Objectivity versus Disguising the Neoliberal Subject as A-subjective Expert

These days I’m more and more frequently finding important political insights in the most unusual of places.

In ‘A Very Short Introduction to Objectivity’ [1] Stephen Gaukroger rightly draws an important distinction between ‘objectivity’ in a scientific sense and its pseudo-scientific use to indicate an attempted process of desubjectification in the human sciences and in political, ethical and aesthetic domains.

Neoliberalism, at least in its theoretical sense, proposes such a desubjectification process in the field of economics: to remove the human subject who decides policy, in fact the very dependency on human judgement itself, from the economy, thus linking the shaping of policy directly to the functioning of markets (called, misleadingly ‘consumer choice’, as if it were simply a matter of the spontaneous freedom of a neutral ahistorical mass). Such a proposition capitalises highly on the pseudo-scientific usage of ‘objectivity’ — and its conflation in the popular imagination with scientific objectivity — as pointed to by Professor Gaukroger.

The values that have come to be associated with objectivity, such as impartiality and lack of bias, have not only been seen as guiding scientific enquiry, but have been extrapolated into the social and political realms, underpinning notions of fairness and equality. […] Here we face a important problem in our own culture’s aspirations to objectivity. Its pre-eminence as a goal has resulted in other values masquerading as it, despite their having no relation to it and, in fact, serving to usurp genuinely objective judgements. What is often referred to as ‘number-crunching’ – the reduction of decision-making to quantification and measurement, and the exclusion of anything that cannot be treated in these terms – is a prime culprit here. Appeals to objectivity have been used to vindicate a culture of management in which targets are set so that standardized results can be generated, statistically analysed, and compared. Such practices are not necessarily subjected either to reasoned judgement or to the empirical evaluation of particular cases but typically bypass any form of independent or object reasoning at all. The idea that decision-making can be mechanized trades on a fundamental misunderstanding of objectivity, namely that it consists in removing, as far as possible, all elements of judgement from the interpretation of data. This supposedly eliminates individual prejudices and biases from interpretation and decision-making, offering something untouched by human brains, as it were. This is a widespread misunderstanding and a dangerous one. A recent example is the rejection, in government circles, of thinking about what universities should be teaching in favour of a model of consumer (student) choice. Competition theory suggests that consumer demand will produce judgement-free results, without reflection on the aims of pedagogy and education in our culture, and their role in fostering the values of our civilization. A methodology that bypasses the assumptions, values, and beliefs that inevitably accompany the exercise of judgement thereby makes claims to neutrality and objectivity. Standardized decision-making procedures stand in for reflection on the nature of the problem for which the decision is sought in the first place. Wholly misconstruing the nature of objectivity, they employ pseudo-scientific means of bypassing understanding and evaluation in favour of something that is deemed to transcend bias and prejudgement.

Of course this conflation at the heart of neoliberalism leads to glaring contradictions, as when MP Nicky Morgan argues the case for the forced transformation of all state schools into business-led academies with the line that ‘being a parent is not enough to be a school governor‘. According to Morgan, one must be a business-minded individual in order to be able to grasp the good. This clearly departs from the theoretical idea of neoliberalism as a process of removing human political subjectivity from the process of shaping human culture and instead centralising supposedly neutral (or at least ‘natural’) markets. On the contrary this centralises a certain culture of businesslikeness — or in other words, actual concrete businesses represented by individual business-leaders. In this respect neoliberalism, in the actually-existing formation we are presented with today, should not be looked at purely as the attempted market-mechanisation of government, but rather as the attempted installation of a particular, political subjectivity, the subject of business, as the central co-ordinating power in government. Thus neoliberalism in its practical manifestation never eliminates the human from the process of government (as in the wet dreams of libertarian free market fundamentalists and certain, misanthropic, political posthumanists) but rather achieves the installation of particular humans — business-leaders, with the corresponding subjectivity — in that role. It is in no way the elimination of bias, and indeed it is the entrenchment of bias towards the political outcomes of the business-centred right wing of politics.

The elimination of human judgement, of the political subject, and its replacement with systems drawing their data from markets is in any case utterly disastrous. Look at what happened with Microsoft’s recent attempt at AI, quickly withdrawn from public view. The idea that an openly scouting bot perusing the ‘market of ideas’ and conversations of the internet would somehow arrive at a representative view of humanity, rather than rapidly devolving into a holocaust-denying, genocidal anti-semite does not take into account the always-already-biased nature of markets, the way they are not simply snapshots of reality but artificially constituted by synthetic scarcification and allocation of resources, etc. As such the political human subject turns up there in a distorted, inverted or fascistic form, wreathed in all the ideology that drives a purely marketised semblance of co-existence.

The same mistake is made: the naiveté which simplistically holds that markets within a capitalistic frame are capable of mediating, expressing or reflecting human desire; that a market which sells as many doses of poison as it does apples obviously indicates a human ‘preference’ for murder; that, while ‘the demand’ is there for them, we should produce AK-47s for export. That this is what we want, the market said so. This is not data, gathered as given — nor is this merely pricing signals — it is the message of the medium itself, commenting on its own process of social reproduction, its own ideological grounding. So between neoliberalism as the centralisation of markets in decision-making in an imposture of a desubjectified mechanised democracy (of sellers and buyers), and neoliberalism as the in-actual-fact assault upon democracy (of political human subjects), there lies nothing but an unpitying violence. Even if it worked, it wouldn’t.


[1] Gaukroger, S. (2012) A Very Short Introduction to Objectivity, Oxford University Press, pp.2-3