Tag Archives: Hardt & Negri

Episode 24: Foucault & Neoliberalism, with Magnus Paulsen Hansen

Hello, Fully Automated friends! For your coronavirus lockdown listening pleasure, we are today releasing a really special episode. Our guest is Dr. Magnus Paulsen Hansen, who is an Associate Professor at the Department of Social Sciences and Business, at Roskilde University. Magnus researches the role of ideas and evaluation in the legitimation of welfare state transformations. But he is also a bit of a Foucault ninja. And he is joining us today to discuss a question that has vexed me for a long time: was Foucault a neoliberal?

Veteran listeners may recall the last time we discussed this issue, when we had Mark GE Kelly on the show, all the way back in Episode 2! But I wanted to get Magnus on the show to go a little deeper into some of these arguments, as its a debate that doesn’t seem to be going away. In 2015, Magnus published an article in the journal Foucault Studies, entitled Foucault’s Flirt? Neoliberalism, the Left and the Welfare State; a Commentary on La dernière leçon de Michel Foucault and Critiquer Foucault. For me, it stands as one of the most exhaustively researched and argued rebuttals of the contention, by Daniel Zamora, and other fellow travelers (see also here), that Foucault bears some kind of intellectual responsibility for the rise of neoliberal thought.

Honestly, I’ve always been a little alarmed by the argument that Foucault was a neoliberal. Its not so much the idea itself that offends me, as the slipshod nature of the way the argument is made. With a strong tendency towards ad hominem argumentation, and little consideration for Foucault’s core teachings on power, the argument appears to be quite ideologically driven. Often, it seems to boil down simply to the argument that Foucault was some sort of intellectual magpie, and all too easily distracted by shiny objects. Zamora and his fellow travelers claim that Foucault was “seduced” by the basic model of freedom offered by neoliberal thought, and that he was thus blinded to its more disciplinary tendencies. Given Foucault’s prestige and influence among the left, this was an abdication from his intellectual duty, weakening the left just at the moment of Reagan and Thatcher’s arrival.

In this interview, we discuss the danger of looking for “hidden” or “unconscious” intentions in an author, and the idea that such intentions might relate to any conclusion about an author’s politics. We discuss the “best case” defense of the claim that Foucault was somehow seduced by neoliberal thought, and the way this argument often gets linked in an under-nuanced way to Foucault’s critique of the post-war welfare state. We also explore the various ways in which Foucault, while often categorized as a libertarian, with anti-state proclivities, was equally opposed to anarchist theoretics of the state, going even so far as to refer to them as a form of “state phobia” — something that is especially interesting think about today, in light of Agamben’s recent interventions on Coronavirus measures as amplifying permanent state of exception (I discussed this at length in the intro to our last episode, with Garnet Kindervater).

In the face of such weak evidence, we should note that Foucault in no way accepted or endorsed the idea that he was himself a neoliberal. To the contrary, as Magnus notes, there is a strong cautionary voice in Foucault’s writings on neoliberalism. Indeed, he appears to argue that it foreshadows the dawn of a new and sinister mode of political power; at the moment of neoliberalism’s birth, Foucault was warning that neoliberal theory imagines itself installing a “permanent economic tribunal” and becoming a hegemonic “model of social relations and of existence itself.” Certainly, this is not to say Foucault’s work has no blind spots when it comes to the question of what neoliberal theory would later become. One common objection to Foucault in this sense is his failure to anticipate the disciplinary aspects of contemporary neoliberalism, such as work fare, for example. How should we assess this failure? For Magnus, the contention is complicated by the fact that work fare didn’t really become a part of the neoliberal toolbox until the 1990s.

Unless we are to accept that failure to predict the future is a sign of scholarly weakness, it might more reasonably be said that we are overloading the concept of neoliberalism, to ask it to explain literally everything that happens in contemporary capitalism. And it is to this question that Magnus and I turn, towards the end of the interview, when we explore the question of Foucault’s contentious relationship with Marxism, and his suggestion that the left has “yet to invent” a socialist governmentality.

You can follow Magnus on Twitter, here. Hope to you enjoy the show. Please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts, or your podcast app of choice!

Episode 19: Generation Left, with Keir Milburn & Chairman Moe’s Magic Contradiction

Welcome to another episode of Fully Automated! Our guest for this episode is Keir Milburn, Lecturer in Political Economy and Organization at the University of Leicester. Keir has a new book out, called Generation Left. I had a chance to discuss the text recently, with my Columbus, OH-based friends, Chairman Moe’s Magic Contradiction (AKA Charlie Umland and Jim Calder). We liked it so much, we thought we’d reach out to Keir and see if he’d come on the show, to discuss.

American audiences may have heard Keir interviewed by Chuck Mertz a couple of weeks ago, on This Is Hell! We’re kind of hoping this could be a good companion episode to that interview, as we go deep into some aspects of the book that Chuck didn’t have time to address. And there is a LOT going on in this book! It starts by questioning the popular notion that Millennials and Zoomers are a bunch of entitled snowflakes, and suggesting that this myth is actually doing quite a lot of work, politically, in dividing young and old members of the working class, giving them over to the idea that they have fundamentally different interests.

But of course, as with many myths, an investigation of the facts produces a rather different persecutive. It turns out, says Keir, that the generations are stuck in rather different material trajectories. One statement Keir makes early in the book really caught our attention: “the older generation are still tied to the neoliberal hegemony of finance while the young seek to escape it.” But these trajectories are not a given. To the contrary, the logic of neoliberalism forces the Boomer generation to hold onto its material advantages, as a retirement strategy. And, as it does this, it condemns Millennials and Zoomers to a life of debt and forces them into a culture of cynical entrepreneurialism.

In the show, we talk with Keir about the role of events in composing generations. Events, he says, can disrupt our accepted ways of making sense of the world, and lead to the emergence of radically new social energies. But not every disruptive event will necessarily lead to some kind of new configuration, nor will every new configuration necessarily be a progressive one.

One particular event, the 2008 financial crisis, of course looms large in Keir’s story. Unleashing austerity on the developed world, it represents in a sense the apogee of neoliberal governmentality. Milburn cites academic theorists like Wendy Brown, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Jennifer Silva to try to explain how neoliberal capitalism tries to get us to think and act as if there is no alternative to neoliberalism, even tho we all know its not working — we know we can’t all be entrepreneurs. (This reminded us a bit of Adam Curtis, and his hyper-normalization documentary). A key figure for Milburn here is Mark Fisher, and his argument about consciousness deflation.

Whatever we want to call this system (authoritarian neoliberalism? zombie capitalism?), clearly it is making us sick. Throughout the text, Milburn make repeated reference to how we are living in the midst of an epidemic of “depression, insomnia and mental distress.” Yet there’s kind of a mystery to unpack here. He cites Jennifer Silva, for example, to explain how capitalism prefers us to internalize these issues, making them questions more to to do with our emotional and psychic resilience, than anything to do with the structure of the economy.

And, as he argues, this way of thinking about our mental wellbeing even showed up in the “assemblyism” of the occupy Wall Street movement. Nevertheless, he insists, Occupy’s approach to the collective discussion of experiences and struggles did offer therapeutic and even political potentials to the young people who participated. And, as we discuss in the show (admittedly not in nearly enough detail) there are things we can learn here, very much in the spirit of the late Mark Fisher, that might be applied to a new model of treating mental and material health.

Today, the reputation of neoliberalism is today irredeemably tarnished. The question before us is how to build and leverage democratic competence and confidence, to build a new order in the face of zombie neoliberalism. We ask Keir about his own podcast, ACFM, and the role the suggest that might yet be played by the so-called “weird left,” as a way of engaging in consciousness raising. He acknowledges that while counter-cultural practices sometimes get a bad rep (and deservedly so), subcultures like punk and DIY do still offer the possibility of “conscious raising” that could meaningfully counter some of the “consciousness deflating” pressures of neoliberalism.

In the closing chapters of your book, however, Milburn is under no illusions: the left has a long history of melancholia. Ultimately, to succeed, says Milburn, generation left is going to have to bridge the generation gap. As he points out, this won’t be easy — boomers are dependent on financial instruments, 401k, stock markets, property values etc. Equally, we know that as much as they depend on these financial assets, they have very little control over them: 85% of the stock market is owned by the top 10%; property values are dependent on development funds, retirement funds, university endowments, etc. So, considering these interests, it may be hard to bring working class boomers around!

To fix this, he claims, we will need to engage in a “dual strategy.” On the one hand, we will need to get serious about wielding the power of the state, and building economies of the commons, to show Boomers that socialism can work for them, too. On the other hand, however, we will need to build political movements capable of holding our representatives in the state to account. This isn’t going to be easy, however. Time and resources are thin on the ground. Solidarity economies, UBI, UBS, etc, can be one answer here. But, as he concludes, the key fact is that we need to build these alliances. If the generation gap really is a class gap, as he argues, then solidarity economies and the like may be the vital tool we need, to help us achieve the the kind of inter-generational unity we need, if we are ever to win.

On Naschek, on Haider, and the “Zombie New Left”

Given the recent opprobrium over Melissa Naschek’s piece in Jacobin, and the fact that it certainly has a few errors, it would be foolish to make it the hill upon which one might want to make any kind of stand. (Certainly, the editors should have been able to spot the bizarre misreading of the pullout quote from Haider, about the “banal truism” — in the text, Haider is clearly replying to “identitarian liberals” who disavow class positionality altogether. He is explicitly saying we need to reserve a place in our critique for strategies of structural change. Whereas for Naschek, Haider here is somehow disavowing “class centrality”?). But the presence of errors doesn’t mean that the message is entirely off base — or, at least, that there might not be some sort of productive point to be gained from engaging with it.

To be upfront tho, unlike Naschek, I tend to think Haider’s politics are basically fine. I’ll offer some defense of that in a minute. But equally, I also have the feeling that if I could sit down with Naschek sometime, I might just be able to persuade her that there’s a lot in the book that she could work with, too. For me, a rough and ready ‘test’ for whether or not one is relying too hard on the category of identity is whether or not one can accept that identity per se is an insufficient basis upon which to erect either a critique of capitalism, or a strategic program. Borrowing from Hardt and Negri, identity might bequeath us emancipation, but only the defeat of capitalism can give us liberation. Identity in the end is a form of property, and like other forms of property, it can bind us and immobilize us in the development of our being. True human unfolding requires that we go beyond the need to ‘perform’ according to any kind of script, and that we have access to the material abundance necessary to make that possible.

Does Haider pass that test? To me, I think he does. Consider for example how Haider poses humanity as “a multitude of people irreducible to any single description” without any “default” common interest. Now, insofar as this claim might be interpreted to suggest the absence of an empirical basis for class politics, we might be alarmed to read that line. But when was class ever about the existence of an extra-historical common interest? For Marx himself, the whole point of the concept of the proletariat was to figure out how it might finally be abolished. Similarly, for Haider, anticapitalist politics is a contingent proposition, rooted in a democratic self-composition of the multitude, founded in whatever common interests it can muster, here and now, as it seeks to become something else entirely.

Does race belong as a necessary category in the struggle against capitalism? Ellen Woods was surely correct in claiming that “capitalism is conceivable without racial divisions.” But in Haider’s mind, race has been central to the composition of American capitalism. It didn’t necessarily start out that way (Haider here discusses the work of Barbara Fields), but in the seventeenth century it became useful for the ruling class to divide their slaves along racial lines. And this set in motion a whole series of historical developments, many of which we are living with still today.

Its not my place to recapitulate the entirety of Haider’s argument. But there’s sufficient grounds in the above already to demonstrate that one of Naschek’s key claims may be overblown — namely, the idea that Haider reduces anticapitalist politics to a “numbers game” of connecting “movements of movements,” and striving endlessly for a “requisite number of signatories.” Now, critically, I would have no problem using Naschek’s accusation against, say, Laclau and Mouffe. So convinced are they of the merits of radical populism, the word capitalism seems to sit in their mouths like an unswallowable frog. If Haider’s was indeed one of those kinds of arguments, Naschek would be quite right in calling him out for his refusal to impute “any common objective interests of workers.” But I don’t see any evidence that Haider is advocating ‘that’ kind of hegemony. Of course, an interesting debate can be had, from this launch point, on the role of the mass party, and the extent to which it can and should be embedded in the movements (see Hardt and Negri’s Assembly, as just one take on this). This is a rich and useful debate. But the point right now, I think, is that Naschek is shoving a square peg in a round hole suggesting that somehow these concerns are incompatible with those of Haider’s book.

Which leads perhaps to the thing that I think Naschek gets right. There is an awful lot of leftist politics today that does succumb to the radical pluralistic style that Laclau and Mouffe exemplify. Naschek is thus correct when she declares “identity politics and class politics understand capitalist power structures in distinct ways and therefore lead to distinct political strategies.” Of course! And we could even amplify this point, turning to scholars like Marie Moran and Martijn Konings, who demonstrate concretely (albeit via different arguments) the linkages between contemporary “identity speak” and the sickness of capitalism’s culture of self. But equally, as Moran and people like Roger Lancaster will quickly point out, we shouldn’t jump to too many conclusions on the basis of that observation, in isolation: many of the movements to which the term “identity politics” is regularly ascribed aren’t in fact identity movements at all! To the contrary, their demands have often been articulated less in terms of a desire for recognition, and more frequently in the pursuit of material resources. Identity for them has been a means to an end, and nothing more. That’s a really important point!

Naschek ends, claiming that “we can’t do both.” I might agree, but we need to be careful what we mean. Yes, there would seem to be an abundance of examples to attest to her claim that the “do both” strategy can paralyze the left, if by “do both” we are referring to the cynical mode of identity-for-its-own-sake politics that seems to inspire any number of contemporary phenomena, from campus safe spaces to Hillary Clinton’s claim that breaking up the big banks won’t solve racism to, well, pick your own DeRay Mckesson Tweet. These surely are examples of the pursuit of “identity-based particularism” that has self-evidently come at the “expense of class-based universalism.” Personally, however, I struggle to read any of those examples in “do both” terms. A real “do both” strategy would do what it says on the tin: recognize that the ‘emancipation’ question has its own proper place, alongside that of liberation.

Naschek will agree with me, I am certain, if I say that fulfillment of the promise of emancipation is impossible, so long as anti-capitalist liberation awaits. When she says the goal isn’t “synthesis” of the “best of” identity politics, and the “best of” universalist anti-capitalism, as if they should both have the same strategic priority, she is quite correct. But that is not to suggest that identity struggles are necessarily any less of a moral priority. So, to our above agreement, I would request the addition of another: callout culture will likely continue to have a place, even in our most ideal socialist utopia. To be sure, the movements we need cannot be built unless our organizations can demonstrate the capacity to offer “a real possibility” to change people’s lives for the better, and there is certainly such a thing as “the zombie new left.” But even if those two issues could be satisfactorily addressed, human beings are so diverse in their ambitions and aesthetic commitments, its hard to imagine that material equality could finally close the need for a supplemental politics based on something like identity.

UPDATE: Haider has today published a response to Naschek.

Between Fetishization and Thrift? A Response to Dave Eden’s Autonomy: Capitalism, Class and Politics.

Between Fetishization and Thrift? A Response to Dave Eden’s Autonomy: Capitalism, Class and Politics.

The wonderful people over at Disorder of Things have posted an extended version of my recent review of Dave Eden’s excellent ‘Autonomy: Capitalism, Class and Politics.’ The original version, which appears in the current issue of New Political Science, is focused more on the book itself. This version tries to offer a more developed response to Eden’s thoughts on the place of the critique of the commodity in contemporary Marxism. Sincere thanks to Wanda and Pablo for hosting the piece. ~ Nick

What is Enlightenment? Reflections on Foucault, Critique, and Freedom

Do you know, Foucault?

Foucault often spoke of critique in vague terms. A truth that “functions as a weapon,” on the one hand, but which can “light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it,” on the other. Statements like these appear to us as riddles. But what is critique for Foucault, really? One fascinating answer to this question can be found in his short piece, “What is Enlightenment?”

Now, I confess, when I was in graduate school I used to think this was one of the toughest bits of Foucault reading out there. I suppose I still do. Where I really struggle is later in the piece, when he gets into the opposition between two ideal types, the man of the modern world and the flâneur. Here, he paraphrases Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur as one who adopts “the spectator’s posture.” It seems to me that the flâneur is kind of a drop out, or somehow self-involved – a cynical figure who  refuses to engage with the world around him. Either way, against this passive figure (which Foucault does not praise), the modern man has an active stance in the world. His being in the world somehow changes it, but not fundamentally. Foucault observes that the modern man’s attitude towards the world, and himself, involves both ambition and acceptance of certain limits to that ambition. That is, it “does not entail an annulling of reality, but a difficult interplay between the truth of what is real and the exercise of freedom.” In this sense, modern man is he who strives to take what is natural in the world, including his own self, and make it somehow more than it was. And the emblematic figure of the modern subject here is the dandy, the ultimate entrepreneur of himself, who is compelled constantly to “invent himself” in relation to those limits. Perfect, or at least moving towards some sort of optimal state.

Continue reading What is Enlightenment? Reflections on Foucault, Critique, and Freedom

Struggling with Precarity: From More and Better Jobs to Less and Lesser Work | The Disorder Of Things

From Wanda Vrasti, does the language of precarity empower us? Or can we do better?

But what if precarity was the wrong rallying point to focus on? What if instead of describing a shared experience all that the concept did was point to the absence of a common ground? Is there any way we could turn precarity around from a testament to our shared vulnerability into a positive affirmation of collective desire?

via Struggling with Precarity: From More and Better Jobs to Less and Lesser Work | The Disorder Of Things.

Michael Hardt, ‘The Right to the Common’ – A Response

What, if anything, unifies the expressions of public protest that ‘kicked off everywhere’ in 2010-11, from Dataran to Tunis to Zuccotti Park? If such a unity exists, to what extent are those engaged in the struggles self-consciously aware of it? And, if such a self-consciousness exists, to what extent does it help further the cause of social justice in a world beset by financial crisis and elite corruption? In his talk at Ohio University’s campus in Athens, last week, Michael Hardt argued that the main stake in this most recent “cycle of struggles” was the pursuit of a sort of ‘right to the common.’ While those in the movements were engaged in struggles that were spatially and temporally specific, he suggested, they were unified by a desire to resolve a contradiction that has become increasingly apparent in the context of the current financial crisis. That contradiction inheres in the fact that the main ideological wellsprings for resolving the crisis have essentially run dry. The flaws of neoliberalism, on the one hand, or the idea that the optimal distributive solutions are to be found through a doubling-down on the rationalizing logic of the market, are by now well-known. Conversely, on the other, the notion that a philosophy of ‘public goods’ can somehow guarantee “shared open access” to the common, a notion which Hardt understands in quite an expansive sense, is increasingly suspect given the draconian statist policies such a position can sometimes underwrite. Hardt’s thesis then, briefly stated, is that the commitment of the movements to a form of organization and decision-making that is essentially horizontal (my term, not his) in nature attests to a sort of emerging awareness of the need for an alternative to these ‘zombie’ ideologies. This spirit of horizontalism, he appeared to say, distinguishes the movements as engaged in a kind of “double combat.” That is, in their efforts to engage in a kind of radically democratic form of allocative management – an attempt beset by flaws to be sure, but a meaningful attempt nevertheless – horizontalism appears to adopt the following posture: “We win the public, but then we have to fight it for the common.”

Continue reading Michael Hardt, ‘The Right to the Common’ – A Response

My Review of Zanotti: ‘Governing Disorder’ – H-Net Reviews

My review of Laura Zanotti’s Governing Disorder: UN Peace Operations, International Security, and Democratization in the Post-Cold War Era has been published over at H-Net Reviews. As I note, the book constitutes a refreshing attempt to break with the recent ‘life determinism’ tendency among critical Security Studies types. As I conclude, however, the book moves perhaps a little too quickly in dismissing the explanatory potential of Marxism:

Situating the UN’s bio-narrative in discourses of liberal securitization, as merely a technical means to a moral end, seems to play down the extent to which that moral end might actually be imagined in fairly economic terms. Marxism is a helpful guide, says Zanotti, to the extent that it can explore questions of uneven development as a condition which peacebuilding must then encounter. Yet Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000) is subjected to a very casual dismissal for its “structural/dialectical conceptualization of history” (p. 4). This kind of shoehorning is unfortunate given both that Hardt and Negri have sought repeatedly to distinguish themselves from such reductionist thinking and that their work at the very least broaches the possibility that the events with which Zanotti’s book is concerned might also be inflected by economic imperatives and rationalities.

Hardt and Negri on “The Problem of Transition” – Harvard University Press Blog

Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “passive revolution” and its limitations helps us understand how the relation between political diagonal and biopolitical diagram addresses the conundrum of the transition. As he does with many of his key concepts, Gramsci employs “passive revolution” in a variety of contexts with slightly different meanings, using multiple standpoints to give the concept greater amplitude. His first and primary usage is to contrast the passive transformation of bourgeois society in nineteenth-century Italy with the active revolutionary process of the bourgeoisie in France. Passive revolution, Gramsci explains, is a revolution without a revolution, that is, a transformation of the political and institutional structures without there emerging centrally a strong process for the production of subjectivity. The “facts” rather than social actors are the real protagonists. Second, Gramsci also applies the term “passive revolution” to the mutations of the structures of capitalist economic production that he recognizes primarily in the development of the U.S. factory system of the 1920s and 1930s. “Americanism” and “Fordism” name what Marx calls the passage from the “formal” to the “real subsumption” of labor within capital, that is, the construction of a properly capitalist society. This structural transformation of capital is passive in the sense that it evolves over an extended period and is not driven by a strong subject. After using “passive revolution” as a descriptive tool of historical analysis, regarding both the superstructural and structural changes of capitalist society, Gramsci seems to employ it, third, to suggest a path for struggle. How can we make revolution in a society subsumed within capital? The only answer Gramsci can see is a relatively “passive” one, that is, a long march through the institutions of civil society.

via Hardt and Negri on “The Problem of Transition” – Harvard University Press Blog.