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

For a new economism

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