The success – the elusive success – of neoliberalism as an ideological configuration and series of processes, is astonishing. Particularly astonishing, after the most recent leftist [UK] “defeat” (doesn’t such a term still presuppose an electoral victory for the Labour Party equals a victory for the left?) is that we on the left still don’t seem to know what we are purportedly opposing. In a recent post on the Zero Books Blog, Douglas Lain sums up this confusion adroitly. He begins by noting, correctly, that the term “neoliberalism” has for some time now been a counter-intuitive, one-size-fits-all slur employed by those of a “Socialist” persuasion. “As a colloquial definition, it’s perfectly adequate” he laments. And this is a lament; as following paragraphs demonstrate, Lain concurs with an emerging body of thought which problematizes the usage of “neoliberalism” on the grounds that it has the effect of de-politicizing capitalism itself:
“you’ll find that while Marx discusses the necessary results of the capitalist system, results that obtain regardless of the intentions of the various players, Michaels only discusses political projects and attitudes. That is, Michaels posits that the conscious decisions of human beings direct, for instance, the rate of profit. Marx would turn that around. For Marx it would be the rate of profit that sets up the options for the decisions conscious human beings make.”
As I understand it, this thought process is borne of a frustration with the intersections that neoliberalism so skilfully manipulates to further capitalist reproduction. By concentrating on “political projects” (e.g. the legalisation of same-sex marriage; the culmination of generational struggle, for sure, but also one completely at ease in a neoliberal environment) Lain is suggesting that Marxist analyses of capitalist dynamics have fallen out of fashion among the contemporary [Anglo-American] left, to its fatal detriment.
In turn, this frustrates me. Firstly, because Lain is to a great degree entirely accurate and righteous in his diagnosis of the subsumption of identarian struggle within the contours of what he refuses to call neoliberalism. His example of same-sex marriage has echoes of the government/corporate sanctified “lean-in” feminist projects; ostensibly emancipatory, they do little to explicitly challenge the enduring ethnographic abuses that remain the engine of capitalist reproduction.
It is Lain’s response to the doom, his prognosis if you will, that I cannot accept. He writes:
You say the word “neoliberalism” instead of “capitalism” because saying capitalism requires a lot more work and is more depressing. If you say “capitalism” you have to figure out and explain what the economy really is
As if acknowledging capitalist development – which is what neoliberalism really means; it’s a contemporary manifestation of the processes Marxist theory has so dominated the critique of – were the easy way out!
This is sadly a not unusual response for writers desperately seeking an exit from the leftist echo chambers which have patently failed in the past forty years. This, incidentally, is another important insight offered by this line of thought – a line which you can see the influence of across several disciplines, including in Simon Reynold’s superb book “Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past“. Even the temporal dimension of Reynold’s critique is reflective of Lain’s (and Fisher’s): since the 80s, but especially since the expansion of internet access, progressive currents – either in politics or in culture; the blurring of the two is always a cause for distress, never opportunity, for these writers – have been lost to pre-occupation with our own corporate-state licensed [neoliberal] “freedoms”: of access, of portrayal (e.g. the scoffing that greeted Facebook’s multiplication of gender markers). While Reynold himself might conclude with a sort of trepidatious optimism (“I still believe the future is out there”) he shares with Dain this paradoxical capture. Enraged by the omnipresence of today, he longs for the shock of the past – put simply, he is just as enraptured by an archived past as those he critiques.
My own dissatisfaction with this approach is embedded in several other posts. The most frequent rebuttal I hear, outside of the rejection of any perceived conservatism in “radical” leftism (1. “the provocation for the terms of your unease does not exist”), is the accusation of intersectionality’s impossibility (2. “politics already reflect your concerns, but you cannot go further for fear of fragmentation”). It is not possible, the argument goes, to construct a politics that is self-reflexive to the degree that genuinely foregrounding ethnographic critique necessitates.
Perhaps the time is right then, to work more proactively in responding to this dual dynamic. Not to answer the question as it is laid out (“what is the alternative politics that you crave?”) but rather to work towards a new configuration of the ideological configuration that is pre-emptively dispossessing radical leftism of any coherent language of opposition.
What I seek to contest, incorporating as much of the important – crucial, even – insights that Lain et al offer, is an alternative map for looking at neoliberalism, and acknowledging what is new, even in its stasis. I salute Wendy Brown when she argues that a leftist movement that looks towards its own past as the epistemological guide for its present endeavours is literally a conservative movement, a movement inclined towards protecting and restoring that which can only now be museum-ified:
the revolutionary hack who is, finally, attached more to a particular political analysis or ideal-even to the failure of that ideal-than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present.
This is an argument, ironically, that Reynold at least would presumably agree strongly with.
Where should we look for this new mapping of neoliberalism? In the next few weeks I want to explore the notion that neoliberalism, and neoliberal intransigence, its imbrication into the common senses of the self as much as the community, is deeply influenced by its interaction with popular notions of love. Žižek’s reflection that:
I was always disgusted with this notion of “I love the world,” universal love. I don’t like the world. I don’t know how… Basically, I’m somewhere in between “I hate the world” or “I’m indifferent towards it.” But the whole of reality, it’s just it. It’s stupid. It is out there. I don’t care about it. Love, for me, is an extremely violent act. Love is not “I love you all.” Love means I pick out something, and it’s, again, this structure of imbalance. Even if this something is just a small detail… a fragile individual person… I say “I love you more than anything else.” In this quite formal sense, love is evil
Is an intriguing place to start. What he seems to be describing is, in the manifestation of violent, caveat-less love, a kind of permanent state of exception. The similarity between this conception of love, and the processes of neoliberalism (a state of exception being understood by several writers, notably Mirowski, as an integral function of the post- laissez-faire governance structures – and subjectivities – of neoliberalism) is, on a personal level, completely counter-intuitive and unnerving, but it’s also to some degree (but to what degree?) undeniable. Further, the idea strikes me as blatantly speculative – and what has the left got left but speculation?