The Money Is Political Too, Research Time, 18/11/2016

Utopias is going to be a book of philosophy that engages with history – with the currents of political and social change that have shaped the era in which I’m writing it. No matter how abstract and trippy the purely conceptual sections of the manuscript will get, that historical grounding will be in the background of everything I write.

It’ll be a philosophy of social development and history, but it’ll also be a theoretical examination of our ongoing moment in history.

And a hell of a trip.

So when I reached the end of Jacques Rancière’s Hatred of Democracy, I was pleased to read one of his final analyses. It was about the historical development of neoliberalism.

My title references the old feminist slogan, "The personal is political."
The democratic vector of politics is about making more and more aspects
of human life politically relevant, something that it's valuable to speak
about as proper to the public values of society. The social movement
whose first moment of wide visibility was the 1999 WTO protests did
the same for matters of the global economy and social welfare.
He didn't get into the finer historical points – in such a short, dense book, you keep your argument conceptual and stay away from the detailed chronology of real-world events. Also, explaining events directly can always be a little messy – events always overdetermine any one explanation of them you can make.

Basically, Rancière’s account of the new liberal way of politics is that it’s fundamentally about depoliticizing economics. If the economic is only the study of a science, then economic developments become a matter of management. Making sure things go as they should means ensuring that you’re guided by economic science.

Now you can employ science for political purposes, but our society’s general ideal of science* is that its laws and concepts are beyond politics. The laws of physics are the same, no matter your political persuasion.**

* At least in the middle 20th century when there was still general respect for scientific institutions and scientists.

** Again, whether or not you believe in science, jumping from a cliff will always make you fall at the same rate. Gravity doesn’t care about party membership (and neither do climate developments).

If you treat economics the same way, then you delegitimize attempts to make economic matters a political question. Poverty alleviation, economic inequality, and trade policy become issues that aren’t really proper to politics.

Now, this is hardly true today, but it’s the trajectory of the neoliberal order. It was the conservative reaction to the New Deal in America and the Marshall Plan turned welfare state in Europe.

Jacques Rancière anticipating the symbolic colours of the concession
speech that ushered in the Trump Administration.
Putting economics at a remove from the subject of politics passed economic matters to institutions run by professionals. These would be technocratic organizations like the World Trade Organization and European Central Bank, or treaties negotiated among bureaucrats and political figureheads like NAFTA and the TPP.

Here we can guess the historical trajectory I’m about to slide into. Because economic matters like trade, labour mobility, and inequality are fundamentally political. The protests at the Seattle WTO summit of 1999 were the first harbingers of this shift.

I think because September 11 and the invasion of Iraq happened so soon after the Seattle protests, it was easy for us in the moment to forget their significance. But the same economic processes of corporatization, short-term profit gouging, and exploitation of the poor resulted in the global financial crisis of 2008.

Arguably, the 2008 crisis laid the foundation of the popular discontent that simmered and boiled until Donald Trump rode into the Presidency on it.

And all this could have been avoided if we had begun the 21st century with a frank, society-wide conversation about how we needed to bring the economy back to politics. Because once it returned there on its own, it crushed a lot of us in the wreckage.

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