One of Søren Kierkegaard’s recurrent themes is the importance of subjectivity, which has to do with the way people relate themselves to (objective) truths. What he means by this is that most essentially, truth is not just a matter of discovering objective facts. While objective facts are important, there is a second and more crucial element of truth, which involves how one relates oneself to those matters of fact. Since how one acts is, from the ethical perspective, is more important than any matter of fact, truth is to be found in subjectivity rather than objectivity. Truth, much like knowledge, is bound to power and similarly operates amidst the individuals and institutions that generate and sustain it. The economic elite do not hesitate to present their ideology as interpretation of truth. The “truth” the market reveals is never in actuality some eternal, given fact. The market is never a neutral arbiter of truth, so the “truth” it reveals about government practice has always required interpretation.
There was nothing simple about Milton Friedman’s precarious balancing act at the heart of the neoliberal project, and it never consisted of simple-minded libertarianism. The counterevidence comes in Friedman’s own private correspondence, such as a 1973 letter to Pat Buchanan: “We are talking at cross-purposes because of what I regard as the important necessity of keeping clearly separate the long-run ideal goal and the tactical steps that may be appropriate in moving towards it.” This distinction did not merely consist of the trimming of the sails to render their political project more palatable to the masses. It consisted of living a sequence of double truths – one for the masses, another for battle-hardened insiders – that grew organically out of the key political and epistemological positions innovated by the thought collective over the last sixty years.1
The neoliberals believe that the market always knows better than any human being, but that humans would never voluntarily capitulate to that truth. People would resist utter abjection to the demands of the market; they would never completely dissolve into undifferentiated “human capital”; they would flinch at the idea that the political franchise needed to be restricted rather than broadened; they would be revolted that the condition of being “free to choose” only meant forgetting any political rights and giving up all pretense of being able to take charge of their own course through life. Neoliberal ideals would always be a hard sell, and the neoliberals realized that. How much easier to avoid all that with simplistic stories that fogged the mind of the masses: government is always bad; everything you need to know is already in Adam Smith; you can be anything you want to be; there is no such thing as class; everything can be made better if you just express yourself on some social media platform; there is nothing wrong with you that a little shopping won’t fix.
The crises of modern science, curiously enough, were largely brought about by neoliberal initiatives in the first place. First off, it was the neoliberal think tanks that first stoked the fires of science distrust amongst the populace that have led to the current predicament. It was neoliberals who provided the justification for the strengthening of intellectual property; it was the neoliberals who drove a wedge between state funding of research and state provision of university findings for the public good; it was neoliberal administrators who began to fragment the university into “cash cows” and loss-leader disciplines; it was neoliberal corporate officers who sought to wrest clinical trials away from academic health centers and toward contract research organizations to better control the disclosure or nondisclosure of the data generated. In some universities, students now have to sign nondisclosure agreements if they want initiation into the mysteries of faculty startups.
The 2008 global economic crisis paved the way for the construction of a new, elite-driven, capital centric, shrunken welfare state project founded on ideology disguised as pragmatism and objective ‘truths’. Today, welfare states exist in a context in which a new politics of austerity sets the parameters of the debate. Austerity incorporates the neoliberal desire to shrink the (social welfare) state, deregulate labor markets and emphasize private markets as the drivers of growth, enabling a reconfiguration of the interests of capital, the needs of people and the role of the state. The new politics of austerity looks like a ‘dream come true’ for neoliberals. In an age when the public sector typically accounts for 40-50 per cent of GDP in advanced economies, neo-austerity presents a definitive, pragmatic economic ‘truth’ in answer to the welfare state affordability question.2
The post-crisis public debt narrative, based on the ‘proof’ of government deficits has entered public consciousness as validation of the long-voiced warnings of neoliberal market reformers that welfare state expansion would end in disaster. It is no longer a matter of what you know; rather, success these days is your ability to position yourself with regard to the gatekeepers of what is known. Knowledge is everywhere hedged round with walls, legal prohibitions, and high market barriers breached only by those blessed with the riches required to be enrolled into the elect circles of modern science. Further, belief in the market as ultimate arbiter of truth has served to loosen the fetters of more conscious vetting of knowledge through the promulgation of negative results and the need to reprise research protocols. No wonder replication turns out to be so daunting. One can understand the desire to cast off these fetters and let the market do the work for us.
The “just” price is determined by the internal mechanisms of the market as it reaches an equilibrium price point between supply and demand. So, what we discover in this price-value relationship is that the market can reveal the truth of something’s value and can even spit out a number telling you exactly what that value is. We can apply this logic to any service or commodity. Furthermore, thinking in terms of political economy, we can even apply this judgment of the market to governance itself. What is revealed is that through natural mechanisms, the market “enables us to falsify and verify governmental practice”. Yes, “inasmuch as it enables production, need, supply, demand, value, and price, et cetera, to be linked together through exchange, the market constitutes a site of verification… a site of verification-falsification for governmental practices”. The market will tell us the truth of governmental practice, and because of the way that market logic has evolved, we are no longer talking about justice in the sense of justice for all – truth is detached from the search for justice.
Can anyone explain how raising interest rates is bad for the average citizen? Is it actually good? Under what circumstances can one interpret these straightforward data differently? It seems that the “just” price, simple as that concept was, was not the best indicator of the “truth” that the market purports to reveal. Even the market’s simple numeric answers have always required interpretation. The “truth” the market reveals was never in actuality some eternal, given fact. The market was never a neutral arbiter of truth, so the “truth” it reveals about government practice has always required interpretation. It turns out that dollars and cents just aren’t as clear-cut metrics as we might like to pretend. That necessity for interpretation means any kind of government action is justifiable so long as the government can spin it. If the stock market doesn’t supply a favorable “truth,” look to unemployment numbers or deficits, such as trade deficits, or anything that seems vaguely related to economic metrics. Keep going until you land on an acceptable truth to justify any current government practice.
The point is that even if the “truth” of the market were as simple as a revealed truth about the justness of government practice (and interpretation wasn’t necessary), neoliberalism was a faulty mechanism for staving off the rise of fascism under new nationalist sentiment in the first place. It’s entirely possible for the market to respond positively even as the state approaches fascism. In fact, in a significant way, neoliberalism never actually escapes fascism. Neoliberalism’s very frugality and subsequent demands for efficiency dovetail all too well with the rational efficiency of fascist genocide. Neoliberalism transforms freedom for the many into freedom for the few. Neofascism abolishes civil liberties in the name of national security and brands whole groups as traitors and enemies of the people. Now, the stage is set for neoliberalism to fall into fascist practice and for its market mechanisms to reveal that fascism is a perfectly fine exercise of government.3
Each system defines its own variant of truth. Power manipulates human beings, masks reality, and therefore compromises knowledge’s claim to the truth. Ideas become ideology once they are integrated into our everyday activities, where they become normalized and naturalized (thus invisible). Individuals would do well to recognize that ultimate truth, “Truth,” is the construct of the political and economic forces that command the majority of the power within the societal web. For Foucault, to challenge power is not a matter of seeking some absolute truth, but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time. There is truly no universal truth at all, only systems of power creating a regime of truth. The question of how to deal with and determine truth is at the base of today’s nationalist strife, creating the need to detach the truth that enables neoliberalism to support neofascism.
1 Philip Mirowski. (22 Nov 2018) Neoliberalism: The Movement That Dare Not Speak Its Name https://medium.com/@americanaffairs/neoliberalism-the-movement-that-dare-not-speak-its-name
2John Bellamy Foster. (01 Feb 2019) Capitalism Has Failed – What Next? https://monthlyreview.org/2019/02/01/capitalism-has-failed-what-next/
3 Michaias Grigori. (16 Feb 2019) How Neoliberalism Failed to Keep Fascism at Bay. https://epochemagazine.org/how-neoliberalism-failed-to-keep-fascism-at-bay