The essence of neoliberalism
by Pierre Bourdieu December 1998
This tutelary theory is a pure mathematical fiction. From the start it has been founded on a formidable abstraction.
That said, this “theory” that is desocialised and dehistoricised at its roots has, today more than ever, the means of making itself true and empirically verifiable. In effect, neoliberal discourse is not just one discourse among many. Rather, it is a “strong discourse” – the way psychiatric discourse is in an asylum, in Erving Goffman’s analysis (2). It is so strong and so hard to combat only because it has on its side all of the forces of a world of relations of forces, a world that it contributes to making what it is.
The globalisation of financial markets, when joined with the progress of information technology, ensures an unprecedented mobility of capital.
Thus we see how the neoliberal utopia tends to embody itself in the reality of a kind of infernal machine, whose necessity imposes itself even upon the rulers. Like the Marxism of an earlier time, with which, in this regard, it has much in common, this utopia evokes powerful belief – the free trade faith – not only among those who live off it, such as financiers, the owners and managers of large corporations, etc., but also among those, such as high-level government officials and politicians, who derive their justification for existing from it.
Taylor, C. (2017). Our evolving agenda. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 43(3), 274-275. doi:10.1177/0191453716680433
Neo-Kantian ethics, for its part, tends to separate issues of the good life from what it considers the central questions of justice.
The reigning neo-liberal ideology, and the order it lauds, is meant to produce a maximization of wealth, and hence of means to fulfil our goals, without asking in what ways our frenetic attempts to increase GNP run counter to some of our most important goals: solidarity, the ability to discern and pursue a truly meaningful and fulfilling life, in keeping with our endowment and inclinations. We are either induced to neglect these in favour of playing our part in increasing GNP and/or we never pause to consider questions about what kind of life is best for us and, above all, what we owe to each other in this department
One of the central issues that arises in this context is that of democracy. After 1945, and then 1989, and then again in 2011 with the Arab Spring, we had the sense that democracy was on the march in history. But not only have many of the new departures been disappointing – Russia, Turkey, Egypt – but democracy is beginning to decay in its historic heartlands, where it has been operative for more than a century.
Inequalities are growing; in fact, democracy has been sacrificed to the supposed path of more rapid growth, as defined by neo-liberalism. This has led to a sense of impotence among non-elites, which has meant a drop in electoral participation, which in turn increases the power of money in politics, which leads to an intensified sense of impotence, and so on.
Taylor, C. (1998, October). The Dynamics of Democratic Exclusion. Journal of Democracy. p. 143.
Liberal democracy is a great philosophy of inclusion. It is rule of the people, by the people, and for the people, and today the “people” is taken to mean everybody, without the unspoken restrictions that formerly excluded peasants, women, or slaves. Contemporary liberal democracy offers the spectacle of the most inclusive politics in human history. Yet there is also something in the dynamic of democracy that pushes toward exclusion. This was allowed full rein in earlier democracies, as among the ancient republics, but today is a cause of great malaise.
The basic mode of legitimation of democratic states implies that they are founded on popular sovereignty. Now, for the people to be sovereign, it needs to form an entity and have a personality. This need can be expressed in the following way: The people is supposed to rule; this means that its members make up a decision-making unit, a body that takes joint decisions through a consensus, or at least a majority vote, of agents who are deemed equal and autonomous. It is not “democratic” for some citizens to be under the control of others. This might facilitate decision making, but it is not democratically legitimate.
In other words, a modern democratic state demands a “people” with a strong collective identity. Democracy obliges us to show much more solidarity and much more commitment to one another in our joint political project than was demanded by the hierarchical and authoritarian societies of yesteryear.
Thinkers in the civic humanist tradition, from Aristotle through Hannah Arendt, have noted that free societies require a higher level of commitment and participation than despotic or authoritarian ones. Citizens have to do for themselves, as it were, what the rulers would otherwise do for them. But this will happen only if these citizens feel a strong bond of identification with their political community, and hence with their fellow citizens.
successive waves of immigrants were perceived by many U.S. citizens of longer standing as a threat to democracy and the American way of life. This was the fate of the Irish beginning in the 1840s, and later in the century of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. And of course, the long-established black population, when it was given citizen rights for the first time after the Civil War, was effectively excluded from voting through much of the Old South up until the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
Multiculturalism and Postmodernism
For although conservatives often lump “postmodernists” and “multiculturalists” together with “liberals,” nothing could be less fair. In fact, the “postmodernists” themselves attack the unfortunate liberals with much greater gusto than they direct against the conser-vatives.
the two do have something in common, and so the targets partly converge. The discourse of the victim-accuser is ultimately rooted in certain philosophical sources that the postmodernists share with procedural liberalism—in particular, a commitment to negative liberty and/or a hostility to the Herder-Humboldt model of the associative bond. That is why policies framed in the language of “postmodernism” usually share certain properties with the policies of their procedural liberal enemies.
The struggle to redefine our political life in order to counteract the dangers and temptations of democratic exclusion will only intensify in the next century (My note: 21st century). There are no easy solutions, no universal formulas for success in this struggle. But at least we can try to avoid falling into the shadow or illusory ways of thinking. This means, first, that we must understand the drive to exclusion (as well as the vocation of inclusion) that democratic politics contains; and second, that we must fight free of some of the powerful philosophical illusions of our age. This essay is an attempt to push our thought a little ahead in both these directions.
Taylor, C., & And, O. (1994). Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition.
Taylor, C. A. (1996). Theorizing Practice and Practicing Theory: Toward a Constructive Analysis of Scientific Rhetorics. Communication Theory (10503293), 6(4), 374-387.
Taylor, C., & Jennings, I. (2005). The Immanent Counter-Enlightenment: Christianity and Morality. South African Journal Of Philosophy, 24(3), 224-239.
a passage from Paul Bénichou’s fa mous work Mo rales du grand siècle: ‘Hu man kind re presses its mis ery when ever it can; and at the same time for gets that hu mil i at ing mo ral ity by which it had con demned life, and in do ing so had made a vir tue of ne ces sity.2 ’ In this ver sion, the la tent hu man ist mo ral ity suc ceeds in es tab – lish ing it self, and in so do ing helps to throw the theo log i cal-as cetic code onto the scrap heap. On this view, it is as if the hu man ist mo ral ity had al ways been there, wait ing for the chance to over throw its op pres sive pre de ces sor.
The re la tion ship was something like the fol low ing: As long as one lived in the en – chanted world, where the weather-bells chimed, one felt one self to be in a world full of threats, vul ner a ble to black magic in all its forms. In this world God was for most be liev ers the source of a pos i tive power, which was able to de feat the pow ers of evil. God was the chief source of coun ter-, or white, magic. He was the fi nal guar an tor that good would tri umph in this world of man i fold spir its and pow ers. For those com pletely ab sorbed in this world, it was prac ti cally im pos si ble not to be – lieve in God. Not to be lieve would mean de vot ing one self to the devil. A small mi nor – ity of truly re mark able – or per haps truly des per ate – peo ple did in deed do this. But for the vast ma jor ity there was no ques tion whether one be lieved in God or not – the pos i – tive force was as real a fact as the threats it coun ter acted. The ques tion of be lief was a ques tion of trust and mem ber ship rather than one of the ac cep tance of par tic u lar doc – trines. In this sense they were closer to the con text of the gos pels.
more on philosophy in this IMS blog
It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity.
we now live in Hayek’s world, as we once lived in Keynes’s.
He begins by assuming that nearly all (if not all) human activity is a form of economic calculation, and so can be assimilated to the master concepts of wealth, value, exchange, cost – and especially price. Prices are a means of allocating scarce resources efficiently, according to need and utility, as governed by supply and demand. For the price system to function efficiently, markets must be free and competitive. Ever since Smith imagined the economy as an autonomous sphere, the possibility existed that the market might not just be one piece of society, but society as a whole. Within such a society, men and women need only follow their own self-interest and compete for scarce rewards. Through competition, “it becomes possible”, as the sociologist Will Davies has written, “to discern who and what is valuable”.
Hayek built into neoliberalism the assumption that the market provides all necessary protection against the one real political danger: totalitarianism.
To prevent this, the state need only keep the market free.
This last is what makes neoliberalism “neo”. It is a crucial modification of the older belief in a free market and a minimal state, known as “classical liberalism”. In classical liberalism, merchants simply asked the state to “leave us alone” – to laissez-nous faire. Neoliberalism recognised that the state must be active in the organisation of a market economy. The conditions allowing for a free market must be won politically, and the state must be re-engineered to support the free market on an ongoing basis.
Even his conservative colleagues at the University of Chicago – the global epicentre of libertarian dissent in the 1950s – regarded Hayek as a reactionary mouthpiece, a “stock rightwing man” with a “stock rightwing sponsor”, as one put it.
Milton Friedman who helped convert governments and politicians to the power of Hayek’s Big Idea. But first he broke with two centuries of precedent and declared that economics is “in principle independent of any particular ethical position or normative judgments” and is “an ‘objective’ science, in precisely the same sense as any of the physical sciences”.
The internet is personal preference magnified by algorithm; a pseudo-public space that echoes the voice already inside our head. Rather than a space of debate in which we make our way, as a society, toward consensus, now there is a mutual-affirmation apparatus banally referred to as a “marketplace of ideas”.
“A taste is almost defined as a preference about which you do not argue,” the philosopher and economist Albert O Hirschman once wrote. “A taste about which you argue, with others or yourself, ceases ipso facto being a taste – it turns into a value.”