For a critical dictionary of neoliberalism

Image: Suzy Hazelwood


To begin to overcome neoliberalism, it is necessary to openly challenge its narrative, break out of its language and form a new dictionary of emancipation.

If for Karl Marx, language is a form of “practical consciousness”, the way in which thoughts are manifested in social life, it is in Antonio Gramsci that the relationship between emancipation and language will develop more fully in relation to the concept of hegemony. Seen this way, reading a dictionary of Marxism is a joy: they are there, as an expression of criticism of capitalism and socialist praxis, words, relationships, figures of expression, imaginations, metaphors of another possible civilization.

This is also the case with neoliberalism: reading its dictionary is becoming aware of the forms of domination and exploitation of contemporary capitalism. Today, this dictionary forms a common sense of the time: after four decades of dominance, the language of neoliberalism is in every pore of social life, legitimizing, naturalizing, seducing bodies and minds and giving meaning to an entire order of domination. As a practical conscience, as a reference to the way things are or should be, this language seeks to involve even those who present themselves as its opponents or critics.

Linguistics and education intellectuals, in particular, have already done interesting studies on the language of neoliberalism, such as Marnie Halborow's book, Language and neoliberalism (2015), and the essay Exploring neoliberal languages, discourses and identities, by Christian Chun (2016). Here, we are mainly interested in highlighting three central dimensions of the language of neoliberal domination.

The first dimension is the strong economy of general language. As it has its epicenter in the apology of mercantile life, the vocabulary of neoliberalism generalizes to other areas of social life – and even to the formation of identities and subjectivities – the proper and corporate expressions of the business of capital accumulation, in particular in its financial aspect. It is not, therefore, an “economic liberism”, that is, a circuit of a closed and specialized language made by and for the capitalists. It is exactly the opposite: very close to the most advanced forms of communication in a permanent process of transformation, to slogans, brands, images, this language is metaphorically expansive: even the very being is now a “human capital”!

The second dimension is the universal movement towards the anglicization of national languages. In its grand historical neoliberal narrative of the formation of freedom, it finds its civilizing peak in England in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries and in the USA in the XNUMXth and XNUMXst centuries. Never, in all of its history, has the language and culture of Brazilians been so strongly marked by the pressure of English, its expressions, its popularization. If there has been, for a long time, the cosmopolitanism of the rich, now there is massively a “cosmopolitanism of the poor”, as Silviano Santiago so aptly named. Even popular trading houses advertise “Sales"prices"off".

A third dimension lies in the passive character attributed to the individual in the gears of the market that increasingly dominates areas of social life and human relations themselves. In the image used by Friedrich Hayek, the market would be a cosmos, self-regulated by its own dynamisms and forces, inaccessible to knowledge and to the collectively formed will itself, which presents itself to the individual in his adventure of self-realization.

If a strong State is conceived as the guarantor of the functioning rules of this market – property rights, guarantee of contracts, regulation of the stability of the currency – it cannot pretend to establish the minimum of democratic planning of the economy. No matter how active the individual inserted in this market cosmos is, he is, in the end, a pawn subjected to forces that he does not control. The language of neoliberalism is closed to active citizenship and democratically formed collective wills.



A key word that is part of the general language of neoliberalism, although it has an earlier origin in Western culture (see the School of Elites, formed in the late XNUMXth century in reaction to democratic republicanism, democratic socialism and popular sovereignty) is “ elites”. In its original sense, it expressed the verdict that the “masses” would never be able to self-determine, with power always circulating among the “elites”. Now, the center of neoliberalism's attack on democracy is precisely popular sovereignty: it is necessary to contain, neutralize or even eliminate it for the market to function fully. Hence, the widespread use of the term “elites” in current vocabulary.

In its ambiguity, elite is a positive word, but it can generically and accusingly designate those at the top, the rich, the powerful, the privileged. It is in this generic critical sense that the word has frequented a culture of denunciation of inequality, as in the recent works of Jessé de Souza, who certainly uses it from his Weberian background, a liberal who updated the use of the term in his political sociology of domination. term “elites”.

What is lost when democratic socialists use the term “elite”? First, the classist critique of capitalism, which is diluted and undetermined in a term that can be applied, for example, to the middle classes or to the leaders of political parties. It also loses its ability to analyze, by not differentiating the different fractions of the dominant classes, their contradictions, in a moment of clear dominance of financial capital. And, finally, the democratic language of socialism, which has the concept of popular sovereignty and workers' self-government, is at its core.

Another ubiquitous expression in the general language of neoliberalism, but which also frequents the expressions of the left, is the “free market”. Neoliberalism is not, as is often said, a “free market” ideology without “state intervention”. All of Karl Marx's critique of political economy is centered around his critique of the idea that the capitalist market was not a place of "free contracting". Capital, for Marx, is master of “wage slavery”, an expression that has an earlier origin, in the struggle of independent artisans against the introduction of a new wage relationship. As Antonio Gramsci already warned, in the prison notebooks, the so-called liberal “free market” is also a form of regulation, refusing to think of the market as a spontaneous result of the interaction of individuals.

There is in Friedrich Hayek the interesting thought that the sufferings of people cause less indignation when they cannot be attributed to certain powers or groups, but to events that have the impersonality mark, belong to a dynamism that approaches the events of nature. The market, apologetically conceived as the site of optimal coordination of the interactions of individuals in the economy, is thus an impersonal force.

It is interesting that in its formation process, neoliberalism gradually abandoned the idea of ​​the need to regulate monopolies (as it appeared in the first German tradition of neoliberalism, called ordoliberalism) and, in the mid-fifties of the last century, had already constructed a language to combat the anti-trust tradition formed in the New Deal North American. Monopolies, according to the Chicago neoliberal school, would bring innovation and efficiency benefits, with their power diluted in the world market. Only state monopolies should be criticized as a sign of inefficiency, corruption and a threat to freedom.

In the recent languages ​​of neoliberalism, large companies and corporations are seen as citizens by right, as caretakers of the mercantile order against the laws and actions of the State that harm their interests, even manifesting feelings and emotions like those of a person. “The market is nervous”, “the market is confident”, “the market clapped”!

These two examples of how the general language of neoliberalism shapes even the discourses of those who oppose it serve as an introduction to a central challenge: it is necessary to recreate a new language of emancipation. It is in the living tradition of Marxism, in the class consciousness of the workers and in the new anti-capitalist social movements.

*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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