Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Wendy Brown's Talk: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and the Nation-State

Yesterday I had the opportunity to join colleagues at UCLA's Mellon Workshop "Cultures in Transnational Perspective" and hear Wendy Brown discuss two recent essays she wrote: “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy” and “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-democratization”. Wendy's always been one of my favorite lecturers. I especially appreciate her efforts in grappling with the academic and political Zeitgeists of the moment, and to respect her readers and listeners enough to give them nuanced readings and acknowledge her audience's possible objections to her analyses. If it's a parry with her own communities of "Women's Studies" or "the Left" Wendy's comments tend to provoke, sometimes with the point of provocation and that's also for the good.

Brown's Argument
In these particular essays, Brown defines "neoliberalism" and explores its differences and historical overlaps with "neoconservativism." She proposes that the neoliberalism of today -- its exact moment of origin is not stated -- is different from earlier expressions of neoliberalism. The distinctly horrible effects of neoliberalism today is its absorption of the entire government, so that a market rationality pervades all decision-making, and citizens come to understand themselves as consumers and lose sight of democracy's less instrumental possibilities.

Brown identifies herself as a Marxist and with radical critiques of politics, but things today are bad enough that she calls for a return to old fashioned "classical liberalism." Basic values such as rights, equality, and the rule of law that Marxists ridiculed turn out to have some value in themselves and are crucial if democracy is to be re-established.

During the discussion Brown was asked a number of questions that seemed to press her to go further in the analytic distinctions she was making. Among these were 1) whether she was nostalgic for an era that perhaps never existed and, 2) whether she was sufficiently attentive to the meanings of "democracy."

As UCLA political theorist Juliet Williams pointed out in her comment (and in her terrific book Liberalism and the Limits of Power), a version of democracy is alive and well in popular culture. Top-rated shows such as "American Idol" and "America's Top Model" suggest Americans love to vote. What are the examples from U.S. American political history or from Brown's thought experiments that might instruct us on more desirable expressions of democracy? Brown replied this was a good question and said she might think further about how she was defining democracy.

Brown responded to questions on whether she was sufficiently attentive to the long history of U.S. politics that has been profoundly antiliberal, antiegalitarian, and unconcerned with the rule of law – slavery, prohiting women from voting, Manifest Destiny, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, Jim Crow, dropping the atom bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, assassinating leaders that threatened corporate interests abroad, etc. etc. etc.-- by agreeing, as she did in her essays, that the history of liberal democracy in the USA has been a troubled one.

I followed up by asking why, recognizing the family resemblance between earlier episodes violating liberal democratic ideals and those today, she chose to emphasize the differences and not the similarities. If generations of people who earlier expressed outrage over the events listed above could not push their government toward liberal democracy, why do we think we can do this?

Brown made the reasonable point that things today are different, and therefore she is calling for us to challenge the particularities of neoliberalism's current constellations to overthrow these now. A fair enough point, but it raises the question of criteria for deciding on what counts as “different enough” to justify this special attention to today's crises.

If it turns out that the violation of the rule of law in invading Iraq, for instance, has a lot in common with the violation of the rule of law in the Spanish-American War, when the United States seized Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam from Spain, then it seems politically urgent to question not only the broader institutional contours of government that make possible repeated violations of liberal democratic norms but to ask whether “liberal democracy” is a possibility for the United States or any country that doesn't live near ice floes.

Bringing Back in the Nation
Instead of a relatively recent tension between competing ideologies of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, which Brown maps out quite convincingly, is it possible that Hegel was right, and that market rationality and norms of a moral authoritarianism can happily coexist as the means of institutionalizing the particularities of the nation-state? If this is right, then the current phenomena Brown describes are merely the most recent examples of a citizenry that is happy to exist as citizens who are consumers and, if not democrats, then joined to the state as nationalists. Their membership is consequential not because they vote or because America stands for particular ideals, but because America is America, their America. This is Mike Rogin's argument in his essays on demonology, that it is U.S. nationalism and anti-Russianism that fuels the anti-communism, and not vice-versa.

Hegel himself believed that the social contract theories of individual rights were a joke and impossible. A country that expects its members to die for it – in other words, any political society based on birth—is not going to guarantee individual rights for the sake of the individual, and the same goes for democratic rights. As long as the nation is the source of people's identities and political commitments, liberal democracy may be not just an illogical theory, as Hegel believed, but also an impossible political goal.

(By the way, the url in the screenshot above is from the United States Postal Service, and is the redirect if you type in www.usps.gov, which is supposed to be the url for any government agency. Try typing in usps.gov and see what happens. The USPS is run by Congress and the .com in its url has always bugged me. I wrote a note on the complaint box a few weeks ago but no one replied. In the event, the desire of a government agency to represent itself as a private firm is one of many examples of the neoliberalism ethos Brown is describing.)

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