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.

Amsterdam Flower Market

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.

Background Reading

For those interested in more detail on this work, let me suggest Philip Mirowski’s book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste. He discusses Foucault’s contribution, beginning at page 93, pointing out what he thinks Foucault got right, and what he got wrong. He thinks that Foucault does not apply his own work to the term “market”; and that Foucault would see things differently with a different concept of market. Bruce Harcourt’s The Illusion of Free Markets addresses the failure of Foucault to identify and examine the term “market” in detail. At page 45, he says that the terms “free market” and “regulation” are illusory, and that their use hinders actual analysis. Chapter 1 of this excellent book explains Harcourt’s use of Foucault’s framework to discuss the notions of free markets and regulation directly. Foucault would have approved of this use of his format of examination, but might not like the results.

For an introduction to emergence, try The Re-Emergence of “Emergence”: A Venerable Concept in Search of a Theory.

Why is this important?

Even before the beginning of the Great Crash, it was obvious that the situation was directly caused by fraud and deceit in the financial sector. Yves Smith’s excellent book, ECONned, pointed out the connections between the financial sector and the economists who created the conditions which brought about deregulation and led to the openings for the frauds. The Obama Administration had a single purpose: to help the financial sector. The Administration was perfectly willing to destroy the middle class to save the financial sector, but was unwilling to enforce the anti-fraud laws against anyone on Wall Street. Now the villains are back in the saddle, and the saddle is on the backs of the American people. How did that happen? What is it that made the ideas of the neoliberals utterly impervious to the factual evidence that they were false and malevolent? Why doesn’t anything change?

At no point in the last 40 years did the left, or whatever’s left of the left, have any impact on politics or law enforcement as to the economy. Instead, every elected Democrat and the leaders of the Party bought into the neoliberal fantasy world. They united with the Republicans to insure that the economy operates solely for the benefit of the filthy rich. The two parties worked together to discipline average Americans, to enforce their allegiance to the All-Knowing Market, to criminalize behavior that doesn’t suit the Market, to pass laws that destroy the ability of the middle class to protect themselves from fraud and cheating, and to change court rules to insure that the average person has no chance at justice. They all agree that it’s always your fault if you are poor, and they unite to punish the poor by slashing Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps and Long-Term Unemployment. The two parties agree that the poor need the discipline that only poverty and desperation produce.

All the chatter about campaign finance reform and tax reform and other solutions will come to nothing. We’ll all be destroyed by the elites in and out of government, with no more interest on their part than they have in the shrimp in the tainted Gulf of Mexico: sad but meaningless in the big picture of their lives.

The only hope is to insist that the Democratic Party publicly disavow the failed theories of neoliberalism, and adopt policies that will force the economy to serve regular people, and not the vicious rich.

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*The Birth of Biopolitics, p. 2.

…I would like to point out straightaway that choosing to talk about or to start from governmental practice is obviously and explicitly a way of not taking as a primary, original, and already given object, notions such as the sovereign, sovereignty, the people, subjects, the state, and civil society, that is to say, all those universals employed by sociological analysis, historical analysis, and political philosophy in order to account for real governmental practice. For my part, I would like to do exactly the opposite and, starting from this practice as it is given, but at the same time as it reflects on itself and is rationalized, show how certain things—state and society, sovereign and subjects, etcetera—were actually able to be formed, and the status of which should obviously be questioned. In other words, instead of deducing concrete phenomena from universals, or instead of starting with universals as an obligatory grid of intelligibility for certain concrete practices, I would like to start with these concrete practices and, as it were, pass these universals through the grid of these practices.