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No Time for Despair: Neoliberalism, Democracy and (the absence of) Religion in Wendy Brown’s “Undoing the Demos”

Date:16 July 2015
Author:Religion Factor
A rally in support of the “No” Vote in the Greek referendum against the austerity reforms being demanded by the EU, Syntagma Square, Athens, 3 July 2015. Source: Ggia, Wikimedia Commons, Shared Under Creative Commons License 4.0
A rally in support of the “No” Vote in the Greek referendum against the austerity reforms being demanded by the EU, Syntagma Square, Athens, 3 July 2015. Source: Ggia, Wikimedia Commons, Shared Under Creative Commons License 4.0

The present crisis unfolding around Greece is, among many other things, a clash between political imaginaries. On the one hand, there is the vision of a democratic politics, represented (in a historical irony of sorts) by its presumed birthplace in Greece and the anti-austerity protesters taking to the streets of Athens. On the other, there is the depoliticized matrix of economic pragmatics, as represented by the Eurozone. This is becoming an all-too-familiar story, with similar previous clashes between socially progressive participatory democratic visions and neoliberal economic formulas observable in Portugal, Spain, the US and globally (think of the Indignados, the Occupy Movement and the World Social Forum, to name a few). The historical burden and the profound implications of this struggle between a participatory democratic politics and the neoliberal economic matrix are spelled out in Wendy Brown’s latest book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution[i]. In this blog, Ton Groeneweg reviews this fundamental study, highlighting religion as a key gap in Brown’s work, but an issue that may provide a way through the apparent political impasse between neoliberalism and participatory democracy.

At times, Wendy Brown’s new book reads like a pamphlet. Passionately argued, it leaves no room to be misunderstood as anything other than a frontal attack on neo-liberalism, or, as she defines it, “neo-liberal rationality”. An attack for the best of reasons: out of concern, alarm, despair about what the ‘stealth revolution’ indicated in the subtitle of the book means for the future of democracy and humanity as such. Neo-liberalism “is quietly undoing basic elements of democracy”, and our “liberal democratic institutions, practices, and habits may not survive this conversion”. If this process were to be completed, which is exactly what is threatening to happen in the present hegemony of neo-liberal reason, according to Wendy Brown, “it would darken the globe against all possibilities of democratic or other just futures”.

The book contains a meticulous analysis of the underlying mechanisms and dynamics of neo-liberalism and its philosophical foundations, a precise but shocking account of neo-liberal practice in American education and justice systems, and a valuable dialogue with other thinkers, most notably Michel Foucault. Even if Foucault’s 1978-1979 lecture cycle The Birth of Biopolitics has gained a certain reputation in social and political philosophy over the last decade or two, a critical and productive reading like the one Brown is attempting here is not often found.[ii] Although its title seems a bit off-target, according to Brown, Foucault’s lecture series show his “extraordinary prescience” about what was about to unfold itself in the following decades under the explicit name of neo-liberalism. What Foucault has understood, Brown argues, different from other analysts and at a strikingly early stage, is neo-liberalism’s “’reprogramming’ of liberalism, its radical reconfiguration of relations and purposes among state, economy, and subject”. Neo-liberalism, as both Foucault and Wendy Brown argue, is more than a change of gear within the paradigm of liberalism, that itself has been around for quite a while. In contrast to its family name, neo-liberalism does not nourish and cultivate the values of equality, justice and freedom that have accompanied liberalism as the promise contained in its very name (even if it has remained quite distant from fulfilling this promise), far from it. In no uncertain terms, Wendy Brown indicates that neo-liberalism usurps whatever remains of liberalism’s promise; it inaugurates its “conceptual unmooring and substantive disembowelment”. Neo-liberalism is voraciously eating its own children.

How precisely does this happen? It is not just that neo-liberalism facilitates or prioritizes the economy or free market operations; it recasts the entire social and political sphere according to the model of the market – or the enterprise. The market is no longer merely the best facilitator for social life: society – and everything in it – is fundamentally perceived as a market.[iii] This “economization of the entire social field” (a quote from Foucault) transforms also the classical liberal figure of homo oeconomicus, and turns it from a figure catering for its own needs and interests within the competitive sphere of the market, into an isolated economic unit, mainly focused on investing in itself and its own marketable rate. All spheres traditionally separated from the market, and considered as areas for human self-fulfilment and freedom that the market was meant to realize, now become sources of human capital, eventually meant to increase the subject’s market value. There are numerous examples in Wendy Brown’s book of how individual education, social media profiles, academic publications, and job careers are literally presented as forms of self-investment, increasing individual human capital. This process is completed, according to Wendy Brown – and here she both diverts from and extends Foucault’s analysis – in the more recent shift to financialization. ‘Self-fulfilment’ is no longer considered as a sensible strategy to create adequate return on investment, thereby still guided by the logic of needs, it becomes a mere strategy for (human) capital speculation. “Consider, for example, the way that financialization has altered the figure of human capital from an ensemble of enterprises to a portfolio of investments.” Individual human talents, crafts, efforts are seen as ever so many forms of self-investment, increasing or decreasing its market value. Ultimately, this results in the dispensability of individual units of human capital – that is, individual humans – according to the whims of the market. The first obvious victim of this is homo politicus, the traditional counterpart of homo oeconomicus, striving for the realization of freedom within the social and political sphere. Politics is no longer about the realization of freedom, equality and justice, but about the optimal facilitation of the market.

Not by coincidence, Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics lectures also prominently deploy one of his most challenging concepts in modern social-political theory, that of governmentality. Described in its most emblematic form as ‘the conduct of conduct’ (‘conduire des conduites’), governmentality describes the particular modern form of liberal governance, where societal norms are not imposed by overt force, but by internal (self)regulation. We are all familiar with this form of governance, where our most personal preferences and tastes, often to our own surprise, sync with more general trends that strangely affirm our individual choices.[iv] Key to understanding its link to neo-liberal reasoning, is the conviction that this form of governance is precisely effective and efficient because it operates without explicit force or pressure. And it gains even more legitimacy, as it is not controlled by any supervising authority. The market itself takes care of its efficacy. That is one way of explaining why neo-liberal reason is so allergic to government interventions: it can only reign effectively, if overt governing mechanisms are seemingly absent, which they, of course, never are. On the contrary, as Wendy Brown repeatedly stresses: neo-liberal governance needs very strict and forceful implementation of rules and regulations to impose its regime of free-market competition. Third World – or impoverished First World – governments are all too familiar with this.

Another way of saying this is that neo-liberal governance does not need explicit ends to justify its governing principles. It can simply point to the fact that its means are the most effective and efficient. Underneath, it betrays a deep suspicion of anything formulated in terms of ends. For neoliberal reason, all ends are basically irrational compared to the logic of means. No surprise, then, that a culture of management has become all-pervasive in its practical governing mechanisms. This link to a purely instrumental way of reasoning and its consequences for democracy, rights discourses and politics as such, is among the most profound trends addressed in Brown’s new book. Here she compares Foucault’s analysis with earlier critiques of instrumental reason in Max Weber and the Frankfurt School. At the same time, this very location of neoliberal rationality in the spirit of instrumental reason, perhaps also points to one of the limitations of the book. But a few words about the scope of neo-liberalism’s reach first.

There are shocking examples of the actual practice of neo-liberal governance in Wendy Brown’s book, for example in the chapters on the restructuring of Iraq’s economy under American occupation, and the judicial decision to remove restrictions on the financing of political campaigns in the name of free speech.[v] They are also very American examples. The way in which neo-liberal policies are implemented in combination with aggressive military force and fiercely contested and marketized political campaigning cannot be found (yet) in European contexts. Yet of course we have our own problems. What is, perhaps, the most shocking in Brown’s analysis from a European perspective, is the realization of how deeply the logic of neo-liberal reason has penetrated into our practices and understanding, not least into the domains traditionally considered as strongholds of left engagement. No better proof of its ‘stealth’ operation. Although not addressed directly by Wendy Brown, an obvious example that is close to my personal concerns would be the development sector.

A telling case is the notion of governance, which has become so ubiquitous in recent years, that we hardly notice its relative novelty anymore.[vi] It is loosely applied as an alternative to ‘government’, or ‘governing’ without noticing that a decisive shift has taken place in this change of nomenclature. Its formal definition may still be the process or “the act of governing” , but governance in practice (and the very reason why it makes sense as a new term) means a turn away from the structures of power that sustain and legitimize government, to the processes and the multiplicity of agencies through which this power is exercised. Its focus is on what is achieved through power, not on who actually holds power or controls it. As governance “focuses on tools or instruments for achieving ends, rather than preoccupation with specific agencies or programs through which purposes are pursued”, it becomes clear that it suits rather well with the logic of means of neo-liberal rationality. It leads to a dispersion of power that is no longer merely descriptive, but becomes normative of a particular way of addressing social and political problems. Governance “reconceives the political as a field of management or administration”, and “public life is reduced to problem solving and program implementation”. This does not only betray the “hostility to politics” (its aversion to ends) of neo-liberalism, it actually hollows out the very content of democratic debate. It is ‘undoing the demos’, where the struggle over fundamental values and directions is replaced by common problem solving in the name of consensus.[vii] In this process, “’stakeholders’ replace interest groups or classes, ‘guidelines’ replace law, ‘facilitation’ replaces regulation”, and everything is cast into a language of ‘participation’ and ‘best practices’ that sounds awkwardly familiar. It would be worthwhile to determine how neatly the logic that Wendy Brown reveals beneath neo-liberal governance mechanisms matches with the language adopted in the development sector, e.g. under the heading of the recently popularized ‘theories of change’.

This is particularly visible in the appeal to ‘responsibilization’ and the ‘devolution of power’ that accompany the language of neo-liberal governance. The devious trick underneath is that the benign commonality propagated by this appeal (everyone participates, everyone is a stakeholder in his or her own right) is simultaneously a ruthless individuation and isolation of its composing units, including human individuals. Decision-making is ‘sent down the pipeline’, resulting in “the moral burdening of the entity at the end of the pipeline”. Simultaneously, however, the means of control over the resources and powers to substantiate this responsibility, however modest, are radically evacuated from public supervision and handed over to the market. All individuals are responsible for their own role in the market place, “in the context of powers and contingencies radically limiting their ability to do so” . Everyone is responsibilized, but the responsibility is nowhere collective. As Wendy Brown repeatedly indicates, this leads to a reversal of the social contract: no longer does the individual assign to this contract because it is the best guarantee for its own interests, it merely “sacrifices” itself to the cause of the whole.

The book ends in despair – literally, as the last paragraph is titled ‘Despair: is another world possible?’. No equivocal answer to this question, obviously. The despair is mainly the despair of the Left: its helplessness in coming up with an alternative for the world emerging from the hegemony of neo-liberal rule. As always, the debunkers of left engagement have common sense on their side: as it extends its grip and logic everywhere, neo-liberal reason constantly proves itself as being the only sensible option. Any “conviction about the human capacity to craft and steer its existence or even to secure its future” shatters on the reality principle of neo-liberal reason: “there is no alternative”. The market works because nobody controls it, nobody determines its ends (it is its own end), and – even if its mechanisms can be studied and to a certain extent manipulated – its ultimate logic necessarily escapes a final grasp.[viii] And this ignorance, neo-liberalism tells us, is good. Precisely because it allows for the competition and speculation (up to the extent of becoming “gambling” in the world of financialization) that drive the market. Wendy Brown appears to share in the despair of the Left, even if she upholds the passionate critique that permeates her book as the one thing that “could afford the slightest hope for a just, sustainable, and habitable future”. Ending with this phrase, the last character of the book is a question mark.

And religion? Religion is conspicuously absent from Wendy Brown’s book. That is all the more surprising, as in earlier works she showed herself keenly aware of the effects of structures of liberal governance on a range of religious topics.[ix] This is revealing in the sense that apparently religion, for Wendy Brown, is a matter of (liberal) freedom that is now likewise endangered by neo-liberal rationality. It is only in this sense that it occasionally pops up in the book. But religion is never considered as a serious challenge to neo-liberal reason as such. Surprising? Perhaps. Of course, we are well acquainted with the fact that certain forms of religion today, like Pentecostal churches among the upcoming middle classes in the developing world, thrive well within the fold of neo-liberal governance,[x] even if they are not, as in the case of a particular branch of American Evangelism, implicitly or explicitly inspiring it.[xi] But if there is an obvious challenge to neo-liberal governmentality, we need not look far into the world of religion either. In all its ambiguities and apparent excesses, a lot of Islamic activism and radicalism in the world today is at least partially inspired by the resistance to the reigning liberal economic system, and the privileging of Western interests and values it provokes.[xii] In a different way, but no less consistently, the message coming out of the Vatican about the injustices of the present economic system could also be understood in this line.[xiii] And in spite of the fact that a lot of Catholic practice remains conveniently located within this same system, the profound dissonance between neo-liberal reason and Catholic social teachings continues to provide powerful resources for religiously inspired forms of protest and resistance around the globe,[xiv] as are, of course, similar appeals pouring out from various other religious traditions.

Religions are about ends. They do not only speak about ends in their revelations and theologies – they also orient and shape our lives in a way that escapes the mere instrumental logic of self-interest. This already detaches them from the exclusive focus on means in neo-liberal reasoning. As such, they might nurture forms of resistance that have not yet revealed their potential for political critiques.[xv] This suggestion simultaneously reveals that the threat that neo-liberalism poses to a more humanized (‘just, sustainable, habitable’) future, is not exactly new, nor does it originate with it. The struggle against instrumental reason seems part of a much older, perhaps ‘spiritual’ attempt to liberate the potentials for human flourishing from the self-possessed grasp of common sense and the advocates of the reality principle, now consistently cast in economic terms. Religions have – apart from a lot of other, often contradictory things – always harboured this potential. This does not in any way contest the fact that the present hegemonic grasp of neo-liberalism represents a new phase in this struggle, and a threat of a new kind and urgency. In that sense, the wake-up call in the passionate appeal throughout Wendy Brown’s book is justified and might be one of its more lasting effects – precisely because there is (and this is) no time for despair.

Ton Groeneweg works as Policy Officer Religion & Development at Mensen met een Missie, and is a fellow of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the University of Groningen. His personal blog can be found at

[i] Wendy Brown. 2015. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Zone Books: New York

[ii] Michel Foucault: The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79. New York: Picador 2004.

[iii] At a time when ‘business models’ pop up everywhere, this should hardly surprise us. What is perhaps more astonishing, is that many of us can still vividly recall a time when this would have been completely unthinkable. The speed and the scope with which the neo-liberal transformation has extended its grasp is perhaps the main cause for alarm in Wendy Brown’s book.

[iv] A fine account of this mechanism was given to me by a social researcher in life-styles: “if you ask people to tell about their innermost motivations, they say it’s very difficult to express, because it’s so personal; if you still ask them to do so, they all say the same things” (quote from personal conversation). A very revealing picture of the liberal habitus: one of the riddles of its efficacy is that it somehow manages to make what is common feel as if it is entirely personal as well. And vice versa.

[v] Chapter five is dedicated to a detailed dissection of the indeed astonishing verdict of the US Supreme Court in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case in 2010. The SC decided to withdraw limitations to corporate funding of political campaigns, as this would be an impediment of the ‘free speech’ of large corporations in the “political marketplaces” (162). One can hardly believe one’s eyes in reading sentences like this from the verdict: “The fact that a corporation, or any other speaker, is willing to spend money to try to persuade voters presupposes that the people have the ultimate influence over elected officials.” (170)

[vi] Wendy Brown’s book contains very useful references to the emergence of this concept, that perfectly coincide with its rise in e.g. the development sector (see particularly pages 122-131 and corresponding notes).

[vii] ‘Polderen’ emerges here as something like the ultimate ideal of neo-liberal governance.

[viii] “So we have a system in which homo oeconomicus owes the positive nature of his calculation precisely to everything which eludes his calculation.” (Foucault quoted by Wendy Brown (279))

[ix] See in particular her Regulating Aversion. Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton University Press: 2006), and very explicitly her ‘Civilizational Delusions: Secularism, Tolerance, Equality’. In: Theory & Event: 2012, 15-2.

[x] There is a vast literature on this topic, listed a.o. under lemma’s like ‘Prosperity Gospel’ or ‘Prosperity Theology’ (just see Wikipedia). One of my favorite studies remains David Martin: Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish. Blackwell: Malden 2002. See also Wilson, E.K. and M.B. Steger. 2013. “Religious globalisms in a postsecular age” Globalizations 10(3): 481-495

[xi] An analysis of this link is given e.g. by Bruce Lincoln: ‘Bush’s God Talk’ (in: Political Theologies. Public Religions in a Post-Secular World. Ed. by Hent de Vries and Lawrence E. Sullivan. Fordham University Press: New York 2006. Page 269-277.)

[xii] Of course the examples of indignation about economic (and other) injustices ensuing from the reigning economic system are numerous in many forms of Islamic protest, whether accompanied by proper analysis or not. For a rather reflexive view directly related to my topic, see Tahir Zaman: ‘Political Islam in neoliberal times’ (

[xiii] These messages certainly do not originate with the present pope, even if he is very vocal on it. Previous popes have frequently addressed their concern with increasing economic divisions and injustices. This engagement goes as far back as the encyclical letter Rerum novarum of 1891.

[xiv] As a specific example from my own background may serve the strong opposition against neo-liberal injustices from the side of labour movements explicitly inspired by Catholic social teachings. See e.g. in context of the Philippines the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER) (

[xv] Foucault himself has hinted at this potential in his reflections on the Iranian revolution, in which he purposely stressed the ‘spiritual’ dimension. Strikingly enough, and (as far as I know) in a yet unexplored connection, the articles on Iran date from exactly the same years as the lectures on The Birth of Biopolitics. For a full coverage of Foucault’s articles on Iran in English, see: Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson: Foucault and the Iranian Revolution. Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. The University of Chicago Press: 2005.


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