Interview with Nicholas Gane
Is there such a thing as society? The promise of sociology in neoliberal times. An interview with Nicholas Gane.
S.R.: In what follows we're going to talk about the relation between neoliberalism and sociology. To begin with, I think it is important to pick up, as you did in a paper jointly written with Les Back (2012), what Wright Mills conceives as the promise of sociology: to make connections between public issues of social structures and the private troubles of people, to explain dialectically biography and history. Could you develop further this idea and explain whether you consider neoliberalism to represent an obstacle for sociology to fulfil its promise?
N.G.: Thanks Sebastian and thanks for organizing this interview. C. Wright Mills lived quite a long time ago and wrote his famous The Sociological Imagination (2000) over 50 years ago. But, sometimes you find things in the past that continue to haunt us in the present and you find texts that unlock and pose new problems in different times. That is was what I found in C. Wright Mills when I revisited his work. It was just a coincidence that I spoke to Les Back who’d also been thinking about Mills and reading many of his letters, which cast new light on his published writings. The two of us got together and we decided that we’d pool our ideas about Mills and try and write this piece. At the end, that piece makes a very brief statement about the neoliberal present and I think this is something that we could develop further - so, I’m pleased you asked this question.
The idea in Mills really is that we can’t separate out individuals from the sociohistorical context in which they find themselves. The problem for neoliberal subjects today is that they are cast adrift from everything social or structural, and they are left to fend for themselves. Basically, any problems that they face are seen to be problems of their own making. This, to some extent, is a consequence of a kind of behavioralist approach to the understanding of social structures and situations. The idea in Mills is that we have to reconnect biography with history, individual with society, agency with structure - whichever idiom that you want to frame that process within. By doing so, people aren't simply left to fend for themselves. Individual problems are to be collectivized in some way so that people aren’t simply left in isolation: the individual is to become social once again.
This is the opposite to the neoliberal situation, in which the lure of individual freedom is accompanied by a new cruelty. Not only do problems become individualized and pressures passed downwards for people to deal with themselves, there’s a tendency to laugh at people who struggle in those situations: suffering becomes entertainment. Neoliberalism becomes a theatre of cruelty where you turn on the television and you watch endless shows where people laugh at people because of the situations they are unable to deal with. You see people in chronic debt and are struggling to cope and this becomes prime-time viewing (for example, ‘Can’t pay, we’ll take it away’ in the UK). This is how social problems are individualized. C. Wright Mills touches on something really important here: that the only way out of this situation is to reconnect individual problems or personal problems to collective issues and structures. But I want to be clear: he’s not someone that we should put on a podium. His own work is full of problems of various sorts, but to his credit he does make this important point about sociology and what it should be doing today.
S.R.: I think that this rejection of the social is also played in the intellectual field. In The Birth of Biopolitics, Michel Foucault (2008: 105ss) brings to the fore the connections of the ordoliberal version of neoliberalism with Max Weber. Foucault says that people like Eucken and Röpke try to give an answer to Weber’s analysis of the irrationality of capitalism by discovering an economic rationality that nullifies it. I think that you have followed Foucault’s lead in a rather refined way and looked at the epistemological and political relations between neoliberalism and sociology in the grounds of this rejection of society as a collective form that is more than the sum of individuals (Gane, 2014). In this sense, it seems to me that there is a relation between Hayek and Mises, and the ‘classic sociology’ both in the version of Weber and Comte. Could you tell us more about these relations?
N.G.: That’s a very sophisticated question, full of nuances and it’s going to require quite a lengthy answer I’m afraid. So, Foucault... People have been divided among how they want to read The Birth of Biopolitics, and his other lectures. For me, they offer an opportunity to think again about the history of neoliberal thought and the connections between neoliberalism and the classical sociological orthodoxy in its different variants. The reading that Foucault presents of figures like Weber, Eucken, Röpke and others is very provocative and it is a starting point, but is also full of problems because it is limited as he’s giving a set of lectures rather than writing a carefully argued monograph on the history of neoliberalism .
Foucault’s reading of Weber, for example, is a bit strange. He sees that Weber can lead you in two directions. Either you go with the Frankfurt school and questions around the rationalities and irrationalities of capitalism or you go down the Freiburg school route, which takes you into neoliberalism. Foucault’s reading of Weber is a bit simplistic. One of the things that he doesn’t really get to grips with in those lectures is the background to Weber’s writings. He doesn’t have any understanding of Austrian economics or Austrian thought and how that fits in various ways into Weber’s epistemology. And there is no mention, in turn, of Weber’s methodological individualism and how this is reworked in a warped way by the likes of Mises and then Hayek. A major problem of Foucault lectures is that there’s no attention to the 19th century whatsoever. He’s not interested in marginalism, he’s not interested in the rise and fall of political economy, he’s not interested in the separation of sociology from economics - these all are really important things that are addressed in Weber’s work. So, to take Weber’s work as a starting point is interesting, but you have to go back and look at the pre-history of why Weber is addressing some of this things in the first place. Why, for example, is he interested in marginalism? Why is he interested in questions of psychophysics and questions of value? Why is he starting with a certain set of epistemological commitments? You have to go back and look at the arguments and disputes of the method that frame Weber’s writings and which emerged from the 1870s through to the 1890s. It is impossible to explain fully the subsequent set of developments through Weber and others without an awareness of this context.
In a similar way, Foucault addresses questions of German neoliberal thought by looking in a very cursory way at the writings of people like Eucken and Röpke. Röpke is particularly interesting because he doesn’t have a stable position. Foucault portraits Röpke as someone who thinks that competition can be extended through every aspect of society so that it’s no longer a matter of what the market can or can’t touch, but it’s how the market touches things. But in many ways, Röpke was quite a complex thinker as the kinds of aggressive statements around markets that he made in the 1940s give way to a more conservative position in the 1950’s where he’s thinking about the role of the church, about the limitations of competition, and all of these sorts of things. So, what we need, beyond Foucault, is a closer reading of these figures, and also an understanding of how their thought changes across time.
Then you get into the writings of other people that are adressed by Mises and Hayek - thinkers like Comte, on one hand, and Alfred Schutz, on the other. In terms of the former, Hayek developed a critique of sociological positivism that runs from his early work and through to his writings of the 1950s, and in particular his book The Counter-Revolution of Science (1979). Hayek barbarizes Comte’s work and argues that if you start with collective analysis or collective properties of any kind, then it leads without doubt to some kind of authoritarian and potentially fascistic form of governance. This connection, however, is never explained, it is simply stated, and is in keeping with Hayek’s assault on all things ‘social’, which takes us back to our opening discussion about neoliberalism’s fetishisation of the individual.
The question of Schutz is more complicated. Schutz was a friend of Mises and Hayek, and provided detailed comments and feedback on the drafts of their early work. They knew each other quite well, they corresponded with each other over a number of years but Schutz couldn’t go down the same line as Hayek or Mises. He felt uncomfortable with the raw economism that was underpinning their positions. When Hayek was at the LSE, he invited Schutz to write a paper for journal Economica, which he edited, and Schutz went through about five or six attempts to produce something. In the end, he never submitted anything because, I think, he couldn’t force his position, which of course gives a certain priority to the social, into the type of framework that Hayek wanted. This is interesting because Schutz was a founding member of the Mont Pelerin Society and spent time in these circles but largely sat on the periphery as clearly he didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the positions of those around him. These people are often quite interesting - we can talk about others such as Aron and Michael Polanyi later - because they can’t be forced into the neoliberal paradigm that was being pushed at that stage. They feel uncomfortable and they withdraw and rebel in various ways. They are not really radical people, but, at the same time, they provide a certain understanding of what neoliberalism is, the limits of neoliberal thought and how we might respond to these.
S.R.: I think that when you mentioned the influence of methodological individualism and the epistemological positions - and maybe ontological commitments that these thinkers are able or not to do - we are entering into the realm of the agency-structure debate, which can be understood as the inner theoretical battlefield in which sociology plays these defence of the social as a defence of the collective form as something different from the individual. But I think that also emphasizing too much on the structural dimension of society can lead us to a certain political position that is not quite correct. Not in the sense of leading to fascism or authoritarianism, as Hayek argues, but in the sense that people ended up being conceived only as puppets of the structures, and, therefore, foreclosing possibilities of change through agential projects because individuals are portrayed as incapable of criticizing what's going on in society. Do you think that there is any sociological theory that has defended the social without falling in this other extreme?
N.G: I can’t think of many sociologist that really push the other extreme. You could read the whole neoliberal revolution that took place theoretically from the early 1920s onwards as a kind of individualistic, radically individualistic form of sociology, if that is indeed possible. Mises’ work Socialism in 1922, which it is framed as an economic and sociological analysis. You could say that there are plenty of sociologists that push a kind of individualistic line and plenty that try to reconcile the individual with various forms of social structure and so on. I can’t think of many that push it too far the other way. There are structural forms of analysis but these are not very popular today and are totally out of fashion. Who would you think of?
S.R.: I would think… maybe not really in that way but that there's a lot of mistakes in Anthony Giddens’ works when he thinks of the individuals confronting ‘fateful moments’ as risk calculators. The individual appears only as a homo economicus that is calculating rationally the risk he is going to get into his life and, according to that, has a project of the self without any normative concern or value orientation whatsoever…
N.G: Giddens is an example of someone that from 1976 onwards, with his New Rules of Sociological Method, returned to Schutz and others. He's interested in pursuing a certain type of sociology as a political project, and gives the structure-agency debate, which I have always thought is a bit contrived, a political twist. Why talk about structure and agency today: what is it’s political resonance now? The key point is that basically everything has become agency. Everyone is obsessed with agency and individual freedoms at the cost of addressing the sociological and political importance of collective concerns.
The person that shifts these sorts of structure-agency debates into a more interesting idiom is Zygmunt Bauman. He was someone who lived under an authoritarian regime but was also disturbed by the extreme consumer freedoms of contemporary capitalist society. His argument was that individual freedoms are great to a point, but if you push them too far then people are cut adrift from society and don’t know which way to turn next as they are left to their own devices. Bauman’s work, then, is effectively a critique of neoliberalism in all but name. He argues in response that that individual freedom on its own is not freedom as such as it can never be divorced from collective freedoms from which we all benefit. This is in contrast to the world we live in now, in which we are so deeply individualized that any sense of the collective, even of basic sociological categories such as class, becomes politically dangerous. Why are politicians even on the political Left so reluctant to reassert a class politics. Why is that the case? Class has become a dirty word even for some social scientists. The tendency instead is to talk about about inequality, which risks individualizing material differences that are often structural in basis. Are we going to see a return to class politics? This is possible, and this to some has extent has happened following the recent Grenfell fire in the UK, but I don’t get the sense that sociologists are leading the way with these sorts of concerns. There has to be a set of kind of collective ideas and collective properties that return in order to explain the current crisis of the political – class is one, but no doubt there are others too.
S.R.: I think one interesting thing to talk about is this rejection of class that has been played out inside post-Marxist thinkers as Laclau and Mouffe (2001). They try to take hegemony and some concepts out of what they consider to be a matrix of class essentialism. And I think that this happens not only at the level of thought but at the level of practice. I can think of some collective movements that have tried to avoid these structural forms of collective acting or proposing strong ‘we-statements’, because they see on it a danger for the individual agency or freedom of the participants. For example, this constant concern of Occupy and Podemos to maintain levels of individual freedom within the movement. I think this is really problematic as well.
N.G: One thing that is interesting to talk about is whether people would choose to give up some of their individual freedoms, and what part of these they would relinquish in order for wider collective forms of freedom to take their place. These sorts of questions have become unpopular but at one stage the social state was central to leftist politics. Questions of social housing or of progressive taxation - where the very rich would have been taxed heavily in order to provide benefits for people that really needed help and security - seem like from a bygone age.
The Left, at least in the UK, is at a something of a turning point. Either it heads back to a kind of collectivist dream, which, for me, continues to be more attractive than the aggressive forms of neoliberalism that we see everywhere today, or stick with a horrible Blairite position in the left which is totally corrupted with neoliberal ideas. This position was inspired by Giddens’ The Third Way, which fused of ordoliberal ideas with Chicago’s School economics. At the centre of this text is the idea that the poor should become entrepreneurs of themselves. I can't think of anything worse.
The route forward for the political Left in the UK isn’t clear. It could go for an old Labour style of government, but this is not without problems not least because we live in a different social situation now where we don't have strong trade union movements, and many of the class politics and the class allegiances of the pre-1980s have been totally destroyed and decimated. How do you rekindle those sorts of things? It seems like an enormously difficult project for the Left. It desparately needs new talent and new ideas, and new voices, but I can't see this at the moment.
The other thing is that the neoliberal regime is extraordinarily well organized and coordinated. People seem to think that it was all over the place in relation to the financial crisis and Brexit and so on but I think they overestimate its vulnerability to these sorts of events. The neoliberals and the neoconservatives have done very well out of the crises of the last 10 years. It is possible that the hegemony they exert over the contemporary politics will start to fracture over things like Brexit and Europe, but I am not altogether hopefully that this will be the case. One thing for sure is that the political Left needs to find its voice on these sorts of issues, and if possible force open the fracture lines that exist between different groups on the political Right. We shall see.
S.R.: I think is very valuable what you have said about the entrepreneurs of themselves. I recently read an interview with Peter Sloterdijk (2016) in which he says that - I don't know if he's trying to provoke or whatsoever - but he says that the only revolutionary movement is the entrepreneurial, the movement of the entrepreneurs. He says that they have to take the lead of the workers to construct a new society. I think it's really controversial to say that the entrepreneurs are the only group of people able to show the population us how actual, real economy works against financial capitalism. I would like to know your position on this.
N.G: I think is a lot of rubbish to be honest with you. The entrepreneur is a cherished category in many of the kind of neoliberal canonical texts. But who are we talking about here? Who are the entrepreneurs? Richard Branson or Donald Trump? Are these the sorts of people we should be modelling our societies on? And what is this spirit of entrepreneurship that should feed through all of our subjectivities to make us better citizens or better social beings? I don't see it at all.
The entrepreneur is the neoliberal figure or model for the type of subjects that we should become. Wendy Brown writes brilliantly on this point. She argues that under contemporary conditions of neoliberalism there is a transformation in the type of subjects that are produced: from entrepreneurs as Foucault describes them to financialised subjects that are also expected to be risk-bearing and enterprising. You get it even at the level of being a student. You take on huge amounts of debt. You take that risk, and you take the burden on: it becomes your responsibility. It's a form of neoliberal governance that passes down those choices – which are never really choices as such because they are largely unavoidable - to you. The point is that they are framed as being choices and if you make the wrong ones, so to speak, it is your fault. Again, it is about passing everything down to the individual to cope with: this is the neoliberal dream, or should I say nightmare. So, I think that this idea of being an entrepreneur of yourself is very much part of the problem. I can’t imagine anything worse than going to people who are really suffering because of the withdrawal of the social state and telling them that they should take more risks (the Giddens position) and/or that they are the problem because they made the wrong choices in life and that things could have been different if they had acted differently (the behaviouralist approach). Really, I can't think of anything worse.
S.R.: I think that this economization of the social life leads us to another question about the relation between Raymond Aron and Hayek that you grasped in a recent paper (Gane, 2016). Here Raymond Aron seems to be separating himself of Hayek because of this reduction of the social to economics, and he’s trying to claim that the social, the collective form, is more than the sphere of economics. In this sense, I think that we have two ways of defending the social: defending that it is more than an aggregate of individual decisions and defending that it cannot be reduced to the market. In this sense, I think that sociologists are in a privileged position to challenge the two fictions that underpin the neoliberal thought - the market and the homo economicus. Do you think that sociology nowadays has to say “the social must be defended”? If so, how sociology can have this position?
N.G.: It’s another very difficult question. I like figures such as Aron who has been lost in the past and no one reads any more. Aron is not popular for many reasons: he’s not popular because he’s not a flare writer, he’s not someone who dazzles you on the page when you read it, he’s not a Foucault. He’s also someone that never created a following, unlike say Bourdieu. Aron fell out with people and he took unorthodox positions. He was a conservative and was outspoken against the 1968 student protests, for example. For these reasons, many people don’t have any inclination to turn back to him.
But, when you read people like Aron, you realize that there’s a certain brilliance there as well. I have some time for him because I think we can learn something from his sociology and from his movements within right wing circles. He was very dismissive of the ideals of the French Left and was particularly critical of its refusal to take a stand against Stalinism. He had a spat with Jean Paul Sartre, and the two of them fell out very bitterly over these sorts of questions. He distanced himself from figures such as Sartre and became involved in right wing circles, and he got to know Hayek. When you read Aron’s Memoirs what’s interesting is that they must have known each other quite well, but Hayek is almost totally written out of that autobiography. It seems that they used to meet in London quite regularly for dinners, but there’s barely any record of what they said or what they did. Aron was involved in the Mont Pelerin Society and he was also at the Walter Lippmann Colloquium in Paris in 1938. So, Aron is in this mix. He was in the same mix as Schutz, but obviously his work is quite different.
Over time, however, Aron fell out with Hayek. In 1960, Hayek published one of the most important texts in neoliberal thought The Constitution of Liberty, and Aron wrote a long critical review of this text. This ended their relationship (which had been turbulent: Aron had previously resigned from the Mont Pelerin Society). I would say that anyone who’s interested in these sorts of things should just go read some Aron and read Aron’s critique of Hayek, because it is a brilliant dismissal of many of the central claims of The Constitution of Liberty. And yet, I bet that hardly anyone will!
I like approaching these things historically. I like figures that were uncomfortable with the inception of neoliberalism. There are sociologists such as Michael Polanyi, Alfred Schutz, Raymond Aron. These are interesting figures that were there at the outset of the neoliberal movement and were uncomfortable with it, and ultimately drifted away and out of it. Aron probably was the most outspoken of all of them. Ultimately, he was a political conservative. He believed in democratic processes and so on. He didn't believe in the raw economic freedoms of the ‘ultraliberalism’ of Hayek. He still believed in politics. He didn't believe in the reduction of political processes to a kind of economic interest and he didn't believe in the raw individualism of Hayek either. He had a quite sophisticated view of industrial societies and this led him to a belief in the existence of mixed economies rather than Hayek of an ‘either/or position’ that forces you either to be for free market capitalism or for a kind of state socialism. Aron argues that the most economies are mixed in basis, and that these things are never either/or because there were competitive dynamics to most of socialist organizations, and also important state interventions made within capitalist societies. In short, he refuses many of Hayek’s claims from the outset. This why I think he’s is an interesting and important figure. And he was a sociologist committed to a lifetime of work within the discipline. I think it’s a good idea to go back figures such as these to see what’s sort of position you can work out of them in relation to the demands of the present.
S.R.: I think it is interesting that there have been sociologists that were engaged critically with this from the outset, but what strikes me is that none of them was a ‘critical’ sociologist. It seems kind of difficult to understand how people, like Pierre Bourdieu or even Althusser, never referred to the neoliberal rise, they were not even thinking about it, they were no engaging in any way with it as if they never saw it coming. Bourdieu only wrote about it in the 90’s when neoliberalism was an already formed monster. It is as if the ‘critical’ sociologists are always one step back.
N.G: This is a good point. It’s a shame that Bourdieu didn’t take more notice of what Aron was writing about! The neoliberal movement grew without comments and virtually unnoticed seemingly for forty, fifty years before anyone took any notice of it. This is another reason why it’s interesting to go back to those sociologists who were involved in it, that rejected it, that were part of the movement but then fell out with people and moved on.
Of course, this wasn’t an entirely happy time for some of these people. Aron and Michael Polanyi moved on from Mont Pelerin Society to the Congress of Cultural Freedom, which is a really interesting organization that had brilliant people attached to it, including people on the political Left. You can go back and you could read all their papers as they are freely available online. Some of these are really interesting, and you can see the kind of challenges that were picked up outside of the Mont Pelerin Society at that time. It later became clear, however, that this organization was underpinned by American money, by CIA money, and this was a bit of an embarrassment for Aron and for Polanyi, who were involved at a high level with the running of the Congress of Cultural Freedom.
There are collected volumes of the proceedings of the events that they held. These are quite interesting and have high level contributions from a range of different people, not just people on the political Right or people on the Left. Again, it’s interesting to see the circles that people were moving in, the alliances and allegiances that people had, the organizations that they were part of and the geographical span that these had. The Mont Pelerin Society was interesting because, in the first instance, it was a meeting place of European with American thought and then broadened to become a global organization. Over time, there were big struggles for power within this Society and it became something other to, or perhaps more than, Hayek originally intended.
S.R.: I think it is worth going back to the idea about how neoliberal subjects, once constructed, describe social suffering in terms of their ‘own fault’: ‘everything is my fault, I choose poorly’. Crisis is then taken personally and they begin to blame themselves. I think this can be related to the rise of these discourses of depression and isolation of individuals instead of taking political attitudes or developing a critical understanding of their situation that allows them to overcome passivity. Confronted to this, it seems important for sociology to be able to make a statement as ‘There is such a thing as society and you have to understand yourself and your problems as part of a social context’. How do you think sociology can do that? Is public sociology in the version of Buroway an option?
N.G: I think that public sociology is a bit kind of a red herring. I would agree with Mills, that public sociology is being done all the time outside the academy by good journalists, by people who write in different ways like newspapers, magazines, online and so on. I think that the problem with the academy is that most thoughts stay within it. I guess we would all like to be good public sociologists, but the reality is that most published work we produce has a very limited audience and readership, and this is partly because of institutional structures and the audit regimes which dictate our lives within the academy. These regimes are strict about publishing in certain places, within a certain time limit, in certain formats and so on. This clearly places restrictions on what we do, but nonetheless other modes of working are still possible.
If we want to be good public sociologists, then we have to go out of the academy and spend more time talking to different kinds of audiences. We have to confront different political positions and uncomfortable problems and things that we don’t like to see. For example, post-Brexit: it is really easy to laugh at people that voted for Brexit and, in so doing, maintain a distance between the academy and ‘those people out there’. I think it is important to avoid doing that. I think it is important, in the spirit of C. Wright Mills, to do a kind of job of and to cast new light on people’s lives and provide new understandings.
You talked, for example, about depression. This is not an individualized problem. It has become individualized but there is a structural basis to it. We are witnessing massive levels of mental illness. And we are witnessing people are entering their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s who are massively indebted and are under great pressure just to exist on a day-to-day bassis. They are often on their own, they are often depressed with problems of various sorts: bodily and mental. It sounds depressing and it is depressing. This, for me, is one consequence of mass individualisation. I think that good sociology should shows the underlying structural causes and consequences of this form of existence and connect it to neoliberal forms of governance that are currently all pervading and everywhere.
I do think that we live in disturbing times. We are living in times in which people do not know where to turn to and how to solve the problems in their lives because these problems are not always of their own making – even thought they might appear to be so once they are individualised. This situation is perfect for the new Right, because they give us people answers along the lines of: ‘we can blame this population or we can blame these people because they are cause of your problems’. Of course, they are not but this doesn’t mean to say that people don’t then start to believe some of these things. So, as sociologists, often we have to confront ideas and problems that are uncomfortable for us. We have to confront the root causes of new racisms, we have to confront new Right wing ideologies, and we have to do so head on. We can’t do that by just staying in the academy, because many people are radically disengaged from the sorts of intellectual spaces that we are part of, and the political Right has worked hard to promote a culture of anti-intellectualism – and also what has come to be called ‘the establishment’ (whatever this may be). Those on the Right really are milking this situation and give popular, easy to understand answers to things that are clearly far more complex. These answer are often full of hate and blame and it is a real task for sociology to combat them in a way that speaks to as wide an audience as possible.
Of course, many people are already doing great work across the social science. But if we want to talk about a more formal notion of ‘public sociology’, then I would say that, currently, it is not very effective. It had nothing much to say about the financial crisis (until way after the event), and nothing much to say about the post-Brexit situation. Sociology just doesn’t have that kind of public presence in the UK. I am as much to blame as anyone. I am someone who predominantly works from a desk in front of a screen. But I do think there is a real job for people to do work outside of the academy and to reassert and reassess the structural problems, the causes of many of the individualized problems that we have talked about. It seems to me that this also is a key task for the political Left, but in recent year it has been pretty hopeless in doing it and that is really sad. It strikes me when the Left withdraws from addressing these fundamental concerns then the Right is given free reign, and you get everything from centre-right austerity politics through to far right populism and neo-fascist ideas that really are disturbing.
S.R.: It seems that the only way that people avoid taking the crisis personally is through these discourses of hate and blaming: blaming the poor, blaming immigrants, blaming people from other races and things alike. In these discourses, it is because of these populations that we are going through these crises, so we have to go into austerity and tie up these ‘irresponsible’ populations. So, I don’t know what do you think about this way of ‘market’ racism that we are living in a broad sense against, I guess, some populations that are considered to be dangerous for the deployment of market mechanisms or the culprits of their failing. How to make sense of the way in which responsibility is put on the shoulders of these populations? Is it appropriate to talk about a sort ‘market racism’, if we understand racism in the Foucauldian sense expressed in Security, Territory and Population (2007), in which some populations are considered unhealthy for some biopolitical arrangementa?
N.G.: I touched on this in the previous question and I think it is a consequence of where we are at, politically, in a post-crisis situation, and Brexit has to be understood in the post-crisis context as well. The crisis completely incapacitated the Left and there are good arguments for why it did. If you read Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, he points out straight away that in times of crises people are more likely to retrench into more conservative positions than take more a more radical stance. The idea that the crisis would lead to progressive political social change was unfounded from the start. There were people that predicted the fall of capitalism at the time but it was and I was surprised people took them seriously.
Mirowski’s books makes you understand how the crisis works. First of all, the state has been redesigned to support the operation of market-led capitalism in the last instance. What we have seen is an attempt to protect the market at all costs as ‘the market’ has become the measure of everything. But maybe I should clarify this: for the neoliberals the market becomes the measure of everything but this is not necessarily the case for neo-conservatives, I’ll come back to that in a second. So, when Macron made inroads in the French elections against Le Pen, the lead story on The Guardian website was along the lines of: “Markets surge across Europe as Macron looks set to win election”. That was The Guardian. The measure of success was not about the ability to tackle new racisms or the threat of Le Pen and the rise of neo-fascist politics across Europe. Instead the focus was on ‘the market’ and its approval for a Macron victory. Of course, this is tied into a narrative around Europe, because now France will not pursue an exit from a single market. But the fact that a paper with leftist leaning woud frame this in terms of the market approval of a set of political preferences and positions is interesting and it happens all the time. They measure things - political speeches, or if there is a war, or a threat of war, or instability – in terms of the market. Everything has to have a market reference: this is neoliberalism writ large.
The Left has not dealt with the post-crisis situation at all well, but I can only speak with any confidence about the British situation. I can’t really talk about France, or Spain or Italy, or Germany, or America, or elsewhere. In the UK, the crisis signalled a transition from one type of neoliberal politics to another: from Blair to Brown to a Conservative-led coalition. There was a massive mobilisation of right wing politics through this period. Of course, there was the rise of nationalist parties like UKIP that sought to mobilize working class populations around certain threats, such as the threat of the immigrant. There was also the idea that we have to be anti-establishment because is the establishment that caused the crisis in the first place. We have seen this replicated everywhere. It seems not to be only a British thing. We have seen it in the States under Trump and Macron in France. But what is ‘the establishment’? What do ‘it’ stand for? And why do people feel so alienated from it? These are questions that we need to think through quite carefully.
The post-Brexit situation is really interesting and uncertain and it would be interesting to think more closely, and I would argue historically, about what the figure of Europe has come to mean for different populations. I’m a bit cynical about the political positions that were taken in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. Cameron was never a pro-Europe person: he never wanted to sign up to the EU social chapter. Corbyn also was never a pro Europe person. He voted against treaty of Lisbon and many of the other kind of socialists of the Labour party were never pro-Europe in the way that people like Blair and others were.
Let’s be frank. There are problems with Europe and in some ways Corbyn was right to give it a mark of 7 out of 10. Pierre Bourdieu is an interesting figure he as he draws attention to the modelling of Europe by people that came out of the ordoliberal tradition that Foucault studies in his biopolitics lectures. He argues that it was a mistake to have a model of economic integration before social and political integration – this his position in Acts of Resistance. If you read Dardot and Laval’s book (2013), which is fantastic, then it’s all about the kind of modelling of Europe around an ideal of competition that was pushed by some of the ordoliberals in a bid to shape the economic basis of European integration from the Treaty of Rome onwards.
For these reasons, I think that it would be an interesting project to go back to and think historical about contemporary Europe as a neoliberal entity. Does this mean I am anti-Europe? No. What I object to is the casting of views in the form of the referendum - a for or against, an either-or, a 0 or a 1 – when we are dealing with something that is really very complex. Because of course there are really progressive things about the European Union as well that go well beyond the single market. We can think about human rights, we can think about workers’ rights, we can think about many things that would have been left behind if it wasn’t for Europe. But, at the same time, we can also think about a federalist Europe as a neoliberal entity.
There are some really interesting things that were written about Europe before Brexit. You have people like Zygmunt Bauman who are very pro-Europe. Bauman argues, for example, that we need some kind of federalist arrangement is needed to oppose the extremities of neoliberalism. This is because it’s only through the coming together of nation-states that it is possible to act in the interests of their individual populations – through the taxing corporations and so on. The argurment here is that there is no way that nation-states on their own can do this because capital will just take flight and move anywhere that it finds at the least resistance.
Just ahead of the Brexit vote there was a range of positions published in The Guardian. One of the most interesting ones was by Slavoj Zizek. He argues that we were damned if we voted for Brexit and damned if we voted against it, but it was probably the best to vote for Europe because it was the least worst option. I agreed with him as but resented being forced to make this choice in the first place: a choice between a vote for a kind of neoliberal paradigm and a vote for a neo-conservative order in which other things – in particular questions of race and nation - have been prioritized. But in many ways this choice is characteristic of the world we currently live in: one that oscillates all the time between neoliberalism and neoconservativism of various sorts. But these have always been uneasy bedfellows as we can see from Hayek’s work The Constitution of Liberty (the postscript of which is entitled is Why I am not a Conservative) and the tensions I talked about between Hayek and figures such as Aron.
I think we are in a kind of neoconservative moment now, where we are retrenching to questions around nation, identity, the rise of new racisms, certain religious commitments and so on. How did we come to this present? How has this been possible? It been possible because of organization of a certain set of people, ideas and commitments on the Right but, also because of the failures of the Left. We have to be honest about that and think about the challenges that present us and how if we are committed to a Leftist form of politics, how it is possible to move forward from here and make inroads against the aggressive forms of right wing populism that seem to be dominant today.
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