Neoliberalism and Its Discontents

by le manque

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan

On September 11, 1973—now referred to as the “other 9/11”—Augusto Pinochet staged a successful coup to oust Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. Backed by the CIA, American business interests, and the blessings of Henry Kissinger, Pinochet, enlisting economists trained under Milton Friedman and the so-called “Chicago boys,” restructured the Chilean economy in the image of what has now come to be known as “neoliberalism,” that state apparatus which seeks to deregulate markets, privatize formerly public assets, minimize the power of unions, unleash all manner of austerity measures—in short, to ensure, in the name of freedom, an increasingly frictionless flow of capital across borders and into the bank accounts of those in power.

As David Harvey recounts the whole affair in A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), which reads like an update to The Condition of Postmodernity (1990), the experiment in Chile, while continuous with many other foreign ventures in which the United States has installed a “strongman” to manage its economic interests, was a kind of primal scene of neoliberal state formation, a blueprint for the structural readjustments that would soon be implemented on New York City as a solution to its own fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s. These reforms were nothing short of a “coup by the financial institutions against the democratically elected government of New York City” (45). The policies that would subsequently flourish under the Reagan and Thatcher governments of the 1980s were, each in their own way, in the words of William Tabb, “merely the New York scenario, writ large” (qtd. in Harvey 48). For Harvey, neoliberalism amounts to a “political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites” (19), and A Brief History is a by turns devastating, demoralizing, and downright despairing account—the “political-economic story”—of how this all came to pass, “so comprehensively on the world stage” (4), and what, if anything, anyone (not to speak of any one liberal academic) can do about it.

Of crucial interest, as far as concerns the other two books under consideration here—Cyrus Patell’s Negative Liberties: Morrison and Pynchon and the Problem of Liberal Ideology (2001) and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011)—is the way Harvey tracks how the “impoverished condition of public discourse” (183) has perverted the meaning of words like freedom and individualism, as the political and economic constraints of embedded liberalism, the system of more-or-less Keynesian policies that largely dominated the post-war period until the 1970s, have everywhere given way to the free-market exuberance of neoliberalism. Here the book’s second chapter, “The Construction of Consent,” is particularly useful, charting the ways in which the neoliberal ethos “had to be backed up by a practical strategy that emphasized the liberty of consumer choice, not only with respect to particular products but also with respect to lifestyles, modes of expression, and a wide range of cultural practices. Neoliberalism required both politically and economically the construction of a neoliberal market-based populist culture differentiated consumerism and individual libertarianism. As such it proved more than a little compatible with that cultural impulse called ‘post-modernism’ which had long been lurking in the wings but could now emerge full-blown as both a cultural and an intellectual dominant” (42).

This passage undoubtedly resonates with the work of Walter Benn Michaels, who, poor Atlas, has taken it upon his shoulders to enlighten his brethren in English departments across the land as to the “synergies” (the word is Berlant’s) between neoliberalism and all those post-’68 ideologies of desire—Walter’s constant refrain: “we are not as liberal as we like to think we are”—but one is in due time relieved to find that Harvey does not have a similar axe to grind. Instead, what comes across is a kind of sober critical pathos, but also something like optimism, especially in his pointed observations concerning the contradictions between neoliberal theory and practice. “Given the volatility,” Harvey writes with much prescience, “there is no reason to rule out the resurgence of popular social democratic or even populist anti-neoliberal politics within the US in future years” (199). One thinks with tragic irony of the Occupy Movement—along with its more febrile, if more successful, cousin, the Tea Party—which did manage to register, and perhaps leave more than a few traces behind of, the various species of discontent voiced, at ever louder decibels, behind the juggernaut of finance capitalism. While Obama’s reelection is a sign that, at least for the time being, the center of American politics has held together, as Jonathan Alter has recently claimed (with an implicit dig at Yeats’s less implicit variety of fascist apocalypticism), Harvey nevertheless puts what looks like hope in the ability of Occupy and other “such movements [to] shift the terrain of political organization away from traditional political parties and labour organizing into a less focused political dynamic of social action across the whole spectrum of society” (200). But in no way is Harvey advocating, despite his own affinities with Fredric Jameson, some kind of “utopian Marxian fantasy to which we can retire” (202); in fact, he ends up endorsing, as a starting point, a return to the policies of Franklin Roosevelt, that is, to something like embedded liberalism, with its focus on social welfare, full employment, and the ability for the government to intervene, forcefully, when things go wrong. Indeed, we are left with a sense that history did not have to turn out quite the way it did. To combat the spiraling stagflation and unemployment of the 1970s, notes Harvey with notable poignancy, we had a debate “between those ranged behind social democracy and central planning on the one hand”—at one point even Richard Nixon, hamstrung as he was by a Democratically controlled Congress, had said “we are all Keynesians now”—“and the interests of all those concerned with liberating corporate and business power and re-establishing market freedoms on the other” (13). In stressing how much of a “minority political, ideological, and intellectual position” the latter was before it entered the mainstream (62), Harvey, more than anything, demonstrates just how fluid and unpredictable even mainstream politics can become in times of crisis—a profound opportunity, assuredly, but also a grave danger.

How might American, global, and transnational subjects live the experience of the neoliberal demolition of the welfare state? By turning her astonishing critical intelligence to this archive of alternative voices, Lauren Berlant stages an entry into what she calls the “scene of neoliberal restructuring within the ordinary” (16). Her overall project here is to “track the fraying relation between post-Second World War state/economic practices and certain postwar fantasies of the good life endemic to liberal, social democratic, or relatively wealthy regions” (15). For Berlant, the “good life” fantasy has become “more fantasmatic” than ever, “with less and less relation to how people can live—as the blueprint has faded—its attrition manifest[ing] itself in an emerging set of aesthetic conventions that make a claim to affective realism derived from embodied, affective rhythms of survival” (11). In plainer language, now that the most recent financial crisis has exposed the progressive disappearance of all kinds of liberal assurances since the Reagan era, structures of fantasy, or a “collectively invested form of life,” can no longer “disavow” or “mask” the “precariousness of the present” (11).

Now one of the first things to note about Berlant’s book is its style, even the fact that it has a style (however impersonal), its attention to the way its own language recombines so many different critical idioms in new, unusual, and often surprising ways, a tight-rope act that manages to balance, precariously now, just on the other side of catachresis. We encounter phrases like “gestural economies,” “situation tragedy,” “impasse of adjustment,” “crisis ordinary,” “the stretched-out present moment,” “surrealistic affectsphere,” to name a few, phrases that you would by no means expect to hear in everyday language, but what must percolate into the writing mind as a formal solution to the unbridgeable gap that separates tenure from precarity as it is actually lived. We learn that in “the impasse induced by crisis, being treads water; mainly it does not drown” (10). Sometimes she uses a transitive verb intransitively and vice versa, as in “when he returns home his body perturbs and requires adjustment,” and in “the subject’s desire to temporize an experience of the loss of an object” (205, 24, my emphases). All too often one suspects that Berlant is merely stating the same thing over and over again, but only the words themselves seem to change, swiftly passing by on the conveyor belt of syntax, metonymy and metaphor on the verge of collapse. Some may find these quirks rebellious, even as they perturb others, but I point all this out to emphasize the hyper-linguistic atmosphere Berlant strives to create, as if her very subject matter—i.e., the “fantasmatic, affective, and physical adjustments” which measure “survival in the impasse of the present” (16)—demands from the academic reader a new kind of affective orientation toward language, as if in some hitherto unimaginable way the wish-fulfilling forces of the Imaginary just might be able to do what Kafka’s man from the country could not: bribe the incorruptible guard at the entryway to the Law in order to reorganize, if not downright abolish, the Symbolic order—were it not for the fact that, in Fredric Jameson’s resounding sentence, “History is what hurts” in the end.

What is it that is so cruel about optimism, anyway? In its most succinct formulation, cruel optimism names a “relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic” (24). It would be too easy to claim that this is about as good a description as there is with respect to what keeps most of us attached to “the life of the mind,” and many a low-income graduate student, forever questioning the sanity of a career path that bars all but the most market-driven from participating in the “good life,” may at this point lean closer to the non-chlorinated page. Yet it is true that any number of non-intellectual attachments are also optimistic, insofar as they would seem to hold out a “cluster of promises” which could be “embedded in a person, a thing, an institution, a text, a norm, a bunch of cells, smells, a good idea—whatever” (24); but as Berlant points out, some are crueler than others: “where cruel optimism operates, the very vitalizing or animating potency of an object/scene of desire contributes to the attrition of the very thriving that is supposed to be made possible in the work of attachment in the first place” (25). Suffice it to say that in this and other places Berlant never does quite distinguish how “cruel optimism” modulates desire any differently than the way the poets have always described it. The book thus examines many different contemporary flavors of desire’s optimistic double bind, even though at times what seems to be at stake is not really desire but a basic need just barely articulated, the good life so easily modifiable into a life of, for, and after all the mass-produced “goods” that this uncertain moment in the information age has begun to withhold from more and more of us—in return at least for more virtual, or shall we say “skeuomorphic,” pleasures. From the obesity epidemic to Hurricane Katrina, Berlant seeks to understand what keeps a person rooted, libidinally or otherwise, to a way of life, in search of the Good or the goods (no matter), in spite of its obvious, increasingly avowed dangers to the self. A chapter that illustrates this particular slippage with what we can only call success is one entitled “After the Good Life, An Impasse,” which analyzes the “precarious cinema” of Laurent Cantet, particularly Ressources humaines (1999) and L’Emploi du temps (2001). With striking clarity, these films depict a “precarious public sphere” composed of that new “affective class,” the precariat, which cuts across ordinarily fixed lines of racial, class, gender, and privilege: what members of this class all share is an “affective imaginary,” in which “an adaptation to a sense of precarity dramatizes the situation of the present” (195). Here Berlant explores the link between the macroeconomics of neoliberalism, or “the fraying of norms, that is, of genres of reliable living” and the microeconomics of the aesthetic, or the “politico-effective condition [which arises] mainly in messy situations, episodes, incidents, and gestures” (196). Her reading of the father’s quivering lip at the end of Ressources humaines (211), in which the scene of “facial drama reminds us that disbelief can be a political emotion” is one of the book’s best demonstrations of the way gesture, in finding a form, is as much an opening out onto a new scene of potentialities as an indication of the precarity within. It may not be desire, but hey, it’s “not nothing.”

Like Berlant and Harvey, Patell also registers a crisis at the level of the individual, but what is remarkable, in this regard, is that his critique of individualism does not spring from a neoliberal framework; this is both the book’s strength, freeing him from all the problems inherent in tarrying with the “narcissism of the now,” but this is also its primary weakness. He begins by recounting one of his student’s observations in the ‘80s that these guys—namely, Emerson and Whitman—sound a lot like Reagan, and he sets out to understand how “so many Americans could find Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric to be so persuasive when I found it to be so patently full of rationalizations and deceptions” (ix). So whereas Harvey traces the origins of neoliberalism’s “construction of consent” back to Frederick von Hayek and the Mount Pelerin Society, whose founding statement with its “commitment to the individual” famously confuses personhood and corporation (Harvey 20), Patell reaches much further back in history, providing a genealogy of individualism from Locke through de Tocqueville to Rawls and Kateb, in order to understand the “continuing persuasiveness of individualism as an ideology” (19). But it is what he describes as “Emersonian liberalism” that is “perhaps the most powerful version of U.S. liberal ideology,” the “ground upon which contemporary U.S. liberal theory is built” (xv), and also the “tradition that has arisen in the United States around the idea of self-reliance, a tradition that represents the crystallization of what might be called the official narrative of U.S. individualism” (xiii). Moreover, this “official narrative” sets negative liberty and positive liberty in a teleological relationship: that is, care for the self leads to care for the community. The problem here, for Patell, is that in the passage from negative to positive liberty, categories such as race and gender tend to disappear. In the case of race, for instance, “the ostensible universality of the nation’s founding principles serves to prolong the nation’s inability to recover fully from the evils of slavery” (25). Patell thus registers how the universalist rhetoric of the official narrative “prevents many Americans from being able to recognize that systemic discrimination does exist in the United States” (25). In this instance, followers of Walter Benn Michaels might be tempted to point out that, as far as class inequality goes, Emerson’s “Self Reliance” could not be more disdainful of capital accumulation; but Patell’s point, I take it, is that Emerson’s essay lays the groundwork for individualism’s perversion.

What does this have to do with Thomas Pynchon and Toni Morrison? And what do Pynchon and Morrison even have in common, aside from their affiliation with Cornell University (left curiously unremarked by Patell)? Taking a cue from Linda Hutcheon, Patell sees postmodernism, at least its incarnation in certain strains of American literature, as an exercise in “aesthetic prowess” whose “outlook” is “deeply political” (xvii). Thus Pynchon and Morrison, writers who so manifestly occupy separate “subject positions” are rarely considered together as working in a postmodern aesthetic “engaged,” in Hutcheon’s words, “in contesting the modernist (humanist) premises of art’s apolitical autonomy and of theory and criticism as value-free activities” (qtd. in xvii). In this way, Patell would seem to offer something of an antidote not only to David Harvey’s indictment of postmodernism but also to Sean McCann and Michael Szalay’s widely debated article from 2005, “‘Do You Believe in Magic’: Literary Thinking after the New Left,” which argues that American critics and novelists since the sixties have abandoned “public debate and civic engagement,” instead espousing a “political vision” predicated on “the spontaneous, symbolic, and, ultimately, the magical” (436). According to McCann and Szalay, The Crying of Lot 49, for example, is complicit with the kind of “libertarian sympathies” endemic to the counterculture of the sixties, and Oedipa Maas emerges as a kind of libertarian anti-hero (a self-avowed Young Republican whom the authors link rather hastily with “Pynchon as well,” strangely unable to perceive how the novel stages her political conversion). For Patell, however, The Crying of Lot 49 “debunks the official narrative of individualism by revealing narcissism in place of individuality and paranoia in answer to Emerson’s call for self-reliance. . . .Pynchon’s novel confirms the communitarian diagnosis of the ills of individualism, but it also dramatizes the hopeless inadequacy of the communitarian prescription for social healing” (152). Patell’s reading of The Crying of Lot 49 is representative of his procedure throughout the book; everywhere Patell seeks to demonstrate how Pynchon and Morrison contest the “official narrative” and, while their characters might not be able to, the authors themselves manage to evade out-and-out complicity.

The problem with all this is that the game seems rigged from the start, for Patell begins by admitting that he is in “agreement with Chantal Mouffe’s belief that we must ‘redress the negative consequences of individualism’ by dissociating ‘the liberal ideals of individual freedom and personal autonomy’ from ‘the other discourses to which they have been articulated’” (xv-xvi). In this way, Pynchon’s and Morrison’s novels do not really stand a chance to do anything but provide critiques of individualism on the one hand and communitarianism on the other, to occupy Mouffe’s not-too-hot/not-too-cold politics, someplace between Habermas and Sandel. In fact, Patell ignores some of the more problematic racial passages in Pynchon’s novels. In V., for instance, we now know that Pynchon lifted much of his African material almost verbatim from his sources, but Patell cites these passages approvingly to demonstrate Pynchon’s critique of “racial violence” (90), when something more unsettling seems to be taking place at the textual level that we shall refrain from calling authorial enjoyment at the reader’s expense. Even more odd, Patell only briefly mentions Mason & Dixon, a novel in which he claims “Pynchon makes his closest approach to Morrison’s territory” (196). A critic cannot do everything, it is true, but the fact that Patell makes no mention of one of Pynchon’s most outrageous creations in Mason & Dixon, Gershom, George Washington’s African-Hebrew slave, who embodies a fair number of black and Jewish stereotypes that would seem to go fetishistically beyond what a realist presentation of the period itself calls for, is a shocking but ultimately telling absence.

Despite their vastly different archives and critical approaches, Harvey, Berlant, and Patell each establishes a relation to their objects of critique that are optimistic, insofar as they participate in a liberal tradition whose vitality, as Raymond Geuss would put it, stems from its discontent with the way things are now. For Harvey, “there is a far, far nobler prospect of freedom to be won than that which neoliberalism preaches” (206). For Berlant, the impasse of the self-encounter in the “crisis ordinary” might allow us “to produce some better ways of mediating the sense of a historical moment that is affectively felt but undefined in the social world that is supposed to provide some comforts of belonging, so that it would be possible to imagine a potentialized present that does not reproduce all of the conventional collateral damage” (263). And for Patell, postmodern novels like Pynchon’s and Morrison’s help “to imagine a new cosmopolitanism able to promote the ideals of self-autonomy and self-expression and to expose and defeat slavery and oppression wherever they exist” (196). To quote Portia from the Merchant of Venice, perhaps Shakespeare’s most cruelly optimistic character: “if to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces” (1.2, 15-17). In the meantime, the search for alternatives continues.


Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

McCann, Sean and Michael Szalay. “Do you believe in Magic? Literary Thinking after the New Left.” The Yale Journal of Criticism.18.2 (2005): 435-468.

Patell, Cyrus R.K. Negative Liberties: Morrison and Pynchon and the Problem of Liberal Ideology. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.

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