“Undoing Democracy: Neoliberalism and Political Life,” was a lecture given by Dr. Wendy Brown, on March 10, 2015 at the Colket Center on the campus of Roanoke College as part of the Women’s Forum. The event was sponsored by Phi Beta Kappa Chapter at Roanoke College. The interview was conducted a day prior to the event. Dr. Wendy Brown is the Class of 1936 First Professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley.
SPECTRA: We’re interested in the process of your book. What brought about this particular work? How did it change in your mind or how did the themes change from when you first started out?
WB: You probably know that I wrote a couple articles on neoliberalism back in the early 2000’s and, at that time, what I was trying to do was to get at why neoliberalism wasn’t simply a set of market policies, but was doing much more and having a much more dramatic effect socially, culturally and politically than simply producing inequality and opening season for capital. So I became really engaged at that time with Thomas Lemke’s transcription of parts of Foucault’s recorded College lectures on the subject, which hadn’t yet been published even in French. Foucault’s idea was that neoliberalism is a political rationality, and a form of governmentality, not just a set of economic policies. And even back then I was interested in what it seemed to me neoliberalism as a rationality was doing to democracy. That is, how it wasn’t just flooding democracy with corporate money or submitting elections and democratic institutions to corporate power, but how it was actually changing the meanings of the terms. I guess the book came out of a desire to explore that at greater length. Around that time I had also been working on the demolition of public higher education in the US, and of course that’s part of neoliberalization: all the ways in which students and faculty get increasingly cast as self-investing bits of human capital. This casting can't be comprised by a notion of a public good. So my work on neoliberalism was also focused on the dismantling of the University of California as a public good, the state’s rapid disinvestment in it, and all the ways in which best practices and corporate practices were just—I’m sure you’ve experienced this Virginia Tech—invading from every portal to transform the institution. I’m sure you know this from the New School too.
SPECTRA: I was there when Bob Kerry was there.
WB: So yes, you watched the neoliberalization of that institution even while it was imagined as the primary scene of critical theory in the US if not the world, and that contradiction must just have been flaming.
SPECTRA: Yes, and it’s still going on.
WB: So I’d say, on the one hand, I came to the book wanting to develop more fully the Foucauldian idea of neoliberalism as a political rationality. On the other hand, I wanted to develop more fully what was happening to democracy—both practices of democracy and our imaginaries of it, radical democracy as well as actually existing liberal democracy. And on a third hand, my interest really got concretized through the work on higher education. I have a chapter in the book on higher education, but I also look at a couple of other concrete cases neoliberal rationality is transforming what democracy means, not only corroding its institutions. I look closely at Citizens United. I look at the neoliberalization of Iraq right after Saddam and the installation of Paul Bremer, who knew nothing about Iraq but a lot about what neoliberalism. Apart from the civil conflict, violence and disaster of failed American state-building in Iraq, I look especially at what happened to agriculture there in the Bremer period. So those are the three genesi. Books are always a little bit accidental to me. They start one place and end up another place. There’s no book I’ve ever written that hasn’t had that migration.
SPECTRA: May I ask when you started conceiving of the book or when you started working on it?
WB: Probably about five years ago.
SPECTRA: Five years is kind of a long time when it comes to something like neoliberalism because it evolves so quickly.
WB: Yes, I kept changing my mind.
SPECTRA: Could you speak more to that?
WB: Two things happened. One, more and more people are writing about neoliberalism all the time so I kept learning new things and shedding previous views. Two, I set out to write about neoliberalism and in the end I had to also write about financialization, and they are not the same thing. So the book’s thesis hybridizes them. On the first, every time I turned around, when I thought I was finished with an argument—something new appeared. Right now I’m reading Wolfgang Streeck’s work on democracy and neoliberalism and I’m glad I didn’t read it right when I was finishing. It’s a really good book and I would have happily taken it on board, but it also would have changed some of my arguments. There are two things you can do as the world changes or as you change your mind while you’re writing a book. You can go back and rewrite everything or you can just keep kind of patching things in and hope that the cracks don’t show too much. I did the latter.
SPECTRA: Going along with reading new texts, and new developments in neoliberalism that are constantly coming into play, what are the concerns, traces, threads that have followed you throughout your career that may not be as obvious?
WB: I just thought of one more thing I want to say that may have been more of what your other question was fishing for. I started this book right in the aftermath 2008, so my thought was really on the crisis, on the bailouts, and everyone I knew was saying: “oh, neoliberalism is dead because it’s obviously gone belly up if it’s really a bunch of economic practices that have added up to this.” And the book was originally animated by a kind of “no, that’s not what neoliberalism is.” Neoliberalism’s a whole rationality, a form of governance and a form of conduct; it’s in all our institutions at the micro-tissue level, so it’s not over. The book had that animating it at first, but it was also very focused on the austerity measures of 2008, and the enormous human sacrifice they entailed…the irony of that sacrifice in the face of responsibilizing human capital to take care of itself. So the book was originally called something like “Neoliberalism’s Sacrifice” or “Freedom Inverted into Sacrifice,” which came to be just the tiniest last chapter, because as I got further away from 2008 and more people were writing about neoliberalization and financialization, it took a different turn. I think also with Thomas Piketty and even Robert Reich and Paul Krugman, the whole idea of austerity is pretty discredited. It may still live in the EU, with a kind of last gasp, but it’s pretty discredited and it wasn’t discredited when I started the book. Now on to your other question.
I would say the big themes that run through my work are these: I’m always concerned with the powers that are invisible in regimes of governing—whether it’s the powers of capital, or the powers of gender, or the powers of identity, or the powers of the psyche, or the powers of neoliberalism, or the powers of de-democratization. I’m not a one-node thinker. When I’m done with a project I don’t usually do another project on the same thing, which could seem eclectic but I think what binds together the work is a commitment to a kind of critique that’s trying to get at what’s invisible or disavowed or unspoken or un-emancipatory in whatever practice or whatever set of powers I’m looking at. So in States of Injury, for example, I was very concerned with identity, as were many in the nineties, and I was interested in the powers constituting identity that weren’t being acknowledged by those of us who were very engaged in identity politics but also constrained by it. That’s really different from neoliberalism, but I am still looking at disavowed powers, disavowed or invisible powers. In my understanding of critique, this is what a critical theorist is trying to bring to the surface so we know where we are, who we are, and what our possibilities are.
SPECTRA: That seems like a very Foucauldian kind of approach. Would you say critical theory in general has turned to this is the kind of approach in the past few decades?
WB: No, I think there are different approaches depending on what you mean by critical theory… you know, there are the Habermasians and I don’t think that’s how they’re thinking. They’re doing a different kind of work. I think that some but not all Marxist-inflected critical theory does what I described. About my Foucauldianism—it’s there. But I am always thinking between Marx, Foucault, Freud, Nietzsche, and Weber. Those are my five guys. It’s not that I don’t consult others, it’s not that I don’t read others, but when I say they’re my five guys it’s because each one has something the others don’t. I cannot think without Weber’s theory of rationality since Foucault’s is not deep and complex enough for me. I cannot think without Marx’s critique of capitalism or his critique of liberalism, but it’s insufficient. I can’t even imagine being me without Foucault, but Foucault’s Nietzsche is a weird Nietzsche, it’s a Nietzsche that’s almost completely divested of the psyche…which leaves a thin theory of the subject and subjectivity, despite how important Foucault is for all of our contemporary thinking about the subject. Foucault’s Nietzsche is about forms of history and genealogy and critiques of progress and mono-logics and all that. And I love that and that’s part of how I think, but there is also in Nietzsche—for example, in the Genealogy of Morals—so much about the psyche, about the shaping of desire and its reversals…and in turn the shaping of history through this plasticity. You cannot get a theory of bad conscience or self-beratement without this, but this part of Nietzsche does not exist in Foucault, it’s gone. He’s almost allergic to the whole question produced about the psyche from Nietzsche and of course from Freud. Anyway, I need them all for my work. I need them kind of crashing and bashing, not synthesized. I need them in a kind of drunken cocktail party.
SPECTRA: That would be a fun party.
WB: Well, kind of. Sometimes it’s noisy. But about the critical theory question. The thing about critical theory now, at its best: if it’s wrenched free from the Habermasian grip, it goes in a lot of directions. It’s postcolonial, it’s feminist, it’s queer, it’s Marxist, it’s thinking about neoliberalism, settler colonialism, aesthetics, affect, and gender. Critical theory is not just an umbrella term for Left thought; it’s the practice of a certain kind of critique. It’s not helpful when Foucauldians or Habermasians or Marxists or post-Marxists try to claim it as exclusively belonging to them.
SPECTRA: Are you still interested in questions of the secular and the religious?
WB: Hmm. About five years ago, Saba Mahmood and I co-taught a seminar, which was really fun for us at least, and we are close and we think together about problems. The seminar was on secularism, democracy and violence, but it was really about secularism. Soon after, I wrote a piece about the veil debate in Quebec, where I really tried to bring together my thinking about what’s wrong with the way secularism is bandied about today. So that was probably my most concentrated period with the problem. On the other hand, I’ve been working on and off on a book about Marx and religion for almost a decade—I’ll finish it at some point but I keep setting it aside for other things. Secularism and theology make something of an appearance in Walled States and also, before that, in the Regulating Aversion book on tolerance. So there—I have this ongoing interest. However, I don’t have the deep knowledge of religion that needed to be working on this problem and I wasn’t that interested in what was being posted on the Immanent Frame, 1 where much of the academic debate about secularism was happening. So, I keep weaving in and out of this problematic, never quite moving into it squarely.
SPECTRA: So we did have a final few questions about something that I think is very exciting, that is, resistance to neoliberalism and the possibilities there. So these turn in that direction. Which ruptures between democratic citizenship and neoliberalism stand out for you today? As neoliberalism becomes the new common sense, what is the danger in us simply acclimating to these ruptures and conflicts?
WB: I need you to clarify something for me. What do you have in mind regarding rifts and conflicts?
SPECTRA: So for example I think you could make the argument that what is happening in Ukraine, the people there are being given one of two choices: join the EU and become a neoliberalized citizen, on one hand, or a citizen of a neo-Tsarist state on the other.
WB: Right, impoverished...
SPECTRA: Greece too...
WB: Okay, yes. And yes we do have these kinds of things happening here too. Have you read Wolfgang Streeck’s book?2 That’s the way he’s thinking about, I think, democracy and neoliberalism. Let me give you his thesis, which is more interesting to me at the moment than my own. Then I’ll give you mine. His thesis is that capital couldn’t afford democracy anymore, and by democracy he means the welfare state and egalitarian, redistributive-oriented democracy. And for him, neoliberalism was from the beginning a kind of attack on democracy, and a de-democratization that took the form of dismantling the state, responsibilizing individuals, financialization, handing a ton of power to the banks, deregulating finance so that individuals had less and less power but also fewer expectations that there might be equality or that they would be represented, that they are able to be politically represented.
I think that’s a really interesting critique. Mine is much different. I’m arguing that the very terms of democracy have themselves been neoliberalized so that liberty comes to have a completely market meaning: equality inverts into the inequality of competition, universality only means that we’re all in the market; it doesn’t mean anything like Kantian universals or moral justice, and popular sovereignty just vanishes. There’s just no coherent concept of popular sovereignty in a neoliberalized democracy because the idea of the demos, the idea of the people having sovereignty together, is beyond the ken of neoliberal reason where everyone is nothing more than a market actor. So my argument is not that neoliberalism attacks representative institutions of democracy, but that it attacks its very semiotics, its meanings and its values. And it also literally disintegrates a demos, a people who would rule for themselves, into so many bits of capital.
So in laying both of those out, I think that we see instances of rebellion against both in Ukraine, in Greece, in Occupy. You know those are three good examples of, “no, we will not simply be reduced to human capital,” “no, we will not simply become sovereign debt collateral.” In Greece, “we are the cradle of democracy and we insist on having control over our lives, and to have control over our lives means not just endless bailouts; it means debt forgiveness and getting rid of austerity.” Not because it’s austere, but because it’s destroying the ability of a people to run their own lives. In Streeck’s perspective, he would see the Ukraine really as the only place where you see this battle, the one you mentioned, where your entry into democracy is going to be neoliberalized from the get-go and hence not be democratic. But you know, I think there are lots of sites of resistance. I think they’re often articulated as something other than resistance to neoliberalism. Greece is really the place where you see directly, you really see what EU neoliberal democracy has done in Europe: it makes the rich richer, it makes the poor poorer, and it’s going to turn Spain, Italy and Greece into vacation lands for the rich Europeans—they will become its cheap, exploitable Third World, all the while maligned for not being proper First World nations. It’s not as explicit with something like Occupy, where you get the language of the 1%, the language of equality. But those moments of “this is what democracy looks like,” or moments of protests against things like Citizens United or other ways that corporations and financialization have eviscerated democratic institutions and expectations--I think that was present in Occupy. But Occupy was so concentrated on a discourse of fairness, the 99% vs. the 1% was all about fairness--this is our share, this is what we deserve a piece of. But what you see in Ukraine is more than this. I am not dissing Occupy. I really think it changed the national discourse—it literally transformed what was sayable and doable in national political life—in addition to whatever it did locally. The $15/hour movement is unthinkable without Occupy. Still, there are a number of examples from across the emerging or developing world--examples of battles, skirmishes where the reach for popular control, popular sovereignty, is incited by the IMF hammer of austerity and demands for monocrop economies, things like that. Is that what you were talking about?
SPECTRA: Yes, exactly.
WB: I think resistance has to be something you look for with generosity. By that I mean it may not come out in the form a theorist wants or expects. We have to take what we can get.
SPECTRA: You’ve written on the university as well. Do you think the university is a space of resistance?
SPECTRA: Is it currently?
WB: Yes. We’re losing. But maybe we won’t always. I mean, look, it’s been the battleground in England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, in California and Michigan, Wisconsin, and some really unexpected spaces and places, Germany and Bulgaria, South Africa and Greece. As long as universities don’t become completely vocationalized and technicalized, as long as they don’t simply become sites producing human capital on the one hand, or the preserve of the elite on the other, they’re fraught with the contradiction of being subject to neoliberalism while still being spaces of thought. As long as they're spaces of thought, resistance is possible.
Faculty have been a huge disappointment. When you look at all of these resistance movements in universities, they’re mainly student movements, very rarely participated in, let alone led by faculty. Faculty don’t need to lead them, but not even participating in them? I think the professoriate was neoliberalized so early that it has largely ceased to be a community within institutions. Instead, it’s all about your own career, your own trajectory, your reach for ranking and visibility. I mean, even at the University of California, there have been some fantastic faculty activists, just fantastic, but it’s probably a tiny percent of the whole. Most, even if they are miserable about what’s happening, they’re saying—“students are so hard to teach when they are like this (neoliberalized)” and “I used to be able to get this (staff support)” and “this used to be a place where thinking and learning mattered, now we’re just a business.” Lament but very little resistance. I don’t think that makes it hopeless, I just think that means the students shouldn’t count on us.
SPECTRA: So that turns us to the question of—if it’s not going to come from the faculty, I don’t know how you’d term it—the inspiration or stimulus, whether it has to come then from the students, if it is going to continue. And the question is, will it?
WB: I mean, students in your generation have never been so precarious, you know that. On one hand, that produces a kind of risk aversion and, on the other, maybe a “What the hell? What do we have to lose?” Both responses are prevalent. I’m sure you’re struggling with this one all the time. I’ve seen many students say they have no chances, so why not try and change the world, and there are others who scramble to their conservative careerist corners. I think both responses are to be expected. But, yeah I think it remains with students.
Another problem I think is that students and staff—In the American understanding of “staff,” clerical staff—interests are not aligned. Staff is being hit very hard in universities: de-unionized, downsized, flexiblized, outsourced, and so forth. And I think students are tempted, understandably, to link these struggles, but I don’t think the struggles always link easily. The worker struggle is rather different from the quality of education struggle and the affordability and access struggle. I’m not saying they shouldn’t support each other, but worker struggles aren’t always aligned with the struggle to maintain the university as a place of creative thinking and learning. I thought I’d just mention this because it’s something the anti-privatization movement struggles with all the time at the University of California.
SPECTRA: You saw this with Moral Mondays in North Carolina, where it began with elementary school teachers in the face of massive state cuts, but it grew in interesting ways to include women’s rights and other groups. But the struggles are all so different, so it’s hard to articulate together.
WB: That makes sense. I think it’s really important for lefties to figure out how to have solidarity without identity, how you can support something without saying it’s all the same. If it turns out not to be the same, it can be really crushingly disappointing for some people. But it’s time for us to get beyond theological politics where all the good is analytically and programatically linked and so is all the bad.
SPECTRA: So a final concern regarding resistance in general, in the world, is resistance primarily today in the face of neoliberalism. Are there differences, would you say, between political resistance versus cultural, social, even economic resistance, for example? The different levels at which you can resist?
WB: We live in an increasingly neoliberal world, but neoliberalism is certainly not the only regime or discourse of power organizing the world today. I’m very suspicious of analyses that try to become total like that. Again, when you try to fit every aspect of gender, sexuality, disability, settler colonialism, and everything else into one analysis, it’s a sort of theological thinking, where you replace God with oppression—instead of one Creator and one system, there is one system of oppression. I don’t believe in that. That’s my secularism. And I think it’s bad for the Left to think in this way because it leads to the kind of problem we talked about a minute ago where we are all and only good and they are all evil. So I don’t think that all progressive resistance is resistance to neoliberalism. Sure, resistance to settler colonialism in Palestine will encounter neoliberal discourse—right, their security framework is suffused with neoliberal rationality—but I don’t think neoliberalism is not at the center of what that resistance looks like. I would say, if we just pick another example, what’s happening with the current campaign against sexual assault on campuses, we could find a neoliberal dimension in that but I don’t think it’s the most important thing. Instead, it’s a kind of change in culture on campuses along with a feminist backlash that built up over years in response to the plethora of its contradictions. So I think neoliberalism is a part of the problem, but it’s not at the heart of it.
SPECTRA: So resistance has to be able to speak to...
WB: I think it has to identify—you asked me earlier to describe my work and what it has in common with itself—I think it has to identify the particular powers that it’s addressing. I also want to say I think there’s a difference between resistance and work to transform or appropriate those powers. Resistance is just one political response, not a bad one, but it doesn’t always know where it’s going. I’m very aware of that in our struggles at the University of California, where we’re resisting neoliberalism sometimes without a clue of what needs to go in its place, besides where we were in the past. We say, “we want that back.” That’s like wanting your childhood back, not a vision for what we do next. I mean sometimes resistance has a vision of what it wants in place of what it is resisting, but sometimes it is just resistance.
2 Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. New York: Verso. 2014.