Monday, December 12, 2016

Angela Mitropoulos - ‘Post-factual’ readings of neoliberalism, before and after Trump

... the intellectual effort - renewed in the immediate wake of Trump’s election - to distinguish the dynamics of class or capitalism from those of race, gender, and sexuality indicate a reluctance to confront the significance of the latter in the contemporary organization of capitalism and, at the same time, a willingness to downplay, if not tacitly accept, the liberal and, more so, neoliberal obsession with “law and order,” border controls, criminalization, the regulation of sexuality and reproduction. 

There is a refusal to admit that these have never been some occasional anomaly or authoritarian paradox that periodically emerges in the practices of an otherwise ideal adherence to liberty and free markets. On the contrary, they are functionally presupposed by an understanding of the economy as a natural order, as an oikonomia. This is why the euphemistically-described “alt-Right” alignments of white supremacists and white nationalists around Trump like to accuse their (male) opponents of being “cucks” (or “cuckolded”), because it raises anxiety about patriarchal rights and paternity. It is also why Jo Cox’s murderer regarded her support for asylum seekers as tantamount to being a “race traitor.” From an oikonomic view, the regulation of sexuality and gender ensures the legitimate rights over and reproduction of “household property,” whether that household is envisaged as the private household of familial affection or the family company or the enthno-nation. And whiteness is a property, as Cheryl Harris carefully explained long ago. 

Liberal concepts of “self-regulation” still turn on someone or something ensuring—whether through personalized authority, or abstractly encoded in private or public law—conformity to the rules of heritable and transmissible property rights. The state can narrow down to guaranteeing just this, through force of law and administration, and it will not be “small government” but instead a massive, authoritarian and intrusive project. And this is, precisely, the terms on which race, gender, and sexuality emerge as objects of regulation, criminalization, and control. It is, of course, far easier to buy into the myth that “neoliberalism means deregulation or free markets” when one exists on the naturalized because normative side of those demarcations.

In other words, there has been no shift to the kind of world which critics of neoliberalism describe—what has occurred is a shift in the manner and objects of regulation, a decades-long turn to stricter (and in many cases ferocious) border controls, the transfer of welfare from individuals to normative households (“white working families”) and corporations, and private interest has been defined as the investment in household, heritable wealth and human capital which, in practice, has amplified the racial-gendered dimensions of economics and the demarcations of legal personhood. It is not, for instance, trivial that Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s terms in office - routinely cited as the advent of neoliberalism - were marked by “law and order” campaigns, the “War on Drugs,” denunciations of promiscuity, and calls for a return to “traditional morality.” 

What is remarkable is that, like the person who brushes off racist or sexist insults because they do not negatively affect them, so many theorists and commentators propagate the idea that the proliferation of unfreedoms and deep conservatism was not integral to neoliberalism—indeed, the necessary corollary of the pivotal transfer of risk to private households and familial trusts through financial instruments—and therefore not subject to critique so much as available to be more or less explicitly and self-evidently embraced. This is how the global, political diagram of ethno-nationalism emerged, pressed forward by assumptions shared by both the advocates of neoliberalism and its superficial critics.

In 1939, the Danish philosopher Svend Ranulf published “Scholarly Forerunners of Fascism.” In that essay he argued that late nineteenth-century sociologists such as Auguste Comte, Émile Durkheim, and Ferdinand Tönnies—“for the most part unintentionally and unconsciously—served to prepare the soil for fascism.” On the face of it, these names represent quite different strands within the discipline. Comte and Durkheim saw in statistical methods a means of validating moral norms while diagnosing the frequency of deviance. Tönnies lamented the destruction of the unique essence preserved in a “community [Gemeinschaft] of blood.” Yet what they nevertheless agreed upon was that society was “headed for disaster because of its individualism and liberalism and that a new social solidarity was needed.” From the 1920s, fascist movements would describe much the same historical course as “degeneracy,” and pose their own brutal but, by their view, necessary and eventually final “solutions” involving the elimination of deviants, the restoration of ostensibly proper forms of economic generation, and the return to a true and natural social order.

Contemporary intellectual sources may not be Comte, Durkheim, and Tönnies. They are Karl Polanyi and Ulrich Beck, both of whom viewed contemporary capitalism through the lens of a decline in “social solidarity” set against a romantic, indeed mythic, view of pre-modern society. Polanyi pilfered Marx’s theory of the double-movement and rewrote it as a story drawn from Catholic theology concerning the transgression of Natural Law, according to which fascism is seen as the regrettable but understandable consequence of the destruction of the communal bonds of family and nation. By that view, capitalism is the Fall, fascism the divine punishment, and community, as it happens, is a euphemism for the natural bonds of family, race, and nation. 

Beck’s theory of risk is similarly a theory of divine retribution for the transgression of a transcendent moral law. Like Tönnies, Beck and Polanyi drew heavily on Catholic theology, and for that reason related a very accessible story for anyone already familiar with biblical narrative. Both placed an emphasis on the deleterious effects of traversing national borders. Both were heavily invested in their preservation as that which bounds the euphemistically-described and endangered “society.” To read these narratives as something other than literary expressions of conservative impulses and anxieties about the erosion of “traditional” authority and norms—in other words, expressions of the private self-interest of the managerial heads of white, normative households and other corporations—requires a remarkably selective reading, if not outright acceptance, of their implications and “solutions.”

In the late 1930s, Ranulf posed a blunt question of the sociologists around him: “Is not the rise of fascism an event which, in due logic, Durkheim ought to have welcomed as that salvation from individualism for which he had been trying rather gropingly to prepare the way?” If we pose this question once again, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the US Presidency, the answer, it seems, is in the ambivalent affirmative. With few exceptions, everyone other than those who voted for Trump has been blamed for the result of the election. Social democrats and left liberals have rushed headlong toward celebrating an ethno-nationalist politics and paradigm. Naomi Klein weighed in to blame neoliberalism, offering a theory of “global finance” that barely rises above Whig history when it does not simply repeat the conspiratorial fantasies nurtured by the far Right, illustrating a determination to diminish the importance of the racism that is encoded into the Electoral College, voter suppression laws, and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and thereby of the importance of challenging any of these things, a refusal to admit that the overt stake in Trump’s election was the restoration of white power and white (household) property and, as consequence, a tacit acceptance of the same narrow political calculus: “that white working class people voted for Trump and therefore that they had legitimate reasons for doing so.” Mark Lilla wrote of liberalism and identity politics in such a way that restored whiteness to its default setting and universal status. 

Bernie Sanders reached out to President-elect Trump with a suggestion that while he may oppose him on issues of sexism, racism, and homophobia, he would be willing to work with him on “the big economic issues,” illustrating a convenient ignorance of the ways the former are economic issues. As with Sanders’ insistence that open borders are a capitalist plot and attack on “working families,” in the UK, Jeremy Corbin and the Labour Party have recently resorted to the fiction that immigrants drive down wages—as if they are not aware that it is UK and US law’s deliberate stratification of wages through visas and passport systems that accomplishes this and not some inherent quality that migrants carry with them over the border. In response to these efforts, many such as Farai Chideya have written about a “call to whiteness,” and it most definitely hinges on an economics or, more precisely, oikonomic investments and calculations, one that is being re-imagined in some quarters as the only course available for progressive and radical politics.

Narrowed to its electoral calculus, the recent rush to embrace economic nationalism is being constructed on the basis of a lie that “white working class people” voted for Trump and a corollary refusal to address the racism that is encoded in voting laws and procedures, not to mention the nexus of race and sex that forms households and gives material weight to its affections. To be clear, again: white people overwhelmingly voted for Trump, the larger proportion of whom were in middle- to upper-income brackets. 

The most significant variables were white, evangelical voters in rural areas and cities under one million people - in other words, those for whom family values is also an economic theology, or more precisely, an oikonomics. And so while much has been made of white women not voting for Clinton, the truth I expect has much to do with the “choice” between the specter of “Mexican rapists” and the mundane experience of rich, white men such as Trump treating women as their property and, in the end, fears of miscegenation and white affection were overwhelming and decisive in a context where spousal rape laws post-date most marriages.

The point, then, is not that neoliberalism, or liberalism and individualism, are above critique. It means, instead, that liberalism runs deeper than anyone imagines because, contrary to a philosophical liberalism, we are not talking about freely-floating ideas but material investments in whiteness as the property and value of masterful oikonomic management. Liberalism will not furnish a critique of itself… read more: