Voyou Désœuvré

I was reading Brown’s Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy last week in order to teach it, and it occurred to me while doing so that many of my students were born not long before Clinton was elected; in other words, they have lived their entire lives in a period when the broad coordinates of neoliberalism were accepted by the mainstream left as much as the right. A consequence of this, which became apparent during discussion, is that the pre-neoliberal liberal democracy that Brown identifies as an object of left nostalgia, doesn’t really exist for them (indeed, I don’t know that exists for me as much except vague memories of the miners’ strike and Merseyside’s universal hatred for Thatcher when I was growing up). I wonder if this hasn’t contributed to the increasing irrelevance of the left: an appeal to nostalgia for something that is increasingly unavailable as an object of anything at all, least of all nostaligia.

In most classes I’ve taught, I’ve at some point asked students about the distinction between politics and economics; the first time I did so, I was expecting to challenge them with some Marxist arguments about the interrelation of the two. But I don’t think any of my students have ever thought there was a distinction between politics and economics; they all accept what Friedman thought was controversial in his 1962 Capitalism and Freedom, the neoliberal presentation of politics as simply another domain of the economic. Perhaps the correct response to this is a Žižekian one of overidentification, in which rather than treating the role of money in politics as an object of cynicism, we take it entirely seriously; abandoning left-wing illusions about a potential political control over the economic, and embrace a through-and-through economism.

This is also one of the places where Hardt and Negri are particularly useful. They are certainly not nostalgic for liberal democracy; instead, they see neoliberalism as reconfiguring the political and the economic in a way that calls for a new communist approach to the economy. However, I fear Hardt and Negri are too optimistic about the nature of this reconfiguration, as they see post-Fordism as rendering the economic directly political and, moreover, in an immediately communist way. The advantage of the Žižekian approach would be that it reveals neoliberalism’s obscene underside, its continued reliance on a kind of undead liberal politics. The challenge for the left is to figure out how to exorcise this specter of politics, and thereby insert itself into the economics of neoliberalism


  1. palmer1984.livejournal.com/, 3:29 am, April 13, 2010

    That’s really interesting, thanks!

  2. palmer1984.livejournal.com/, 3:32 am, April 13, 2010

    I was born in 1984, and I think I’m unusual in that I’ve always been slightly nostalgic for Fordism. But people my age and younger never really seem interested in eg trade unions/social democracy etc. The activists I know seem to be more interested in feminist/LGBT stuff.

  3. wedge, 3:27 am, April 16, 2010

    I was born in 1971, so the decline of Fordism/Social Democracy and the rise of neoliberalism is living memory for me. My bog-standard comprehensive taught economics, my much younger brother’s grammar school taught ‘business studies’. To my working class parents’ generation, the transition is regarded as a violent act against them. I find it interesting (but somewhat depressing) that my brother’s generation is far more ‘conscious’ of LGBT and disabled issues, but positively backwards with regards to racism, sexism – and of course class.

    May not have anything to do with it, but his supposedly ‘consumer-savvy’ generation is far less likely to complain, argue or demand a refund when sold broken, misleading or faulty goods than those over 35. The key for young people is to be ‘smart’ – the assumption being that only ‘stupid’ people get ripped off, exploited or even harassed by the police. Complaining after the fact, or indeed offering a wider analysis of how things operate, is regarded as ‘cranky’ or – sin of sins! – ‘boring’.

  4. voyou, 12:32 am, April 18, 2010

    That’s a great point about any kind of complaint being seen as a sign of a failure on the part of the complainer – I’ve been reading Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman this week, and this ties in with her discussion of the way we’re increasingly encouraged to present every aspect of our personality as a qualification for a job. Some types of politics have been integrated with this attitude (Nina’s particular target is a certain sort of positive-thinking feminism), whereas it’s difficult to see how a class based politics could be.

  5. John, 10:24 pm, April 21, 2010

    Hi, I am from Australia.

    Is the “left” really irrelevant?

    There are extraordinary taboos against anything to do with the left in Western “culture”.

    Why are and were left-handed people persecuted, and even in presumed to be in need of being “cured”.

    The Latin word for left is SINISTER.

    The left side of the body is traditionally associated with the feminine principle.

    The key archetype of Western (psychotic) “culture” is St George on his patriarchal right-sided horse who was/is continually at war with, and trying to suppress, the life forces of the body, or the feminine principle. Or the pattern that IS Woman or Shakti.

    Woman IS the body, IS the world altogether.

    When the “final judgement” occurs all of the “righteous” people will sit on the “right hand” of “God”.
    As though the Indivisible Conscious Light that IS Reality could possibly have a “right hand” (or any hand at all)

    Or is that Western “culture” has become so psychotically right-wing that all other alternatives to the ruling death-saturated paradigm, have been systematically destroyed?

    We are all BORG now–borrowing from Star Treck.

    Or “living” in the dreadfully sane “normal world” depicted in the Matrix Trilogy–while the replicant machines systematically destroy ALL forms of organic FEELING life, or authentic human culture (with all of its birthings and dyings and messiness).

    As for Zizek–he is just another clown-entertainer, and effectively works for AGENT SMITH from The Matrix Trilogy.

    Working to keep the entire dream (nightmare) machine functioning. Attempting to destroy anyone who dares to take the RED PILL. Even more so, working against the appearance of a transformative thresh-hold figure like NEO who has the capacity to break the collective trance/spell altogether.

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