Responses to Neoliberalism

To summarize: Boltanski and Chiapello (B&C), like most analysts of neoliberalism, offer a fairly convincing portrait of the changes it has wrought.  Specifically, neoliberalism has 1) reorganized the “firm” and its productive processes, focusing in on the “core” mission or product, while relying on “supply chains” for the delivery of ancillary services (cleaning, payroll etc.) and of needed parts.  The  result is high salaries and (paradoxically) job security (with benefits) for the most mobile and skilled workers—and “contract” positions for the less skilled, whose lack of mobility is exploited.  In short, more and more work is “outsourced” to companies that must compete to get that work by driving down wages. Such “outsourcing” is both domestic and global. Jobs that can be moved to overseas locations where wages are lower are. Jobs like cleaning, health care, social services that must be done on site in the “developed” country are outsourced to service firms.

2) Even as the “firm” gets smaller in terms of its “core” workers, it goes global (or transnational) in order to gain the mobility required to successfully compete.  Globalization means a) hiring labor or contracting with service firms anywhere in the world where costs can be driven down, b) sheltering profits and assets in locales that allow for the evasion of taxes, c) creating credible threats of capital flight and enabling blackmail of governments for “concessions” and “incentives” in return for locating the firm there, and d) continues the relentless search for new markets that has been characteristic of capitalism from the start.

3) B&C note, without giving much emphasis to, the ways in which neoliberalism “commodifies” activities, services, and (can we say) “affects” that were previously deemed private.  Examples would be care of elderly family members or of children (old age homes and day care centers) and love relations (Match, Tinder, Grinder and the rest).  Anything and everything can be monetized.  This feature of neoliberalism can be seen as simply an intensification of capitalism’s in-built need to “grow”—with the invention of new markets along with the more complete exploitation of existing markets a signal “imperative” of capitalism.

4) B&C also note, but say very little about (and this is a fault), the growth of “finance capitalism” within the neoliberal framework.  For Giovanni Arrighi in The Long Twentieth Century, the resort to finance capital (i.e. the move from a reliance on selling actual goods to a reliance on “financial products” as the major source of profit) is a recurrent feature of “mature” capitalist economies.  The finance phase, in his view, marks the “end” of hegemony as capitalism moves its prime site from one locale to another.  In his schema, Italy, then Holland, then Britain, and then the US served as capitalism’s center.  Our current financial era would, thus, mark the end of US dominance and be setting the stage for Chinese hegemony.  Such transitions, in Arrighi’s way of telling the tale, are inevitable because capitalism is never the fully mobile and dispersed entity that B&C appear to think it has become.  Rather, capitalism’s competitive mode means that it combines with nationalism to breed conflict oriented to fighting over which country will be the world’s dominant economic power.  The transition period from one hegemon to the next is particularly violent, so we should expect a very turbulent next 50 years if Arrighi is right.  B&C, on the other hand, appear to expect/accept a transnational financial system, with multinational banks and firms (like Goldman Sachs) presiding over it—banks and firms with no particular location and no significant national loyalties. Thus, B&C are among those who see neoliberalism as marking the decline in power and relevance of the national state.  Capital is more powerful than the state.

5) Finally, B&C argue that the “new spirit” of capitalism, the motivating story that neoliberalism tells in order to win consent and to get people moving, is the by-now familiar one about “human capital.”  It is a story that, if spun right, is about “freedom.”  You, the worker, are no longer tied to a firm or to a job.  You are free to develop your talents and interests, to move from one firm to the next, or even to strike out on your own as an entrepreneur.  You are in control of your own destiny, in a world in which creativity, innovation, daring, and energy are rewarded.  Self-fashioning is the challenge and the thrill.  Lean in.  And just so that won’t seem entirely isolating and asocial, a premium skill to be developed is the ability to work in teams since it is the “network” and “networking” that are the keys to productivity.

B&C are clear that neoliberalism augments suffering.  It creates many more losers than winners, it increases inequality while it shreds the safety net.  It is haunted by the fact that it celebrates the creation of the relationships that are the core of “networks”—and hence the interpersonal skills that leads one to have multiple relationships—while retaining an awareness that “cashing in” on relationships renders the whole notion of such friendships suspect.  Trade mars everything it touches, wrote Thoreau—and neoliberalism is energetically striving to mar everything, to turn everything to account.  Dissidents will lose out, but there do remain refuseniks, those who insist on holding some things aloof from the market.

So what kinds of resistance do B&C imagine?  Here we run up against the paradox that the most radical positions are so often very conservative.  Radicals are all about what has been lost.  (Or, alternatively, we can say that we are facing a crisis of the radical imagination, that the lack of any new ideas is a deep and paralyzing failure.  Radicals are, at least right now and perhaps always, fighting the last war.  B&C do talk about the ways in which the labor movement, in particular, was caught entirely off-guard by the innovations of neoliberalism and, hence, proved powerless to stop them.)  It is certainly true that loss aversion provides a powerful affective tool for radical movements.  It is easier to get people out into the streets to protest something that has been taken away from them than to get them motivated by an image of something they have never had.

So: B&C spend some time talking about “intrinsic value,” basically appealing to a sense that some things—art, love, family, friends, health—should not be commodified.  A rear-guard action if there ever was one. (I don’t mean to sneer here.  Holding some things apart from the market is central to sanity and happiness.  But the issue is how to “politicize” this desire.  Exhortation is not going to do the trick.)

B&C also rely on that old standard: the in-built “contradictions” of capitalism that render it unstable.  They make the usual apocalyptic noises about the coming crisis, that moment when people will just have suffered too much and will do something, they know not what, but something to force some changes.  We know how that story goes.  Capitalism has weathered its contradictions, and the pronouncement of such threats of its inevitable demise, with aplomb for quite some time now.

More convincing is the way in which B&C talk about the need to translate “indignation” into a program.  Here they have something fairly concrete to say.  It goes like this.  Any system has a number of “tests”—which can be best understood as sites of selection where the distribution of goods and rewards is determined.  An obvious example is admission to college or the processes that decide who gets an advertised job.  In order to be deemed just, those subjected to such tests in any given system must believe the tests are “fair.”  That is, the test must actually a) successfully search for the talents/features relevant to the reward in question (i.e. the SAT must be a reasonably accurate indicator of intelligence) and b) only make its judgment on the relevant talent/features (one’s physical appearance or race or religion are not to be considered in deciding admission to college).

Thus, “tests” are crucial sites for conflict within any social system.  They are places where injustices will be identified and where reform (the establishment of tests that are more fair) will concentrate its efforts.  Indignation can be channeled into concrete action when directed toward the critique and reform of “tests.”  Crucially, B&C recognize that tests are formalized into “institutions” and given some bite by being legally installed.  In other words, indignation gains force, an ability to have an impact, when “collectivized” through the establishment/maintenance of institutions and acquiring the power to sanction by being written into law.  “Statutes express what can be established about the position of individuals for a certain length of time and in a certain space, independently of how their interaction with others unfolds at any given moment.  They presuppose reference to something like institutions capable not only of organizing tests that last, in such a way as to stabilize expectations and define their rhythm, but also of exercising an external constraint in the form of obligations and sanctions” (469-70).

The language here is all about restraining mobility, of creating stability and rules that “last.”  Capitalism, in other words, must be held accountable to certain obligations.  It has to deliver certain goods—primarily the satisfaction of the material needs of a whole designated population—in order to be given its legitimacy within the set of laws that enable its existence.  “It remains the case,” B&C write, “that embarking on this road presupposes pretty much abandoning a quest for liberation defined as absolute autonomy, simultaneously free of any interference from others and any form of obligation laid down by an external authority” (470).

We are returned here to the political, to the need for the state.  Capitalism is not going to restrain itself—and it will sing its siren song of liberation, of self-fashioning, of untrammeled freedom, all the while.  For B&C, unions were crucial because they provided a way to focalize indignation—and to use its energy in opposition to the firm.  “The union also has the advantage of providing points of support outside the firm—places for meeting, pooling information and reflecting, for the development of beliefs different from those put forward by employers, work methods, a socialization of means of resistance, training in negotiating—to which an isolated union representative does not have access” (274-5).

Again, we are on familiar ground.  In the absence of unions, the two candidates to take their place are the political party (Lenin continues to stalk the room) and social movements (whether “new” or not).  Neither seems particularly well suited to address workplace tyranny and its many abuses.  Neither is “in” the firm the way a union was.  Still, it would be ahistorical as well as naïve to forget that only the state’s establishment of various labor laws (length of the working day, safety regulations, minimum wage laws, child labor laws etc.) cemented the gains unions fought for.  The union must negotiate with capital—but it also must have the state, with its legal powers, come into the fray at some point.  Law is not utterly fixed, of course, since it is constantly moving in relation to case law.  But law is relatively fixed in relation to capitalism’s endless dynamism—and must be mobilized to constrain capitalism’s restless pursuit of profit.

Finally, all of this resistance to neoliberalism (as to any form of capitalism) must be based, B&C argue, on a theory, an account, of exploitation.  Critique, they insist, does change things.  Capitalism must respond to critique—either by undertaking actual reforms or by “displacement” (which means the establishment of new practices that sidestep the abuses that critique has identified.)  The “social critique” (contrasted to the “artistic critique” in their schema) focuses on issues of justice—and, hence, will tell a story of exploitation.  Basically, that story will indicate those whose efforts, whose contributions, are not adequately rewarded.

What B&C fail to notice is that the justice critique can come in two forms.  The leftist version highlights inequality—and pushes toward the notion that all should be rewarded equally.  In many versions, this becomes the notion that all have a “right” to the basic necessities to lead a flourishing life.  This logic leads current leftists to the idea of a “universal basic income.”  But the rightist version of this critique often takes the form that the “wrong people” are being rewarded.  There is no argument against inequality here.  It is just that I am not being rewarded, while some undeserving other is being rewarded.  Inequality is great; it is just that whites should be the ones on top, not those Jews, immigrants, or blacks who are parasites and squirreling away what is rightfully mine.

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