The Neoliberal Upside Down: Towards a Critical Theory of Contemporary Science-Fiction Television

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Stranger Things’ retro 80s logo (Source: Wired)

When the Great Financial Crisis hit in 2008, there was a gasp of guilty excitement on the left at the sudden re-emergence of the conditions for radical social change, after 30 years of what has become known even by mainstream economists as ‘neoliberalism’: an obsession with privatisation and financialisation that has made the world more unequal than ever before.

Then when the inevitable happened, and neoliberal states saved the day by bailing out the banks and shifting the cost of the crisis onto ordinary people through austerity, the left sunk into what can only be described as a form of ‘theory depression’, fuelled by its typical disappointment in the political consciousness of the ‘masses’.

As my other work has tried to show, austerity has also been used by governments to drive marketisation agendas through public services in the hope of injecting short-term profitability into the now stagnating global system of monopoly finance capitalism. In the UK, for example, universities are being reconstructed as human capital machines, churning out research and development (R&D) for the investment-shy private sector; and cheap ‘cognitive’ labour to administer our a ‘fully-automated’ future.

While the left-intelligentsia retreated to nay-saying theory—epitomised by books like Colin Crouch’s The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism and Wolfgang Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End?—the ‘masses’ started revolting. At the same time, we saw the rise of right-wing ‘populist’ movements, leading to the UK’s hair breadth majority vote to leave the European Union (EU) and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S.

However, just a few months before the ‘Brexit’ referendum, the almost unthinkable had happened: a left-winger had been elected to the leadership of the UK Labour Party. Although this wasn’t the first time the global anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal movement had reached the mainstream—Bernie Sanders gave Hilary Clinton a good run for her money in the lead up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election (at least until he was sabotaged by the Democratic National Committee), and Greece had the year before elected left-wing coalition party Syriza to parliament—the shift to the left of one of the two biggest and most electorally successful political parties in a neoliberal heartland arguably represented a turning point in the post-2008 crisis era.

The argument of this article is that the crisis of neoliberalism, which has not yet found a way to resolve in a satisfactory way the contradictions of monopoly finance capitalism, is also beginning to be articulated in popular culture, specifically in contemporary science fiction television on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Contrary to the analysis of pessimist cultural critics, a radical questioning of the political and economic status quo is emerging in popular consciousness. While culture has not, and perhaps cannot, give any answers, the fact that the question has re-emerged indicates a shift away from the postmodern ‘end of history’ that characterised the neoliberal era.

A brief history of Marxist science fiction theory

Before moving on to the analysis of Stranger Things, it is useful to provide some theoretical context. As indicated by the title of the article, I am interested in contemporary science fiction television from a Marxist point of view. For Marxist critical theorists, cultural artefacts cannot be separated from the historical period within which they were produced, as they are seen as expressions of the contradictions between ideological systems (which serve to rationalise extant power relations) and the stark realities of the actual structure of social relations behind them.

Marx insisted that ideological ‘superstructures’—politics, culture, art—had to be read with reference to the economic ‘base’: the relations of production that created the ‘value’ upon which the wider circulation of commodities (including art) depended. However, as pointed out above, this is not to say that ideology is a simple ‘reflection’ of this base, and that cultural products can be read as expressions of any one ideological position in the social division of labour, i.e. in terms of ‘bourgeois’ or ‘proletarian’ art.

For Marx ideology is more than just ‘false consciousness’—it is a necessarily incomplete picture of the world that is ‘real’ and ‘true’ within the circumscribed and historically-specific capitalist system of reproduction. Consequently, all ideological artefacts, like political theories and art works, express in some way the internal contradictions of this system in their attempts to impose a logical or formal order on what is an extremely complex social reality.

As is well-known, Marx was critical of utopian critiques of the capitalist system. In both The Communist Manifesto and Engels’ later work Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, this mode of thinking was taken to task for assuming elements of bourgeois ideology in the construction of alternate worlds, thus expressing more about contemporary reality than any real alternative. As we shall see, Marx anticipated later Marxist science fiction theory, blending history and utopia to expose the assumptions and contradictions of the capitalist system to great effect.

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Robinson Crusoe reconstructs capitalism on an island (Source: BBC Radio 4)

For example, in the analysis of ‘commodity fetishism’ in Capital Volume 1, Marx uses Daniel Defoe’s fantastic story of Robinson Crusoe to show that the apparently ‘natural’ order of commodities and markets described by classical political economy—enshrined in the person of Crusoe, who, ‘having saved a watch ledger, ink and pen from the shipwreck’ begins ‘like a good Englishman to keep a set of books’ on the island—assumes and thereby erases the inconvenient details of capitalist historical development.

Marx then hammers the fetishism argument home in a rare moment of speculation, in which he imagines ‘for a change, an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force’. In this utopia, there is no mystery as to the source of value or the distribution of wealth. Paraphrasing Marx elsewhere, each would contribute according to his or her abilities and would take according to their needs. In a world where social use is the measure of value, there is no need for mystification.

Neither of Marx’s examples are meant fully and accurately to evoke alternatives to the capitalist system of production but are rather to bring to light what is hidden in this existing system. In the 1970s, a new form of cultural criticism emerged, drawing on the Marxist-influenced critical theory of the so-called ‘Frankfurt School’—but taking popular culture more seriously—which made this counter-factual method of critique the basis for its theory of science fiction.

Helping to create the academic field of Science Fiction Studies, U.S.-based critic Darko Suvin argued that in its best examples science fiction could be read as an explicitly intellectual attempt to draw the contours of the capitalist system—and, by doing so, enable a critical-historical consciousness of the social ‘totality’ to emerge. By helping people reconstruct this totality, science fiction also liberated consciousness to imagine ways in which the capitalist system could be transcended through political practice.

Fredric Jameson then took over Suvin’s analysis of the form of science fiction but put strict limits on its utopian function. While the genre did offer an epistemological mechanism for reconstructing the social totality out of the counter-factual imagination of alternative worlds, histories and futures, this reconstruction could never be entirely successful as the reality of global monopoly capitalism was irreducibly complex.

Fredric Jameson, influential Marxist SF critic (Source: E-Flux)

In his 1982 essay ‘Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?’, Jameson argued somewhat counter-intuitively that it is in its greatest failures to imagine the future that science fiction fulfils its emancipatory promise. However, in Jameson’s depressing vision, this ‘constitutional inability to imagine Utopia itself’ can only serve to remind us of the ‘systemic, cultural, and ideological closure of which we are all in one way or another prisoners’.

In Jameson’s work on postmodernism as the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’, this insight is generalised to all cultural production. Going even further than Theodor Adorno—who attempted in his later work to circumscribe modernist art as a semi-autonomous sphere in which critical reason could survive the ‘totally administered world’ of monopoly capitalism—Jameson maintained that in the postmodern era, humanity loses its ability historicise, resulting in a cultural ‘depthlessness’ which points only to the impotence of utopian visions.

It is this cultural depthlessness that motivates postmodern culture’s obsessive, schizophrenic and referentially empty reproductions of the past that Jameson conceptualises as ‘pastiche.’ In the absence of ‘real’ historical consciousness, the postmodern era seeks constantly to recreate the past through cultural appropriation and commodification. However, for Jameson all that this achieves is a staging of its inability to historicise, which from the cultural critic’s point of view is useful in showing us the suffocating totality of hegemonic monopoly capitalism.

The neoliberal upside down [spoiler warning]

It follows, given the inability to historicise, that true ‘nostalgia’ is impossible in the postmodern era. Ironically, this tension over nostalgia is what makes Stranger Things—written and directed by the Duffer Brothers and first aired on Netflix in 2016, so interesting. In this wildly popular serial planted firmly in the 1980s, the impossibility of nostalgia itself becomes an allegorical subject of the narrative.

Set in the fictional Indiana town of Hawkins, the plot of the first season of Stranger Things revolves around a group of young boys searching for their missing friend, Will Byers. As their search develops, they discover that Will had, in fact, been kidnapped by a hideous creature from an alternate universe, the door to which had been created (unintentionally) by a mysterious, fugitive, shaven-headed girl who goes by the name Eleven.

Joining forces with the boys, as well as with sympathetic ‘grown ups’ who gradually get absorbed into their Dungeons and Dragons-mediated world, Eleven uses her powers to battle the monster, enabling Will to be rescued by his Mum and Police Chief Jim Hopper.

The first thing that viewers notice when watching the series is an overwhelming and thoroughly suffocating nostalgia for the 1980s, epitomized by the John Carpenter-inspired typography and synthesiser keyboard soundtrack of the opening credits.

For so-called ‘millennials’ like myself, the opening credits evoke a simpler past in which horror films and console-based computer games constituted the horizon of mine and my friends’ collective experience, with most Friday nights spent struggling to stay awake after eating far too many sweets during the latest viewing of an instalment of the Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street or Hellraiser franchises.

In addition to the style and feel of the series, the naïve ‘commodity fetishism’ of the 1980s is explored through Eleven’s character as she is introduced at the beginning of Episode 2 by Mike to all the ‘cool stuff’ he and his parents own.

Mike shows Eleven his Yoda Star Wars action figure, his parents’ 22-inch television and his Dad’s Lazy Boy armchair. Later in the episode this commodity fetishism undermines a painfully earnest definition of true friendship, with Mike’s insistence that a friend is ‘someone you do anything for’ immediately disrupted by Dustin’s interjection that friends are also those you ‘lend your cool stuff to, like comic books and trading cards.’

Here, the viewer assumes the position of Eleven’s character, with her dumb passivity enabling our vicarious enjoyment of this fetishistic nostalgia. However, Eleven’s constant refusal of this fetishism in favour of symbols of belonging, as well as her confusion at the conflation of things and meaningful relationships, problematises this enjoyment and reminds us that this is, in fact, a fantasy, and that this fantasy will inevitably be disrupted by the monster of ‘reality’.

These scenes and the aesthetic of the series, I think, can be usefully interpreted as a representation of the ‘golden age’ of neoliberalism, when financial deregulation created an economic boom—which would, after 30 years, turn out to be a spectacular ‘bubble’. However, using a heavy-handed nostalgia, Stranger Things simultaneously reels us in—allowing for the necessary suspension of disbelief—and distances us, creating the ‘cognitive estrangement’ so important to science fiction’s critical function (a la Suvin).

Another way that nostalgia is shown to be impossible is through the main story arc of the first series: the abduction of Will Myers by what will later become known as the ‘Demogorgon’.

The Demagorgon is a suitably horrible creature with a mouth for a face and a tendency to eat anything that moves. The constant disruption of Hawkins by this horrific creature—especially the lives of the children, through whom we primarily experience and theorise what is happening—provides the narrative arc of the first series and its science-fiction-horror shock pleasures.

However, it soon becomes clear that the Demagorgon is not the primary threat to Hawkins, but the alternative reality from whence it came, the ‘upside down,’ which threatens to obliterate the doorway between the two worlds and swallow the small-town and its kitschy nostalgia wholesale.

Flipping a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) game board to show its black underside, Eleven—recently escaped from the mysterious Hawkins Lab—demonstrates in Episode 2 to Mike, Dustin and Lucas that Will is trapped in a parallel world or dimension that they name the ‘upside down’.

Remembering this demonstration in Episode 5, Dustin—ever the theorist in the series—makes the connection between the upside down in which Will is trapped and the ‘Vale of Shadows’ of the D&D world: ‘The Vale of Shadows is a dimension that is a dark reflection or echo of our world. It is a place of decay and death. A place out of phase. A place of monsters. It is right next to you but you don’t even see it.’

As this D&D theory of the upside down is narrated by Dustin, we follow sheriff Jim Hopper as he breaks into a top-secret Department of Energy lab to find out the truth about what is going on. As he reaches the basement, we see what is being described: choking on the ash-filled air, Hopper discovers some kind of rip in reality out of which something organic, slimy and tentacled is creeping.

As we get into the second season, the relative insignificance of the Demagorgon is confirmed. The real monster is a ‘gargantuan and spider-like’ shadowy entity, at least ‘50 stories tall’, which will later become known (also via D&D theory) as the ‘Mind Flayer’.

‘The precise details of his anatomy remain unknown, due to the thick, black cloud-like substance which envelops him,’ explains an article on the fan website, Fandom. ‘It is unclear whether he is entirely composed of this substance, or if his body contains any solid elements.’

The Mind Flayer controls the Demagorgon, which turns out to be a pet-like animal—suggested also by Dustin’s failed attempts to domesticate one at the beginning of the series—as well as the rescued Will, who returns changed from the upside down, apparently infected after being almost absorbed within its network of tentacles.

At the end of the series, Will becomes a ‘spy’ for the Mind Flayer, acting as a conduit between Hawkins and the upside down and feeling its pain directly when attacked.

It seems to me that a direct analogy can be made—based on the over-arching reading of Stranger Things as parable of the crisis of neoliberalism—between the Mind Flayer and the contemporary monster of finance.

As argued above, it was finance that saved the capitalist system from stagnation in the 1970s and provided the boom/bubble which in turn enabled the rabid consumerism of the 1980s.

Finance is immaterial, shadowy and difficult to understand, yet directly influences our material and social reproduction. It creeps into every aspect of our lives, colonising the ‘real’ world of social use and need, leading us to be nostalgic for a simpler, more innocent version of capitalism.

However, finance cannot be simply ‘killed off’. I think the significance of Will’s symbiotic relationship with the Mind Flayer can be read as a warning: we cannot kill the monster of finance without killing the real source of its power: commodity production.

But also—and this point reveals the critical-allegorical power of Stranger Things—now that this monster has been unleashed and insinuated itself into every aspect of capitalist production, circulation and consumption, we cannot go back to a simpler version of pre-finance capitalism.

So, in a sense, Stranger Things is telling a true story. Once the monster of finance is unleashed, there is no killing it without killing the whole system. This was also Marx’s point. You cannot reform capitalism. The only way to overcome its internal contradictions is to establish a different system—by revolution if necessary—one based on social use rather than exchange.

Who is to blame?

Stranger Things also addresses the issue of responsibility in complex and interesting ways. Who is responsible for unleashing the Mind Flayer, and by extension, the monster of finance?

In Season 1, we discover that Eleven’s mother, Terry, was a subject in the infamous Project MKUltra experiments: a real and deeply disturbing Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation that in the 1960s that involved the covert testing of ‘lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) on unwitting Americans’.

Not realising Terry was pregnant with Jane (Eleven’s real name) at the time, the scientists at Hawkins unwittingly granted Eleven telekinetic powers. They then tried, of course, to harness these powers and turn Eleven into a Cold War secret weapon. The portal to the upside down turns out to have been created accidentally, as a side-effect of the intensive exploitation of Eleven’s powers by U.S. intelligence services.

The state, therefore, is in one sense straightforwardly to blame for the disruption of nostalgia as a result of its characteristic lust for power and need to continually wage war with an anti-capitalist ‘other’.

However, this explanation is undermined in the second season, when Eleven finds her ‘sister’ Kali—another victim of the MKUltra experiments, also with special powers—in Chicago, and joins her gang of misfits on a mission to exact revenge on those that have wronged them in the past.

Kali persuades Eleven to use her powers to locate the scientists responsible for hurting her mother, eventually finding Ray, the lab technician who performed the shock therapy that permanently damaged Terry’s mind. However, upon seeing a photo of Ray with his children, Eleven refuses to kill him.

My reading of this otherwise remarkably tangential subplot is that a simplistic explanation of the state as an ‘evil empire’—with small-town Sherriff Hopper as its Republican, anti-statist counterpart—is refused in Stranger Things.

Instead a more grown up explanation is suggested: we are all, in fact, responsible for not only unleashing the monster of finance, but also for continuing to allow the state to rule in the private interests of monopoly finance capitalism, rather than in our collective, social interests.

Postscript: The return of history

In the end, Stranger Things gives no simple answers. This is only fair given the complexity of the current crisis of neoliberalism. What a critical reading of contemporary SF television shows, however, is that the contradictions of the present situation are reaching the level of popular consciousness, and that history is once again the subject-object of cultural production.

That we are living through an important historical moment is plain for all to see, without the need for critical theory. However, the present is also felt as an ‘interregnum’; we know change must come, but we have no idea how or when this change might happen.

We know that neoliberalism cannot deliver everlasting growth, as promised, and that its grossly exaggerated wealth will never ‘trickle down’ to the rest of society. But our continuing inability to convincingly imagine alternatives to neoliberal finance capitalism has resulted in the present moment festering like an open wound, enabling right-wing opportunists like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump to step in with self-serving dystopias to scare the public into conceding political power.

Within this context, SF television writer-directors are turning to the past not to escape, hide and evade political responsibility, as Jameson once accused fantasy writers of doing. They are instead struggling with history, and by struggling with it, showing the impossibility of both past and present and therefore the absolute necessity of moving forward.

Frankfurt School satellite Walter Benjamin may be the true theorist of this post-post-modern culture. Benjamin’s intellectual model was Charles Baudelaire’s ‘ragpicker’, who rummages through the ‘refuse’ of the commodified past to find an object that would ‘explode the continuum of history’.

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Walter Benjamin (Source: Mosaic Magazine)

In the absence of movement in the historical present, as neoliberalism seeks to hold the world within a never-ending state of emergency, cultural producers are turning to the past to crowbar a sense of temporality out of this deadlock.

On the one hand, contemporary SF television is an expression of a general re-emergence of historical consciousness out of the catastrophe of the present. But on the other, it is also part of the struggle to wrest consciousness out of this catastrophe, to re-establish a sense of historical agency, and with it, resurrect our ability to imagine a future beyond monopoly finance capitalism.


Book Review: Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann (1922)

According to Price (2007), the concept of ‘public opinion’ came into use in the 18th century, with the creation of the printing press and expansion of literacy, leading to the creation of a ‘public sphere’ (Habermas, 1962/1989) which evolved around discussions of philosophies of freedom and a general articulation of a critique of monarchy and the absolutist state. With the rise of democracy, this idea of public opinion constituted a source of legitimacy for this new way of organising society which moved away from the authoritarianism of monarchy, and also provided a system of ‘checks and balances’ to prevent any such authoritarianism taking place. The achievement of the Enlightenment theories of civil democracy was

To transform the classical assembly of the people—in Athenian democracy a physical, face-to-face forum—into a mass-mediated, fictive body constituted by newspapers bringing people together, not in physical space but in shared stories and conversations at a distance. (Peters, 2007, p. 12)

Thus ‘public opinion’ was a creation coming out of the attempt to reinvent the ideal of classical, or Athenian, democracy for the modern world. The public sphere arising out of the combination of the printing press and new forms of social interactions of the emerging middle classes in the cafés and salons of Europe were a vital part of the this attempt to transform society.

Walter Lippmann, however, in his hugely influential 1922 book Public Opinion, was extremely sceptical about the viability of this idea within 20th century society. Lippmann was generally critical regarding the possibility of democracy in the modern world, leading him to be dismissed as a democratic elitist, or in extreme cases an anti-democrat (reference). For Lippmann, it is not clear even if a perfect democracy could be conceived that people really want to rule themselves, considering it ‘extremely doubtful whether many of us would wish to be bothered, or would take the time to form an opinion on ‘any and every form of social action [a quote from G. D. H. Cole, late 19th century advocate of ‘guild socialism’]’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 314) Lippmann also believed that every form of organisation, whether socialist, democratic or otherwise, would require some hierarchy to be established, in order to deal with unexpected and pressing problems that didn’t have time for public deliberation, or just becaue human nature dictated that people liked to be near charismatic and powerful people, and that a group of insiders would inevitably appear around such people (Lippmann, 1991, p. 227)

Aside from these well-worn dismissals, however, Lippmann put forward some very interesting arguments, or perhaps it is better to think of them as challenges, to the idea that public opinion could be the basis and guarantor of democracy. Firstly, Lippmann challenged the idea that the media could act as what we might now call the ‘fourth estate’, that is as a watchdog of political power and a provider of truth to the public, effectively fulfilling the function that ‘public opinion’ was supposed to have in democratic theory. This is perhaps where Lippmann’s work remains most influential, and his reflections on the economics and sociology of the press were well ahead of its time. According to Lippmann, ‘we expect the press to supply truth, a ‘picture picture of all the outer world in which we are interested’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 321), but due to the financial constraints placed upon the press to provide news that will appeal to the largest possible cross-section of the public at the smallest possible cost and the social constraints of having to do this quickly (an interesting example of ‘market failure’), which in most cases means according to tired conventions, this expectation is unrealistic and ultimately not possible for the press to fulfil.

Furthermore, the news, for Lippmann, is already ‘shaped’ as news before it is even subject to these structural limitations. Reality must present itself to journalists as news – the world must jump out as significant, as an event, or disaster perhaps. This is how journalists know what to report, and a good journalist can see an event before it reaches this point of climax. But to see and report an event is not the same thing as providing truth:

The hypothesis, which seems to me the most fertile, is that news and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished. The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts and set them in relation to each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 358)

At best, the media can provide an accurate collection of facts, gathered from authoritative sources such as government reports, first-hand accounts, statistics, etc., which must then still be interpreted in order to construct a true ‘picture of reality’ which can provide the basis for wise action. It is the latter which constitutes ‘public opinion’, not the former.

More disturbingly, for Lippmann, in modern society the press is increasingly manipulated by government and business interests. Aside from the structural limitations posed by market forces, the content of the media is more and more decided by the consumer market that advertisers, who supplement or in some cases replace the income provided by readers, wish to sell their products to. Advertisers also in some cases have veto power over content if this content is seen to jeopardise the market that advertisers are selling to. Governments, on the other hand, tend to ‘manufacture consent’ through the media by manipulating ‘symbols’, which in turn manipulate our emotions and loyalties (Lippmann, 1991, p. 248). Here Lippmann relies on a crude behaviourist conception of human psychology, in which emotions can be roused and then transferred onto other triggers, so for example we may be shown images of images of terrorist atrocities and then the feelings of fear and outrage can then be transferred onto ideas of security and surveillance which can be in turn used to pass repressive laws or win conservative elections (Lippmann, 1991, p. 204-5).

However, underlying all these other challenges, which are interesting in their own right, lies an original and difficult to answer epistemological critique of democracy that has found its way, now somewhat submerged and opaque, into the world-view of neoliberalism. This critique says that the public, the agent of public opinion and democracy, has not got direct access to the knowledge required for self-rule. For Lippmann (1991, p. 402), this knowledge must be provided by an elite of ‘intelligence men’, who have ‘the skill to sort out what is real perception from what is stereotype, pattern and elaboration’:

The outsider [i.e. the private citizen], and every one of us is an outsider to all but a few aspects of modern life, has neither time, nor attention, nor interest, nor the equipment for specific judgement. It is on the man inside, working under conditions that are sound, that the daily administration of society must rest. (Lippman, 1991, p. 400)

It is true that at times Lippmann, as in this quote, can sound like a straightforward elitist. In other places he claims that the majority of people, more people than we may like to admit, are ‘illiterate’, ‘feeble-minded’ grossly neurotic, ‘undernourished’ (I assume he means intellectually) and ‘frustrated’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 75). Yet, if we can ignore these outbursts of disdain for the masses, his argument at root is more subtle than.

Lippmann claims that in daily life we perceive the world through ‘stereotypes’. Like the news, we do not perceive the world in its raw, unmediated fullness, reality comes to us ‘already defined for us’, we perceive what has been ‘picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 81). Here ‘stereotype’ is not a positive or negative thing, but an epistemological pre-condition of being able to cope with modern existence. Lippmann identifies two reasons for holding stereotypes: ‘economy of effort’, which is to say we need stereotypes to be able to get about our daily lives quickly and efficiently, to see ‘all things freshly and in detail’ would be exhausting; and ‘defensiveness’, by which Lippmann means the comfortable familiarity that things and ideas we are used to have for us, to the point where if challenged, we feel attacked and often react harshly (Lippmann, 1991, pp. 88-103) Stereotypes are both the material for and the product of our cultural ideals and traditions, and theories can become stereotypes when they become generalised enough to absorb the desires and feelings of society as a whole – for example how the theory of evolution became generalised into an idea of progress in the late 19th century (Lippmann, 1991, p. 104).

Stereotypes, for Lippmann, are a condition of the modern world. Like never before, much of reality is invisible to us, hidden from view, happening far away and often at unimaginable distance.

The world that we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight out of mind. It has to be explored, reported, and imagined. Man is no Aristotelian god contemplating all existence at one glance. He is the creature of an evolution who can just about span a sufficient portion of reality to manage his survival, and snatch what on the scale of time is but a few moments of insight and happiness. (Lippmann, 1991, p. 29)

What this means is that we live in what Lippmann calls a ‘pseudo-environment’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 15)– a kind of hazy mixture of direct experience, based on what we see and know in our immediate environment, but which we still don’t necessarily understand, and mediated experience which we gather from a variety of sources, but increasingly from the media, which we already know is unreliable. Mostly what guides the average person is ‘fiction’, not knowledge. This is the crux of Lippmann’s criticism of liberal theories of democracy, that citizens come ready-made with knowledge of the world and are supposed to somehow ‘spontaneously’ formulate a ‘public opinion’ which would form the basis of self-determination. All that is needed is the freedom to communicate. However, for Lippmann, this grossly over-estimates, and this is ultimately an unfair expectation (like we have of journalists), the capacities of ordinary people. Knowledge should be left to experts, the ‘intelligence men’, the researchers of the emerging modern university, who will provide policy makers, journalists and ultimately the public with the knowledge required for wise political action.

But Lippmann seems to confuse the epistemological argument that people see the world through stereotypes with normative argument that experts should be in charge of knowledge – nowhere does he explain why ‘intelligence men’ seem to be able to transcend this epistemological limitation, or why, if stereotypes are not judged to be good or bad, ordinary people are somehow more susceptible to the limiting effects of their ‘pseudo-environments’. The implication seems to be that the vocation of science, in terms of training, time and commitment, frees the ‘intelligence man’ (sic) to be able to see the world in a disinterested and therefore more objective manner – the ordinary person is far too wrapped up in daily concerns to be able to achieve such a perspective (here Lippmann seems to be arguing by analogy from the limitations of news consumption). At the end of the book, Lippmann even makes recommendations that such ‘intelligence work’ should be based on ‘tenure for life, with provision for retirement on a liberal pension, with sabbatical years set aside for advanced study and training’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 387). However, epistemologically, no justification is provided for Lippmann’s suggestions for a benevolent technocracy.

This is where Lippmann’s own theory of stereotypes can be productively used against him. It seems that Lippmann was victim to his own elitist stereotypes, bolstered by contemporary theories of crowd psychology and mass society (Reicher, 2001), which lead to a ‘blind-spot’ concerning his own prejudices about mass democratic society. Lippmann criticised Aristotle for being able to justify slavery on the basis that some people are ‘naturally’ slaves, thereby projecting a social fact onto nature. ‘This is the perfect stereotype. Its hallmark is that it precedes the use fo reason, is a form of perception, imposes a certain character on the data of our senses before the data reach intelligence.’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 98) In Lippmann’s case, he projected his anxieties about mass democracy, prevalent at the time, onto the theory of stereotypes, which was in itself actually an important contribution to the debate. What Lippmann couldn’t see due to his fear of the masses was that his theory of stereotypes in no way logically or epistemologically entailed the elitist conclusion of rule by experts, but in fact, due to its devastating critique of liberal ideas of representation, opened up a much more radical possibility.

The real ‘blind-spot’ in Lippmann’s critique of democracy was the possibility of what could be called a ‘citizen social science’ to generate knowledge, and through it, public opinion that would inform and guide self-rule ordinary people.

Lippman, W. (1991) Public Opinion. Chicago: Transaction

John Dewey’s ‘intelligent populism’: beyond Brexit, Trump and post-truth

Donald Trump with supporters. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

Originally published on OpenDemocracy:

Neoliberalism channels vast wealth upwards, in turn supplying the financial, social and cultural capital necessary to maintain power despite enormous global economic, social and environmental instability. The 2008 financial crisis, the biggest since the 1920s, did not bring neoliberalism to its knees, it in fact strengthened its resolve. Banks in the UK and US demanded to be bailed out by the government and the ‘austerity’ agenda spread across Europe. After a period of stunned disbelief, the establishment convinced the public that it was in fact the excesses of social democracy that caused the public debt incurred as a result of this bailout.

Philip Mirowski calls this the ‘double truth doctrine’ of neoliberalism. The real cause of the crisis can be traced back to neoliberalism itself: Thatcher and Reagan’s radical deregulation of financial markets in the 1980s, for example. But cleverly, this double truth also played on the fragmentation on the left caused by the death of ‘actually existing communism’ and the defeat of militant unionism in the UK. After what Francis Fukuyama called the ‘end of history’, academics retreated into postmodernism and revolutionaries either gave up or returned to Marxist canon to find the right theory of why everything had gone wrong.

We are now living through what Colin Crouch has called the “strange non-death of neoliberalism”. Even IMF economists now agree that neoliberalism has been ‘oversold’. I won’t retread the history of neoliberalism here, but we should use the IMF definition, as it represents a somewhat shocking revelation, since all along they have been denying neoliberalism’s existence:

“The neoliberal agenda – a label used more by critics than by the architects of the policies – rests on two main planks. The first is increased competition – achieved through deregulation and the opening up of domestic markets, including financial markets, to foreign competition. The second is a smaller role for the state, achieved through privatization and limits on the ability of governments to run fiscal deficits and accumulate debt.”

Neoliberalism’s double-truth, uncovered first by Michel Foucault all the way back in 1978, is that it was founded on a realisation that ‘laissez-faire’ doesn’t work. This is the doctrine that the law of supply and demand should be left alone to do its work in organising society. Early neoliberal theorists realised that the law of supply and demand does not work ‘naturally’ in society, it must be actively created through the re-structuring of society. The perfect market does not already exist in the structure of nature, which is merely uncovered in capitalism, it must become the end of all economic and public policy reform.

Populism is a consequence of the double-truth doctrine. We have been socialised into seeing our identity in nation states, and have been convinced that neoliberalism will bring prosperity for all. Yet within globalised neoliberalism, the nation state has been ripped apart, sold off to multi-national corporations, and wealth has remained with the wealthy. The middle class, forever chasing the neoliberal carrot, wins nothing but clinical stress, anxiety and depression. The working class is lumped with insecurity and social fragmentation, while being at the same time demonised as a class of ‘chavs’and ‘scroungers’.

Representative democracy, hollowed out by neoliberalism to leave a choice between variations on a neoliberal theme, leaves the public with only a protest vote to express their anger and frustration. Brexit and Trump are votes for change, votes against the establishment, votes against neoliberalism. The establishment were subsequently shocked to discover that there is a limit to how far you can hollow out democracy. The middle class were shocked to see the ugly face of fascism always ready to pounce as the edifice of capitalism crumbles.

Populism and the public

The American philosopher John Dewey had a unique explanation for all this. In The Public and Its Problems (1954), Dewey makes a functional distinction between private and public actions and their respective private and public consequences, in order to explain the origin and meaning of ‘democracy’. All public action produces indirect consequences, which are consequences “that affect others beyond those immediately concerned”. ‘The public’, as an organised body of people, comes about through consciousness of indirect consequences and co-operative activity to control them. ‘The state’ is created as this co-operative activity becomes more organised, eventually being detached from the public as an institutional body. For Dewey, democracy, as an historical form of the state, is a technology of the public.

Democracy is a particularly well developed expression of this function of the state. As Marx and Engels argued in The Communist Manifesto, the capitalist economy outstripped the political system within which it developed. The emerging and expanding middle class needed a political system that would represent their interests over that of the aristocracy. As Dewey argued, liberalism was at this point a radical political philosophy designed to gain popular support to move society beyond medieval feudalism. But once the new middle class achieved power, this radicalism was betrayed and democracy reduced to its most minimal expression.

Democracy, therefore, served a series of functions: (1) to liberate the emerging middle class from the authoritarian church state; (2) to gain populist support for this cause from the lower classes; and (3) to institutionalise the interests of the middle classes once it gained power. This last function the system of abstract rights connected to the rule of law. But the alliance with the lower classes within the ideology of liberalism and democracy opened a can of worms that the new ruling class (‘the bourgeoisie’) have struggled to keep shut since the American and French Revolutions.

For Dewey, the public is always waiting to re-assert itself as the ‘raison d’etre’ of government and state institutions. From the beginning of history, revolutionary movements have understood the power of the public in bringing about social change. As Foucault pointed out, there is only so much oppression that the public can take before revolting. Twentieth-century social philosophers such as Gramsci, Foucault and Habermas have rightly focused on the way that modern social systems rely on legitimacy rather than force for their reproduction. Therefore, in modern societies, the boundaries of legitimacy can be pushed too far.

Neoliberalism ends up undermining its two key ideological foundations, liberalism and democracy, that sustain its legitimacy. The contemporary marketisation of ‘big data’, for example, which is the mass of personal information generated as a by-product of our digital activities, has created understandably acute levels of anxiety regarding the misuse, surveillance and manipulation of such data. The inexorable march of privatisation through public services destroys what little protection the state offered against the indirect consequences of capitalism: unemployment, poverty, sickness. As the ruthless logic of neoliberalism runs its course, its public façade also gradually disappears, leaving only naked and cynical exploitation in its place.

Intelligent populism

There is good populism and bad populism. But these forms of populism cannot just be mapped on to left and right ends of the spectrum. Both left and right populism use the anger of the public for external ends, namely to gain power for whatever political party that is pitched against the ‘establishment’. As already argued, this has been the case throughout history: the public are called into being whenever a revolution is needed, and then betrayed as soon as they have served their purpose. Both left and right populism are based on a low opinion of public intelligence, an assumption, incidentally, shared with neoliberalism.

Dewey, on the other hand, thought that intelligence was based in an everyday process of problem solving. Experience is problematic, in that our routine existence regularly resists our purposes, breaks down when we try to get things done, and throws up dilemmas that we can’t ignore. Most of the time these are just hiccups that can be overcome by adjusting our habitual behaviour, but sometimes we need to reflect, to consciously create and weigh solutions. All forms of inquiry that human beings have developed – science, education, morality – have developed out of this fundamental process of reflection within ordinary experience.

Democracy was also once a form of inquiry, now forgotten through its institutionalisation and co-option by neoliberalism. For Dewey, the public was invented through the co-operative, reflective activity of groups of citizens, who aimed to reconstruct and control the indirect consequences of social life. Ancient Athenian democracy was an early and very successful attempt by the Greeks to harness the power of social intelligence to adapt to a rapidly changing world. That this experiment failed, and more importantly failed to include women and free slaves to become citizens, did not undermine the potential power of democracy as a technology of the public.

What is missing today is a mechanism that would revive the potential of democracy as a technology of the public. Ancient Athens had the theatre, where the moral capacities of citizens were exercised and politics debated. The emerging labour movement in the eighteenth century had correspondence societies, where pamphlets were read out and revolution fermented. As Jürgen Habermas argued, the ‘public sphere’, a fundamental cog in the machine of early modern democracy, was destroyed through capitalism’s commercialisation of public space and commodification of private life. What is needed is a new form of co-operative inquiry that both reconstructs democracy from within and re-creates the public in the process. What is needed is an ‘intelligent populism’.

Dewey, unfortunately, never realised the direct relevance of his other work on experience, inquiry and education to his theory of democracy presented in The Public and Its Problems. Dewey offered better public engagement with the public on behalf of social science as a solution to the ‘crisis of democracy’. But as John Holmwood has pointed out, populism is not just an expression of anger against the establishment, but also a rejection of technocratic forms of expertise. Right-wing politicians attempt, with more or less successful results, to tap into this: David Cameron’s rejection of ‘state multiculturalism’ in favour of education “in elements of a common culture and curriculum”, and in Trump’s climate change denial.

Post-truth versus intelligent populism

‘Post-truth’ has become a key concept within explanations of Brexit and Trump. Recently being declared ‘word of the year’ by both UK and US Oxford Dictionaries, it is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This phenomenon of the rejection of facts in favour of emotion described by ‘post-truth’ is actually a consequence of neoliberalism; it is the organised confusion that Mirowski described as the ‘double-truth doctrine’. It is an historical phenomenon, not something inherent to the quality of public intelligence. It is what happens when neoliberalism marketises education, privatises the public sphere and turns the mainstream media into propaganda machine.

Contrary to Andrew Calcutt’s analysis, the origins of the concept of ‘post-truth’ lie not with the academic left and postmodernism in the 1970s, but with the origins of neoliberalism in the 1920s. The abstract to an influential article called “It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy” indicates this origin:

“The familiar image of rational electoral choice has voters weighing the competing candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, calculating comparative distances in issue space, and assessing the president’s management of foreign affairs and the national economy. Indeed, once or twice in a lifetime, a national or personal crisis does induce political thought. But most of the time, the voters adopt issue positions, adjust their candidate perceptions, and invent facts to rationalize decisions they have already made. The implications of this distinction between genuine thinking and its day-to-day counterfeit strike at the roots of both positive and normative theories of electoral democracy.”

This was the conclusion Walter Lippmann reached in the 1920s, which formed the basis of both subsequent forms of ‘democratic realism’ and the neoliberalism of The Mont Pelerin Society. Here we see the same premise that underpins neoliberalism and the debate around populism: the intelligence of the average person is not to be trusted (if it exists at all).

But the left must also recognise that it shares the same low opinion of everyday intelligence. Crude conceptions of ideology and ‘false consciousness’ (which were nevertheless held by very sophisticated Marxists, such as Louis Althusser), state that the truth operates ‘behind the backs’ of ordinary people, who cannot access this truth without the correct theory. It is this assumption, not culpability in developing postmodernism, which prevents the left from formulating a progressive response to populism. We must learn to see the double-truth doctrine at work again here. ‘Post-truth’, and therefore Brexit and Trump, are being blamed on the legacy of postmodernism within the academic left, just as the consequences of the financial crisis were blamed on the excesses of social democracy.

We need a new practice of ‘critical pedagogy’, based on an assumption of the equality of intelligence, not on the inevitability of false consciousness. Through co-operative social inquiry, the double-truth doctrine can be unmasked by ordinary people. As Dewey argued, political activists, academics, community organisers, all have an important role to play in helping to re-create such public spheres of inquiry, but we must not assume we own such inquiry. Intellectuals also have a political task of our own: democratising knowledge production and educational institutions so that the conditions for such co-operative inquiries are improved. Universities, for example, can be transformed into co-operative, worker-student controlled hubs of inquiry that cascade knowledge back and forth along a chain of radical-democratic decentralisation.

For Dewey, humanising technology was the most pressing task of modern society. As we have seen, technology doesn’t just mean “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry” (OED), it refers to any means for the achievement of human ends. As Alan Hickman has convincingly argued, Dewey’s entire philosophy can be summarised as a theory of ‘responsible technology’. Technology, as inquiry, is responsible when it arises out of problematic situations that are concretely felt (in the sense that all experience is primarily qualitative) by human beings. But more importantly, it can only be fully responsible when the results, values and ends that arise out of such inquiries “are brought back to the situations from which they originated in order to ascertain whether they are appropriate”.

Democracy is a technology of the public that arose out of a need to control the indirect consequences of social action. Neoliberalism co-opts democracy, and its institutions, for the manipulation of the public for private gain, and for the maintenance of power. Populism is the public expression of recognition: that this is happening, and that democracy needs to be taken back by the public. In a Deweyian sense, populism is therefore the first stage of an inquiry begun by the public for the public. Instead of dismissing this inquiry, we should get involved. We need to be a part of this inquiry, help it develop into an ‘intelligent populism’ which would found and maintain radical democracy, replace a dying neoliberalism, and as an adaptive and generative form of social problem solving, maybe even save the earth from environmental destruction.

Book Review: The Phantom Public by Walter Lippmann (1927)

In The Phantom Public, Lippmann returns to the theme of what he considers to be the ‘fiction’ at the heart of liberal democratic theory, that once the barriers to freedom are taken away, an active and intelligent public will spring into action, guiding society from the ‘bottom up’, holding elected leaders to account and engaging deliberatively in all the important decision of the day (Lippman, 1993, p. 67). For Lippmann, this fiction leads to the existence of the ‘disenchanted man’, the citizen who is told that they must have an active role in public decision making but cannot find the time, does not understand the issues, and is frankly not interested. This expectation, imposed by the idealism of liberal democrats, should be abandoned, and a full-blown ‘realism’ regarding the capacities of ordinary people should accepted. Gone is the even the limited optimism of Public Opinion, in which an elite of social scientists could provide a ‘machinery of knowledge’ to offset the ignorance of the masses by providing them with access to a true picture of reality (which the media cannot provide). We should come to accept that democracy is a myth and let rulers rule; the public can only exist as passive spectators watching shadows on the wall, blissfully ignorant of their meaning.

Familiar arguments are mobilised by Lippmann to debunk the myth of the ‘sovereign and omnicompetent citizen’, beginning with the complexity of the modern, globalised world that must necessarily exceed the grasp of not just the average person, but any individual. This leads to a tendency towards centralisation, not just in the governance of society, but also in increasing monopolisation in business and workers organising themselves in trade unions (Lippmann, 1993, p. 179). For Lippmann, centralisation is an inevitable move to cope with complexity, but practically, this undermines any form of democracy, as ‘the more centralisation the less can the people concerned be consulted and give conscious assent’ (Lippmann, 1993, p. 174) Again, it is the fiction of a pre-existing public opinion that leads to this situation, and this fiction is used by ‘special interests’ to claim they are working in the ‘public interest’; however, for Lippmann, as he had argued at length in Public Opinion, there is no such thing as a ‘public opinion’ to inform such an idea of the public interest, and what actually happens is that the public interest is invented by manipulating public opinion through the media. Here we can see Lippmann beginning to formulate his own critique of collectivism and planning (a contribution to a growing literature at the time), a critique that would be developed in The Good Society and would become so influential with later neoliberals.

The problem for democracy, in Lippmann’s view, was how to accept ‘deep pluralism’ and still have any notion or practical possibility of a public that would constitute the idea of ‘popular government’ (Lippmann, 1993, p. 87). In The Phantom Public, Lippmann has dispensed altogether with the idea that knowledge and identity may have a social basis, expressed in Public Opinion‘s concept of ‘stereotypes’, instead subscribing to an epistemology of extreme individualism where no person can understand the point of view of another. This irreducible perspectivalism is combined with the critique of the ‘fact’ of centralisation to form what for Lippmann is both a devastating and novel dismissal of the possibility of democracy:

Critics [of democracy] have usually concluded that there was a congenital difference between the masterful few and the ignorant many. They are the victims of a superficial analysis of the evils they see so clearly. The fundamental difference which matters is that between insiders and outsiders. Their relations to a problem are radically different. Only the insider can make decisions, not because he is inherently a better man but because he is so placed that he can understand and act. The outsider is necessarily ignorant, usually irrelevant and often meddlesome, because he is trying to navigate the ship from dry land. (Lippmann, 1993, p. 140)

What is interesting here is that Lippmann has elevated the social-historical reality of elitism to the level of epistemological truth. It is not that existing power and class relations distort democracy by centralising power and decision making, and also by excluding the public from access to knowledge that might allow them to criticise these decisions and question this unequal structure of society, but rather that the limitations of human knowledge mean that elitism is inevitable.

In this sense Lippmann’s ‘realism’ regarding democracy is actually a sublimation of a deep pessimism towards the capabilities of the public. For some reason, ‘insiders’ can both know and cope with the complexity of modern life, and it is their job to deal with problems regarding the public, not the public like you might think. If you collect the comments Lippmann makes about the average person who is the ‘outsider’ to the management of public affairs, the barefaced elitism of this position becomes much clearer (and the epistemological basis less convincing). For Lippmann (1993), the public ‘consists of busy men reading newspapers for half an hour or so a day’ (p. 109), ‘will arrive in the middle of the third act and will leave before the last curtain, having stayed just long enough perhaps to decide who is the hero and who the villain of the piece’ (p. 54) The average member of the public must be conceived ‘in the lowest terms’: they ‘will not be well informed, continuously interested, non-partisan, creative or executive’, and must be assumed as ‘inexpert’, ‘intermittent’, slow to be aroused’, ‘quickly diverted’ and ‘interested only when events have been melodramatised as a conflict’ (p. 55).

The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd. (Lippmann, 1993, p. 145)

Little doubt remains by the end of The Phantom Public that Lippmann has succumbed to the elitism and fear of ‘the masses’ typical of the age, encapsulated in such Nietzschean descriptions of the latter as the ‘bewildered herd’. The public’s ‘exercise of its own powers’ is severely limited to two questions: is rule or a particular rule defective? If so, how can we recognise who can make it better? (Lippmann, 1993, p. 98). Notice that the public is never expected to understand how or why a system of government is failing, only to find someone who might sort the problem out for them. Lippmann (1993) suggests some way that the public might do this: they could stage a debate between competing parties and see if anyone betrays a special interest (p. 104 – even though all people are expected to follow special interests and not public interests, one of many contradictions in the book); they could demand an independent inquiry and see if those in power were willing to take part in such an inquiry, although the public wouldn’t be expected to understand what was in the inquiry (p. 122); or they could just be vigilant and see whether generally people are assenting and conforming to current system of rule, if not this is a clear sign that someone else should take over (p. 144). To sum up, the most the public can be expected to do is:

Support the Ins when things are going well; to support the Outs when [the Ins] seem to be going badly, this, in spite of all that has been said about tweedledum and tweedledee, is the essence of popular government. (Lippmann, 1993, p. 116)

Lippman, W. (1993) The Phantom Public. Chicago: Transaction

Neoliberalism and its Forgotten Alternative


I recently had my first article related to my PhD published on Open Democracy, this was a great day for me as this website is one of my favourite place to find articles and many people I respect and quote publish articles there. You can find the original here.

Neoliberalism and its forgotten alternative: Democracy as a way of life

Criticisms of neoliberalism are proliferating, not just within the political and academic left, but within mainstream public opinion as well. Everywhere people are beginning to seriously doubt whether markets will be able to produce another extended period of sustained growth, or whether they will solve the world’s current problems or merely exacerbate them. Liberal economists are pointing to the increasing inequality caused by 30 years of neoliberalism in the West. This analysis of rising inequality has been built upon by other critics of neoliberalism who examine the social effects of this inequality, beginning with Pickett and Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, a path-breaking and hugely popular book that has lead to more important work in this area, with research focussing on inequality’s mental and even physical health effects.

Aside from inequality, other critics have focussed on how neoliberalism is incapable of solving the problem of climate change. Naomi Klein has been for a long time pointing to how climate change intensified with the deregulation of markets in the 1970s, for many people the beginning point of the rise of neoliberal hegemony in the West. Today there is an intensifying debate over the idea of ‘natural capital’, which some critics (1) (2) see as an absurd move by neoliberal policy makers to apply the logic of the market to a problem that has, as Klein argues, only made the problem worse in the first place. In what George Monbiot has referred to as the ‘the pricing, valuation, monetisation, financialisation of nature in the name of saving it’, the natural ‘commons’ is turned into a potential new source of value which can be speculated on by investors. This form of speculation, of course, is what led to the 2008 financial crisis, with risk on sub-prime mortgages hedged into more and more complex ‘derivatives’, eventually bringing the whole intertwined financial world to its knees as the housing bubble burst (3). As Monbiot and others have correctly pointed out, the move to financialise natural resources is not intended to save the world, but to create another source of capital accumulation and thus save an increasingly desperate capitalist system.

The problem is that, despite growing dissatisfaction and criticism of neoliberalism, we don’t seem to be able to shift this socio-economic structure in favour of a better one, or even just to a return to a more Keynesian inspired alternative. We seem to be stuck in what Mark Fisher has called a state of ‘capitalist realism’, somehow, despite our apparent knowledge, coming to accept in practice Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that ‘there is no alternative’, or Francis Fukuyama’s idea of capitalism as the ‘end of history’. However, this inability to deal with contemporary neoliberalism in practice is not due to the victory of capitalism, but comes from an under-estimation of how far neoliberalism is a long-term, and very successful, political project with a coherent and shared ‘world-view’. This world-view has its origins in a crisis of liberalism in the 1930s, as it faced what it saw as the return of authoritarianism, or ‘arbitrary rule’. Neoliberalism was an attempt by influential German economists, such as Ludwig von Mises and F. A. von Hayek, and social theorists, such as Max Weber and Walter Lippmann (in the US) to rescue and reformulate liberalism in theory, a theory that had itself originated historically (in the 17th and 18th centuries) as a critique of the arbitrary power of church and state. According to these theorists, liberalism had become incapable of dealing with what they saw as the contemporary manifestation of arbitrary rule in fascist Germany and Italy and communist Russia.

In an extraordinary book, The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective, Philip Mirowski et al describe how early neoliberal theorists and sympathisers came together in 1947 to form an exclusive, secretive and powerful club called the Mont Pèlerin Society. This was the beginning of ‘a transnational movement’ which accepted right from the beginning that undermining what they saw as the evils of economic planning would take a long time, lots of effort and careful coordination. As Mirowski points out in his conclusion, neoliberalism was never a conspiracy, but rather an ‘intricately structured long-term philosophical and political project’ (4). Contrary to popular belief and some academic opinion, ‘neoliberalism’ is not just a dirty word invented by left-wingers resenting the ‘victory’ of capitalism in the Western world, but a term self-consciously chosen by what Mirowski et al refer to as the international ‘thought collective’ arising out of the Mont Pèlerin Society. This neoliberal thought collective bade their time, connecting and combining ‘key spheres and institutions – academia, the media, politics and business’, creating a new knowledge apparatus for the dissemination of propaganda, the ‘neoliberal partisan think-tank’, and eventually finding power through the victories of the political right in the 1970s, Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the US.

To understand the true origins of neoliberalism, and therefore be able to rescue a convincing alternative, however, we must return to the work of Walter Lippmann. Lippmann was very much influenced by the emerging critique of economic planning that was beginning to appear in the 1920s, especially in the work of Ludwig von Mises, Boris Brutzkus and F. A. von Hayek, reaching its high-point just before the outbreak of World War II. But before engaging with this critique explicitly in The Good Society, Lippmann had been mounting a devastating attack on what he considered to be the naivety of liberal democracy in two major works, Public Opinion and The Phantom Public. In these books Lippmann argued that at the heart of liberal democratic theory lies a fiction, that of the ‘sovereign and omnicompetent citizen’, which in turn leads democrats to rely uncritically on a myth of an active and responsible public, which is supposed to guarantee freedom against arbitrary rule. This myth, however, allows agents with special interests, such as the media, controlled by advertising, and the government, controlled by individuals with a desire to maintain power, to pretend that they are acting in the so-called ‘public interest’. Realising, with Lippmann, that the public does not spring up ‘spontaneously’ with free speech, these agents create and manipulate public opinion in order to achieve their own ends.

In Public Opinion, Lippmann still held out hope for social science as a mediating ‘machinery of knowledge’ to provide the truth to both decision makers and the public, a truth which the media is structurally just not able to provide (due to what might be called ‘market failure’, as people don’t want to pay for the apparatus necessary for truth, and the sociological constraints of having to report the news quickly and efficiently). But by the time he wrote The Phantom Public, Lippmann had given way to a full blown pessimism regarding the capabilities of average citizens. In a tirade of insults that runs through the book, the average member of the public is conceived ‘in the lowest terms’. According to Lippmann they ‘will not be well informed, continuously interested, non-partisan, creative or executive’, and must be assumed as ‘inexpert’, ‘intermittent’, slow to be aroused’, ‘quickly diverted’ and ‘interested only when events have been melodramatised as a conflict’ (5). Gone is the faith in science and expertise, with Lippmann’s universal scepticism forcing him to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’: ‘Modern society is not visible to anybody, nor intelligible continuously and as a whole’ (6).

Mirowski et al have shown that Lippmann had a huge influence on the early foundations of neoliberalism. Upon reading The Good Society, enthusiastic future neoliberals organised a conference in Paris in 1938, called the Colloque Walter Lippmann, which served as a precursor and inspiration for the Mont Pèlerin Society. The Good Society anticipated many of the key ideas of the emerging neoliberal world-view: the need to reinvent liberalism, to somehow create the conditions for the market to flourish and to prevent arbitrary rule and authoritarianism, and most importantly, to restrict democratic involvement in decision making and to replace the expectation of positive freedom with a completely negative ideal of the individual as an emancipated entrepreneur and/or consumer. But what linked the attack in The Good Society on economic planning to Lippmann’s earlier work on democracy, and also to the work of key neoliberal F. A. von Hayek, was the epistemological rationalisation of both the market as answer to everything and of the restriction of democracy. Both Lippmann and Hayek worked with the assumption that no individual could know society as a whole, and therefore no individual, or even a group of individuals, can have access to the information required to make economic planning work, or to rule society in the name of the ‘collective will’. The only rational way to run society, therefore, was through the ‘natural logic’ of the market.

However, the whole epistemological critique of planning and the public in Lippmann and Hayek rested on the assumption that knowledge is asocial. For ‘democratic realists’ and neoliberals alike, reality is something that the individual achieves by accurately representing, or forming a true picture in the mind of the outside world. In this case, of course, the individual has limited access to knowledge, no matter how well educated or intelligent we are. But Lippmann’s earlier work, and his public debate with John Dewey throughout the 1920s and 30s, point to an alternative view, submerged in the subsequent war between capitalism and communism. In Public Opinion, Lippmann argued that we see and understand the world primarily through ‘stereotypes’, the habits and customs of thought that guide our actions without realising, which he used to discredit ‘public opinion’. Dewey agreed with Lippmann that an individual’s capacity for knowledge was limited, and that many actions are guided by habit (7). But Dewey also believed that these habits could be made intelligent through reflection upon the consequences of our actions, and through this process we could develop ‘foresight’ which would in turn further develop the intelligence of our intuition (8). Dewey drew a far more positive conclusion than Lippmann: habits can be an incredible source of power and knowledge if we are only willing to work on ourselves.

These stereotypes and habits also give us access to social knowledge, as subconsciously we must have a deep understanding of how society works in order to act. We human beings are so much more intelligent than neoliberals give us credit for; the brain processes huge amounts of information every second, most of which we are not aware of. According to Dewey, we have access to this submerged substratum of information, or ‘qualitative’ thought, through reflection; if we look deeply into our experience, we can make the connections which turn bare facts into truth, or for Dewey, into wisdom. All our knowledge is social, everything we know is in some way derived from the shared understandings, customs and collective experience which we have come to refer to as ‘culture’. This means that everything around us is a source of exploration and knowledge. Life itself is a learning process and the world is a classroom. This is what Dewey meant when he talked about ‘democracy as a way of life’. As Josiah Ober has pointed, looking at the success of ancient Athens, democracy is a powerful way of harnessing ‘dispersed knowledge through the free choice of many people’ (9). What Lippmann and Hayek fail to see, due to their attachment to extreme individualism, is that by tapping into the social nature of knowledge through collaborative reflection, the limitations imposed on us by our individual perspectives can be overcome. And democracy, in the positive Deweyian sense, is the most effective way of putting these perspectives to work.

Ironically, neoliberalism points to the way forward. The history of neoliberalism has taught us two things: firstly that no matter how unpopular an idea is at the time (and to say that neoliberalism was ‘leaning against the wind’ during the Great Depression of the 1930s is, to use Mirowski et al‘s words, an understatement), with enough hard work, determination and above all, organisation, today’s outlier can become tomorrow’s hegemonic world-view. Secondly, the public, like the perfect market, does not just spontaneously appear with negative freedom. We can try to engage people in collaborative social inquiry, try to develop their awareness of the conditions that limit participation, to deepen our collective understanding of social and political processes and therefore increase the public’s potential for self-rule. However, without creating the material and social conditions for participation, these efforts at condescension will be rightly met with scorn. Sociologists and social scientists, such as myself, need to be a part of an active process of giving back social inquiry to the public, emancipating this deeply human and social activity first and foremost from the elitism, specialisation and instrumentalism of academia. We may need to reduce the working day/week even further to enable people to have time for community activities and public research. We certainly need to prevent education being turned a class-based, narrowly vocational process of training people to be profit-making machines.

We haven’t got all the answers yet. But if we have an idea whose time has come, as the neoliberal ‘thought-collective’ have shown, we can perhaps win the battle in the end and work it out as we go along.


(1) Boenhert, J. (2015) ‘The Green Economy: Reconceptualising the Natural Commons as Natural Capital’. Environmental Communication [online]

(2) Büscher, B. and Fletcher, M. (2015) ‘Accumulation by Conservation’. New Political Economy 10(2), pp. 273-298

(3) Chang, H-J. (2014) Economics: The User’s Guide. London: Penguin, pp. 279-313

(4) Mirowski, P. and Plehwe, D. (2009) The Road to Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 426

(5) Lippmann, W. (1927/93) The Phantom Public. London: Transaction Publishers, p. 55

(6) Ibid. p. 32

(7) Dewey, J. (1922/2002) Human Nature and Conduct. New York: Dover Publications

(8) Dewey, J. (1916/44) Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press

(9) Ober, J. (2008) Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. xiv

Notes on Foucault’s 1979 Birth of Biopolitics Lectures




I decided that at some point in my research on the possibilities for a more public/social higher education I would have to take on the concept of “neoliberalism”. The most obvious place to start, and I think still the most interesting, is with Foucault’s 1979 lectures. This series of lectures were only published in English in 2008, and there has been much said about “neoliberalism” since 1979 without any knowledge of Foucault. Now I’m not really part of the Foucault fan-club, although I do think he is a very thought-provoking writer, but no one else has seriously engaged with the theories and literature that underpin the “neoliberal” tradition (which most people might identify as neoclassical economics), which is to say with people like Hayek, von Mises, Friedman, etc. So I embarked on a close reading of Foucault’s lectures which was well worthwhile, and have resulted in a talk that I will post later. Here are the notes from my close reading. All page references are to the 2008 Palgrave Edition.


Notes on Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics

What follows is necessarily a strong reinterpretation of Foucault’s analysis in Birth of Biopolitics. Due to the nature of the lectures (always last minute), Foucault’s account isn’t that coherent, and in the last lecture in particular new elements are introduced that seem to suggest a reinterpretation of the lectures as a whole. I have therefore tried to extract what I believe to be a more useful and clear account of neo-liberalism according to Foucault.


  • Foucault’s summary of liberalism: ‘So I have tried to indicate three features: veridiction of the market, limitation by the calculation of governmental utility, and now the position of Europe as a region of unlimited economic development in relation to a world market.’ (60)
  • Post-colonial foreign economic policy: American independence will mean free trade between Europe and US with UK as mediator (very profitable position)
    • Vienna Congress: European equilibrium (MONETERISM) to free competition
      • Perpetual peace through an unlimited external market (imperialism, colonialism, post-colonialism – the new markets of which are dependent on previous imperialism/colonialism – Star Trek Victorianism).
      • Of course this is where theories of “so called primitive accumulation” (Marx), accumulation by dispossession and imperialism come in.
      • An example of agency sublimated in Foucault
    • Adam Smith: political control is not necessary for economic success (60)
  • Hidden Hand
    • unintended secondary benefits of self-interest
    • hidden hand epistemology: shouldn’t try to go beyond self-interest, no government can know the market, only rationality is self-interest, somehow manages to benefit all (but no explanation, mystical).
    • hidden hand ontology: only interests exist (leading to “enterprise society”) and competition between interests (as social relation between them)
  • Interests and utility (: don’t really understand how this works, but basically there is no liberal government at this stage in the history of liberalism, so liberalism is purely critical, and utility is the specific ideological weapon against the Raison d’Etat police state
    • Governments should govern frugally
    • Arbitrator of interests
  • Foucault tries to show that “liberalism” isn’t a political position or a philosophy, but rather a tool of criticism of government, or as F would say ‘a modern reflection on the art of government’
    • This links liberalism to the general enlightenment project, but sees it in its more political/activist form (but not as an expression of ideology of emerging ruling class)
  • Problem of civil society (see Ferguson) – civil society represents “community” and egoism undermines this community


  • Is ordoliberalism “laissez-faire”? Yes, in the sense that government action must be in social policy in order to maintain the autonomy and functioning of the market:
    • ‘To the same extent that government intervention must be light at the level of economic processes, so it must be heavy when it is a matter of this set of technical, scientific, legal, geographic, let’s say broadly social factors which now increasingly become the object of governmental intervention’ (141)
    • “positive liberalism” – the creation of a liberal-economic state in Germany (but the subsequent actual state had to make concessions to the left-socialist parties). Governing for the market, not because of it (121).
      • Röpke: ‘The free market requires an active and extremely vigilant policy’ (133)
      • Miksch: ‘In this liberal policy there may be as many economic interventions as in a policy of planning, but their nature is different’ (133)
    • Competition requires inequality – different from classical economics which requires free exchange between equal partners (120).
    • Laissez-faire is “naïve nationalism” competition must be constructed:
      • ‘Competition [is] an essential economic logic [that] will only appear and produce its effects under certain conditions which have to be carefully and artificially constructed.’ (120)
    • Critique of intervention/planning as leading to Nazism
      • Röpke published critique of Beveridge plan: ‘English Labour Party socialism will lead you to German style Nazism’
    • Regulation of prices by market is fragile therefore must be supported, managed and ordered by an internal policy of social intervention (319):
      • Price stability: not fixed prices but controlling inflation
      • Competition not natural, but a game: ‘the economic is not a mechanical or natural process that one can separate out, except by abstraction a posteriori, by means of a formalising abstraction. The economic can only ever be considered as a set of activities, which necessarily means regulated activities’
      • Anti-monopoly: monopolies result from intervention (state) unfair competition (rules of entry into game not functioning) – this is exactly the argument against public HE
      • “Rule of Law” (originally theorised in reaction to police state in 18th C) – purely formal, not rectifiable by reference to effects, fixed and cannot change so economic agents can make free decisions on the basis of it, rules out ‘universal subject of knowledge’ (neo-liberal epistemology). The economy must become a game in which no player has any advantage. The legal framework is the rules of the game. The state acts as the engineer of the perfect game (175).
      • Welfare: Necessary inequality: Röpke: ‘Inequality is the same for all’ (143). There can only be a “marginal transfer” (same as French “negative tax” (203)), from overproduction to underproduction, not average but minimum.
        • Röpke: ‘[An unemployed person] is not someone suffering from an economic disability; he is not a social victim. He is a worker in transit. He is a worker in transit between an unprofitable activity and a more profitable activity’ (Can see the beginnings of HCT?)
      • Risk: privatisation of consumption (not socialised as in socialism or Keynesianism, as in NHS and state provision of public goods). Risks covered by individual insurance. This also works to create individuals as enterprising units (discipline), as they become used to calculating risks and investments (enterprise) in all areas of life.
      • Anti-monopolies:
    • Integration – a concern for sociology (242), still worried about integration if competition is basis of society (like Weber, Durkheim, Frankfurt School,Sombart) – I personally think more to do with German tradition than UK, but see Foucault’s invocation of Ferguson and Civil Society above (the UK version of the Gesellschaft vs Gemeinschaft debate – a Western problem with industrialisation no doubt)
      • Therefore state must be above enterprises, ensuring community and cooperation
      • We can see Ordo-liberals as ‘of their time’, arriving on the back of German concerns for loss of community in capitalism
      • Rüstow (242) – need social and moral integration, not just “cold” competition
        • NOTE: Is this where the contemporary focus on localism comes from?
        • Ordo social policy – support craft and SMEs; avoid centralisation
        • Are we therefore seeing a return to a more Ordo version of neo-liberalism in the UK? Consequence for HE, the civic university (left and right arguing for same thing! Fear of state on both sides: Foucault: p. 188)
        • Has this got something to do with Civil Society problem, going back to Ferguson? (302)
        • Is US neoliberalism more focussed on individual liberty (hence HCT) and therefore ditched the community focus? Is localism a European problem? How does this link to Globalisation and Identity (Cohen and Kennedy 2013 Ch. 21)?
      • Not historically or culturally prepared to be as radical as US neo-liberalism – the US constitution is founded on liberalism, and liberalism is foundational discourse of the US public sphere, left (Democrats) or right (Republicans) – ‘liberalism is a way of life in America’ (218)
    • Enterprise society –Ordos move to found the Germanpost-WW2 state on liberal ontology, only enterprises exist and competition between them (but state remains as paternal regulator and activist to ensure this ontology).
      • Competition doesn’t exist naturally (ontology) but must be created by political activism
      • Emergence of social constructionism in neo-liberalism – this also points to the need to construct the subject (although this construction is then naturalised by HCT)
      • Decentralisation – the solution to “cold competition” and the statist/planning dangers of liberal governmentality. ‘A question of shifting governmental action downwards’ (148)
      • ‘Sociological liberalism’: ‘Not a supermarket society but an enterprise society. The homo economicus sought after is not the man of exchange or man the consumer; he is the man of enterprise and production’ (147)
      • Against “planning” first and foremost

US Neoliberalism

  • Emigration on Hayek, vov Mises, etc to America; political crisis (Johnson, Nixon, Carter); popular (liberal-critical) movement of opposition to statism.
  • Ultimate result of liberalism as critique of state: Seeks to extend rationality of market to non-economic domains (319)
    • Regulation of government by market
    • Judgement of efficiency and cost of government intervention (246)
    • Judgement of Public Higher Education (my example):
      • Failure to meet demand (elitism/feudalism, need for expanded HE for knowledge economy)
      • Inefficient way of meeting demand (which is increasing due to knowledge economy) and paying for increased demand (in austerity conditions)
      • Cost of public funding unacceptable (austerity justification again)
    • Liberalism as critique of everything (and therefore a substantive philosophy of society): Human Capital Theory (Schultz, Becker, Mincer 1950s – 1970s):
      • Individual as enterprise
        • Work: gap in classic liberal analyses of capitalism
        • Rejection of Marxist theory of value (and classical liberalism)
          • Abstract labour, i.e. alienation, comes from liberal economic theory, not reality.
        • Prosumer: rejection of “mass society” theories, as critiques of consumer society
          • consumption is an enterprise activity, the consumer produces his/her satisfaction’ (226)
        • Extreme version (Becker) discredited (269) and not generally followed
          • Too much like behaviourism
          • Also Bauman’s point about humans lying/conscious (+Weber?)
          • Tan 2014
        • Criticism from Me: Human Capital Theory as the full generalisation of capitalist world-view: ‘In every epoch the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas’ (Marx)
        • HCT is solution to the problem of applying economic “grid” to people themselves – if economics is ‘the science of finding out the optimal allocation of scarce resources to alternative ends’ (Robbins definition in 1930s p. 222), then the place to analyse this should be at the individual level (rationality of choice between alternative ends considering resources)
        • HCT is solution to “problem of innovation” (i.e. primitive accumulation):
          • Innovation problem is also the problem of answering the Marxist falling rate of profit hypothesis
          • Marxist theory of primitive accumulation (Marx), Imperialism as innovation (Rosa Luxemburg) and accumulation by disposession (Harvey) is answer to why there wasn’t a fall in rate of profit like Marx predicted
          • HCT is the neo-liberal answer (232): investments in human capital account for this innovation:
            • Education, health, migration
            • But these should be personal investments, not state investments
          • There are also attempts to explain the origins of capitalism usingHCT, against Weber (who was against Marx anyway) – Becker (different Becker!) and Wößmann 2014
            • These were personal investments in self-education outside of state intervention
            • Points to danger in advocating self-education for left-wingers (remember US left-wingers are mostly liberals)
          • Sublimation of production in HCT and US neo-liberalism? (Like the “negative tax” that only deals with the effects of inequality (the underclass) rather than the causes (exploitation of labour as commodity and creation of surplus value) – HCT sublimates how abstract labour is necessary to commodity production and that it is this that creates alienation in capitalism (not theory! Production!)


  • There are general criticisms of “neo-liberalism” concept (see Boas & Gans-Morse), that it is too vague and dogmatic, which I completely agree with. Interestingly, Foucault raises this issue in terms of the problem of “inflationary critique”, which he coins in reference to the “state phobia” from both left and right after fascism and Stalinism.
  • However, Foucault claims to be following the genealogy of “liberalism” as a critical tool, not a coherent political position or program. And according to the typology of different types of criticism by Boas & Gans-Morse, the evolving practice of liberal critique covers all these types: policy, development and ideology. In Foucault’s work, there is a history of the development of liberal governmentality, not a critique of “neo-liberalism” as such.
  • Connections between Ordo and US neo-liberalism (78):
    • Against Keynes
    • Repulsion towards state planning of the economy
    • Austrian neo-marginalism
  • In fact I think it is more useful to use “neo-liberalism” as a Weberian “ideal type”, as it allows us to see differences in application, and it seems to me that Foucault is constructing a kind of ideal type from the theories of the various free-market economic schools. In this way Foucault shows the coherence and continuities in theory (how to ensure a free-market economy, how to prevent “coup d’Etat” (which they associate fascism and communism with) and how to govern the economic subject, i.e. what social policy for liberalism), but also allows for more clarity in seeing different implementations of this theory in political reality (and there is evidence that theory was put into action by politicians, activists and think-tanks).
  • Foucault’s method: ‘The point of all these investigations concerning madness, disease, delinquency, sexuality and what I am talking about now, is to show how the coupling of a set of practices and a regime of truth form an apparatus (dispositif) of knowledge-power that effectively marks out in reality that which does not exist and legitimately submits it o the division between false and true’ (19)
    • So basically theory (regime of truth) and practice (practices) create the object and also the methods of controlling what does and doesn’t count as the object
    • So the “economy” is constructed in liberal theory, and there is a continuous battle in the realm of theory+practice (Althusser) in order to define what does and doesn’t count as the “economy” (as well as the terms of judgement – freedom/totalitarian; efficiency of allocation of scarce resources, etc).
    • But: ‘When I spoke of the coupling carried out I the 18th C between a regime of truth and a new government reason, and the connection of this with political economy, in no way did I mean that there was the formation of a scientific and theoretical discourse of political economy on one side, and then on the other, those who governed who were either seduced by this political economy, or forced to take it into account by the pressure of this or that social group’ (32)
  • Foucault’s analysis is valuable as a better and more materialist analysis of ideology – not just the reflection/expression of class ideas, but ‘class struggle in the realm of theory’ (Althusser)
    • I never really bought the base/superstructure problem, which I think is an invention of orthodox marxism and plays into liberal theorists hand
  • Foucault sublimates agency in his attempt to dismiss Marxism – need “so-called primitive accumulation” (Marx + Harvey)
    • g. Who performs liberalism as critique? (“economic tribunal” 246) Not just philosophers and economists, but also semi-autonomous institutions, i.e. think-tanks (e.g. Adam Smith Institute in UK; American Enterprise Institute in US (246))
    • Foucault sublimated the role of colonialism and imperialism in the rise of liberal economic critique
      • Rise of the bourgeoisie as a class with interests
      • Government must then manage these interests, and is also profiting from these interests and enjoying the consumerism that results (Victorian society) (e.g. East India Company).
    • Nietzsche: ‘[Historical philosophy, i.e. Nietzsche’s genealogy, states that] there is, strictly speaking, neither unselfish conduct, nor a wholly disinterested point of view. Both are simplysublimations in which the basic element seems almost evaporated and betrays itspresents only to keenest observation’ (Ch. 1 Human all too Human).
      • Foucault is arguing against Marxism, and therefore sublimates the class struggle at the heart of Foucault’s own genealogy of liberalism as a weapon of critique – for whom?
      • Foucault’s genealogy is an enriching and concretising of the role of “ideology” in history – not just the reflection of class interests, but an element of power.
      • Like the idea of Althusser’s “class struggle in the realm of theory” – this isdefo how liberalism as praxis works.
        • ‘The new definition of philosophy can be resumed in three points: (1) philosophy ‘represents’ the class struggle in the realm of theory, hence philosophy is neither a science, nor a pure theory (Theory), but a political practice of intervention in the realm of theory; (2) philosophy ‘represents’ scientificity in the realm of political practice, hence philosophy is not the political practice, but a theoretical practice of intervention in the realm of politics; (3) philosophy is an original ‘instance’ (differing from the instances of science and poli-tics) that represents the one instance alongside (auprès de) the other, in the form of a specific intervention (political-theoretical). L. A.].’
      • Example: polygonal/polyhedral reason for rise of liberalism (33):
        • monetary situation of 18th C
        • new influx of gold
        • relative consistency of currencies
        • continuous economic and demographic growth
        • intensification of agricultural production
        • access to government of technicians
        • number of economic problems being given theoretical form
      • But what about the capitalists? The revolutions? The civil wars? What about colonialism? Land laws? Dispossession of the proletariat?
    • Need for class-historical explanation of single capitalism
      • Doesn’t piece the larger historical movement of capitalism together enough, unnecessary mystification as a result (easier to see an evolution of a single capitalism than F’s multiple capitalisms – see 164-5 on Foucault’s multiple capitalisms and the critique of base/superstructure theory)
      • Last chapter seems to support this, as Foucault finds the roots of US neo-liberalism (apply economics to everything + Rational Choice) in Adam Smith’s theory of the hidden hand – the world is irrational so no single subject can know it (against statism), only rationality is self-interest.
      • It is possible and I would argue desirable to reinterpret Foucault’s analysis of the history of liberalism (319) along the following lines (with agency re-emphasised):
        • Heroic stage: liberalism as the critique of Raison d’Etat (revolutionary capitalist middle-class trying to either overthrow or reform the feudal system)
        • Conservative stage 1: (Ordo) neo-liberalism as a reaction to Keynesian policy and fascism/totalitarianism, and also as a way to found the modern capitalist (minimal) state (in Germany, post WW2)
        • Conservative stage 2 + Consolidation: (US) neo-liberalism as a reaction to post-WW2 Keynesianism (Thatcher + Reagan) – but then with all alternatives discredited in 1990s we see a total consolidation of liberalism and neo-liberal government/policy, turbo-liberalism! With it we see a substantive theory of the subject and society to consolidate the capitalist world-view (Human Capital Theory + Rational Choice Theory).

Further research

  • Critique of neo-liberal ontology and epistemology (reification)
  • Why neoliberalism even though it is discredited? (Class)
  • No alternatives? Bullshit (Four Horseman + Germany)
  • Problem of expanded access and need for knowledge economy (neo-liberalism as thede-feudalisation of HE, so shouldn’t go “back” but go forward, but how?)
    • neo-liberalism against positionality as well: ‘The problem was how, within a given state whose legitimacy couldn’t be questioned, could you allow for a market freedom which was both historically and juridically new insofar as in the 18th C a kind of police state (raison d’Etat) freedom was only ever defined as the freedom of privilege, as a reserved freedom, as freedom linked to status, profession, or a concession of power and so on.’ (102)
  • Is Robbins definition of economics applicable to HE: ‘Economics is science of human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have mutually exclusive uses’ (222)
    • Is learning a scarce means?
    • Is knowledge a scarce means (in internet age)?
    • Are they subject to te condition of the exclusivity of uses?
    • Problem of HE as public good, and MOOCs