The Modal Collapse of Neoliberalism: when anything less than an optimal return is somehow insufficient

By now we are all familiar, or should be, with neoliberalism. We know it is essentially a form of capitalism in which certain parts of the state are privatised, either overtly or in effect; in which the role of social development is given over to business leaders and private investment, and key state services are increasingly both managed, and delivered through the private sector, whose gladiators are supposed to be constantly in combat for the prize of a contract. We also have become familiar with the often euphemistic business language which describes certain features of the neoliberal apparatus, particularly the ideological image of its public-facing front-end: ‘just-in-time’ stocking, ‘service-oriented’ architecture, ‘minimal infrastructure’. Given such imagery, one would imagine a highly efficient, waste-minimising system ‘revolutionising’ and supplanting the supposedly wasteful, costly, bureaucratic and inefficient redundancies of the Keynesian economy and its old industrial-based Fordist methodologies. Familiar too are the political incentives offered up as evidence of neoliberalism’s social value: primarily public ‘choice’, a way of making the injection of competitivity at all levels of state business–via triage of multiple competing providers–appear as a provision rooted in concern for the individual consumer and her freedom. Wrapped up in the philosophical doctrines of preferentism and the economics of public choice theory, neoliberalism’s actual motivation of centralising markets in the role of social governance cannot but appeal to a society in which the fetishisation of commodity has irrevocably obscured anything like a production process or the value of social labour.

The ideological components of neoliberalism are by now diffuse and widespread throughout our lives. My son’s high school sends me emails addressing me as a ‘customer’ rather than as the parent or guardian of a pupil; likewise, social housing projects no longer speak to residents but to ‘service users’, or, once again, ‘customers’. While custodianship of human social relations falls by the wayside, there is a general increase in guides, custodians and curatorships of products, with ‘experts’ available on every webpage to instruct the feckless masses in how to spend their wages.These trends act as ‘signs of the times’, illuminating a much wider context than education, housing and retail, in the generalisation of the human subject as the privileged holder of a customer number. Neoliberalism means monetisation, marketisation, and somewhere in that process no doubt, financialisation. While all true, this is a tired analysis that has been repeated often enough for theorists to now be scrabbling over novel and inventive ways to best characterise late capitalism, as if it were a competition for the most apt observational comedy routine.

My own contribution to this growing library of descriptive identification is very small to date, and has consisted mostly of quoting others who do it much better. I’m not, as a rule, very quick off the mark when it comes to identifying practices and trends, and tend to let fly with a keyboard at around the same time as Minerva’s owl is returning home, breakfast safely tucked in beak. A thought has occurred to me recently however, and it concerns not so much the actually-existing state of neoliberalism (as a variety of capitalist economics) but rather more reflexively, neoliberalism’s own ideological expectations of itself. I would wager that many of those caught up in neoliberalism’s expectations, either in frantically trying to fulfil them, or in the pervasive transmission and reproduction of them, are by now so deeply immersed and enmeshed in their doctrine as to no longer be capable of the same sorts of judgement that were possible forty or fifty years ago.Less cryptically, lets say that there has to come about a certain collapse of logical modal categories in order for neoliberal ideology to function smoothly. In particular, neoliberalism’s demand for the ‘optimisation’ of efficiency and the ‘excellence’ of resultant delivery must play havoc with the very basic ontological operator of sufficiency. In modal terms the sufficient is the just adequate, the ‘barely’ sufficient or satisfactory in order for a certain ontological consistency to continue or reproduce itself. My point is that if the optimal functioning of a system is demanded by neoliberalism as the normal level of its sufficiency, then the actually sufficient becomes indistinguishable from the insufficient, or the deficient. What this somewhat abstract shift and consequent indiscernibility of modal categories under neoliberalism excavates clearly is a situation under which objective evaluation through the mediation of clearly separated classical ontological categories must fail: we are left with a metric in which sufficiency is meaningless because the ideological figure of optimisation has supplanted it, rendering the rest a grey zone in which sufficiency and insufficiency are indiscernible.

In a certain sense, this was always obvious of capitalist growth-centred expansionist economics, and neoliberalism merely names the age which, to date, most visibly illuminates or demonstrates this truth. Capitalism can only survive if it can produce markets for itself, which means it must appropriate everything, even its own putative social goals (such as optimisation) as a means to surplus and self-reproduction. If that involves destroying the very intelligibility of those goals, i.e. their goal-like nature, in taking them on as basic assumptions of the system, then so be it. Logical modality is no obstacle for the juggernaut. Capitalism was never driven by the achievement of the satisfactory, by the production and the distribution of the sufficient, but by the principle of satisfaction, which is to say surplus satisfaction, the private profit of a class. I would bet that the more closely neoliberalism is analysed, the less of a new phenomenon it will appear; for all the talk of cognitive capital, precariat and new forms of exploitation, the fundamental categories of Marxist analysis seem to always re-emerge as the most adequate ways to discuss and critique it.