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  • Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy
  • Wendy Brown (bio)

For the American Left, the wake of 9/11, the War on Terrorism, practices of “homeland security,” and the recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq together produce a complex set of questions about what to think, what to stand for, and what to organize. These questions are contoured both by our diagnosis of the current orders of power and rule and by our vision of alternatives to these orders. This essay aims to contribute to our necessarily collaborative intellectual effort — no single analysis can be comprehensive — at diagnosing the present and formulating alternatives by reflecting on the political rationality taking shape in the U.S. over the past quarter century.1

It is commonplace to speak of the present regime in the United States as a neo-conservative one, and to cast as a consolidated “neo-con” project present efforts to intensify U.S. military capacity, increase U.S. global hegemony, dismantle the welfare state, retrench civil liberties, eliminate the right to abortion and affirmative action, re-Christianize the state, de-regulate corporations, gut environmental protections, reverse progressive taxation, reduce education spending while increasing prison budgets, and feather the nests of the rich while criminalizing the poor. I do not contest the existence of a religious-political project known as neo-conservatism nor challenge the appropriateness of understanding many of the links between these objectives in terms of a neo-conservative agenda. However, I want to background this agenda in order to consider our current predicament in terms of a neo-liberal political rationality, a rationality that exceeds particular positions on particular issues, and one that undergirds important features of the Clinton decade as well as the Reagan-Bush years. Further, I want to consider the way that this rationality is emerging as governmentality — a mode of governance encompassing but not limited to the state, and one which produces subjects, forms of citizenship and behavior, and a new organization of the social.2

In ordinary parlance, neo-liberalism refers to the repudiation of Keynesian welfare state economics and the ascendance of the Chicago School of political economy — von Hayek, Friedman, et al. In popular usage, neo-liberalism is equated with a radically free market: maximized competition and free trade achieved through economic de-regulation, elimination of tariffs, and a range of monetary and social policies favorable to business and indifferent toward poverty, social deracination, cultural decimation, long term resource depletion and environmental destruction. Neo-liberalism is most often invoked in relation to the Third World, referring either to NAFTA-like schemes that increase the vulnerability of poor nations to the vicissitudes of globalization or to International Monetary Fund and World Bank policies which, through financing packages attached to “restructuring” requirements, yank the chains of every aspect of Third World existence, including political institutions and social formations. For progressives, neo-liberalism is thus a pejorative not only because it conjures economic policies which sustain or deepen local poverty and the subordination of peripheral to core nations, but also because it is compatible with, and sometimes even productive of, authoritarian, despotic, paramilitaristic, and/or corrupt state forms and agents within civil society.

While these referents capture an important effect of neo-liberalism, they also reduce neo-liberalism to a bundle of economic policies with inadvertent political and social consequences: they eschew the political rationality that both organizes these policies and reaches beyond the market. Moreover, these referents do not capture the neo in neo-liberalism, tending instead to treat the contemporary phenomenon as little more than a revival of classical liberal political economy. Finally, they obscure the specifically political register of neo-liberalism in the First World, that is, its powerful erosion of liberal democratic institutions and practices in places like the United States. My concern in this essay is with these neglected dimensions of neo-liberalism.

One of the more incisive accounts of neo-liberal political rationality comes from a surprising quarter: Michel Foucault is not generally heralded as a theorist of liberalism or of political economy. Yet Foucault’s 1978 and 1979 College de France lectures, still untranscribed and unpublished, consisted of presentations of his critical analysis of two...