Voyou Désœuvré

It’s not uncommon for people on the left to see neoliberalism as anti-political, the criticism being that neoliberalism attempts to impose market mechanisms, thereby destroying the political. Here for instance is Daniel Bensaïd:

Hannah Arendt was worried that politics might disappear completely from the world…. Today we are confronted with a different form of the danger: totalitarianism, the human face of market tyranny. Here politics finds itself crushed between the order of financial markets—which is made to seem natural-and the moralising prescriptions of ventriloquist capitalism.

The solution is then held to be an assertion of politics against markets, in which markets are subordinated to the political system.

But doesn’t this supposed solution just reproduce the terms of the problem? The distinguishing feature of politics here, as the reference to Arendt makes clear, is that it is a sphere of agency, of subjective intervention. But that gets construed as the intervention of politics into markets. Markets provide the negative definition of politics, because they are objective, mechanical, unfree; but that is to say that this contrasting of politics with markets doesn’t question the naturalness of markets at all. In fact, it requires that markets be natural, so that they can provide the raw material on which the artifice of politics can work. Bensaïd (and he is hardly alone; he follows Lenin here, among others) is highly amivalent; he objects to capitalism, but using a concept of the autonomy of the political which is depends on the continued existence of capitalism.

How can we think about this differently? How can we understand politics and the market without separating the two? How can we understand freedom and necessity in a way that doesn’t split the world into a free and a necessary part, condemned to always remain circling around one another? The answer is presumably, as ever, “communism”; but what exactly does that mean?


  1. Naadir Jeewa, 8:43 am, March 22, 2008

    To separate politics and markets is to buy into the rhetoric, surely?

    Speaking as someone who favours liberalism, I don’t think the more detailed explications of neoliberalism do pronounce the end of politics in any way. If anything, there is a focus on the building of strong political institutions to make sure everyone has equality of opportunity on the market. This necessarily favours redistribution. The key is to make political institutions accountable to polities, to prevent corruption, whilst also preventing different types of favouritism (ethnicity, religion, landowners, etc…).

  2. voyou, 10:25 am, March 23, 2008

    I agree with you that neoliberalism (outside of the fantasy shared by libertarians and some on the left) does involve institution building. But I think there is something to the criticism of neoliberalism as anti-political, in the sense that neoliberal institutions aren’t about collective decision making in a way that one might associate with politics. I’m particularly thinking of things like the independence of the Bank of England, where the Bank is now specifically not responsible to Parliament.

    Of course, the independence of the Bank of England was a political decision, so I also agree that separating politics and markets is more rhetoric than reality; but it is a rhetoric that has some (if distorted) connection to reality.

  3. Hjalmar, 10:21 am, July 25, 2009

    Doesn’t Manuel DeLanda claim, with reference to Braudel, that today’s market economy should be viewed as an “anti-market” in itself? I believe he means that it isn’t selforganized in the way he uses the term, but rather structured in top-down hierarchies and institutions. The (post)modern market would then, of course, be fully political in a sense. Of course, as you write this is a structure that falls outside the control of what is acknowledged as established structures of parliamentary.

    But there might still be a reason why an old maoist like Badiou favours a conception of the political beyond the logic of what he calls “capitalo-parlamentarism”. It seems that he doesn’t acknowledge capital and, hence, “the market” as unpolitical territory in any way. The difference between this position and an arendtian (or one hauntingly similar, schmittianism) position is of course that Arendt still believes in a conception of the political which contains a logic representation and some sort of parliamentarianism.

    If we put these positions next to eachother (in a perverse way) we would therefore have anti-markets and anti-politics (how about launching the term “post-markets” to match the “post-political”?) together. One could argue that the disapperance of classical politics would by necessity mean the disapperance of markets proper. Perhaps we should remember that old difference between politics and the political here? Politics is as gone as the market, but there might still be a place for the good old political event?

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