Entrepreneurial

Wendy Brown, laying out one of the “four lines” along which “the market is the organizing and regulative principle of the state and society,” from her essay “Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy”:

b)The state itself is enfolded and animated by market rationality, not simply profitability, but a generalized calculation of cost and benefit becomes the measure of all state practices. Political discourse on all matters is framed in entrepreneurial terms; the state must not simply concern itself with the market but think and behave like a market actor across all of its functions, including law.

Here, Brown briefly hits on one of the chief aspects of neoliberalism, but one that is usually neglected or forgotten. Most accounts of neoliberalism, including influential ones such as David Harvey’s and even, for the most part, Brown’s, primarily see it attempting a destruction of the state’s “traditional” role as a Keynesian redistributor and as the arena of “the political.” But as Brown hints at above, neoliberalism is less about destroying the state than transforming it, less (or not only) about making it completely subservient and in service to capital’s rationality than making it like capital. Under neoliberalism, the state, and with it politics, undergoes a becoming-entrepreneurial in which labor and economic calculations are solely constitutive of desire and self-management is the cardinal virtue.

Brown’s description, helpful as it is, is in the end too metaphorical. And too western. If the neoliberal era in Europe and North America, particularly the United States, has meant the abandonment of welfare guarantees and the transformation of the state into its sole function as supporter of the market, in Asia and elsewhere, particularly China, the state’s becoming-entrepreneurial has been more literal: the actual ownership of the largest and most important capitalist firms by the state, its minute management of capital flows and complete control of exchange rates, its role as the primary regulator of the workforce.

(A placeholder. More on this soon.)

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6 thoughts on “Entrepreneurial

  1. I’ve been thinking a bit lately on polemicising against the seemingly indisputable phrase ‘the decline of the welfare state’. Partly because I can’t come up with a convincing set of empirical elements which point to such, but also because I think it’s such a nostalgic concept. I mean to say, welfare spending has shifted around, and not necessarily declined. In many cases, it has increased.

    I guess I find this phrase too socialist (or social democratic) in what it bullies forward, or should I say, laments. As if the welfare state, once upon a time, actually provided, in some way that was not simultaneously marked by all sorts of really crappy shit or ‘universal’, protection.

  2. It’s worth polemicizing against. In the U.S., welfare spending has not actually decreased since Clinton signed the welfare reform bill in 1996. The cash payments (never very much in the U.S. to begin with) have been virtually eliminated in favor of various forms of aid: food, health care, child care, etc. The real change, the one that affects people’s lives and affects them substantially, is the work requirements to receive this aid, which are incredibly stringent, and it’s this insistence on work that I see as having wider implications and being much more repressive than the slashing of benefits. But the old, “loose” welfare requirements had their own sort of inclusions: looking for work, parenting classes, etc.

    And yes, the nostalgia is always present. It’s more implied in Brown, for instance, but Harvey is pretty blatantly nostalgic. Which is to say, as you do, social-democracy. Nostalgia is also the reason I have until recently been averse to the term “neoliberalism,” as in most usages it does carry an implied longing for Keynesian arrangements and for state intervention. But I’ve decided it’s good enough shorthand for real shifts over the last 30 years.

  3. I use ‘neo-liberalism’ – as you say, shorthand – but it irritates me every time I do. For this implication that there has been ‘liberalisation’. Partly true, liberalisation of money; but the contrary (regulation) is where significant shifts have occured. Still, I can’t come up with better without risking unintelligibility, even more than usual.

  4. I’ve just started re-reading this piece by Brown. I have the same problem with defining and using the term neoliberalism – and Brown’s definition in this essay is the one I have found most fitting to date – especially her elaboration of neoliberalism as a political rationality. Though yes … the essay does veer a little towards welfare nostalgia (we need a compound word equivalent to oostalgie perhaps here – preferably one that highlights how it licenses left nationalism too!)

    I do like the way that ‘neoliberalism’ now connotes ‘capitalist oppression’ in leftist discourse – highlighting that liberalism always contained the seeds of this …

    Though I’d never considered Brown’s definition to be too western – in that well, it IS a western concept founded in western political rationality; and Brown seems to be talking specifically about the US?

    Anyway, I’m interested to follow this train of thought :)

  5. I hate those emoticons too, but I can’t find a control to change it. How does one emoticon a middle finger?

    I also think Brown’s description is the best out there, mostly because she refuses to separate the “politics” from the “economics,” and talks of governmentality instead.

    I think Brown mostly has the US in mind, but also Europe for sure. While the concept seems to have largely originated in the west, I’m not sure how one can talk about neoliberalism without including Asia and Latin America and Africa, considering the importance of capital flows, labor flows, currency differentials, etc. Which is another reason why talk about the decline of the nation-state is premature.

    “highlighting that liberalism always contained the seeds of this”

    This is definitely true in the US; probably also because it’s been, even if wrongly, paired with neoconservatism.

    Thanks for your comment, ana.

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