Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Neoliberalism’s Defeat of Democracy

Wendy Brown. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. New York, Zone Books, 2015. 296pp. $29.95, hardcover.

Reviewed by Jodi Dean

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously announced the end of history. The great ideological struggles characteristic not only of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but of history as such had come to an end. Contrary to what had appeared in the class compromise following WWII as social democracy’s merging of liberalism and communism, history ended with the defeat of socialism and the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.”[1] Communism was swept into history’s dustbin. There was no alternative to liberal democracy, capitalism’s political form. Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution dismantles the fantasy formatting this vision of liberal democratic triumph. Capitalism did not just defeat communism. Capitalism, in the form of neoliberal reason, defeated democracy. Neoliberalism’s full-frontal attack on the working class has long been a central element in the story of the dismantling of the welfare state. Brown widens the story into one of the demolition of citizenship, popular sovereignty, and the very idea of the demos.

Fully “transmogrified” by its economization under neoliberal rationality, democracy has been unmoored, disemboweled, hollowed out from within, and utterly undone. Under neoliberalism, “all conduct is economic conduct; all spheres of existence are framed and measured by economic terms and metrics” (10). Homo oeconomicus has vanquished homo politicus such that we are only, always, and everywhere competing market actors. Neoliberalism is that political rationality through which the capitalist form of valuation swallows whole every motivation, every domain of life. The very language of freedom, equality, and popular sovereignty is perverted “to signify democracy’s opposite” (44). Brown sends a message to liberal democrats:  You think you defeated communism? In fact, you defeated yourselves.

Brown’s analysis relies on and reworks Foucault’s well-known 1978-1979 lectures on neoliberalism, The Birth of Biopolitics. Rather than a response to crises of capitalist accumulation or the resurgence of capitalist class power, this neoliberalism is an intellectual project that reprograms liberal governmentality by recoding relations between state, society, economy, and subject.  Brown tracks this recoding through neoliberalism’s substitution of governance and best practices for politics; through legal reasoning in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission; and through the attack on higher education. Attending to assaults on collective popular power, she highlights processes of financialization, devolution, responsibilization, and deregulation. For Brown, these processes are more than economic policies. They put into operation a political rationality that says that humans are, can only be, and should be human capital. They thus reconfigure human subjectivity so as to foreclose even the possibility of a desire for democracy.  There are only individual investors compelled to invest in themselves.

I agree that democracy has lost the capacity to serve as a collective emancipatory egalitarian ideal. Informatization, the shift to cognitive or communicative capitalism, provided a material basis for the conversion of democratic processes into economic ones. Capitalist productivity came increasingly to depend on the expropriation and exploitation of communication, for example, of affective labor, of social relations, of attention, of distraction, of formerly paid labor now done freely or in the hope for pay, etc. Under communicative capitalism, democratic practices and ideals of inclusion and participation merge with, enable, and accelerate capitalist winner-take-all dynamics of circulation, aggregation, dispossession, and accumulation. This does not mean that information technologies replace manufacturing. In fact, they drive a wide variety of mining, chemical, and biotechnological industries. Nor does it mean that networked computing has enhanced productivity outside the production of networked computing itself. Rather, it means that capitalism has subsumed communication such that communication does not provide a critical outside. Communication serves capital, whether in affective forms of care for producers and consumers, the mobilization of sharing and expression as instruments for “human relations” in the workplace, or contributions to media circuits however critical or creative.[2]

In the global networks of mass personalized media, the astronomical increases in information that our searching, commenting, and participating generate entrap us in communication without communicability. So much is written, so much is said, that keeping up is impossible, and no longer expected. The vast majority of utterances don’t count. Or, they are only counted in terms of their exchange value, that is to say, as contributions that will be shared, forwarded, cited – another post, another publication. As contributions to circuits of information and affect, the content of our utterances is unimportant. On social media, people circulate images rather than ideas, unsure how ideas will be interpreted or received. This decline in a capacity to transmit meaning, to symbolize beyond a limited discourse or immediate, local context, characterizes communication’s reconfiguration into a primarily economic form. Communicative production is for circulation more than use (getting attention not furthering understanding). Words and images circulate, but they do so shorn of meaning. Because of the communicative equivalence of utterances, critique loses any efficacy it might have had.[3]

The material conditions of communicative capitalism explain the economization of communication underlying the neoliberal rationality Brown examines. These conditions alert us as to why the ideals associated with democracy are no longer available for critical appropriation: demands for greater participation, inclusion, transparency, consultation, information, and awareness tighten the grip of communicative capitalism, increasing our dependence on networked telecommunications, its devices, services, and distractions. Extending the mediated practices of communicative capitalism, democratic ideals fail to install a gap in our setting. Brown is at her most insightful as she draws out the loss of the gap between democracy as emancipatory ideal and democracy as concrete existence. Bourgeois democracy, even for Marx, is irreducible to its social conditions. That it exceeds them is what enables bourgeois or liberal democracy to hold open the desire for and promise of freedom, equality, and popular sovereignty. Brown writes, “liberal democracy’s divide between formal principles and concrete existence provides the scene of paradox, contradiction, and at times, even catachresis that social movements of every kind have exploited for more than three centuries” (206). The economization of the political effaces this divide. The critical register is lost. The very arguments that might limit capitalism are inverted as market values become the only values.

Brown’s tight focus on neoliberalism, while enabling her to place the repercussions of the hegemony of neoliberal reason in stark relief, is also constraining.  It leads her to underplay neoliberalism’s inconsistencies, inefficiencies, contradictions, and violence. She asserts, for example, that individuals and industries that inhibit the project of macroeconomic growth and credit enhancement may be cast off or reconfigured. Yet unreconfigured individuals and industries persist in the wake of repeated bank failures and bailouts, the off-shoring of private wealth, and the broader failure of austerity policies actually to generate growth.  Wealth and power determine who is cast off, not inhibition of macroeconomic growth. Brown says that “the properly interpellated neoliberal citizen makes no claims for protection against capitalism’s suddenly burst bubbles, job-shedding recessions, credit crunches, and housing market collapses” (218). Yet this is exactly what the corporate and finance sector does with impunity when it turns to the state to enforce foreclosures, impose capital controls, collect on debts, and, again, bail it out when it makes bad loans. Finally, Brown’s account of the dissemination of neoliberal governance via the spread of “bench-marking” and “best practices” too easily repeats the neoliberal rhetoric of soft-power, consensus, teamwork, and market metrics as replacing “law, policing, punishment, and top-down directives” (141). She fails to note the militarization of the police, intensification of surveillance, harsh sentencing, and practices of raced harassment and murder that accompany the emergence of the strong neoliberal state.[4] In fact, she goes further, claiming that “states operating on a business model will eschew excessive uses of violence or extraconstitutional conduct” (150).

The contradictions and violence inseparable from neoliberalism suggest that if it is well-described as a rationality, then this is a rationality infused by jouissance. Neoliberalism’s mobilization of competition and inequality encourages people to get off on hierarchy, to enjoy privilege and punishment, to seek opportunities to assert superiority. Germany’s stance vis-à-vis Greece in the 2015 confrontation over the Greek debt exemplifies this point. More pointedly, neoliberalism’s inconsistencies, inefficiencies, contradictions, and violence undermine its image as a rationality, pointing instead in the direction of an ideological project for the restoration of capitalist class power.[5] When banks have to appeal to the state for bailouts, they reveal the weakness of markets, the failure of competition, and their own reliance on the state. They thereby signal the active role of the state in maintaining hierarchy at the cost of growth and efficiency, exposing the limits of economization in the political value of class rule.  Neoliberalism’s active use of the state to take from the many and give to the few in ways that visibly diminish the lives and opportunities of the many opens it to the challenge: why not use the state otherwise?  

In Undoing the Demos, the great confrontation between hostile camps is not between proletariat and bourgeoisie but between democracy and neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has won. For Brown, the evisceration of liberal democracy is the extinguishing of “any variety of democracy” (79). She presumes here a political linearity: from bourgeois democracy to more substantive and radical democratic instantiations. Liberal democracy is a “platform” from which more ambitious democratic projects are launched (18). Once it’s gone, the very conditions of possibility for democratic aspiration—for collective steering of a common world in the common good—are vanquished. Brown thus views neoliberalism as consecrating, naturalizing, and deepening a “civilizational despair” (221). The people have lost.

A more dialectical reading of neoliberalism points in a different direction. Rather than a political rationality, neoliberalism is an ideology (in Žižek’s broad, materialist sense of materialized practices of belief). As an ideology, neoliberalism holds together contradictory practices and ideals. It is not a seamless whole but a complex entanglement ruptured by enjoyment as well as its own contradictions and failures. Democracy provides the fantasy structure that kept liberalism and tries to keep neoliberalism in place. Democracy’s economization in communicative capitalism, however, has rendered it unfit for this task, incapable of naming an ideal. The brutal reality of neoliberalism as a punishing, immiserating project of dispossession is increasingly undeniable. The contemporary reemergence of communism, anarchism, and populism is symptomatic of the growing understanding that, even as democracy has lost the capacity to register a gap in the present, the unrealized emancipatory aspirations of the people continue to exert a pressure. Liberal democracy is less a platform than a barrier, the disintegration of which opens the gap of new possibility.


[1] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History,” The National Interest (Summer 1989).

[2] Jodi Dean, Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002).

[3] Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).

[4] Paul A. Passavant, “The Strong Neoliberal State: Crime, Corruption, Governance,” Theory & Event 8, 3 (2005).

[5] Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, Capital Resurgent: Roots of the Neoliberal Revolution, trans. Derek Jeffords (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).