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Tag Archives: Neo-liberalism

The “heart” of Neo-Liberalism, blah, blah, blah

While I try to shrug off all this Neo-liberalism this, and Neo-liberalism that, as other blogsters are using fancy acronyms for Neo-liberalism as if they are busy making entries in the Merck manual, this one passage of qualifications and analogies from the Neo-liberal hating Levi Bryant I find interesting (yes, he has equated Neo-liberalism with Nazism recently):

While I do not disagree with Rowan William’s thesis that the picture of the human as an intrinsically self-seeking creature constitutes a false anthropology, I have noticed that there is a tendency to treat the core of neo-liberal capitalist ideology as consisting almost entirely of this false anthropology. What is missing in this conception of neo-liberal ideology is the legal and normative framework that underlies this way of relating to the world and others. On the one hand, in order for neo-liberal capitalist ideology to get off the ground it requires what what might be called a “pure subject” or a “subject-without-qualities”, not unlike Descartes’ cogito or Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception. At the heart of neo-liberal capitalist ideology (NLCI) is not so much a subject pursuing self-interest, as a legal subject functioning as the substrate of property, commercial obligations and debts, and divorced from social context and conditions of production.

One can see right away from the bolded material that analogies abound. Levi objects to an anthropological view being read as the core of Neo-liberalism, because there is a framework (legal normative) in which (?) a substrate operates (legal subject) onto which various formal economic relations adhere.  What Levi denies, in something beyond a point of emphasis, is that the “heart” or the “core” of Neo-liberalism is the self-interested subject. Instead it is a mere formalism of “subject” and its laws. To put it briefly, it’s not the self-seeking, self-interested desiring-subject, it’s the structured-subject (legally and philosophically) that is the troublesome kernel of Neo-liberalism. Let’s leave aside the kind of rhetorical slippage between philosophical “subject” and legal “subject” here, is it really correct to say that THIS is the core/heart of Neoliberalism (whatever that is)?

From my perspective the attempt to minimize the anthropological myth, the idea that human beings are essentially and naturally selfish beings, and instead draw a different heart/core made of some kind of structuralization, misses something. The entire legal and normative framework, we would say, came into existence and into justification in the very strong context of the belief that human beings are self-interested beings, essentially. The entire formalized drive towards privatization is made in response to this picture of humanity, it is naturalized within it. While I’m not sure who is saying that Neo-liberalism is nothing but this myth – David Graeber does make a vivid anthropological argument that “even” exchange is something that is done between enemies, suggesting that economic models of abstract equivalencies are necessarily mythologically self-interested ones – I am also unsure how much of the “framework” and its formalized subject could operate without it. In fact, as Spinoza knew just at the cusp of the Cartesian subject, one cannot cut off the conception of the cogito from the idea of its separate faculties of Willing and Judgment. In order undo the abstract subject, willing and freedom have to be radicalized. The desiring subject, how it desires, and what it desires for is integral to the very isolation of the said “substrate” of the subject in the first place. In fact, all of this stems to a great degree from Representational conceptions of knowledge and related questions of autonomy, freedom and desire.

I don’t really know what good finding the heart or the core of Neoliberalism does, other than create a kind of rhetorical force to steady the aim of our critique. But I do doubt that our narratives about how humans naturally (or if one is in Lacanian moods, structurally) desire are not every bit as important as the laws and norms that are created to regulate and shape those desires. I personally find the Neo-liberalism stigma mark to be something of a canard, designed by those that think “radical break”, getting “outside”, is the only way towards justice, but in any case, philosophies of “lack” (including much of what flows from Hegel, and those that hunger after essentialized “nothingness” or “absence” or “object”) have a great deal to do with foreclosing the possibilities of thinking about the “subject”, or better, the self beyond its normative product-buying, object-chasing behavior. One  also has to ask, as we pre-occupy ourselves with “objects” as essential and constitutive relations, are we not already caught up in economies (of desire, of real capital) which presuppose the “lack” which drives them, sinking deeper into our mental concrete the assumptions which secure the relations we would wish to change or improve upon.