In Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown argues that neoliberalism is destroying democracy through its undermining of the value of human life.

I join Michel Foucault and others in conceiving neoliberalism as an order of normative reason that, when it becomes ascendant, takes shape as a governing rationality extending a specific formulation economic values, practices, and metrics to every dimension of human life. (30)

To speak of the relentless and ubiquitous economization of all features of life by neoliberalism is thus not to claim that neoliberalism literally marketize all spheres, even as such marketization is certainly one important effect of neoliberalism. Rather, the point is that neoliberal rationality disseminates the model of the market to all domains and activities- even where money is not at issue- and configures human beings exhaustively as market actors, always, only, and everywhere as homo economicus. (31)

To argue that homo economicus has entirely vanquished the homo politicus, Brown largely pulls from classical thinkers on liberalism, including Aristotle, Plato, and John Stuart Mill. Our care for and understanding of democratic values has been exchanged for market rationality. Even classifications like class have disappeared (38) in favor of individualized liberty and a raw economic rationality that valorizes “economic growth, competitive positioning, and capital enhancement” (26).


Notes & Quotes

  • I really like Wendy Brown’s definition of neoliberalism, as well as her exploration of what she views as the current neoliberal revolution that is usurping past dominant rationalities based on democracy and liberalism. I plan to use this definition as a starting point for future essays and conference papers, as well as within my dissertation. By viewing neoliberalism as not necessarily tied to actual economics and money, but instead as a ‘commonsense’ rationality, I am able to locate its presence and effects in more texts and in a more realistic way. That being said, I also agree with other critics, such as Nicholas Gane, who, in his review of Undoing the Demos, noted its focus on classical philosopher-thinkers and absence of many present-day neoliberal theorists that would have better supported and challenged Brown’s thinking. For example, Brown states in the first chapter that “neoliberalization in the Euro-Atlantic world today is more often enacted through specific techniques of governance, through best practices and legal tweaks, in short, through “soft power” drawing on consensus and buy-in, than through violence, dictatorial command, or even overt political platforms…Of course, there are dust-ups, including protests and political altercations with police, over the privatization of public goods, union busting, benefits reductions, public-service cuts, and more. But neoliberalization is generally more termite like than lionlike…” (35). Although I largely agree with most of this statement, I think that Brown minimizes the violence that is inherent in many of the items she lists here. For example, growing privatization can (and does) lead to the deaths of many human beings simply because they cannot afford healthcare, housing, and/or food. Additionally, the premise of one of Brown’s major arguments, that the human individual is currently read as homo economicus or human capital rather than as homo politicus is a violent mutation of individuality and human life value. This is all violence. I think the inclusion of thinkers like Jodi Dean might have helped Brown to highlight the true violence of many of the “soft power” moves attached to neoliberalism. That being said, on the very first page of Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown uses such visceral language that it seems like she may view neoliberalization as more violent that she lets on: she states that “neoliberalism assaults the principles, practices, cultures, subjects, and institutions of democracy understood as rule by the people. And more than merely cutting away the flesh of liberal democracy, neoliberalism also cauterizes democracy’s more radical expressions…” (9, my italics).
  • Brown provides clear definitions for each of the terms she uses, including democracy and neoliberalism. Part of what makes neoliberalism so powerful as a “distinctive mode of reason, of the production of subjections, a “conduct of conduct,” and a scheme of valuation” is its flexibility and paradoxical nature (21). I include this simply because the terms “gothic” and “american gothic” and “horror” are also incredibly slippery and difficult to define. In his work on monsters, Noël Carroll highlights how they call for definition by their very existence and yet evade clear classification, which is part of what makes them so scary to audiences. Additionally, flexibility is a skill that is highly valued within the neoliberal framework. Individuals who can demonstrate the ability to take on a number of different types of jobs have a much higher value than those who are trained for a single skill or career.
  • Brown uses President Obama to display how neoliberalism has caused Plato’s homology of the soul and state (21-22) to return “with a vengeance” (22). Under neoliberalism, both individuals and the states are viewed as firms, “projects of management rather than rule… subsumed to the project of capital enhancement” (22). She analyzes Obama’s 2013 “We the People” inauguration speech to discover that he rationalizes each justice-based goal through the logic of the market. No longer do we want to raise the minimum wage for its own sake, but because such a measure could add to “economic growth or American competitiveness” (25). This made me think back to the mainly (seemingly) liberal speech Patrick Bateman delivers in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho that has been bugging me lately for its refusal to be analyzed. I’ll need to look back and see whether or not he ties each of his more progressive statements to potential capital enhancement. Additionally, I was reminded of Donald Trump’s promise that he would “run America like a business” when Brown referenced the Thailand Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who declared himself “CEO of Thailand, Inc.” in the 1990’s (35).  It’s shocking to think that we have come so far that Trump’s claim was viewed as an alluring promise. If Brown ever writes a new edition of Undoing the Demos, I’m sure she’d find a lot of new material to discuss through Trump’s presidency and campaign.
  • I was so excited to see that Brown connected her definition of neoliberalism to classical forms of liberalism. I think this will actually help my discussion of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty for my Victorian list. In particular, she notes how liberal thinkers like Mill venerated individuality and the “higher nature” of our souls. This, according to Mill can only be done in civilizations where the basic means of life and survival are available to the demos. According to Brown, however, “neoliberalism…eschews this ‘higher nature’… Neoliberalism is the rationality through which capitalism finally swallows humanity” because of its value on survival and focus on economic thinking (44).  While Brown acknowledges that liberalism’s promise of equality and liberty has not always been fulfilled for all people and that liberalism has “never been untainted by capitalist powers and meaning,” she asks what happens when the language of liberalism (that promises equality, liberty, individuality, etc.) “disappears or is perverted to signify democracy’s opposite?” (ibid.) Finally, she describes the shift from liberalism to neoliberalism through the individual citizen, from “citizenship defined as concern with the public good” to “citizenship reduced to the citizen as homo economicus” which also “eliminates the very idea of people, a demos asserting its collective political sovereignty” (39). I wonder, however, about the language used in many early American seduction and marriage narratives. Here, the female characters view the acquisition of a husband as a sort of financial game and it is reflected in the language that appears throughout the narratives. They become like entrepreneurs of themselves, carefully curating and managing their public appearances and reputation, a value which follows them through nearly every sphere of their life. Perhaps this is because, for women, marriage was a financial investment as well as a career move? They also had no voting power, so the promises of liberalism did not apply here?
  • Another genre that applies to Brown’s thinking is the survival game, as defined by Jane Elliott. There is so much game language present in Undoing the Demos! Today’s homo economicus, as defined by Brown is “reshaped as financialized human capital: its project is to self-invest in ways that enhance its value or to attract investors through constant attention to its actual or figurative credit rating, and to do this across every sphere of its existence” (33). Beyond this constant investment in the self, Foucault adds that “neoliberal reason formulates competition as normative, rather than natural” (36), however, Brown adds that, although we are hyper-individuals entrepreneurs, we are also an “instrumentalizable and potentially dispensable element of the whole” (38). As the state acts like a firm, any bit of human capital can be sacrificed for the survival of the whole, which therefore helps to fuel the competitive nature of each human capital. The equality of liberalism is replaced by this competitive system under neoliberal rationality in which there is no inequality, but instead, there are winners and losers (41).Therefore, she states, “insofar as we are human capital for firms or states concerned with their own competitive positioning, we have no guarantee of security, protection, or even survival” (37). This leads to what I briefly discuss in the prior bullet point, that human beings under neoliberal rationalism are made to live “mere life,” working to survive rather than to truly thrive as a human being. Individuals within neoliberal rationality have extremely limited choice and ambition due to the fat that there is “no longer… an open question of how to craft the self or what paths to travel in life” (41). The lack of choice, “mere” life, competitive system of winners and losers and goal of survival are all also present in the contemporary survival game horror film (i.e.: Saw, Would You Rather, Escape Room, Unfriended Funny Games, etc.).

Undoing the Demos (2015) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.