Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The essence of neoliberalism

France’s pre-eminent sociologist and social theorist Pierre Bourdieu, who died not so long ago, did not pull his punches when it came to identifying the hegemonic economic system of the present, neoliberalism, ruthlessly as a “utopia of endless exploitation”. In an article titled “The essence of neoliberalism” (in Le Monde Diplomatique, December 1998) he puts the question, together with his succinct answer, bluntly: “What is neoliberalism? A programme for destroying collective structures which may impede the pure market logic”.

He elaborates as follows: “As the dominant discourse would have it, the economic world is a pure and perfect order, implacably unrolling the logic of its predictable consequences, and prompt to repress all violations by the sanctions that it inflicts, either automatically or – more unusually – through the intermediary of its armed extensions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the policies they impose: reducing labour costs, reducing public expenditures and making work more flexible. Is the dominant discourse right?”

He might have added the watchdogs of the neoliberal system, the rating agencies – Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s and so on – to the instruments by means of which the neoliberal economic system enforces ‘compliance’ on the part of errant economic ‘players’ – much more effectively than the disciplinary mechanisms of Foucault’s ‘carceral societies’; today we are on the terrain of Deleuze’s ‘control societies’, and economic means like those referred to by Bourdieu are the means of control.

The question on which the quoted paragraph from Bourdieu, above, concludes, receives an extended answer in the rest of the article, and at the outset I can tell you that it is negative. Although the article is too long to go into all the reasons for this, I can focus on his main points. To begin with, Bourdieu states that the “tutelary theory” of neoliberalism is “a pure mathematical fiction”, which is the result – as anyone with half a brain could work out – of a thorough reduction of the rationality pervading concrete social and economic reality (that is, the reasons why people act in certain ways) to a narrow conception of individual rationality (that supposedly always proceeds in terms of whatever is economically advantageous or profitable for the individual; one can already, here, sense where Boudieu is going with his argument).

To illustrate the error of such a reduction, he refers to the educational system, which – apart from being an intrinsic part of production (after all, it produces the producers) – is never taken into account “as such” by neoliberalism, that is, as a set of practices that shape people intellectually and morally, among other ways. The result is that the incompatibility between neoliberal economics, with its logic of competition and efficiency, and the social world, with its logic of fairness, is graphically demonstrated. Succinctly put, neoliberal economic theory is “desocialised and dehistorised” – it pertains to a kind of vacuum; not to social reality.

The next point Bourdieu makes is perhaps the most difficult to understand, but also the most important of his dissection of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, he says, “…is a ‘strong discourse’… so strong and so hard to combat only because it has on its side all of the forces of a world of relations of forces, a world that it contributes to making what it is. It does this most notably by orienting the economic choices of those who dominate economic relationships. It thus adds its own symbolic force to these relations of forces. In the name of this scientific programme, converted into a plan of political action, an immense political project is underway, although its status as such is denied because it appears to be purely negative. This project aims to create the conditions under which the ‘theory’ can be realised and can function: a programme of the methodical destruction of collectives”.

In simpler terms: neoliberalism is so successful because from the outset the dice are loaded in its favour; it limits the economic choices people can make. And it is ‘political’ because, by being oriented according to the financial success of individuals alone, it undermines ‘collectives’, or communities, the very social bond that makes society function as such. The ways in which this happens are multiple but invariably socially destructive, and includes “political measures” like the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), which protects the investments of foreign corporations from national states. It does so by legally challenging all “collective structures”, all obstacles in the way of market growth-logic (even if investment expansion, like extending manufacturing facilities, would pose a threat to communities).

But even those things that are attractive to employees, because ostensibly ‘good’, like individualised salaries and other rewards, are a poisoned gift – employees are “atomised” by this, for obvious reasons. A contractual agreement that might seem beneficial to a highly paid individual may imply more than one thinks, because he or she would forfeit the protection of collectives like unions, and unwittingly gain insecurity by forfeiting such protection. In this manner neoliberalism is a kind of “logical machine that presents itself as a chain of constraints regulating economic agents”.

What Bourdieu calls “the absolute reign of flexibility” is central to neoliberal logic, made possible by “unprecedented mobility of capital”, itself a function of the combination of globalisation and information technology. Among the things that such flexibility makes possible are the hiring of employees on fixed-term contracts, endemic (anxiety-provoking) competition among the autonomous divisions of companies, as well as among “teams” within these, permanent individual performance evaluations (by self and others), bonuses paid as rewards, and strategies (like “delegating responsibility”) conducive to self-exploitation because of employees being hierarchically dependent, and yet having to practice “self-control” for optimal productivity. “All of these”, says Bourdieu, “are techniques of rational domination that impose over-involvement in work (and not only among management) and work under emergency or high-stress conditions. And they converge to weaken or abolish collective standards or solidarities”.

Thus: “In this way, a Darwinian world emerges – it is the struggle of all against all at all levels of the hierarchy, which finds support through everyone clinging to their job and organisation under conditions of insecurity, suffering, and stress [even for managers]. Without a doubt, the practical establishment of this world of struggle would not succeed so completely without the complicity of all of the precarious arrangements that produce insecurity and of the existence of a reserve army of employees rendered docile by these social processes that make their situations precarious, as well as by the permanent threat of unemployment.”

Small wonder that Bourdieu tends to disabuse anyone, who clings blindly to the (ideological) belief that neoliberalism is the ultimate economic system, of this illusion – in fact, like Max Weber before him, he compares it to a religion by alluding to the “free trade faith” that neoliberalism inculcates among its followers. And like some other thinkers (Renate Salecl and Paul Verhaeghe foremost among them), he exposes the suffering that accompanies its functioning mercilessly, such as:

“…the poverty of an increasingly large section of the most economically advanced societies, the extraordinary growth in income differences, the progressive disappearance of autonomous universes of cultural production, such as film, publishing, etc. through the intrusive imposition of commercial values, but also and above all two major trends. First is the destruction of all the collective institutions capable of counteracting the effects of the infernal machine, primarily those of the state, repository of all of the universal values associated with the idea of the public realm. Second is the imposition everywhere, in the upper spheres of the economy and the state as at the heart of corporations, of that sort of moral Darwinism that, with the cult of the winner, schooled in higher mathematics and bungee jumping, institutes the struggle of all against all and cynicism as the norm of all action and behaviour”.

This shocking list of neoliberalism’s effects prompts the question, whether all this suffering might one day trigger a social movement “capable of stopping the race to the abyss”. Bourdieu finds hope in certain individuals and social groups attached to a “tradition of civil and public service”, that they may succeed in inventing and constructing “a new social order”. This article appeared in 1998 and Bourdieu died in 2002; since then, he would have been pleased to know, several such movements have arisen, including the Occupy, Zeitgeist and world permaculture movements, all of which share the aim of getting beyond neoliberalism.

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