Beyond the Ruins of Neoliberalism: Diagnosing the Present and Demanding the Future
Neoliberalism has become the dominant politico-economic ideology of our times. Since its adoption by countries such as the UK and USA in the latter half of the twentieth century, it has taken a firm root in societies across the Western world and beyond. Wendy Brown argues in Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (2015) that neoliberalism “configures all aspects of existence in economic terms” (p. 17), an idea that has led to the degradation of important aspects of social and political life. To Brown, neoliberalism has been directly responsible for the economisation of educational and social institutions that provide us with an existential understanding of our role in the world, which in turn has become “destructive to the fiber and future of democracy in any form” (p. 10). In In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West (2019) she builds on this conception by arguing that neoliberalism’s ‘market-and-morals project’ was an essential feature in the writings of the early neoliberals, such as Friedrich Hayek, and thus the spread of right wing populism can be seen as a genealogical development from the previous stage of neoliberal ideology.
Brown’s focus on Hayek calls into question the methods utilised by the early neoliberals in order to propagate this ideology. Here her thinking converges with Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015) in diagnosing how these methods were especially important in providing an economic, moral, and technological grounding from which their ideology could spread. From this diagnosis, two questions remain: how did the long-termist thinking of the early neoliberals help to shape the world we live in today? And to what extent can the technologies created from this neoliberal means of production be utilised to facilitate a world outside of the neoliberal hegemony? I intend to show how Srnicek and Williams’ demands for full automation and universal basic income can provide a solution to the global problem the left is faced with, as diagnosed by both authors along with Wendy Brown.
Wendy Brown’s book Undoing the Demos has become a seminal study in analysing how neoliberal ideology, as a specific form of rationality, has spread to every sphere of life, and in doing so has reconfigured all aspects of our existence in economic terms. This process of universal economisation has become extremely damaging to the core principles of liberal democratic societies, namely freedom and democracy. Brown seeks to build on the Foucauldian concept of governmentality in order to understand how the rationality of neoliberalism converts “the distinctly political character, meaning and operation of democracy’s constituent elements into economic ones” (UTD, p. 17). One of Brown’s key formulations in the first chapter of the book is that we must challenge the dominant understanding of neoliberalism as a purely economic doctrine. She analyses how previous critics have focussed on four main negative effects of neoliberalism, namely, “intensified inequality, crass commodification and commerce, ever-growing corporate influence in government, [and] economic havoc and instability” (UTD, p. 30). However, these effects, despite being worthy of protest and criticism, are not what she wishes to pay attention to in her critique. The main purpose of her book is to look at how neoliberal rationality operates and governs the individuals and societies under its control. In order to do this, she follows Foucault’s analysis in the 1978–79 Collège de France lectures (2010) to conceive of neoliberalism as something more than simply “a set of state policies, a phase of capitalism, or an ideology that was intended to use the market to restore profitability for a capitalist class” (UTD, 30). Instead, she sees it as something far more pervasive; it is “an order of normative reason that, when it becomes ascendant, takes shape as a governing rationality extending a specific formulation of economic values, practices, and metrics to every dimension of human life” (UTD, 30). Neoliberalism is therefore a multifaceted and elusive form of rationality; one that is not exclusive to marketisation or monetisation. Indeed, it is this rationality that underlies many of the processes that have become a necessary part of modern life, including those outside of the economic sphere:
“To speak of the relentless and ubiquitous economization of all features of life by neoliberalism is…not to claim that neoliberalism literally marketizes all spheres, even as such marketization is certainly one important effect of neoliberalism. Rather, the point is that neoliberal rationality disseminates the model of the market to all domains and activities — even where money is not at issue — and configures human beings exhaustively as market actors, always, only, and everywhere as homo oeconomicus” (UTD, p.31).
Later in the book, she expands on this idea to show how the market therefore becomes a de facto model for how humans govern themselves both in the political, economic, and private spheres (insofar as they can be separated). This idea of homo oeconomicus as an all-encompassing mode of being builds on Foucault’s analysis of the entrepreneurial and competitive subject, one that is not merely a creature of needs satisfied through exchange, but rather one who identifies as an entrepreneur of the self. In other words, the subject’s self-understanding is created through competition and is inherently related to the notion of human capital.1placeholder This is immensely problematic to Brown because it undermines democratic practices, and the very idea of democracy, by removing the individual subject that has the moral autonomy to govern itself, and the popular sovereignty to govern with others. Indeed, she argues that economic values have not merely saturated the political, but have extinguished “the agent, the idiom, and the domains through which democracy … materializes” (UTD, p. 80). Thus, homo politicus as “the creature who rules itself and rules as part of the demos” (UTD, p.42) and who is free to craft its own path in life, has been vanquished.
The disappearance of homo politicus and the universal adoption of homo oeconomicus has had drastic effects on a number of institutions and subsections of society, especially those aimed at self-actualisation outside of the neoliberal system. In chapter six, Brown focuses on the domain of higher education which, as a domain that has been thoroughly transformed by the market model of neoliberalism, no longer promotes the idea of collective effort or self-development, other than through appeals to increase human capital. For example, the decline in funding of the liberal arts and humanities departments across Western universities can be directly linked to the economisation of all aspects of life, which means that those forms of knowledge which fall outside of the realm of direct human capital enhancement have become seen as less useful or worth pursuing.2placeholder Brown sees this as extremely worrying due to the fact that “democracy in an era of enormously complex global constellations and powers requires people who are educated, thoughtful, and democratic in sensibility” (UTD, p. 199). As these particular qualities start to decline due to the universal economisation that has shifted the human character from homo politicus to homo oeconomicus we start to see a shift away from democratic thinking, or from prioritising democracy as an ideal system of governance. This shift is the primary focus of her latest book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism (2019).
Markets, Morals, and the Neoliberal Framework
Here Brown turns her focus to the rise of right-wing populism in Western democracies and across the world. Her intention is to show how, as a result of the process she began to outline in Undoing the Demos, neoliberalism has provided the historical conditions that were necessary in order to foster this new wave of right-wing ideologies. She wants to highlight the importance of the early neoliberals, in particular Friedrich Hayek, to show how there was also a strict moral project inherent within neoliberalism that went beyond the purely economic diagnosis she had given in her previous book. She aims to build on, and go beyond, the idea of homo oeconomicus as an all-encompassing state of human rationality by arguing that “Hayekian neoliberalism is a moral-political project that aims to protect traditional hierarchies by negating the very idea of the social and radically restricting the reach of democratic political power in nation-states” (IRN, p.13). In other words, for Hayek, both markets and morals are necessary for the development of a free and ordered civilisation. He argues that both are normalised through tradition rather than political power, and therefore markets can only be effective means of societal organisation if the state is prevented from intervening in them. Similarly, traditional morals can only facilitate this goal without the state encroaching on the personal sphere which is necessary to protect those traditional hierarchies.
However, a key aspect that her previous arguments failed to grasp was how the neoliberal project used a transatlantic network of academics, businessmen, journalists, and activists which “aimed at releasing markets and morals to govern and discipline individuals while maximizing freedom, and it did so by demonizing the social and democratic version of political life” (IRN, p. 11). Here there is convergence with the work of Srnicek and Williams and their book Inventing the Future (2015). Both Brown and Srnicek and Williams come to a similar conclusion when analysing the genealogical and historical development of neoliberalism. Srnicek and Williams, writing four years before Brown, want to ask the question: how was it that neoliberalism, initially a fringe economic theory, was spread so successfully throughout the modern world? And perhaps more importantly, they also want to ask: what is it the left can learn from the success of neoliberalism? They focus on how the early neoliberals, including Hayek, used a particular form of long-termist thinking (one that has been conspicuously absent from contemporary leftist thought3placeholder) to create a framework which allowed for the perpetuation of neoliberal ideas across the globe. Similarly to Brown, Srnicek and Williams argue that Neoliberalism succeeded where leftist ideologies failed because the early neoliberals meticulously constructed an ideology whose main components were facilitated by a complex infrastructure system which was set in place in the decades prior to its infiltration into the political mainstream in the 1970s (ITF, p. 53).
Their main focus in the third chapter of their book is to show how through the Walter Lippmann Colloquium,4placeholder and the subsequent Mont Pelerin Society (MPS),5placeholder neoliberalism was provided with the ideological infrastructure and means to become the most important and pervasive political ideology on the world stage. In fact, the MPS in particular was specifically focused on changing the prevailing wisdom of the time in order to move away from the Keynesian ideals that were commonplace during the 40s, and towards a new kind of liberal utopia; one that would be “actively filtered down through think tanks, universities and policy documents, in order to institutionalise and eventually monopolise the ideological terrain” (ITF, 55). The early neoliberals thus created a form of ‘ideological architecture’ whose aim was to infiltrate mainstream political and economic thinking by using long term visions and plans for the future so that, in the event of a crisis, their ideology could be easily taken up by those in power. Therefore, during the period of stagflation in the 1970s which ushered in a crisis in the dominant Keynesian model of economic thinking, neoliberalism (40 years after its inception at the Walter Lippmann Colloquium) had become a viable possibility for change.
Neoliberal Technosystems and Automation
However, here is where Srnicek and Williams separate themselves from Brown. They claim that “the left can learn from the long-term vision, the methods of global expansion, the pragmatic flexibility and the counter-hegemonic strategy that united an ecology of organisations with a diversity of interests” (ITF, 67). In other words, they are arguing that it is necessary to create a long-term vision for a future leftist society than can break free from the constraints placed on it by the distinctly neoliberal rationality. They argue that just as the Mont Pelerin Society anticipated the crisis of Keynesianism and prepared a whole series of responses, so too should the left prepare for a coming crisis of job loss and underemployment brought on by increasing dependency on capitalist driven technologies. They believe that a dynamic system of accumulation is at the heart of neoliberal capitalism (and even capitalism in general) and therefore any form of non-expansionary capitalism, or welfare capitalism, will not be sufficient to deal with the issues that are bound to face us (and in some cases are already facing us6placeholder) in the near future. Indeed, from the perspective of Srnicek and Williams, although Brown’s project may have succeeded in providing a diagnosis of how neoliberalism was able to infiltrate every aspect of human life, it misses a crucial point in showing how it will continue to affect us in the coming years, and that is through the development of the technical systems that enabled its spread.
Following what they believe to be current trends in the development of neoliberal capitalism throughout the 20th century, the authors argue that there will be a number of key steps likely to take place in the coming years. The first of which is the increasing reliance on automation and its impact on the world of work. As they state: “Automation appears as the most imminent threat … with estimates suggesting that anything from 47 to 80 per cent of current jobs are like to automatable in the next two decades” (ITF, p. 88), meaning that it is extremely likely that a situation will develop in which
“technological change reaches such a speed that an increasingly large portion of the population becomes unable to keep up with the skills needed. In this case, even if new demand can be created, there simply are not enough capable workers to take up these jobs — the supply of labour falters. The speed of technological change and diffusion may render entire segments of the population as an obsolete surplus” (ITF, p. 89)
This situation will lead to a number of potential consequences which they analyse throughout the book, and which I will summarise here. First, the precarity of the developed economies’ working class will intensify due to the surplus global labour supply (resulting from both globalisation and automation). Therefore, ‘jobless recoveries’7placeholder will continue to deepen and lengthen, predominantly affecting those whose jobs can be automated at the time. This means that slum populations will continue to grow due to the automation of low-skilled service work, and will be exacerbated by premature deindustrialisation in developing economies. This will lead to urban marginality in the developed economies growing in size as low-skilled, low-wage jobs are automated. Also, as Brown stated, the transformation of higher education into job training will be hastened in a desperate attempt to increase the supply of high-skilled workers which will slow growth and make the expansion of replacement jobs unlikely. Due to these changes to workfare, immigration controls and mass incarceration will deepen as those without jobs are increasingly subjected to coercive controls, slowly becoming economies based on survival (ITF, p.104). The ultimate end of this progression is a huge widening of the wealth gap between rich and poor, and a move away from democracy as a viable form of government.
Now, although this idea of the future is only hypothetical, Srnicek and Williams argue it is necessary for the left to imagine a future in order to provide solutions to its problems. They write: “Visions of the future are therefore indispensable for elaborating a movement against capitalism” (ITF, p.75). To them, an ambitious leftist politics with a clear vision of the future is necessary to draw us out of the universal economisation which has been essential to allow the situation described above to become a reality. In other words, Srnicek and Williams are arguing that in order for the left to succeed in a world of increasing automation, they must adopt some aspects of the market-and-morals project employed by Hayek and the other early neoliberals, namely: long term thinking, a clear collective vision for the future, and applicable solutions to potential future problems. The final part of this paper aims to highlight the demands that Srnicek and Williams believe are necessary for the left to solve these problems.
Demand a Post-Work Future
At the beginning of the chapter ‘Post-Work Imaginaries’ Srnicek and Williams state that: “The proposals in this chapter will not break us out of capitalism, but they do promise to break us out of neoliberalism, and to establish a new equilibrium of political, economic and social forces” (ITF, p.108). The proposals they are suggesting are four-fold. They include “building a post-work society on the basis of fully automating the economy, reducing the working week, implementing a universal basic income, and achieving a cultural shift in the understanding of work” (ITF, p.108). For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on the idea of full automation and how it can be supplemented by the other ideas.
As we have seen, the ever-increasing reliance on automated technologies has led to a massive loss of low skilled jobs. If continued, this could lead to a fundamental shift in the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism toward a less equal, and less democratic world. However, Srnicek and Williams argue that, given the current state of neoliberal hegemony (which has led to the right becoming increasingly dominant) the left has only one way forward, and that is to rebuild its power through long term strategic goals, while rebuilding the collective agencies that might bring them about. They claim that given the current material conditions, a post-work world is both achievable and desirable. Therefore, instead of trying to fight neoliberalism on its own terms by seeking to reverse the trend of unemployment brought about by automation, we should instead accelerate towards a fully automated economy in order to “liberate humanity from the drudgery of work8placeholder while simultaneously producing increasing amounts of wealth” (ITF, p.109). They believe that, although this sounds like a radical goal, it is imminently achievable in that it merely takes an existing tendency of capitalism and pushes it beyond the parameters of capitalist social relations (ITF, p.109).
The important aspect of full automation for Srnicek and Williams is that it should become a political demand rather than an economic necessity. They do not believe it is something that is likely to be fully achieved due to the present availability of cheap human labour, along with the fact that this labour is currently necessary for technical, economic and (arguably) ethical reasons.9placeholder However, they argue that since the early twentieth century neoliberalism has radically limited our conceptions of a possible future without human labour, and this is what needs to be overcome. By demanding an increase in automation, facilitated by a number of other factors, we can work to break out of the hegemonic system that we are stuck in. They remind us Keynes calculated “that by 2030 we would all be working fifteen-hour working weeks … and Marx made the shortening of the working week central to his entire postcapitalist vision” (ITF, p.115). Similarly, our calculations which determine the necessity of human labour are extremely skewed. For example, although the working week in many Western Countries stabilised at forty hours following World War II, once women entered the workforce, the working week stayed the same, meaning that the overall amount of time spent working drastically increased. Indeed, echoing feminist Nancy Fraser, they claim that “a vast amount of work is unpaid and therefore uncounted in official data … there is the hidden labour required to retain a job: … the all-important (gendered) sphere of the labour involved in caring for children, family members and other dependents” (ITF, p.115). An increase in automation would therefore allow for imminent solutions to these issues. It would mean that the surplus value created by industry could be initially redistributed more equally amongst those whose work is not taken into account by capitalist estimations. The most reasonable way to achieve this, they argue, is through the introduction of a universal basic income (UBI). In order for this to be a realistic option it must fulfil three conditions: “it must provide a sufficient amount of income to live on; it must be universal, provided to everyone unconditionally; and it must be a supplement to the welfare state rather than a replacement of it” (ITF, 119). They believe it has been shown, through a variety of moral arguments and empirical research, that UBI can provide a counter to the competitive nature of the neoliberal hegemony, while also being malleable enough to garner support from across the political spectrum.10placeholder Yet, most importantly, it is only through a systemic and universal implication of a basic income that the population, whose jobs have been lost due to automation, can live a fulfilling life. Thus, these are visions that the left should collectively work towards in order to provide a counter-hegemonic rationality which can stand up to the power of neoliberalism.
In summary, the demand for increased automation increases the potential for a reduction in the working week and highlights the need for a universal basic income. A reduced working week would help to produce a sustainable economy and utilise class power. And a universal basic income would allow for a reduced working week to become a viable option. These goals are all inherently interconnected and beneficial to one another. Whereas Wendy Brown may argue that freedom and democracy are the most important goals, and that a new leftist hegemonic thinking is at odds with these goals, Srnicek and Williams may reply that this understanding does not take into account the strength of the hegemonic system we are currently entrapped within, and the steps that will be necessary to overcome it. Neoliberalism’s dynamic and malleable character means that it is has been, and will be, able to adapt to many changes that seem to be a threat to its universal appeal. The inevitability of machine labour becoming more profitable than human labour for the capitalist class means that a drastic shift in leftist mentality is necessary in order to eventually eliminate the concept of a working class altogether. Instead of “demonizing the social and democratic version of political life” (IRN, p.11) this leftist hegemony would promote the democratic ideals and freedom that Brown values. So, to answer the question laid out in the introduction of this paper, it is only through increased automation, a reduced work week, and a universal basic income that the left can facilitate these ideals and restrict the ability of neoliberal capitalism to encroach on them once again.
Barnanke, B. (2003). The Jobless Recovery. Federal Reserve. Accessed 19 December 2019. Available at: https://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/speeches/2003/200311062/default.htm
[UTD] Brown, W. (2015). Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalim’s Stealth Revolution. New York: Zone Books.
[IRN] Brown, W. (2019). In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West. New York: Columbia University Press.
Cockett, R. (1995). Thinking the Unthinkable: Think-tanks and the Economic Counter-revolution, 1931–83. London: Fontana Press.
Foucault, M. (2010) The Birth of Biopolitics The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979. London: Palgrave McMillan.
Jones, B. (1982). Sleepers Wake! Technology and the Future of Work. Sydney: OUP.
Morris-Suzuki, T. (1997). ‘Robots and Capitalism,’ in Davis, J., Hirschl, T. and Stack, M. (ed.) Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution. London: Verso.
[ITF] Srnicek, N. and Williams A. (2015). Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London: Verso.
For Foucault, Human Capital represents two processes, “one that we could call the extension of economic analysis into a previously unexplored domain, and second, on the basis of this, the possibility of giving a strictly economic interpretation of a whole domain previously thought to be non-economic” (Foucault, 2010, p. 219).
Srnicek and Williams also provide a similar analysis of neoliberalism’s impact on the world of work. They claim that as neoliberalism forces increasing levels of competition amongst workers due to lack of low skilled jobs, there becomes “aggressive efforts to reduce higher education to glorified job training. The overall societal aim becomes the production of competitive subjects undergoing constant self-improvement in an endless effort to be deemed ‘employable’” (ITF, p.99).
See their discussion of ‘Folk Politics’ in chapters 1 and 2 of Inventing the Future.
The Walter Lippmann Colloquium brought together classical liberal theorists, the new German ordoliberals, the British LSE liberals, and Austrian economists such as Friendrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises (ITF, p.54).
A closed intellectual network which included almost all of the important figures in the creation of neoliberalism, also including members of the Austrian School, UK liberals, the Chicago school, the German ordoliberals and a French contingent (ITF, p. 54).
In ‘Robots and Capitalism’ (1997) Tessa Morris-Suzuki claims that the most recent wave of automation has encompassed every aspect of the economy including data collection and new kinds of production and services. In 1970 there were only 1000 robots in industrial circulation, today there are multiple millions and this trend looks to continue (p. 15–17).
A term they use to denote the period of time in which economic growth returns after a crisis but job growth remains stagnant (ITF, p. 94). They adopt this term from Ben Bernanke’s (2003) paper presented at the Global Economic and Investment Outlook Conference.
It should be noted that ‘work’ here for Srnicek and Williams refers to the inability to choose what one does in order to survive.
Among many other things. See ‘Post-Work Imaginaries’ (ITF, p. 108–127).
In Sleepers Wake! Technology and the Future of Work (1982) Barry Jones details how from the 40s through to the 70s UBI had become a staple idea in the reformation of the US economy, being considered as an option by 3 separate US administrations with presidents Nixon and Carter respectively attempting to pass legislation to put it into practice.