Tag Archives: Neoliberalism

Episode 25: Cosmopolitan Dystopia, with Philip Cunliffe

Philip Cunliffe, excorcizing the demons of Cosmopolitan Dystopia

Hello everyone! Welcome to Episode 25 of Fully Automated. This week we are joined by Dr Philip Cunliffe, Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent. Phil has been a guest on the show before actually. He joined us in Episode 16, for our “What the Brexit?” debate, at the 2019 ISA Convention, in Toronto. And listeners may also be familiar with his voice from the podcast Aufhebunbga Bunga, which he records with Alex Hochuli and George Hoare.

Today we are going to talk with Dr. Cunliffe about his new book, Cosmopolitan Dystopia (Manchester Press, 2020), which is a detailed study of the negative impact of human rights discourse on global politics since the end of the Cold War. Now, for many on the left, this will be a controversial point. As he notes in the book, many see human rights discourse as a cover for US imperial ambitions. Yet, says Cunliffe, we can’t explain the popularity of global human rights discourse, or the extent to which it is invoked even by European powers, solely through the lens of American hegemony. You need a more nuanced account. And this is where Cunliffe brings in the idea of reading human rights discourse as a counter-utopian, or anti-political, symptom of the neoliberal era.

Cosmopolitan Dystopia
Cosmopolitan Dystopia

On the surface, this argument might appear paradoxical. How can human rights be anti-utopian? But I think any listeners who might have watched the Adam Curtis documentary HyperNormalization will already have an insight into where Phil is taking this argument. As he notes, a key value at the heart of contemporary liberalism is an aversion to the so-called “fate of utopians.” Human rights violations happen, according to this schematic, because people want to change the status quo.

In this interview, we cover a range of issues. For me though, one of the highlights is our discussion about the complete lack of critical self-awareness of people like Juergen Habermas and, more recently, Samantha Power. In their support for interventions in Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s, liberals invoked the idea of the ‘just’ liberal war, and paved the way for the liberal justification of future American wars, from Iraq to Libya and Syria. But this book is not just a critique of American wars — it also examines the bloody interventions of the British and the French, in Africa. The common element to all these cases is the fervent belief among cosmopolitan liberals that the world is better disposed to their ideals than it really is (which is not to say the world isn’t oriented to cosmopolitan ideals — just that they might not be liberal cosmopolitan ideals!).

Now, I’ll say that I don’t know that I fully agree with all of Phil’s positions here. On the one hand, I do think he makes a compelling case that there’s been a substantive “restructuring” of world order going on, as a result of what he terms the “cumulative weight” of interventions since the Cold War. But I am just not sure I am as persuaded as he, that self-determination and sovereignty are necessarily the solution to the problems of contemporary capitalist order. I may be wrong about this, and certainly I think the left would be foolish not to try to leverage the power of the state as much as possible, to achieve its goals. But I think there’s a risk of maybe fetishizing the benefits of what some call ‘delinking’ at the expense of engaging on the terrain of international and transnational institutions. For more on this, listeners might want to revisit Episode 14, where we talked about this a bit with Lee Jones.

Anyway, that all said, I think this is a magnificent and politically important book. And I think Phil has made a real contribution with it. It should be widely read, and discussed.

 

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!