Neoliberal Government: In Crisis

Liberalism’s on-going twentieth-century agony did not go unnoticed among its defenders. Already as early as the 1930s, neoliberalism emerged as a fundamental but friendly critique not only of liberalism’s aberrant practices but of its epistemological underpinnings. Commonly but erroneously dismissed as a dogmatic restatement of liberalism’s faith in the spontaneous efficacy of market mechanisms, neoliberalism merits the serious attention that Foucault was among the first to give it10 (see Gros in this volume). Foucault saw that neoliberalism was more than a restatement of liberalism’s critique of reason of state, which had survived the First World War in the modernized form of Nazism and more insidiously in Keynesian interventionism.11 Critiquing reason of state’s rationalist omniscient pretentions from a relativist perspective, neoliberal skepticism could not leave liberalism’s empiricist naturalism unscathed.12 As a product of human society and history, the market, the neoliberal critique acknowledged, can have no existence independent from society and social (scientific) knowledge about it. Without spontaneous, natural origins, the market can exist only as an effect of constant political action.13

If the market is an effect of historically contingent forms of knowledge and practices, then so too is the liberal subject. Under neoliberalism, according to Foucault’s formulation14, the liberal subject becomes an “entrepreneur of the self” (“entrepreneur de lui-meme”). This neoliberal subject remains a rational actor—indeed its theoretical elaboration occurs within the framework of American anarcho-liberalism’s rational-choice theory such as that of Gary Becker15—but not one simply driven by immanent interests and the rational quest for their maximization. Rather, just as neoliberalism as a doctrine seeks to enhance competitiveness so that the market can function efficiently, the neoliberal subject constructs itself as an enterprise with the greatest possible competitive potential. The entrepreneur of the self must therefore adopt a self-reflective, self-critical stance, understanding itself as a moving target always in need of repositioning and improvement, that is, as being always not entirely (if at all) adequate for the task at hand. To be sure, this auto-entrepreneurial stance lends neoliberalism its dynamism, but it also illustrates how and why neoliberal government stands no longer, like classic liberalism, on the verge of crisis, but rather thrives in the context of crisis. Crisis does not necessarily entail disorder or systemic collapse. It describes a situation of uncertainty, contingency or indeterminacy. In popular psychological language, we might say that the neoliberal subject suffers from a permanent identity crisis; more philosophically, we can posit that it abandons (some of ?) its empirical immanence and becomes self-referential, though its transcendent rationality renders it imminently governable. Thus, an explosion of technologies of the self accompanies neoliberalism, a plethora of techniques for the constant, rational quest for improvement of the self—and of others, to boot. This care for oneself and for others lends neoliberalism more than just an air of benevolence: its mode of government is therapeutic.16 It saves neoliberal subjects from themselves, but to do so it must continually throw them into a state of crisis. This claim does not derive from a theoretical deduction from neoliberalism’s relativist epistemology and ontology, but from our concrete observation of neoliberal governmental practice, evident already in the postwar era but particularly obvious during the post-Cold War 1990s and 2000s (see Hibou in this volume).

Foucault’s critical analysis of neoliberalism in the late 1970s was visionary because at the time the techniques and conditions of neoliberal government were still in gestation. In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault devoted particular attention to West Germany, showing already then that its “social market economy” was not an exemplar of what contemporary observers thought to be the postwar settlement of social democratic consensus that decommodified social relations but rather a vector of neoliberal marketization of society. Retrospectively we can interpret the whole period of postwar capitalism, and not just in West Germany, as one of neoliberalism in the sense that what might then have appeared to be a social democratic mitigation of market logic was in fact an expansion of market freedom to all spheres of life. To be sure, classic liberalism expanded, notably through the analogy of the marketplace of ideas, the freedom of economic exchange to the freedom of religion, of association, of political participation and of the press. The postwar period, however, witnessed an undeniable and truly massive expansion of claims and gains of liberal rights well beyond classic bourgeois freedoms. It would be difficult to contest the argument that the expansion of civic, political, cultural, sexual, reproductive and other rights as well as of access to higher education, to social and geographic mobility, and to traditional and new forms of communication and other media in the decades following the Second World War gave liberal subjects unprecedented possibilities for individual selfdetermination. At the same time, however, the widening and deepening of the welfare state and other instruments of collective rights and social security massively extended the biopolitical government of populations. Foucault17 developed the concept of “pastoral power” to describe this double movement of liberal governmentality in which individual’s liberty and personal responsibility, on the one hand, and the state’s responsibility for security, on the other, are intimately linked if not indistinguishable. The persona of the good shepherd vacillates between the responsible (auto-entrepreneurial) subject and the dispositive of social control since power under the liberal art of government has no identifiable source.

Liberalism’s “victory” with the end of the Cold War marked the decline of the libertarian side of liberal discourse and the rise of securitarian discourse and policies even as the deconstruction of the welfare state’s provision of social security moved into full swing. Mark Duffield has no doubt been the most perspicacious observer of this trend at the level of international politics, his critical studies of development politics having shown their convergence and (con)fusion with humanitarian aid and security strategies.18 The liberal promise of prosperity and security through market- based economic development has given way to a minimalist agenda of survival as (neo)liberal interventionism seems to breed insecurity even as it claims to combat it in on-going global war.19 In an aptly entitled article referring to Foucault’s20 analysis of the figure of the naturally self-reliant savage in the eighteenth-century origins of liberal thought, “Getting Savages to Fight Barbarians,”21 Duffield exposes how contemporary aid/ development/security reproduces the indirect rule of nineteenth-century liberal colonial government by promoting the natural “resilience” of traditional societies. In the place of the catch-up modernizing development schemes of the 1960s and 1970s and with the benediction of politically correct discourses of sustainability, the uninsured populations of the global South in the 1990s and 2000s were invited to draw on indigenous models of development that did not rely on costly social welfare schemes and bureaucracies. In their natural state of resilience, these peoples were to stay at home and provide a buffer against terrorist, or barbarian, attacks on northern privilege. Meanwhile, the insured populations of the global North had to accept a reduction of social welfare in the name of sustainability but also to prevent attracting savage migration. The concept and tool of “resilience,” however, did migrate north as the removal of social protection was to eliminate welfare dependency just as excessive development aid blocked indigenous growth.

Indeed, the migration of the concept of resilience from psychology, where it describes the capacity to overcome trauma, into social and political discourse at large signals not only an insidious naturalization of social catastrophes but also practically invites their production as a technique of government. The entrepreneurial subject is now called upon to cultivate this capacity to rebound from ever-tougher blows. The liberal principle of governmental efficiency thus slides into one of precariousness by design: making more for less in search of profit turns to making do with less in search of survival.22 An extreme example of such planned penury can be seen in the administration of resources in refugee camps, where food provision, for example, is based on minimum caloric requirements. The multiplication of techniques, procedures and organizations for efficiently saving lives leaves the refugee camp as an emblematic life-saving institution almost indistinguishable in its bureaucratic impersonality as the death camp. This resemblance has led Giorgio Agamben23 to conclude that the camp, as an institution of ultimate social triage at the margins of legality, is the paradigm of modern biopolitics. Although we would agree that the sovereign or Leviathan’s right to decide over life and death ultimately still lurks behind liberalism’s claim to carve out spaces of individual freedom, we contend that we lose analytic traction and nuance if we affirm that the liberal subject has lost all the transcendent qualities that endow it with certain universal rights. Whether understood legally, theologically or zoologically, the “bare life”24 that erupts to the surface of the liberal subject in the face of the sovereign does not efface the subject’s claim to transcendence. The violent core of liberalism is exposed, however, when the flipside of security is no longer freedom but insecurity, when liberalism no longer produces and consumes freedoms but promotes and profits from insecurity, or when the culture of danger becomes a culture of fear. And this, we shall argue, has become the case since the practices and technologies of (neo)liberal government in the exceptional context of crisis, in particular as developed on sites of humanitarian intervention on the global periphery, have become the governmental norm at the global center.

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