Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

No on 90

California is, politically, an odd place. It has a reputation as one of the “bluest” states (which, in America’s curious chromo-semantics means “left wing”); but it’s also a home of libertarianism, which coexists with the left in Silicon Valley and Los Angeles. This combination makes California an interesting testing-ground for neo-liberalism, a form of right-wing politics adapted to post-New Deal (or post-Fordist) politics. One of the first moves here was Proposition 13, which capped tax rates, with predictable disasterous consequences not just for particular public services in California, but for the ability of the state to function as a political agent at all. We now face a new neo-liberal experiment, Proposition 90, which, in the guise of a “progressive” reform of eminent domain, would require any administration within the state to compensate property owners if their property lost value as a result of legislative measures. This is a staggering attack on the very idea of politics: the community will now have to pay in order to enage in collective decision making. In this, it is neo-liberalism in its purest form.

I was recently re-reading Alexander Gershenkron’s “Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective,” (one of the classics of comparative political economy) and it struck me that it is an argument in a classically Machiavellian tradition: Gershenkron gives lessons to statesmen about how they can take advantage of their peculiar historial (in this case, economic) circumstances, how the “backward” countries can master fortune. This is very different to the advice that was given by economists to Eastern European countries. There’s a fantastically offensive article by Jan Prybyla in US government propaganda journal Problems of Communism which very succinctly expresses the fact that the neo-liberal hostility to communism is a hostility to politics as such:

The socialist system is non-economic or, more precisely, anti-economic, in the sense that it does not address the economizing problem but pursues (political, military, public security) ends of its own.

Persuing political ends! How ghastly! More generally, the neo-liberal discourse is structured around a construal of “politics” which makes it synonymous with “capricious” or “fanciful”; the exact opposite of what politics was for Machiavelli. Neo-liberalism’s attitude to politics is what k-punk has called “capitalist realism.” One of the things that is odd about capitalist realism, and this is particularly visible in stuff that was written in 1989 or 1990, is how strident it is: the criticism of “unreal” politics is not simply that it is ineffective, but that, somehow, to reject capitalist reality is scandalously immoral. If capitalism is real and politics unreal, why spend so much time attacking politics?

Neo-liberalism is hysterical in the Lacanian sense: the hysteric tells the truth about their desire in the guise of being indifferent to it. Likewise, the apparent rejection of politics by neo-liberals is in fact a positive political program. As Wendy Brown points out, neoliberalism is not an economic theory at all, but a political rationality aimed at eroding collective decision making and “extending and disseminating market values to all institutional and social action.” Perhaps we can take this further, seeing neo-liberalism’s insistence on the capriciousness of politics as a disguised acceptance of what Negri’s sees as the central political effect of post-Fordism, in which “the law of value functions only as command,” and so “the state appears as mere violence and arbitrariness” (from “Crisis of the Planner State: Communism and Revolutionary Organization”).

What I’ve only recently become aware of is how much this neo-liberal rationality has moved into political science. For example, Robert Bates’ Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies looks, as the subtitle implies, as if it is going to give us an account of the way in which political actors choose agricultural policies based on their different circumstances. In fact, however, Bates’s book is an account of the ways in which these political choices must always and necessarily fail, because of their attempts to act against the “reality” of the market. For Bates, politics becomes a kind of tragedy in bad faith, in which any kind of political action is doomed to failure; the point neo-liberals always elide, of course, is that this failure is not somehow fated, but is a result, precisely, of neo-liberal political action.