The End of the Social and the Denigration of Democracy? Wendy Brown, Michel Foucault and Neoliberalism: A Review Essay

By McRobbie, Angela | Soundings, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

The End of the Social and the Denigration of Democracy? Wendy Brown, Michel Foucault and Neoliberalism: A Review Essay


McRobbie, Angela, Soundings


Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's stealth revolution, Zone Books, MIT Press 2015

Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-9, translated by Graham Burchell, Palgrave MacMillan 2010

Neoliberalism's vitalism

If indeed it is the case that the framework for contemporary neoliberalism was established largely by the ordoliberal economists who were based in Freiburg in the early 1930s, and whose ideas fed into the Chicago School of the 1950s as well as spearheading the shape of the new economy of post-war Germany, then it is surely important that we know and understand what this influential school of thinkers was doing, and why their ideas spread and have proved so tenacious. We have Foucault in his lectures of 1976-77 to thank for undertaking this task. The Birth of Biopolitics offers remarkable insight into the thinking of the ordoliberals working in Germany before and during the years of Nazi rule. Foucault comments rather cryptically that Euken, for example, one of the leading theorists of the Ordos, 'went silent' during the Nazi years, but he does not otherwise follow up in detail the pathways followed by the members of this school during the Second World War and the Holocaust. They must have sprung back into action in the late 1940s and early 1950s, since it is now accepted that they virtually re-invented post-war liberal government, starting in Germany. (More than two decades later Margaret Thatcher was keen to embrace the kinds of policies recommended to her by Keith Joseph, who was an advocate of the ideas of the Chicago School. We can credit this process of osmosis as influencing her famous comment, 'there is no such thing as society'.)

What we find delineated in Foucault's lectures--through a series of comments and arguments, albeit abbreviated, which add up to something of great profundity --is the emergence of the invention of a distinctively new kind of power. More specifically I would argue that this was also a new kind of right-wing politics, which was able to succeed by differentiating itself from fascism and from the policies of the National Socialists, even though they were so adjacent as to be literally 'in the air'. Despite their apparent attempts to differentiate themselves, we can see various lines of connections with Nazism. For example, in a fairly aggressive and surely disingenuous aside, Roepke at one point likened the UK welfare state and the ideas of Beveridge to Nazism; and by this means the softer side of leftism, i.e. social democracy, was well and truly trashed, but under the guise of both anti-nazism and anti-communism. This kind of observation could only come from someone harbouring immense animosity to the humanist, universalist and social democratic principles underpinning the birth of the post-war welfare state (which Stuart Hall, not long before he died, described as one of the most humane inventions of modern times). Roepke's objection was to the intense role of the state and its planning agenda. He also wanted to diminish the role of the trade unions, and saw a way to achieve this through a kind of incessant de-proletarianisation of society, suggesting a revival of small heimat-like craft businesses. In a further echo of nazi-type idylls of home, hearth and local family businesses, Roepke also pointed to the need for workers to find pleasure and deep satisfaction at an almost spiritual level (vitalism) in what they were doing, on the grounds that this would lessen, if not invalidate entirely, the need for any idea of collective organisation or renewed trade unionism. The (lower) middle-classification of society, along with the idea of gratification and autonomy in working life as a deterrent to both alienation and then, heaven forfend, 'combination', came to be a cornerstone not just of the re-building of post-war Germany but also, in particular, the business culture of 1950s America; here, the Chicago School of economists were to pursue these ideas with such vigour that they became part of the core curriculum for the growing number of business schools that were setting up in prestigious universities across the US and beyond. …

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