Wendy Brown Reviewed
Wendy Brown is a political science professor at University of California Berkeley, a school whose name conjures memories of the Free Speech movement of the 60s. In 1964 Mario Savio, inspired by the “socialism from below” philosophy of Hal Draper, gave his famous “bodies upon the gears” speech on the steps of Berkely’s Sproul hall. “If this is a firm, and if the board of regents are the board of directors; and if President Kerr in fact is the manager; then Ill tell you something,” shouted Savio, “the faculty are a bunch of employees, and were the raw material!”
More than just a plea for first amendment rights, the speech refuted the view of students as human capital and predicted the increasing corporatization of academia. Brown’s book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution also approaches the commodification of the modern citizen from a leftist perspective, but in the context of a much different political order from the one Savio denounced half a century ago. Her main thesis is that homo oeconomicus – a term she borrows from Foucault – has replaced homo politicus. The realm of liberal arts education in which Brown works, for example, has witnessed a dramatic transformation: Social equality, liberty (undertook as self-governance and sharing in the powers that govern us together), and worldly development of mind and character are outmoded and have been displaced by another set up metrics: income streams, profitability, technological innovation, and contribution to society construed narrowly as the development and promulgation of marketable goods or services.
A neoliberal framework subjects all social relations to the rules of the market, gradually replacing the model of participatory democracy and threatening to destroy it completely. Political issues are framed in economic rather than ethical terms and return on investment is deemed the only metric worth considering.
Building on the work of David Harvey and other theorists of neoliberalism, Brown discusses the myriad ways in which market logic has permeated all aspects of life. The drive for capital accumulation animates not just corporate boardrooms but democratic institutions, leading to the privatization and cuts to social programs.
At the same time, what Brown calls “consensus-driven managerial solutions” gain a foothold in the public sphere, obscuring class conflict and ideological differences under an ostensibly apolitical and objective façade.
Brown is at her best when delving into specifics. Exploring the way the Citizens United decision extended free speech rights to corporations, Brown gives Justice Kennedy a close reading and picks apart the subtle methods by which the language of civil liberties can be used to exacerbate the inequalities plaguing American politics. She offers a similarly incisive examination of the “shock doctrine tactics” that the U.S. and Monsanto used to open markets and monopolize agriculture in Iraq after the invasion.
The problems arise when Brown gets lost in the muck of intellectual abstractions. Not surprisingly, many of the offending passages can be found in her study of Foucault, whose writing fluctuated between lucid and opaque. Addressing Foucault’s treatment of economic and political liberalism, she warms of the “problematic ramifications of the relative neglect of liberalism’s more political aspects and drives, ramifications pertaining especially to liberalism’s imbrication with and inflection of a democratic imaginary, its own and more radical ones.”
Unlike the passages grounded in history, these extended critiques of earlier schools of thought – Foucauldian, Marxist, Weberian – sometimes come off as longwinded academic exercises.
A paradox for contemporary writers of the left is how to resist the traps of earlier generations – rigid orthodoxy, inaccessible messaging, admiration for dictatorships – while building on the work of previous thinkers whose works (with some exceptions) are read less with every year. By occasionally lapsing into the inflated tone of her predecessors, Brown attemps to place herself in a long line of writers on the interlaced subjects of economic theory and political philosophy.
Yet the most powerful writing about the current state of global politics does not consist of rehashed arguments over the contributions of dead intellectuals. The ravages of neoliberalism are everywhere, from sweatshops to universities, embodied in structural readjustments, poverty wages, and home foreclosures.
Simply telling these stories, and explaining the very real social forces that contributed, provides a better argument for Brown’s ideals than many of her own digressions.
The kind of writing that could actually foster renewed interest in the public good would, for one, probably not refer to the public as “the demos.” Though less vague than Foucault and more reflective of modern capitalism than Marx, Brown still suffers from a slightly turgid style that undercuts her appeals for a more inclusive and egalitarian politics.
The more she pinpoints a particular manifestation of neoliberal thought –“best practices” and “benchmarking” techniques seeping from the private to the public sector, for example – the better the analysis. The book is most powerful at moments like these, revealing a hollow democracy nearly devoid of popular sovereignty, in which the logic of the dollar has superseded all other concerns.