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

Politics against markets?

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?