Neoliberal Dreams And The Plight Of The Humanities, Part 2 (Carl Raschke)


The following is the second of a two-part series.  The first installment can be found here.  A longer version is published in .PDF version in an upcoming issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.

Seaborg was correct in one key respect.  The humanities historically had never really belonged to the private as opposed to the public sphere, even if they also served primarily to enhance what John Stuart Mill in his refinement of Bentham’s principle of “utility” termed the “higher pleasures.”  The humanities were an elite preoccupation that were often pursued for their own sake, but they  were indeed also a public good, which explains why the liberal arts curriculum could always be found at the core of the education of a “gentleman” throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,

As Jens Hoyrup notes in his civilizational survey of the history of the humanities, “the division between manual and intellectual work, the precondition for the emergence of anything approaching, however vaguely, a stratum of ‘humanists,’ is…a consequence of the organization of society as a state.”(14)  Thus the humanities from the outset were always a tacit version of the “civic humanities” in some wider sense of the word.

As Hannah Arendt was fond of noting in various ways throughout her academic career, the very idea of the “political” depends decisively on a controlling concept of both the how and the why of “living together” (Zussamenleben), and such a notion is inevitably supplied through some transcendental construct of what it signifies to be “human.”  Since the Enlightenment at least the reality of the state has been indefeasibly legitimated through some intuition of a systemically iterable raison d’etat, comprising the theoretical scaffolding of what Foucault has named the ‘biopolitical.”

During the Cold War any basis for the authority of a “democratic” state at all required such a “deep” formulation of raison d’etat.  It was only natural that politicians, concerned about the erosion of the national will to fight communism, would turn to the often neglected twin of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures.”

In the famous 1959 lecture to the dons at Cambridge University in which he coined the phrase “two cultures,” Snow had not faulted the outsize attention given to the natural sciences at the expense of the humanities simply because it had contributed to the benign neglect of the history of letters.  Science and technology, he argued, fueled economic development, but without the moral and spiritual legacy sustained through humanistic learning the unequal global distribution of material advances, fomenting the postwar struggle between international Marxism and corporate capitalism, seriously jeopardized the long-term prospects for the latter.

Once the Cold War ended this national strategic justification for the importance of the humanities this particular viewpoint, which had been largely out of favor anyway since the Vietnam debacle and had been undermined by the strong, left-tilting politicization of humanities faculties that began in the late Sixties, largely evaporated.  The Reagan administration had sought half-heartedly to reinstate it by appointing the politically conservative scholar William Bennett as chair of the National Endowment for Humanities, who then passed it on to his protégé Lynn Cheney (wife of later Defense Secretary Dick Cheney).

But the Reagan appointees were no match for the fierce and organized opposition of liberal arts faculty and college administrators, who sabotaged their efforts throughout the 1980s and early 1990s at virtually every turn.  In the aftermath of the campus revolts of the late Sixties and early Seventies young faculty, whom their conservative critics disparaged as “tenured radicals”, gradually became the dominant force in humanities departments and programs, rejecting the “canonical”,  “great books”, or “dead white males” approach to the curriculum in favor of “alternative” or “excluded” voices that would constitute the gridlines of the emerging “identity politics” of the next several decades.

Such a “dissenting” methodology, which rapidly crossed disciplinary boundaries in the humanities, purported to be an ideological antidote to the previous biopolitical regime of the Cold War era, but it was gradually and insidiously absorbed over the following generation into the neoliberal, “free market” agenda.

The agenda, initially inspired by the Marxist theory of submerged “class” interests, was designed to break the humanities down into a kind of socio-typological genealogy of repressed elocutions circulating in different guises around what Nietzsche in his unpublished Nachlass (in English published as The Will to Power) termed the question of wer spricht?( “who speaks”?)  For Nietzsche, the question was one always of both valuation and authority.  But in an age when “God is dead,” Nietzsche argued, the new source of valuation and authority is the resentful masses.  “Suppose that the belief in God has vanished,” Nietzsche wrote.  “The question presents itself anew…My answer, taken not from metaphysics but from animal physiology: the herd instinct speaks. It wants to be master: hence its ‘thou shalt!’.”(275)

In effect, the capture of the humanities through the template of identity politics converted it into an effective “sign machinery” (as Lazzarato calls it) for neoliberalism.  The neoliberal concentration of power has coincided with the advent of the information age and the emergence of what Peter Drucker around the turn of the millennium designated the new “knowledge society.”  In keeping to a certain degree with Brown’s analysis, this concentration has relied on a process of relentless typification and classification of self and otherness according to a surgical, yet unassailable politico-cultural logic of identity and difference.  In an age where key commodities are no longer material, but virtual, such a logic is indistinguishable from the economic logic of neoliberalism.

The  same “taxonomical” image of thought, which post-colonial theorist Walter Mignolo attributes to both the European Enlightenment and the genesis of Western racial stereotyping, is the gist not only of identity politics, but what the famous Harvard economist Theodore Levitt in the 1980s named the “marketing imagination”, i.e., the theory that the key to corporate profitability and an expanding consumer base amounts to the power to symbolically differentiate “generic” commodities without altering their substance.

Significantly, Levitt is also credited with giving currency in the same book to the term “globalization.”  The symbolic fractalization of human identities through a constantly amplified rhetoric of the need to recognize their socio-historical marginalization and displacement turns the “humanities” into a pliable instrument not only neutralizing their critical power of discernment, but for streamlining their “practical” use for the “multicultural” or “intercultural” exercise of corporate economic power.

It is better, for instance, to “understand” and be sympathetic to Islam in its plain vanilla “religious traditions” format rather than its complex, ambivalent real legacy, for example, if one wants to make deals for an oil company with the emirs of the Gulf states.  It is better to “racialize” the study of immigration and immigrant culture, effectively sealing it off from its perplexing politico-economic dimensions and any serious Marxian-style study of labor and class analysis, in order that wages can be increasingly depressed for workers in a neoliberal, globalized world order.

In The Making of Indebted Man Lazzarato shows how under neoliberalism the “subjectivity” of a caring society is alchemized through the confabulation of political rhetoric into a thoroughly instantiated and embedded system of personal liability and fieflike servitude.  “It is debt and the creditor-debtor relationship that make up the subjective paradigm of modern-day capitalism, in which ‘labor’ is coupled with ‘work on the self,’ in which economic activity and the ethico-political activity of producing the subject go hand-in-hand. Such “work on the self,” can be the entrepreneurial praxis of what in popular lingo is known as “self-help” and “motivational” training, which is usually geared to some kind of profitable economic enterprise.

In line with Harvey’s assessment it becomes easy to see that the imperative to consume cloaks itself in the “evaluative” patois of personal freedom, the very generative grammar of neoliberalism with its honey-tongued celebration of “rational actors” making choices that ultimately confirm the wisdom of “markets.”   But, as Lazzarato points out, “the debt economy is characterized not only by anti-production but also by what we might call antidemocracy.”  He cites the way in which the Greeks in the summer of 2015 were subjected to ferocious austerity measures by both the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.

Harvey, a well-known historian as well as theoretician, stresses that neoliberalism was always a system of co-optation or, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call it, an “apparatus of capture.”  In a nutshell, neoliberalism has captured the moral passions and sentimentality of educated cultural progressives in the developed world to advance the causes of the new planetary “captains of industry.”

According to Harvey, neoliberalism was launched in the 1970s as “an open project around the restoration of economic power to a small elite would probably not gain much popular support”. Neoliberalism picked up and preyed upon the street cries of political radicals for the loosening of restrictions by the state on moral behavior as well as more individual autonomy and “grass-roots” control of social and educational institutions.  The ubiquitous New Left slogan of “freedom now”, expropriated from the traditions of Western liberal political economy itself, became the basis for what Nietzsche would call the “revaluation” of all organizational value-standards and norms for evaluation.

At the same time, it hybridized this libertarian proclivities with the newfound interest in promoting “social justice,” building upon the realization among the swelling numbers of the college educated that the historic ideals of liberty and equality had been severely compromised by the concentration of state power since the early twentieth century.  In Harvey’s words, “neoliberal rhetoric, with its foundational emphasis upon individual freedoms, has the power to split off libertarianism, identity politics, multiculturalism, and eventually narcissistic consumerism from the social forces ranged in pursuit of social justice through the conquest of state power.”(41)

The result, Harvey argues, was the creation of a new more “socially conscious”, meritocratic ruling class which, particularly after the collapse of Communism, employed various political “wedge issues” to gain political dominance and gradually economic hegemony, which became the adhesive for its new, expanding global empire.

The financial crisis of 2008 was indeed the climax of predatory lending practices.  But it was also promoted by both the Clinton and Bush administrations as a strategy for increasing home ownership among previously marginalized groups – a classic tactic of neoliberalism.  The fact that the banks which had sponsored this predatory lending were immediately bailed out by the very government that had backed them (unlike in previous crises where financial institutions take the hit) under the pretext of forestalling the social chaos which its very practices had engendered.

Neoliberalism, as Lazzarato argues, seduces with the promise of freedom, but ends up disenfranchising those who are caught up within it while slapping on the irons of debt servitude.  In the end it can only “govern the economy through drastic limits to democracy and a no less drastic drop in the expectations of the governed.”(159)

The concept of economic exchange, mirroring the fiction of the social contract, assumes a voluntaristic set of primal social relationships, when in fact the universal, abject condition that Freud described as “hunger and love”, or basic need and extravagant desire, inevitably prevent the possibility of any original equilibrium as fantasized by the classical political economists.  The neoliberal “social state”, which pretends to overcome all historical disequilibrium to the extent that it claims to regulate the means of production while distributing fairly and justly the fruits of collective labor, becomes a “total” system of “capture” — i.e., “expropriation” in the traditional, Marxian sense —  of the lives and livelihoods of those who are inscribed within it.  The cycle itself is self-reinforcing.

In Governing By Debt Lazzarato argues that the “democratic” promise of future consumption by the neoliberal state betokens a crisis that “does not reveal a mere economic failure but rather a breakdown in the political relationship between appropriation, distribution, and production.  Growth cannot pull us out of the crisis, only new principles of appropriation, ownership, and production can.” (56-7) The growth of the system is inseparable from the growth of the state and its un-democratic machinery of capture.

Interestingly, Lazzarato in the second chapter of Governing By Debt singles out the American university as the ganglion of the neoliberal debt-capture-expropriation machine.  He characterizes the university itself as “the model of the debt society.”  According to Lazzarato, “the American student perfectly embodies the condition of the indebted man by serving as a paradigm for the conditions of subjectivation of the debt economy one finds throughout society.”

The fact that almost 70 percent of students graduating from American universities have financed their education through loans, and many with enormous sums, means that even the most highly sought-after forms of employment are but glorified versions of nineteenth century menial labor where every day workers, as the old song goes, got “another day older and deeper in debt”.

The federal government, or the private banks whose student lending operations are secured by the government with no possibility of default, literally becomes the “company store” to which the worker owes his or her “soul.”  As Lazzarato stresses, “students are indebted before entering the job market and stay indebted for life.”(66)  But this conjuration of a new “universal” class of chattel where the master-slave relationship is no longer one of personal ownership, but a lifelong fealty toward the state itself does not arise from the traditional workings of indenture.  “Students contract their debts by their own volition: they then quite literally become accountable for their lives and…they become managers.”(67)

They are not, as in the old paradigm of indenture, merely struggling to survive or feed their families.  They are challenged all the way from grade school onward to become (in Foucault’s words) “entrepreneurs of the self”, who believe they are commissioned to add value not only to their own lives, but to others.  Unlike the monks of yore who took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, they are joyfully pledged instead to a life of indebtedness, profligacy, and self-seeking all the while under the powerful illusion that they are maximizing “human potential” while relying on the neoliberal state to establish justice.

Neoliberalism from the outset was, strictly speaking, a conscious effort to give capitalism a “human face” by mitigating the human exploitation and suffering Marx had so brilliantly diagnosed in the 1840s.  At the same time, neoliberalism was from its inception a coup d’etat masquerading as “democratic” reform.  Germany’s “iron chancellor” Bismarck was the one who first envisioned its basic “biopolitical” operating system, seeking to foil incipient proletarian rebellions with such innovations now taken for granted as rudimentary pensioning and the creation of the “common school.”  The Great Depression forced the hand of Sozialstaat (“social state”) planners by requiring that similar kinds of anti-insurrectionary measures also be applied in the fiscal and monetary spheres.

The economist John Maynard Keynes, whose grand designs were focused not on transcending but “saving capitalism,” became therefore the shadow architect of neoliberalism with his revolutionary theories about regulating the business cycle in order to reduce economic risk and, especially, with his programs of artificially stimulating consumption in times of downturn through deficit spending.  Although present day, pop political economists such as Paul Krugman have emphatically denied the historical ties between Keynesianism and neoliberalism, the historical record speaks for itself.

Foucault in his Collège de France lectures documents in great detail how the “theology” of neoliberalism constitutes a mirror of the Catholic theology of salvation with its emphasis on epimeleia heautou, or “care of the self”, “a notion which permeates all Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman philosophy, as well as Christian spirituality, up to the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.”(11)

Foucault asks why Western thought “neglected” this theme in its reconstruction of itself.  “How did it come about that we accorded so much privilege, value, and intensity to the ‘know yourself’ and omitted, or at least, left in the shadow, this notion of care of the self that, in actual fact, historically, when we look at the documents and texts, seem to have framed the principle of ‘know yourself’ from the start and to have supported an extremely rich and dense set of notions, practices, ways of being, forms of existence, and so on?”(12)

But the principle of the “care of the self, as it finds it ways from classical paideia to the Medieval penitential system, is not the linchpin of classical egoism or libertarian self-sufficiency, as is commonly assumed.  Curia ad se constitutes an entrepreneurial ethic of obsessive self-formation under the guises a systematic corporate ascesis for the sake of the “greater good,” that is, for the sustenance of the biopolitical appareil, whether that be the “church universal” or modern secular social democracy.

What Is To Be Done?

We need thus to conclude then with Chernyshevsky’s question of “what is to be done”?  How can the humanities effectively be emancipated from neoliberalism, and what are the zones of resistance?  One of the challenges facing the instauration of the civic humanities is that their “neoliberalization” over the past several decades has undermined the very notion of the “civic” itself.

Although the term “civic” ultimately derives from the Latin civis (or “city”), it came during late antiquity to imply a certain universalism, as in the implicit equation of Romanitas with humanitas, the ideal of a world-unifying drive toward empire enabling the creation of a new, higher notion of a cultivated human species.  Christian universalism over time absorbed this particular form of Roman cosmopolitanism with the difference that it expressed a commitment to “equality” of all human beings in the eyes of God, even if it had to await more than a millennium for this “heavenly” vision to be brought down to earth in the modern enthusiasm for secular democracy.  The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century represented the high water mark of such a “civilizational” universalism, which spawned a variety of revolutions from the American to the French and the various socialist transformations of the twentieth century.

The Identitarianism that spawned the politicization of the humanities in the latter quarter of the 1900s and the ethno-nationalist revolts currently underway in the Western world are ironically both the product of the neoliberal fracturing of all previous universalistic “grand narratives.”  Whereas identitarianism was borne in the 1960s as a unique form of Realpolitik, speaking the truth of the time that the emperor of democratic universalism had no clothes because of the entrenchment of structural discrimination against women and minorities which the latter seemed incapable of recognizing, it slowly morphed into a rhetoric of “class privilege” in its own right, embalming the hypocrisy of a presumed “panoptical” view of human belief and behavior as uniformly motivated by assorted bigotries (i.e., lack of appreciation for genuine “otherness”) emanating not from personal human failings but from one’s Sitz im Leben, the facticity of one’s identity itself.

The idea that one always “spoke” from some standpoint of warped self-reference, whether it be racial, gender, or cultural positioning, has been central to this strange sort of “hermeneutics of the subject.”  But, as Foucault himself underscored, such a hermeneutics was in telling measure the unavoidable denouement of the long “pastoral” tradition of self-curation, throwing in relief one’s own eternally contested subjectivity that must be both competitively elaborated and psychologically buttressed in a bloodless war of all against all that defines the “entrepreneurship” of the self.

Could the civic humanities turn out to be some kind of strategy for ameliorating such a personalized and “postmodern” version of Thomas Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra bellum (“war of all against all”)?  The question is apt.  However, to provide a serious answer we cannot really draw on any standard or current models, past or present, most of which fit the long-evolving neoliberal paradigm in some sense.

The justification for the “civic humanities” in a broad sense was always tied in with the assumption that a liberally educated person would be more engaged thoughtfully in the public sphere.  In fact, for quite a while following the endowment act of 1965, the conception of what we now know as “civic humanities” was interchangeable with the supposition that everything from English literature to art history could be leveraged to make debates about public policy, if not its actual implementation, more efficacious.   By the closing years of the century this demand for a purely pragmatic tie-in between humanities scholarship and the concrete political process, exploited on the main to keep the spigots of federal funding for the endowments themselves open and flowing, had worn thin.

A shift toward a less specific connotation for what was meant by “public” in the case the humanities came into fashion.  The more nebulous category of “civic engagement,” which better fit the original model of educating for “citizenship” in an overarching sense, gained currency.   Nevertheless, the emphasis still fell on the humanities as a prosthesis for enforcing the present political climate through ideas.

As James Veninga wrote in the Nineties in making his own passionate case for such a project,  “education for citizenship” (which the consensual role for the humanities) should have a broader meaning simply Jefferson’s desire for an informed voting populace.  “First,” he stresses, “we can no longer hide from the realities of American cultural pluralism.”  It is incumbent that students be inculcated in an “understanding of our multiple traditions, faiths, and values as is possible” with the aim of finding “new ways to combat racism and prejudice, to rectify our past mistakes, and to foster cross-cultural understanding and goodwill. (132)

Furthermore, it is no longer viable for the humanities to “hide under the protective intellectual blanket of the Western tradition.  Globalization necessitates a “commitment to civic conversation” at an international level that will engender “worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s highest qualities.”(134)

If “civic humanities” during the Cold War era was tooled overwhelming to promulgate the virtues of a “free people” in the propaganda battle with international Communism, from 1991 onward it became a powerful instrument for advancing the emergent and somewhat nebulous catechism of “global citizenship,” in other words the functional values of the neoliberal, transnational elites.  The confluence of identity politics with the economic agendas of these elites, as a number of radical theorists (especially Slavoj Žižek) have started to play up.

Given the feeling of second-class citizenship that the academic humanities has persistently experienced vis-à-vis the STEM disciplines and the social sciences, which have been habitually funded at a federal level, it is only natural that university-seated entrepreneurs themselves would seek to genuflect to the prevailing political consensus.  After all, that has been the hallmark of the relationship between patron and protégé since the dawn of the modern era.  If it is not the government, then it is the local economic development council with its blueprint for encouraging arts districts and cultural “third spaces” that will ultimately attract visitors to blighted downtown areas and attract business while boosting real estate values.

“Civic humanities”, if it is not merely consigned to the permanent status of a “kept” discipline by the prevailing powers that be, must develop its site of resistance on its own, not by playing one public leadership constituency off another.  In order to shatter the neoliberal “dream machine,” it must go out into the streets and nurture the kind of “critical” perspective (as in the old and new prototype of discourse as “critical theory”) that constantly calls the biopolitical touchstones and procedures of normative learning to an unprecedented account.

It must have something akin to Antonin Artaud’s imaginary of a “theater of cruelty” that shatters the framed staging of conventional plays and playwrights while dissolving the artificial boundary of performer and audience (or in this case student and professor, degree and credit-granting institution).  If universities want genuinely to adopt “civic humanities” as brand markers, they must embrace the notion of community intellectual spaces not merely as public, but as populist, terrains.

In an era when the neoliberal “apparatus” for manufacturing and maintaining knowledge hegemonies is dissolving globally before our eyes, it is time for the bold to mobilize for the genuine “knowledge revolution” that is coming and to speak with a genuine and resonating parrhesia of public discourse.  If there is truly a “philosophy of the future”, as Nietzsche envisioned, it will occur in the cafes and coffee houses of the citoyen on the street, as it did in France on the eve of its numerous insurgencies and revived republics.

In bringing Francis Bacon into the twenty-first century, we might rephrase his famous dictum that “knowledge is power” to offer a presentiment of what a true civic humanities might turn out to be – knowledge as event.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, author of numerous books and an editor for major online publications, including Religious Theory and Political Theology Today.  He is also co-founder of the Global Art & Ideas Nexus.

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