Unpopular Front

Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution (Zone Books Ner Futures) BY Wendy Brown. Zone Books. Hardcover, 296 pages. $29.

Political theorist Wendy Brown opens her brilliant and incisive new book, Undoing the Demos, with a clarion call: Western democracy is imperiled. According to Brown, democracy has grown gaunt as a consequence of an ascendant political rationality that, like an ideological auto-immune disorder, has assaulted its very fiber and future.

Superficially, of course, there is no shortage of democracy. By one estimate, eighty-one countries moved from authoritarianism to democracy between 1980 and 2002. And yet, everywhere we look, democracy is in crisis, with scholars warning that the United States has essentially become an oligarchy and mounting evidence that ostensible formal democracies such as Turkey are creeping toward authoritarianism. To put the problem another way: Democracy remains a popular brand, but it is an increasingly fraught and feeble one. It is also “among the most contested and promiscuous terms in our modern political vocabulary,” writes Brown. It stands for everything from free elections to free markets and is as likely to be invoked by presidents as protesters.

Neoliberalism is an equally imprecise concept, a “loose and shifting signifier,” to use Brown’s phrase, and one mainly deployed by academic critics (nobody ever discusses neoliberalism to praise it). Nevertheless, neoliberalism is real, and has acquired its shifting global identity from its varied temporal and geographic history.

However and wherever neoliberalism emerges, its effects are strikingly uniform, instituting the supremacy of economic logic and ends. Its advocates subordinate traditional democratic principles—equality, liberty, inclusion, and constitutionalism—to the market demands of financial growth, capital enhancement, and competition. And once competition is established as a guiding principle for society, inequality becomes naturalized, and the state is less compelled to provide basic protections and safeguard universal rights.

Neoliberal leaders also strategically reconfigure the state and the individuals who constitute it as firms or enterprises rather than a polity, projects of management rather than popular sovereignty. All of this activity might sound abstract, but concrete examples reveal how pervasive this attitude has become. Neoliberalism, Brown argues, is why we have to talk about climate change in terms of economic competitiveness and relative contributions to GDP; a healthy environment is simply not considered a worthy end in itself. Likewise, our society is eager to abandon the idea of educating young people to participate in public life, because neoliberalism needs technically skilled workers rather than an enlightened citizenry ready to exercise self-rule. Young people go to college to increase their value, modeling themselves on financial capital seeking a return on investment. They become speculators, not students.

In this cutthroat environment, the state is no longer obligated to subsidize learning, since education is nothing more than a personal investment; meanwhile, students can usually only finance tuition by going into debt—meaning they better major in something practical that will get them a good job so they can make their monthly student-loan payments. In the process, the very idea of the public, and of the existence of a common good, quietly disappears.

Brown discusses everything from agriculture in occupied Iraq to the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, but it’s worth returning to education, as the disciplinary power of student debt is also a fine example of the “soft power” to which neoliberalism is partial (at least, in the global North). Nothing seems ominous about this kind of power, since it is dispersed and relational. And yet, in a world of ever-more-concentrated wealth, it’s not the case that the old hierarchies have dissipated altogether. The neoliberal’s professed antipathy to centralized authority is ultimately hollow, since, as Brown observes, “devolved power and responsibility are not equivalent to thoroughgoing decentralization and local empowerment.” While public infrastructure is eroded and privatized, large-scale problems like poverty and unemployment and ecological collapse are foisted on “small and weak units unable to cope with them,” whether those units are underfunded city agencies, schools, families, or individuals.

Unlike David Harvey and other scholars who treat neoliberalism as a response to the worldwide economic crisis of the 1970s, Brown echoes the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s interpretation of neoliberalism as a “political rationality”—part of the political and economic establishment’s response to a broader set of challenges to political liberalism that includes Keynesianism, Nazism, social democracy, state planning, and more. Undoing the Demos builds on Foucault’s work, specifically his 1978–79 College de France lectures, but it breaks with, updates, and expands his contribution in crucial ways. Notably, Brown redresses Foucault’s neglect of capital’s central role in social change—a consequence of his quarrel with Marxism—and his lack of interest in democracy.

Democracy is the crux of the issue, though, and by focusing on how it’s been diminished Brown has written a book that deserves to be widely read. She also correctly notes that neoliberalism’s most alarming consequence may be the withering of the democratic imagination. By turning us into speculators of the self, neoliberalism is extinguishing “the agent, the idiom, and the domains through which democracy—any variety of democracy—materializes.” As it has become commonplace to hear even artists and academics describing themselves as entrepreneurs and brands, Brown’s assessment hits home. Indeed, as she argues, Marx’s analysis of capitalism now feels anachronistic in part because it “presumed subjects who yearned for emancipation and had at hand a political idiom of justice—unrealized principles of democracy—through which to demand it.” Neoliberalism has reduced our desire for democracy, which means we are less inclined to fight for it. But if we let the promise of democracy disappear completely, we’ll surely miss it when it’s gone.

Astra Taylor is an author and a filmmaker working on a documentary about democracy.