Sadly, the neoliberal zombie hasn’t eaten itself yet

I recently attended a lecture by Richard Denniss, author of the Quarterly Essay “Dead right: how neoliberalism ate itself and what comes next”. I was curious to see how Denniss justified his claim, as it seems to me that neoliberalism has not eaten itself. Its corpse continues, zombie-like, feasting on our minds and transforming our souls with its pervasive “rationality”. Sadly, nothing offered in Denniss’ presentation altered this view. 

ALP senator Louise Pratt began proceedings by informing us that Denniss is not a “cloistered academic” but rather a “public intellectual”. As a cloistered academic, I know well the devastation that neoliberal policy can wreak upon a public good like higher education. 

For example: many Australian universities engaged in marketing campaigns, resulting in increased enrolments for 2018. However, the federal education minister, Simon Birmingham, announced a funding freeze at 2017 levels, meaning that institutions that had “successfully” competed for enrolments were worse off than they had been before – more students but no increased funding to pay an increasingly casualised tertiary workforce to educate them. If this is a cloister, it is not a particularly sheltered one.

Following introductions, Denniss began his lecture, which I found disappointing – and not only because its brevity meant that neoliberalism’s complexities were glossed over. Denniss appeared at times to elide the difference between neoclassical economics and neoliberalism. Several times he stated that the right loves regulation, and therefore are not really neoliberals. 

But this is not true. Neoliberalism differs from laissez-faire economics in that the former demands a strong state, ready to intervene to support the market. Thus, calling Tony Abbott an inconsistent ideologue because of his demand for coal subsidies, as Denniss did, misses the point. Subsidies are entirely consistent with the internal logic of neoliberalism. 

To be fair, Denniss deals with this better in the actual essay, where he points out that large interests are subsidised, and markets are regulated to support these interests, which we are then trained to think of as “too big to fail”. Conversely, individuals may be victimised by capricious neoliberalised welfare systems (e.g. Centrelink and “robodebt”) and sacrificed in the interests of the economy. 

This remained opaque in the lecture, however, as Denniss questioned why coal should be subsidised and dental care should not be. Such regulation and subsidy are anything but arbitrary to a neoliberalised state, acting always to support existing markets in the hope that “successful” markets will spawn more markets, which are the answer to any and every problem. 

As Michel Foucault pointed out in 1979, economic growth is the only neoliberal “social policy”. The proliferation of markets, coupled with a disciplining of individuals within the economy to regard themselves as “self-entrepreneurs” entirely responsible for their own risk, means that there is no need for a welfare system in which the burden of structural risks beyond the control of individuals – like unemployment – are socialised.   

Denniss several times distinguished between politics and economics, appealing to the electorate to stand against the privations of neoliberal policy (for example, the reduction of foreign aid). This distinction is no longer a real one. 

He quoted Margaret Thatcher, who said in 1981: “Economics is the method – the object is to change the heart and soul”. Thatcher and other neoliberal leaders – such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Australia’s Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard – succeeded. To quote James Carville in 1992, politics is now “the economy, stupid” – the state exists to support the market. 

The political citizen, existing as irreducible to the economic human, is now mostly a historical oddity, much as glaciers and polar bears soon will be. As Denniss says in the essay: “Neoliberal language and ideas have stripped public debate of its intimate, personal and intangible characteristics”. Appealing to the political to save us from the economic is a grave misunderstanding of neoliberalism’s totalisation.

Given the subtitle of the lecture, I was chagrined that Denniss offered little insight into what might follow neoliberalism. As should be clear, I think reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. 

However, any ray of hope is to be found in a reappraisal of what it is to be human. Neoliberal rationality converts us all into competing capitals, flexible and adaptable in service to the all-knowing economy. Denniss misses the crucial step of revivifying homo politicus – the human as critically informed (and formed) and governing citizen, irreducible to capital and quantification. 

In the essay, Denniss suggests that the electorate must be given interesting political questions, rather than boring ones. This is not enough – we will need to return to the idea of what it means to be a politically engaged human in what we once called “society”. There is much work to be done here, but while economics may have been the method to zombify our hearts and souls, it is doubtful that the discipline offers any way back to life.