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In the Image of the Market: How Neoliberalism Threatens Democracy

An interview with Wendy Brown (UC Berkeley) about her recent book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution.

Echoing Marx’s classical exposition of capitalism and its alienating effects, Brown explains how neoliberalism (which we may define as a fundamentalist form of capitalism) involves a form of pseudo-reasoning which reduces human beings to their economic value and activity, and treats all fields of activity as markets and institutions to be managed and run on the model of corporations.  This now includes the state as well.

The illogic of neoliberalism has invaded fields of human endeavour and need with no direct or immediate connection to wealth creation — e.g. education, dating, physical exercise, social and medical services — which are increasingly cast “in the image of the market”.  In this fundamentalist form of capitalism, people are treated as units of human capital who must constantly tend to their own present and future market value.   Presenting a meticulously argued line of thought,  Brown illuminates exactly how turning democracy itself into a marketplace literally undoes it.

“If democracy is understood in its most basic way as rule of the people, rule of the demos — that’s the ancient Greek idea, demos+kratia, people-rule — once you take democracy and make it into a marketplace, you get rid of some of the pretty fundamental principles of democracy.  And these include making equality a first principle, sharing political power equally, and having the people themselves decide what to value and decide what a particular polity ought to do: ruling themselves.  The reason you get rid of those when you convert democracy into a marketplace is that marketplaces aren’t supposed to have the people ruling, they are just supposed to have everyone pursuing their own self-interest.  And they’re not supposed to have equality; they’re supposed to have the naturalness of inequality that comes with competition.  So, some of the most basic features of democracy get undone by marketizing it.”

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