Neoliberalism as an iron cage

Image: Robin McPherson


It is a great mistake to point to liberalism as the origin of modern democracy.

Freedom is a fundamental value in the formation process of what has been called Modernity. It is the central foundation of legitimation of the modern State in relation to previous political orders, centered on legitimacy by adherence to a theological principle, of the divine origin of political authority. It is a great merit of historians of political philosophy to have documented, over the last few decades, that the so-called revolutions that shaped the modern Western world – the English, North American and French revolutions and also the Haitian revolution – had at their center the dispute about what freedom should be between the traditions of democratic republicanism and liberalism.

This documentation is decisive because the liberal tradition, in its process of anti-pluralist dogmatization as the dominant worldview in the modern world, identified Modernity and liberalism, the latter being presented as historically forming contemporary freedoms and rights. Until today, it is very common for historians, Marxist or Marxist theorists and activists of the left to present these freedoms as “bourgeois”, that is, as liberal.

Through this new historical perspective, now abundantly documented, there was a republican concept of freedom before and alternative to the liberal concept of freedom, linked to the basic notion of autonomy and self-government. This democratic republican tradition disputed with liberalism in formation throughout the XNUMXth, XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries what would be a political order based on freedom. Liberalism, therefore, was formed in dispute with theological orders but also, and increasingly, against these democratic republican currents.

Marx's democratic socialism, the formation of feminism as emancipation, the struggles against slavery and anti-racism were formed as heritage and critical updates of these democratic republican traditions. It is therefore a big mistake to point to liberalism as the origin of modern democracy. It would be truer to point out that he has always been, in his majority currents, strongly critical of the very notion of popular sovereignty, the universalization of human rights, in particular labor rights, and the nascent feminist and anti-racist movements.

Social or Keynesian liberalism, called by Norberto Bobbio “liberal socialist” or “liberal socialist”, dominant in the center of the liberal tradition from the post-war period until the end of the seventies, was certainly an attempt, which proved to be unstable and conformed only to the central capitalist countries, of reconciling liberalism and democracy, social justice and liberalism, liberal democracy and a promise of a growing expansion and universalization of citizenship rights. Neoliberalism as a political theory was born in dispute with this syncretism, this mixture, this liberal-social arrangement, which for the founders of neoliberalism, from Walter Lipmann to the German ordoliberals, including Hayek, disorganized the meaning of classical liberalism itself and placed this tradition in a defensive and precarious situation in the face of reformist pressures from labor and social democrats or even revolutionary from the Marxist left.

Thus, the great neoliberal investment was to dispute and win the meaning, value and sense of freedom and, through this change, frontally attack the very value of social justice or equality. Despite designating themselves as heirs and updaters of classical liberalism, this concept of neoliberal freedom is, in fact, a refoundation of the liberal tradition of freedom. In this strict sense, neoliberalism is liberalism; it is part of this tradition and has many fundamental affinities with it. But it is, and this is decisive, a new liberalism.

This new liberalism or neoliberalism asserted itself in the final decade of the so-called “Cold War” and then, after the end of the USSR and its international system of dominion in Eastern Europe, massified a new conception of freedom, which is now dominant in the Western world. This new conception is, in fact, a new principle of legitimation of the domination of the contemporary capitalist order.

It is therefore necessary to understand this new concept of freedom that explains why neoliberals paradoxically cry out against democracy in the name of freedom.


A new conception of freedom

It's in the book The Constitution of Liberty (1961) that Friedrich Hayek systematically organizes this new concept of freedom. After stating the central value of freedom in the title and introduction, Hayek proceeds with four simultaneous operations that redefine freedom in dialogue with classical liberalism, but clearly forming a new concept. Freedom ceases to have a purely “negative” meaning, that is, of limiting the State’s action in the face of certain mercantile dynamics, and becomes positively associated with an ontological mercantile value, that is, the exercise of self-development of individualities in the cosmos of the Marketplace. The fundamental question ceases to be about the boundaries of State action in the economy and private freedom and becomes about the very meaning of this action; whether or not it favors this ontologically mercantile freedom.

The first operation is the one aimed at separating freedom from self-government, freedom from democracy or freedom from political sovereignty. Friedrich Hayek criticizes the understanding of “political freedom”, that is, the freedom that is the result of the active participation of citizens in public life. The central target there is precisely the traditions of democratic republicanism or democratic socialism, which Hayek characterizes as idealistic and theoretically inconsistent. Democracy as popular sovereignty becomes the main threat to freedom: the countermajoritarian argument of the need to limit the legislative powers of the majority, present in nineteenth-century liberalism, takes on an extreme form here.

The second operation is to define freedom as strictly individual. Friedrich Hayek works with the opposition pair individualism/collectivism, identifying freedom with the former. It makes no sense, in this new grammar of freedom, to speak of the general will or the public sphere, of the public interest or the common good. Only individual actions make sense: Hayek even criticizes utilitarianism (which aggregates individual interests to think about the interest of the majority) or the liberal pluralist notions of democracy (which think of democracy as the permanent bargaining of interest groups within institutions of democracy via parties).

The third operation is to radically separate freedom from equality, which will allow you, in the next moment, to make an apology for inequality as an inevitable result and motor of the progress of societies through the mechanisms of market competition. An egalitarian society would be, in addition to being unfair and incompatible with freedom, stagnant and lacking in innovation. Understanding why liberal democracies in recent decades have seen the growth of social, racial and gender inequalities involves redefining the status of freedom with equality. That tension between freedom and equality found in classical forms of liberalism is here overcome by a split and an apology for inequality.

The fourth operation is aimed against feminism. There is no place in Friedrich Hayek's concept of freedom for the adventure of the subjectivation of freedom, which is characteristic of feminism, nor for the public dimension of social reproduction, inserting this freedom in a strictly patriarchal concept of society. The mercantile path of women's self-realization is thus opposed to feminism as a theory of socialist emancipation: prostitution itself is legitimized as part of this process of commodification of social life.

For Friedrich Hayek, the opposite of freedom is coercion, exercised by the state as a monopoly on the use of force. A starving subject, forced to sell himself in the market to survive, would not constitute coercion since he has alternatives in the market and, in extreme cases, a minimum income provisionally provided by the State. Hayek even evokes the figure of the free wretch as opposed to the well-satiated but constrained by the orders of the State.


free marx

It would be necessary to understand the political context in which this new conception of neoliberal freedom asserts itself. For the opposing neoliberal, social-democratic and socialist traditions were centered on their appeals to distributive policies or social equality, but problematically situated in relation to the principle of equality as self-determination, as autonomy, as popular sovereignty.

In particular, that tradition still dominant in the post-war world that presented itself as socialist or speaking in the name of Marxism – the Stalinist tradition – presented an open break with the value of freedom and self-determination. The social-democratic and labor currents of the time, as Friedrich Hayek documents in several passages, not without exercising the arbitrary right to quote, exalted the need for central planning but were not very careful to give this planning a democratic or participatory dimension.

It is this disjunctive or split at the time between freedom and equality that lies behind the famous declaration by the liberal-socialist Norberto Bobbio, who defines being left in the contemporary world through affinity with the value of equality. Bobbio, like the liberal tradition, affirmed that historically there was non-democratic liberalism but there cannot be democracy without liberalism. The relationship between socialism and the value of freedom had not passed the harsh tests of history.

Hence the need to rebuild a Marxism for the XNUMXst century – as Karl Marx's democratic socialism was – with a strong foundation of freedom and equality at its core. For we can only be equal – not slaves, servants or dependents, beings without autonomy – if we are free, individually or collectively. Only a renewed tradition of democratic socialism can defeat neoliberalism.

*Juarez Guimaraes is a professor of political science at UFMG. Author, among other books, of Democracy and Marxism: Criticism of Liberal Reason (Shaman).

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