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On the Vacuousness of ‘Neoliberalism’ as a Political Category: A Dialogue

Marxist: You want to know why the economy is in such dire straits these days? It’s because of this damn neoliberalism that all the countries of the world are uncritically accepting!

Capitalist: Whoa, now. That’s a really broad statement. Let me try to see if I fully understand what you mean. So you think that stimulus is a neoliberal policy?

M: Absolutely. All the Fed is doing is making more financial gimmicks in an attempt to help a structurally broken economy.

C: Okay, that’s a legitimate point of view, I suppose. So given that the USA has to somehow pay off its deficit, you must be in agreement with the people who say that austerity is the way to go.

M: Absolutely not! If the government tried that, me and my friends would be up in arms! Austerity is neoliberalism in its worst form!

C: Hmm. Well to me it seems like those are two very different policies, but you’re lumping them together under the same category?

M: Yes.

C: Okay, then. Let’s try a different tack. What would you say isn’t neoliberalism? Is North Korea neoliberal?

M: Of course not.

C: So dictatorships like Ethiopia and Guinea aren’t neoliberal either?

M: No.

C: What about communist countries like China?

M: Yes. They are neoliberal, or at least they have been ever since Deng Xiaoping took over. Besides, China shouldn’t be considered communist anyway.

C: Why not?

M: Because it’s not what Marx actually intended communism to be! Full communism and actually-existing communism are two completely different things.

C: Okay then. Let’s accept your definition of ‘full communism’. Now, it seems to me that what you mean by ‘neoliberalism’ encompasses any sort of social arrangement that might call itself capitalist, even if on the surface of things, different neoliberal countries seem to have strong disagreements. Is that accurate?

M: Yes.

C: So we could just as well say that in your definition (and excluding dictatorships), neoliberalism is any point of view that isn’t communist.

M: I suppose so.

C: That seems to make sense. So why do you insist that neoliberalism, in all its various guises, is a bad thing?

M: Well that should be self-evident! It’s because of the inherent contradictions in the commodity-form, plus the exploitation of workers’ surplus value inherent in the act of a capitalist purchasing labor-power from the proletariat!

C: Hm. I was never taught these sorts of ideas in business school, so could you tell me who came up with them?

M: Karl Marx, of course! Just as Darwin discovered the laws inherent in organic development, Marx discovered the laws inherent in capitalism!

C: ‘Inherent’ is a strong word, you know. I assume you’re aware that there are other ways of thinking about economic phenomena that don’t involve these sort of concepts.

M: Yes. But they’re wrong. It takes a refined eye to notice these sorts of things, not the sort of thing a vulgar capitalist like you would understand. *sententious tone* There are more things in this world, my dear capitalist, than are dreamt of at your business school.

C: *quizzical expression* Fair enough. Now what should I do if I want to learn about this point of view?

M: Read Das Kapital, of course! It’s hard going at first, but once you read it through about four or five times, it will be obvious to you that this is the truth. But after that, if you still insist on debating with us, you’ll have to be familiar with the literature! I’ve seen plenty of cases like yours. At first the thousands of books and articles on Marxism may seem so rife with confusions and question-begging that out of despair you may be prepared to believe anything, but once you’ve made your way through the basic authors (Althusser, Balibar, Deleuze & Guattari, Hardt & Negri, Poulantzas, Castoriadis, Adorno & Horkheimer, Debord, Gramsci, Eagleton, Callinicos, Jameson, Lukács, Luxemburg, Marcuse, and Žižek), you should be all set to think critically about the world! (And of course, by thinking critically I mean denouncing all existing conditions!)

C: *ponders for a minute* I think I finally understand.

M: That’s the spirit!

C: Let me sum things up: neoliberalism is bad because of the contradictions inherent in capitalism, as shown by Marx, which can only be grasped by a Marxist point of view, since all other perspectives take neoliberalism for granted.

M: By Jove, you’ve got it!

C: So in other words, any relatively successful form of social organization except communism is bad because it isn’t communism, and it’s impossible to see the truth of this unless you’re a communist, since all other positions besides communism take neoliberalism (again, defined as everything that is not communism) for granted.

M: Eureka! You’re one of us now!

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“Keep Your Fucking Work/Life Balance.”

Though the video itself is quite silly, it helps to give an idea of the system of values in which Wall Street bankers operate.  I post this here as a plea for protesters not to attribute the origins of financial crises to concrete, humanistic causes (namely, the greed of bankers) alone, but to emphasize that the main problems are abstract & systemic ones. The video underscores (sacrilegious as it may sound to devoted Leftists) the fact that most Wall Street bankers are not exempt from the askesis displayed by those providing their testimonials here.

These bankers are caught in a wicked paradox where they can have all the wealth they could want, on the condition that they cannot enjoy it.  It is not uncommon for investment bankers on Wall Street to work 70+ hours a week (mostly on Excel or Powerpoint), nor is it uncommon for them to turn to ‘uppers’ (including cocaine) to boost their stamina in order to get through their work week, which may include multiple all-nighters.  Their bodies deteriorate from lack of exercise just as their minds stagnate from having no other stimulation besides basic mathematics, as well as from their lack of sleep; it is no wonder, then, that in their 3 hours of free time per week, investment bankers turn to alcohol, prostitutes, and superfluous purchases of luxury goods to make themselves feel as if they have some standing in the world. They have their basic needs taken care of, yes, but only on condition that they give up everything else, just as with the rest of the 99%.

Marcel Mauss on Islamo-Capitalism

“The famous Sourate LXIV, ‘mutual disappointment’ (the Last Judgement) given to Mahoment at Mecca, say of God:

15. Your wealth and your children are your temptation, whilst God holds in reserve a magnificent reward.
16. Fear God with all your might; listen and obey, give alms (sadaqa) in your own interest. He who is on his guard against avarice will be happy.
17. If you make a generous loan to God, he will pay you back double; he will forgive you because he is grateful and longsuffering.
18. He knows things visible and invisible, he is one powerful and wise.

Substitute for the name of Allah that of society and the occupational grouping, or put together all three names, if you are religious. Replace the concept of alms by that of co-operation, of a task done or a service rendered for others. You will then have a fairly good idea of the kind of economy that is at present laboriously in gestation. We see it already functioning in certain economic groupings, and in the hearts of the masses, who possess, very often better than their leaders, a sense of their own interests, and of the common interest.”

~Mauss – The Gift: The Form & Reason For Exchange In Archaic Societies, pp. 77-8