Levi has a post up riffing on Dominic’s response to my piece for the Speculative Heresy/Inhumanities crossover event. It revisits a line of thought he’s touched on before, namely, that neo-liberalism is somehow founded upon the formal conception of the subject that emerged out of Kant, a conception which I endorse to some extent.
Dominic’s very insightful point was that neo-liberalism is more than just a false antropology. Although it has at times deployed an egoistic conception of the essence of man, it is no longer dependent upon this conception, which is evident in the fact that neo-liberalism is still dominant, despite the widespread rejection of this egoisitc image. I wholeheartedly agree with this. His other point, which Levi has tried to take up and expand, is that neo-liberalism “also goes to considerable lengths to modify the “soul” of society (its basic normative commitments and symbolic co-ordinates) so that individuals will perceive this to be their true nature and act accordingly.” I start to have reservations here, specifically in relation to the way Levi develops the point.
1. Political Doctrines, Social Configurations and Ideologies
The primary reason underlying these reservations is that I think we’re getting muddled about what neo-liberalism is, and this is best indicated by the invocation of the concept of ideology. I will repeat my usual disclaimer that I’m not a Marxist scholar, and so can’t give you the best or most detailed account of ideology, but it is important to get clear about it.
When we talk about neo-liberalism, we can first of all talk about it as a certain political doctrine, i.e., it involves a certain description of how things are (e.g., how individuals relate to one another), but, more importantly, this motivates an account of how things should be (e.g., how we should structure a particular aspect of society to cope with or facilitate these relations). On this level, neo-liberalism is on par with neo-conservativism, classical liberalism, democratic socialism, communism, anarchism, etc. It is a position that can be compared with others and assessed on its merits. However, people also talk about neo-liberalism as a certain state-of-affairs. This is evident in the conjunction: neo-liberal capitalism. Here, we’re talking about a certain social configuration that we take to be dominant right now, as opposed to a political doctrine.
What about ideology then? Well, it sits between the two, so that to talk about neo-liberal ideology is to talk about the way in which the political doctrine (both in terms of its explicit claims and implicit assumptions) plays a role in the constitution and maintenance of the social configuration. A good reason to get clear about this is that the contemporary neo-liberal form of the capitalist social configuration is more than just what is explicitly recommended by the political doctrine of neo-liberalism. Obviously, the most straightforward relation between the political doctrine and the social configuration is just to take the latter as the instantiation of the former, as if people had acted on the basis of the doctrine to bring about the state of affairs it recommends. However, the discussion of neo-liberalism as an ideology allows us to show how certain aspects of the doctrine contribute to producing features of the social configuration which are not explicitly recommended by the doctrine. Dominic’s second point fits in at this level of analysis: we can see how the social configuration that neo-liberal political doctrine recommends positively propagates a form of egoism that it supposes to be already present, be it really (in the essence of man) or ideally (in the structure of rationality as such).
It is helpful to situate my own points about neo-liberalism (here and here) in relation to this schema. My basic point in those posts is consonant with Dominic’s first point: neo-liberalism doesn’t need to rest on a conception of man as inherently egoistic, but simply on the individualistic conception of rationality propagated by rational choice theory. The point here is that it can accept that people often (or even mostly) don’t act as efficient preference satisfying machines, but need only maintain that they should, or, even better, that we must assume that they will in order to build our models of how social systems function. However, I take it that this is an erroneous theory of rationality, as there is nothing suspect about genuinely collective practical reasoning. This is a criticism of neo-liberalism as a doctrine, as I take it that the rest of the doctrine is justified on the basis of this conception of rationality (my point about the Latourian position was that it leaves this justification intact). So, restating Dominic’s point, neo-liberal doctrine justifies its recommendation of a certain social configuration on the basis of a loose conception of how people will/should be taken to/should act, but the social configuration it brings about actually tends to produce or exaggerate this kind of action.
Moving on, when we talk about what neo-liberalism requires to function, we can either be talking about what it requires to function in the context of debate, which is a matter of justification, or we can be talking about what it requires to play the given role it does in the production and maintenance of a certain social configuration, which is a matter of causation. An ambiguity which arises here is that the doctrine’s ability to justify itself can play a role in its latter function as ideology, even if it doesn’t exhaust its ideological effects. There is thus a certain sense in which my analysis of neo-liberalism as doctrine (via analysing what I take to be some of its essential premises) does relate to the analysis of neo-liberalism as ideology, but it is a complex relation. We’ll return to this point later.
2. Levi on Neo-Liberal Ideology
Now, Levi’s is a discussion of neo-liberal capitalist ideology (NLCI). It is thus a discussion of how certain doctrinal features of neo-liberalism, both implicit and explicit, play a role in the production and maintenance of a certain social configuration. It is thus also important to get clear about what this social configuration is. We have to bear in mind that neo-liberal capitalism is a particular form of capitalism, even if, as some would argue, it is the exemplary or ultimate form. It is a form which came about in the 1970’s, but really came into its own in the 1980’s, even if many of the essential elements of the social configuration were in place or were developing before this (e.g., the global financial structures that came into place after WWII). If we’re going to assess the central features of neo-liberal ideology, i.e., those that function to bring about the specific features of the neo-liberal form of capitalism (and not just those that have been in evidence well before neo-liberal ideology), then we’re going to have to make sure not to confuse features of contemporary neo-liberal capitalism with features that have been part of the capitalist social configuration for much longer.
The thrust of Levi’s post is that “there is a tendency to treat the core of neo-liberal capitalist ideology as consisting almost entirely of this false anthropology.” The rest of his post is devoted to showing that there are two features of neo-liberal ideology, which he calls the ‘subject-without-qualities’ and the ‘form of law’, that are more fundamental than this characterisation of man as egoistic. Now, I think Levi’s point isn’t just aimed at characterisations of neo-liberalism as depending upon false anthropology, but also my slightly more subtle characterisation which has it depend upon a certain conception of the normative structure of rationality. However, what makes assessing Levi’s point slightly difficult is that he seems to want to assess what counts as the ‘core’ of neo-liberalism in terms of what is most essential to its functioning as ideology. This isn’t problematic in itself, but we have to be careful not to confuse what is the ‘core’ of the doctrine qua doctrine with the ‘core’ of the doctrine qua ideology. Bearing this in mind, we can move on to look at Levi’s points in more detail.
Firstly, Levi claims that, although a conception of the subject as fundamentally self-interested might play a part in the functioning of NLCI, what is more essential is the formality or pureness of this subject, which is a matter of it being “divorced from social context and conditions of production”. He identifies this conception of the subject with Descartes and Kant’s conceptions of the subject. Subjects need to be considered as pure, or abstracted from the concrete factors which shape their actions, in order that there can be an equality in principle between subjects, and this is necessary for two reasons: 1) In order to support the particular legal institutions which are integral to neo-liberal capitalism (we’ll talk about this with regard to the form of law shortly). 2) In order to cover over the systematic inequalities which are necessary for the functioning of neo-liberal capitalism, by making each individual responsible for who they are and what they do in full.
Secondly, Levi maintains that neo-liberal capitalism is underpinned by a certain form of law which is premised upon the aforementioned formal conception of the subject. I find Levi a bit more vague on this point. On the one hand, he seems to identify the fact that this form is a matter of normativity as being relevant, and thus also that it involves the ascription of duties or obligations. However, it’s hard to see what law would be if it weren’t a normative matter, and if it didn’t involve obligations. The more specific features Levi identifies of this form of law (rather than of law as such) are its focus upon debt, contracts, and private property. It does seem that there could be law independent of these particular legal notions, and it also seems that they are absolutely fundamental to the functioning of capitalism.
Skipping the first point for now, it’s not clear that Levi’s characterisation of this form of law is something that is unique to the neo-liberal form of capitalism. In fact, the particular legal institutions he picks out are quite old, even older than capitalism itself, although they were indeed necessary for the capitalist social configuration to come about. There might be certain ways that these notions are inflected within the specifically neo-liberal form of capitalism which are essential to its continued provenance, but these aren’t entirely made clear. It seems to me that even if these legal notions are central to capitalism, and central to neo-liberal capitalism with a certain inflection, it’s not clear that they couldn’t be the basis (potentially with a different inflection) for alternative social configurations. It’s not illuminating to say that law as such is a crucial component of capitalism, as it would be a crucial component of almost any social configuration that we could come up with (excluding of course the Hobbesian state of nature). It seems to me that even if general notions like debt, contracts, and private property are more specific than the notion of law as such, they still aren’t specific enough to give us a core feature of the underlying ideological mechanisms of capitalism, let alone its contemporary neo-liberal form.
Having tackled the form of law, we can return to the second reason for the necessity of the formal conception of the subject, namely, that through creating a certain equality-in-principle between subjects it effectuates a covering over of the constitutive inequalities present in the capitalist system, thus discouraging proper analysis of and action to change the concrete social conditions which sustain these inequalities. There is something right here, but there is also a bit of a non-sequitur.
I think Levi is correct to point out that the core part of neo-liberal ideology (though not necessarily doctrine) is this twisted absolutisation of personal responsibility, and precisely because of the role it plays in suppressing awareness of social conditions. Moreover, he is right to point out that this absolutisation is disguised within an egalitarian gesture: “If they work hard enough, anyone can achieve anything”. This is a very American notion that has been exported with the spread of neo-liberal capitalism, but it carries with it a troubling modus tollens: “If you don’t achieve something, you didn’t work hard enough”. This idea is insidious, and it effectively plays the same role as the old myths of class organisation: “People of a certain class are born to a certain life, because [insert religion/biological determinism/etc]”, but from a post-class perspective.
The non-sequitur is the suggestion that this follows directly from the equality-in-principle that a formal conception of the subject underpins. We can get at this by returning to the case of law. There is a certain minimal equality required for any kind of law to function, namely, the understanding of all subjects as able to be obligated or permitted, which prevails even in those pre-capitalist forms of law where subjects were nonetheless given different intrinsic legal statuses (and thus certain inherent responsibilities and privileges) based on class or other factors. The kind of equality required for the absolutisation of personal responsibility needs to at least be one which precludes such intrinsic legal statuses (at least explicitly and within a given society, there can be some explicit discrimination between citizens and non-citizens, and there can be differentiations between the legal statuses of citizens in practice, as evidenced by way the legal system in the US systematically discriminates on the basis of race, despite its espousing of equality in principle). However, although this more egalitarian conception of the subject is necessary for the absolutisation, it’s not clear that it is sufficient.
If it is to effectuate the absolutisation of personal responsibility which plays this crucial ideological role, then this conception of the subject must do more than merely underwrite an egalitarian equality-in-principle in the eyes of the law, it must effectively prevent certain kinds of facts about an individual (namely, facts about the way their concrete situation shapes their actions, and possibilities for action) from functioning as reasons in debates (legal or otherwise) regarding the content of that individual’s rights and responsibilities. The egalitarian view depends upon the subject having a certain status which is independent from and invariant in relation to their concrete situation. This does constitute a certain independence of the subject from its situation, and thus a certain ‘pureness’ or ‘formality’. However, this independence need not be unlimited. It seems perfectly possible to maintain that all subjects are equal insofar as there are no intrinsic responsibilities or privileges accorded to any subject on the basis of their concrete situation (e.g., coming from a certain class), and to allow that the possibilities for action open to any given subject are constrained by their concrete situation, and even that the actions they do perform are to a certain extent determined by it. This isn’t to say that the absolutisation of personal responsibility peculiar to neo-liberal ideology is not effective, in practice it does function to limit the kind of reasons that can be deployed within debate in precisely the way just discussed. The point is that the absolutisation is not something that follows from a loosely formal conception of the subject, or the egalitarianism that is founded on it, but is rather a hijacking of egalitarianism.
The main point here is thus that there are different ways of understanding the subject in a ‘formal’ or ‘pure’ way. The hijacking of egalitarianism performed by the absolutisation of personal responsibility does depend upon some formal conception of the subject, insofar as it is premised upon the egalitarianism that it underpins, but it seems to require a fairly extreme variant of this formal conception, and we shouldn’t confuse this with the formal conception as such. A formal equality of rights and responsibility needn’t be taken to involve an equality of capabilities.
3. Conclusion: Two Views on Ideology
In closing, I want to spell out my agreement and disagreement with Levi a bit further. I want to do this by distinguishing two different ways in which doctrine can function as ideology: by shaping the way the populace understands their possibilities for action, and thus their action, and by influencing the choices of policy makers. It’s important to recognise that when we talk about ‘doctrine’ shaping the understanding the populace, that we recognise that the doctrine which is absorbed by the populace is not necessarily the same as the high theory which influences policy makers, even if they share fundamental aspects (to be fair, there are problems addressing anything like an ideology as a unitary phenomena, but I digress).
The core functions of NLCI that Levi has pinpointed are core in relation to the former kind of functioning. The point on which I agree with Levi is that there is an aspect of NLCI which functions at this level to preclude the possibility of analysing the constitutive inequalities of the neo-liberal capitalist social configuration. I disagree that the formal conception of the subject is the core feature which facilitates this, but I do agree that whatever facilitates it, it is independent of the conception of the subject as essentially self-interested. However, this isn’t to say that the self-interested conception of the subject is therefore not a core feature of NCLI. If we take the latter kind of functioning into account, we can see the importance of the self-interested conception of the subject, precisely because this conception plays a role in justifying the wider doctrine and thus in legitimating the kinds of policy decisions it motivates.
The slightly depressing fact about the current financial crisis is that even when a lot of the ideological mechanisms that prevent the populace from analysing the systematic inequalities underlying the neo-liberal social configuration are buckling (though not necessarily breaking), the ideological grip that NLCI has on policy makers is holding firm. I’m not claiming that this is entirely because of the erroneous conception of rationality I pointed out above, but I nonetheless think that it is a core feature of NLCI. Returning to Dominic’s first point, what is interesting about the normative conception of rationality provided by rational choice theory is that it isn’t empirically testable (such is the problem of practicing economics as an a priori discipline). This gives it a certain resilience to criticism that it confers upon the political theory based upon it. I’d suggest that this resilience is part of what makes it such a core feature of NLCI.