The following is the first of a two-part series. A longer version is published in .PDF version in an upcoming issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.
Neoliberalism, The “Knowledge Society”, and the Birth of Biopolitics
The results of the Presidential election of 2016 struck the academic thought-world like a devastating hurricane that few expected to make landfall. In the run-up to the election, and in discussions that followed, one term kept coming up that had been used increasingly over the previous two decades, but more specifically in relationship to the global financial crisis of 2008. It was “neoliberalism.”
The topic has become inescapable within our current discourse, but has been rarely discussed in any serious way. It has been constantly named, yet hardly ever diagnosed. Injected into public conversation originally as a very specific, qualifying term to make sense of what at the time were new and unprecedented trends in global politics and economics, it became a bald term of disparagement for everything that seems to be wrong, especially if one is speaking from some minimally “progressive” perspective, with the world in general.
At the same time the term during the same period has accumulated to itself a corpus of significant, as well as insightful, academic literature that provides both heft and precision for any kind of evolving analysis, even if the meaning of the expression itself remains rather opaque. Until recently, because of the work of the Marxist-leaning British economist and historian David Harvey, “neoliberalism” was intimately associated at its core with the post-Communist collapse of command economies and the unbounded flow of financial capitalism across borders. Francis Fukuyama’s paen in 1992 to “free-markets” as a hypothesized driver of liberal democracies in his best-selling book The End of History and the Last Man was for almost two decades regarded as the grand neoliberal manifesto of that era. With the financial crash of 2008, however, it was not only the ideological euphoria, but the very nuances of the term “neoliberalism” that began to morph in an unanticipated manner.
In recent years the expression has come to come to acquire strong social, cultural, and political overtones, especially in light of wage stagnation and galloping global income inequality. The recent surge of impassioned populist movements on both the right and the left, not just in the United States but throughout the Western world, has been ignited by a thorough disenchantment on the part of the Western middle classes with the promises of “free market capitalism”.
Yet these movements have at the same time been fomented, largely on the right, by a growing perception that the moral and religious, even moreso than the economic, rhetoric of the neoliberal “dream machine” masks pernicious class interests and strategies of domination. Whereas in the traditional Marxist “class war” set piece the bourgeois spirituality of personal rectitude, ethical development, and fidelity to family values masks a deeper politics of private avarice that finds its consummate expression in the well-being of middle class at the expense of an exploited urban proletariat, in what might be described as an emerging, post-Marxist or neo–neo-Marxist “hermeneutics of suspicion” the middle class itself is increasingly duped, cozened, and prostituted through an appeal to what Nietzsche dubbed the “highest values”, which are exploited by the new “cosmopolitan” elites to solidify what is becoming a global empire founded on what might be characterized as financial feudalism.
The most prominent among these new theorists who have shed some light on the landscape of the newly identified political and cultural constellations of neoliberalism include American political theorist Wendy Brown, Italian-French social philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato, French cultural theorist Paul Virilio, the anonymous collection texts published originally under the name of the erstwhile French journal Tiqqun, and American political scientist Lester Spence, who focuses on how the neoliberal mentality has infected African-American thought.
As Brown writes in her signature work Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, neoliberalism “is best understood not simply as econhttp://undoing the demosomic policy, but as a governing rationality that disseminates market values and metrics to every sphere of life and construes the human itself exclusively as homo oeconomicus.”. This version of homo oeconomicus is nonetheless strikingly different from the “homo oeconomicus of yore.” Instead, neoliberalism is all about the production of “subjects, including citizen subjects,” which “are configured by the market metrics of our time as self-investing human capital.”(176)
Unlike the subject of classical nineteenth century liberalism, which political philosophy in keeping with the Enlightenment tradition theorized as rational and “autonomous” and capable of making intelligent decisions according to the promptings of one’s own “self-interests” (which Marx of course sought to decipher exclusively as class interests), neoliberal subjects, according to Brown, are “valued and desired almost exclusively for their contribution to capital enhancement,” regardless of “whether than capital is human, corporate, or financial.”(177) Such capital “is not sought for developing the capacities of citizens, sustaining culture, knowing the world, or envisioning and crafting different ways of life in common.”(177-8) Rather, it is designed to promote docile and obedient “knowledge workers”, along with the inexorable elimination of material labor itself in the worldwide advance of integrated, transnational corporate, government, and educational systems managed by a numerically shrinking, yet increasingly powerful, self-dealing, Machiavellian new ruling class.
There is widespread agreement among scholars that Foucault in his Collège de France lectures during the late Seventies and early Eighties was the first to identify the underlying forces and factors that we now know as neoliberalism. During his slowly evolving historical study of the transition from what he called “the disciplinary society” to the advent of “biopower”, Foucault deftly made us aware that the forms of social control and political authority in the post-industrial period cannot be merely reified into some kind of axis of “power/knowledge” without examining their semiotic makeup, that is, the way they function in a garden variety context as interoperable sign-processes.
Even “economic” processes can no longer be taken apart in the way they were in Marx’s day as mere “dialectical” or material phenomena. They must be seen as modalities of linguistic rule-making which both precede and provide the final shape for the “objects” of political criticism and cultural change-making.
Often the terms “neoliberalism” and “capitalism” are rhetorically conflated as one in popular progressive rhetoric with the latter seen as the true bogey. The problem with this conflation, as Foucault and Harvey have repeatedly showed us, is that “capitalism” historically from Adam Smith through Karl Marx onward has functioned largely, although not exclusively, as an economic construct, whereas “neoliberalism” is a term saturated with various unrecognized political significations and hidden intentionalities, thus betraying its hybrid nature.
The “economic” form of neoliberalism, as we are beginning to realize, is a merely a contingent manifestation of what Foucault dubbed the biopolitical means of “governmentality”. Ever since Adam Smith we have derived the familiar types of political organization from economic means of production and distribution (as implied in the eighteenth century concept of “political economy.”
Thus a productive analysis of neoliberalism requires in many ways, as Lazzarato has made clear to us, an investigation into the value-sources of our social and economic condition — a good, old-fashioned, Nietzschean “genealogy of morals.” According to the various theorists we have mentioned, neoliberalism (taking into account their different degrees of emphasis) amounts to a configuration of power relations in an expressive articulation of embedded social valuations. These valuations, in turn, frequently employ the rhetoric of economicism — and economic “well-being” — both to mask the reality of elite domination and to exploit the humane instincts of those who are dominated.
In short. homo neoliberalismus only wears the colorful costumes of classical homo oeconomicus. Like Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, homo neoliberalismus is a grand illusionist who manipulates our willingness to be enchanted by what Nietzsche called the “moral view of the world” to our ultimate servitude. Every historical form whereby this articulation is made manifest consists in what Foucault called a dispositif, an “apparatus” whereby power, knowledge, discourse, and personal inclination are mobilized and intercalated to produce such a magic theater of signs, what Michael has termed without irony the “politics of meaning.”
Neoliberalism is the munificent politics of personal meaning in the late era of consumer capitalism that masquerades as an old-style conservatorship of economic interest (consider the constant polemical sop of preserving the “middle class”), while relentlessly encumbering through an endless financialization of their private wherewithal and assets (credit cards, mortgages, student loans, taxes) that become the sole “property” of banks, hedge fund managers, and “crony capitalist” allies within government.
Just as the double-sided dispotif (as Foucault called neoliberal “techniques” of administration), the Middle Ages was the castle on the hill (protecting town and manor against the armies of rival feudal lords) and the cathedral (building thick stone fortifications to insulate the unity of the holy catholic faith against the wiles of the devil). In the industrial era it was the factory with its concentration of productive power supposedly protecting the social order against want and idleness.
In the twenty-first century it has become the corporate-government-university-financial-information complex, leveraging some of efficacious strategies of Foucauldian biopower to guarantee globally diverse populations not just the “democratic” delights of self-improvement and personal advancement, but a solid defense against all the terrors and predations that have gone before in human history.
The vast taxing, regulatory, and welfare apparatus of the state replaces classical raison d’etat, and the new “governmentality” of neoliberal biopower whose coercion is primarily “discursive” supplants the disciplinary systems of the moribund industrial order. In Brown’s terms, neoliberalism becomes a “governing political rationality” , one which ironically, however, effaces what has historically been called the “political” and, especially in the age of globalization, substitutes for it a faux “cosmo-polis” that “undoes the demos” and subtly weaves what she calls a pure “economization” of subjective life, which distributes, identifies (through new systems of signification and classifications), mobilizes, administrates, and (shall we say) “catechizes” not just the bodies, but the hearts and minds, of vast planetary populations.
Such “governance”, Brown says, “is not only or by nature neoliberal,” but neoliberalism has “increasingly saturated its formulations and development.”
The “security state” in all its subtle economic, military, and therapeutic manifestations is the avatar of neoliberalism. It seeks to create an apparatus whereby administrative reason is able, according to Brown, to persuade us to “accept reality” and react “to reality in a non-random way”.(122) Neoliberal rationality is actually, as British philosopher Joshua Ramey notes in a brilliant new book, a form of “divinatory politics” that seeks, as did the emperors and kings of old with their haruspexes and soothsayers when faced with imminent threats to state power, to advance the “exploitation of uncertainty” through the magic of computer algorithms and ever more esoteric explanatory models of human collective behavior.
The magical theatre of such neoliberal rationality could not be found only in the “special investment vehicles” of Wall Street which were overwhelmingly one of the main causes of the financial crash of 2008. We find it in political polling, health care complexes, the transmogrification of the whole of personal biographies into actuarial and demographic forecasting. But it also works in the age of social media, by means of the instant mobilization for both partisan purposes and narcissistic self-righteousness, along the lines of what Lille Chouriaraki calls “ironic spectatorship”, i.e., reactive, immediate, and unreflective self-expression in the name of the good, the true, or the just.
The power of moral outrage and collecting “shaming”, which in an earlier era was available only to political and social leadership with its privileged access to broadcast communications, now is extended to the masses through Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, or YikYak who, while believing themselves to be masters of their own opinions, dutifully carry out the “soft-coded” value imperatives of the neoliberal dominion.
As Foucault so brilliantly brought to light in his Collège de France lectures, the advent of biopolitics in the modern age is the result of a long, sequestered, yet inexorable evolution of the valorization of what he calls the “pastorate” in Western culture. For Foucault, the pastorate are the custodians of what the latter famously dubbed the “moral-Christian” metaphysics that has suffused Western epistemology from Plato forward. The pastorate encrypts the real in terms of a signifying praxis of ethical responsibility for the lowly, the mediocre, and the ordinary, all the while elevating the “priestly” function of guilt assignment and assuaging in such a manner that curial power is perpetually reinforced and multiplied.
This kind of “revaluation” of values, which according to Nietzsche can be traced back to the Christian church in its earliest instantiations, elevates confession over innocent vitality, self-abnegation over self-affirmation, systemic social distributions of Hegel’s “unhappy consciousness” with its irremediable guilt psychology that are endlessly absolved and administered by way of spiritual triage by the pastorate itself.
Foucault writes in Security, Territory, Population that from the late Middle Ages all the “struggles that culminated in the Wars of Religion were fundamentally struggles over who would have the right to govern me, and to govern them in their daily life and in the details and materiality of their existence…This great battle of pastorship traversed the West from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century, and ultimately without ever getting rid of the pastorate.” Once the promise of heaven dissolves into the various secular heterotopias for the “pursuit of happiness” from the Enlightenment onward, the pastoral oversight of spiritual credits and debits is transformed into the benevolent biopolitics of the liberal state.
Biopower and the Humanities
The exercise of biopower, as Foucault conceived it, began to be applied to the arts and humanities in the mid-1960s by President Lyndon Johnson with the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The rhetoric of “biopoitics” suffuses the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, passed into law just about the time the administration launched the military build-up that eventually engulfed the nation in both the Vietnam War and the social strife and division it generated. According to the Declaration of Findings and Purposes framing the legislation, the rationale for the Act can be summarized as follows:
(1) The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States.
(2) The encouragement and support of national progress and scholarship in the humanities and the arts, while primarily a matter for private and local initiative, are also appropriate matters of concern to the Federal Government.
(3) An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.
(4) Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.
(5) It is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to complement, assist, and add to programs for the advancement of the humanities and the arts by local, State, regional, and private agencies and their organizations. In doing so, the Government must be sensitive to the nature of public sponsorship. Public funding of the arts and humanities is subject to the conditions that traditionally govern the use of public money…
(6) The arts and the humanities reflect the high place accorded by the American people to the nation’s rich cultural heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups.
(7) The practice of art and the study of the humanities require constant dedication and devotion. While no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.
(8) The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit.
(9) Americans should receive in school, background and preparation in the arts and humanities to enable them to recognize and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of our lives, the diversity of excellence that comprises our cultural heritage, and artistic and scholarly expression.
(10) It is vital to a democracy to honor and preserve its multicultural artistic heritage as well as support new ideas, and therefore it is essential to provide financial assistance to its artists and the organizations that support their work. (11) To fulfill its educational mission, achieve an orderly continuation of free society, and provide models of excellence to the American people, the Federal Government must transmit the achievement and values of civilization from the past via the present to the future, and make widely available the greatest achievements of art.
Clauses (1), (2), and (7) are particularly telling. Statement (1) makes a clear political claim, implying in effect that all ideas have a political component to them and are therefore a “public” asset. It does not say that only those modes of “intellectual property” funded by a public trust of some sort comprise such assets. It makes a sweeping claim that the “arts and humanities” in general have a status similar to public lands in the nation. This “federalization” of intellectual property is further stressed in sentence (2).
If (1) and (2) articulate the biopolitical rationale for a certain version of the “civic humanities,” section (7) lays out what might be termed the “generative” argument for the intervention of biopower in the management of what were in the nineteenth century labelled by German scholarship the “spiritual sciences” (Geisteswissenschaft). A distinctively “Prussian” mobilization of intellectual resources for the “health”, well-being, and ultimately material productivity of the population at large as a result of the deployment of certain state-claimed “immaterial” resources, henceforth, is proposed in this legislation.
As Foucault notes, it is the function of the biopolitical regime to foster a “climate” for human thriving, not simply preserve “bare life” (the Greek zoe as opposed to bios), as Giorgio Agamben has termed the minimalist aim of the state apparatus as first enunciated by Thomas Hobbes, the first architect of post-Christian political theory, in his Leviathan. The promotion of bios beyond the guarantee of zoe through the political apparatus is the hallmark of biopolitics in Foucault’s reckoning.
A “biopolitical” regime strives, in contradistinction with the way it is frequently misunderstood by its critics, not so much for the control as for the management of the essentials of what might be designated as the “good life”, the teleology of a type of humanity that aspires to the status of what Aristotle described as the zoon politikon – in other words “bare life” that is not merely qualified, but alchemized, through a “political” means of organization that elevates it to a qualitatively new plane of distinction.
That is essentially why in the classical age through Roman times and up until the Renaissance the concept of humanitas had less to do with what came to be dubbed simply Existenz in the late nineteenth and twentieth century (with a range of connotation that could not be applied to those “human beings” excluded from participation in some way in the life of the state, such as Jews, refugees, or all kinds of displaced persons) than it did with those “citizens” who were considered to be “proper” human beings who could be located somewhere within the political realm and credited with a certain recognizable “civil” status as well as a capacity for discursive reason that became by at least the eighteenth century the goal of educational institutions to cultivate and the business of the bureaucracy to bolster and regulate.
Historical memory is short, and the real motivations for Johnson’s initiative is not completely well-understood. Newspaper accounts at the time did not make that much of it, even though the notion of the government supporting the humanities as part of the nascent Great Society initiatives seemed somewhat novel and unprecedented. At the same time, it was nowhere near as controversial as the introduction of guaranteed medical care for retirees under the name of Medicare, which was perhaps the signature legislation next to the Civil Rights Act during those years.
The moves to establish the NEA and the NEH came right after Johnson’s landslide re-election to the Presidency in 1964 and a little more than a year after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Legislation to establish the endowments was engineered by Congressman William Moorhead of Pennsylvania, who in turn was acting on recommendations of a report issued by the National Commission on the Humanities, a body which itself had only been founded the year before after lobbying by several major professional societies.
The shocking death of Kennedy along with the national psychological trauma it caused, combined with the apocalyptic mood of the country immediately following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and the ongoing confrontation with the Soviet Union around the globe, precipitated a kind of spiritual crisis that most Americans at the time believed only the federal government and its elected representatives could appropriately address.
Emboldened by a burgeoning national economy and an overweening collective conviction of American exceptionalism that hitherto had been channeled predominantly into economic and technological prowess, a consensus was ripening that what at the time was known as “industrial policy” should not be directed only at funding the sciences, but fortifying the American character itself throughout the population as a whole.
As Glenn Seaborg, who was not a humanities scholar but a scientist, told a Senate Committee in the run-up to passage of the legislation, “we cannot afford to drift physically, morally, or esthetically in a world in which the current moves so rapidly perhaps toward an abyss.”
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.