Rise of homo oeconomicus | „Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution“ by Wendy Brown

[This is the translation of my original post in German.]

Wendy Brown’s „Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution“ from 2015 is an uncompromising portrayal of neoliberalism, a challenging and at the same time unsettling book. It is exhausting to read because it seeks to add something substantial to the scientific theory of neoliberalism. It is unsettling because it shows how neoliberalism can manage to destroy democracy from within.

However, this only happens in the second half of the book. In the first half, Brown initially summarizes what Foucault had to say on the subject. In his lectures on the „Birth of Biopolitics“ at the Collège de France in the years 1978 and 1979, Foucault was already able to characterize essential features of neoliberalism even before it gained momentum in the Western industrialized countries through the politics of Thatcher and Reagan. In particular, Foucault emphasizes that the term does not refer to economic policies. Neoliberalism is not one of many possible directions of economic policy, but rather a comprehensive way of thinking that goes beyond that; in Foucault’s words, a „political rationality.“ As such, it is not (only) politics itself, but also dictates how politics should be evaluated, namely according to purely economic standards. From a neoliberal perspective, politics is considered good only when it benefits the economy.

The basic idea of neoliberalism is the primacy of market rules, and this is the difference compared to classical liberalism, which applies in all areas of life. Governments are measured by whether they promote economic growth. Leaders, whether politicians, professors, or office managers, are judged based on their entrepreneurial qualities. School and university education are reduced to the purpose of training future useful workers. Leisure activities and health-promoting measures are pursued with the purpose of preserving or regenerating labor power. Every learned language, every item of clothing, every selfie serves a personal competitive advantage. It is literally every area of human existence into which neoliberal thinking shamelessly infiltrates the rules of economy and competition.

A new image of humanity

Because the entirety of human existence is affected, neoliberal thinking, as Foucault emphasizes, can be summed up by the concept it produces: the homo oeconomicus. This concept is not new, but it acquires a new meaning through neoliberalism. For the thinkers of liberalism, such as Adam Smith, the homo oeconomicus was still a person who pursued their own interests in economic competition, an actor in the economy. However, Smith emphasizes that beyond the sphere of economics, humans have many other facets, including being destined for political association, and that the rules and constraints of the economy should be kept away from these other areas of life as much as possible. Smith and other thinkers of liberalism are still part of a tradition that can be traced back to Aristotle, which seeks to preserve political life from purely economic thinking and recognizes a serious danger in the mixing of these spheres.

In neoliberalism, however, these concerns and limitations are eliminated. The neoliberal homo oeconomicus follows market rules in all areas of life. Furthermore, and this is where Wendy Brown’s interpretation goes beyond Foucault, the actor who pursues their own interests has become a more passive plaything of external constraints. The individual now acts not according to economic principles because it is the best way to achieve their goals, but because they have no other choice for survival. The truly sovereign actors with independent interests in this scenario are not individual people, but corporations and associations in the role of „legal persons.“

A typical direction of neoliberal measures is therefore to shift economic risks from corporations to individuals by, for example, outsourcing a large portion of work to temporary, easily dismissible, or detached employees. When business declines, these workers are discarded and left to fend for themselves so that the parent company can survive. The individual is forced by the resulting uncertainties to lead their life in a way that they constantly remain flexible, capable, and available to the labor market. They are responsible for their own further education, maintaining their health, ensuring their mobility, and taking care of their retirement. On one hand, these pressures push them into the role of a micro-entrepreneur of their own self-employed entity, the CEO of their own life that they should run like a profit-oriented company. However, they only inherit the downsides of being a boss: the risks and responsibilities.

The individual bears the risk

It is due to these pressures and dependencies that the concept of human capital captures the neoliberal version of the homo oeconomicus. Wendy Brown elaborates on this conception in detail, diverging from Foucault’s fundamental theory. In particular, she emphasizes that the neoliberal homo oeconomicus no longer leaves room for the politically active individual, the homo politicus. Brown sees this as a serious threat to democracy, which has always thrived on the participation of individuals that goes beyond mere electoral participation. A mindset that no longer sees any sense in individual political activity, because it does not produce personal competitive advantage, undermines this foundation of democracy.

However, the truly corrosive forces that Brown attributes to neoliberalism are far more subtle, and this is the most interesting and indeed disturbing part of the book. According to Wendy Brown, neoliberalism often utilizes values and principles that are inherently considered democratic in its subversion of democracy. Through this trickery, the undermining of democracy is concealed. An example of this is a 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the United States. This ruling lifted certain restrictions that had previously existed on financial support for election campaigns. According to this ruling, the government is no longer allowed to prohibit financial contributions from corporations to political action committees supporting candidates. As a result, „money from corporations overwhelms the electoral process,“ as Brown writes. The remarkable aspect is the justification for the ruling by Chief Justice Kennedy: In his argumentation, corporations are first equated with individuals, and the use of their funds is portrayed as a form of expression of opinion. It is then argued that restricting financial contributions in the electoral process is equivalent to limiting freedom of speech. The equation of corporations with individuals and of money with free speech enables the invocation of the principle of freedom of speech to support a decision that attacks the democratic process.

This observation leads Brown to examine the concept of democracy and distinguish it from other concepts that are traditionally associated with it but, as the example shows, can also be used against democracy. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, equality before the law, and other principles have historically been implemented primarily in democracies, but they do not define democracy itself. Democracy, at its core, simply means the rule of the people, particularly in contrast to the rule of only a part of the people, such as an affluent segment. Towards the end of the book, Brown emphasizes the role of educational institutions in defending democracy and describes their oppressive transformation from institutions that enable free thinking and political participation to mere producers of useful human capital.

The book „Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution“ can be read not only for its social scientific ambition to expand the theory of neoliberalism and present it in its current form, but also as a guide to recognizing its techniques and effects. However, the book does not offer a way out of the seemingly inexorable triumph of neoliberal thinking, but rather emphasizes the lack of a genuine alternative that is not backward-looking. The book is formulated as a theory-heavy analysis, not as a call to arms, but through the unflinching nature of its portrayal, it may become all the more powerful as the latter. The concluding sections sound desperate, and only at the very end does Brown make an appeal. Regarding seemingly futile political work that is necessary to counter the creeping neoliberal revolution, the book ends with the question, ‚But if not this work, what else could offer the slightest hope for a just, sustainable, and real future?‘

About this webpage:

I write a blog about German and international literature. Based on these posts, I also produce a podcast and videos for my youtube channel, both in German. Further English translations are coming.