This is a brief summary of Jason Read’s: A Genealogy of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity (2009)
Neoliberalism represents a fundamental shift in ideology – firstly, it is not generated from the state, but from the quotidian experience of buying and selling commodities from the market, which is then extended across other social spaces, “the marketplace of ideas,” to become an image of society. Secondly, it is an ideology that refers not only to the political realm, to an ideal of the state, but to the entirety of human existence. It claims to present not an ideal, but a reality.
A critical examination of neoliberalism must address this transformation of its discursive deployment, as a new understanding of human nature and social existence rather than a political program.
Homo Economicus: The Subject of Neoliberalism
Foucault – the difference between liberalism and neoliberalism – according to Foucault neoliberalism extends the process of making economic activity a general matrix of social and political relations; the sphere of economics expands, and more and more things are understood through a simple means-ends, cost-benefit analysis.
Another difference between liberalism and neoliberalism is that neoliberalism takes as its focus not exchange but competition. Competition necessitates a constant intervention on the part of the state, not on the market, but on the conditions of the market.
Foucault also takes the neoliberal ideal to be a new regime of truth, and a new way in which people are made subjects: homo economicus is fundamentally different subject, structured by different motivations and governed by different principles, than homo juridicus, or the legal subject of the state. Neoliberalism constitutes a new mode of “governmentality,” a manner, or a mentality, in which people are governed and govern themselves.
The operative terms of this governmentality are no longer rights and laws but interest, investment and competition.
As a mode of governmentality, neoliberalism operates on interests, desires, and aspirations rather than through rights and obligations; neoliberal governmentality follows a general trajectory of intensification. This trajectory follows a fundamental paradox; as power becomes less restrictive, less corporeal, it also becomes more intense, saturating the field of actions, and possible actions.
Neoliberalism has created individualised individuals, companies of one – the needs of Corporations to be free from expensive commitments and to have ever greater numbers of ‘flexible satellites’ has resulted in workers not seeing themselves as existing in solidarity, but as individuals who need to invest in their future, through constantly updating their skills.
The worker has become “human capital”. Salary or wages become the revenue that is earned on an initial investment, an investment in one’s skills or abilities – As Foucault writes summarizing this point of view: “Homo economicus is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself.”
As Thomas Lemke argues, neoliberalism is a political project that attempts to create a social reality that it suggests already exists, stating that competition is the basis of social relations while fostering those same relations.
Foucault offers us a different interpretation of the relationship between labour and capital. Marx saw labour as being exploited by capital in the process of production, whereas neoliberals redefine the two terms and the relation between them: the capitalist is redefined as an entrepreneur, and labour becomes human capital – capital emerges from labour.
(However, for Foucault) As Christian Laval argues, in neoliberalism all actions are seen to conform to the fundamental economic ideas of self-interest, of greatest benefit for least possible cost. This extends to all areas of society – It is not the structure of the economy that is extended across society but the subject of economic thinking, its implicit anthropology.
Towards a criticism of neoliberalism
Marx tended to see labour as being turned into a cog in the machine, and this was the major way labour ended up working for capital. However, Marx raised the possibility in the Grundrisse, that other human potentialities might be subsumed under capital – and this is where we are at now….
Capital no longer simply exploits labour, understood as the physical capacity to transform objects, but puts to work the capacities to create and communicate that traverse social relations. This subsumption involves not only the formation of what Marx referred to as a specifically capitalist mode of production, but also the incorporation of all subjective potential, the capacity to communicate, to feel, to create, to think, into productive powers for capital.
For Negri… as production moves from the closed space of the factory to become distributed across all of social space, encompassing all spheres of cultural and social existence, neoliberalism presents an image of society as a market, effacing production altogether and neoliberal power works by dispersing bodies and individuals through privatization and isolation.
To put the problem in Foucault’s terms, what has disappeared in neoliberalism is the tactical polyvalence of discourse; everything is framed in terms of interests, freedoms and risks. As Wendy Brown argues, one can survey the quotidian effects or practices of governmentality in the manner in which individualized/market based solutions appear in lieu of collective political solutions: gated communities for concerns about security and safety; bottled water for concerns about water purity; and private schools (or vouchers) for failing public schools, all of which offer the opportunity for individuals to opt out rather than address political problems. Privatization is not just neoliberalism’s strategy for dealing with the public sector, what David Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession, but a consistent element of its particular form of governmentality, its ethos, everything becomes privatized, institutions, structures, issues, and problems that used to constitute the public.24 It is privatization all the way down.
As Foucault argues, neoliberalism operates less on actions, directly curtailing them, then on the condition and effects of actions, on the sense of possibility…. Competing ideas must address this!