The Occupation of Common Sense: From Neoliberalism to Radical Democracy

By Tristan Smaldone
2016, Vol. 8 No. 01 | pg. 1/2 |


Conceiving neoliberalism as a form of constructivism, an ideological project rather than a doctrine prefigured by ‘human nature’, illuminates a promising path towards countering its impoverishing effect on both the citizen subject and the ethos of democracy. This involves a concerted intervention at the level of discourse, aimed at reestablishing the importance of sociality and political community building over the fallacious, insular self. In the midst of the recent financial crisis, the Occupy Wall Street movement began this intervention but faltered over the question of representation. In this paper, the topic of political engagement versus desertion is explored, comparing Hardt and Negri’s concept of the multitude with Laclau’s rendering of a people. Through discourse analysis, the constructs of neoliberal ‘common sense’ are contrasted with a radical democratic imaginary - one that is attempting to interrupt the ideological normalization of political passivity.

As the global financial system entered a period of crisis in 2008, neoliberal ideology, unfaltering and unapologetic, deepened its indelibility in the solicitation of popular discourse and the American political elite. From gratuitous private bailouts of investment banks and cruel impositions of public austerity, to Supreme Court rulings which effectively sold-off the electoral process, the infiltration of market rationalism into the United States political system reached a new level of intensity in the ensuing years of economic depression.

Amid dystopic prospects and heartache brought on by foreclosures, joblessness, indebtedness, poverty, and a dismantled system of public goods and services, the strongest expression of popular indignation, at least initially, came from the nativistic, anti-government Tea Party, an overt incarnation of radically conditioned citizens whose confused obsession with private liberty completely obscured the larger process of socio-political subjugation to private enterprise that had situated the US economy in a state of collapse (Barker, 2012). Aside from the vitriolic cries of the radical right, reactions to the crisis were relatively muted, as the general population appeared uninvolved, spectral and detached. This all changed in September 2011 as thousands of people, in near spontaneity, converged on Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, declaring a ‘liberated zone’ at the doorstep of Wall Street.

Occupy Wall Street

Protesters during Occupy Wall Street movement. Photo: Aaron Bauer CC-2

Through discourse analysis, this article presents a critical perspective on neoliberal ideology as a constructivist project, unraveling and interpreting its doctrinal hold over citizen-subjectivity. Furthermore, it shows how the production of passive, individuated subjects allows for unempathetic, hyper-rational governance to displace the nexus of sociality, crucial to the existence of democratic citizenship. From there, the focus turns to the Occupy Wall Street movement and the ways in which it formed a discursive intervention into neoliberal hegemony and democratic displacement. The following questions arise: What is the subversive potential of radical imaginaries in a post-democratic era of US politics? Is it necessary to recast the concept of the citizen-subject in order to adapt to the current state of neoliberal governance or does the restoration of democratic citizenship demand a return to classical structures of popular sovereignty?

Neoliberalism as a Constructivist Project

Much work has been done tracing the influence of particular historical actors influential in the promulgation of neoliberal ideology, beginning with its intellectual evolution in the works of Friedrich Von Hayek, Wilhelm Ropke, Milton Friedman, and the Chicago School, through its political appropriation by leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (Brown, 2003; Connolly, 2013, p.21). A global, paradigmatic shift towards a neoliberal order, functioning to liberate the flow of capital and commodities, has been encouraged and accelerated through the creation and influence of transnational organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization, and NAFTA. Tracing the history and influence of particular intellectual and political elites, along with dominant states and institutions promoting globalization, substantiates a concerted and consistent ideological project, spanning decades, gaining momentum, and disseminating into more and more domains of life.

In contrast to laissez faire and classical economic liberalism, neoliberalism treats market rationality as a totalizing principle to be applied to every human activity, whether economic, social, political, pedagogic, familial, or personal (Brown, 2015, p. 35). As an ideological enterprise, it relies on a range of devices to pervade both inner, subjective life and the objective field of relationality. It actively deconstructs the value of community, society, and polity, producing a negation out of which new relations are constructed. The devaluing of inter-subjectivity empties the individual of their empathetic alliances with others, creating what constructivist theory might refer to as a new “normative and epistemic interpretation of the material world,” one based on an imagined individualism (Adler, 2011). In short, neoliberalism constructs a reciprocating relationship between idealism and materialism by producing its own ‘truth’, which conforming behaviors then reify. However, growing insight into the ways in which this ‘truth’ is produced and performed discloses its fragility and engenders a path towards the healing of fractured human relations.

In her influential article Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy, Wendy Brown, following Foucault’s 1978 and 1979 College de France lectures, inferred that the ontological dimension of homo oeconomicus, being produced in neoliberal ideology and projected onto the subject of contemporary human existence, is purely a discursive construction. In fact, nowhere in neoliberal orthodoxy does this ontological rendering claim any natural or essential substance. Therefore, the superimposition of market rationality onto the complex of human life requires intentional discursive encouragement along with political and juridical intervention (Brown, 2003).

Here, ‘discourse’ is used in broader terminology, not simply signifying speech or different forms of communication, but inclusive of “any complex of elements in which relations play a constitutive role” (Laclau, 2005, p. 68). Rather than distinguishing ontology as a natural and autonomous condition, the notion of discourse allows for the understanding that “norm and deviation are the means by which subjects and objects in any field are made, arranged, represented, judged, and conducted” (Brown, 2015, p. 117). It is through environmental and interpersonal experience, that our subjectivity is situated within a nexus of relationality, where both our singularity and commonalities are substantiated and find meaning. This point will be articulated further following an analysis of how neoliberalism as a discursive operator, specifically shapes the citizen-subject.

Through the constructs of neoliberal ideology a particular subjectivity is given shape. Conditioned to disassociate from communion, community, and any sense of commonality, the subject is cast into a fierce, Darwinian world as competitor and survivalist. As elaborated by Foucalt and Brown, among others, neoliberal rationality constructs the subject as a singular unit, an individual harboring the raw potential to produce human capital (Brown, 2015, p. 36). Liberating the subject from any or all constraint allows this potential to actualize and for their profitable capacity to be maximized. Entrepreneurial drive interacts in the social ‘marketplace’ through relations of competition rather than exchange, as previously imagined in classical liberal economics. The deleterious effect of this disposition is that engrained competitiveness severely compromises subjective, empathetic alliance with family, community, society, and the political body, as market rationality supplants our feelings of responsibility towards one another and our capacity to make decisions collectively (Brown, 2015, p.101-107). In effect, this discursive shift denies the value or even the existence of a world in common, atomizing vital contacts with fellowship and facilitating a subjective retraction into our insular, interior lives (Gilbert, 2014, p. 32). 1

As the dominant public philosophy, recurrent in the educational system, the workplace, mainstream and social media, and the ideology of governance, neoliberalism establishes its ascendency by promoting a myth that the market, if uninhibited and left alone to self-regulate, will find its own way out of any crisis that arises. As the myth intoxicates our condition, the reality of our isolation, indebtedness, vulnerability, and fatigue is shrouded in a false concioussness, an unquestioned faith in the ability of an ideology that promises the comfort of an automated existence, needing minimal management or human interference and thereby freeing the individual to focus exclusively on their own entrepreneurial growth (Connolly, 2013, p. 24-25). However, as it becomes increasingly difficult to manage basic living expenses such as health care, education, and housing, a new stratum is added to subjectivity, one that demands even harder work and greater obedience. Hardt and Negri refer to this impoverished subjective figure as the ‘indebted’ (Hardt & Negri, 2012, p.10).

It is through this promise of automated relief that the citizen subject becomes the passive observer to antithetical and uncompassionate, market-driven political and legal decision-making, even in times of economic collapse and personal sacrifice. The manufactured lassitude towards the importance of social and political organization, to popular sovereignty, and democratic decision-making, coupled with the preoccupation with market rationality, is essential to another motive in neoliberal ideology; that being a shift towards devolved governance.

Neoliberal governance, being primarily dependent on the rationality of the markets, strives for a high level of automation, partially negating the actual process of decision-making, at least concerning deliberation about collective needs, desires, and values. Instead, it creates conformity through consensus building, providing a model replete with incentives, an illusion of ‘shared sacrifice’, and benchmarks to which accountability can be attributed (Brown, 2015, p. 123-129). In this manner of governance, responsibility devolves from the hegemonic ideologues of neoliberalism; multinational organizations, institutions, and corporations, down to national governments, to local governments, to communities, and finally, to the individual. For example, through the cycling down of responsibility, environmental destruction becomes a matter of individual ‘carbon footprints’ and economic recession is blamed on a lack of consumer spending. 2

The friction between radically conceived individualism and suppressed political and social agency, is an irreconcilable dilemma in neoliberal discourse, one that is both theoretically problematic, and disastrous in common practice. The proffering of a fanatically superficial individualism, where autonomy and self-determination are narrowly defined through the subjective potential to produce human capital, is a delusional and consequential discursive maneuver that renders the citizen subject communally dissociated and politically impotent. In what follows, ways in which individuality has been imagined as antecedent to social relations will be problematized and contrasted with an ontological reversal.

The Integrity of the Individual

In his Ecrits, Lacan emphasizes that the crucial moment in the structuring of subjectivity comes during the ‘mirror stage’, occurring usually between six months and two and a half years of life. During this period of time the subject first discovers their corporality and the linking between self and object are established, in what Lacan calls the ‘Imaginary order’. External images, whether coming from a reflection in a mirror or the faces and bodies of other people, give the child a sense of unified being, an ‘illusion of autonomy’. Through a process of transitivism, subjective and objective awareness and constitution fuses with the physicality of the ‘other.’3 Internal wishes, desires, and impulses become inseparable from those external to the individual. The ‘Imaginary order’ becomes the substructure for the ‘Symbolic order’, as the child learns to speak and associate images with representations. This initial engagement in a complex field of relations with the ‘other’, the surrounding environment, and ensuing symbolic representation, is how the identity of the ego is existentially conditioned and how the self becomes interposed in discourse (Lacan, 2006, p. 92; Bracher, 1993, p. 32).

Affect, a term that Lacan himself was not fond of, is an important concept in breaking from the illusion of autonomy and invalidating the integrity of individualism. It implies a sort of discourse outside of images and symbolism. In the forward to Deleuze and Guittari’s a Thousand Plateaus, Brian Massumi offers a commonly referenced definition of affect as being “a prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another and implying an augmentation or diminution in that body’s capacity to act” (Delueze & Guittari, 1987, p. xvi). Affect implies a sort of inter-subjective modulation of emotion and response that emerges when more than one body interact in a given space. It can be thought of as a ‘joint activity of becoming’ (Massumi, 2015, p. 94-95).

Unlike, the Fruedian version of affect, which treats it as a ‘regression of mental activity’ occurring when individuals are in a group and their emotions become roused and undifferentiated in the presence of the other, Massumi’s characterization of the term is more complex (Frued, 1989, p. 62-63). For him, affect is absorbed differently by each subject in a way that keeps its form heterogeneous despite its ‘appetite for eventuation and final characterization (Massumi, 2015, p. 205). This distinction will become important later when discussing the onto-political formations of the multitude and a people.

The lack of resolvability in affect is also alluded to in Entien Balibar’s concept of transindividualism, which refers to non-autonomous subjectivity, where relations between the particular and the universal are viewed as mutually constituting exchanges. For Balibar, transindividualism conjures a particular insolubility for political thought because neither individual liberty nor social equality is realizable in absolute form, given their interdependency. Therefore, reaching an intricate understanding of democratic citizenship involves the recognition of a duality between the emancipation of the individual and the normalization of the social, one that is in constant flux and renegotiation. (Balibar, 2014, p. 124).

By defining individuality not only by citizenship, political status, active participation in the public sphere on the basis of enjoying certain rights, and belonging to a certain community or sharing certain capacities, responsibilities, and duties, but in a more active way, on the basis of how individuals confer on each other, reciprocally, these rights and capacities in order to construct the community, modernity crossed a decisive threshold (Balibar, 2014, p. 102).

With a critical analysis of subjectivity in place, self-determined or autonomous individuality is conceptually difficult, as it is thoroughly integrated, influenced, and shaped by relationality. Lacan, convincingly linked imagery and symbolism to the primal constitution of identity, while Massumi’s concept of affect has brought dimension to subjectivity, exposing its continual susceptibility to influence and transformation as bodies interact with one another other in space and across time. Balibar’s Transindividualism has further complicated the disposition of the individual within a political community demanding a radical reconceptualization of sovereignty, as was attempted in the Occupy movement. Yet, it is precisely the idea of a cloistered subjectivity that underscores classical liberalism and the way in which the citizen-subject has been conceived historically.

Possessive Individualism

In early individualist thought the self is viewed as indivisible, singular and separate from the social. Subjectivity is thought to pre-exist social relations rather than being constituted by them. The presumed ‘natural’ state of the private, internal self is ascribed onto the external world, with the understanding that material possession is an inherent right. (Gilbert, 2014, p.31-33). Hobbes, for instance, proposed that the autonomous condition of the human experience, as existing in a ‘state of nature’, necessitates a possessive form of individualism that entails fierce competition over scarce resources. Here, survival is linked to power and power to property (Balibar, 2014, p. 74-75). Through this ontological linkage, ‘being’ becomes inseparable from ‘having’.

For Locke, along with Adam Smith, the natural self-interests of man entail both possession and commercial competition, but also operate in conjunction with needs arising from interdependency. This requires a degree of mediation between homo policus and homo oeconomicus (Brown, 2015, p. 91-93). In this way, possessive, or competitive individualism would be moderated by political cooperation. The work of Rousseau marked a shift in this paradigm, not only by anthropologically de-linking the fusion between ‘having’ and ‘being’ by placing the superiority of the general will over that of individual will, but also by asserting the significance of the social contract in mediating between the two. However, it was not until Marx that the dream of cooperative and gentile commercialism, having by now evolved into industrial capitalism, was finally posed as an ideological fiction ((Balibar, 2014, p. 108). What is demonstrated by this crude outline of paradigmatic shifts in political thought over the centuries, is a progressive democratization of liberalism. It is precisely this phenomenon that the neoliberal project has set upon to reverse.

As a reaction to interventionist statism in the early part of the 20th century, influential neoliberal thinkers such as Hayek, Friedman, and Nozic positioned the mediation between homo policus and homo oeconomicus as an attack on individual liberty. (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985, p. 155-157). By reasserting the autonomy and perfectibility of the self, the ideology of neoliberalism harks back to the model of the Vitruvian Man, Da Vinci’s emblem of humanism and liberal rationality (Braidotti, 2013, p.13-14). In this sense, it is a form of humanism emptied of compassion. The ideology embraces the tenets of possessive individualism, not by claiming natural rights but by the deliberate dissociation of communities expressing shared values and needs, with the desired outcome being an exhaustive de-democratization of liberalism.

Having problematized many of the ways in which neoliberalism has shaped the citizen subject and the field of relationality, this analysis will shift to the onto-political formulations of the multitude and a people to explore both their objective coherence and relevance in recent protest movements. Through these references, the subversive potential of radical democratic imaginaries, as found in recent incursions of the Occupy movement, will be examined.

The Coherence of a Group

As a decentralized, horizontally organized, popular struggle, with few demands or goals and an earnest distrust for the idea of representation, the complex and irregular Occupy movement has frustrated numerous attempts at locating and narrating a unified message, despite the undeniable presence and articulation of solidarity within its formation. 4 The antagonism from which a discursive separation of the 99% from the 1% emanated alludes to the presence of a radical imaginary, a particular coherence that lends itself to further analysis.

Certainly, comparisons can be made between the rhizomatic and seemingly irrepresentable body of Occupy and a multitude, as thought of in the works of Hardt and Negri. The multitude is a political ontology of immanence rather than transcendence. Here, immanence refers to a subjectivity that is so indistinct that it defies categorization, universalization, and the possibility of representation. This is in opposition to transcendence, which refers to the presence of an external signifier, such as a divine being or leader who represents an internally constructed collective subject. Because of its degree of inclusive heterogeneity, the multitude has neither a stable internal identity nor an externality from which to be distinguished (Hardt & Negri, 2000, p. 103; Rerello & Biglieri, 2012 ).

The multitude is an incarnation of absolute democracy; spontaneous, non-stationary, self-organized, and radically opposed to the concept of a unified political subject, as Hobbes envisioned in the people of his Leviathan. For Hobbes, the coherence of a political ‘body’ forms out of fear and mutual need for protection. Only through a vertical connection with a leader may subjects be assured security when facing anomie, the natural state of discord and amorality. For the contrasting figure of the multitude, the operative force is internal benevolence, rather than fear, that emanates outwardly, yet is always cautious of attempts to converge on moral normativity. It is an abstract commonwealth without institution. Its sovereignty is without center, nationality or external rule. (Rerello & Biglieri, 2012; Cherniavsky, 2014).

Decentered concepts of commonwealth and sovereignty have an increasing degree of relevance in todays shifting, post-democratic and post-national era of neoliberal governance where their orientation is constantly being challenged and reimagined in a global form. In this way, the multitude may be conceived as a collective subjectivity that is simply adapting to the realities of postmodernity. In fact, as a product of the same historical epoch, Hardt and Negri’s multitude parallels rather than opposes many of the tenets of neoliberalism, such as disclaiming the state, and striving for autonomy and self-organization (Cherniavsky, 2014).

From a geo-political perspective, a figuring of the multitude may be a useful theoretical undertaking. The Occupy movement was, without a doubt, inspired and connected in many ways to various emancipatory projects around the world that emerged in 2011-2012, such as the Arab uprisings, the Spanish Indignados, and the Aganaktismenoi movement in Greece, among others. However, the connection between movements was more mimetic than concerted, with each location being the site of a unique struggle framed within the context of national citizenship and sovereignty. There was commonality, however, between grievances, many of which directly challenged neoliberal globalization. For this reason, making empirical claims for an emerging multitude may be misguided. On the other hand, the Hobbesian transcendental figuring of a people is overly essentialistic and inadequate to account for a complex understanding of relationality, affect and transindividualism. This necessitates an alternative political ontology.

In the co-authored work, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclua postulate the thesis that Marxism has traditionally misconstrued the ‘working class’ as a homogenous agent and unified political actor. By essentializing and overdetermining the social order of class antagonism, Marxism closes off its own emancipatory potential. They argue instead, that in order for liberation projects to expand beyond the narrow confines of class relations, a ‘plurality of antagonisms’ needs to find coherence and discursive equivalence (Laclau & Mouffe, 2014, p. 52-53).

In his final book, On Populist Reason, Laclau offers his most comprehensive and fully articulated strategy for creating discursive equivalence. He accomplishes this by applying Freudian group psychology to the analysis of populist discourse and the creation of a people. Freud defines a group as “a number of individuals who have put one and the same object in the place of their ego ideal and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego” (Freud, 1989, p. 61). In other words, it is through a cathectic investment in an object or leader that individuals become bound. However, Freud also suggests that “hatred against a particular person or institution might operate in just the same unifying way, and might call up the same kind of emotional ties as positive attachment (Freud, 1989, p. 41). This is where Laclau begins his exposition of a people in the discursive logic of populism.

According to Laclau, the fundamental notion of populism involves a discursive separation between an internal and external frontier. This is perfectly exemplified in the dichotomic positioning of the 99% and the 1% in the Occupy movement. Presupposing this frontier, however, is the construction of a people (Laclau, 2005, p. 53). For Laclau, the bond shared by a people occurs at the libidinal level of affect, allowing what he refers to as a ‘chain of equivalence’ to form. Here, the contrast between the people of Hobbes and Laclau is clear, with the former being organized around trepidation and the latter around fellowship. 5 The equivalential chain unifies heterogeneous elements found in a plurality of antagonisms by being simultaneously inclusive and exclusive (Laclau, 2005, p. 139). One of the significant differences between Laclau’s people and the multitude is the idea that by creating an internal/external borderline, a fluctuating network of normativity is obtained, and along with it, the possibility for an ethico-political position.

If one of the elements in the ‘chain’ becomes dominant, the context of its equivalence changes, being emptied of its signification, hence the term, empty signifiers (Laclau, 2005, p. 131). In other words, for the unity of a people to remain constant, it must maintain its position in an internal frontier, while its elements remain in constant flux. The changing constitution of the internal frontier becomes what Laclau refers to as a floating signifier. Through the articulation of these various elements, a symbolic order is created and the representation of a people is temporarily ‘sutured’. Laclau notes that, “if heterogeneity is constitutive of the social bond, we are always going to have a political dimension by which society- and the ‘people’- are constantly reinvented” (Laclau, 2005, p. 154). Therefore, a people is not in a position of pure imminence as it is constantly gravitating towards representation, but rather in a position of ‘failed transcendence’, where its identity is never completed (Laclau, 2005, p. 244).

Much of the difficulty in articulating what the Occupy movement is, what it stands for, and what its objectives are, comes from the fact that its failed transcendence is actually purposeful. This is due, in part, to the presence of a unique consciousness around the affective dimension of street-level democracy- one that generates its own vitality and sets the democratic imagination into perpetual motion. On the surface, Occupy is a broad protest movement that emerged rhizomatically in dozens of locations across the US and abroad, without a unitary set of demands and without representation. 6 Underlying this negation, however, is a mosaic of particularistic grievances and demands, infinitely pluralistic, yet unified under the discursive banner of the 99%.

While not exactly a statistical category based on a status of wealth, the 99% can perhaps be best understood by what it negates. It can be inferred that the 1% includes not only the empirical 1%, the financial elite, but also anyone who embraces or endorses neoliberal ideology and governance. This includes a variety of actors from the mainstream media, the police, the Republican Party, to many members of the institutional Left. (Welty, Bolton, Nayak & Malone, 2013, p. 36). Because the symbolic 99% is a floating signifier, in Laclau’s terms, trying to formulate a fixed identity for its representation is frivolous. However, by thinking in terms of ‘chains of equivalence’ within the discursive field, it’s clear that general feelings of exclusion from political participation and economic gains are of central importance to the movement at large (Kang, 2013, p. 63). This feeling of exclusion is shared by a diversity of actors, each with their own subjective relation to the ideological devices of neoliberal governance.

During the encampment phase, many of Occupy’s participants formed councils or Working Groups that functioned as subsidiaries to the broader movement. In the Occupy Wall Street encampment alone, there were over one hundred such groups, including: The Animal Issues Group, Council of the Elders, Disability Caucus, Education Revolution, Healthcare For All, Occupy University, People of Color Caucus, Queering OWS, and the Woman Occupying Wall Street Group. 7 Within the organizational structure of the encampment there were also dozens of functionary groups providing services to the occupants. These included Working Groups such as: Legal Group, Comfort, Kitchen, Library, Press Relations, Wellness, Medical, and Sanitation Group, among others (Kang, 2013, p. 61-97). This partial list of councils, caucuses and groups present in the movement, exemplifies a unique compatibility between heterogeneity and mutuality.

Against the claim by Hardt and Negri that “The people is somewhat that is one, having one will, and to whom one action may be attributed” (Hardt and Negri, 2000, p.103), Laclau’s reworking of a people balances heterogeneous singularity with unified intentionality. It thereby retains the possibility of political construction, one that is absent and undesired in the anarchistic multitude. The name for this constructivism, borrowed from the lexicon of Gramsci, is hegemony.

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