one might also ask if it already had an economic rationale, in turning out labor with the broader ‘skill set’ for a more complex and increasingly information-driven economy.

Perhaps it is also worth recalling that the postwar university was a complex beast. In part it delivered a broadened liberal arts education. But it was also the heart of the military-industrial complex, from which today’s military-entertainment complex was born. (Not to mention a parallel medical-industrial one). From wartime through to the seventies, the state funded basic research, much of it on the Pentagon’s dime, contributing to a common stock of innovation. The crucial change was to allow universities to own the intellectual property they created, which put places like Stanford and MIT into the information business in an unprecedented way.

Perhaps it is because I am not a product of it that I am not so enamored of the myth of the great American university. It is, after all, where one of the two branches of neoliberalism in Foucault’s account actually came from. It was not just a safe-haven for humanisms, of the homo politicus variety and otherwise. Brown: “Even its critics cannot see the ways in which we have lost a recognition of ourselves as held together by literatures, images, religions, histories, myths, ideas, forms of reason, grammars, figures and languages. Instead, we are presumed to be held together by technologies and capital flows. That presumption, of course, is at risk of becoming true, at which point humanity will have entered its darkest chapter ever.” (188) To me this sounds like that old discourse my New School colleague Mark Grief identifies as the ‘crisis of man’.

How are the old ‘figures and languages’ not also technologies, or dependent on technologies? How was the postwar university not already held together by capital flows? Here I don’t think the toolbox Brown has chosen leads to particularly sharp analysis. It may be the case that the “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 and services.” (190) But Brown has rather naturalized the postwar university and lost sight of how it too appeared as something alien and coercive in its time. On which see for example ‘On the Poverty of Student Life.

The disinvestment in higher education may be more explicable in terms of labor market requirements. Today’s vectoral class has no need of the mass worker. Labor is bifurcated between a small core of highly skilled workers using or designing information technology and a vast precarious population whose jobs have been deskilled by the same information technology.

In sum, Brown’s account holds capital constant and locates a break in the regime of political rationality. The latter has a certain primacy, as in Foucault, but is also to some extent emerging for capital. Capital is understood somewhat metaphorically, as a category that includes both actual corporations and forms of subjectivity. This capital is understood to be somewhat modified, to be financial capital, even if the only example – Monsanto – does not fit that category.

What we’re missing is the possibility that the mutation in political rationality has a hidden driver – a transformation in the commodity form itself. The key ingredient in this transformation – information – actually appears in the margins the analysis, but can’t rise to the level of a concept where there are only two regimes of subject-formation theorized: homo economicus and homo politicus. That not only politics and economics but also war, strategy and education are now all made of information, both as concept and real infrastructure, remains unthought.

Brown offers an excellent diagnosis of the what of neoliberalism, but not the why. Perhaps Foucault is of less help here than one might hope, and for quite specific historical reasons. He was among other things a late artifact of the cold war struggle around Marxism in the university. There was a time when his heroic dissent from PCF orthodoxies had relevance. Now that the latter has ceased to exist, it might be time to rethink the how the archive even of critical theory is no neutral resource but is itself a product of a historical struggles. Or perhaps I am just curious about different things.

McKenzie Wark

  • disqus_OrZ7Rr112h

    One Day you Shall Make an Argument

    1. Claim: “Different scholars are interested by different things”

    2. Clause: “You are interested in different things than Wendy Brown”

    3. Praise: “Wendy Brown has written the best account of neoliberalism that you have read”.

    4. A summary of the book.

    5. Finally. At the end of the letter … a gesture…. towards an argument:

    Brown fails to “consider the possibility that” that the mutation in political
    rationality has a hidden driver – a transformation in the commodity form
    itself. The key ingredient in this transformation – information –
    actually appears in the margins the analysis, but can’t rise to the
    level of a concept where there are only two regimes of subject-formation
    theorized: homo economicus and homo politicus. That
    not only politics and economics but also war, strategy and education are
    now all made of information, both as concept and real infrastructure,
    remains unthought.”

    Actually this is untrue because you have just presented it to us “thought it” as a hypothesis. Do you think your hypothesis is true? Or are you “just curious about different things.”

    • mckenziewark

      Yes, i do — as presented in the texts to which the piece links.

  • westnine

    @mckenziewark:disqus
    Have you considered that your invocation of ‘intellectual property’ might be a little loose? While it is true that Monsanto relies on IP patent rights, things like data and algorithms are technically not legally protected by trademarks, patents or copyright.

    So, when you say that “a whole infrastructure was put into place, of information vectors, backed up by the extension of the old partial rights into a comprehensive set of private property rights called ‘intellectual property’”, this isn’t entirely accurate.
    Is the situation actually worse than you suggest? That those firms relying on the traditional IP rights, such as record labels and film studios, drug companies etc, are a species of the Fordist production. And your “Vulture Industry” really is something new, that has yet to negotiate the legal regime that will protect it.

    • mckenziewark

      Yes, i think there’s two stages. One involves making information private property. The second involves exploiting asymmetries of information in an information commons. Mind you, the vulture industry still vigorously protects certain kinds of IP. It runs on brands and patents. So even the stage two part depends partially on IP even tho’ it now also exploits information commons as well.

  • westnine

    If the Vulture Industry is something altogether different, does your theory not contribute to the excess of reality that effaces this fact? I think it may be more important to consider the ways in which this consolidation of power etc, has taken place without recourse to new legal regimes.

    Additionally, might the law, as you consider it, be no more than a simulation model? If so, treating its instantiations of novel innovations, like IP, may only serve to hide the more insidious thought that it is no more than a commutable set of judgments, legislation, discourse, signs, which are deployed only when it is necessary for them to become visible. At which time, analysis of their forms is too late.

    Publishers in England had a monopoly on the literary industry long before the 1710 Statute of Anne granted them an author’s alienable copyright. Likewise, legal protection of algorithms and mass databases has yet to be tested.

    • mckenziewark

      I’m inclined to think the law follows rather than leads, but then i’m an old-fashioned vulgar marxist. What matters is the development of forcesof production that run on information. The law is catching up piece-meal with that, and doing its best to stuff it back in the old fashioned box marked private property.

  • Josh

    Have you actually read Foucault’s lectures? Have you read the other lectures apart from Birth of Biopolitics? Foucault’s method is a Nietzschean archaeology/genealogy, not Marxism. More similar to Carl Schmitt and Dictatorship than Marx. A history of police and policy.

    • mckenziewark

      well obviously.

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