Despotic foundations of neoliberalism

Image Elyeser Szturm

*By Mauricio Tragtenberg and Antonio Valverde

“We are going through some calamitous times

impossible to speak without incurring a crime of contradiction

impossible to call without becoming an accomplice of the Pentagon.”

(Nicanor Parra, “Modern Times”)


To paraphrase Carlos Drummond de Andrade: Oh! let's be tragtenbergians, sweetly tragtenberguians, from interrogating the characterization of the morbid Zeitgeist of the present time.

the morbid Zeitgeist beginning of the XNUMXst century appears to be materialized in the image of a specter circling globalized civilization: the structural-managed combination of financial capital, toyotism, technoscience, neoliberalism / authoritarianism / totalitarianism and calculated psychological suffering, the result of the brutal exploitation of work and unemployment, which practically penetrates all the porosities of social life and nature, of time and space, on a planetary scale never mentally represented.

With an excessive load of data – of all kinds – arising from the applicability of artificial intelligence, algorithms, in short, the big data. Alongside a spectacular and mercantile type of religiosity, guided, in no way contradictory, by the disenchantment of the world, as observed by Weber. In addition to growing pauperism, under the galloping ruin of civil rights. And, to top things off, of a nihilistic ethical substrate.

Marcuse anticipated, in part, such a spirit of the time, in the mid-thirties of the last century, recorded in “The Fight against Liberalism in the totalitarian conception of the State”, which reads: “There is a classic proof for the internal kinship between the liberal social theory and the totalitarian theory of the State” (p. 53).

Em The new reason of the world: essay on neoliberal society, Dardot and Laval analyze, interdisciplinary, neoliberalism as a “global rationality”, not just ideology and economics, beyond the firm purpose of destroying democratic acquisitions and civil rights. With emphasis on the calculation of psychic suffering to be transformed into desire as a factor to increase the productive force of the worker. Leaving behind the converging proposals of classical liberalism and, to a certain extent, that of the utilitarians Bentham and Stuart Mill.

The generating idea of ​​the analysis was taken from Hayek, in a text from the 40s of the last century. However, Dardot and Laval's book is excessively based on Foucault's The birth of biopolitics, without taking into account more acidic and profound criticisms of neoliberalism, and for practically disregarding contemporary criticism of a Marxist matrix.

Se Hegel foresaw the newness of time and was able to accurately capture its Zeitgeist, in a true historical-philosophical synthesis, on a certain conception of man, that of a free man, in a movement towards the realization of civil rights, through the French Revolution, even condemning Jacobinism, the Terror, it is up to contemporary philosophers to undertake the understanding of the present time. Perhaps, for us, starting with visiting Tragtenberg's work.

Well, the season is open for the philosophical effort to understand the present time, through the synthesis form, as operated in the past by Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Ibn Khaldun, Machiavelli, Vico, Hegel. By hypothesis, perhaps this is the most necessary and relevant philosophical problem of the present time, others are like elos minors, who can in some way contribute to the elaboration of a synthesis, – if such a formulation is still possible.

Humanity, for its most acute thinkers of the present time, must supplant the paralysis of criticism, to reinvent freedom, since the premises that guided the liberal synthesis, – of economic freedom, political freedom and freedom of expression – were fulfilled, of course, as premises, and must give way to a new invention of freedom , at a higher level, without canceling such previous acquisitions. Se if we consider neoliberalism as the current stage of the gloomy reheating of what is left of the initial marks of liberalism.

Either that or humanity will be punished for this adipose inability to materialize the questioning of the ongoing order, as knowledge, perception, sensitivity are increasingly fragmented, losing the possibility of dialogue between the considered knowledges: Philosophy, Science, Art, Theology. Not only those of Western Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian roots, but of all forms and nationalities, in times of decolonization.

Without synthesis, there will only be segmentation of accumulated knowledge in all senses – disconnected from all significant human acquisitions since the civil Nation form – as projected by Vico, in New Science, in view of the ever-threatening return of barbarism. And barbarism – for ages – dwells among us. However, Tragtenberg made an effort to follow the path of acid criticism of the social order and the inertia of the Brazilian intelligentsia, especially those installed in the university, which, in general, do not take into account what he called the “real movement”, in the wave of libertarian Marxian wit, so dear to my dear Advisor.

Certainly, the first criticism of neoliberalism, even before this plague made its way elsewhere and among us, already appeared, critically, in the article “Fundamentos despóticas do neoliberalismo”, included in the book policy bankruptcy, after being published in Newspaper, issue of 03/02/1986.

Despotic foundations of neoliberalism

Adherents of the so-called neoliberal current defend a point of view according to which this theory is not exhausted with the monetary control of the economy: it implies an entire program of economic policy, conceived positively. However, his interpretation of socioeconomic reality is not only biased but full of internal contradictions.

For Milton Friedman, the leading neoliberal theorist, a society founded on lucrative incentives is preferable to a hunger for power; as if in the system of capitalism, profit and power were not two faces of the same phenomenon. The struggle for profit is a form of struggle for dominance, for power.

Neoliberalism intends to have a positive program, but its basic recipes have an accentuated negative character: reduce public spending, reduce currency expansion, reduce taxes on companies – including its famous adage 'everything goes well the less the State intervenes ” – all this shows the non-positive character of the neoliberal program.

In their fight against the Keynesian State, the neoliberals sometimes want the State to function at the expense of the workers and claim against the “interventionist State”, an instrument of the rich; at other times, they appeal to the rich and the employers' class to fight against this state. In short, facing the poor, neoliberals present the State as a parasitic bureaucracy, which grows at the expense of employers. All means seem good to provoke rebellion 'of the citizen against the State', sectorial rebellion, some aspects of the State's action are criticized and others are reinforced by neoliberalism.

They intend not only to limit but also to suppress the State apparatus, preserving the fundamental structures of current capitalism. If nowadays there are laws that impose social duties on companies or if there are expenses related to Social Security, it should not be concluded that these measures are solely the work of the State. The State institutionalized pressures from the popular classes in the context of the capitalist economy through labor legislation, Social Security, etc.

For neoliberals, the historical conquests of the workers appear as a result of the “interference” of the State in the economy. In reality, what happened was the implementation of the social-democratic logic of the Keynesian State, which channeled the social pressure of the workers towards the valorization of capital and the company. Nowadays, when intending to free the company from the crushing weight of the State, the neoliberals intend, in reality, to detach the company from its social functions and its social responsibility, and to impose the regression of the economy to the total despotism of the capital.

Neoliberalism currently advocates the virtues of the free market and unlimited competition; to the point of asserting that the free market constitutes the only hope for the luckless, who intend to improve it, contrary to the current interventionist system, which works for the sole and exclusive benefit of the self-declared neoliberals. The central problem is not to expand the competitive area of ​​the economy, but to free companies from their obligations and social functions.

In other words, “free market” and the term “liberalism” disguise the generalized offensive of capital against the social achievements of the working classes in recent years.

Take into account the struggle of workers for the effective eight hours of work, which began in 1886; in Brazil in 1986. Only a small segment of workers actually work eight hours a day. The wage squeeze and, in its absence, inflation are responsible for creating the “overtime industry”, which transforms the eight-hour day into a summer night's dream, as it is February.

In practice, neoliberalism implies vigorous state policy, which includes multiple forms of state subsidy to private enterprise.

It is not by chance that the Japanese model of the despotic State since the Meiji dynasty (inaugurated in 1868) exerts so much attraction on Milton Friedman and the conservative European patronage. Competition would work only at the labor market level, while the State, directly or indirectly, would subsidize companies. When neoliberalism presents the so-called market economy as a social ascension channel for the poor, it forgets that, even with vertical mobility of individuals or small groups, poverty would continue to exist.

Neoliberal theorists claim that an economy founded on free competition and the laws of the market has libertarian political implications, however, the resurgence of state authoritarianism associated with neoliberal economic policies in the West remains unexplained.

Pinochet's Chile illustrates well what neoliberal politics consists of. The reduction of the annual inflation rate and public spending by 40% constitutes the great trump card of the neoliberals. By the way, the ideologue Milton Friedman was an advisor to Pinochet. However, with all the “achievements” mentioned, the Chilean economy was unable to recover the level reached in 1972.

Chile is far from the “economic miracle”. Pinochet's economic liberalization is not reflected in Chile's political structures nor does it ensure growth for the country's economy as a whole. The neoliberal economic model requires an authoritarian state.

Going back to the Japanese example, it is indisputable that under the Meiji dynasty the power of the despotic State, a legacy of feudalism, operated, which used forms of economic and extra-economic coercion to create the “general conditions of production” of capitalism. He used savage taxation on peasants to finance the industrial sector. It largely subsidized private investment projects, privatized public companies, giving them away for 20% of their total value. The militarization of the economy under the State and protectionist policy submits the logic of the State to the law of Private Capital. The State 'privatizes itself'. Keynes was incorporated into Hayek. In capitalist development, the State has always supported capital and today more than ever.

In short, economic neoliberalism, in order to be realized, requires authoritarian dictatorship as its logical complement.

*Mauricio Tragtenberg (1929-1998), theorist of self-management and libertarian pedagogy, is the author, among other books, of bureaucracy and ideology (Attica, 1992).

*Antonio Valverde He is a professor at the Department of Philosophy at PUC-SP

Text read during the Colloquium 90 years of Mauricio Tragtenberg, held at PUC-SP, on November 08, 2019


DARDOT & LAVAL. The New Reason of the World: essay on neoliberal society. Sao Paulo, Boitempo, 2016.

MARCUSE, H. “The fight against liberalism in the totalitarian conception of the State”. In: Culture and Society, vol. 1. Rio de Janeiro, Peace and Land, 1997.

PARRA, N. Only for over a hundred years old: anti(poetic) anthology. São Paulo, Publisher 34, 2019.

TRAGTENBERG, M. policy bankruptcy, São Paulo, Unesp, 2009.

TRAGTENBERG, M. education and bureaucracy, São Paulo, Unesp, 2012.

VALVERDE, A. “Philosophy of the future and the fog of the present time”. In: PERUZZO JR., L. (org.). The future of philosophy, Curitiba, CRV, 2019.

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