Damn neoliberalism

Is neoliberalism martial in nature? This is the thesis defended by the authors of this work and who are based both on historical experiences (such as Chile under Pinochet) and on the analysis of texts considered to be founding. Stimulating, the proposal still struggles to convince.

From mid-October 2019, Chile was the scene of a political and social eruption of unprecedented intensity in the country’s history. It is in the light of this popular uprising and the violent repression that followed it that Pierre Dardot and his colleagues begin their theoretical reflection devoted to the martial essence of neoliberalism. The central thesis of the work could ultimately be summarized in a sentence sprayed at the exit of the Bellas Artes metro station in Santiago in October 2019: “Neoliberalism is killing us”.

“Neoliberalism is killing us.” Bellas Artes metro, Santiago, November 2019. Credit: Damien Larrouqué

The disastrous character of the neoliberal model, of which Pinochet’s Chile was the precursor on an international scale (chapter 1), does not lie only in the deleterious consequences of the policies it justifies. Certainly, the privatization of public services, the commodification of universal goods (health, education, water), the taxation of funded pensions or even the deregulation of the labor market are harmful by definition, to the extent that they deprive citizens of their most fundamental rights, shatter any idea of ​​solidarity and plunge society as a whole, and in particular the most precarious classes, into the uncertainty of the future. But, more fundamentally, if “neoliberalism is killing us”, it is because it was designed for this purpose, or more precisely, because it comes from a desire consubstantial with its nature: to dominate through civil war. .

Defending a radical thesis, this essay is the fruit of collective work undertaken by the Study Group on Neoliberalism and Alternatives (GENA), created in the fall of 2018. Its ambition is to understand, from a transdisciplinary perspective, this new international situation marked by the electoral victory of candidates who are both pro-market and reactionary on the one hand, and by the diffusion to large scale of authoritarian and repressive governance modalities on the other hand. The work seeks to align the coercive practices of power with a neoliberal ideology which has as its most essential substrate a belligerent and deadly conception of the world. For the authors who use the term “strategy” – and moreover in the plural (introduction), it is indeed a desire of the public authorities to carry out, for around forty years and everywhere on the planet , an anti-democratic and anti-social war to bring about a pure market society.

The Transmutation of Leviathan

We owe the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes the contractualist theory according to which men would have chosen to put an end to the war of all against all, by agreeing to cede a part of their freedom to the State, in exchange for its protection. Public power would thus have emerged from consent to authority, as illustrated by the famous frontispiece of Leviathan (1651) where the subjects place themselves under the control of the Prince, and better still, gather together in the tunic of power. According to this absolutist vision, it is up to the State as a sovereign power to ensure institutional order and guarantee civil peace.

So to speak, neoliberal ideology turns the Hobbesian vulgate against itself, by making Leviathan the supreme belligerent in a new war of all against all, where exacerbated individualism, generalized competition and predation now prevail. against all resources, whether human (uberization, self-entrepreneurship, destruction of wage employment), socio-economic (privatization of profits, but socialization of losses), legal (circumvention of legislation and tax evasion) or natural (overexploitation). Under the auspices of this neo-Leviathan, the “neoliberal counter-revolution” was organized on an international scale from the end of the 1970s (p. 27).

In this sense, despite the common conviction that is often attached to it, neoliberal ideology is less advocating for the free market than it is consecrating the figure of the strong State (chapter 3). In the wake of the work translated and presented by Grégoire Chamayou, Pierre Dardot and his colleagues notably make Carl Schmitt one of the godfathers of authoritarian liberalism and take into account the intellectual debt that Hayek, Röpke and Mises owe him. For the latter in short, “the general objective of a strong state is above all to prevent politics from affecting the functioning of the free market” (p. 73). Neoliberalism is therefore “necessarily authoritarian in that it attacks precisely any democratic desire to regulate the economy” (p. 74). In other words, “the neoliberal State is a State positively interventionist” (p. 290). From which derive the domestication of unions, the criminalization of social protest or even mass incarceration as a means of replacing the welfare state. In short, it is about governing against populations (chapter 10); which involves an “enemying of opponents and disruptors” (p. 232) and is illustrated, for example, in the militarization of police units in Europe, or even the “milicianization” of the armed forces (p. 241), like in Brazil. For the authors, these contemporary coercive excesses find their distant justifications in the work of neoliberals: like Ludwig Von Mises, most of them have in fact pushed to its paroxysm the Weberian conception of the monopoly of legitimate physical violence , by converting it into a form of “brutalism”, in the sense of “a violence consciously used by the State to defend the market order against the democratic demands of society” (p. 96).

A fundamentally undemocratic and reactionary ideology

According to the authors, neoliberalism is characterized by its “demophobia” (chapter 2). That is to say by his visceral fear of the masses, of which Gustave the Good and even more José Ortega y Gasset were the first to raise the specter. To ward off the fear that democratic logic inspires in them (uncertainty of votes, political alternations, renewal of elected officials), neoliberals and in particular Friedrich Hayek have theorized the necessary sanctuarization of a certain number of political or macroeconomic issues, including the management will only be entrusted to experts. Returning to considerations already supported in a previous essay, Pierre Dardot and his colleagues develop the question of market constitutionalism (chapter 4), particularly at the foundation of the European Union. In this work, however, they go further by demonstrating how the rule of law has placed law (and in particular private law) at the service of the project of enslaving people to the ultra-liberal model (chapter 11).

Moreover, the concept of freedom that neoliberal thinkers convey is, in reality, limited to the economic sphere. That is to say, to the freedom of enterprise and, more generally, to this wide range of economic freedoms offered by the deregulation that they promote and which leads, in legal matters, to the lowest wage, tax and environmental. In no way is it a political or social freedom. Not only, as Hayek showed with regard to Pinochetist Chile, the neoliberals are very accommodating of military regimes which impudently violate human rights, but there is no question of defending individual rights to self-affirmation (feminism, LGBT, etc.). On the level of morals and as proven in particular by the “sociological hyperconservatism” of Wilhelm Röpke (p. 148-154), the neoliberals prove to be frenzied reactionaries, convinced of the superiority of Western, white and patriarchal civilization ( chapter 6). Better still, they defend the war of values ​​and the division of the people (chapter 8). For the authors, neoliberalism thus produces both the poison (economic insecurity, social inequalities), but also “its imaginary antidote” (p. 210) around demagogic, falsely integrative and resolutely anti-immigrant projects. From this point of view, the “competitive nationalism” (p. 183) of a Trump or a Bolsonaro is only the latest avatar of an ideology which bears the germ of a profoundly violent conception of politics, of law and the economy.

Don’t get the wrong target

Even though its supporters have repeatedly repeated since the 1980s that “there is no alternative” (There is no alternative, TINA), neoliberalism is not inevitable. The authors point to “the Awakening of Chile” as proof. In fact, during the constituent elections of May 2021, Chilean citizens nominated, through their votes, more than half of independent or civil society candidates out of the 155 members of the future conventional assembly – effectively depriving the coalition right wing of its blocking minority. It is now a matter of laying the constitutional foundations of a new political, social and economic regime, which is more horizontal and inclusive in its functioning, more progressive in its values ​​and above all much more united in its goals. “The example of Chile shows it,” they write: “only popular revolutions, only revolutions led and controlled by citizens can oppose the civil war strategies of neoliberalism” (p. 313). In the conclusion, the authors speak out in favor of democratic self-government.

The strength of this essay is also what makes it limited. Because, if mastery of theoretical literature is indisputable, the administration of proof can be found wanting. We can thus criticize them for proceeding by analogy, failing to be able to demonstrate, with a few exceptions, that contemporary leaders have read in the text the neoliberal doctrinaires from whom they would draw inspiration. This being said, the authors nevertheless have the merit of describing with great rigor a composite mental universe, which strongly frames the horizon of possibilities in macro-economic matters and justifies the use of the entire sovereign arsenal (justice , police, armies) against opponents of this established order.

Moreover, we can especially regret the anarcho-Marxist depths which permeate their philosophy and make them write:

Experience must immunize us against any suicidal strategy of turning against the adversary with our own weapons. The State is all but a “weapon” at the disposal of the dominated. Only a radically non-state policy, understood as a policy of the common, can help us escape the empire of the market and the domination of the State (p. 311).

However, from our point of view, the State is less the expression than the instrument of power. The nuance is significant. It means that the State always responds to the purpose assigned to it. If the ontological objective of neoliberal ideology is war, the State can certainly wage it for it or become, materially, its armed wing (police repression). But he can very well also drive a other war, against inequalities or tax havens for example and, in fact, fulfill another role: that of guarantor of social integration and justice or of privateer against multinationals who plunder national wealth and pirate, in circumventing them, tax legislation.

In many respects, the great victory of the neoliberals is to have precisely discredited public institutions, in fact (chronic underfinancing) and in consciences, according to the principle according to which the market would necessarily be better. However, in the name of all these agents (contractual, civil servants or elected officials) who cultivate a real sense of public service – and there are some, whatever their detractors say who too easily accuse them of corruption or mismanagement – ​​we owes today to the State, particularly in Anglo-Saxon and Southern countries, a cultural (from society) and financial (through tax) rehabilitation, in order to give it the means for its future ambitions. Because the “counter-neoliberal” revolution will certainly be carried out by citizens, but not without public institutions.