Redoing the Demos? An Interview with Wendy Brown
Theory, Culture and Society, June 8, 2017
Question 1: In Undoing the Demos (2015), you address the impossibility of radical or emancipatory politics whilst the market is the only source of ‘verification’ and its fiction, the Homo Oeconomicus, is the last figure standing. In order to grasp this problem, you develop an interesting triangular space between Foucault, Marx and Democracy, which proves to be fruitful, yet also finds opponents in each corner. Could you elaborate further on this theoretical space you have created? Why is it important, and how can we best tackle the critiques arising in each corner?
Brown: From Marx, we learn to think about political economy and learn to think about capitalism in its various iterations. Of course, we had to do some updating of Marx to grasp first Keynesian and then, more recently, neoliberal capitalism and now finance capitalism. But from Marx, we learn to think about our world in terms of the organization of the mode of production and what some have now called ‘the mode of prediction’ (that is, finance capital). We learn to think about it in material ways, and that seems really important for thinking about both where power and domination and exploitation are, and points of resistance.
From Foucault, we learn to think about how we are governed by orders of reason and, what he has come to call in later life, forms of ‘governing rationality’ or ‘governmental reason’. And, for Foucault, those cannot ever be reduced to modes of production or political economy and, importantly, become our common sense: the modes through which we are produced as subjects and also the modes through which we are governed as subjects. So, Foucault teaches us to keep our eye on the principles of common sense that any particular order of governing rationality generates and think about how to resist those: how to develop alternative principles, alternative discourses… but also how to think about resisting the subject that these modes produce. And that’s a very difficult practice but I think a really important one.
Now, for me, the problem is, those two thinkers are very powerful and very important in thinking about political resistance; but neither one is much interested in ‘democracy’, its institutions or its imaginary (Marx a little more than Foucault). But why do I care? Because the other thing that seems to me that’s been happening through neoliberalism is that we live in what Foucault would call a ‘governing rationality’ that has quite materially assaulted the institutions of democracy, the practices of democracy. Its turned democracies into political marketplaces, Plutocracies and Plutonomies, but also challenged the political imaginaries that democracy and democratic rebellions count on.