Brown’s tight focus on neoliberalism, while enabling her to place the repercussions of the hegemony of neoliberal reason in stark relief, is also constraining. It leads her to underplay neoliberalism’s inconsistencies, inefficiencies, contradictions, and violence. She asserts, for example, that individuals and industries that inhibit the project of macroeconomic growth and credit enhancement may be cast off or reconfigured. Yet unreconfigured individuals and industries persist in the wake of repeated bank failures and bailouts, the off-shoring of private wealth, and the broader failure of austerity policies actually to generate growth. Wealth and power determine who is cast off, not inhibition of macroeconomic growth. Brown says that “the properly interpellated neoliberal citizen makes no claims for protection against capitalism’s suddenly burst bubbles, job-shedding recessions, credit crunches, and housing market collapses” (218). Yet this is exactly what the corporate and finance sector does with impunity when it turns to the state to enforce foreclosures, impose capital controls, collect on debts, and, again, bail it out when it makes bad loans. Finally, Brown’s account of the dissemination of neoliberal governance via the spread of “bench-marking” and “best practices” too easily repeats the neoliberal rhetoric of soft-power, consensus, teamwork, and market metrics as replacing “law, policing, punishment, and top-down directives” (141). She fails to note the militarization of the police, intensification of surveillance, harsh sentencing, and practices of raced harassment and murder that accompany the emergence of the strong neoliberal state. In fact, she goes further, claiming that “states operating on a business model will eschew excessive uses of violence or extraconstitutional conduct” (150).
The contradictions and violence inseparable from neoliberalism suggest that if it is well-described as a rationality, then this is a rationality infused by jouissance. Neoliberalism’s mobilization of competition and inequality encourages people to get off on hierarchy, to enjoy privilege and punishment, to seek opportunities to assert superiority. Germany’s stance vis-à-vis Greece in the 2015 confrontation over the Greek debt exemplifies this point. More pointedly, neoliberalism’s inconsistencies, inefficiencies, contradictions, and violence undermine its image as a rationality, pointing instead in the direction of an ideological project for the restoration of capitalist class power. When banks have to appeal to the state for bailouts, they reveal the weakness of markets, the failure of competition, and their own reliance on the state. They thereby signal the active role of the state in maintaining hierarchy at the cost of growth and efficiency, exposing the limits of economization in the political value of class rule. Neoliberalism’s active use of the state to take from the many and give to the few in ways that visibly diminish the lives and opportunities of the many opens it to the challenge: why not use the state otherwise?
In Undoing the Demos, the great confrontation between hostile camps is not between proletariat and bourgeoisie but between democracy and neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has won. For Brown, the evisceration of liberal democracy is the extinguishing of “any variety of democracy” (79). She presumes here a political linearity: from bourgeois democracy to more substantive and radical democratic instantiations. Liberal democracy is a “platform” from which more ambitious democratic projects are launched (18). Once it’s gone, the very conditions of possibility for democratic aspiration—for collective steering of a common world in the common good—are vanquished. Brown thus views neoliberalism as consecrating, naturalizing, and deepening a “civilizational despair” (221). The people have lost.
A more dialectical reading of neoliberalism points in a different direction. Rather than a political rationality, neoliberalism is an ideology (in Žižek’s broad, materialist sense of materialized practices of belief). As an ideology, neoliberalism holds together contradictory practices and ideals. It is not a seamless whole but a complex entanglement ruptured by enjoyment as well as its own contradictions and failures. Democracy provides the fantasy structure that kept liberalism and tries to keep neoliberalism in place. Democracy’s economization in communicative capitalism, however, has rendered it unfit for this task, incapable of naming an ideal. The brutal reality of neoliberalism as a punishing, immiserating project of dispossession is increasingly undeniable. The contemporary reemergence of communism, anarchism, and populism is symptomatic of the growing understanding that, even as democracy has lost the capacity to register a gap in the present, the unrealized emancipatory aspirations of the people continue to exert a pressure. Liberal democracy is less a platform than a barrier, the disintegration of which opens the gap of new possibility.