Monday, March 3, 2008

If the Prime Minister were real estate: Mourning Liberal Democracy

Wendy Brown, Professor of Political Science at University of California, is always interesting to read. I've been reading her essay 'Neoliberalism and the end of Liberal democracy' again (properly) recently in an effort to better understand neoliberalism as a political rationality. Brown writes that,

neoliberalism is not simply a set of economic policies; it is not only about facilitating free trade, maximizing corporate profits, and challenging welfarism. Rather, neoliberalism carries a social analysis that, when deployed as a form of governmentality, reaches from the soul of the citizen-subject to education policy to practices of empire. Neoliberal political rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarliy focused on the economy; it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player.

(from Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics, Princeton Up, 2005: 39-40 emphasis in original. [see sidelink for a related essay 'American Nightmare' in pdf form])

An illustration of how this political rationality operates in contemporary Australian broadsheet commentary is given today by David Burchell, a lecturer in the school of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney. Burchell admittedly is writing in the dominant organ of neoliberalism in Australia and would be shaping his language for this paper and its audience.Yet as a historian of the Australian Labor Party and also an academic intellectual his essay, perhaps surprisingly, participates in the operation of neoliberalism, as Brown defines it, by 'extending and disseminating . . . market values to all institutions and social action'.

In 'Intellectuals and Ideologues'Burchell begins his essay with the fantasy-analogy,

If the PM were real estate, he'd be in an auction. And there would be a bevy of anxious professionals, all rectangular spectacles, sharp haircuts and Calvin Klein leisurewear, their hands fluttering skywards as they fought off rival bids for those charming leadlight windows and the gleaming courtyard.
On one side of the nature strip, by the shrubbery, you'd find Robert Manne and his fellow contributors to that quaint epistolary novel, Dear Mr Rudd, all furiously trying to attract the auctioneer's attention so that they can "resume the conversation between public intellectuals and government". (Whatever exactly that means.) Over the way, beside the Sulo bins and recycling containers, you'd find the conservative columnists and the business writers, each lifting a knowing finger nosewards as they bid for a slice of Rudd's inherent cautiousness and conservatism.

That auctioning the PM is an idea that seems so reasonable is an index of the ascendance of neoliberalism as political rationality. That Burchell continues to employ the language of market-talk throughout the essay is indicative of the embedded nature of public intellectuals like Burchell (or maybe Burchell aspires to the ranks of those like Paul Kelly Guy Rundle has named power intellectuals [Arena essay link]) who seek to judge other public intellectuals by pretending that common sense is based on market valuations and all other judgement is elite moral vanity.


But government is a voracious and furious business that allows precious little space for critical reflection. When it does, it presents the universe in a different light to that refracted through the essentially negative cast of the academic mind.

I'm not sure if Burchell would meet those attributes of the power intellectual that Rundle finds in Paul Kelly: "Kelly constructs himself as the practical type, the empiricist, connected to power and aware of its complexities, over against the abstract and alienated intellectuals." Burchell would seem to be an aspirational power intellectual: not embedded like Kelly, but working in the same register of pragmatic, op-ed empiricism, and with a nose for the smell of elites both social liberal and economic rationalist. As Gary Sauer-Thompson writes today over at his Philosophy blog,

That 'hybridity' [of neoliberalism with social demorcay in Tony Blair's New Labor] sounds just like Rudd Labor in Australia. My judgement, after Rudd Labor's 100 days in office, is that the neo-liberal project is the dominant one.

The point of Burchell's essay is more acute than the focus I'm placing on the neoliberal language used in it. Indeed, Burchell argues that economic intellectuals are, like the social liberals in Dear Mr Rudd[pdf extract], ideologues too. Yet, in order to make his points Burchell, as Wendy Brown argues, naturalises the social analysis of neoliberal political rationality:
People can try to own a piece of the PM, in short, but it's not obvious why he would sell. He owes nobody anything. He's fully capitalised.

If the policy solutions to the social and economic problems that Burchell advocates are best left to the policy makers who are at the centre of selling solutions in the marketplace of Australian society then commentators like Burchell seem to believe their role is to promote the naturalization of neoliberal rationality, rather than to question its bases; to figure public discourse in terms of 'capital', 'buying' and 'selling': the only true means of determining value. The similarity with Paul Kelly's naturalisation of the market as the final arbiter of value is worrying.

Later in her essay Brown, switches from defintions of neoliberalism to the implications of its ascendance for the Left. Drawing on Walter Benjamin's notion of Left Melancholy [link to Brown essay from 1999 invoking Benjamin's concept], Brown sets out the psychology of the waning of Liberal Democracy for a Left that has always formed much of its identity in relation to Liberalism: its economic, cultural, social and political institutions and creeds. Brown argues that Liberal Democracy is becoming residual and that

[w]e are not simply in the throes of a right-wing or conservative postitioning within liberal democracy but rather at the threshold of a different politial formation, one that conducts and legitimates itself on different grounds from liberal democracy even as it does not immediately divest itself of the name. (56)

The ascendance of the formation of neoliberalism and the passing of that of Liberal Democracy produces a loss and,

a twofold challenge for the Left. First, it compels us to consider the implications of losing liberal democracy and especially its implications for our own work by learning what the Left has depended on and demanded from liberal democracy, which aspects of it have formed the basis of our critiques of it, rebellions against it, and identity based on differentiation from it. We may also need to mourn liberal democracy, avowing our ambivalent attachment to it, our need for it, our mix of love and hostility toward it. The aim of the work is framed by the second challenge, that of devising left strategies for challenging the neoliberal political-economic formation now taking shape and an intelligent left countervision to this formation. (57)

Burchell's essay does invoke the name of social democrat HC 'Nugget' Coombs as a better model for engaged intellectuals seeking to influence government policy. But if we take seriously Brown's analysis, then in the current conjuncture an imitation of Coombs' politics would be hard pressed to find the bedrock Keynesian-Welfare state ground upon which his liberalism worked. And in seeking to participate in the polemics surrounding the culture wars from an academic perspective by deploying the key motiffs of neoliberal political rationality Burchell undercuts any claims to produce vistas from which a left countervision might be seen: the social democratic values Burchell advocates are subsumed by the neoliberal language from which they are advanced and figured.

Rather than talking about governance in terms of "the health of the engine", as Burchell argues should be the goal of government, any Left Countervision might talk of the health and value of bodies: human, terrestrial, social, animal, of water. And a left countervision might be accompanied by a Left eurhythmia, where the moving human body is valued, rather than the growth-machine for which it is to be sacrificed, and spat out as waste.

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