Ruined resentments

Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019). 264pp., £62.00hb., £22.00 pb., 978 0 23155 053 6 hb., 978 0 23119 385 6 pb.

Wendy Brown has been one of the foremost critical theorists and political commentators on the left since the publication of States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity in 1995. Her work has many virtues; its clarity of exposition, its willingness to blend high theory with topical examples, and its admirable interest in examining theory produced by people on the other end of the political spectrum. But its defining feature is Brown’s fascination with modernity and an effort to keep alive the kind of grand critique of the age, which many scholars in her generation – often under the influence of post-structuralist philosophies – shied away from. Unlike authors with similarly epochal ambitions, such as David Harvey or Slavoj Žižek, Brown has also engaged in this critique without ultimately appealing to a comprehensive theoretical framework such as Marxism or Lacanian-Hegelianism. This gives Brown’s work a democratic quality, as her many sources of authorial inspiration dialogue and wrestle with one another throughout her texts. At its best this makes for thrillingly erudite reading. Her new book In The Ruins of Neoliberalism demonstrates all of the virtues Brown brings to her best work, while displaying a new level of focus and synthetic acumen.

In the Ruins is the culmination of a decade of theoretical reflection on the nature of neoliberal societies. Brown’s short 2010 book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty now seems prophetic in its insistence that with the destabilisation of national and individual identities brought about by global capitalism, the idea of walls takes on a new symbolic resonance. Brown argued that modern governments seek to shore up communal homogeneity by erecting legal and psychical barriers against an invasive ‘other’ responsible for this destabilisation while insulating capital from reform. The election of Donald Trump in 2016, around the rallying promise to build a wall along the Mexican border, makes the book look extremely acute in hindsight. Brown’s 2015 book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution continued the analysis in a more systematic manner. Here, she interprets neoliberalism as a governing rationality which economises everything while corroding forms and institutions of democratic opposition. Undoing the Demos is a more empirically driven work which examines the impact of neoliberal reforms on the ground. Both books are rigorous, but lack a decisive engagement with the rationality of neoliberalism understood on its own terms. In the Ruins completes the overall project, while also enriching and demanding reexamination of the earlier works, by responding to the arguments of major neoliberal thinkers, while showcasing the failings of their ideas in practice. The conclusions link these failures to the rise of Trumpism in 2016 and its resentment-driven politics.

F.A Hayek emerges as the chief intellectual foil of the book. Looking at the nuances of his work takes up the major parts of In the Ruins’s opening chapters. Brown’s ambition is to show how many of the failings of neoliberalism which are currently being lamented by its proponents were latent in the theoretical and political ambitions of intellectuals like Hayek from the beginning. She pushes convincingly against efforts to paint Hayek as a proto-libertarian thinker who emphatically rejected all forms of social hegemony and traditionalism. Of course Hayek himself occasionally implied such a rejection, as in his classic essay at the conclusion of The Constitution of Liberty with the ambiguous title ‘Why I Am Not A Conservative’. But Brown points out that throughout Hayek’s life he continuously stressed the importance of traditional morality, alongside capitalist markets, as generative of uncoerced order. This traditional morality ‘cannot be submitted to rational justification’ but emerges ‘spontaneously’ to organically hold society together. Individuals submit themselves to the imperatives of traditional morality without reflecting on it too deeply. This is just as well, since such reflection might prompt rationalising efforts to deconstruct traditional morality in theory and thence democratic agitation to reject it in practice. As Brown puts it:

Freedom for Hayek is not emancipation, it is not power to enact one’s will. Indeed, it is not even choice. Importantly it is also not independence of the traditions generating rules of conduct and the habits of following them. Hayek writes in one of his notebooks ‘restraint is a condition, not the opposite of freedom.’ … Hayekian freedom, then, has nothing to do with emancipation from accepted social norms or powers. Rather it is the uncoerced capacity for endeavour and experimentation within codes of conduct generated by tradition and enshrined in just law, markets, and morality. Schooled by Edmund Burke, whom he modernises via Darwin, Hayek marvels at the capacity of tradition to produce social harmony and integration along with a means of change, all without recourse to the coercive agency of institutions or groups.

For Brown, this point is key to understanding the entire neoliberal project and why it appealed to many contemporary conservatives. It also demonstrates why the apparent break between neoliberalism and reactionary Trumpism is less stark than it might initially appear.

For Hayek and other neoliberals, morality and the markets operate in tandem to generate order and prosperity for all. But they will always be threatened by those who rationally seek to justify and then criticise the seeming arbitrariness and hierarchical stratification produced by moralistic capitalism. Often these progressives march under the banner of social justice; in particular by demanding the devolution of sovereignty to the demos so that it can redistribute power and wealth more equally. For Hayek and other neoliberals this would be an appalling development. But how then to push against ongoing progressive demands without lapsing into authoritarianism and silencing dissent? As is well known, some neoliberals, including Hayek himself at points, were willing to bite the bullet by flirting with authoritarian regimes which enforced moralistic capitalism and halted the emergence of socialist democracy. Pinochet´s Chile and apartheid South Africa are prominent examples, but such instances were obviously not ideal since they exposed the limitations to freedom that neoliberalism was supposed to overcome. Instead, Brown claims the neoliberals deployed three techniques to maintain the status quo without resort to strict authoritarianism. Firstly, they sought to limit legislative power by halting efforts to deliberate and pass laws related to regulating the market or encouraging emancipation from traditional morality. Secondly, neoliberals discredited all talk of ‘social justice’ as nonsensical and potentially totalitarian. And finally, the law was to be used to provide protections for personal morality beyond the private sphere. This last technique was especially important, and Brown goes on to unpack its ramifications at length, providing an explanation for why many neoliberals were willing to support the efforts of employers to regulate the moral behaviour of their employees or provide protections enabling socially conservative women´s groups to spread false information about the health ‘dangers’ of abortion.

Brown´s analysis clarifies a great deal while challenging much conventional wisdom. Few critical theorists have managed to showcase the connections between the many different strands of neoliberal and conservative thinking and praxis so expertly, while still taking its main proponents seriously as intellectual opponents. Many of us (guilty as charged) have long been tempted to regard neoliberalism as a kind of super-liberalism or libertarianism, which created considerable puzzles in explaining why many traditionalist conservatives were attracted to its doctrines. The typical argument given is strategic rather than ideological; many strands of traditionalist conservatism supported unbridled capitalism and their alliance with neoliberals was therefore one of political realism rather than ideas. More probing commentators like Corey Robin in The Reactionary Mind took great efforts to show that there was a good deal more ideological overlap in the mutual desire to pushback against democratisation and preserve social hierarchies. Brown goes a step further in presenting the intricate connections between neoliberalism and traditionalism which far too many of us underestimated when reading The Road to Serfdom. This also helps highlight the connection between neoliberalism and the emergence of Trumpism.

The book’s last chapter returns Brown to the politics of resentment she has been probing since States of Injury decades ago. If the book’s first three chapters owe a big debt to critiques of neoliberalism from the left, Chapter Five operates on a more Nietzschean basis. She observes that, despite the rosy sublimations of neoliberal theorists and conservative traditionalists, the economisation of neoliberalisation led to a deepening nihilism and the desublimation of values. This creates a paradoxical reaction in conservative figures, who simultaneously resent the ‘disenchantment of the world’ while feeling liberated to unleash their anger against the Other they feel is responsible for the condition of nihilism. Invoking Marcuse´s theory of ‘repressive desublimation’ Brown characterises the Trumpist right as defined by exercises of an increasingly unconscionable and resentment-driven aggression to reinforce prejudice, violence and traditional values. Rather than deal with the social conditions which desacralise the world, generate inequality and create feelings of power in the face of capital, the Trumpist right directs its energies against the weak to support the strong. This is because its resentment is of a very different type than Nietzsche predicted; rather than being fired upwards against the masters it punches down towards those groups who are trying to use democratic agitation to level the social playing field. In particular, white middle-class men who feel increasingly disempowered by nihilistic economisation and inequality despise this democratising development, seeing it as a serious threat to their relatively esteemed status in the hierarchy. Many therefore put their faith in a racist, misogynistic President who seems unbound by discursive norms and is willing to offer a retrenchment of power against those who demand a fair share.

Brown´s reading in this concluding chapter impressively blends critical theory, economics, psychoanalysis and Nietzschean philosophy. Nonetheless, there are some limitations to her analysis. Perhaps the most important is that, crucial as Nietzsche is to her work, Brown largely ignores religious concerns about the importance of transcendent meaning and the challenges posed by secularisation. Indeed, not only does she largely ignore it, Nietzsche himself is chided for being ‘limited by his preoccupation with God and morality as they were being challenged by science and reason.’ A comprehensively critical project must put Nietzsche and Marx in dialogue by examining both material conditions and their ideologies and the dialectic of secularisation. There is good work being done in this area, such as in Jefferey Nichols´ interesting book Reason, Tradition, and the Good: MacIntyre´s Tradition Constituted Reason and Frankfurt School Critical Theory, but there is still much further to go. One hopes that Brown´s next work takes secularisation theory more seriously to weave it into the fascinating theoretical perspective she is developing.