Life in the Neoliberal Ruins?

Wendy Brown aims at neoliberalism in her new book, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, but it is conservative postliberals, such as Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, that her argument might engage more directly. Deneen and other conservative neo-traditionalists argue that liberalism (“neoliberalism” in Brown’s vocabulary) liquifies traditional morality in the name of autonomy. By contrast, Brown argues that neoliberalism’s doctrine of autonomy protects oppressive assertions of traditional morality that she would tear down in the name of democracy and equality.

Brown styles the distinctive contribution of her book’s radical criticism of neo-liberalism as identifying the underlying unity of neoliberalism and conservative neo-traditionalism. That conservative neoliberals and conservative neo-traditionalists are both pulling in the same direction would no doubt come as a surprise to both.

Brown’s argument has a number of moving parts. She takes as her primary intellectual foil Friedrich Hayek’s neoliberalism. She argues today’s populism is an unintended consequence of Hayekean neoliberalism. She makes much of Hayek’s dual emphasis on morality as well as markets. Hayek (and many others) argue that external liberty requires internal restraint. With these working together, the need for government intervention in life and markets is minimized. Brown takes issue with this, arguing Hayek’s legalistic conception of liberty results in the denial of the social and minimizes the true scope of the political in people’s lives. This in turn prevents democratizing and equalizing what is merely private life in Hayek’s view. Drawing on Marx and Foucault, however, Brown argues that private life, as it were, is the real fount of oppression in human life.

Her argument doesn’t end here, however. The privileging of this private life in turn creates effective autonomy in its most literal form, as in auto nomos, or self law, unhinged from others. This, combined with an all-encompassing instrumental rationality internalized from the market, results in nihilism and the reintroduction of brute force into politics, the opposite of what Hayek desired even as his views laid the ground for it.

It is a grand theory of the modern political Right, bringing together disparate streams into a single unity. Brown paints with too broad a brush, inventing a unity even those on the Right themselves do not see, and that in truth, does not exist.

I want to focus on just one part of Brown’s wide-ranging argument, her claim that neoliberalism’s denial of the social – its denial of society – and the consequent legalistic understanding of liberty or equality before the law is that which unites neoliberals and conservative traditionalists.

Ironically, however, it is Brown’s discussion of “the social” where today’s conservative neo-traditionalists would be most apt to agree with her. Brown nonetheless paints the denial of the social as generic to the modern American Right.

Drawing on lines of analysis advanced differently by Karl Marx and Michel Foucault, Brown argues that power relations are not limited to actions taken by the civil government. This view of the “political” as pertaining only to law and civil government misses much, if not most, of the most important political action.

Rather, in families, social organizations, work, the media, indeed, in the realms where most of us spend most of our time, according to Brown, is where power relationships are truly constructed. By regarding this social sphere as private or non-political, these critical power relationships, many of which are repressive, are given a free pass, and hence replicated rather than opposed.

In Brown’s dictionary, “social justice” therefore has adjectival bite. She sees these non-governmental power relationships and their creation nonetheless as truly political relationships. True democracy and equality cannot be created or sustained without going beyond mere legal requirements and importing their norms into the realm of the social.

Brown believes Hayek’s denial of social justice as a meaningful phrase to be far more than what it actually is. Hayek denies the adjectival bite of “social” in the phrase social justice. His purpose in doing so is to protect the social from political intrusion. Brown grants Hayek the purity of his motives, but she argues his move nonetheless brings the unintended consequence of ignoring the powerful political forces always at work in the social realm.

Brown takes Hayek’s denial of the social as generic to the modern Right. Here, however, today’s neo-traditionalists in fact overlap with Brown’s argument. Not on outcomes, to be sure – although neo-traditionalists may be on board with “equality” as an objective, provided it is understood as Aristotelian equality – but rather at her starting point that the social, too, is a domain of power.

It is here that today’s conservative neo-traditionalists are arguably at their most post-liberal if not anti-liberal. As with Brown, the neo-traditionalists reject the identification of the social realm with the realm of the “private.” This was a traditional hallmark of traditionalism as it lost battle after legal battle on speech and behavior to the domain of “privacy.”

The key turn in the arguments of today’s neo-traditionalists is their assertion that the old traditionalists lost because their arguments did not dig deep enough; their arguments were too American and, hence, too liberal. More broadly, however, is their insistence of the recovery of the Church and the family as public, even political, institutions. The neo-traditionalists do not mean to open up Church and family to subordination to the civil government. In important ways it is just the opposite. Nonetheless, these institutions do not dwell in the domain of the private. Consider, for example, Adrian Vermeule’s identification of the Church as a political institution, even if one of ecclesiastical rather than civil government. (Here and here.)

Conservative neo-traditionalists naturally deploy their recognition of power relationships in the social very differently than Brown. Nonetheless, this is notable move among conservatives more used to singing paeans to “voluntary organizations,” among which churches and families were normally included. (Oddly, given the age-old problem liberalism had with thinking about children.)

Conservatives neo-traditionalists, however, did not learn of power relations in the social from Marx, let alone Foucault. Implicit in the notion of “subsidiarity” as understood in Catholic social teaching is not a hierarchy in which the state delegates or defers to non-state entities, but recognizes the significance of non-state social organizations, particularly the family and the Church.

This insight is not limited to Catholicism. Drawing on Aristotle, for example, Martin Luther commonly discussed three “estates” or “hierarchies”: ecclesia (Church), oeconomia (household), and politia (political order). Each of these had separate, integral domains. Relatedly, Dutch Calvinist theologian – and one-time prime minister – Abraham Kuyper developed the vocabulary of “sphere sovereignty,” intentionally using political vocabulary to describe relations beyond the realm of civil government.

While not democratic, conservative neo-traditionalists nonetheless implicitly assert that recognition and proper formation of power relations in the social is a critical component of human flourishing.

I am unsure, however, that Hayek’s “denial of society” actually conflicts with those views. Again, his concern was to privilege actions in these spheres from subjection to the civil government, not to teach of the unreality of power in the social. Indeed, as Brown notes throughout her book, Hayek emphasizes the central importance of “morality” to sustain a free society. Brown sees this as a sinister combining of conservative moralism with neoliberal autonomy. Hayek sees it as setting out the necessary conditions for human flourishing.

And here we come full circle. Brown sees formalistic notions of liberty as the problem, as deterring the bringing of democracy and equality to the social. She sees liberty as the fundamental, and equality as the contingent.

In this, however, she gets the current problem exactly backwards. One of Tocqueville’s most important insights in Democracy in America is that it is equality, not liberty, that is the American idol. Americans will take liberty if they can have it with equality, but in a contest between liberty and equality, Americans will always opt for equality over liberty.

It is the logic of ideologized equality as I’ve suggested previously that accounts for the modern destruction of the social in the United States. Brown is exactly right on the reality of the social. Her cure, however, is to introduce more of the disease rather than the remedy.

Reader Discussion

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on September 30, 2019 at 09:16:50 am

Haven't read the book, but based on this review, Brown offers no original thoughts. All of her complaints have been rehearsed ad nauseam in the last half century. And when anyone's analysis ultimately comes to rest on the phrase "power relations," it is a sure sign that the writer really has no idea of what she is talking about; she simply bottomed out in her thinking and needed a trendy bottom.

The conflict between the liberalism that places the individual beyond the reach of the state in certain matters, and the liberalism that sees as its mission the liberation of all individuals by the state from all social relations not mediated by the state, goes back at least as far as the mid-19th century to American Comteans who reinterpreted liberalism along positivist lines. Mill's brand of liberalism was a type of elite-managed soft socialism that would sound very familiar in Silicon Valley C-suites today. Then you have Hobhouse and Dewey, both of whom associated liberalism with a mission of perpetual liberation of individuals by the state from all non-state-mediated social relations. Then you have Judith Shklar, whose idea of liberalism was that the state's duty was to ensure that no one lived in fear. She really wanted, I think, to confine her concept to the kind of fear she herself experienced when fleeing the Nazis, but eventually was prevailed upon somehow to extend the idea to any sort of fear, including the kind so often asserted on college campuses today whenever a speaker whom the left dislikes proposes to speak.

Adding the prefix "neo" does not really do justice to the evolution of liberalism.

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on September 30, 2019 at 09:48:14 am

Ah, Ms Brown, when may I expect the State to come in and "reorder" the power relationships in my granddaughters pre-school?

What utter nonsense so typical of modern academia and the totalitarian reformers.

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on September 30, 2019 at 10:55:15 am

[…] of the social. Her cure, however, is to introduce more of the disease rather than the remedy. Life in the Neoliberal Ruins? syndicated from […]

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Life in the Neoliberal Ruins? | Best Legal Services
on September 30, 2019 at 11:11:25 am

Just as a rose by any other name, is still, in essence a rose, one cannot change the essence of a rose by denying its very essence, due to The Law Of Noncontradiction.

Just as every element of Truth will serve to complement and thus enhance the fullness of Truth, so too, will every element of Love, serve to complement and thus enhance the fullness of Love.

Authentic Love, in essence, does not divide, it multiplies, as in “The Loaves And Fishes”.

Division comes from a denial of Love, not an affirmation of Love; Jesus The Christ, The Light That Shines In The Darkness Came to illuminate The Truth Of Love, to separate the The Light From The Darkness.

Although, at the end of the day, it is still a Great Mystery, it is no Mystery that God Is Love.

“God Is Love”. Love Exists In Relationship. Love Is Trinitarian, The Lover, The Beloved, And The Ordered Complementary Love Between The Lover And The Beloved. Love Is Ordered To The Inherent Personal And Relational Inherent Dignity Of The Persons Existing In A Relationship Of Love, which is why a man is not Called to Love his wife, in the same manner as he Loves his father, or his mother, or his son or his daughter, or his brother, or his sister, or a friend. Love is not possessive, nor is it coercive, nor does it serve to manipulate for the sake of self-gratification; Love is a Gift, given freely from the heart, which is why we have free will, so that we can choose to Love God as God So Loves each one of us.

“Whenever God Is denied, human dignity disappears”, as witnessed through our Salvational History.

Only “The Truth Of Love Can Set Us Free”, and lead us to Salvation, thus, we can know through both Faith and reason, that as long as God Exists, Perfect Love Exists, and no human person can change the essence of God, or the essence of man , Created In The Image And Likeness Of God, The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost.(Filioque)

“Be not afraid”, “the gates of Hell, will not prevail”; but that does not change the fact that it is up to us to answer the question, “But yet, The Son Of Man, when He cometh, shall He find, think you, Faith on Earth”.

“Caritas In Veritate”; Veritas In Caritate”; Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Amen.


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Nancy D.
on September 30, 2019 at 12:53:41 pm

P.S., may a suggest this book: https://books.google.com/books/about/Render_Unto_Caesar.html?id=orsMyBLDUSAC, which will help illuminate the errors of Wendy Brown, along with https://www.amazon.com/Why-Liberalism-Failed-Politics-Culture/dp/0300240023.

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Image of Nancy D.
Nancy D.
on October 01, 2019 at 07:19:38 am

I have ordered - but not yet read - the book, so can comment only on issues raised in the review. I'd here like only to make two comments.

The first is that it seems to me that there is a genuine problem facing Hayek in the broad area that is discussed. This is, that he appeals to certain kinds of traditionalism, while at the same time embracing markets which he takes as typically having disruptive effects. It seems to me that those interested in Hayek's work need, at this point, to discuss how good traditions - for not all traditions are good! - can be cultivated within market-based societies. I can't see, here, that the work of writers like Deneen - whose take on liberalism seems to me badly defective, if taken as a reading of writers like Hayek - is really of any use. For it seems in the end, to amount to a kind of handwaving in the direction of new forms of community (a bit like the end of MacIntyre's *After Virtue*), without indicating how such things are to be achieved. I'd add, too, that it is all very well to appeal to religious ideas; but one needs, here, to take seriously the substantive criticisms which have been made of them. Embracing religion because of what are thought to be the good social consequences which would follow if its underlying beliefs were true, is not a good way to go.

Second, if one pays attention to Hayek's critique of 'social justice', it should be clear that what he says is, in effect, a kind of modern restatement of older criticisms of 'just price' theory. Hayek is not an opponent of a welfare state, provided that it can be afforded, and also that it is conducted in ways that don't stuff up the workings of a market economy. His argument, rather, is that it is a mistake to think that the price system can be expected to perform such a function.

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Jeremy Shearmur
on February 24, 2020 at 16:40:36 pm

[…] and religion, which he regards as the distinctive contribution of his book. Inherent in much of the left-wing criticism of neoliberal capitalism (and in right-wing criticisms as well) is the notion that capitalism fosters an “instrumental […]

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Image of The Return of Utopian Romanticism – JobsInsight
The Return of Utopian Romanticism – JobsInsight
on February 25, 2020 at 08:19:04 am

[…] curious feature of both right and left postliberals is their repeated claim that the governing philosophy of America’s elites reflects, […]

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Image of America’s Governing Philosophy Is Rawlsian, not Hayekian
America’s Governing Philosophy Is Rawlsian, not Hayekian

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.