Occupy Wall Street and Neoliberal Governmentality

First off, a big thanks to Dave Hoffman and the Co-Op crew for having me over for the month. I’ve really, really enjoyed blogging, and hope to continue doing so in the future.

For this final post, I’d like to reflect a bit on the Occupy movement.  As someone who writes about social movements and inequality, and as a former community and union organizer, I’ve been both thrilled by Occupy’s emergence and a bit puzzled by its structure, its strategy, and its place within domestic and global politics. There is of course a strong re-regulatory trend among the Occupy protesters, as is clear from the demands for student debt relief, for the overturn of Citizens’ United, and for stronger banking regulations. There is also a more small-scale communitarian impulse within Occupy, a desire for less alienating and more human-focused forms of social organization. Both impulses seem evident on the pages of The Occupy Wall Street Journal.

Yet neither quite captures the whole story. Occupy, I believe, reflects in large part a reaction against and rejection of neoliberal governmentality.

That’s a jargony phrase, each of whose terms are overused and potentially confusing. So I should be clear about my definitions, which draw heavily on Foucault’s late work, by way of Wendy Brown’s essay “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy.” By “neoliberalism” I mean the contemporary political rationality in which:

“The political sphere, along with every other dimension of contemporary existence, is submitted to an economic rationality… not only is the human being configured exhaustively as homo oeconomicus, but all dimensions of human life are cast in terms of a market rationality. While this entails submitting every action and policy to considerations of profitability, equally important is the production of all human and institutional action as rational entrepreneurial action, conducted according to a calculus of utlity, benefit, or satisfaction against a microeconomic grid of scarcity, supply and demand, and moral value-neutrality….”

By “governmentality” I mean what Foucault called the “conduct of conduct” or the “technologies of the self.” It describes the discursive methods through which neoliberal theorists, actors and institutions construct and create subjects who perceive themselves as autonomous market actors, subjects who measure their own worth in terms of their entrepreneurial accomplishments. Again, Wendy Brown:

“… through discourse and policy promulgating its criteria, neoliberalism produces rational actors and imposes a market rationale for decision making in all spheres. Importantly, then, neoliberalism involves a normative rather than ontological claim about the pervasiveness of economic rationality and it advocates the institution building, policies, and discourse development appropriate to such a claim…”

Or as Thomas Lemke argues, “the key feature of the neo-liberal rationality is the congruence it endeavors to achieve between a responsible and moral individual and an economic-rational actor.” This strikes me as a pretty accurate description of what Occupy is reacting against–or at least an important and under-explored part of the story. It compares favorably, I’d argue, with two other efforts to capture Occupy’s meaning and motivation.

First, Bernard Harcourt has interpreted Occupy as a form of “political disobedience,” an effort to resist “the structure of partisan politics, the demand for policy reforms, the call for party identification, and the very ideologies that dominated the post-War period,” particularly the supposed opposition between “free markets” and “regulation.” Updating the classic realist and CLS argument that all markets are based upon regulations of some sort, Harcourt argues persuasively that Occupy critiques both right and left, those “on the side of free markets but also on the side of big government, for serving the few at the expense of the other 99 percent.”

From another perspective, on these (web)pages, Frank Pasquale has argued that Occupy is in some ways conservative. Like Tea Partiers, Pasquale notes, Occupiers seem not opposed to free enterprise so much as the cheating they see as endemic among the 1%; they espouse law and order, particularly for the rich and powerful; and they are skeptical of big government, particularly its surveillance capacities.

Neither account seems wholly convincing. Harcourt is certainly correct that Occupy does not just want a new New Deal (neither did the New Left), and that many within Occupy reject facile distinctions between regulation and freedom. But Occupy takes the critique a step further. The concern is not just that private interests have captured the public, but that it no longer makes complete sense, politically or phenomenologically, to distinguish public from private forms of power and discipline. As stated in the unsigned introductory essay to the Occupy-affiliated publication tidal: occupy theory, occupy strategy, “At Wall Street we see that the basic quantum of experience has become the transaction; that life’s central purpose is to convert all of life’s existence into tradable currency.”

Occupy’s concern with student debt is a case in point. Granted, it is consistent with social democracy and robust public education. But debt also helps create neoliberal subjects, and does so through “private” rather than public means. The requirement that students and consumers must pay off their debt is legal, economic, and moral, often at the same time. Debt-holders must become the sorts of individuals who can earn sufficient resources to discharge it, meaning that they must adopt an entrepreneurial ethic of market rationality. Occupy’s protests over debt levels reflect not just concern about economic precariousness, but also concern that neoliberalism crowds out the non-market values necessary for a fulfilling life.

Their rejection of neoliberal governmentality also distinguishes Occupy from the Tea Partiers. True, like the Tea Party, Occupiers are skeptical of big government, and of the relationship between big business and political power. But the Tea Party is actually just fine with neoliberal governmentality, as far as I can tell. They think we should all be entrepreneurial, and that a YOYO (“you’re on your own”) state would be ideal. Their critique is that we don’t yet have that world, in part because those with lots of power are able to capture state resources for their own private needs. Occupy’s objection is much more fundamental. The problem is not that the rules are being broken. The problem is that the game itself — the pursuit of market rationality — does not reflect or advance a valid good or ethic.

Along similar lines, Occupy shares some facial similarities to the social justice wing of the Catholic Church, as both Pasquale and E.J. Dionne have noted. Both are skeptical of consumerism, financial capitalism, and concentrated wealth. Both espouse a more fulfilling form of life based upon relationships, whether with God or with one another. But the idea of taking direction from a distant body or individual who claims to speak for God would be anathema to Occupy, which instead seeks to decide and act based on principles of direct — and even deliberative — democracy. The movement is radically decentralized, with many decisions being made through the “people’s microphone.” This reflects once again rejection of neoliberalism. Occupy types often talk about “building a new world.” The idea, it seems to me, is to reject market rationality as a mode of operating and thinking about power and governance — who cares if our decision making is inefficient??? — and to establish alternative modes of acting and being rooted in different human values.

As Judith Butler put it, Occupy is “articulating a new idea of who people are. We are still the people, and we’ll build, in a kind of microcosmic form, a community that takes cares of each others’ needs, that abandons no one and is based on horizontal relations of equality and respect.” Somewhat ironically, that sounds a bit like some liberal accounts of the just society. But the irony can be overstated. As Wendy Brown has argued, “what liberal democracy has provided over the past two centuries is a modest ethical gap between economy and polity.” If neoliberal governmentality threatens to erase that gap, Occupy seems intent on prying it back open.

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3 Responses

  1. Todd Klimson says:

    The Author is right, Most occupiers are not opposed to free enterprise. I’ve talked to many occupiers recently and can understand their concern. 1/2 percent of 1% of the nations top earners contribute 99% of the money to campaigns, a rather staggering number. However, they are somewhat biased when it comes to political ideology on which side to place the blame, many of them blame republicans. Yes conservatives are to blame but if you look at contributions from these ultra-wealthy individuals the playing field is level. Whats their real agenda here??

  2. Frank Pasquale says:

    Thank you for mentioning my work! I really appreciate your insights here. I wanted to respond in a comment but it got so long I did my own post:


  3. Mark A. Edwards says:

    Superb post. Very insightful.