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A greeter at Wal-Mart in Taylor, Texas. Photograph: Joe O'Connell
The unfettered market, once viewed as the cause of economic distress, emerged as the solution to it. The idea that the state could, or should, leverage its power to alleviate suffering came to seem naive, economically wasteful, and even immoral. Economists such as Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman provided the intellectual underpinnings of this ideology, and, following them, elected officials led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher forged political coalitions to roll back the welfare state and confront organized labor. At a global scale, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization embraced a “Washington Consensus” according to which free market reforms, irrespective of social outcomes, provided the only possible pathway to economic growth.
Accounts of neoliberalism can make for depressing reading, as they are often modeled on that most dismal of stories: the fall from grace, which ends, after all, with Adam and Eve expelled from a bountiful world of public goods into a harsh landscape they are forced to till themselves. In her important new book Undoing the Demos (2015), Wendy Brown draws attention to the ways in which neoliberalism, like original sin, finds a home in the deepest core of our being. For Brown, that core is not the soul but democratic citizenship: our sense of belonging in a common world that we can govern together with others. In the era of neoliberalism, she writes, we are forced to translate ourselves into the inhuman idiom of entrepreneurial competitiveness, rendering our entire lives legible in the ruthless grammar of market competition. Anyone who has dabbled in online dating, crafted an Instagram persona, or taught a class and worried about online reviews knows what Brown is talking about.
For Brown, neoliberalism is more than an economic doctrine—more than the increasing domination of finance capital alongside the new hegemony of precarious labor. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s early and prescient lectures on the topic, she argues that neoliberalism’s primary home is not the economics textbook, the World Bank report, or the chalets of Davos. It is more devious than that—“more termitelike than lionlike”—and finds its truest expression in “sophisticated common sense”: the practices and institutions that govern our daily lives. She defines neoliberalism as a “political rationality” and is most concerned with the ways in which it dissolves our capacity for citizenship by recasting the political subject as an inveterate entrepreneur.
The neoliberal turn unravels the notion, dear to liberal political economists, that the logic of the marketplace should not be allowed to govern social life as such. Adam Smith was one such political economist; he understood exchange as a limited facet of the human experience. For him, production and exchange were rooted in the more primordial human capacities of reason, community, and speech. He did not, in other words, extend the logic of the marketplace beyond its limited sphere. That idea is more recent, and while certain neoliberal economists seek to claim Smith and his like for their lineage, Brown suggests that these theorists would have been appalled at the contemporary zeal for market imperialism.
Brown’s attention to the termite-like nature of neoliberalism allows her to recast the many indignities and injustices of contemporary life into its passion play. This yields important insights. She suggests, for instance, that we are wrong to imagine that today’s corporations are interested in exploiting labor. In the age of neoliberalism, labor has no economic or political potential to exploit; the goal is not to exploit labor but to erase it as a meaningful category and therefore as a locus of resistance. We are no longer “laborers” turning the gears of capital. We are “human capital” hawking our wares like miniature businesses instead of political subjects. This logic infiltrates the political sphere, too, as she explains in a brilliant section on the 2010 Citizens United ruling. While many decry the decision for granting rights of free speech to corporations, Brown argues that we are looking at it the wrong way. Ever attentive to the fate of the subject, she suggests that the true scandal of the case is the way that all speech, including our own, is rendered corporate—meaningful not because we are citizens but because we participate in an (unequal) “marketplace of ideas.”
How and why has the logic of the free market become so closely linked with evangelical religiosity?
For all of its brilliance, Undoing the Demos represents something of an intellectual and political impasse. There is an arid quality to the book, as in much of this literature. Brown’s analyses of Foucault and Marcuse, followed by horror stories of neoliberal intervention in Iraqi agriculture and British academia, are all too familiar, as is her call for a revival of the “Euro-Atlantic left.” The marriage of intellectual history, political theory, and journalism can only bring us so far if we seek to understand, and resist, a governing logic as all-encompassing as neoliberalism.
Brown gives a dismal survey of the hellscape of the neoliberal present—or, as she calls it, the “ubiquitous, if unavowed, exhaustion and despair in Western civilization.” This kind of pessimism, common enough on the left, is certainly a strategic deficit, and it might be an analytical one, too. Might the situation be precisely the opposite? The exhaustion and despair of Western civilization is certainly not “unavowed”: cultural critics of the left and right constantly avow it, as they have for centuries. Brown joins a long line of critics of the “cash nexus,” stretching from Thomas Carlyle to David Brooks: for all of them, the reduction of our manifold capacities to the cold currency of financial exchange is grievously unjust and, quite literally, inhuman. At the same time, “exhaustion and despair” are far from ubiquitous. Human beings, even after the levees break, are constantly gathering in communities of faith, care, and love. The political task is to channel that effervescence in new directions, not to claim that it does not exist. This, in turn, demands that we understand how the neoliberal present is lived.
Brown is right that a desiccated, market-based logic has infiltrated our most intimate spaces, but she lacks a story of how it got there—of how it left the economics textbook and colonized our schools, homes, and hearts. Neoliberalism, for all its power, is not a theological phenomenon. The postwar era was certainly no Eden, and the present, for all of its problems, is not a barren desert of gnashing teeth. Neoliberalism came to power like other ruling ideologies: through secular, uneven, complex, and ultimately explicable transformations in social, cultural, and political relations. If we can understand how neoliberalism came to be, and why it seemed so attractive to so many people, we might be able to envision a plausible way out of it.
In order to craft this thicker account of the neoliberal moment, we must take citizens seriously as moral agents, which means engaging their religious lives. Religion has proven devilishly persistent in modern societies, and the advent of neoliberalism often seems to accompany religious revival. Like most theorists of neoliberalism, however, Brown ignores this angle, preferring to focus instead on economists and bureaucratic elites. This neglect is surprising, as the two greatest ancestors of her approach—Foucault and Max Weber—were both alive to the unholy marriage of religion and what we would now call neoliberal governance. Weber’s Protestant Ethic (1905) gave religion a great deal of power in explaining the rise of capitalism and its acquisitive ethic. And in Security, Territory, Population (1977/78)—the lecture series that preceded Brown’s favored Birth of Biopolitics (1978/79)—Foucault argued that the very notion of a “government of men,” which reaches its apogee with neoliberalism, had its origin in the “pastoral power” of the Church.
To be fair, neither Weber nor Foucault had much interest in modern forms of religiosity. For both of them, religion’s early foundational role had been supplanted in a secular age, as the hegemony of instrumental rationality acquired an unrelenting force and logic of its own. But three recent books suggest that, even in the age of neoliberalism, our relationship to the market is mediated by a web of institutional and moral commitments. The advent of neoliberalism, according to these books, rested upon the mobilization, not the destruction, of our affective, moral, and social inclinations. This new story takes seriously the fact that neoliberalism never comes to power under its own unattractive guise but always under the wing of a quite distinct, and often religious, moral economy.
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Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (2009) shows how neoliberalism was tightly bound up with the culture of evangelicalism in the American South. The nexus of Christian universities, global trade, and gendered forms of service converging on Wal-Mart’s Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters are, from this perspective, more important than the theoretical contributions of Austrian economists or World Bank technocrats. In place of a theoretical consideration of the link between neoliberalism and spirituality, she explores Wal-Mart as a specific site on which to unpack one of the great riddles of the last half-century: How and why has the logic of the free market become so closely linked with evangelical religiosity?
Moreton’s focus on the lived experience of Wal-Mart workers, managers, and consumers leads her to conclude that the culture of free enterprise is in fact a culture of Christian free enterprise. In its early years, the burgeoning mega-corporation drew its talent from the Ozarks, a region defined by evangelical religion and a collapsing agricultural economy. This conjunction of moral and political economy created norms of gender, service, and consumption integral to Wal-Mart’s stratospheric success. National department store chains had long been rejected in the South, widely seen by populists as dens of vice and Northern capital. In response, Wal-Mart consciously tried to create a Protestant culture of consumption for both workers and consumers. The company funded programs and scholarship devoted to business education around the South and drew on local Christian colleges for much of its management corps.
Religion is an ideological supplement necessary to the smooth functioning of neoliberalism.
At the level of business practice, the formerly degrading role of shop clerk was invested with a Christian ethic of “service.” This created genuine pride among many Wal-Mart employees, which Moreton, with a refreshing lack of condescension, teases out from store newsletters and interviews. The stores’ rituals of gender normativity, meanwhile, took advantage of the “motherly” aspects of female workers (and greeters), coding service labor in the longstanding grammar of female sacrifice and care. Simultaneously, by valorizing founder Sam Walton and his chosen managers as virile paternalists, Wal-Mart addressed evangelical concerns about the decline of American masculinity, showing how Christian notions of paternal authority could be salvaged in a postindustrial economy.
If Moreton is primarily interested in the intersections between religion, consumption, and the service industry, Andrea Muehlebach shows how the retreat of the welfare state has relied upon and enabled an expansion of faith-based welfare initiatives. As the state recedes, the needy citizens left behind have relied on a religious ethic of service, conceptually not far removed from the Wal-Mart greeter. In The Moral Neoliberal: Welfare and Citizenship in Italy (2012), Muehlebach draws on extensive fieldwork in working-class communities outside Milan to understand how neoliberalism has been lived. Her findings are in many ways homologous with Moreton’s: the immense pride and gratefulness that Italian citizens feel toward paternalist capitalist employers seem quite similar to the widespread American veneration of Sam Walton. More significantly, Muehlebach is equally convinced of the enormous role of religiosity and religious affect in neoliberal experience.
Like Moreton, Muehlebach finds that, in Italy, religion serves as an ideological supplement necessary to the smooth functioning of neoliberalism. In one sense, this is just as obvious in Italy as it is in the United States: faith-based organizations run about a third of American homeless shelters, while about 70 percent of Italy’s nursing homes are linked with the Catholic Church. Muehlebach’s interest, though, runs deeper than that. While Brown bemoans the death of citizenship, The Moral Neoliberal explores the new kinds of citizenship produced by the combination of neoliberal policy and religious mobilization. As she shows, the Italian state’s withdrawal from the economy of care, most notably the care of the elderly, presupposed the mass mobilization of cheap or voluntary labor, often provided by underemployed youths or pensioners. This “ethical citizenship,” theorized using Foucault’s notions of care instead of the more familiar ones of governance, relies on citizens to voluntarily provide socially necessary forms of care out of compassion or a sense of solidarity. The Italian welfare state, as in the American South, had relatively shallow roots, which allowed for a smooth transition from social citizenship to ethical citizenship and from the logic of state-delivered welfare to the neoliberal one of voluntary care.
In Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States (2012), Jason Hackworth adds an institutional sensibility to the cultural accounts Moreton and Muehlebach provide. He argues that neoliberalism, patently unattractive on its face, requires “other political supports to be sustainable.” Specifically, certain strands of evangelical theology and organizing are congruent with neoliberalism and have served as a sort of Trojan horse for its entry into the American public sphere. To uncover this element of neoliberal rationality, he focuses on the practice and discourse of faith-based organizations that have, coeval with neoliberalism, emerged as deliverers of welfare in a hybrid religious-secular space.
Faith-based organizations share with neoliberalism an allergy to government funding and an insistence that poverty and addiction are personal, spiritual failings. While faith-based organizations perform an astonishing amount of socially necessary labor, the number of employees and volunteers is still relatively small. Through the example of Habitat for Humanity, Hackworth shows how the neoliberal logic of faith-based organizations can extend beyond the evangelical sphere. Habitat, whose mission is “to put God’s love into action” and whose founder promised to pursue “Jesus economics,” is in some ways a neoliberal darling, with its celebration of “sweat equity,” the deserving poor, and voluntary labor as solutions to a public-housing crisis. Their logic has spun far outside their building sites. Hackworth shows that the media generally view Habitat as a laudable, private response to the failures of public housing. The idea that faith-based organizations are legitimate mechanisms of welfare delivery has become neoliberal common sense: while George W. Bush’s policies particularly enabled them, Al Gore and Barack Obama have also signaled their approval, which has led more and more faith-based organizations to accept government funding.
Together these books show how neoliberalism has relied upon religion as a culture, a sensibility, and a set of institutions. This does not mean that neoliberalism is good, nor does it mean that religion is bad. It means that our understanding of neoliberalism cannot rely on the notion that, as David Harvey has argued, it dissolves “all forms of social solidarity” in favor of “individualism, private property, personal responsibility, and family values.” These kinds of statements, which attain an aura of truth through constant repetition, simply do not match the reality of neoliberalism as it is lived: they raise the perennial specter of atomization and the cash nexus while the specific logic of neoliberalism remains hidden. As Muehlebach explains, the story of Italian neoliberalism is not of simple transition “from a moral welfarist order to a heartless, immoral one.” “The supposedly dystopic neoliberal order,” she concludes, “is in fact increasingly dependent on and enabled by new forms of utopia.”
The utopia of faith-based organizations and religious neoliberalism is a false one, to be sure. All three of these authors, like Brown, are alive to the incalculable human misery that has accompanied the retreat of the welfare state and the attendant false promise of a more religious, just society. The mobilization of affect, gendered notions of service, and the armies of the underemployed can do little in the face of today’s enormous social crises. It remains as true now as ever that only the state has the resources to mount an effective response or to redress the structural issues that remain unaddressed by religious neoliberalism.
For all three authors, the failures of neoliberalism are most apparent in its reproduction of racial inequalities. Muehlebach shows how the model of ethical citizenship disenfranchises the largely immigrant populations who perform care work for meager pay. In the American context, this was agonizingly laid bare in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which is where both Hackworth and Moreton end their accounts.
The catastrophe in New Orleans was religious neoliberalism’s great opportunity. The transparent failures of the government were met with a call for a revitalized, faith-based, and private response. Faith-based organizations rushed to fill the vacuum left by the government, which welcomed their presence and channeled immense sums of money to religious charities in New Orleans and across the country (the Federal Emergency Management Agency evacuated some displaced citizens to faraway Tulsa, where they were looked after by Catholic Charities). Wal-Mart entered the fray, too, delivering rapid aid and leaving editorialists to opine that FEMA had much to learn from the corporate behemoth. The infamous FEMA director Michael Brown testified to congress that faith-based groups such as the Salvation Army are the “proper” first responders to natural disaster, representing an astonishing infiltration of neoliberal logic into government bureaucracy.
While faith-based organizations provided essential funding and manpower in New Orleans, they lacked the experience and resources to make up for the absence of a robust state response. Moreton and Hackworth both suggest that the pageant of human misery and inequality signaled the limitations of religious neoliberalism. The patchwork alliance of mega-corporations and faith-based charities failed to deliver the kinds of material assistance that were desperately needed, and the necessity of a powerful government presence was transparent. In the face of this and other fiascos (Moreton names the financial crisis and the Iraq War), the alliances that originally forged neoliberal common sense might begin to unravel. Evangelicals, after all, are not beholden in any absolute sense to neoliberal rationality, and religion—even evangelical religion—has historically been tied to an array of social and political movements, including abolitionism, which currently provides the model and the rhetoric for a great deal of left-wing activism.
This is not to say that a left-wing revival, whose green shoots might at last be struggling through the hard clay of contemporary politics, is irrelevant to the overcoming of neoliberalism. But it is safe to say that such a revival will probably not be sufficient. Neoliberalism came to power through the effective mobilization of religious sentiments that are as strong now as they ever were. Overcoming neoliberalism will require that they be mobilized in pursuit of new projects and new values. On the global stage, Pope Francis is attempting something like this, and Laudato Si, his wide-ranging encyclical on the climate, is in its way as scathing an indictment of neoliberalism as Undoing the Demos. In my home state of North Carolina, Reverend William Barber II and his heroic Moral Mondays movement is strategically deploying the explosive liberatory potential of America’s religious legacy for a similar end, mounting the most effective popular resistance to the neoliberal assault on the state.
To make sense of these phenomena, and to capitalize on them, those of us on the left might have to learn something from the religious right, which after all has proven successful in harnessing pre-existing forms of religion and culture. This will require us to access the old democratic virtues of listening and understanding that might still be found somewhere in the scarred tissue of our neoliberal hearts. Moreton ends her book by urging us to understand that neoliberalism “did not make political dupes of Kansans or Arkansans.” It offered culturally legible forms of meaning, providing the moral economy that, even in the twenty-first century, we all implicitly call upon to guide our actions in private and public alike. To glimpse beyond neoliberalism, we will need to understand what problems it seemed to solve and how it structured meaningful lives even while deconstructing the public sphere. We will need oceans of empathy and concern, and we will need to listen as much as we lecture. “We will need,” Moreton concludes, “a servant heart.”
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