On Wendy Brown’s In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West

With her new book, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West (Columbia 2019), Wendy Brown joins more than a few scholars now reconsidering what we thought we knew about neoliberalism. Her previous book, Undoing the Demos, belongs to a theoretical corpus that synthesized Foucauldian and Marxist approaches into a comprehensive analysis of neoliberalism’s drive to dismantle democracy as a countervailing force to capitalism’s subsumption of social and political life. Since Undoing the Demos, however, a world that was marked politically by technocratic “third way” governments, economically by free trade agreements and organizations, and subjectively by “responsibilized” (market-embedded moral) selves, has faded from sight. We face instead a jolting surge of right-wing populist movements and governments, resurgent racisms, escalating trade wars, border walls and detention cages. Our political culture is marked by responsibilization’s extreme opposite: sheer recklessness and reactive political aggression.

Are we no longer in a neoliberal age? Do these new conditions represent some kind of unexpected blowback, a terrifying if understandable refusal of where neoliberalism was moving the world? Has the neoliberal dissolution of the social fabric led to an age of unmitigated nihilism? Or alternatively, is neoliberalism something different than what we thought? Do these new conditions comprise an authoritarian “phase two” of the neoliberal age that we need to get a grip on?

Brown’s book argues for a position between these possibilities. She revises her earlier analysis of neoliberalism from Undoing the Demos, which she now acknowledges was never just about the marketization of human life. It turns out that neoliberalism was equally invested in what she calls the extension of “traditional” morality: “installing markets and morals where society and democracy once were,” in her pithy reformulation (108). Yet she also acknowledges that we no longer live in the world of “markets and morals” that classic neoliberals (Friedrich Hayek and the German “Ordoliberals,” especially) originally called for. Instead, she suggests, we live in a monstrous reflection of that world, a Frankenstein-like distortion of neoliberalism’s “market and morals” utopia that shares only classic neoliberalism’s distaste for democracy and that cynically feigns its celebration of “morals.” Brown calls this “actually existing neoliberalism” to draw a parallel with the “actually existing socialism” of the twentieth century and its deviation from the post-revolutionary future that Marx had once envisioned.

In key respects, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism stays faithful to Undoing the Demos’s basic thesis that neoliberalism seeks to dismantle democracy. However, unlike the earlier book, which drew (and expanded) upon Foucault’s analysis in The Birth of Biopolitics, In the Ruins draws its evidence from the political writings of the classic neoliberal thinkers themselves, above all Friedrich Hayek, a thinker who haunts Brown’s book. The first two chapters of In the Ruins are devoted respectively to how neoliberalism assails the political imaginary of “society” and democratic conceptions of the “political.” In the first chapter, Brown sets up “society” as a normative democratic ideal that, by inculcating our sense of common bonds and collective fate across lines of difference, articulates the demos. It is a concept, she argues, that neoliberal doctrine has thoroughly demonized, inflicting a fatal blow to the demos’s viability. Tear down “society” in the name of individual freedom and you have quashed the capacity for people to imagine themselves as a collectivity deserving popular sovereignty.

In Chapter Three, Brown traces a somewhat more ambivalent relation between neoliberalism and the political. On the one hand, because the market depends for its operation on a legal and governmental infrastructure, neoliberalism does not actually oppose a strong state. Through a close reading of Hayek, however, she suggests that neoliberal doctrine has pushed for the “leashing” of democratic political input so as to ensure that “the people” cannot act to undermine the critical work of the market. A liberal authoritarianism (a despotism that supports market freedom), for someone like Hayek, is infinitely preferable to “democratic totalitarianism” (a democracy that interferes with market signals).

Brown’s book breaks significant new ground in the third and fourth chapters, where she begins to substantiate her claim that neoliberalism seeks to extend the reach of “traditional morality” as surely as it does markets. The neoliberal alliance with right-wing religious groups is no mere marriage of convenience, but confirmation that neoliberalism has always invested itself in conservative ideals of “traditionalism.” She offers a fascinating reading of Hayek to show how he defined freedom as the “uncoerced capacity for endeavor and experimentation within codes of conduct generated by tradition and enshrined in just law, markets and morality” (97). Hayek, she suggests, came to equate markets and moral traditions as comparably impersonal institutions through which a multitude of human actions, collected over a period of time, spontaneously produces a rational order that embodies knowledge (about prices and values respectively) superior to that which any one participant, or any governing elite for that matter, could deliberately devise. Both the law and the state, in this neoliberal vision, must serve to expand the reach of markets and morals in order that they might freely and spontaneously self-order our lives. The state does this by protecting both market and morals from the corrosive meddling of democratic forces. The protection and encouragement of the market is familiar in theories of neoliberalism. But in the fourth chapter, Brown turns to recent Supreme Court decisions that protect the “religious freedom” of bakeries and pregnancy centers, showing how these cases only make sense if we view the decisions as neoliberal legal devices for insulating the practice of “traditional” values from democratic expectations of equal protection under the law.

Brown suggests throughout her book that today’s rising tide of anti-democratic politics derives from the upending of the democratic political imaginary by the neoliberal “markets and morals” revolution. But at the same time, she acknowledges that we do not now live in the world of “markets and morals” that the neoliberals had envisioned. Instead of the spontaneous order that neoliberals thought would eventuate once markets and morals were enthroned, we encounter instead a growing turbulence. Traditional morals, far from putting a break on social conflict, become instead a tool of political branding through which far right movements can express their falsely nostalgic rage regarding what they view as national decline. In Brown’s words: “Instead of organically reproducing civilization, securing social bonds, and governing conduct, traditional values become battle cries against godless elites, egalitarianism, secularists and Muslims” (118).

This is the final step in Brown’s argument: our moment is one in which anti-democratic politics appear on the scene as the monstrous alter ego of classical neoliberalism. She reads the new populisms as exploiters of reactive and desublimated energies. We can read this analysis as a revision of her well-known analysis of wounded attachments, though here used to make sense not of feminist and minority politics, but instead of the nihilistic acting out of working class white men who find in Trump a kind of expressive politics. Brown suggests that neoliberal market practices are to blame for this feeling of woundedness. In forcing a class of people to trade in their historical white male privilege for the humiliations of Group Five boarding passes and economy class cultural status, while also robbing them of any sense of social and democratic belonging, neoliberalism has propelled supporters of anti-democratic politics into a Trumpian world of destructive acting-out, a world marked by what she characterizes as the “nihilistic disintegration of a social compact” (170).

The theoretical framing of this final chapter is markedly different from those it follows. Whereas in Chapters One through Four, Brown engaged in a kind of surface reading of classical neoliberal theorists, as if the aspirations expressed by their words sufficed to explain the world around us, the final chapter makes a psychoanalytic turn: what people say and do has to be read symptomatically. The turn toward an authoritarian populist leader, for example, has a compensatory quality that operates through a projected disavowal: Trump’s nihilistic supporters back him because he stages the crass enjoyment of exactly the privileges they cannot admit they regret having lost. Meanwhile, the explanation for what precipitated the loss must be found elsewhere in something they cannot articulate, perhaps in globalization’s erosion of national boundaries, in the dismantling of the “social,” or in the deterritorializing effects of finance.

The strength of Brown’s book lies in its concise analysis of the anti-democratic thrust of classic neoliberalism’s political vision, and especially in the Hayekian reading of moral traditions as another source of the spontaneous order-making that furthers the extension of market rationality. In the Ruins is less clear, however, on how exactly that political vision relates to the world in which now live. At times the book seems to posit a past that was far more democratic and that could still be ours today had that irate Austrian economist and his neoliberal compatriots not destroyed it through the illocutionary force of their words. I do not mean to be facetious; Brown’s book is not trying to provide a political history of how and why neoliberalism won its battles in the last third of the twentieth century. But there is a tacit “before Hayek” and “after Hayek” story here that compromises the book’s diagnosis of the current conjuncture: once we had “society and democracy,” then Hayek arrived on the scene, now we have only the nihilism left behind by “markets and morals.” The problem is not only that there is no deeper account of the transition, but more importantly that the binary itself seems doubtful even as a crude statement of the historical changes we have undergone.

For example, did we have a robustly democratic sense of “society” until neoliberalism arrived on the scene? Probably not. John Locke and other founding liberals did not consider “society” to be a great deal more than the sum of the exchange relationships between “possessive individuals,” as C.B. Macpherson famously noted. People without property were excluded even from this rarified liberal vision of society. One could argue that it was structured around the opposition of those who possessed property and those who were themselves property; Locarno has shown us how liberalism and slavery were perfectly compatible in the eighteenth century. In short, “society” as a liberal concept was as much an impediment to democracy as its foundation.

Brown is right that some neoliberals made noise about dispensing with the concept “society” altogether. Hayek (and Thatcher), she notes, hated the word. That hatred, however, stems largely from what they believed socialism had done in collectivizing “society,” both in the sense of eliminating the possessive individuals that methodologically precede it as well as collectivizing the property that those individuals owned. Hayek had no real trouble embracing a vision of “society” restricted to the vision of individuals engaged in exchange. His notion of the market’s “spontaneous order” derives from the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson’s concept of “civil society” as an order that emerges without planning from the sum of human interactions. One could also argue that, for Hayek, “traditional morality” is just another Fergusonian element for building a liberal society. When Marx located capitalist relations in “civil society,” he was simply acknowledging what bourgeois liberalism actually means by “society,” i.e., market relations transacted between propertied individuals. This means that building a modern demos has always required advancing a more robust project of sociality whose first step is to challenge the thinness of the liberal model. One could argue along these lines that the demos is really an effect of Gramscian hegemony, the articulation of a historical bloc that can constitute a more robust sense of “society.” Such projects have been waged at different modern historical moments by radical democrats, socialists, anarchists, and abolitionists, but also arguably by nationalists, imperialists, fascists and white supremacists.

This brings us to the most pressing question for Brown’s book: does it make sense to characterize contemporary right-wing populisms as anti-democratic and nihilistic? By assuming the answer is yes, Brown’s book misses a certain paradox. If these new populisms really are forms of “anti-democratic politics,” why do they vociferously claim to be reasserting popular sovereignty against various elites and foreigners they accuse of having stolen it away? How do we explain their repeated appeal to democratic tropes of peoplehood, society, indeed the demos? Is there a democratic kernel in the racist, xenophobic, or arguably even fascist shell here that might need to be acknowledged and re-appropriated if democratic energies on the left are to rebuild themselves? To put this yet another way, are the new populisms as much a Frankenstein image of democratic politicking as they are of neoliberal political reason? This is a position that has been explored by Chantal Mouffe among others, and it is one that Brown’s book does not really engage.

In the Ruins of Neoliberalism ultimately leaves open the question that it raised at the start. Is this still a neoliberal age? If the new right-wing populisms have jettisoned certain elements of neoliberalism (technocratic governance, globalization conducted by free trade agreements), while hybridizing others (a microeconomic concept of the nation as business enterprise, the privatization of the commons) with the revivified neo-fascism of Herrenvolk democracy, then perhaps we are no longer in an age that can usefully be characterized as neoliberal. Wendy Brown’s title at least potentially has a double meaning. Neoliberalism has not only ruined the world that gave rise to it; it has also thereby managed to ruin itself. Perhaps like the coliseum after the fall of the Roman empire, it has been reduced to a tottering edifice being mined to build new projects that will need to be understood and confronted in their own right.

Leerom Medovoi

Leerom Medovoi is a professor of English and the chair of the Program in Social, Cultural, and Critical Theory at the University of Arizona. He is the author of Rebels: Youth and the Cold War Origins of Identity (2005) and has published in the areas of global American studies, biopolitical theory, critical race theory, and ecocriticism. Lee is currently at work on a new book, "The Inner Life of Race: From Islamophobia to the Dogma Line," forthcoming from Duke University Press.