Neoliberalism: the new form of totalitarianism

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By Marilena Chauí

The use of the terms fascism and neo-fascism to critically describe our present has become current among the left.

We are used to identifying fascism with the presence of the leader of the masses as an autocrat. It is true that, today, although the rulers do not rise to the figure of the autocrat, they operate with one of the instruments characteristic of the fascist leader, that is, the direct relationship with “the people”, without institutional mediations and even against them. Also, today, other elements of fascism are present: the speech of hate to the other – racism, homophobia, misogyny; the use of information technologies that lead to unthinkable levels of surveillance, control and censorship practices; and the cynicism or refusal of the distinction between truth and lies as a canonical form of the art of government.

However, I do not use this term for three reasons: (a) because fascism has a militaristic edge that, despite Trump's threats to Venezuela or Iran, Nathanayu's actions on the Gaza strip, or the display of the prowess of the man armed by the Bolsonaro government and his connections with the extermination militias, cannot be identified with the fascist idea of ​​the armed people; (b) because fascism proposes an extreme nationalism, but globalization, by weakening the idea of ​​the nation-state as a territorial enclave of capital, removes from nationalism the place of mobilizing center of politics and society; (c) because fascism practices imperialism in the form of colonialism, but the neoliberal economy dispenses with this procedure using the strategy of military occupation of a space delimited for a limited time for the economic devastation of that territory, which is abandoned after the dispossession is completed .

Instead of fascism, I call neoliberalism with the term totalitarianism, taking as reference the analyzes of the Frankfurt School on the effects of the emergence of the idea of managed society.

The movement of capital transforms any and all reality into an object of and for capital, converting everything into a commodity, instituting a universal system of equivalences proper to a social formation based on exchange through the mediation of an abstract universal commodity, money.

To this corresponds the emergence of a practice, that of administration, which rests on two pillars: that every dimension of social reality is equivalent to any other and for that reason is manageable in fact and in law, and that administrative principles are the same everywhere because all manifestations social, being equivalent, are governed by the same rules. Administration is conceived and practiced according to a set of general norms devoid of particular content and which, due to their formalism, are applicable to all social manifestations. Managed practice transforms a institution social in a organization.

A social institution is a social practice founded on the public recognition of its legitimacy and attributions, on a principle of differentiation that grants it autonomy from other social institutions, being structured by orders, rules, norms and values ​​of internal recognition and legitimacy. Its action takes place in an open or historical temporality because its practice transforms it according to the circumstances and its relations with other institutions.

On the other hand, an organization is defined by its instrumentality, founded on the administrative assumptions of equivalence. It refers to the set of particular means to obtain a particular objective, that is, it does not refer to actions articulated with the ideas of external and internal recognition, internal and external legitimacy, but the operations, that is, strategies guided by the ideas of effectiveness and success in the use of certain means to achieve the particular objective that defines it. It is governed by the ideas of management, planning, forecasting, control and success, which is why its temporality is ephemeral and does not constitute a story.

Why designate neoliberalism as the new totalitarianism?

Totalitarianism: because at its core lies the fundamental principle of the totalitarian social formation, that is, the refusal of the specificity of the different social and political institutions that are considered homogeneous and undifferentiated because they are conceived as organizations. Totalitarianism is the affirmation of the image of a homogeneous society and, therefore, the rejection of social heterogeneity, the existence of social classes, the plurality of ways of life, behaviors, beliefs and opinions, customs, tastes and values.

New: because, instead of the form of the State absorbing society, as happened in previous totalitarian forms, we see the opposite occur, that is, the form of society absorbs the State. In previous totalitarianisms, the State was the mirror and model of society, that is, it instituted the nationalization of society; neoliberal totalitarianism does the opposite: society becomes the mirror for the State, defining all social and political spheres not only as organizations, but, having the market as a central reference, as a specific type of organization: the company – the school is a company, the hospital is a company, the cultural center is a company, a church is a company and, evidently, the State is a company.

No longer considered a public institution governed by republican-democratic principles and values, it is now considered homogeneous with the market. This explains why neoliberal politics is defined by the elimination of economic, social and political rights guaranteed by the public power, in favor of private interests, transforming them into services defined by the logic of the market, that is, the privatization of rights, which increases all the forms of inequality and exclusion.

Neoliberalism goes further: it covers up structural unemployment through the so-called uberization of work and therefore defines the individual not as a member of a social class, but as an enterprise, an individual enterprise or “human capital”, or as businessman of himself, destined for deadly competition in all organizations, dominated by the universal principle of competition disguised under the name of meritocracy.

Salary is not seen as such, but as individual income and education is considered an investment for children and young people to learn to perform competitive behaviors. The individual is trained to be a successful investment and to internalize the guilt when he does not win the competition, unleashing hatred, resentment and violence of all kinds, destroying the perception of himself as a member or part of a social class and a community, destroying forms of solidarity and triggering practices of extermination.

What are the consequences of the new totalitarianism?

– socially and economically, by introducing structural unemployment and toyotist outsourcing of work, it gives rise to a new working class called by some scholars the name of precariat to indicate a new worker without a stable job, without a work contract, without unionization, without social security, and who is not simply the poor worker, since his social identity is not given by work or occupation, and who, for not being a citizen full, has the mind fed and motivated by fear, by the loss of self-esteem and dignity, by insecurity;

– politically it puts an end to the two existing democratic forms in the capitalist mode of production: (a) it puts an end to social democracy, with the privatization of social rights, the increase in inequality and exclusion; (b) puts an end to liberal representative democracy by defining politics as management and no longer as a public discussion and decision of the will of those represented by their elected representatives; managers create the image that they are the representatives of the true people, of the silent majority with which they relate uninterruptedly and directly through twitter, blogs and social networks – that is, through the digital party –, operating without institutional mediation, questioning the validity of political parliaments and legal institutions, promoting demonstrations against them; (c) it introduces the judicialization of politics, since, within a company and between companies, conflicts are resolved by legal means and not by political means. In other words, since the State is a company, conflicts are not treated as a public matter, but as a legal matter, in the best case, and as a police matter, in the worst case; (d) managers operate as gangsters mobsters who institutionalize corruption, feed clientelism and force loyalties. How do they do it? Through fear. Mafia management operates by threat and offers “protection” to those threatened in exchange for allegiances to keep everyone in mutual dependence. Like mafia bosses, rulers also have councilors, advisors, that is, supposed intellectuals who ideologically guide the decisions and speeches of the rulers, stimulating hatred of the other, the different, the socially vulnerable (immigrants, migrants, refugees, lgbtq+, mental patients, blacks, the poor, women, the elderly ) and this ideological stimulus becomes justification for extermination practices; (e) they transform all political opponents into corrupt ones, although mafia corruption is practically the only rule of government; (f) have total control over the judiciary through dossiers on personal, family and professional problems of magistrates to whom they offer “protection” in exchange for complete loyalty (and when the magistrate does not accept the deal, it is known what happens to him );

– ideologically, with the expression “cultural Marxism”, managers pursue all forms and expressions of critical thinking and invent the division of society between the good people, who support them, and the diabolical ones, who contest them. By guidance of consiglieri, intend to make a cleaning ideological, social and political and for that they develop a communist conspiracy theory, which would be led by leftist intellectuals and artists. The advisers are self-taught who read textbooks and hate scientists, intellectuals and artists, taking advantage of the resentment that the extreme right has for these figures. As such advisors are devoid of scientific, philosophical and artistic knowledge, they use the word “communist” without any precise meaning: communist means every thought and every action that questions the status quo and common sense (for example: that the earth is flat ; that there is no evolution of the species; that the defense of the environment is a lie; that the theory of relativity is baseless, etc.). It is these counselors who offer racist, homophobic, sexist, religious arguments to government officials, that is, they transform fears, resentments and silent social hatreds into discourse of power and justification for practices of censorship and extermination;

– the planetary dimension of the neoliberal economic form means that there is no “outside” of capitalism, a possible alterity, leading to the idea of ​​“end of history”, therefore to the loss of the idea of ​​historical transformation and of a utopian horizon. The belief in the non-existence of otherness is strengthened by information technologies, which reduce space to here, without geography or topology (everything is shown on the flat screen as if it were the world) and at the same time now, without past and without future, therefore without history (everything reduces to a present without depth). Volatile and ephemeral, our experience does not know any sense of continuity and is exhausted in a present experienced as a fleeting instant;

– the fleetingness of the present, the absence of ties with the objective past and of hope in an emancipated future, give rise to the reappearance of an imaginary of transcendence. Thus, the figure of the entrepreneur himself is supported and reinforced by the so-called theology of prosperity, developed by neo-Pentecostalism. More than that. Religious fundamentalisms and the search for decisionist authority in politics are the cases that best illustrate the immersion in brute contingency and the construction of an imaginary that neither confronts nor understands it, but simply strives to circumvent it by appealing to two inseparable forms of transcendence: the divine (to which religious fundamentalism appeals) and that of the ruler (to which the praise of strong authority appeals).

Faced with this reality, many claim that we live in a dystopian world, in which dystopias are conceived in the form of planetary catastrophe and fear. It is worth, however, briefly mentioning the difference between utopia and dystopia.

Utopia is the search for a totally different society that denies all aspects of existing society. It is the vision of the present in the form of anguish, crisis, injustice, evil, corruption and robbery, pauperism and hunger, the power of privileges and needs, that is, the present as naked violence. For this very reason it is radical, seeking freedom, fraternity, equality, justice and individual and collective happiness thanks to the reconciliation between man and nature, individual and society, society and power, culture and humanity. A utopia is not a program of action, but a project for the future that can inspire actions that take the risk of history, based on human action as a power to transform reality, becoming immanent in history, thanks to the idea of social revolution.

Dystopia has an undeniable critical meaning when describing the present as an intolerable world, but it runs the risk of turning it into a ghost and heading towards the fatalism, immobility and dismay of the end of history. Utopia also starts from the realization of an intolerable world, but instead of bowing to it, it works to put it in tension with itself so that from this tension arise contradictions that can be worked on by human praxis. The dystopian immobility stems from its phantasmatic structure: in it, the intolerable is not the starting point but the arrival point. On the contrary, utopian mobility comes from its energy as a project and praxis, as a work of thought, imagination and will to destroy the intolerable: the intolerable is its starting point and not its destination.

If utopia is born from the perception of the intolerable, from the vision of the present in the form of anguish, crisis, injustice, evil, corruption and robbery, pauperism and hunger, the strength of privileges and needs, the present as unacceptable violence, then we cannot give up the utopian perspective in the conditions of our present.

*Marilena Chaui Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at USP

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