The essence of neoliberalism

Image: Elyeser Szturm

Economists have enough specific interests to contribute decisively to the production and reproduction of belief in neoliberal utopia. Cut off from the effective economic and social world, they participate and collaborate in the dismantling of institutions and collectives, even if some of their consequences horrify them.

By Pierre Bourdieu*

Would the economic world truly be, as the dominant discourse insists, a pure and perfect order, implacably deploying the logic of its foreseeable consequences and ready to repress all its deviations with sanctions that it inflicts, either automatically or – with greater exception – through their armed forces, the IMF or the OECD, and the policies they impose: lowering the cost of the workforce, reducing public spending and making work more flexible? What if, in fact, it was not just a question of putting into practice a utopia, neoliberalism, thus converted into a “political program”, but a utopia that, with the help of its economic theory, starts to think of itself as the scientific description of the real?

This tutelary theory is a work of pure mathematical fiction, founded, from the beginning, on a formidable abstraction: that which, in the name of a conception as narrow as it is strict of rationality identified with individual rationality, consists of putting in parentheses the economic and social conditions rational dispositions and the economic and social structures that are the condition for its exercise.

To understand the size of this omission, just think of the education system, which is never considered as such at a time when it plays a decisive role in the production of goods and services, as well as in the production of producers. From this original sin, inscribed in the Walrasian myth[I] From “pure theory” flow all the flaws and shortcomings of economic discipline, and the fatal obstinacy with which it clings to the arbitrary opposition, which it itself causes to exist, by its very existence, between properly economic logic, founded on competition and bearer of efficiency, and social logic, subject to the rule of equality.

That said, this originally desocialized and dehistoricized “theory” has, today more than ever, the means of making itself true, empirically verifiable. In fact, neoliberal discourse is not a discourse like others. Like psychiatric discourse in asylums, according to Erving Goffman[ii], it is a “strong discourse”, which is only so strong and difficult to combat precisely because it has in its favor all the forces of a world of power relations that it contributes to producing as such, especially when guiding decisions economic relations of those who dominate economic relations and thus add their own strength, properly symbolic, to these power relations. In the name of this scientific program of knowledge, converted into a political program of action, an immense "political work" (denied, since, in appearance, it is purely negative) is produced, which aims to create the conditions for the realization and functioning of the " theory"; a program of methodical destruction of collectives.

The movement, made possible by the policy of financial deregulation, towards the neoliberal utopia of a pure and perfect market, takes place through the transforming and, it must be said, destructive action of all political measures (of which the most recent is the Accord Multilateral on Investment, destined to protect foreign companies and their investors against the Nation States), aiming to call into question all the collective structures capable of opposing the logic of the pure market: nation, whose room for maneuver does not stop diminishing; work groups, for example, through the individualization of employees and careers according to individual competences and the atomization of workers that results from this, unions, associations, cooperatives; even the family, which, through the constitution of markets by age groupings, loses a portion of its control over consumption.

The neoliberal program, which derives its social strength from the political-economic strength of those whose interests it expresses – shareholders, financial operators, industrialists, conservative politicians or social democrats converted to the comforting resignations of the laissez-faire, senior finance officials (even more arduous in imposing a policy advocating their own decline since, unlike big businessmen, they run no risk of having to pay for the consequences) –, tends globally to favor the split between the economy and realities social, and thus to build, in reality, an economic system conforming to the theoretical description, that is, a kind of logical machine that presents itself as a chain of restrictions leading the economic agents.

The globalization of financial markets, accompanied by the progress of information techniques, guarantees an unprecedented mobility of capital and offers investors, concerned with the short-term profitability of their investments, the possibility of permanently comparing the profitability of the largest companies and to punish, consequently, the relative failures. The companies themselves, placed under such permanent threat, must adjust more and more quickly to the demands of the markets; this under the penalty, as they say, of “losing the confidence of the markets”, and, at the same time, the support of shareholders who, concerned with obtaining short-term profitability, are increasingly capable of imposing their will to the managers, to set standards for them, through financial guidelines, and to guide their policies in terms of hiring, employment and salary.

This is how the absolute reign of flexibility is established, with recruitment under fixed-term contracts or temporary jobs and repeated “social plans”, and, within the company itself, competition between autonomous branches, between teams coerced into polyvalence and, finally, between individuals, through the “individualization” of the salary relationship: setting of individual objectives; individual evaluation interviews, permanent evaluation; individual increases in wages or the granting of bonuses based on individual competence and merit; individualized careers; “accountability” strategies tending to ensure the self-exploitation of certain entrepreneurs who, simple wage earners under strong hierarchical dependence, are at the same time held responsible for their sales, their products, their agency, their store, etc., in the form of “ independent”; requirement of “self-control” that extends the “implication” of employees, according to the techniques of “participatory management”, far beyond the work of executives. These are some of the techniques of rational subjection that, by imposing overinvestment in work, and not just that of positions of responsibility, and work in urgency, end up weakening or abolishing references and collective solidarities[iii].

The practical institution of a Darwinian world of struggle of all against all, at all levels of the hierarchy, which finds adherence to work and the company in insecurity, suffering and stress, could undoubtedly not be completely successful. if it did not find the complicity of precarious dispositions produced by insecurity and the existence, at all levels of the hierarchy, and even at the highest levels, among businessmen mainly, of a reserve army of labor docile by precariousness and the threat permanent unemployment. The ultimate foundation of this entire economic order placed under the sign of freedom is, in fact, the structural violence of unemployment, precariousness and the threat of dismissal that it implies: the condition for the “harmonious” functioning of the individualist microeconomic model is a phenomenon of mass, the existence of the reserve army of the unemployed.

This structural violence also influences what we call the employment contract (admittedly rationalized and unrealized in the “theory of contracts”). Corporate discourse has never spoken so much about trust, cooperation, loyalty and corporate culture than at a time when adherence is obtained at every moment by making all temporal guarantees disappear (three quarters of contracts are for a fixed duration, the share of precarious jobs continues to grow, individual licensing tends to no longer be subject to any restriction).

We thus see how the neoliberal utopia tends to become incarnated in the reality of a kind of infernal machine, the necessity of which is imposed even on the dominant ones. Like the Marxism of other times, with which, in this sense, it has several points in common, this utopia raises a formidable belief, the free trade faith (faith in free trade), not only in those who derive their justification for existence from it, such as senior officials and politicians, who sacralize the power of markets in the name of economic efficiency, who demand the lifting of administrative or political barriers capable of bother capital holders in the purely individual quest for the maximization of individual profit, instituted in a model of rationality, which independent central banks want, which preach the subordination of national States to the demands of economic freedom by the masters of economics, with the suppression of all regulations in all markets, starting with the labor market, the prohibition of deficits and inflation, the generalized privatization of public services, the reduction of public and social expenses.

Without necessarily sharing the economic and social interests of true believers, economists have enough specific interests in the field of economic science to contribute decisively, whatever their moods may be regarding the economic and social effects of the utopia they clothe in mathematical reason, to the production and reproduction of belief in neoliberal utopia. Separated for their entire existence and, above all, for their entire intellectual formation, most of the time purely abstract, bookish and theoretical, from the economic and social world as it is, they are particularly prone to confuse things of logic with the logic of things.

Trusting in models that they almost never have the chance to submit to the test of experimental verification, having to look over the conquests of the other historical sciences, in which they do not recognize the purity and crystalline transparency of their mathematical games, and of which they are often incapable of understanding the real need and the profound complexity, they participate and collaborate in a formidable economic and social change that, even if some of its consequences cause them horror (they can contribute to the Socialist Party and give wise advice to its representatives in instances of power), it cannot displease them because, at the risk of some flaws, particularly attributable to what they sometimes call “speculative bubbles”, it tends to give reality to the ultra-consequential utopia (like certain forms of madness) to the which they consecrate their lives.

The world is there, however, with the immediately visible effects of putting the great neoliberal utopia into practice: not only the misery of an ever-increasing fraction of the most economically advanced societies, the extraordinary growth of income differences, the progressive disappearance of autonomous universes of cultural production, cinema, publishing, etc., through the intrusive imposition of commercial values, but also and above all the destruction of all collective instances capable of opposing the effects of the infernal machine, of which the State is in first place, depositary of all the universal values ​​associated with the idea of ​​public, and the imposition, everywhere, in the highest spheres of the economy and the State, or within companies, of this sort of moral Darwinism that, with the culture of winner, made for superior mathematicians and for bungee jumping, establishes the struggle of all against all and cynicism as the norm for all practices.

Can we hope that the extraordinary mass of suffering that such a political-economic regime produces will one day form the basis of a movement capable of interrupting this race towards the abyss? In fact, we are faced with an extraordinary paradox here: while the obstacles encountered in the way of realizing the “new order” – that of the solitary but free individual – are today considered attributable to rigidity and archaisms, and all direct and conscious intervention, at least since coming from the State, and for whatever partiality it may be, it is discredited, therefore summoned to disappear in favor of a pure and autonomous mechanism, the market (about which we forget that it is also the place of exercise of interests ); in reality, it is the permanence or survival of the institutions and agents of the old order in the process of being dismantled, and all the work of all categories of social workers, as well as all the social solidarity, family or otherwise, that make the social order does not sink into chaos, despite the growing volume of precarious population.

The transition to “liberalism” takes place insensibly, therefore imperceptibly, like the drift of continents, thus hiding its effects, the most terrible in the long run. Effects that are also concealed, paradoxically, by the resistance that it raises, from now on, on the part of those who defend the old order, extracting from the resources that it concealed, in the old solidarities, in the reserves of social capital that protect a whole part of the social order present of the fall in anomie (capital that, if not renewed, reproduces, is destined for weakening, but whose exhaustion will not be for tomorrow).

But these same “conservation” forces, which are easily treated as conservative forces, are also, in another relation, forces of resistance to the establishment of the new order, which can become subversive forces. And if we can, then, retain any reasonable hope, which still exists, in state institutions and also in the dispositions of agents (especially those most closely linked to these institutions, such as the state gentry), of such forces that, under the appearance of from simply defending, as we will criticize shortly afterwards, a disappearing order and the corresponding “privileges”, they must, in fact, in order to withstand the test, work on the invention and construction of a social order that would not have as its only law the pursuit of self-interest. selfishness and the individual passion for profit, and which would give rise to collectivities oriented to the rational search for collectively elaborated and approved purposes.

Among collectives, associations, trade unions, parties, how not to give a special place to the State, national State or, better still, supranational, that is, European (step towards a world State), capable of controlling and effectively imposing the profits made in the financial markets and, above all, to fight the destructive action that the latter exert on the labor market, organizing, with the help of the unions, the elaboration and defense of the public interest that, like it or not, will never come out , even at the cost of some mathematical writing error, of the vision of an accountant (in another term, we would say of a shopkeeper) that the new belief presents as the supreme form of human achievement.

*Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), philosopher and sociologist, was a professor at Ecole de Sociologie du Collège de France

Translation: Daniel Souza Pavan


[I] NDLR: in reference to Auguste Walras (1800-1866), French economist, author of De la nature de la richesse et de l'origine de la valeur (1848); he was one of the first to try to apply mathematics to the study of economics

[ii] Erving Goffman, Asiles. Etudes sur la condition sociale des malades mentaux, Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1968.

[iii] We can refer, in relation to all this, to the two numbers of the Actes de la recherche in social sciences devoted to “Nouvelles forms de domination dans le travail” (1 and 2), nº114, September 1996 and nº115, December 1996, and, especially to the introduction by Gabrielle Balazas and Michel Pialoux, “Crise du travail et crisis du politique” , nº114, p.3-4.

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