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“Race To The Abyss” – The Politics Of “Progressive” Neoliberal Rationality (Carl Raschke)

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

In a prescient and prophetic essay in the newspaper Le Monde during the last month of 1998, the famed French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu laid out a disturbing vision, long before the concept of “neoliberalism” had emerged as anything other than a somewhat esoteric construct among political scientists, of where the tidal currents of globalization were taking us.

The essay was provocatively titled “The Utopia of Exploitation – The Essence of Neoliberalism,” and it brilliantly laid bare avant la lettre the invisible dark matter propelling the post-Cold War growth of the new global economy in a way that is only becoming obvious nowadays.  In other words, it is neoliberalism with its “biopolitical” management of people’s cognitive assumptions, moral values, and modes of everyday behavior, rather than technological innovation itself, that has created what James Beniger calls the “control society”.

What makes Bourdieu’s brief essay not only insightful, but truly epochal is that at a time when the integration of the world through global market forces and monetary consolidation was perceived by so many among the international elites as “the end of history” (in the immortal words of Francis Fukuyama), Bourdieu glimpsed with striking clarity the deeper pathology which it would take theoreticians and policy-makers alike more than a decade to recognize.

At a very basic level the problem, according to Bourdieu, was the conversion of homo politicus into homo oeconomicus, as Wendy Brown has famously put it.  “As the dominant discourse would have it,” Bourdieu writes, “the economic world is a pure and perfect order, implacably unrolling the logic of its predictable consequences, and prompt to repress all violations by the sanctions that it inflicts, either automatically or — more unusually — through the intermediary of its armed extensions,” such as central banks, the International Monetary fund, stock exchanges, etc.

However, he asks, what if this vision of bettering the lot of all humankind through the economist “logic” of open markets and unimpeded capital flows were not a kind of “utopian” construct, which in practice was destined to becoming a dystopian nightmare comparable to the failed grand collectivist projects of the twentieth century?  As a sociologist Bourdieu discerned in the neoliberal fantasy the same ruthless epistemological fixation that Hannah Arendt had connected to the origins of totalitarianism – the complete deracination of both persons and entire peoples, the mobilization of “masses” rather than “classes,” as the latter diagnosed the situation after the First World War.

As Arendt herself wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism,

…totalitarian” movements are possible wherever there are masses who for one reason or another have acquired the appetite for political organization. Masses are not held together by a consciousness of common interest and they lack that specific class articulateness which is expressed in determined, limited, and obtainable goals. The term masses applies only where we deal with people who either because of sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest, into political parties or municipal governments or professional organizations or trade unions. Potentially, they exist in every country and form the majority of those large numbers of neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls.

For Bourdieu, they still exist today, and the process of deracination – what globalization theorist Thomas Hylland Eriksen has called “disembedding” – has become a latter day kind of planetary petri dish for the fomentation of the soft totalitarianism that characterizes the tentacular neoliberal regime.

At the same time, this process of disembedding succeeds masterfully, Bourdieu argues, in “severing the economy from social realities,” from all historical and synchronically immanent networks of human reciprocity and signifiers of common solidarity.  But such a post-humanistic invasion into all spheres of this new “desert of the real”, as the language of the movie The Matrix describes it, is not due primarily, as the mythology of today’s alienated “knowledge workers” would invariably have it, to some juggernaut of predatory “capitalism” per se.

It comes down to a trans-economic logic, a very mathesis, i.e., an unquestioned inferential system grounding our sense of the real itself, that is older than capitalism itself, one that while sustaining the process of capital formation itself is intrinsic to the transformation of the capitalist economy as a whole under neoliberalism.  It is the same “logic of late capitalism” (as Frederic Jameson terms it) that has produced the financialization of both the “forces of production” and the “relations of production” in Marxist phraseology.  It is a “tutelary theory” which, though ubiquitous, turns out to be a “pure fiction.”

It is, according to Bourdieu, the “pure fiction” that reality itself, let alone “social reality”, can be mathematized as “pure theory”, one that is “desocialised and dehistoricised at its roots [and] has, today more than ever, the means of making itself true and empirically verifiable. In effect, neoliberal discourse is not just one discourse among many. Rather, it is a ‘strong discourse’ – the way psychiatric discourse is in an asylum.”

The economic machinery of neoliberalism, which almost collapsed in 2008 during the financial meltdown, has been driven by this “strong discourse.”  But it should be noted that when writing this essay decades ago, Bourdieu was not merely making a case simply against runaway financialization of the kind that caused the global crash a decade, nor was he simply renouncing the deregulation of banking and other kinds of monetary apparatuses that were all in vogue during that period.

His critique was far more holistic, if not encyclopedic.  The discourse of neoliberalism, he stressed, was but the pragmatics of a hegemonic truth protocol that had been gaining ascendancy in the West for centuries.  The protocol, which can be loosely summed up in the notion of scientism, “does this most notably by orienting the economic choices of those who dominate economic relationships,” while augmenting them with “its own symbolic force to these relations of forces.”  Scientism as an epistemological conviction, Bourdieu affirms, has been fatefully over the centuries “converted into a plan of political action, an immense political project” that “aims to create the conditions under which the ‘theory’ can be realised and can function: a programme of the methodical destruction of collectives.”

The upshot is a brave, new Darwinian “world of struggle” that renders permanent a “structural violence” that is both subtle and symbolic simultaneously.  It confirms the insuperability of such an “infernal machine” founded on a calculus of the pure efficiency of markets, which through the total destruction of intersubjective fidelities and communal loyalties touts in various, unspoken ways in its “race to the abyss” a seductive egalitarian logic, one that appears to proliferate “difference” and abolish it at the same time by fostering the cloud cuckooland conceit of a singular utopian – and therefore completely abstract –  oneness of humanity as well as the anarchic ecstasy of release from every political constraint, all under the “sign of freedom.”

The historic emancipatory politics of anti-capitalism thus falls victim to its own passion to strip away the cultural and biological concreteness of human institutions and their behavior dispositions – what Bourdieu famously terms their “habitus” – and merges almost imperceptibly with the neoliberal project itself.  The enragees themselves become the unwitting shock troops of the new “posthuman” forms of capital that expropriate what is left of human value, turning the gold of human affect into the dross of ceaseless “social justice warfare”.    It is Marx’s theory of commodification applied to the emancipatory drive itself.

Alain Badiou in his theory of the subject as that which operates outside the strictures of formal ontology has undertaken to chart a method of disruption, if not insurrection, against the machinic logic of neoliberalism.  Without actually employing the term “neoliberal,” Badiou makes his own “strong” case that any effective resistance to the regime of mathematical elaboration necessitates what a new thought-procedure that is generative rather than reflective, an undertaking whereby “truth” ceases to be a mode of verification but a certain kind of “generic procedure” that brings to light what were previously “indiscernible” structures that can no longer be considered ontological, but evental.

Philosophy at once ceases to be both “speculative” and “analytic”, but functions instead as a means of intervention.    The “mathematico-logical revolution of Frege-Cantor”, as Badiou stresses in his introduction to Being and Event,  therefore, gives way to the “theoretico-practical orientations of the modern doctrine of the subject,” which disclose themselves as not only “clinical,” but eminently “political.”(2)

It is this “subjectivization” (as opposed to the Cartesian subjectivity) of truth that can make possible, Badiou suggests, the “soteriological” moment when, as Marx anticipated, philosophy would no longer “interpret” the world, but change it.  Subjectivization as the agential discharge of a generic procedure rips open the fabric of the age-old mathesis univeralis, separating logos from logic, being from event – what Deleuze would term haeccity from intensity.

“As such, subjectivization is that through which truth is possible,” Badiou writes (393).  It makes truth possible, because it substitutes the “militant” for the mere spectator.  Truth always has a militancy about it, and that is because creates new solidarities through “fidelity to the event,” where hitherto all fidelities and solidarities had been de-constituted through the abstraction process that goes hand in hand with the ontology of pure numeracy.  Numeracy itself, as Badiou argues, reduces the structured, or relational, system of multiples to the “count-as-one,” the commodified – or as we used to say, “atomized” – individual.

One of the failures of theorists in seeking to comprehend the full scope of neoliberalism is the tendency to focus almost exclusively on postulated economic predations and the commission of wrongs involving distributions of wealth.  But,  as German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck observes in his book When Will Capitalism End?, “capitalism denotes both an economy and a society, and that studying it requires a conceptual framework that does not separate the one from the other.”(Kindle edition, loc. 3532-3533)

In other words, it is impossible to separate social relations from economic structures.  But what many critics of neoliberalism overlook is that their own methods of social, or cultural, critique unconsciously presuppose the very “late capitalist” frame of reference which they invariably denounce.  According to Streeck, capitalism must not be studied primarily as an “economic system.”

The mathematization of economics, which in many respects was responsible for the crash of 2008, has been the long-haul consequence of the classical, nineteenth century doctrine that social interactions, including commercial behavior, could be modelled somehow after Newtonian laws of motion.  But, as Max Weber sagely realized, and which explored in detail in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, commercial behavior is but a subset of general social patterns and constraints of conduct, which in turn are enmeshed with metaphysical commitments and religious convictions.

Capitalism, therefore, can be in a certain measured considered a grand sort of Bourdieuean habitus, a codifiable and transpersonal assemblage of motives, practices, and affective relationships that work themselves out in terms of quantifiable transactions that can be surveyed by the social sciences and are routinely regulated not only by law, but by customs as well as social norms and expectations.   The capitalistic “habitus”, as Weber described, stems from a certain anxiety initially consisting in the psychological mirror effect of a harsh and demanding theology, but it becomes gradually “secularized” to take the form of an ever expanding dynamo of “creative destruction,” as Schumpter called it, that puts all bonds of human affiliation, dependence, and fealty in question while threatening to dissolve and erase them.

Thus the consumerist ethos of seeking fulfillment for ever multiplying desires for new and different experiences as well as objects follows naturally upon the original “productivist” obsession that Weber associated with the religious world view of early modern merchant societies.   But consumerism does not merely involve an obsession with “things.”    It may also be described as an obsession with “differentiation.”

Streeck analyzes how the logic of capitalism itself succeeded in manufacturing the Deleuzean “difference engine”, which came to serve within two decades after the end of the Second World War as the lingua franca within Western culture of a wholly unprecedented regime of abstraction and commodification.  Following standard economic history, Streeck describes how the rapid urbanization of both Europe and America in the 1920s gave strong impetus for the production and purchase of new durable goods, such as the automobile and the washing machine.  In order to foster a functioning financial infrastructure for the new industries built around mass production of durables along with “Fordist” methods of labor discipline and organization, the captains of industry both pioneered and promoted the unprecedented  – and until recent times morally suspect – institution of consumer credit.

As Streeck emphasizes, that economic growth track stalled out eventually, as do all phases in the capitalist life cycle, and a drastic, new configuration for the development of the system was sorely needed. Hence, there began “a desperate search for a new formula to overcome what threatened to be a fundamental crisis of capitalist political economy.”  The solution lay in accelerated product differentiation – and even to a significant extent the differentiation of services, which were now becoming more and more the core of the new systems of “production”.

According to Streeck, “capital’s answer to the secular stagnation of markets for standardized goods at the end of the Fordist era included making goods less standardized.”(1732-40)  And this rapid, strategical plan for differentiating goods and services (ironically, at the very time when “difference” emerged as the ideological watchword among the cognitive elites in advanced societies) became the turbine for the new “symbolic economy” based mainly on marketing, media, and advertising.

A “difference engine” comprising the mass of transpersonal and somatological “desiring machines”, which Deleuze and Guattari saw as the key to undermining capitalism through valorizing  the “schizophrenic” substratum of all human experience, was expropriated almost immediately during this period by the capitalist apparatus itself.   The result, Streeck argues, was the advent of a novel kind of “sociation through consumption”.  The 1970s and 1980s were also a time when traditional families and communities were rapidly losing authority, offering markets the opportunity to fill a fast-growing social vacuum, which contemporary liberation theorists had mistaken for the beginning of a new age of autonomy and emancipation.

Interestingly, the same period marked the normalization, at least within the academic sector, of the politics of “liberation” which came to be fortified by the ideology of identity theory.  Identity theory, mistakenly branded by its conservative critics as “cultural Marxism” (it only retained in a barebones way any kind of “Marxist” coloration because of its preoccupation with historical forms of “oppression”), followed to the letter the differential logic of the new consumer capitalism, inasmuch as it “created” wants – in this case, new demands for political action to redress claims of injustice through social exclusion.

Streeck’s real insight is that “communities of consumption,” as he dubs them, can be thoroughly virtual and valuative rather than material.  And, as the “symbolic economy” increasingly metastazises into a dense traffic in affect-loaded ideas rather than tangible goods and services powered by corporate interests with the tools and financial wherewithal to manoeuver people’s better angels into serving their worst instincts, “communities of consumption are much easier to abandon than traditional ‘real’ communities,” while social identities become structured by weaker and looser ties, allowing individuals to surf from one identity to the next, free from any pressure to explain themselves.” (1825-26)

In effect, the new stage of neoliberal hegemony gave rise not only to “the high phase of globalization” but “the establishment of a cosmopolitan consciousness industry which discerned its opportunities for growth in turbocharging the expansionist drive of capitalist markets with the libertarian values of the social revolution of the 1960s and ’70s and their utopian promise of human emancipation,” which in itself required the ongoing differentiation of who and what needed to be “liberated.”

Streeck is even more tart in tracking fashionable progressive politics to the neoliberal discursive juggernaut tout court.  “The cosmopolitan identitarianism of the leaders of the neoliberal age, originating as it did in part from left-wing universalism,” Streeck contends in a recent essay, “calls forth by way of reaction a national identitarianism, while anti-national re-education from above produces an anti-elitist nationalism from below.”(169)

In other words, the struggle over so-called “ethno-nationalism” versus a more high-minded idealism of global “citizenship” and a preference for the excluded can be boiled down the interests of the global capitalist elites who seek to denigrate and shame the disenfranchised “workers of the world” into submission. The notion of “anti-national re-education” can without mincing words be construed precisely in the terms Marx had in mind in The German Ideology, namely, that the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”(64)

Streeck himself turns the “radicals” of today completely on their heads.  “Whoever puts a society under economic or moral pressure to the point of dissolution meets with resistance from traditionalists.”   The neoliberal “fantasy” of global democractic politics, according to Streeck, corresponds to the libertarian pipe dream of “democratic capitalism.”  It is not economics, but “politics” that has kept capitalism afloat, Streeck argues, insofar as the true, implied “social contract” has always been to let markets go their merry way only so long as reciprocal political interests can be reasonably assured and broad economic needs and expectations met.

In sum, the neoliberalism is a politics far more than it is an economic system, even though its “economic” rationality invisibly shapes its political dynamics.  It is in this area, which is mistakenly labelled the “culture wars”, that the battle for the real future of the present order is now underway.

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

 

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