06 February 2013

The cosmopolitan imagination of neoliberalism

Regression to the nation form
Part 1 of 2
I’m glad that Paul raised the dangerous new nationalist energies starting to build in East Asia. Last year I started to lay out a historical account of the progressive potential that neoliberalism opened up to overcome the nation form, and the alarming threat to that potential posed by populist attacks on neoliberalism. I still need to come back to that general account; here I will begin to explore the growing tensions within countries that have produced the rise of nationalist politics.

The New York Times noted Russia’s growing xenophobia in a recent article. Following the enactment on December 28 of a law to bar Americans from adopting Russian children (which passed the Duma 400 to 4, with two abstentions), the legislature will now consider a variety of laws targeting foreigners and Russians who have connections abroad:
A full ban on all foreign adoption. A requirement that the children of Russian officials return directly to Russia after studying abroad, lest their parent lose his or her post. A requirement that officials’ children be barred from studying abroad altogether. A requirement that movie theaters screen Russian-made films no less than 20 percent of the time, or face fines as high as 400,000 rubles, or about $13,000.

One group of legislators is working on a bill that would prevent anyone with foreign citizenship, including Russians, from criticizing the government on television. One proposal would ban the use of foreign driver’s licenses, another would require officials to drive Russian-made cars. One deputy has recommended strictly limiting marriages between Russian officials and foreigners, at least those from states that were not formerly Soviet.
The journalist doesn’t provide much by way of explanation, but does emphasize that this wave of patriotism is directed not against foreign countries but at Russia’s own elite. One quote from Sergei Markov, a political analyst and former legislator, provides considerable insight:
“The population considers the elite to be half-foreign,” he said. “Their property is abroad, their houses are abroad, their wives are abroad, their children are abroad. Even Russian industrialists work through offshore companies. Why do these people run Russia, they say.”
The resonance of this line of thinking is not unique to Russia. In every major country, the neoliberal global economy has generated a cosmopolitan business elite comfortable in conference rooms and luxury hotels the world over, but with very little in common with that increasing share of their countrymen who have been left behind. They congregate in and travel among the centers of economic power we call the global cities—New York and Chicago, Moscow and Peterburg, Beijing and Shanghai, London, Tōkyō, Dubai, Hong Kong, Mumbai.

These people, together with the well-educated, high-level administrators, journalists, professors, lawyers, and other elite professionals who move in the same circles, are those most susceptible to the liberal-minded, optimistic form of neoliberal ideology that is grounded in an apprehension of society as an aggregate (in contrast to the petty, resentful neoliberal ideology of the Tea Party and other victims of neoliberal society). It’s important to understand that these people believe in neoliberal ideology not because they are looking to rationalize their own success or to salve their consciences over those who are sacrificed. Rather, elite neoliberal ideology is appealing because it makes sense of their own lived experience, as people who succeeded in their professional lives through great individual effort, and because its prescriptions proved efficacious (until recently) in managing their businesses, in governing the economy, and in interpreting the world around them. Moreover, the obstacles they have faced have come primarily from the hobgoblins of neoliberal ideology, namely systems of patronage and parasitism that often coordinate affairs below the elite level (“corruption”) and the various forms of state intervention that are known as “authoritarianism”.

This is especially true of those on the frontiers of neoliberalism, those whose countries were part of the second great wave of neoliberalization that incorporated huge new parts of the globe with incredible speed in the years 1989-1991: Russia, China, India. In these countries, elite neoliberals face much more acute forms of “corruption” and “authoritarianism” than their counterparts in the developed world. I will try to indicate in part 2 of this post why that is, but for the moment let us remain within the subjectivity of elite neoliberals.

To them, corruption and authoritarianism are not features of contemporary society but perverse vestiges of a barbaric past, alternately identified as “socialism” or “feudalism”—or both, since “socialism” is often defined as a special case of “feudalism”. Thus a Russian critic characterizes the legislation before the Duma as “increasingly absurd, archaic and aggressive measures” defended with “medieval rhetoric”. An Indian analyst roots corruption in his country in “feudal mindsets”. A Chinese social scientist writes,
After our country’s revolutionary victory, in building a political system we basically imported the Stalin model of highly concentrated power, but because of the enduring influence of feudalism, this centralism often took on the characteristics of feudal despotism.... [T]hrough more than 30 years of reforms, we have made much progress in de-Sovietizing the economy, but in the political system there are many domains that have not cast off the Soviet model.
It is precisely the personalized forms of coercion or domination that, to the neoliberals, distinguish these anachronistic behaviors from the freedom and efficiency of “Western” ways of business, governance, and culture. So the Russian critic above identifies her fellow dissidents as “enlightened, modern and Western-oriented people”. Or the writers of the Nanfang Media Group 南方报业传媒集, publisher of the most prominent voices of liberal criticism in China, constantly compare the advanced practices of Western countries to benighted Chinese norms. It’s but a short step from here to an explanation of the persistence of feudal remnants that blames “Chinese”/“Indian”/“Russian” culture and its grip on the people of China/India/Russia.

This is a step that is all too commonly taken by elite neoliberals. Increasingly, and ominously, critics of neoliberalism are taking the same step but with the signs reversed, and grounding their opposition to neoliberalism in their native soil.


  1. I would add that the discourses of neoliberalism still have a lot of currency because they allow you to tell a really happy and reassuring story, such as this:


    This guy, at least, seems convinced that the U.S. has very much put the crisis behind it and it's full steam ahead from this point on. He even thinks Europe will emerge stronger and more economically robust after all is said and done. A key point of support he invokes, among other stuff, is the coming energy boom, for which he provides lots of dazzling statistics about the amazing effects this will have on the U.S. economy. Much of this is overblown, of course, but is it all smoke and mirrors? In any case, this piece seems to be a condensed presentation of the kinds of stories that the neoliberal elite is probably telling itself right now. They definitely still seem convinced they can restore robust growth, which would mitigate - at least in the U.S. and Europe - the simmering nationalist tensions that are beginning to emerge all over the place and that recent posts have highlighted. I'd be interested in hearing what others think about the neoliberal outlook for the future: is it sheer ideology at this point, insofar as the underlying contradictions that produced the crisis persist and go unrecognized? Or is there any measure of truth to these kinds of forecasts?

  2. I appreciate this reading of what those in the know call the BRIC(S) -- Brazil, Russia, India, China (and occasionally they throw in South Africa so as to not appear to be leaving Africa behind. Thinking about them in terms of cosmopolitanism, an ideology that was last normatively employed before the first world war, draws what I think are some necessary connections between that period and now.

    Not to be deterministic or vulgarly materialist, but the connections between contemporary globalization and the international trade system at the beginning of the last century are far too obvious to ignore. It was, in fact, only around five years ago that the current wave of globalization exceeded the previous one by value (it had long since surpassed it in volume, of course). The mobility of high-end labor, and especially of capital, is obviously related to the issue of the foreignness of elites as compared to the average citizen.

    The even darker sides of these trends coincide as well. The logic of patriotic and populist movements in the west (and the BRIC[S]) almost mirrors that of the right wing populisms that rose to power at the beginning of the 1900's.

    "The elite is a corrupt, foreign entity choking the common people. Their values are not our values. They are parasites. They're unlike some of the business elite (a good contemporary example might be Steve Jobs) who are productive rather than exploitative. The natural enemy of working people is not their bosses but their bosses' bankers. Etc etc etc..."

    This doesn't just resemble anti-Semitic logic: it is anti-Semitic logic. I think that this confluence deserves a little more attention that it gets, both in he left and in the mainstream.