If we are to believe Hegel – or Collingwood – no age, no civilization is capable of conceptually identifying itself. Leszek Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial, p. 1.
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Ron Suskind, Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush.
The problem facing anyone who wants to provide a useful counter-narrative to the dominant understanding of the state of a culture is to find a place to stand from which the counter-narrative can make sense to people locked into the dominant narrative. It isn’t obvious how to do this. Consider the problem facing people who want to argue that the notion of “free market” is meaningless in the absence of an understanding of the social and regulatory structure in which every market is embedded, whether we call it a free market or something else. It’s like getting people to see the two perspectives in an optical illusion: how can you force people to see the two when they only see one and don’t care that another exists?
Belief in the fairness of these fantasy markets persists in the face of factual evidence that markets as currently arranged benefit the rich at the expense of everyone else. That’s because the rich make the rules. They buy legislators to make rules that favor them. They influence administrative rule-making proceedings. They load the benches with judges who support their insistence that rules should be changed or enforced differently, and then they forum shop to make sure their cases are heard by friendly courts. They make rules directly, through contracts that are enforced harshly by courts and reinforced by governments with criminal sanctions and draconian civil penalties.
The rules have distributional consequences. The rules fix things so that some win and some lose, and the proof is that changing the rules results in different people winning and losing. When rich people make the rules, they benefit and the rest of us pay. All this is obvious to anyone who is paying attention.
Even that isn’t enough for a huge majority of our fellow citizens. They are certain that markets are a product of inexorable natural laws, and that the operation of those natural laws produces the best possible results in any economic sphere, and that any government interference in the workings of those natural laws will produce worse outcomes for everyone. This magical thinking pervades the discussion of political issues with respect to the economy.
I think a good first step towards creating a counter-narrative to the evil economic ideas of the neoliberals is to find a place to start that precedes the stale debates of the talking heads. It is in that vein that we find Michel Foucault at the beginning of his series of lectures at the College de France, The Birth of Biopolitics*. If we really want to talk sense about government, we can’t start with the universals that everyone uses. He ignores such terms as “sovereign”, the “people”, “subjects”, “civil society”. He is not interested in trying to deduce practice from those universals. Actually, if you think about it for a minute, it becomes clear that such an activity, trying to deduce concrete practice from universals, is doomed, as the Suskind quote says, and the George W. Bush and the Barack Obama administrations show in practice. Instead, in this series of lectures, he starts with the actual practice of government, and tries to understand how the universal ideas fit into the actual practice. In this way, perhaps, he will avoid the problem laid out by Kolakowski. In this way, he hopes to avoid the problem set for academics by the anonymous aide in the Suskind quote.
My plan is to write first about Foucault’s history of the development of neoliberalism, and then to address directly the general assertion of neoliberals that markets are part of the natural order of things. In a nutshell, I intend to show that markets are not an emergent phenomenon. They are highly contrived and unnatural forms of exchange.