How Neoliberalism Threatens Democracy

“Neoliberalism, warns Professor Wendy Brown, has created a form of reasoning in which human beings are reduced to their economic value and activity, and in which all fields of human activity are treated as markets and institutions, including the state, are increasingly run as if they were corporations. This logic is even applied to activities with no connection to wealth creation, such as education, dating, or physical exercise, which are increasingly governed according to market rules. People are treated in this schema, as units of human capital who must constantly tend to their own present and future value.”



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Below is a transcript of the video, broken into thematic sections. Wendy Brown's most succinct answers to how Neoliberalism threatens democracy are in the last three sections.


Under neoliberalism, what is the state for?
1:04 Most neoliberals will acknowledge that the state should be in charge of defense, provide basic security, and secure rights. … For the most part neoliberalism is understood as something that is about letting markets have their way, getting the state out of the picture except for defense, for securing rights and providing national security.

Why democracy is incompatible with neoliberal ‘marketplace’ thinking
1:58 I want to explore something that neoliberalism’s done to political life and social life, and to the human being, and that’s where the ‘stealth revolution’ comes in. What many neoliberals, especially those writing and thinking and arguing on behalf of neoliberalism in the 40s, 50s, the 60s, argued for, wasn’t just free markets, [it was] the expansion of markets understood as competition, to every feature of life. Including democracy, including human social life, including education, social services, and so forth. The idea wasn’t just ‘let free markets have their way’ but ‘produce everything in the image of a market’, and that’s where the ‘stealth revolution’ comes in, because that’s where the transformation of the human being, and the transformation of democracy itself begins to unfold.
3:05 So what I’m concerned about above all is the way that turning democracy itself into a marketplace, converting the terms of democracracy the basic understanding of democracy into a marketplace literally undoes democracy. And what I mean there, is that if democracy is understood in its most basic way as ‘rule of the people’, rule of the Demos, that’s the ancient Greek idea, Demos Cratia, the people rule.
Once you take democracy and make it into a marketplace, you get rid of some pretty fundamental principles of democracy, and these include making equality a first principle, sharing political power equally, and having the people themselves, decide what to value and decide what a particular polity ought to do, ruling themselves. And the reason you get rid of those, when you convert democracy into a marketplace, is that marketplaces aren’t supposed to have people ruling, they’re just supposed to have people pursuing their own interests. And they aren’t supposed to have equality, they’re supposed to have the naturalness of inequality that comes with competition. So some of the most basic features of democracy get undone by marketizing it. And that’s what this book is concerned about.

Capitalism and Democracy: the relationship to date
5:45 There’s always been, in modern societies, a tension, between capitalism and democracy. between the inequalities that capitalist societies generate and the ideal of including all, sharing among all and having an egalitarian political order. but the ideal was sustained by understanding democracy and capitalism as something other than identical. Understanding democracy as something that societies had to try to aspire to, and try to carve out a space for, and markets as something that were appropriately confined to an economic sphere
—A tool to facilitate the well being of the body politic.
—Right. What’s changed, and even the classical political economists, Adam smith, Adam Ferguson, never argued that democracy itself or the state itself should be economized, should be turned into a market. they simply argued that where there were markets, Laissez Faire should be appropriate, but they never argued that everything should be marketized. so democracy has always been in tension with markets, but at least was cultivated by honoring its basic principles and attempting to expand those to include more peoples, for example those historically disenfranchised, African Americans in the US, women, other people who were excluded, and also expand rights, and expand possibilities for opportunity and expand possibilities for participation as citizens. What’s changed, what neoliberalism has done by economizing democracy is saying there’s no special space for democracy anymore, there’s just markets everywhere, and everything should be understood on a market model.
—It used to be said that capitalism derives its moral legitimacy from being governed by democracy.
—There you go, yes
—But now, the buying and selling of the rules of the game, or the enforcement of the rules, tears apart that legitimacy.
—Exactly.
—And what’s happened in response, at some times and places, is that people question whether we need democracy at all. They point to a Chinese authoritarian government as something that works, that delivers others say that democracy doesn’t work because it requires expertise, and a hierarchy and people can’t collectively rise up to that, whether it’s because of emotional contagion or because of a lack of education…because you can’t destroy education and depend on democracy.

How neoliberalism has weakend democracy in recent years
—Let’s first talk about what you just mentioned…which is, once democracy starts to be challenged by the ubiquitousness of markets and markets [are] understood as the best way to organize everything, once that challenge happens, the capacity of people to argue for democratic will, democratic governing, becomes really weakened. Markets become the solution to everything, and when that happens, you get a cycle, the one you just described, which is: markets do what they will, even if they’re producing greater inequalities, even if they’re producing tremendous volatility and instability, even if they’re crashing certain economies all together, certain nations producing what we have today in Puerto Rico, in Greece or elsewhere, markets are still understood to be the best way of governing, and then, you get the problem of democracy itself being essentially what you’re describing, delegitimized as a response or a retort or a solution to the inequalities or maldistributions or utter disasters that markets sometimes generate.
—and this creates a spiral, because when the government doesn’t perform well, the lobbies who dismantle the government, reduce their funding, reduce their training, reduce the quality of talent they can put into positions, that disintegrates, and government can’t function, and therefore validates the cynic.
—So it looks like a bad form of organizing society, and increasingly what you get are on the one hand the idea that markets themselves should govern, or that the philanthropic desires of … the head of Microsoft or Facebook, ought to be making a major political moves and decisions for our society. So increasingly the understanding of how we should organize ourselves is either let the markets rule, or let the rich rule, and let the rich make decisions about how do we fix education or how do we respond to poverty in North Africa, or how do we respond to disintegration of an inner city or something like that and it becomes up to the Zuckerbergs, and the Gates and so forth, who are understood as not only experts at what they do, but now become essentially the new rules. That’s the non-nefarious side.
The nefarious side is the one you just described where those who are able to essentially buy legislation by making tremendous contributions to candidates for office, and then making those contributions based on a quid-pro-quo, a tacit up, if I get you elected…they’re preselling policy. Most people know this is the case, and as you say, people become very cynical, but I think also what we have now is a kind of deep confusion, and even despair, about what else could possibly run our world.

Are experts really the way to run the world?
So when you’re combining that with the fact that there are…those who believe that democracy is just a bad way to run an economy and a bad way to run the globe, and I think this touches on what’s going on with the EU crisis and other things, you get the conviction that it really at this point ought to be simply a matter of experts who have the authority to decide what policy should be pursued, which policy should be avoided, where austerity ought to be imposed, where it ought to be, where certain kinds of arrangements between financial institutions and states and public services ought to be organized.

A despair about being able to organize how we should live
Increasingly we have a belief on the one hand that that ought to be organized by experts, and a despair on the other that governments are hopeless, markets are out of control, the world is too complex and too vast, and it’s either doomsday or I’ll just go shopping.
—what you say in your book that our belief, there’s like a decline in the belief in the modern. a decline in the belief that human agency can be used to repair these things. it’s that despondency that along with the challenge of creating an affirmative vision, or critiquing the neoliberal vision
—so important that you mention that, because I think that in many ways, the idea that we’re in a age of extraordinary technological innovation and that technology holds the solution to everything has almost produced a kind of cover or a layer of denial that sits up top what is a very deep despair about being able to come together, 14:43 as a people as a Demos, and decide how we should live, what our problems are, how they should be fixed, and I think that despair ranges across everything from what do we do about global financial institutions, to what do we do about global warming.

The promise of modernity
15:13 Modernity brought us the idea that human beings rather than nature, rather than gods and rather than tradition, human beings could be in charge of their own lives, their own future, and could exercise freedom in coming together with others and deciding individually how to live. And that was the promise of modernity. If there was one big promise of modernity, it was that no longer did these thing have to be determined by forces of nature or forces of divinity or ritual sacrifice or the alignment of the stars, that reason, deliberation, or democratic organization was the way that modern human beings would take control of their lives and exercise their freedom to be creatures of mind and of will, who could do that.
I think that at this point in history we’re actually seeing that hope, that promise, that belief turned inside out. And turned into a kind of deep but often unavowed conviction that everything’s out of control,
—16:39 and filling the void of out of control, is faith in markets.
—there you go. Yes
—how absurd is that?
—I think that you and i probably agree that that faith in markets is not founded that markets certainly can do certain things, that faith in markets to determine our future and to right themselves and to determine us, is inappropriate.

Unfettered Free Markets Generate Capital, not Growth
17:10 Thomas Piketty underscored that I think many economists knew, but he just made it really bold, with his 800-page tome, by saying, look the thing about markets, when they’re really left to themselves, they do one very simple thing, they generate capital accumulation at a much greater rate than they generate growth, and when that happens, what you get, is increasing concentration of wealth at the top, increasing impoverishment across society, and a fairly stagnant economy.

The Economy Stagnates
17:42 And when that happens, what you get in turn he argued, is basically a form of neo feudalism, a kind of stagnant economy, with an oligarchic class ruling over it, and engaged in rent extraction, rather than productive or growth based (that’s another question, the subject of growth) or growth based economic development. And Picketty’s working, as you know, very much inside the bounds of economics but called out free markets as not doing what economics says it’s supposed to do, which is generate the most productive successful growing economy that it possibly could. He said, no, it actually does the opposite. Left alone, this is the danger.

Social Mobility Ends
—18:38 and social mobility, it’s as if the drawbridge gets pulled up by the oligarchy.
—exactly. He focuses on the extent to which one’s wealth gets concentrated like that, law in turn gets organized by that oligarchy to make sure it’s not transmitted anywhere but to their own future generations and once that happens you’ve put an end to social mobility, so you’ve put an end to another promise of modernity, that everyone gets included in at least the prospect of being able to develop who and what they want to be. Even if we have uneven starting lines, even if it’s not a completely level playing field, what Picketty argues is once you have a truly free market world of that sort, you get an absolute stall in social mobility.