Company of One: The Fate of Democracy in an Age of Neoliberalism

By Peter GrattonJuly 15, 2015

Governing by Debt by Maurizio Lazzarato
Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution by Wendy Brown

I HAPPENED TO FINISH OFF Wendy Brown’s new Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution at an American consulate, waiting on a passport renewal for my son. The “left” weekly paper I brought with me had a front-page article about how Nova Scotia’s governing liberals simply needed better public relations to sell what everyone understood was needed — namely austerity cuts to healthcare, the arts, and so on. A couple of days before, David Cameron had just bludgeoned what was left of the left in Great Britain in the 2015 election; Labor centrists were crowing about the need for their party to return to Tony Blair’s third-way politics. On the screen in the waiting room played a loop of business leaders and recent immigrants speaking to the endless “entrepreneurial spirit” of America. While visiting the Canadian Museum of Immigration afterward, I saw another film telling visitors not only that Canada was a nation of immigrants, but one that fulfilled their entrepreneurial destinies — as long as they worked hard, and from the bottom up. (One woman described working her way up from a position at McDonald’s.) That a day spent in a provincial capital could yield seemingly endless lessons in neoliberal subjectivity is, of course, not happenstance.

Brown’s Undoing the Demos and Maurizio Lazzarato’s Governing by Debt (first published in Italian in 2013) aim both to diagnose the contemporary neoliberal condition and to demonstrate the tragedy of its growing ubiquity. Brown’s is a markedly nostalgic work, at least rhetorically, since it hearkens to the imperiled values of a previous era of political liberalism before the current reign of homo oeconomicus (economic man) (her past writings are best known for demonstrating the failures of liberalism to confront the problems of patriarchy and economic inequality). Where Brown sees the promise in rejuvenating a political thought that replaces rampant economism, Lazzarato argues all forms of politics act as apparatuses for the capture of wealth by a given elite. For this reason he calls for strikes against the contemporary system, and the wholesale destruction of any economic structures that support it. This, too, is strikingly nostalgic — large-scale workers’ actions of the kind Lazzarato prescribes are modeled on an era more and more outmoded as neoliberalism spreads.

The background for these books is the vast economic upheavals of the past 30 years, during which “neoliberalism” has been anything but “stealth,” as the overstated subtitle of Brown’s book suggests. 

The neoliberal pathology has been the same in both European and American countries: governments cannibalize their political spaces, advance privatized markets in all aspects of society (see the Affordable Care Act), and export their manufacturing base to the developing world. The consumer is not, as in a previous era of liberalism, a purported equal trader on a market — leaving aside the problematic basis for thinking this ever came about — but a “capital” among others, an entrepreneur most often providing free labor that creates value for others. If the laborer in the factory was the paradigm of alienation in a previous era, today in the West s/he is the freelancer: signing up for one project at a time, often free of charge in order to gain experience or “clips” and without the social safety net of a pension or guaranteed healthcare coverage. We are each a company of one, committed to doing what used to take whole enterprises: we provide our own customer service, do our own investments and taxes, act as our own travel agencies, and, for those lucky enough to have 401(k)s and healthcare, pick and choose among competing options that we once left to the experts. “There’s an app for that!” also means “you’re on your own.”

It’s not just that corporations have speech, as Justice Kennedy argued in Citizens United, a case Brown cites as a prime example in her book. Those who do speak think of themselves more and more as corporations in a do-it-yourself culture. Make bad investments? Choose the wrong healthcare plan? Buy a home on which your bank is owed more than the house is now worth? This is just the risk that comes with newfound economic freedoms. But as we spiral in student loan, credit, and mortgage debts, we are decidedly unprofitable companies of one. The corporations take all the profits; we take all the risk.


Undoing the Demos and Governing by Debt aim at giving precision to the term “neoliberalism,” a notorious catchall for what critics find wrong with contemporary market thinking. What is striking is that both set up their books by commenting, at times critically, on Michel Foucault’s 1978–’79 lecture course at the Collège de France, published in English in 2008 as The Birth of Biopolitics. Foucault is best known for his genealogies of power formations that crystallized into History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish. While these texts certainly touched on economic concerns — incipient capitalism, for example, needed the docile bodies of workers it would employ during the periods Foucault discusses — The Birth of Biopolitics is a strange text in his oeuvre for at least three reasons: (1) he rarely focused on questions of political economy as central to considerations of power; (2) only rarely in other years did he cast more than a glance at the contemporary period, even if he was always aiming at “histories of the present” — that is, descriptions of just how we arrived at certain views of ourselves and each other; (3) Foucault generally interested himself less in theoretical texts than institutions and practices. (Yet what he dubs neoliberalism arrives out of a set of post-World War II writings by German and Chicago-school economists whose thinking critics argued was theoretical in the worst sense: their economic models were unworkable in the real world without the state apparatuses they decried and upon which they relied. The imposition of Chicago-school policies on Chile during the 1970s by the dictator Augusto Pinochet being a notorious, but not singular, example.) But this is what’s salutary about the course. Foucault is interested less in the actuality of neoliberalism than in what neoliberalism wants. What subjects does it need to produce? How does it rethink the social? The state?

Despite the rhetoric of both of these books, neoliberalism is but one form of economy operating alongside other forms; it hasn’t totally won out. Like the architecture of our cities, there are different “times” of economy at work in and alongside others. Ancient barter systems still exist even as neoliberalism, as an ideology, is ascendant. Marx’s error was to think that capitalism would whither all at once, which was premised on the notion that it replace all other forms of economy; a similar note could be said about those proponents of neoliberalism. If there is to be change, we need to consider what resists, and how we resist, becoming purely entrepreneurs — purely companies of one.

Lazzarato and Brown agree that Foucault’s text is a remarkable read more than 30 years on. Before the Thatcher and Reagan years, Foucault begins to chart an economic rationality that had, as yet, not become the dominant economic mode of thinking. He attempts to describe what he saw as a radical rethinking of economics in the post-World War II period. German “Ordoliberals” and Chicago-school “anarcho-capitalists,” looking to the totalitarianism of National Socialism and the Stalinist USSR, suffered from what Foucault dubs a “state phobia”; their enemy was the economic prescriptions of John Maynard Keynes, whose belief in the intervention of the state to keep capitalism out of its inherent crises became the dominant model after the Great Depression and the economic calamities of postwar Europe. To those who saw in Keynesianism a means for government to ameliorate capitalism’s contradictions — its periodic depressions, its tendency in many industries toward monopolization, its production of “danger externalities” (such as climate change), as well as the unequal contractual relation of employer and employee — the postwar right saw a creeping totalitarianism hiding behind every government program.

In many ways, the economics profession is still split between those following more or less the methodology of Keynes (in the US, the so-called “salt water” economic thinking dominant in universities on the coasts) and those who think that any market failures are at root a failure of some form of government intervention in the economy (the “cold water” economists of the University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, and other universities coincidentally near the Great Lakes region). The ascendency and in fact almost total public dominance of the cold water economists was abetted not just by the great swing to the right marked in the US and Britain by the Reagan-Thatcher era, but also by an archipelago of think tanks, newspapers, and other media preaching the theology of neoliberalism. These groups formed a milieu in which formerly quack doctrines (lowering taxes raises government revenues; privatization is proper even for the most closely held of government operations, such as the wide use of contractors to guard secret information for the National Security Agency; government-created private markets in healthcare are somehow a socialist leap) became mainstream economic arguments on The New York Times op-ed page and in meetings at Davos and Brussels. The economic devastation of 2007–’08, the result of unregulated markets in derivatives, should have washed away the freshwater school — but the austerity politics of the EU, the US, as well as a host of other governments shows Keynesianism to be largely dead as a political phenomenon. Generations have grown up on the nursery stories whereby a rising tide lifts all boats, creating vast numbers of billionaires that trickle wealth down to those on the bottom.

The upshot of Brown and Lazzarato’s books is to demonstrate just what an outlier neoliberalism is, not least since it is relatively new in terms of the long history of capitalism. Traditional liberalism held that one entered into contracts with others, even the implicit contracts of buying bread at the local market, for the sake of one’s interests: one trades wood to build a house for warmth, etc. This trading was to have a communal benefit: trading individually, capitalism provided an “invisible hand” whereby goods were more widely and cheaply available. Whatever the problems with this model — it assumed human beings on the market were rational actors more or less equal with one another — neoliberalism’s basis in financial capitalism, not manufacturing, means economics has no other end than itself. There are simply no values outside of this — no “interest” one would have other than maintaining one’s own market efficiency. The emblem for this is the internet economy, where companies that have never produced a profit (and never will) are famous for being famous, valued for being valued, and thus trade at stock prices well ahead of those dinosaur companies still producing widgets. Uber had its IPO in December valued at $40 billion, even if it plans to profit from entrepreneurs “liberating” the value of their cars by driving them as taxis. No matter — Uber’s early investors will largely have cashed out by the time institutional investors, such as pension plans, are left on the hook for its future negligible value.

In neoliberalism, previous political values, such as freedom, are rewritten in economic terms at the cost of democratic checks and balances. Nameless bureaucrats at the EU, or those currently negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, consult one another in secret while avenues for democratic appeals for these decisions are nullified. Greece, where the very word and concept of democracy was invented, has lived five years under crisis budgets that no amount of elections, even its recent “No” vote to austerity, can seem to end. Brown and Lazzarato mark this changeover, following Foucault, in order to understand what neoliberal rationality wants: a recoding of every part of human life in terms of economic transactions. As Brown puts it,

Rather than each individual pursuing his or her own interest and unwittingly generating collective benefit, today, it is the project of macroeconomic growth and credit enhancement to which neoliberal individuals are tethered and with which their existence as human capital must align if they are to thrive.

Brown’s critique of Foucault mirrors her account of neoliberalism, namely that he does not give much credence to a thinking of the “demos” or “popular sovereignty.” Thus we must challenge, she argues, the dominance of homo oeconomicus with homo politicus, a “creature animated by and for the realization of popular sovereignty as well as its own individual sovereignty, the creature who made the French and American Revolutions and whom the American constitution bears forth,” a figure very much under threat today. Brown is certainly right that Foucault does not discuss forms of politics outside of the genealogies of the disciplined and biopolitical subjects. Indeed, Foucault’s later work is renowned for thinking Greek notions of the “care of the self” that can seem quietistic in terms of wider political action. And yet, Foucault would be right to ask what, when, and where this demos existed that is being “undone.” Foucault’s “Society Must Be Defended” lectures from 1975–’76 aim to show how what we think as popular sovereignty was invented at a time of incipient nationalisms and racisms. Popular sovereignty, then, is not an ahistorical value, but one that grew up in and through defining a people and the borders of that “demos”: “Democracy is not inherently self-sustaining,” as Brown herself writes, “it often requires undemocratic or ademocratic sources of supplementation or reinforcement,” which she calls “practices of nondemocratic stewardship.” In modernity this was the Hobbesian core of every modern state calling itself democratic, the police state that is central to “safety and security” but is ominous to those very rights these states endlessly go on about. As Brown herself notes, one might as well speak gibberish rather than try to talk to neoliberals about democratic rights, since that would have to be communicated in economic, not political, terms. This is a move often seen recently on the left: those standing against austerity often depict a previous era of enhanced social security, healthier labor unions, and lesser extremes of inequality as a counterexample to the present — missing is a consideration of the racism, colonialism, and sexism that made such economies possible. 

No doubt, the past is the reserve out of which our thought for another future is made possible. But one wonders if the left’s project should be simply redoing what has been undone by neoliberalism, or whether in fact neoliberalism has truly undone anything other than the dream of liberalism. This is not to say we should abandon any discussion of rights and so on, which have been a powerful tool for the powerless against the powerful — a point worth mentioning given Lazzarato’s own diminishment of homo politicus: “The political cannot be defined as the organization of a king of ‘living together’ […] or as the establishment of a ‘common world’ since both of these […] are marked ab initio [from the beginning] and in their very nature by a prior fundamental appropriation and division,” and thus all politics seems doomed to failure. On this point, Brown writes, convincingly: 

Never did the demos really rule in liberal democracies, nor could it in large nation-states. But the presumption that it should rule placed modest constraints on powerful would-be usurpers of its ghostly throne, helped to leash legislation aimed at benefiting the few, rather than the many, and episodically incited political action from below oriented toward the “common concerns of ordinary lives."

Lazzarato, for his part, joins other recent thinkers, such as Giorgio Agamben, in offering that we should completely “unwork” (he borrows from the French term désoeuvrement, which means to render inoperative) the current political and economic arrangements since “reform has become impossible.” He writes: 

Completely privatized, pacified, and colonized, [the] public space intermittently returns to life only when struggles open up islands of non-communication, of non-response, of non-speech […] the only conditions for new possibilities of expression, new words, and democratic practices […] and in this way recover equality, the basis of political organization.

For Lazzarato, there hasn’t been a diminishment of sovereignty in the contemporary period, a point at the center of Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (2014), but rather a buttressing of governmentality in service of the markets. The only means for taking on such power, he argues, is to opt out of negotiating or even, literally, working with it. His ode to a certain form of “laziness” in the last chapter of the book is easy to ridicule: “workers of the world unite, you have nothing to gain but your hammocks.” But given that neoliberalism converts all manner of our interactions into “shadow work” and that any leisure has to be convertible into some form of efficiency (the famous “me time” or “quality time” that is meant to make myself or my children better laborers later on), a valorization of kinds of thinking disallowed by neoliberalism must be a starting point. Why must we always be laboring? Why must even time at a university be thought only in terms of profitability for loan purveyors and for your future self?


The best parts of both books are their extended discussions of notable examples of neoliberalism in action. In Brown, this means looking to the Citizens United decision, which affirmed how American political campaigns are less about coalition-building than bidding one’s views out to billionaires funding political action committees. Lazzarato’s best chapter — one would hope it gets passed along as standard reading for American university students — fills out his claim that the paradigm of the neoliberal age is the “indebted man.” American students, as is well known, graduate with ever-rising amounts of debts. One thus enters the labor market as an adult paying off a seemingly endless series of debts: credit cards and students loans, then mortgages, and so on. 

Debt is the technique most adequate to the production of neoliberalism’s homo economicus. Students not only consider themselves human capital, which they must valorize through their own investments (the university loans they take out) but also feel compelled to act, think, and behave as if they were individual businesses. Debt requires an apprenticeship in certain behavior, accounting rules, and organizational principles, traditionally implemented within a corporation, [for] people who have not yet gone on the job market.

At some point, we think, this system can’t go on. And yet, with the crash of 2007–’08, we learned that governments step in not on the side of the “forgiveness” of debts, but to bolster those institutions (and therefore their investors) to which the debts are owed. Nothing scared the world more in those days than that the capital markets would seize up, which is another way of saying that our economies rely on extending further indebtedness and would collapse without it. Of course, we are each “free” to enter into these credit relations, even if the only entry into the “job market” is through a university education that requires one to take on “freely” this debt. As Lazzarato notes, though, this debt takes out an advance on our future: who can afford to take a few years off to volunteer when one immediately graduates into dunning notices for student loans? Who can decide to be a doctor in poorer communities when only a more remunerative post will allow one to pay down one’s monthly student loan payments? And why don’t I deserve a high-paying job? After all, I, and no one else, has invested so much to get me to this point. After spending so much, don’t I deserve to make much more? Gone are the days where our best and brightest go on to serve in the Peace Corps or help NASA send human beings to the moon, since there are ever more apps to be made and financial products to be invented. In this way, our possibilities close before us. Lazzarato writes:

Debt bridges the present and future, it anticipates and preempts the future. Students’ debt mortgages at once their behavior, wages, and future income. This is the paradigm of [neo-]liberal freedom, which is…freedom in name only. Credit produces a specific form of subjectification. Debtors are alone, individually responsible to the banking system; they can count on no solidarity except, on occasion, on that of their families, which in turn risk going into debt. 

If there is something due, it is what we owe to this and future generations of students in terms of overturning a system that even takes that most inefficient of things — learning about our place in the world — and makes it a profit center. Foucault is famous for his thinking of “power/knowledge,” that is, how power implicates a thinking of what is considered as true and hence a form of knowledge. Our universities today are more and more built on “profit/knowledge” — one must be ever convertible into the other. Knowledge must be convertible into profits, and making a profit is the only proper form of knowledge. No doubt, between Brown and Lazzarato, we seem to be given a false set of choices between returning to a thinking of rights from liberalism or an abdication of any engagement in the current system. But their books are wholly welcome as a critique of what is underway, and how we can understand it better through the lens of Foucault’s lectures on economics. For that, we are in their debt, even as we realize there must be some other way for us to relate to others than thinking about what we owe them.


Dr. Peter Gratton is a professor of political philosophy at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

LARB Contributor

Dr. Peter Gratton is a professor of political philosophy at Memorial University of Newfoundland.


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