A few years after the debate on post-neoliberalism in the region, we are facing a renewed conservative neoliberal attack. The deepening of the crisis of social reproduction is sustained by a brutal increase in feminized work that is replacing public infrastructure and implicated in dynamics of super-exploitation. The privatization of public services and the restriction of their scope mean that these tasks (of health, care, food, etc.) must be made up for by women, lesbians, travestis, and transgender people as unpaid and obligatory labor, coupled with a widespread indebtedness of lower-income sectors.6Translator’s (CV) note: Travestis is a regionally specific gender and political identity.
Several authors have highlighted how this same reproductive crisis has been moralizingly taken advantage of—that is, used to reaffirm familialist mandates—and how the bases of convergence between neoliberalism and conservatism emerge from there. To justify its austerity policies, neoliberalism revives the tradition of private family responsibility, as Melinda Cooper points out, and it does so in the language of… “domestic debt”!7Melinda Cooper, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (New York: Zone, 2017), 23. Indebting households is part of the call for neoliberal accountability, while condensing the conservative aim of folding social reproduction into the confines of the cis-heteropatriarchal home.
The conservative twist attempts to reinforce, on the one hand, the obligation of compensation for social support with familiarist demands as the logic of care and responsibility, and, on the other hand, makes churches privileged channels for the redistribution of resources. In this way, we see the consolidation of a structure of obedience around the day-to-day and around future time, forcing us to shoulder the costs of austerity individually and privately, and to receive moral conditioning in return for scarce resources.
All of this gives us, again, a broader and more complex possibility of diagnosing the alliance between neoliberalism and conservatism, expressed as violences enacted on feminized bodies as new territories of conquest. We must animate the critique of neoliberalism with a feminist perspective on the machinery of debt—as a broad mechanism of financial exploitation—a perspective that also acts against the neoliberal apparatus of blame, which is sustained by heteropatriarchal morality and the exploitation of our life forces.
Here, I want to focus on the work of Wendy Brown and Nancy Fraser, because their interventions are simultaneously philosophical, political, and epistemological, and because they put into play the definition of neoliberalism while linking it to questions of feminism. They are in many ways central to the (Euro-Atlantic) definition of neoliberalism.
In her book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, based on a reading of Michel Foucault’s 1979 lectures, Brown questions the notion of a neoliberalism that seems to contain everything.8Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Princeton: Zone Books, 2017). To do so, she deepens “the antagonism between citizenship and neoliberalism” and critiques the model of neoliberal governance, understood as a process of “de-democratizing democracy.” In her argument, neoliberalism restricts democratic spaces not only at the macrostructural level but also on the level of the organization of social relations, insofar as competition becomes the norm of every relationship. She underscores this process as an economization of social life that alters the very nature of what we call politics, reinforcing the contrast between the figures of the Homo economicus and the Homo politicus.
Brown emphasizes that, in neoliberalism, citizenship is not just a set of rights, but also a sort of ceaseless activism in which we are obligated to participate to make ourselves valuable. For Brown, who claims that “there are no citizens” in Foucault’s genealogies, the penetration of neoliberal rationality into modern institutions such as citizenship blurs the very concept of democracy. While her critique of neoliberalism as the neutralization of conflict is important, her analysis, though very sharp, remains within a politicist framework: the ability to analyze neoliberalism as governmentality is again restricted by her postulation of neoliberal reason as synonymous with the disappearance of politics. Thus, she recreates the distinction between economy and politics (a distinction foundational to capitalism) in a way that preserves an “autonomy of the political” as a now-colonized field still worth defending. From a clearly Arendtian perspective, the “realm of rule” is the privileged space for the democratic deployment of the Homo politicus.
Following this line of argument, the explanation for Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory—which Brown referred to as an “apocalyptic populism”—would be the consummation of neoliberalism’s hijacking of the political:
If this reproach to politics is one important strand of neoliberalism’s assault on democracy, equally important to generating support for plutocratic authoritarianism is what I call neoliberalism’s economization of everything, including democratic values, institutions, expectations and knowledge. The meaning and practice of democracy cannot be submitted to market semiotics and survive. Freedom becomes reduced to advancing in markets, keeping what one gets, hence legitimating growing inequality and indifference to all social effects. Exclusion is legitimate as strengthening competitiveness, secrecy rather than transparency or accountability is good business sense.9Wendy Brown, “Apocalyptic Populism,” Eurozine, August 30, 2017.
For Brown, the economization of life hollows out citizenship as a form of “popular sovereignty.” The privatization of public goods and higher education also contributes to the weakening of democratic culture, while the notion of “social justice” is consolidated as that which restricts private liberties. In summary: “Together, the open neoliberal disparagement of politics; the assault on democratic institutions, values and imaginaries; the neoliberal attack on public goods, public life, social justice and an educated citizenry generate a novel anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, libertarian, authoritarian political formation.”10Brown, “Apocalyptic Populism.”
In Brown’s perspective, this economized form of politics produces a type of subjectivity that stands in opposition to the stability and security of citizens: “This formation now burns on the fuel of…fear and anxiety, sliding socioeconomic status and rancorous wounded whiteness.” Fear, anxiety, precarity, and rancorous “whiteness” are the affects that are liberated when the confines of citizenship do not produce or regulate democratic subjectivity. Therefore, Brown’s formula is: freedoms grow to the extent that politics is reduced; pernicious energies are freed to the extent that there is no citizen contention. The result is not an anti-state politics, but, as in the case of Trump, the corporate management of the state.
From what point of view can the politicism of this vision be criticized? There are several problems with this perspective. I think that the right-wing vote, considered in very broad terms, cannot be reduced simply to an antidemocratic spirit. Here I am thinking both of Trump’s victory and the so-called turn to the right in Latin America, because it has driven a similar search for explanations about such a shift in electoral preferences and support for coup maneuvers.
Right-wing governments, to put it in the memorable words of the vernacular right, “make sincere,” through a cynical materialism, the undemocratic nature of (liberal and progressive) democracy. By this I mean that there is a double idealization of democracy at work in Brown’s argument that is the source of her politicism. First, it erases the violence that gave birth to neoliberalism, both in its origins (the coup d’états and state terrorism in Latin America, as well as the racism legitimized by democracy) and in its prolongation by post-dictatorship democracies in diverse but constitutive ways. Second, Brown’s conception of democracy as the realm of rule and its projection onto citizens prevents us from seeing its repressive violence in terms of how social conflicts are structured today. These conflicts underscore that to understand politics as a field of rules is a discursive privilege of the elites, because these rules don’t apply equally to everyone, as is made clear, for example, by the Black Lives Matter movement and the murders of poor youth in Latin American metropoles.