Justice, Efficiency and Neoliberalism

Wendy Brown explains that she regards

neoliberalism as a governing rationality through which everything is “economized” and in a very specific way: human beings become market actors and nothing but, every field of activity is seen as a market, and every entity (whether public or private, whether person, business, or state) is governed as a firm. Importantly, this is not simply a matter of extending commodification and monetization everywhere…Neoliberalism construes even non-wealth generating spheres—such as learning, dating, or exercising—in market terms, submits them to market metrics, and governs them with market techniques and practices.

She goes on to clarify her view that

The most common criticisms of neoliberalism, regarded solely as economic policy rather than as the broader phenomenon of a governing rationality, are that it generates and legitimates extreme inequalities of wealth and life conditions; that it leads to increasingly precarious and disposable populations; that it produces an unprecedented intimacy between capital (especially finance capital) and states, and thus permits domination of political life by capital; that it generates crass and even unethical commercialization of things rightly protected from markets, for example, babies, human organs, or endangered species or wilderness; that it privatizes public goods and thus eliminates shared and egalitarian access to them; and that it subjects states, societies, and individuals to the volatility and havoc of unregulated financial markets.

Each of these is an important and objectionable effect of neoliberal economic policy. But neoliberalism also does profound damage to democratic practices, cultures, institutions, and imaginaries.

Here, then, we confront two distinct, if related, problems: the economic and the political. In extending something called “market logic” to every sphere of life, neoliberalism 1) impoverishes and renders life precarious for large masses of people; and 2) undermines non-economistic foundations of social life.

In Brown’s view, it goes largely without saying—or without detailed argument and analysis—that the neoliberal stress on efficiency is at bottom a rationalization of instrumentalism and profit-seeking. It follows from this that the commercialization of all aspects of social life is violently reductive, displacing such concerns as, say, justice, solidarity, reciprocity, and moral obligation.

Since Brown does not flesh out an account of the “market logic” being imposed by and as neoliberal governance, we are left to reconstruct it from the lists of horribles she offers instead. But when we do so, it becomes less rather than more clear just what this logic entails. More to the point, the terms of her critique must confront a basic difficulty: in its obsession with efficiency, the neoliberal project, to the extent that it is internally consistent, necessarily furnishes resources for curbing, rather than promoting, the priority of profits; at the same time, it commits itself to a specific model of distributive justice.

Put simply, if we stipulate that neoliberalism is by definition preoccupied with market efficiency, we must also conclude that it is at odds with many of the effects Brown attributes to it. It would seem, in fact, that neoliberalism is the wrong term for the processes she describes, and might be an ally rather than the enemy.

If this sounds absurd, it’s no wonder. Given the voluminous and strident attacks on neoliberalism produced in recent years, any apparent effort to defend it must seem contrarian, if not revanchist. Yet far be it from me to defend any form of exploitative, unjust and anti-democratic ideology. This is not a defense of what is normally, if inconsistently, understood as neoliberalism; rather, it is a way of asking whether the diversity of definitions and apparent confusion in discussions of this term can be explained as effects of some basic errors concerning the meanings and implications of “market logic” and “efficiency.”

Joseph Heath regards

efficiency as one of the underappreciated virtues of the…view that the welfare state is primarily in the business of correcting market failure, not achieving distributive justice…one could make the case for many of the core features of the welfare state (specifically, public education, health care, and pensions) without appealing to controversial egalitarian commitments (Moss 2004). The only concept required is that of market failure…

What Heath is pointing out is not that social and political life is nothing other than a form of economic life (Brown’s complaint about neoliberal reduction of life to economy). He is actually rediscovering and reformulating a longstanding tradition in sociology and anthropology of eliciting and highlighting the irreducibly egalitarian logic always already underpinning any commitment to efficiency.

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