The last few weeks have been tumultuous and unnerving for the proverbial “global elites” who, according to the newly fashionable discourse, comprise the minions for what is alternately termed “international capitalism” or “neoliberalism.”
The nomination of Donald Trump and the shock of the Brexit vote in England have set off a squall line of on-the-spot, overwhelmingly reactive commentary all across the ideological spectrum, ranging from a newly vocal self-confidence on the part of what has come to be known as the “alt-right” (which one writer in this space has defined as “a motley crew of sub-cultural political identities consists of the conservatives, identitarians, dissidents, radicals, outcasts, anarchists, libertarians, neo-reactionaries, and other curious political formations”) to the kind of anti-egalitarian hysteria epitomized in James Traub’s rant in Foreign Policy that “it’s time for the elites to rise up against the masses.”
At the same time, there have been tentative, and often fumbling, efforts to cast what is happening in more encompassing, analytical terms than merely slinging in the familiar, thought-stupefying clichés about dark, atavistic insurgencies fired by “racism” or “populism” or “nativism” or “nationalism” or even “fascism.”
Likewise and predictably, these diagnoses have been couched in the jargon of neo-liberal economism – wage stagnation, income inequality, the outsourcing of manufacturing, the domination of elections by “big money”, lack of government spending on education or job retraining, etc., etc. And the “cultural” side of the equation, manifested in anti-immigrant sentiment among the working classes along with a supposed rejection of “global elites” and “cosmopolitanism,” is routinely blamed on the inherent character defects of the insurgents themselves – their parochialism, their entitlement, their “white privilege,” their ignorance, their social and moral backwardness, their susceptibility to demogoguery, and on and on.
The economic dislocations that are allegedly causing what French far-right party leader Marine LePen with signature bluster termed a “populist spring” (invoking obviously false analogies to what happened in the Middle East starting in 2011) have not all of a sudden become apparent, even to the “experts” or to the populace at large. They have been visible and full-blow since the financial crisis of 2008, and were even predicted by some savvy economic seers since the turn of the millennium. The conventional wisdom that it is the lack of “real income growth” since the Great Recession that has all at once amped up popular frustration belies a more subtle and diffuse structural dynamic within the neoliberal order that these knee-jerk economistic explanations are incapable of bringing to light.
To get a plausible feel for the tectonic shifts that are underway one has to put aside the pathologically addictive and self-indulgently toxic politics that has possessed the minds of many of our Western academic elites even more so than the presumably cretinous multitudes that are the objective of their disdain and invective. Blaming both in-groups and out-groups becomes an intellectually hollow as well as morally bankrupt zero-sum enterprise.
What we are witnessing is not only the climax of a long-burgeoning crisis of liberal democracy itself, as I have elsewhere argued, but the tremors of a gigantic crackup of an international system of previously well-functioning ideals and values, which are as much cultural and political as they are economic. A proper “genealogy”, as Nietzsche would say, of these underlying and increasingly disordered value systems need to be applied.
“Neoliberalism” is not a term that can be simply interchanged with “capitalism,” a word to which Marxism gave a kind of overdetermined meaning and which is becoming less and less useful as a descriptor, other than to name the obvious, a complex and expansive worldwide webwork of markets and financial mechanisms that power them.
The “economic” form of neoliberalism, as we are beginning to realize, is a merely a subset of what the great, late twentieth century French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault dubbed the biopolitical means of “governmentality”. Ever since Adam Smith we have derived the familiar types of political organization from economic means of production and distribution (as implied in the eighteenth century concept of “political economy.”
But as David Harvey, a well-known theoretician and historian stresses, neoliberalism was always a system of co-optation or, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call it, an “apparatus of capture.” In a nutshell, neoliberalism has captured the moral passions and sentimentality of educated cultural progressives in the developed world to advance the causes of the new planetary “captains of industry.”
According to Harvey, neoliberalism was launched in the 1970s as a counterpunch by economic elites against the ascendancy of the “social state” in the postwar era that forced upon them income redistribution through taxation and the effective enfranchisement for the first time of organized labor. According to Harvey,
An open project around the restoration of economic power to a small elite would probably not gain much popular support. But a programmatic attempt to advance the cause of individual freedoms could appeal to a mass base and so disguise the drive to restore class power.(40)
Neoliberalism picked up and preyed upon the street cries of political radicals for the loosening of restrictions by the state on moral behavior as well as more individual autonomy and “grass-roots” control of social and educational institutions. The ubiquitous New Left slogan of “freedom now”, expropriated from the traditions of Western liberal political economy itself, became the basis for what Nietzsche would call the “revaluation” of all organizational norms and structures.
At the same time, it hybridized this libertarian proclivities with the newfound rage for “social justice,” building upon the realization among the swelling numbers of the college educated that the historic ideals of liberty and equality had been severely compromised by the concentration of state power since the early twentieth century. In Harvey’s words,
neoliberal rhetoric, with its foundational emphasis upon individual freedoms, has the power to split off libertarianism, identity politics, multi-culturalism, and eventually narcissistic consumerism from the social forces ranged in pursuit of social justice through the conquest of state power. (41)
The result, Harvey argues, was the creation of a new more “socially conscious”, meritocratic ruling class which, particularly after the collapse of Communism, employed various political “wedge issues” to gain political dominance and gradually economic hegemony, which became the adhesive for its new, expanding global empire.
The financial crisis of 2008 was indeed the output of predatory lending practices. But it was also promoted by both the Clinton and Bush administrations as a strategy for increasing home ownership among previously marginalized groups – a classic tactic of neoliberalism. The fact that the banks which had sponsored this predatory lending were immediately bailed out by the very government that had backed them (unlike in previous crises where financial institutions take the hit) under the pretext of forestalling the social chaos which its very practices had engendered.
Another important contemporary philosopher who needs desperately to be read these days is the Italian thinker Maurizio Lazzarato, who lives and works, including in community organizing roles, in Paris. Lazzarato, who draws his arguments from on-the-ground study of workers and employment trends, is perhaps the first, genuine critical theorist of the “knowledge-based economy”. Lazzarato has devised the notion of “immaterial labor” as the key instrument of exploitation throughout the neoliberal order.
For Lazzarato, capitalism from its beginnings has always been founded on expropriation, i.e., “capture.” Whereas nineteenth century capitalism expropriated the labor of the working class, the post-industrial, neo-liberal order has expropriated the future financial capacities of Richard Florida’s new “creative class” through an ever expanding apparatus of debt and financialization.
In his book Governing By Debt, Lazzarato describes the present day university as the primal scene of exploitation in the same way the factory could be characterized in the nineteenth century. “In the production of knowledge,” Lazzarato writes, “class division no longer depends on the opposition between capitalists and wage-earners but on that between debtors and creditors. It is the model the capitalist elites would like to apply to all of society.” (66)
But this debt, which he calls the “debt of life,” is founded as well on a cultural and socio-psychological agency of capture which neoliberalism exploits quite effectively. Debt and guilt are interchangeable signifiers in this process, as the dual meaning, for example, of the German word Schuld implies.
The university “expropriates” the individual self-worth as well as the financial assets of the new, highly educated “indentured servant”, which the neoliberal order simultaneously demands become a responsible “global citizen,” one who is constantly “sensitive”, self-conscious, and prepped to make amends for their privileged status vis-a-vis multitudes of disenfranchised “others” (while donating to grand political and social causes) through constant re-education, personal re-invention, and a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good in ways that ultimately benefit primarily the ruling elites of the world.
The uneducated – the now obsolete menial laborers who still inhabit the economically faltering knowledge societies – are cast as the moral scapegoats in the same way people of color were throughout the colonialist and industrial eras, as David H. Freedman notes in his caustic article in The Atlantic entitled “The War on Stupid People.”
Because these “useless”, uneducated holdovers from a bygone era of industrial production have frequently retained the chauvinism and biases that were systematically employed to set them against other wage earners in previous generations, the same divide-and-conquer strategy has now been ruthlessly engineered by the neoliberal elites themselves to camouflage the reality of the new system of exploitation, which casts its net over peoples of all colors.
Just as Marx called religion the “opium” of the masses a century and a half ago, so excessive types of secular idealistic political crusading could in many instances be considered the heroin of the degreed classes.
As various writers have emphasized in recent weeks, the promise of neoliberalism was always that worker sacrifices, including the breakup of unions, longer working hours, deferred employment through a commitment to higher education would “lift all boats,” as the saying went, and usher in a new era of productivity and prosperity.
While productivity has increased, prosperity has not, and it is those who are the bottom of the economic food chain who are the ones who are showing the first, real signs of rebellion.
Whether we are witnessing just another periodic rebellion of those who have been left behind by history (as many of our elites on both the left and right tend to fantasize) or we are experiencing the harbingers of a revolution that is likely to take some totally uncharted course cannot be determined at this moment in time. However, it is elites, including those with pretensions who share the self-delusions of besieged elites throughout the centuries, who need to be more critically self-conscious than they are.
That is especially true of those who have the very “knowledge base” to make a critical assessment of what is happening.