Mike Gane the Paradox of Neo Liberalism

May 13, 2019 | Author: artemiolo | Category: Émile Durkheim, Neoliberalism, Socialism, Sports, Sociology
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The Paradox of Neo-liberalism  Mike Gane

In the spring and summer of 1938 two quite different seminars took place in Paris. One was the very well-known Collège de Sociologie, which included the participation of Caillois and Bataille – see ‘Sacred Sociology of  the Contemporary World’, 2 April 1938, and the session ‘Festival’, 2 May 1939, in which Caillois indicates the importance of sacred games (in Hollier 1988: 157–159, 279–303). The other was the Walter Lippman Colloque, 26–30 August 1938 (in Rougier 1939). The former was the significant forerunner of French sociology and philosophy – from Derrida to Baudrillard – decisively influenced by Marcel Mauss. The latter was the forerunner of  what became the world hegemonic system of ideas from the 1980s – neoliberalism – which took up a position very specifically against  Durkheim and Mauss, and all holistic holist ic and historicist sociology soc iology.. Let us recall that in the 1930s Durkheim was widely interpreted as a dangerous corporatist thinker and certainly it is undeniable that Durkheim’s main practical proposals called for greater development of professional organizations to enhance social solidarity. solidarity. By the end of the 1930s a new style of liberalism, one that is now widely recognized as ‘neo-liberalism’, worked up an alternative to every kind of socialism and state-led social welfare. Foucault suggested the subsequent German post-war post -war ‘miracle’ was the result of its first application. Taken up by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, neo-liberalism announced ‘there is no such thing as society’ – and it soon became clear that a number of sociological terms were needed to describe the new phenomenon: affluent, post-industrial, post-modern, leisure, information, consumer, the ‘risk society’. I discuss this new miraculous but paradoxical

The Paradox of Neo-liberalism

case. In the case of the welfare state it was one which privileged altruism (progressive taxation, and the state as provider), while the second developed a very specific kind of egoism (individual as entrepreneur and competitor). But although Durkheimian sociology developed a critique of  classical liberalism, this critique could not be applied to neo-liberalism directly since many of the basic features of classical liberalism were reversed in neo-liberalism. As Foucault pointed out in lectures in 1979, ‘neoliberalism should not be identified with laissez-faire, but rather with permanent vigilance, activity, and intervention’ (2008: 132). Indeed, the state found indirect ways of intervening in a massive extension of its activity indirectly through quangos and regulatory bodies and surveillance, while at the same time ‘downsizing’ – denationalizing and privatizing. In terms developed by Foucault, this was a new kind of discipline and surveillance, and an extension of the techniques and range of ‘governmentality’. By this is meant the action of the public authorities in providing the framework to ‘free’ individuals to develop by themselves their own ‘human capital’ as entrepreneurial competitors, and to ‘govern’ these new kinds of  subjects as if they were game players – ‘entrepreneurs of themselves’ (Foucault 2008: 226). In theory, and in practice, neo-liberalism inserts the market principles of competition and enterprise at every conceivable site, extending not contracting the sphere of intervention of the state. Thus a contradiction appears: while promoting the methods of anti-totalitarian politics aimed at freeing the individual, its ambitions and practices seem even more holistic and total than classical liberal social welfare. Underpinning this new political economy, however, is the classic idea from Adam Smith that the self-interested action of the egoistic individual produces a public good. Yet a strong programme of regulation was avoided, since following the legacy of Adam Smith it was believed that entrepreneurs would not act against their own interest. It was suggested by Anthony Giddens, in his numerous writings in support of ‘New Labour’ and the ‘Third Way’ – a sociological framing which critiqued its obsession with competition (Giddens 1994: 179) – that some Durkheimian principles were still valid. But the type of practical proposals that Durkheim advocated against the problems of anomie and egoism, and that looked to professional corporations,

 Mike Gane

via Bourdieu (see Turner 2003) – and how the new negative welfare initiatives were perversely called ‘positive’ programmes. Durkheim remarks that some nineteenth-century socialists wanted to extend the socialist principle ‘to the whole of collective living’ ([1928a] 1962: 62). In mirror opposition, the twentieth-century neo-liberals wanted to apply the market principle to the whole society in order to counter ‘socialism’. Neo-liberalism, as developed out of the anti-communist and anti-socialist writings of the Viennese school and the Ordo-liberals (see Foucault 2008: 176–179), found a new way of connecting the economic with the other significant organs of society. But, in attempting to reverse socialism, neo-liberals simply invented another, perhaps an insidious way, of  connecting the state to secondary institutions. Yet in at least one crucial sense, neo-liberals were even more Saint-Simonian than the scientific socialists, since they seem to have applied in a new way the idea that the state should adopt the principle of scientific ‘administration’ – implied in the slogan: ‘there is no other way’. If the neo-liberal theorists such as Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek argued that competitive market structures should be promoted throughout society, it was because their economic theories were seen as the only theories in the social domain that could legitimately be termed scientific (Popper 1961: 60). Today, however, it is the experience of neo-liberalism that reveals it cannot ‘supply the social bonds necessary to sustain a stable and meaningful life’ (Hutton and Giddens 2000: 217). In order to rethink ‘neo-liberalism’, perhaps it is necessary to look again at how Durkheim theorized socialism. In his lectures of the mid-1890s on Socialism, Durkheim claims sociology and socialism were born at the same moment – after the failure of the various political solutions to the problem of French solidarity. He therefore challenges the Saint-Simonian tradition insofar as, in its communist variation, it indeed made the situation of solidarity worse ([1928a] 1962: 167– 211). Durkheim’s last text – published in 1917, and translated in the current issue – reveals that his relation with the Saint-Simonian tradition became a consistent support for the view that within the movement of societies dominated by organic solidarity there would be an evolution from a less to a greater social organization. If, in the early Sens lectures of 1883–4,

The Paradox of Neo-liberalism

tered, with the directing and conscious organs – organes directeurs et conscients – of society’ ([1928a] 1962: 56, translation modified; see Filloux 1963: 71). Very explicitly for Durkheim, socialism is not defined by overcoming capitalism by class struggle, or with issues to do with equality; socialism is only defined as a kind of society which links in their various ways the economic functions with the state and society. The active state is essential to the definition, but so is its scope. One can note two important themes in Durkheim’s considerations. The first is a critique of the naïve sociology of natural individualism that he himself had adhered to in the Sens lectures. The second is evident in a set of lectures, of the late 1890s, in which he maintains it is the state that liberates the individual, by intervening against institutional closures of family, occupation, and so on – ‘it has the object and the effect of alleviating the tyrannies that do exist’. But he immediately asks, in a crucial phrase: ‘It will be argued, might not the State in turn become despotic? Undoubtedly, provided there were nothing to counter that trend’ ([1950a] 1992: 63). He saw a parallel between the incipient repressiveness of the old classical liberalism’s anti-statism and the similar anarchist implications of the communist programme to abolish the state. When this Durkheimian idea was repeated in Mauss’s critique of the Bolsheviks – ‘socialist societies can only be built up beyond and alongside a certain amount of individualism and liberalism’ (in Gane 1992: 191) – Mauss did not capture Durkheim’s insistence that modern individualism is a balance of egoism and altruism, and is dependent on the counterbalancing of state and secondary institutions. But how does this relate to ‘neo-liberalism’ and its techniques of government? There are many aspects to the neo-liberal experience that need to be examined. Here, drawing on Caillois, I will limit the discussion to one feature – the use of competitive game frameworks to allocate resources. Drawing on the largely forgotten literature on play, games and the transformation of modern culture and society, it is important to look at the way that gamelike forms have entered large and important sectors of social life as a technique of power in order to look at how games and competitions are organized and regulated. A competitive situation in fact can be of two main types: a competition between parties for an external object, such as a con-

 Mike Gane

evidently the site of economic competition and is the object of the venerable theories of the contrasting conditions of perfect and imperfect competition. The use of leagues and league tables now so commonly adopted by British and other governments is indifferent as to whether the competitive activity embraced is sport, a game or an aesthetic or other performance; what is important is that it can be measured or scored in some way. Games are a very specific kind of competitive interaction, individual or collective, and each demands a particular mode of involvement – a player, a member of a team, and so on. Importantly, there is a game of chess, a game of tennis, and so on, but not a game of fox hunting, or a game of high jump. War is not a war-game, though it can manifest game-like features and as it becomes subject to rules can be considered to approximate to an extreme form of the martial arts. The fight or the duel is not a game, but can become subject to rules and can even become a sport, according to how a game is defined. Hunting can become more and more game-like; so too can any sport, when it becomes organized, subject to social discipline and technically manipulated to produce winners by a system of accumulating points. From a sociological point of view, competitions may be classified by means and mode of activity: a sportive, athletic or aesthetic, economic (e.g., a tendering competition), or political (an election), even an academic exercise can produce a league table (of schools or university departments). In this way, competitions can be used in order to locate good and poor performing participants (schools or hospitals). In some cases, such as the lottery, competition can function as a quasi-fundraising institution. Or as in Britain’s recent university RAE – ‘Research Assessment Exercise’ – it can be used as a competitive basis for distributing funds between universities and departments. Some competitions are therefore characterized by individual or team performances, not against an opponent, but ‘against the clock’ or against set criteria often requiring a panel of expert judges. These criteria include the aesthetic – as in music, skating or dancing, horticulture, or higher education (e.g., the RAE competition) – where the outcome is decided by a panel of judges, since the scoring is not achieved by notching up goals or points in the actual performance. Thus the way in which neoliberal ‘socialism’ (in Durkheim’s sense) connects the governmental objec-

The Paradox of Neo-liberalism

cation we are not talking about a game situation; there is no interactive competition. Points are awarded, but not automatically in the performance itself. They are awarded by expert panels, and there is only one round in each season. Thus the nearest model is a one-period game, of some activity rather like ice-skating (but where individual best performances have been recorded at any time over the game’s period). The result produces a set of league status divisions and the rewards follow accordingly – and the advantage to government is that the result is legitimised by the very participation of the players. In conclusion one can say that, in the neo-liberal experiment, contemporary culture itself can be seen to be increasingly composed of types of regulated game-like competitions, and a new kind of social structure can be seen to emerge from the overall composition to which these new mechanisms give rise. Neo-liberalism is a phase in which there is a new relation between the economic and the social and the state. Or in terms developed by Durkheim and Caillois, neo-liberalism might be thought of as a new stage of socialism – it might be called ‘negative socialism’ – in which there is a new kind of corruption of the game.


Caillois, R. 2001. Man, Play and Games. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Durkheim, E. [1928a] 1962. Socialism. New York: Collier. ____ [1950a] 1992.  Professional Ethics and Civic Morals. London: Routledge. Filloux, J. 1963. ‘Durkheim and Socialism’, The Review 5(2): 66–85. Foucault, M. 2008. The Birth of Biopolitics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Gane, M. (ed.) 1992. The Radical Sociology of Durkheim and Mauss. London: Routledge. Giddens, A. 1994.  Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Oxford: Polity. Hollier, D. (ed.) 1988. The College of Sociology (1937–39). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Hutton, W. and A. Giddens. 2000. On The Edge: Living with Global Capitalism. London: Cape. Lalande, A. 2004. Durkheim’s Philosophy Lectures: Notes from the Lycée de Sens

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