- Governing through Freedom
Theoretical neoliberalism is the long work of reconstruction of economic theory led by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and others to forge a mode of intervention that sees big state planning as a harbinger of new threats to individual independence and freedom—the road to a new serfdom. What should not be underestimated is the vast intellectual labor of this tradition—it can be traced from the famous Walter Lippmann Colloquium in Paris in 1938 and from the creation in 1947 of the Mont Pèlerin Society—its internal divisions and rifts and, toward the end, a certain disillusionment. An obituary of the latest president of the Mont Pèlerin Society, Kenneth Minogue, reports (Daily Telegraph, July 3, 2013) an ironic disillusionment at the very summit of the society: democratic governments inspired by neoliberalism have become quasi-totalitarian, tending a servile population: Saint George having seen off one dragon endlessly invents more and more dragons to slay. This ironic effect had not gone unnoticed in the debates in the neoliberal camp: state spending increases, debt increases, interventions expand in number and scope; even ultraneoliberalism produces a paradoxical effect, which might be called inverted socialism (a state that favors and provides for the direct and indirect benefit of the corporations and the rich and stigmatizes the poor).
For the ideologists of right-wing neoliberalism, Keynesian welfare-statism was/is a form of serfdom producing high levels of bureaucracy and individual dependency. The attack on this state form, led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, [End Page 120] brought deregulation, privatization, and tax reform, a program that unleashed the cult of capital accumulation. Its unintended outcome was mass impoverishment on the one side and the detachment of a hyperwealthy elite on the other. If Patricia Ventura does not draw on very much theory, in effect she puts Michel Foucault back into a neo-Marxian frame. This move has been made many times before; is it valid now? Can it deal with the obvious difficulty that the proletariat as revolutionary agency is no longer with us? Ventura argues that after 1990 “neoliberalism rises up to replace postmodernism as the cultural dominant” (6). The virtue of Ventura’s approach is that her analysis does not isolate a culture that is distinct from vast institutional and structural change but emerges out of an assemblage of component elements—reorganization of the welfare state where “hyperlegalism” (bureaucracy) is used to inhibit welfare claimants, biopower, rise and consolidation of unaccountable corporate power, and globalization (notably the extension of free trade that has large trade deficits as a consequence). The analysis itself looks at transformations in the family, in work, and in the media; the social composition of cities, war, and politics; and the shifts toward the dominance of finance capital. All this is a consequence of “governing through freedom” where the individual is faced with having to manage choices, form an identity, and nurture a personal capital (in the new sense). Certainly, the idea that there has been a failure of opposition to neoliberalism because of the novelty of the way that new styles of government have a paradoxical effect—the welfare state is withdrawn, yet the state persists, even extends its domains in new ways that seem to defy sociopolitical logic (to the despair of the radical Right itself)—is compelling. The aim of the book is to reveal what that logic is as “a structure of feeling” and cultural logic.
Ventura suggests that the new culture emerges on the basis of shifts in this institutional capitalism: corporations take advantage of the changing shape and disposition of the state as it is privatized and financialized. The neoliberal doctrine holds that the state usurped natural social altruism, so when the state withdraws welfare support this natural altruism will return. What emerges is not quite that. Into the space of welfare vacated by the state step countless experts oriented to self-help ideologies. Under the radical drive to cut and reconstruct welfare, to open up markets to global competition, corporations...