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Justice, Politics of Scripture

“Socially Conscious” Capitalism, Or The Extraction Of “Surplus Value” In Progressive Neoliberalism (Carl Raschke)

The following is the third installment of a four-part series on “progressive neoliberalism”. The first installment can be found here, the second one here.

In the previous installment we explored how Nietzsche’s critique of late nineteenth century, bourgeois, democratic culture in Europe with its “Christian-moral view of the world” serve as a kind of preamble for Michel Foucault’s later articulation of his well-known themes of “biopolitics”, the “pastorate”, and “governmentality.” But what do these musings of Nietzsche have, in fact, to do with the question of neoliberalism?

Far more than would be evident to most of the many Nietzsche admirers today, who hail his ruthless vivisection of popular Christian credulity, while in the same breath adhere to the same “decadent” moral convictions which the nineteenth century prophet of nihilism saw as the outcome of Christianity itself.  “The time has come,” Nietzsche wrote in The Will to Power, “when we have to pay for having been Christians for two thousand years.”(20)

What does that comment genuinely imply?  To answer that question, we need to follow the trajectory outlined by both Mark Lilla and Nancy Fraser.

Fraser writes passionately about the self-delusion of a faux neoliberal “left” that calls itself the “resistance,” but is not resisting neoliberalism at all.  In fact, in its frenzied moralizing it is firming up what it claims to be resisting.  It is a movement that pretends to be morally superior in championing the “marginalized” and the oppressed, but in truth knows only how to shame, blame, and complain, all the while demonizing the “deplorables” just as it morally privileges itself and romanticizes the global exploiters who, as Fraser puts it, peddle the “[unholy] alliance of emancipation and financialization.”

That is a perhaps a polemical condensation of the general argument that Wendy Brown makes in what she dubs the “stealth revolution” of neoliberalism.  The “stealth” factor has been the appeal to “progressive” or “humane” rather than acquisitive impulses, the laying of the egg of an exploitative cowbird in the nurturing nest of an indigenous progressivism among the educated elites that purports politically to instantiate on a global scale the “Christian-moral view of the world”.

Think the creation of failed states in Libya and Iraq under the banner of promoting human rights.  Think galloping income inequality and wage immiseration under the unfurling moral banner of borderless economies and the perpetuation of subsistence labor through unrestricted immigration, once more by bringing down the moral hammer against “xenophobia.”

In what she identifies as the “changing morphology of homo oeconomicus and homo politicus”, Brown underscores how neoliberalism seeks with its superior, “cosmopolitan” authority to put to rout the foundational, Rousseauean inspiration about the sources of democratic politics, where “we are free, sovereign, and self-legislating only when we join with others to set the terms by which we live together.”(95) In neoliberalism the terms of sovereignty are no longer set by the demos, but by the demands of capital itself, which masquerade as the guarantor of the social “welfare” of all who may find their way within its borders, not just “citizens”.

It would appear counterintuitive to the progressive mind that “emancipation” can be a straightforward subterfuge for profiteering, but that indeed is precisely how “socially conscious” capital actually operates.

If the young Marx called out the sham of Hegel’s argument that the political subject is only self-actualized through participation as a citizen of the Prussian state by dismissing it as merely touting (in Brown’s phrasing) a “ghostly sovereignty” that lacks a body because of the condition of alienated labor, then a genuine – as opposed to a faux – radical nowadays would be one who sees through the deceits of global neoliberalism by recognizing that its self-proclaimed “emancipatory” project is impossible save for an entrenched, international “precariat” routinely exploited and morally browbeaten by the corporate-financial-educational complex in order to advance the aims of worldwide economic domination by a self-serving, and self-limiting, minority.

The pivotal construct for this kind of subterfuge, if one reads Brown correctly, is what has come to be called “human capital.”  The grandiloquence of such an expression turns on the association of human agency and achievement with the classical idea of accumulated personal wealth.  But in reality it is but one more instance of extracted, “surplus value”, as Marx understood the word “capital.”  Such a surplus is not the fruit of one’s own labor, but a contracted debt to whoever provided the wherewithal for the increase of such “value.”

Since the phrase “human capital” is most readily associated with the pursuit of higher education (which is necessary both to acquire and to advance in stable employment), the very euphemism can be decoded, following Lazarrato, as the amassing of student debt, which continues to bear interest that can rarely be paid off in a timely fashion.  Brown’s contribution to this discussion, however, consists in her sui generis account of how human capital under a neoliberal regime is transposed from what Marx termed “alienated labor” into a pathology of expropriated self-worth.

The standard “progressive” narrative concerning the genesis of neoliberalism usually portrays it as the fruition of the Anglophone political heritage of competitive individualism, and the original association of the adjective “neoliberal” with the revived libertarian morality of the late 1970s and 1980s as well as the free-market fundamentalism of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations of that period.

The extended argument of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, that famous paen from the early 1990s to “democratic capitalism” and the universalization of the global market economy, laid out what came to be commonly regarded as the ideological markers of the neoliberal outlook.  But the emergence of the so-called “millennial generation” from 2000 onward with its supposed “altruistic” passion for social responsibility, combined with President George W. Bush’s appeal for a “compassionate conservatism”, which was soon succeeded by Barack Obama’s vision of a new co-operative and peaceful global commonwealth gave, many observers the false sense that the moral tide of Western civilization was on the verge of turning.

Something else, however, unexpectedly occurred.   At the same time the official rhetoric, and in large measure even the international policy apparatus, did in fact replace the deep grammar of competitive individual with the discourse of international “responsibility to the other” (Emmanuel Levinas would have phrased it), the trend toward greater income inequality and the amassing of capital under the auspices of a tiny elite of global financiers became – paradoxically – ever more pronounced.  That was especially true after the collapse of an international banking system triggered by what was nominally-  in America at least where the whole debacle started – an egalitarian push to promote home ownership among the less fortunate in society.

According to Brown, the shift takes place alongside the increasing inoperability of the economy as a whole, which cannot be blamed for obvious ideological reasons on the vast, new disequilibrium between productive wealth and labor capacity.  Instead appeal must go out for a new type of “responsibilized human capital”, rallied under the banner of “sacrificial citizenship.”(211)As Brown stresses with her longer historical view than many critics of neoliberalism bother to extend to us, the golden age of liberalism melded the duty of an “active” citizenship with the economic dogma of laissez faire and the glorification of the rationality of “self-interest”.

The imperative within the economy to reduce both wages and benefits in order to preserve the destabilized system from collapsing is masked by a certain high-minded extolling of public virtue, and of course one that fosters the comforting belief that one is aiding the “marginalized” of the world.

Whereas conventional nationalistic responses to moments of privation have valorized the violent sacrifice of the “other” through war or conquest in the name of preserving the purity of the Volk (the essential impulse in recent centuries of proto-fascist, fascist, and neo-fascist movements) , the neoliberal pedagogy has switched the emphasis to the “sacrifice of oneself,” not for transitory reasons of patriotic solidarity in the face of threat from an external enemy, but as an open-ended commitment to spiritual or “intangible” forms of self-improvement that simultaneously improve oneself and (at least ideally) “others.”

As Brown puts it, such a gesture is “above all a sacrifice for rather than to something or someone.”(215) The originally moral or political idea of self-sacrifice thus becomes strictly “economistic” in Brown’s words.   And, playing out in the midst of the Great Recession, “rage” that was “appropriately directed at investment banks” was “redirected into a call for shared sacrifices undertaken by their victims.  That would seem to be exactly the logic that Occupy was seeking to expose and reverse in its attempt to hold the banks, rather than the people, responsible for creating an unsustainable debt-based economy.”(217)

Brown’s book went to press just before the global “populist” pushback against neoliberalism became a daily news feature in 2016, and one of its greatest drawbacks is that it is “right on”, but for certain key reasons only half-right.  Brown quite cannily documents the long-developing dynamics, not just economic but also cultural, of neoliberalism in this latest phase of what Karl Polanyi called the Great Transformation of the modern period.

What she seems to miss is that the kind of “entrepreneurship of the self,” which Foucault traced back to the Christian ideal of the “pastorate”, can be expressed not just through the personalistic vector of self-improvement and spiritual formation (the latter’s “care of the self”) but also through the corporate, institutional, and bureaucratic matrices that regulate, sustain, and ultimately validate it.

In other words, Brown’s take on the “pastorate” is almost exclusively about the “sheep” and not about the system of “shepherding”, which Foucault so brilliantly and extensively explored.   She remains blinkered what we might call a true “neoliberal” (as opposed to a classic “liberal”) assumption that the ideology of what she calls “responsibilism” trickles down from certain institutions and their symbolic machineries that are invested a la the Marxian mechanism of an ideologically “inverted world” in concealing their own true interests in maintaining the fiction of a globally “engaged” citizen.

Especially with the millennial generation on the scene now, the outmoded Baby Boomer mentality of “looking out for number One,” once the watchword of the 1970s and 1980s “Me Generation”, has now morphed into the ironic formula of self-actualization through sacrificial citizenship, which she exposes as a neoliberal subterfuge.   In brief, Foucault’s model of “governmentality” requires an existing, and to a large degree sacralized, government, a distinction that is crucial to grasping neoliberalism as a thoroughgoing transform of classic liberal political order, or politeia.

The psycho-political tenor of the distinctive, millennial legitimation of neoliberalism has been sketched by Lilie Chouliaraki in her trenchant book The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism.  As Marx pointed out now going on two centuries ago, the ethico-religious correlate to global capitalism is romantic cosmopolitanism.  In the digital age such a cosmopolitanism is perpetuated online news and social media, which offers us a 24/7 intensive peephole into the sufferings, tragedies, and injustices wrought upon our fellow human beings.

Thus cosmopolitanism is no longer what Kwami Appiah refers to as  , but it is a sort of Baudrillardian “hyperreal” instantiation of the historic “humanitarian imaginary.”  The traditional bourgeois imaginary, Chouliaraki notes, was energized by “pity”, a moral category which Nietzsche ruthlessly associated with the “decadence” of popular democracy.  However, the new elite, cosmopolitan sensibility is characterized instead by “irony,” a pseudo-engagement that is not even emotional, but relies on the projection through the lens of sublimated moral outrage of our own sense of isolation, purposeless, and emptiness into the open spaces of “theatricalized” human suffering.

As Chouliaraki remarks, “irony is not simply a cultural sensibility characteristic of our times. It is also an ambivalent political project firmly grounded on the neoliberal ‘spirit’ of capitalism – a politics that, in seeking to maximize the commercial and technological efficiency of the imaginary, risks transforming our moral bonds with vulnerable others into narcissistic self-expressions that have little to do with [genuine] cosmopolitan solidarity.”(213)

Thus the digitized neoliberal, magic theater of ubiquitous, politicized indignation and affrontery, from which only the god of governmentality can save us (as we saw for example on Facebook following the election of Donald Trump) inscribes itself not only in the hearts and minds of the global precariat, but  on their etherealized “bodies”, which have come to be slowly and fatally “de-corporealized” by the counterfeit communitarianism of social media with its increasing self-aggregation of “surplus value” through new and ever more subtle forms of exploitation.

In the next and final installment we will examine how some of these paradigmatic forms of exploitation function, and how those instances Marx described within the “disciplinary society” of the nineteenth century have morphed early in the 2000s into what Foucault calls “apparatuses” (l’appareils) of the new “control society.”

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books include Critical Theology (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  He is current managing editor of Political Theology Today and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  He is also one of the current co-conspirators in the formation of a fledgling initiative known as CRI, which seeks to engage the intellectual and political crisis of our times.


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