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

The melancholy of post-Marxism

In the excellent “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Wendy Brown writes:

Put simply, what liberal democracy has provided over the last two centuries is a modest ethical gap between economy and polity. Even as liberal democracy converges with many capitalist values (property rights, individualism, Hobbesian assumptions underneath all contract, etc.) the formal distinction it establishes between moral and political principles on the one hand and the economic order on the other has also served as insulation against the ghastliness of life exhaustively ordered by the market and measured by market values. It is this gap that a neo-liberal political rationality closes as it submits every aspect of political and social life to economic calculation.

This is right, but phrased this way it risks idealizing liberal democracy in just the way Brown wants to avoid. The separation of the political from the economic here looks like an opposition, in which the political is not merely autonomous from the economic, but capable of resisting and controlling it. The question is, though, where does this separation of the political from the economic come from? Poulantzas argues that the source of this separation is itself economic: the autonomy of the political is the specific form taken in capitalism of the interrelation of the economic and the political (although it’s not usually read this way, this is Marx’s point in “On the Jewish Question”).

This desire to defend the autonomy of the political from a supposed encroachment by neoliberalism is an example of the melancholy attachment to liberal democracy that Brown criticizes: what was once an object of left critique—the imbrication of liberal democracy in the capitalist economy—is repressed to allow a hyperbolic defense of this ambivalently missed object. The melancholy attachment to politics is a consistent theme of post-Marxism: certainly in Laclau and Mouffe, probably in Rancière, and perhaps also in Badiou and Žižek. The problem is that it misunderstands what is needed for a reconceptualization of left politics adequate to the changed political circumstances of neoliberalism; the difference is not a matter of a greater or lesser autonomy of the political; rather, we face a different form of the autonomy of the political as a form of its imbrication in the economic.