Och, neoliberalism gives universality a bad name
Posted on January 22, 2012
For a wee while I’ve been thinking about the critical vocabularies of anti-neoliberalism – once you start… Now, only a fool would seek to defend the far reaches of the consequences of neoliberal ideology, and some of the nearer reaches too. Unfettered capitalism turboed by human greed combines to issue the evillest sibling of the Neoliberal family (and it is indeed useful to reify the phenomenon in something like human form so that we can crank up the animosity – the miscreant is an unparented individual wreaking havoc for personal gratification and for the gratification of the unethical groupie sponsors and gamblers who, dripping with acidic sycophancy, encircle the evil entity; all of which ugliness fuels the narcissism of the unparented individual in a cycle of terminal decline). This aberration was recently seen in perfectly perverse form in the Madoff Ponzi. Like countless other headline catastrophes of similar status, in the domain of economics, and socioeconomic criticism, that infamous episode is to be present forevermore as evidence of both the I-told-you-so and the to-be-avoided-at-all-costs. The Ponzi is the virulent, populist strain par excellence of the neoliberal family pathology, the horror being at least twofold – that it happened and that it was allowed to happen.
But, as an earlier post implied, for what it’s worth, I’m a little uneasy about the way in which anti-Neoliberal vocabularies have crept from their original mission and are now being repurposed with alacrity by the intellectual left to assault any formation or institution which might rely wholly or partly and actually upon conventional capitalism and which might also, or thus (according to the antagonist) exert oppressive power on a community likely unable (according to the antagonist) to resist that force, or, for that matter (according to the antagonist) even see it.
One of the upshots of this tendency in socioeconomic criticism is the temptation to read any intent towards the universal or the planetary as de facto pernicious, for, after all, the logic of neoliberal capital is global and it is purely satanic. The ardent (or is that unfettered?) leftist critic will say that such evil is evil because it purveys a toxic form of boundless dedifferentiation: by extension, therefore, any social or political or judicial system with similarly limitless planetary inclination has to be decried (in circular fashion) because its purview matches that of neoliberalism as described by its critics. Something which expresses that scale of ambition is for hardleft intellectuals the Great Depravity because the planetary tendency is not separated in their minds from final solutions that would find their meaning in the total, and actual, erasure of difference. And only a subhuman fool would seek to defend those heavy-industrial, 20thC solutions, that’s for sure.
Anti-capitalists are fond of using the acronym TINA to signal in shorthand the sarcastic phrase – ‘There Is No Alternative’ (no alternative, that is, to neoliberal infrastructure, or capitalism more generally). To use the acronym is to imply with a sneer that too many of us are now blinded by the mistaken idea that there is nothing that could possibly supersede liberal capitalism as the most plausible vehicle for the sociopolitical interests of Anglo-Euro-American countries and cultures. In its most caustic form, the phrase implies that those interests are themselves bankrupt for they are indistinguishable from the interests of advanced capital. It is the weak critical position of those who would believe that there is indeed no alternative that leads to the inevitable freeplay of capitalism of the neoliberal type, so the logic runs – followed by the jogging warming notion that all but the hardleft are simply too fucking complacent.
But my slant here, as it was in the earlier blogpost, is that there is something now so taken-as-read with the inquiry of the critic who deploys TINA on the front line of their tactical vocabulary that we should be concerned. Alain Touraine can help us see past this discursive dialectic, for it is a little bit stale.
Touraine’s Beyond Neoliberalism (2001 in English) smells the staleness:
Is our society still capable of using its ideas, hopes and conflicts to act upon itself? Attempts are being made on all sides to convince us that this question has to be answered in the negative. The liberals ask us to abandon what they see as a cumbersome exceptionality and to let ourselves be guided by the markets. At the other extreme, the ultra-left is content to denounce domination and to speak in the name of victims who have supposedly been prevented from understanding the meaning of their situation.
Touraine is worried that the staleness is a by-product of an intellectual and political stasis – a situation grounded on the assumption ‘that social and political change is no longer possible, and that the only possible action that can be taken against economic domination is revolt and an appeal to difference, and that leads to the break up of society’. Touraine’s response is to defend in his work and life three ideas:
The first is that the globalization of the economy has not dissolved our capacity for political action.
The second is that the actions of the most underprivileged categories are not restricted to rebellion against domination, that they can also demand rights, and cultural rights in particular, and can therefore put forward and innovative (and not merely critical) conception of society.
The third is that, if it is not based upon demands for equality and solidarity, the institutional realm is ineffective or even repressive.
As the Facebook spiel which followed the earlier post shows, my own inclination is indebted to and lined up with Touraine’s when he goes on to assert that:
We have to replace a logic of order and disorder with a logic of social and political action and demonstrate that, rather than having to choose between a purely defensive institutional realm and purely anti-establishment rebellions, we have to recognize and revitalize a public space that can encompass both social conflicts and the will to integrate.
In Touraine’s vocabulary, those who would seek to revitalize a public space can claim the badge of ‘reformist’ and can excuse themselves partly from the above described stasis – assuming that a contribution is made somehow to the reform on different terms.
This form of reform is what Mary Kaldor describes in her work expertly as the practice of global civil society. Now there may indeed be much to be done on this front (in Scotland, for example) but that there is much to be done on this front does not take us back to the stale discursive position critiqued by Touraine. That said, Touraine might regard ‘worldism’ as one of the ‘infantile disorders of the new society we have entered’. There is no guarantee that ‘democratic life will be the life-blood of tomorrow’s very hypothetical world society’. But, all the same, there is something in the trying I think, and something in the conceit emerging from this country in this political context.
This bloggy thinking is quick advocacy for Touraine’s scepticism in the face of what might be seen, sarcastically, as itself a political dialectic which has been around forever and which will be forever around – there is no alternative to economic domination and conjoined rebellion… It is also quick advocacy for Kaldor’s strong arguments for a civil society, founded as that society is upon notions of human equality; a society which can be revitalized this time round in an increasingly global world to transcend the boundaries of territories of state, she proposes, thus universalistic ideas on human rights might prevail as something other than apologists for global neoliberal inveigling.
Whatever the prospect of Kaldor’s global civil society, and whatever Scotland’s contribution to its formation within a redescribed (sociopolitical and military) state purview, this blog can’t shake Touraine’s 90s conviction that we must not ‘begin the new millennium by continuing to confine new struggles and new hopes within discourses that are one society behind our lived experience’.