Power to the People

The hated ruler has been deposed and his entourage dispersed. Now a huge task lies ahead for the people – the DEMOS –  to restore the public institutions of democracy and democracy itself. Before tackling the mess left behind by the Harper 'team', it is essential that we understand the neoliberal ideology and fanaticism that drove it. Undoing the Demos is an excellent place to start.

Undoing the Demos - Wendy Brown, Zone Books, 2015


Our view of the world is cluttered with innumerable projects, issues and organizations, all competing for our attention, which we may identify as diverse manifestations of the economic program of neoliberalism. But picture a horizon consisting of a lot of peaks emerging from the foggy bottom lands. When the fog lifts, we will be able to see the common ground which lies beneath these peaks. Wendy Brown analyzes this common ground as the driver of neoliberalism’s pervasive demolition of democracy.

Rather than think of neoliberalism as just an economic policy, Brown says it is important to recognize neoliberalism as a “modality of governance and an order of reason”, a rationality. It is now a global phenomenon which has changed over time as ‘economy’ has transitioned from a productive to an increasingly financialized form. As neoliberal rationality financialized everything, it remade the human being into human capital. At this point, homo politicus becomes homo oeconomicus. We are transformed from citizens of a democracy, to economic functions. Instead of persons, we are capitals, human resources, concerned not about public things and common good, but our own market value.

Brown builds on the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault who emphasizes that in neoliberal reason, competition replaces exchange as the market’s root principle. This means that all market actors are rendered as little capitals, rather than as owners, workers or consumers, competing with rather than exchanging with each other; equality ceases to be the character of our relationship with one another.

“When everything is capital, labour disappears as a category, as does its collective form, class”, along with economic solidarity in any form. Defined as capital, persons have to behave according to the principles of capital and engage in accumulation, which requires the deprivation of others. Growing inequity becomes normative; the economy becomes the objective of politics, and politics becomes the practice of ‘growing’ the economy: “economic growth is the state’s social policy.”(64) The well-being of the people is not a consideration.

“As the legitimacy and task of the state becomes bound exclusively to economic growth, global competitiveness, and maintenance of a strong credit rating, liberal democratic justice concerns recede.”    

When there is only homo oeconomicus, and the political has only to do with economy, citizenship concerned with public things and the common good vanishes to the extent that neoliberalism eliminates the very idea of a people, a demos “asserting its collective political sovereignty”.(65)
Having defined its citizens as capitals, neoliberal states will relieve themselves as much as possible of the cost of developing and reproducing human capital, substituting “individually debt-financed education for public higher education . . . individually purchased services for public services, privately [corporately] sponsored research for public research and knowledge, and fees for use of public infrastructure.”... all in the interests of the welfare – i.e. economic growth – of the state.

Brown draws on Aristotle to assert that the ancients ascribed a political nature to mankind: “living together in a deliberately governed fashion, to self-rule in a settled association . . . always tending to the good of the governed with wealth never to become an end in itself.” (87-89)

As neoliberalism becomes a governing political rationality, the term ‘governance’ “has acquired an increasingly central place in politics, business, public agencies and nonprofits to the point where governance has become neoliberalism’s primary administrative form.” (122) However 'governance' may be defined, it does signify “a departure from the centrality of the state in organizing society,”(122) described by some as ‘governing without government’ which dissolves distinctions between state, corporate business, nonprofit and NGO endeavors. Who or what agency, then. is actually defining issues, addressing conflicts and exercising power?

Further obfuscating the real nature of the games that are being played are the ‘tools’ of ‘benchmarking’ and ‘best practices’, with their emphasis on “soft power, consensus, teamwork, market metrics and rejection of external regulation.” Brown’s trenchant comment is, “Benchmarking dispenses with history as a form of knowledge”.(136) I’m a little too old to have ever really been subjected to these practices, but Brown spells out why I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea that certain practices are the best, regardless of the context of their application. The assumption of neoliberal marketization is that the aim of every organization – including schools, universities and business schools – is the same: competitive advantage in a marketplace.
Brown illustrates this with the 2010 decision of the U. S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case which gave corporations, as “fictional persons”, equal standing before the law as citizens. The judgement “remakes the political sphere as a market and remakes homo politicus as homo oeconomicus. In the political sphere, individuals, corporations, and other associations are all operating to enhance their competitive positioning and capital value.” (155) [Brown's further discussion of the ramifications of the U.S. Court decision elaborates on its significance for democracy, the body politic and public interest.]
‘Human resources’ is a commonplace term that slips off our tongues often enough that we probably never think about what it actually signifies. I’m sure that Wendy Brown would class it with ‘human capital’ as an indicator of neoliberalism’s transformation of homo politicus into homo oeconomicus. In her last chapter, titled “Educating Human Capital”, Brown, herself a seasoned academic, argues passionately that neoliberal rationality has turned higher education into training for maximization of human capital development – education as an investment in one’s market value with the help of student loans and personal debt.

“The saturation of higher education by market rationality has converted higher education from a social and public good to a personal investment in individual futures, futures construed mainly in terms of earning capacity.”(181)  

Brown adds that “the loss of broadly accessible and affordable higher education threatens democracy itself,” leaving citizens less able to understand the powers and problems that should engage them.

It is not just public education that neoliberalism would devalue and privatize, it is public goods of any kind, from recreational facilities and universities to city parks and libraries, roads, and sidewalks. Neoliberalism would have the users/consumers of all these public goods and services pay for them with user fees, as with the toll roads being built by private business but financed, at great cost, by the state, i.e. the public, the demos.

Indeed, Brown says, neoliberal rationality recognizes “the subject only as human capital, making incoherent the idea of an engaged and educated citizen.”(183)
“At the triumphal ‘end of history’ in the West, most have ceased to believe in the human capacity to craft and sustain a world that is humane, free, sustainable and, above all, modestly under human control. This loss of conviction about the human capacity to craft and steer its existence or even to secure its future is the most profound and devastating sense in which modernity is ‘over’. Neoliberalism’s perverse theology of markets rests on this land of scorched belief in the modern. Ceding all power to craft the future to markets, it insists that markets ‘know best’, even if, in the age of financialization, markets do not and must not know it all, and the hidden hand has gone permanently missing.”(221)

The Canadian federal election on October 19th, 2015, saw the trashing of the Stephen Harper extreme neoliberal regime that spent the last decade trying to transform Canada into a neoliberal state and Canadians into a population of homo oeconomicus. Now the Demos must rebuild the democracy.