Academic strategery

The primary lecture I’m giving during my tour of the ends of the earth, “Neoliberalism’s Demons,” builds on my project in The Prince of This World. In that (still frustratingly forthcoming) book, I establish connections between key modern concepts and the theological problems that came to surround the devil, and in the various iterations of the lecture, I specify my claims further by connecting the most fully developed late-medieval theology of the devil with neoliberalism.

The interest this topic has generated made me ponder the possibility of trying to develop it into a short follow-up book. There are drawbacks to the idea, though. With a book-length treatment, even a relatively short one, I would probably have to wind up retreading a lot of the ground covered in The Prince of This World, and I’d also have to do a lot of “what is neoliberalism” exposition, which the academic world needs more of like it needs a hole in the head.

I’m now wondering if a journal article might be the more appropriate format. The idea may actually stand on its own more effectively as a shorter piece, while leading the inquisitive to The Prince of This World rather than replacing it in a dangerous supplement-type dynamic. It could even serve as the kind of thing that people could assign in classes, which would be helpful given that the book is probably not easily excerptable (or at least it doesn’t seem so to me). And best of all, I could finish it sooner, allowing me to maintain some momentum on my longer-term Trinity project rather than getting bogged down in the weeds of the vast and contentious literature on neoliberalism.

What do you think?

“Out of love — who could credit it? — out of love for the entrepreneur!”

Hillary Clinton’s ridiculous proposal to forgive student loans for certain entrepreneurs is ridiculous. It is also deeply revealing of the mainstream Democratic approach to policy — not just because it’s a classic Clinton-style micropolicy, but because it’s so individualistic. In the centrist worldview, the problem isn’t that entrepreneurs get outsize rewards. The problem is that potentially talented individuals don’t have the chance to compete for them on a level playing field. Student loans are both something that hold people back from entrepreneurship and something controlled by the federal government, so it’s “low-hanging fruit” for an innovation agenda.

If the Republicans are the party of inherited privilege — as shown by their most recent presidential candidates, all of whom have some combination of family money and political pedigree — the Democrats are the party of meritocratic privilege. They are the party of talented but disadvantaged people who gained access to opportunity and ran with it (cf. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama). Why do Democrats have such an affinity with Wall Street and Silicon Valley? Because they are, at least according to popular lore, the hotbed of meritocracy. Why do they place such emphasis on education as the sole possible lever of social justice? Because school is where merit rises to the top.

And why do they always suggest the most farcically small tweaks to the existing system? Because they believe in the system. The system is what allowed them to get ahead, and they know they deserve to get ahead. Maybe not everyone who deserves it gets ahead, and maybe — though this is a less urgent priority — not everyone who gets ahead deserves it, but broadly speaking, it’s a good system that promotes good people. When you’ve climbed the social ladder, the last thing you’re going to do is question the legitimacy of the ladder. The only thing you need to change is making sure more of those good individual people aren’t artificially held back from the first couple rungs.

One thing that definitely holds back individual striving is any form of collectivity. Union organization, systematic racial uplift, pulling entire communities out of poverty — that’s not on the agenda. If you are mired down in a poor urban neighborhood, the solution isn’t to make your neighborhood less poor, it’s to rig the education system so that the handful of talented people can figure out a way to get into the “best” school. This is why, for example, the current state of affairs could produce the first black president and still be such a rolling disaster for the black community. It’s not about building communities, it’s about giving people a chance to escape communities. It’s brain-drain as social justice.

Bregrets, I’ve had a few

Often, The Girlfriend and I are deadlocked on a decision where neither of us expresses a strong preference — for instance, which restaurant to go to. In those situations, we each pick a side and play rock-paper-scissors. Then, once the decision is “real,” we gauge how we actually feel about it and have the option to revise it.

The basic insight behind this method is that there is an unbridgable gap between the hypothetical and the real. We can’t really judge how we will feel about a choice, for instance, until we’ve actually made it and feel locked in. Merely entertaining the possibility does not predict our real reaction — in a weird way, in order to make an informed decision, we have to have already made it and know how it feels.

Hence I support the Brexit do-over referendum, on purely psychological grounds. The British public was clearly short-sighted in their decision because they were too focused on the — completely legitimate and justified — pleasure of defying the establishment and weren’t thinking about the longer-term consequences. In the cold light of day, they realize that the frisson of defiance is not worth it.

In short, now that UK voters know what the morning after actually feels like, they are finally in a position to make the decision for real. A second referendum would therefore be more legitimate than the original. Or to save time, Parliament could simply implement the policy that the public’s gut reaction to the Brexit vote clearly indicates.

The North Korea of Neoliberalism


To assume that the United Kingdom would leave the European Union in order to escape from neoliberalism is as naive and misleading as assuming that North Korea has historically kept its distance from the USSR and China as a way of escaping Communism. In both cases, we are dealing with a power that maintains an antagonistic and ambiguous relationship to its natural allies as a way of intensifying and purifying the ideological and disciplinary structure that unites them.

North Korea wanted the purest Communism, the truest instance of “socialism in one country.” The Juche ideology of “self-reliance” or “self-assertion” was of course delusional — as a small, out-of-the-way country, North Korea was always heavily reliant on trade and subsidies — but it has remained improbably powerful even up to this day. The comprehensive ideological apparatus and isolationism of North Korea has thus allowed its spectacularly unproductive economic system to endure far beyond the “classical” Communism of which it presents itself as the purest form.

Especially if Brexit succeeds, I could see a similar future for the United Kingdom as the North Korea of neoliberalism: British society organized as a vast, and startlingly unproductive, work-camp, governed by empty nationalistic slogans and rote pageantry. Even if and when neoliberalism is superceded, the UK would continue down its own unique path of self-punishment, scapegoating foreign interference until the last Secretary of State for Business, Innovation, and Skills works the last handicapped cancer patient to death.

Is climate change a plus for neoliberalism?

One of the biggest challenges for neoliberal public policy is creating artificial scarcity. Competitive markets are regarded by neoliberal policymakers as the ultimate horizon of human meaning and freedom, and creating markets requires creating scarcity in order to motivate competition. Hence the emphasis on strict enforcement of intellectual property laws, for example, to create artificial scarcity in an area where electronic reproducibility has created effectively infinite abundance.

With this in mind, I wonder if destructive climate change is actually a good thing from a neoliberal perspective. It has been difficult to implement neoliberal scarcity in countries with a memory of the postwar abundance and various forms of state generosity — much less to create competitive marketplaces in regions that still lived under more communal regimes. How much easier will it be when there is once again real scarcity, when the earth stops giving as much?

Think of all the salutary competition that will occur once we’re past the 2°C horizon! Think of the exciting new opportunities for technological solutionism — and intellectual property profiteering — that will open up! The problem all along has been that the earth keeps giving, but once we’ve permanently lowered its “carrying capacity,” we’ll finally be able to sort out the real winners and losers!

The arrested development of the “world come of age”

In his prison writings, Bonhoeffer begins to radically rethink Christianity for a world that no longer has need of religious guidance — a “world come of age” where human beings take responsibility for their own problems with no need to appeal to God. The immediate postwar era seems to bear out his prediction. In an increasingly secular world, humanity increasingly took consciously planned collective action aimed at solving previously intractable problems. Social democracy flourished in the West, for example, and the former colonies began to enjoy self-determination as they joined the community of nations. It was far from paradise, but one could entertain the possibility that humanity was increasingly coming to control its own collective destiny on any number of levels.

In the meantime, we seem to have suffered a regression into world-wide adolescence. Read the rest of this entry »

Policy debate in the age of neoliberalism

Fiscal austerity gets the most attention, but there’s another type of neoliberal austerity that is arguably just as important: possibility austerity. Every policy “debate” is backed into a corner by artificial constraints, where certain obvious solutions are ruled out in advance. For instance, once the idea of Medicare for all or some other single-payer solution is deemed “off the table,” our only options become continuing the status quo or something like Obamacare. Under those constraints, I obviously choose Obamacare — but why were those even the options to begin with?

It’s not just in domestic policy. Perhaps the crassest example of this paint-yourself-into-a-corner logic is the “debate” about drone strikes. Whenever someone criticizes Obama’s flying robot murder program, it’s all but inevitable that a sensible liberal centrist will come along and point out that it’s preferable to sending in ground troops. And maybe it is! The idea certainly has an initial plausibility when we reflect on the trainwreck of Iraq. But again, why are drone strikes and ground troops the only options? There’s one particularly tantalizing option that you never hear much about: simply not killing those people at all. They’re thousands upon thousands of miles away. There’s no evidence I’ve seen that any of them have terror cells based in the US. So just leave them alone. That option leads to no civilian deaths and reduces the deficit.

For my money, the most elaborate version of this logic is education reform. Here we start with the premise that urban public education is impossible. Funding cannot be increased, even though many urban areas are gentrifying at an astounding rate and hence there should be more property tax money available than ever before — but Tax-Increment Funding districts make sure that money never materializes. So basically things are just going to get worse and worse.

That’s the baseline. Within that set of constraints, you know a lot of children will inevitably be left behind, and so you figure out a way to make sure that the good old talented tenth has a way to escape (and join the mainstream power structure). You also might try a few hail-Mary passes, like setting aside public money to gamble that talented edupreneurs can devise some magical new mode of education, or cutting teacher salaries to make sure that everyone who goes into the field is motivated sheerly by love — hence presumably increasing your odds of an inspiring educator and an “O Captain My Captain” moment (although you shouldn’t stand on the desks because the maintenance budget was cut a while back).

In this context, the most heroic political gesture of the last decade came during Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security. Republicans admittedly aren’t as good at coming up with convincing constraints, and so the ruse was much more immediately transparent: either we switch to a private retirement system or else Social Security will go bankrupt and everyone will die. Nancy Pelosi rejected the privatization plan, and when pressed for an alternative, she said: “My alternative is nothing.” In a world of fake crises and forced choices, perhaps doing nothing is the most subversive gesture possible.

Posted in neoliberalism, politics. Comments Off on Policy debate in the age of neoliberalism

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