May 25, 2014, by criticalmoment

Review: ‘The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society’

By way of whetting your appetite for next week’s workshop on neoliberalism – and also to encourage the use of this blog as a repository for short reviews of recent critical theory publications we’d all benefit from knowing about – I thought it worth taking a moment to heartily recommend Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval’s The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society (Verso, 2013).

The original French version appeared back in 2009, making a rapid intervention into interpretations of the-then emergent financial crisis. This revised English language edition benefits from a fuller elaboration of a polemic that has become only more timely in the wake of austerity, the public bailout of those ‘too big to fail’ banks, and continuing scandals about corporate tax evasion. Although neither Dardot nor Laval are economists by disciplinary training (a philosopher and a sociologist respectively), they deal extremely lucidly with classical economic and political liberalism and with the emergence of neoliberalism as something fundamentally distinct. The New Way of the World is thus a valuable compliment to Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste (Verso, 2013). But where Mirowski, as an economic historian, demonstrates the complex institutional manoeuvring that installed neoliberalism as a hegemonic ideology, from Mont Perelin and the Chicago School to the IMF and Reagonomics, Dardot and Laval utilise a more consistently Foucaultian framework to outline neoliberalism as, less an ideology espoused by a powerful elite, and more an embedded material ‘apparatus’ constantly engaged in a reinvention of economic but also social and subjective life.

They elaborate three key arguments that, in my view, make this an important book for anyone opposed to neoliberalism.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, they clearly show that neoliberalism is not in fact laissez-faire free market fundamentalism radically opposed to any and all state intervention. On the contrary, already at the 1938 Walter Lippmann Colloquium held in Vienna and attended by von Mises and Hayek, what would become neoliberalism could be seen to emerge from a critique of the laissez-faire elements of classical liberalism, and particularly of the understanding of homo economicus as ‘natural man’. That basically Eighteenth Century philosophical anthropology, some attendees claimed, had congealed into something conservative and stagnant, and thus an obstacle to capital. In response, neoliberalism emphasised the need for the subject of the market (competitive, entrepreneurial, creative) to be forcefully produced precisely because it is not natural but artificial. This in turn clarifies the vital importance of both law as a regulatory framework and the state as an instrument, not of dirigiste economic planning obviously, but nonetheless of constant intervention. Although more explicitly expressed in German ordo-liberalism, such interventionism is perhaps even truer of the American version of neoliberalism which adopts a managerialist mode of governmentality.

This is not in itself a new point. Incredibly presciently, Foucault had already made this argument in his late Collège de France lectures on biopolitics, and Mirowski makes it forcefully too. But – and this is their second key argument – Dardot and Laval demonstrate just how damaging the continuing misconception of neoliberalism as some kind of return to laissez-faire has been for the Left. While entirely understandable as part of the attempted defence of the partial socialization of capital in state-based health and welfare provision, the simplistic opposition ‘bad market/good state’ has prevented a robust critique of those parties, precisely variants on the ‘modernized Left’, that have also been responsible for pursuing neoliberal agendas: Mitterand’s Socialist Party, Clinton’s Democrats, Blair’s New Labour, and so on. The so-called Left, at least in the abject ghostly form that it takes in mainstream party politics, is in no position to throw stones, given the glass house it has been complicit in building. Yet, consistent with their Foucaultian framework, Dardot and Laval are simultaneously critical of the tendency for Marxist analyses to remain enthralled to the notion of the state as a tool consciously used by a cabal of bourgeois capitalists (unfairly I think, they point the finger at David Harvey here). Instead, they understand the neoliberal interventionist state as a dispersed and horizontal rather than a centralized and vertical apparatus that co-ordinates a variety of techniques for the ‘conduct of conduct’. Some groups benefit more than others of course, but no-one is in charge: neoliberalism is a rationality embedded in various institutional structures, regulatory frameworks and unreflexive practices, right down to selfhood and sociality.

This for me is the third main strength of The New Way of the World. If the Left has been so fundamentally wrong-footed by neoliberalism, Dardot and Laval show that it is because the latter has colonised a great deal of the former’s moral terrain. As its love-affair with the American Neo-cons has shown, far from being a dumb free market mantra, neoliberalism has an internally coherent moral critique of tyranny and unfreedom, a passionate insistence on ‘rights’, a promise of the pursuit of happiness, and so on. But where once the capitalist class could be blamed for the social ills caused by massive economic inequalities, neoliberalism has now succeeded in installing the devious rhetorical mechanism whereby ‘too much’ of the wrong kind of government is the generally accepted cause of inequality, supposedly by preventing the democracy of the market from functioning. Meanwhile, the neoliberal state busies itself with reconstructing, re-branding, privatizing and outsourcing every aspect of biopolitically conceived life. In their ninth chapter then, ‘Manufacturing the Neo-Liberal Subject’, Dardot and Laval draw on a psychoanalytically informed strand of the sociology of work in France which demonstrates the extent to which neoliberalism is as much a project of subject-formation as of economic restructuring. The entrepreneurialization of the individual is achieved through a neo-utilitarian reification of statistics and metrics and the fashioning of a self in the image of human capital theory, in which every action is judged by a kind of cost-benefit analysis. ‘Goal-setting’ and ‘360 degree feedback’ extract surplus from employees-cum-consumer-citizens, conceived of as enterprise-units within a wider ensemble of enterprises.

The New Way of the World is thus an important book, though not perfect of course. As usual with Foucaultian approaches, it is very strong on a kind of critical mapping, but much less strong on addressing the old Leninist question, ‘what is to be done?’. They end their book instead on a more subtle posing of the problem: how can we invent a socialist or Leftwing form of governmentality to oppose the neoliberal version? It’s an interesting question, and having identified subjectivity as a crucial terrain, they advocate by way of resistance to neoliberalism promoting “in the present alternative forms of subjectivation to the model of personal enterprise” (316). Here, I would have liked Dardot and Laval to depart a little from Foucault (sometimes Foucaultian ‘self-fashioning’ is hard to distinguish from lifestyle consumerism), and returned to their passing use of Lacanian psychoanalysis in Chapter Nine. For what other theoretical framework, and more importantly clinical practice, is more engaged is separating the subject from the symptomatic effects of neoliberal culture? The other source of ‘alternative forms of subjectivation’ to which Dardot and Laval barely advert at all is of course the collective solidarity produced in and through activism. Nonetheless, in terms of the principle ‘know thy enemy’, The New Way of the World is a crucial text.


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