Book Notes: Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos

I don’t rely on Wendy Brown as much as I do on others in my research because she’s interested in the political aspects of fluidity and in how fluidity destroys democracy. And I don’t like discussing democracy because the word means everything and nothing. But she’s a great writer and I’d say the most accessible of all who have written on the subject.

Every aspect of our lives is economized, says Brown. Unlike in the previous eras, we are all

little capitals (rather than owners, workers, and consumers) competing with, rather than exchanging with each other.

But why is it bad, though, for each of us to be a little capital entity? It’s bad because, among other things,

when everything is capital, labor disappears as a category, as does its collective form, class.

If this sounds confusing, consider that there can be class solidarity and there can be a labor movement. But little capitals can’t have any of that. They only compete with each other all the time and ridicule the losers without realizing that each of them can easily become a loser at any moment. No solidarity means no real opposition to capital. Note, for instance, how the inane “Resistance” bends over backwards to promote the goals of capital. There’s no will of the people because there is no we, the people. It’s just me, a lonely entrepreneur of my self. The mushrooming identities and invented pronouns are aimed at reaching the true neoliberal bliss, which is creating a completely separate, walled-off identity group of exactly one dumb, lonely fuck for each of us*.

As a result, dog-eat-dog mentality becomes the ultimate in progressivism. Just ask whoever is today’s target of outraged Twitter radicals.

This vision of the self as a form of capital doesn’t aim strictly at wealth generation. Obviously, wealth generation is part of it but it’s not all it is:

As neoliberal rationality disseminates market values and metrics to new spheres, this does not always take a monetary form; rather, fields, persons, and practices are economized in ways that vastly exceed literal wealth generation.

The political sphere becomes completely subservient to the deterritorialized, highly fluid economic elites. These elites found it incredibly offensive when the people who still see themselves as workers and citizens (such outdated terms!) try to stop them by using the outdated methods of voting (e.g. Brexit) or protesting (e.g. yellow vests). These elites control the media, the technology, and the economy, so who do you think is going to win?

* Everybody understands that everything that comes between the quotes is not my retelling of Wendy Brown but my own argument, right? I don’t want anybody to think that Brown expressed any opinions on the Resistance or Brexit in the book. The book was published before either but I’m sure Brown is completely pro the former and anti the latter. She didn’t call anybody a dumb fuck either or condemn any exalted ultra-progressive Instagramers.

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8 thoughts on “Book Notes: Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos”

  1. I’ve read articles of hers but not a whole book, don’t have a whole grasp. Does she say what comes next, or is neoliberalism (and eco-disaster, of course) really the end of history?

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    1. She has this interesting metaphor about neoliberalism in the developed countries (as opposed to in LatAm) being less like a hammer that hits you over the head than like a bunch of termites that are eating at the foundations while you don’t even notice that it’s happening. And the first step before something different happens is to notice that it’s going on. You can’t fight termites until you realize they are there.

      I’m very interested in Latin America in this context because the whole point of my new book is how the Western-style termitic neoliberalism is eroding the popular liberation movements which responded to the original hammer-like neoliberalism in the Hispanic world. I think you’ll like the book one it’s done.

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      1. Oh, definitely. It’s the argument I’d make. The nature of neoliberalism seemed obvious to me due to hanging out in Lat Am, and I recognized it when they started it here and said we’d be where we are by now, but in the meantime, interestingly, I forgot. I was trying to survive the academia and attributing my disorientation to being in new places and new institutions all the time, and to having to get used to being in a different field (I am from Comp Lit but I work in Spanish and if you’re at a place where you teach all courses, not just specialized ones, you see that it’s really different and you do have to absorb and grock curricular traditions of a field) … so anyway I thought I was just disoriented due to personal circumstances but in fact the entire world was getting disoriented and I did not realize it until it was done.

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        1. And it’s part of it, you know, seeing everything as your own fault, your own failing. The analyst says the hardest thing in his work is trying to get people to step away from self-blame. Like, in how about if you didn’t cause what’s torturing you at all? But people really struggle with it because one is supposed to be omnipotent.

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          1. Side note: psychotherapy, on the other hand, seems to be about training people to self-blame. To be well-adjusted is to believe in your own omnipotence, it seems.

            [I have been having an interesting experience about this, trying to advise someone in a professional situation, their department is a problem but they are also, yet do not see it. You will have to compromise! I want to say but I see that the person has as first priority not taking on a load of self-recrimination and I think they’re right to care for themself this way, even if it means losing]

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      2. And: the termite-like nature of it is what really strikes me. Brown is one of those who are vocal about the privatization of UC yet at the same time her work seems to suggest — at least from what I can tell of it — that things have gone so far that it is impossible just to take back public space. I mean, if there’s no public, then the concept of public good is meaningless, right? “There is no society — only men, and women, and families [Thatcher]” … So (a) what is to be done and (b) why are so many faculty, including those old enough to remember the university as it was when seen as public good, oblivious to the changes? [Traitors, I say off camera]

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        1. A great quote on the subject: “The absence of a scandalized response to the state’s role in propping up capital and demoting justice and citizen well-being is also the effect of neoliberalism’s conversion of basic principles of democracy from a political to economic semantic order.”

          Brown, Wendy (2015-02-13). Undoing the Demos (Zone / Near Futures) (Kindle Locations 489-491). Zone Books. Kindle Edition.

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      3. “And the first step before something different happens is to notice that it’s going on. You can’t fight termites until you realize they are there.”

        This reminds me of how a few years ago the entire pundit set – left and right – started screaming “Neoliberalism is a meaningless word! Stop talking about neoliberalism!” almost in unison. I guess they gave up, since the term hasn’t fallen out of use, but they certainly tried.

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