In a July 2015 interview, the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis gave an insight into his exchanges with the representatives of Greece’s creditors at eu Finance Ministers’ meetings. What stood out was his depiction of almost surreal levels of incomprehension: ‘You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on—to make sure it’s logically coherent—and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken. What you say is independent of what they say. You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem.’footnote1 The promise of a common European public sphere, bound together by reasoned deliberation, which has enamoured liberals for over two hundred years, appears broken. The post-war reconstitution of this project, which placed the Common Market at its heart, has reached its limit, as many of its former enthusiasts now accept. Varoufakis’s comment is symptomatic of a new strain of political dissent that cannot be simply classed as critique. Rather, it is an expression of bewilderment that dominant forms of economic regulation persist, apparently impervious to evidence, evaluation or the merits of alternatives. Once critique is no longer even heard or recognized, critics may as well say anything.
One result of this seeming irrationalism from above has been the vindication of unreason from below. The British performance artist Mark McGowan, also known as ‘The Artist Taxi Driver’, exemplifies this in his YouTube videos. McGowan sits in his car in wrap-around shades, unleashing his fury at austerity measures, political elites, tax evaders and the senseless social harm that has been enacted since the financial crisis. As he gesticulates at the camera on his dashboard, the mood is one of disbelief, closer to hilarity than to despair, as if to ask: can this really be happening? One of The Artist Taxi Driver’s straplines was ‘This is not a recession, this is a robbery’. Allegations of illegal violence are common in this new culture of protest, as in the ubiquitous complaints that #thisisacoup, or Varoufakis’s memorable description of Greece’s debt conditions as ‘fiscal waterboarding’. In the us, The Onion and The Daily Show have long offered a model of satirical reporting on the political scene. The Daily Mash, a British website, has developed a more specific focus on economic nonsense, with articles such as ‘“Getting your name out there” to become legal tender’ or ‘Tories to build thousands of affordable second homes’. The proximity of these headlines to ‘real’ news effectively offers readers a choice of two stories, both equally absurd.
This seeming shift to unreason by the governing powers has been characterized since 2008 by more vindictive varieties of policymaking, which often operate outside of the norms of policy evaluation, evidence gathering or public appeal. In the past, neoliberalism has been criticized for elevating economic judgements of ‘efficiency’ or ‘competitiveness’ above moral judgements of social justice. But increasingly it appears, at least at the level of public discourse, that governments are operating outside of the norms of judgement altogether. The best example of this is austerity itself. History offers scant examples of pro-cyclical fiscal-contraction programmes that have succeeded in avoiding macroeconomic stagnation.footnote2 The hypothesis of ‘expansionary fiscal austerity’, put forward by Harvard economist Alberto Alesina and enthusiastically cited by a number of European political leaders since 2008, only ever proposed that spending cuts need not necessarily lead to reduced growth. Yet no amount of empirical evidence of austerity’s failings seems adequate to derail those who pronounce its necessity.
Social policies aimed at disciplining vulnerable populations have become equally unbelievable. Under Britain’s ‘benefit sanctions’ regime, welfare payments can be suddenly suspended for up to a month on account of trivial breaches, without any sense of procedural reason as to how the rules are applied. One man had a heart attack on the way to an appointment, but was nevertheless sanctioned; another lost his benefits for going to his brother’s funeral, having been unable to get through when he tried to phone the Job Centre. Over a million people in the uk have received sanctions for one reason or another. Thousands have died after being declared ‘fit for work’ by workfare contractors and having their disability benefits cut.footnote3 Labour-market policies now incorporate dubious behavioural activation techniques, from neuro-linguistic programming to self-marketing slogans. Participants must read out ‘affirmations’, such as ‘My only limitations are the ones I set for myself’, which are almost comically distant from the reality of those living with low incomes, chronic health conditions and dependent family members.
It might be argued that such policies are not beyond reason altogether. Austerity clearly has its beneficiaries in creditor states and financial institutions; harsh treatment for welfare recipients serves well-known electoral agendas. Yet these trends do seem to exist outside of public governmental reason. If Foucault was right to argue that liberal states desisted from vengeful, excessive forms of punishment in the 19th century, replacing them with expert forms of discipline rooted in detailed statistical, psychological and economic knowledge of how to achieve optimal outcomes, then contemporary austerity regimes would appear to be reversing certain aspects of this. It is no longer clear that the social sciences, economics or psychology are being applied in a normative, methodological, publicly falsifiable sense. Instead, they appear to be operating as arms of sovereign power, asserting truths rather than discovering them.
If today we live under neoliberalism, it is manifestly different from the neoliberalism that rose to power in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and different again from that which held sway from the 1990s, in the long boom preceding 2008. The nomenclature has always been a controversial one. It is frequently suggested that the term ‘neoliberalism’ refers to too many heterogeneous or contradictory policy dynamics, and is therefore useless. Of course, the internal inconsistency of the concept may encapsulate something real about the system it purports to capture. Yet there is nevertheless something problematic about ascribing governmental interventions in 2016 to the same overarching rationality or teleology as those of 2001 or 1985. It would certainly appear that neoliberalism has entered some sort of post-hegemonic phase, in which systems and routines of power survive, but without normative or democratic authority. In this sense, neoliberalism is, as Neil Smith put it, ‘dead yet still dominant’.footnote4 But what if the new power forms are not dwindling, as that would suggest, but abandoning the quest for hegemony, in Gramsci’s ethical sense, altogether? What has emerged, I want to suggest, is not simply another ‘post’ but a new phase of neoliberalism, which is organized around an ethos of punishment. This is not the type of punishment conceived by Bentham and historicized by Foucault, namely a measured science of displeasure. Rather, it is a relentless form that acts in place of reasoned discourse, replacing the need for hegemonic consensus formation. It is this that provokes shock and incredulity in response, captured in the notion of ‘fiscal waterboarding’.
To understand this new phase historically, we need to consider how it differs from what came before 2008. From this perspective, it is clear that there was not a single epoch of neoliberalism, but two. Firstly, there was the spread of neoliberalism from around 1979, which lasted for roughly a decade leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, led by neoconservative parties of the right, and notably by Reagan and Thatcher (even if Carter and Callaghan had delivered the first blows). Secondly, there was the application of neoliberalism which lasted nearly two decades, between the demise of state socialism and the global financial crisis. Importantly, this was advanced by liberal and ex-socialist parties of the centre left, leaving many of these parties now in a state of disarray as a result. The epochal distinction I seek to draw is not between modes of regulation or varieties of policy as such, but between the ethical and philosophical orientations that accompany them. The same instruments of state power can carry multiple meanings, at different points in history. The telos or a priori principle of a policy is intangible, but exists nevertheless in the psychology and mutually understood practices of those who implement and live with it. With this in mind, I offer an interpretation of the successive ethical philosophies that have provided the neoliberal state with its orientation. What has changed since 2008 is not so much the techniques of power—which have remained eerily constant—but the spirit or meaning in their enactment.