NEOLIBERALISM – a dialogue UK & ST, Jan – Feb 2019


UK: So what is neoliberalism, if not a radical incarnation of cultural hegemony—in that it intrinsically misrepresents (via a delusively benignant reframing) all modes of civilizing engagement and every mode of civilizing effect? The strange descendant of Aynian objectivism and Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism, neoliberalism is a creature that has shifted its unseemly shape beyond radical economic ultra-orthodoxy, seeping into, until permeating, the entire cultural landscape and the whole of society. In essence, this radical incarnation seeks a hegemony founded on deculturization, in that it implicitly negates all true forms of culture that are not commensurate with its paradigms of individualist supremacy and such supremacy’s necessarily incidental cultural adornments.

ST: that neoliberalism reframes “all modes of civilizing engagement and every mode of civilizing effect”;

that its “its paradigms [are] of individualist supremacy”.

Do neoliberals delude themselves that their efforts are towards civil society? Or more bluntly that they are benign?

The question concerns how neoliberals view themselves and what is the point of view of neoliberalism. We can agree that this point of view reframes civilization, as process and form of life. But it does not do so by misrepresenting civilization. Neoliberalism, first of all, is not a doctrine, and less an ideology; even less a political one, and not at all a framing or reframing of whatever is supposed to pre-exist it. It is a strategy of representation, not misrepresentation; and it is not self-deluding, or delusive. It acts strategically, speaks strategy, deals in the real world strategically, through eschewing the kind of Grand Narratives on which our modernism relied, including that one about the supremacy of the individual. In this neoliberalism has going for it a kind of slippery postmodernism, and a decidedly anti-representationalist slant. However, it is strategically deployed.


UK: The self-imagery of neoliberalism is an endemic artfulness that is belied by its extreme simplisticness and its intrinsic incapacity relative to all paradox. This includes its incapacity relative to the paradox of so-called civilization or the civilizing impulse that is perpetually indicated or perceived as “progress.” To the extent that the manifestation of whatever has been dubbed civilization has been accounted “successful”, it has always been predicated upon hegemony, rationalism and doubt (or the ambiguous certainties heralded as “progress” itself).

Paradoxically—without effacing hegemony, rationalism and doubt—much of civilization-making activity has really been rooted in verifiable humanizing processes and outcomes, in respect of the creation and promotion of civic spaces and institutions, education, the arts and so forth;

ST: that civilization is based on “hegemony, rationalism and doubt” as well as “humanizing processes” we might call civic, including civic (civilizing) spaces and institutions.

This triad of hegemony, rationalism and doubt appeals to the Cartesian cogito. I find myself asking as readily what civilization is? as what is neoliberalism? Isthis the right duality? Has not civilization, in the face of human guilt and shame in the Shoah, got a bad name? (Let alone representation (after Adorno).) Let us remember that the founding event of neoliberalism is in 1947, Hayek’s convening of the Mont Pelerin Society, still very active—still very active in New Zealand, both in political and business circles. That is directly after the war, a new dawn dawned. Red-faced, not at all. Red-handed and red-fingered, perhaps.


UK: As with traditional (but ambiguous) civilization-makers, neoliberals, too, harbor a quasi-religious (if passionately de-collectivizing) conviction around a notion of “progress.” But in contrast to the paradox of so-called civilization’s efforts at humanization combined with hegemony, neoliberalism, is—by the nature of its very contempt for all human nuance in which felicity is perforce inextricable from vulnerability—an active, summary negation of all verifiable humanizing processes, even those processes which have been obligated to coexist with forms of hegemony.

What is unique about neoliberalism—and where neoliberalism goes arguably further than the most wretched of collectivized totalitarian ideologies—is that (unlike fascism and bolshevism) it proactively anathematizes community, and therefore society, and therefore humanity itself. Neoliberalism militantly glorifies the market; above all, it glorifies virile economic autonomy and self-exalting individualism as the ostensible uttermost expressions of human existence. And it is inherently contemptuous of all expressions of human life and community that do not fulfill this paradigm;

ST: that neoliberalism “proactively anathematizes community, and therefore society, and therefore humanity itself. It militantly glorifies the market and, above all, it glorifies virile economic autonomy and self-exalting individualism as the ostensible uttermost expressions of human existence. And it is inherently contemptuous of all expressions of human life and community that do not fulfill this paradigm”.

We can agree here but not on the existence of a paradigm—and not on the issue of virility. We can agree on the contempt in which Hayek and his followers hold humanity—as they have colonised every level of human undertaking. Again, it is not the expressions of human life and community with which neoliberal strategies concern themselves. Rather it is with expressing these and producing in them images drawn from a new brain. This new brain belongs to the markets; and, like the mind imagines the brain, the delusion is at this level: that there is a brain, that there exist a market, is a work of the mind and of the men and women who deal in markets and their creation, their representation at the political level.


UK: To neoliberal eyes, humanity, alas, really does exist, and does so in its unfulfilled guise: quotidian, dependent, plodding, seemingly oblivious to the expansively independent and dynamically self-assured opportunities and obligations of its agency. And of course, in the neoliberal mind, there are all too many institutions that embody and perpetuate this selfsame disgraceful, inert mediocrity.

Hence, what neoliberals conceive as being incumbent upon themselves is a sustained effort or visionary crusade to confront and undermine and resolve the embarrassment that is humanity itself. The confrontation thus pursued is the righteous animation of its virtuous contempt. The expression of that contempt is the intrinsically fanciful empowerment of citizens in every context through a unique form of infantalization that presumes to treat human beings as dependent, misguided and undisciplined children—and in the same breath compulsively wean them off every expectation of a nurturing or protective environment, or even one based on that most unruly and suspect of all human frailties: solidarity (as opposed to narcistic co-admiration or the self-satisfied collusion of the powerful with likeminded agents).

ST: that “what neoliberals conceive as being incumbent upon themselves is a sustained effort or visionary crusade to confront and undermine and resolve the embarrassment that is humanity itself.”

We do agree but the counter-image must also be given its place, of a source of and strategy for the redemption of a shamed, a very guilty, and a no doubt embarrassed humanity. It imagines a humanity embarrassed to resolve that embarrassment by means not found in humanity—or in civilization. These means can broadly be termed artificial intelligence or the automated—and automations of the—marketplace.


UK: It is the intention of neoliberal philosophy to treat all who labor in organizations of any kind, public or private, and all of those members of society who are dependent in any form, as the suboptimal specimens that they appear to be, by dint of their non-incarnation of virtuously prodigious invulnerable independence. Since there is no real hope that the vast majority will improve on these virtuous terms—or ever seriously fulfill the righteous prescription of neo-liberal sensibility—the majority must, at the very least, for its own sake, be informed by an unsparing program of applied disillusionment, in which the consequences of non-improvement are in its face perpetually and, if necessary, forever. It is, after all, not the fault of those who know better, that the majority choose to remain as children, oblivious to, or resistant of, virtuously self-surpassing ambition.

ST: that neoliberalism prescribes ceaseless self-improvement, ceaseless because in vain.

Here we are dealing with human affects. But these too are not to be thought through and decided upon by human agents. Self-improvement of course summons up the idea of the subject who is an entrepreneur of the self, on social media, say. Social media are already a kind of automatic, automated marketplace in which social affects and human affects can be decided.

Self-improvement is not prescribed by neoliberals, because, we agree, the human cannot be improved upon, except by the nonhuman. Humanity enters a self-improvement loop because nonhuman values prevail; and perhaps if I am better, affirm better, do better, think better and smarter, I will get a better deal out of an automatic, automated world.


UK: Exalting in the vanity of power as idealized human autonomy, neoliberals are unique in extolling their warped notion of freedom. There is, upon this earth, and in human history altogether, potentially no expression of base authoritarianism more insidious—or insipid!—in its hypocrisy than hegemonic pseudo-libertarianism; the latter being perhaps the crux of what neoliberalism is altogether.

As an inherently loveless creed, neoliberalism is also an inherently empty one. Situated, seated, unconsciously in that blithe emptiness is pervasive existential dread. In neoliberal sensibility, the flight from dread is perused through the morbid festivity of presumptive aspiration in which the individual is pretentiously immortalized, while the collective is ceremoniously penalized and punished;

ST: that the crux of neoliberalism may be a “pseudo-liberatarianism”, in which the individual is offered freedom at the expense of the collective.

Yes, this was Hayek’s theme. The crux, however, is still to outsource those mechanisms by which such freedom is secured for the individual—to the marketplace and the economic instruments of a neoliberal political economy.


UK: Sartre said that the people must be brought into the temple of enlightenment through the lavatory. The neoliberal take on this is that the people must be brought into the temple of enlightenment through the over-exerted order-fulfillment mass warehouse of bewilderment.

In neoliberal praxis the inducement of bewilderment in all guises, situations, and sites of controlled interaction is a creative strategy for in seeking the correction or redemption of the embarrassment that is humanity itself. What neoliberals require is a milieu compulsorily festive bewilderment as a vindication of their own superior effacement of the void.

This pseudo-heroism seeks the acquirement of all others through the allegiance induced by purposive bewilderment. Thus neoliberalism appears among humanity in the guise of an elemental expression of pervasive lechery. Those who are lecherous and powerful believe that anything desired may be acquired as a matter of course and inherent right. What neoliberalism desires is all humanity and yet neoliberalism is contemptuous of humanity itself. The latter is not paradox but the inherent self-contradiction of power that is most base.

ST: that neoliberalism “in seeking the correction or redemption of the embarrassment that is humanity itself” bewilders, desiring humanity, contemptuous of humanity.

That it bewilders even the best minds is bewildering. It may have to do with a strategic deployment of agendas and no unified theory or code, with doing what is necessary when it is necessary, for the good of that which will secure for the individual the greatest freedom. Hence—the paradoxes, around populism and militarism, Bolsonaro, May and Trump, Trudeau and Ardern.


UK: The praxis that effaces neoliberalism is one that is inherent to a domain of wisdom that has always contested hegemonic egoism, ever resisted its claims, and ever insisted upon the prior authority of a truth-process that is visibly grounded in authentic, verifiable human priorities. Though urgently requiring of pervasively assertive (but inherently non-aggressive) transmission in the localized and globalized spheres of society, that wisdom is not itself a political program, but a protean domain of esoteric elements that appear in every context or province of culture. Ever in a state of defiant and paradoxical co-existence with every form of cultural egoity, those elements make up a great tradition or complex (but unitary) foundation of integral praxis, or non-exploitable, non-exploiting, integrality-focused, intrinsically full-humanizing practice and process.

ST: that neoliberalism is effaced in a “a protean domain of esoteric elements that appear in every context or province of culture.”

Culture was the first place neoliberals gathered with anything like decisive force in NZ. Murray Edmund talks of the “man from Treasury” and his forecast for a fully monetized cultural politic and economy. That is, culture was the first place after Treasury to come under neoliberal influence, as a trial-ground, a field of experiment for its strategies.


UK: As with all forms of totalitarianism, the praxis of neoliberalism entails insistent, invasive, propagandized modes of delusive benignity: simulating cheer and hope, appropriating everything that is potentially useful under the guise of a pretentiously engaged pseudo-magnanimity, and, of course, acting out the smiling assassin routine in neutralizing any threat.

Hence neoliberalism is a highly methodical system but the ethos of that system is one of inexorable vacuity. Unlike collectivized forms of totalitarianism, neoliberalism is strikingly impoverished in its myth-making capacity or its ability to tell clear and plausible stories. Deprived of inspirational myth, neoliberalism relies on the obfuscation of narratives through the infantalization of them. Hence, any agent or any group that tells clear or plausible stories is a threat. Any authentic narrative provides an affirmation of self-existing human truths that, by their very nature, cannot be appropriated by any system or program of ideologized dehumanization.

ST: that neoliberalism is a praxis of “appropriating everything that is potentially useful” and of “neutralizing any threat”, and, as such “methodical”.

Also: “neoliberalism is strikingly impoverished in its myth-making capacity or its ability to tell clear and plausible stories.”

What are the stories but the most plausible ones? The mythmaking ones? Yes, and the icon-making ones? They are the famous “stories in our own words”.

Except that they are not stories in our own words, ever, are they.

Methodical? Methodological perhaps. Again, it is a question of capturing the representation in the act of its preparation and production. Methodology is presumed by method; and, once more, it is a nonunifiable and only strategically existent discourse and discourses of method which is attributable to neoliberals, many of whom do not even identify themselves being such. This is some more meat for the idea that neoliberalism is presumed by representation—in culture and in the processes of humanising and civilization.


UK: It is the case that any true cultural process that is manifestly artful in its submission to human need, whether artistically defined, whether politically emphasized, whether grounded in what is called the sacred, whether founded upon any integrity at all of any means and character and insight, is, by virtue of its very underlying nature, impervious to the neoliberal ethos altogether.

It is not that such means entail resistance; much less do they stoop to benevolent mitigation. Rather, it is the case that such processes, such means, entail the radical exclusion of neoliberalism and its paradigms via the propagation of full-humanness, or the transmission of hope in the verifiable language of full-humanness itself: a language that neoliberalism can never appropriate.

ST: that there may be imperviousness to the neoliberal ethos by way of its “radical exclusion” in a language.

We agree here in the specific cases of institutional cultures and their ability to represent their own claims as states of exception. These claims are ontological as much as political. They invoke logics of noncapture, insofar as they are produced independently of the claims of a neoliberal political economy—and do not secede to it, or believe it is possible strategy-wise to outsmart it.

The example always springing to mind is the financialisation of ecological claims by the Greens in Germany, 1980s. This finds its continuation in the carbon markets endorsed by the Greens in NZ, 2000s.


UK: All authentic cultural processes contain the impulse of full-humanization; as such, all such processes repudiate, and do not reward, the submission to what is base, or the embracement of whatever is mediocrely conformist. Unlike neoliberalism however, the confrontation with mediocrity entailed by such processes is dynamically sensitive to human development and relentlessly supportive of the conditions of real human flourishing. As such, all verifiably truth-bearing processes specifically repudiate the fallacy of productive docility and the vacuous exaltation of elites upon which neoliberal sensibility depends.

It is the case that the latter radicalizes everything through a delusive benignity that turns out to be perpetual emptiness and dread. By contrast, all true cultural praxis is tending to radicalize everything in the “opposite direction”: with open eyes, infusing every context with homely truths, and extending the possibilities of human agency in meaningfully co-supportive, truth-bearing terms. As such, all true cultural praxis proactively sublimes the vicious vulgarity that the neoliberal creed can never escape.

As such, all true cultural praxis has nothing whatsoever to do with benevolent mitigation of the dominant pseudo-narrative that is neoliberalism itself. It is, rather, the assertion of a perpetual originality, and the radically heart-sympathetic and explicitly life-sustaining effacement of mediocrity in any context. Its narratives cannot be acquired, for those narratives are intelligible only to those who are like-hearted.

ST: that neoliberalism is against something true: “with open eyes, infusing every context with homely truths, and extending the possibilities of human agency in meaningfully co-supportive, truth-bearing terms.”

Neoliberalism’s strategic attitude to truth, to what is true, need only be cited here—where the representative notion is of all opinion being untrue and fake news until submitted to the collectivisation of the media and means of representation in the marketplace—which has come to stand for the media. (One might say that such collectivisation of mass opinion amounts to a claim against any notional supremacy of (the) individual, as being anywhere near the basis and ground of neoliberal hegemony. This collective voice amounts, one might say, to populism as such. So is unbewildering.)


UK: The inexorable vacuity and intrinsic lovelessness of the neoliberal creed is its one true liability. The recognition of that liability, and the militant effacement of it, is integral to a needful conscious program, to be embraced by every individual and collective of good will, in respect of a localized and globalized process that manifests real civilization.

The only recourse now is one whereby protean full-humanizing cultural processes are in conscious, networked collusion in a relentless civilization-making and perpetually civilization-affirming global movement: one that overcomes the characteristic ambiguities of organized human society that incorporate or necessarily ground themselves in hegemony, rationalism and doubt (or the ambiguous certainties heralded as “progress.”)

Such a movement is one to be founded on sacred reason instead of presumptive rationality. Yet it is not necessarily reflective of a singular sensibility or pragmatic impulse. Such a movement is implacably egalitarian, and yet is paradoxically elitist in its reliance upon the integrity and virtuosity of unique agents. As such, a global movement can flourish, trans-ideologically, in the guise of constructively or creatively polarized sensibilities, as reflected in the esoteric egalitarianism of Rudolf Steiner that was contemporaneous with the esoteric elitism of Stefan George. In this illustrative example, the twain does not meet and is not even required to do so. Inevitably, Steiner and George deliberated in their own way, feeling from their respective points of view toward a paradigm of civilization that was grounded in visionary but essentially pragmatic full-humanness.

ST: that neoliberalism is against real civilization.

Civilization had run its course, as Heiner Müller recognised, at least in Europe, by 1945. Adorno too: hereafter barbarism. But Hayek, and Popper too, and I would guess Rudolf Steiner, with his esotoricism of flowers and the genitals we are, belong to the same tradition—of real civilization. The fact that it is a tradition, even when not civilization, or real or false in any meaningful understanding of the terms, points forward and back too, back to Nietzsche, forward to the French who rediscovered in him the genealogist par excellence of the European condition. (I reach here for a Japanese beer in a beautiful blue glass.) Destroy: the timeline back to its founding event, which is the founding event of its point of view, of its subjectivity—and of the opinion which henceforth will not be submitted to the vagaries and vicissitudes of the marketplace but be submitting every other opinion, point of view and subjective position to them, to it. Destroy: knowing what has been made can be unmade, what is done is able to be undone. We have to find out how it was done. This goes for the delusiveness of the Left’s benignancy as for the new Hayekian liberal agenda’s delusiveness about its own. Then affirm, praise, celebrate and exalt what you create—as your own creation and as the production of what you would have desired.

The age of the supremacy of the individual has passed; we have entered into the age of its freely given and voluntary denial: we avow collective will, above the self, as it is represented in the automatic brain of the marketplace and its political economy. It does not matter if politics of power has been displaced by that of personal survival and the bottom line.