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15

The Accidental Neoliberal

Against the old sincerity

by Jedediah Purdy

4
terms
6
notes

damn

Purdy, J. (2014). The Accidental Neoliberal. n+1, 19, pp. 15-24

(noun, singular) a disorderly collection; a jumble

15

the culture of the late ’90s was a congeries of tricks for avoiding politics

—p.15 by Jedediah Purdy
notable
3 years, 6 months ago

the culture of the late ’90s was a congeries of tricks for avoiding politics

—p.15 by Jedediah Purdy
notable
3 years, 6 months ago
16

HOW CAN ONE be a neoliberal while rejecting any position called neoliberalism? Neoliberalism is not so much an intellectual position as a condition in which one acts as if certain premises were true, and others unspeakable. It’s not doctrine but a limit on the vitality of practical imagination. Acquiescing to it means accepting a picture of personality and social life that pivots on consumer-style choice and self-interested collaboration. This is the basis of the realism, so-called, that is the neoliberal trump. It implies that market-modeled activity—ticking off the preferences, going for the ask—is the natural form of life. What I meant by irony, in the sense that I criticized, was the lightly worn cynicism that is the temperamental companion to this picture of the world. This kind of irony hinted that all was not for the best, but dismissed any hope for better, all in a single gesture, a complacent shrugging that could drive one mad.

The chief, and maybe sole, task of neoliberal politics is to stand watch over the market institutions—chiefly private property, free contract, and the right to spend money however one wants—that give those bargains their home. Neoliberalism welcomes market utopianism, wherein Bangladeshi factory conditions are automatically legitimate because workers agreed to work under them; but neoliberalism won’t be pinned down to a position where such conditions are celebrated. Challenged, neoliberalism switches to the tragic wisdom of (adulterated) Burke, (exaggerated) Hume, and (pretty faithfully rendered) Hayek. It might be nice if the world were different, neoliberal realism intones, but it is what it is, and so are we. Politics is no way out because, like the market, it is just the play of passions and interests, but lacking the discipline of the bottom line. Using politics to reorder social life is the dangerous dream of the utopian engineer. To try would just set loose the selfish, vain, and ignorant on our good-enough market system. Economic waste is the best we could expect from such efforts; the worst would be piles of dead. [...]

—p.16 by Jedediah Purdy 3 years, 6 months ago

HOW CAN ONE be a neoliberal while rejecting any position called neoliberalism? Neoliberalism is not so much an intellectual position as a condition in which one acts as if certain premises were true, and others unspeakable. It’s not doctrine but a limit on the vitality of practical imagination. Acquiescing to it means accepting a picture of personality and social life that pivots on consumer-style choice and self-interested collaboration. This is the basis of the realism, so-called, that is the neoliberal trump. It implies that market-modeled activity—ticking off the preferences, going for the ask—is the natural form of life. What I meant by irony, in the sense that I criticized, was the lightly worn cynicism that is the temperamental companion to this picture of the world. This kind of irony hinted that all was not for the best, but dismissed any hope for better, all in a single gesture, a complacent shrugging that could drive one mad.

The chief, and maybe sole, task of neoliberal politics is to stand watch over the market institutions—chiefly private property, free contract, and the right to spend money however one wants—that give those bargains their home. Neoliberalism welcomes market utopianism, wherein Bangladeshi factory conditions are automatically legitimate because workers agreed to work under them; but neoliberalism won’t be pinned down to a position where such conditions are celebrated. Challenged, neoliberalism switches to the tragic wisdom of (adulterated) Burke, (exaggerated) Hume, and (pretty faithfully rendered) Hayek. It might be nice if the world were different, neoliberal realism intones, but it is what it is, and so are we. Politics is no way out because, like the market, it is just the play of passions and interests, but lacking the discipline of the bottom line. Using politics to reorder social life is the dangerous dream of the utopian engineer. To try would just set loose the selfish, vain, and ignorant on our good-enough market system. Economic waste is the best we could expect from such efforts; the worst would be piles of dead. [...]

—p.16 by Jedediah Purdy 3 years, 6 months ago
17

Neoliberalism’s ideological premises are easy to name and quarrel with, even though they shift opportunistically from market utopianism to the tragic sigh that, alas, we can do no better than the market. What is more subtle is how neoliberal practice disables personal attempts to escape it. The neoliberal condition gently enforces an anti-politics whose symptoms are often in what doesn’t get said, or heard: nationalizing banks, nationalizing health-care payments, proposing to arrange work differently, naming class interests and class conflict as a reality every bit as basic as opportunity cost. In a time when financial capitalism is palpably endangering so many people, places, and things, you know neoliberalism by the silences it induces. To be a neoliberal, even despite oneself, is to come to find those silences natural.

—p.17 by Jedediah Purdy 3 years, 6 months ago

Neoliberalism’s ideological premises are easy to name and quarrel with, even though they shift opportunistically from market utopianism to the tragic sigh that, alas, we can do no better than the market. What is more subtle is how neoliberal practice disables personal attempts to escape it. The neoliberal condition gently enforces an anti-politics whose symptoms are often in what doesn’t get said, or heard: nationalizing banks, nationalizing health-care payments, proposing to arrange work differently, naming class interests and class conflict as a reality every bit as basic as opportunity cost. In a time when financial capitalism is palpably endangering so many people, places, and things, you know neoliberalism by the silences it induces. To be a neoliberal, even despite oneself, is to come to find those silences natural.

—p.17 by Jedediah Purdy 3 years, 6 months ago
17

[...] Even the banker with a humanitarian conscience will ultimately behave like the greediest scrooge because banking is not a posture of the spirit but a role in an economic order. If you depart from the role, the system’s many representatives, playing their respective roles, will find another banker. [...]

this is a common enough adage but i really like the light skewering in the phrasing 'posture of the spirit' lol

—p.17 by Jedediah Purdy 3 years, 6 months ago

[...] Even the banker with a humanitarian conscience will ultimately behave like the greediest scrooge because banking is not a posture of the spirit but a role in an economic order. If you depart from the role, the system’s many representatives, playing their respective roles, will find another banker. [...]

this is a common enough adage but i really like the light skewering in the phrasing 'posture of the spirit' lol

—p.17 by Jedediah Purdy 3 years, 6 months ago

(noun) a long, mournful complaint or lamentation; a list of woes

17

But writing an antibranding jeremiad draws one into the logic of branding as surely as founding a “socially responsible business” involves one in profit and loss

—p.17 by Jedediah Purdy
notable
3 years, 6 months ago

But writing an antibranding jeremiad draws one into the logic of branding as surely as founding a “socially responsible business” involves one in profit and loss

—p.17 by Jedediah Purdy
notable
3 years, 6 months ago

(noun) a brief moment of emotional excitement; shudder thrill

19

this anticommodification style would lend itself to a commodification that offered an anticommodification frisson among its features

—p.19 by Jedediah Purdy
notable
3 years, 6 months ago

this anticommodification style would lend itself to a commodification that offered an anticommodification frisson among its features

—p.19 by Jedediah Purdy
notable
3 years, 6 months ago
20

[...] To my mind one of the parts of For Common Things that holds up best is a reporting-based chapter on the coalfields and the ecological and social violence that secures cheap energy. That chapter described West Virginia’s landscape as the remnant that persists after destruction, that which has not been eroded or excavated. It showed the class conflict that brought militant miners into gun battle with the National Guard in the 1920s, and gave glimpses of the quite unpastoral realities that left so many of my high school friends looking to get out and never come back. Simply by stating facts, it achieved a realism that exposed neoliberalism’s realist trump card as an ideology and, at the same time, showed up the distortions in my own recollection of a “stable, certain, solid” reality to throw against neoliberal irony.

But there were few grips to get hold of that world in that way. There was, for one thing, an implicit prohibition: a seemingly unanswerable sense that the left, the left of political economy and universal emancipation from bad work, economic hierarchy, and political oligarchy, was done, fruitless—if not, worse, guilty. The no-longer-new radicalisms of the 1960s and 1970s, doubts about infinite growth, and calls to reconsider the human place on the planet as part of the general realignment of political economy were also implicitly shut down as nonsense, assumed to have been refuted, so that whoever raised them would put himself outside “serious” conversation. This limit on the substance of serious argument reinforced the reduction of political seriousness to a rhetorical style: one could point out, in all seriousness, that questions about how to shape an economy were inescapable, and inescapably political; but when all the “serious” answers are variations on one neoliberal theme, seriousness easily becomes a sonorous way of posing an almost trivial question. Realism was the watchword of the time—solving problems, wrangling facts, accepting “reality”—and although that realism was always limited and normative and seems now to have played us false, it made a great many alternatives seem fake or “improbable” along the way.

—p.20 by Jedediah Purdy 3 years, 6 months ago

[...] To my mind one of the parts of For Common Things that holds up best is a reporting-based chapter on the coalfields and the ecological and social violence that secures cheap energy. That chapter described West Virginia’s landscape as the remnant that persists after destruction, that which has not been eroded or excavated. It showed the class conflict that brought militant miners into gun battle with the National Guard in the 1920s, and gave glimpses of the quite unpastoral realities that left so many of my high school friends looking to get out and never come back. Simply by stating facts, it achieved a realism that exposed neoliberalism’s realist trump card as an ideology and, at the same time, showed up the distortions in my own recollection of a “stable, certain, solid” reality to throw against neoliberal irony.

But there were few grips to get hold of that world in that way. There was, for one thing, an implicit prohibition: a seemingly unanswerable sense that the left, the left of political economy and universal emancipation from bad work, economic hierarchy, and political oligarchy, was done, fruitless—if not, worse, guilty. The no-longer-new radicalisms of the 1960s and 1970s, doubts about infinite growth, and calls to reconsider the human place on the planet as part of the general realignment of political economy were also implicitly shut down as nonsense, assumed to have been refuted, so that whoever raised them would put himself outside “serious” conversation. This limit on the substance of serious argument reinforced the reduction of political seriousness to a rhetorical style: one could point out, in all seriousness, that questions about how to shape an economy were inescapable, and inescapably political; but when all the “serious” answers are variations on one neoliberal theme, seriousness easily becomes a sonorous way of posing an almost trivial question. Realism was the watchword of the time—solving problems, wrangling facts, accepting “reality”—and although that realism was always limited and normative and seems now to have played us false, it made a great many alternatives seem fake or “improbable” along the way.

—p.20 by Jedediah Purdy 3 years, 6 months ago

(noun) preponderant influence or authority over others; domination / (noun) the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group

21

the fellowship that took me into the think-tank room that I now style, in hindsight, the Hegemony Clinic

heh

—p.21 by Jedediah Purdy
notable
3 years, 6 months ago

the fellowship that took me into the think-tank room that I now style, in hindsight, the Hegemony Clinic

heh

—p.21 by Jedediah Purdy
notable
3 years, 6 months ago
22

I realize now that I was trying to undo by writing what could only be undone by action, not alone but with others—and through connections that incantation alone would not conjure. Words, it turned out, did not have all the performative powers that 1990s book-learning sometimes seemed to suggest. In the strange and wonderful final book of Leviathan, “On the Kingdom of Darkness,” Thomas Hobbes describes the job of thinking as untying superstitious knots that enmesh the mind. The superstition I recognized was neoliberal realism, which sets and polices the boundaries of the possible while pretending to map them objectively. But an equal and opposite superstition is the thought that language, style, and invocation could disperse those constraints, as if their being discourse meant they were only words, set to be scattered by other words.

—p.22 by Jedediah Purdy 3 years, 6 months ago

I realize now that I was trying to undo by writing what could only be undone by action, not alone but with others—and through connections that incantation alone would not conjure. Words, it turned out, did not have all the performative powers that 1990s book-learning sometimes seemed to suggest. In the strange and wonderful final book of Leviathan, “On the Kingdom of Darkness,” Thomas Hobbes describes the job of thinking as untying superstitious knots that enmesh the mind. The superstition I recognized was neoliberal realism, which sets and polices the boundaries of the possible while pretending to map them objectively. But an equal and opposite superstition is the thought that language, style, and invocation could disperse those constraints, as if their being discourse meant they were only words, set to be scattered by other words.

—p.22 by Jedediah Purdy 3 years, 6 months ago
23

It is an immense relief to be, today, just one of many people asking the same questions, and no longer among the youngest ones. So it is no more than my own thought to reflect that, in addition to the value of relentless critique and prospective imagination, one way would be to remember, in detail and without apology, how the world has looked to people, now mostly dead, who believed in its political transformation. That would be writing that recaptured, for example, the socialist promise of freedom and solidarity in language that helped make it a living thing, available to the sensations of imagination. To write that way, without bowing to the prohibitions of the age, would deepen the record of our disappointments. In my mind, it would make up for some of the things left unsaid in the last fifteen years. And it might, in some unforeseeable way, help to make those disappointments and silences into a source of still-prospective joys.

—p.23 by Jedediah Purdy 3 years, 6 months ago

It is an immense relief to be, today, just one of many people asking the same questions, and no longer among the youngest ones. So it is no more than my own thought to reflect that, in addition to the value of relentless critique and prospective imagination, one way would be to remember, in detail and without apology, how the world has looked to people, now mostly dead, who believed in its political transformation. That would be writing that recaptured, for example, the socialist promise of freedom and solidarity in language that helped make it a living thing, available to the sensations of imagination. To write that way, without bowing to the prohibitions of the age, would deepen the record of our disappointments. In my mind, it would make up for some of the things left unsaid in the last fifteen years. And it might, in some unforeseeable way, help to make those disappointments and silences into a source of still-prospective joys.

—p.23 by Jedediah Purdy 3 years, 6 months ago