Fiscal Crisis, or the Neo-Liberal Assault on Democracy?

by Judith Butler for Greek Left Review

Of course, it is always possible, and very often the case, that the dominant media claims that a “fiscal crisis” has precipitated mass demonstrations, strikes, and new forms of political mobilization in Greece. Although it is true that there is fiscal crisis, it should not be understood as a periodic difficulty that a country or a region periodically passes through only then to re-enjoy the economic status que. What is emerging in fast and furious form is a constellation of neo-liberal economic practices that are establishing a new paradigm for thinking about the relation between economic and social forms as well as modes of rationality,morality, and subject formation. And the problem, that which pushes tens of thousands of people onto the street, is not simply the rise of technological modes of labor and new ways of calculating the value of work and life. Rather, neo-liberalism works through producing dispensable populations; it exposes populations to precarity; it establishes modes of work that presume that labour will always be temporary; it decimates long-standing institutions of social democracy, withdraws social services from those who are most radically unprotected – the poor, the homeless, the undocumented – because the value of social services or economic rights to basic provisions like shelter and food has been replaced by an economic calculus that values only the entrepreneurial capacities of individuals and moralizes against all those who are unable to fend for themselves or make capitalism work for them.

So when we ask why so many thousands take to the street in relation to a “fiscal” crisis, it is because they are see and oppose an entire economic regime that amasses wealth for the very few at accelerated speeds as it augments the number of those who live in poverty and are exposed to forms of precarity for which no institutional protection still exists. When populations understand themselves as abandoned to conditions of induced precarity, they understand that they are no longer represented by political regimes that are inseparable from neo-liberal forms of power and rationality. At this point, the democratic claims of the state are called into question, for who is the “we” who is represented by governments that are themselves driven by, and driving neo-liberal forms of economics that rely on dispensable populations, substitutable labor (through “flexibility” models), abandoned populations excluded from the “we” that is represented by democratic governments and institutions. So when the abandoned assemble and insist that they are still the “we” who democracy must represent, that their dispensability calls into question the claim that any neo-liberal government can make to being democratic. If democracy is to have any meaning still, then, it must express the will of the people, and what we see on the ground, in the street, and that noise we hear through the squares, is precisely the reconstitution of the popular will, the bodily gathering and insistence of a people who will not be dispensed with, and through whom we see enacted in microcosm social forms of radical democracy, which include relations of equality and mutual dependency.

The problem is not a fiscal crisis whose bailout will return matters to normal. The problem is that the neo-liberal forms of political and economic power regularly abandon populations to conditions of precarity, and that this periodic and regular abandoning of people has itself become the normal. As a result, the call on the streets is precisely not to “fix” this fiscal crisis, but to insist that the dismantling of neo-liberalism is imperative for the renewal of radical democracy.

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30 responses to “Fiscal Crisis, or the Neo-Liberal Assault on Democracy?

  1. Pingback: Δημοσιονομική Κρίση, ή η Νεο-Φιλελεύθερη Επίθεση στη Δημοκρατία? « η Λέσχη·

    • Does it really take Judith Butler to write such a trite piece? Let alone the fact that it could be written about many other countries.

  2. Shorter Butler: All I have to offer are ideological talking points, but no realistic ideas how to solve this fiscal and economical crisis under the constraints of globalisation. Wishful thinking 4 the win!
    8-(

    • So, Gray, you’re more concerned with hating on JB than understanding the piece, I get that; but she has put a fine point on the problem as well as stating plainly that the “call on the streets is precisely not to ‘fix’ this fiscal crisis, but to insist that the dismantling of neo-liberalism is imperative for the renewal of radical democracy” — which constitutes a way forward to a solution. The “constraints of globalization” is the “neo-liberalism” she refers to. What grade are you in now?

      • Greeks can’t change the global economy on their own. No single nation can. So, how to “dismantle neo-liberalism” and at the same time create a socially fair AND sustainable economy? That’s the difficult question, and Butler doesn’t provide any answers for that. Sorry, but I’m sick and tired of fellow left wingers who do grandstanding with bold plans that are essentially based on wishful thinking. Less grandiose visions but more specific step by step programs would be much more helpful now.

    • “I’m sick and tired of fellow left wingers who do grandstanding with bold plans that are essentially based on wishful thinking. Less grandiose visions but more specific step by step programs would be much more helpful now.”

      Dude, that’s kind of an absurd standpoint. You’re implying that people who don’t have one kind of response should shut up…Butler isn’t quashing anyone ELSE’S response–are we not all free to speak? She is a philosopher…so, um, she’s philosophizing. If she were an economist…well, maybe she’d have to start economizing on her prose HA! (sorry, JB, I ❤ you). The point is, the usefulness of a perspective doesn't depend on its completeness…in fact, it is impossible for one perspective to be complete. Besides, I think you're mis-characterizing her point. This isn't a grandiose vision or even an alleged plan; rather, it's a call for an altogether different approach to the problem. She's holding accountable the institutions which cook up short term "solutions" even as they participate in a larger machine that cranks out more and more of the same problem.
      The "step-by-step plans" offered up to appease the people are not addressing the root cause of this crisis, and the period of crisis is not a separate thing from, not aberrant from, not the opposite of, the period of wealth and capitalist 'success'. An precarious population is the logical and intended product of the capitalist machine. So capitalism ain't gonna fix this shit. That's what she's saying.

      So don't you think that's a good direction to send the "planners" in? Although I'm not sure it's possible/effective to "plan" the way out of this place…THAT sounds like wishful thinking 😉

      • well said, kate. i would also suggest a pendularity to the issue: the next big political wave is always just ahead of its population, ready to lead them in an opposite direction. the election of ronald reagan in 1980 signaled such a shift, and conservatives enjoyed 25 years of govt dismantling in the hands of the free-marketeers. now that their policies have allowed the top of the economic heap to drastically enrich themselves, there is backlash, and we’ll be swinging in the opposite direction here soon enough. then, in another couple of decades, another pol group will come along and convince mainstream america that it’s lazy an undeserving once again, and we’l rinse/repeat.

      • “She is a philosopher…so, um, she’s philosophizing.”
        Philopher’s aren’t of much use now. Greece, and Europe in general, has some very real problems now and those demand solutions. There simply isn’t time for lenghty philosophical discussions that may or probably rather may not result in concrete plans in the far future. What’s necessary now is a more pragmatic approach that deals with the financial crisis in a socially acceptable way. Under the constraints of the situation, those reforms can’t be perfect and they unavoidably will have to be improved. But it’s essential that there are leaders on the left wing who go public with a rough plan for a better recovery now. Especially they have to make their minds up if staying in the Eurozone and accepting the basic demands (but not necessarily the details) of the rescue plan, or going independent with a new Drachme, with all its consequences (many of them negative), is the better option. As long as prominent left wingers like Tsipras don’t offer a reasonable alternative, and only the same kind of political slogans of the past, it will be very difficult to convince the voters that a left wing coalition is a serious option.

        So, I honestly think that its very counterproductive to hold debates about philosophical issues now. Especially if folks like Butler boldly claim “capitalism won’t fix this shit” (ignoring that capitalism comes in many different flavors) without being able to offer an economic system with proven advantages. Communism has already been tried, in countless attempts, and it failed miserably. Sorry, but since i’m “free to speak”, too, I will continue to stomp for realistic reforms, with the goal of establishing a better social market economy. Because there is no time to lose and it would be irresponsible to conduct a risky socio-economical experiment now that could very easily make a horrible situation even worse!

      • Gray:
        A point of clarification, she’s attacking the specific brand of capitalism known as “Neo-liberalism”, a one-size-fits-all approach to the market and government.

        So, you agree with her that “capitalism comes in many different flavors”!

        Also, neoliberalism is not a realistic approach to the economy. The proof, so to speak, is in the pudding of developing nations’ experience: we’ve been forcing this model on them for years and it did nothing but harm, no good has come from it.

        So, again, I’d agree with both you and her: risky socio-economic experiments (especially one’s known to be failures and corrosive upon democracy) are not the way to handle this. Realistic reforms are the way to go.

        And, since neoliberalism is for the few at the expense of the many, she argues that governments will be abandoned by the people they are supposed to represent unless they actually start representing them. This is what is happening. This is a realistic assessment of the situation. Democracy will outlive neoliberalism, and so will capitalism.

        Lastly, communism is not at all the point of any portion of this article, democracy is. The marriage between capitalism/democracy is always a balancing act, and right now it’s quite imbalanced. She argues to balance it. Pretty realistic.

      • Gray:
        A point of clarification, she’s attacking the specific brand of capitalism known as “Neo-liberalism”, a one-size-fits-all approach to the market and government.

        So, you agree with her that “capitalism comes in many different flavors”!

        Also, neoliberalism is not a realistic approach to the economy. The proof, so to speak, is in the pudding of developing nations’ experience: we’ve been forcing this model on them for years and it did nothing but harm, no good has come from it.

        So, again, I’d agree with both you and her: risky socio-economic experiments (especially one’s known to be failures and corrosive upon democracy) are not the way to handle this. Realistic reforms are the way to go.

        And, since neoliberalism is for the few at the expense of the many, she argues that governments will be abandoned by the people they are supposed to represent unless they actually start representing them. This is what is happening. This is a realistic assessment of the situation. Democracy will outlive neoliberalism, and so will capitalism.

        Lastly, communism is not at all the point of any portion of this article, democracy is. The marriage between capitalism/democracy is always a balancing act, and right now it’s quite imbalanced. She argues to balance it.

  3. Pingback: Critical Legal Thinking › Fiscal Crisis or the Neo-liberal Assault on Democracy·

    • Gray:

      A point of clarification, she’s attacking the specific brand of capitalism known as “Neo-liberalism”, a one-size-fits-all approach to the market and government.

      So, you agree with her that “capitalism comes in many different flavors”!

      Also, neoliberalism is not a realistic approach to the economy. The proof, so to speak, is in the pudding of developing nations’ experience: we’ve been forcing this model on them for years and it did nothing but harm, no good has come from it.

      So, again, I’d agree with both you and her: risky socio-economic experiments (especially one’s known to be failures and corrosive upon democracy) are not the way to handle this. Realistic reforms are the way to go.

      And, since neoliberalism is for the few at the expense of the many, she argues that governments will be abandoned by the people they are supposed to represent unless they actually start representing them. This is what is happening. This is a realistic assessment of the situation. Democracy will outlive neoliberalism, and so will capitalism.

      • “So, you agree with her that “capitalism comes in many different flavors”!” Well, that’s my point, I don’t see her supporting this. Butler’s posting reads as if she believes that capitalism is always neo-liberalism. That’s obviously not true. Many countries, especially Germany and the US, had much better times in the 50s and 60s, when a more socially fair flavor of capitalism prevailed. But since the 80s, this has become out of fashion, with negative consequences for the mass of the people, as statistics about income distribution show. Especially the liberalisation of the financial sector opened the floodgates for increased inequality, a move towards “to big to fail” banks, unhealthy economical leverage for hedge funds and a political influence of the richest 1% that seriously damaged democracy.

        So, I’m very muich against neo-liberalism, of course, but simply protesting it isn’t good enough. We need concrete proposals for changes now, and in that regard Butler (and many other well meaning left wingers) comes seriously short. Dreaming of a better future will get us nowhere, and a cacophony of voices doesn’t create pressure on politicians to make specific changes! Quite to the contrary, the reactionary powers, with their strong influence on the media, exploit the divideness of the protestors to water down their righteous demands. Divide et impera at work! The left has to counter that with uniting behind specific demands that can’t be easily dismissed. In case of Greece, that means leaders like Tspiras have to make up their minds of they’re for staying in the Eurozone or goind back to the Drachem, and then present realistical plans about socially acceptable reforms.

        And as I see it, those have to include some necessary changes that won’t go down well with the unions. The horribly inefficient and corrupt administration HAS to be reformed, and that can’t work if you can’t fire crooks and deadbeats. Compliance with tax collection has to be improved, even though many Greeks don’t think cheating the state is a felony (it is! It’s not only illegal, but undemocratic and antisocial, too). The clientele politics, essentially a bribing of the voters with public sector jobs, has to be ended, even if left wing voters would like to get such gifts from a left wing coalition. In short, left wingers shouldn’t engage in wishful thinking, but bildly engage the very real problems, in order to convince the people that they offer a reasonable, realistic alternative. More honesty now, the truth shall make us free!

  4. Pingback: Judith Butler on Precarity and Fiscal Crisis « Experimental Geographies·

  5. BLFO, the topic of the story, and the discussion,is Greece. And while in the US, the basic problem is similar (the horrible consequences of neo-liberal economic policies and the overwhelming political and economical leverage of the 1%), there are many important differences between the nations. There simply isn’t a “one size fits all” solution. The political systems are different, the economies are different, even the people are different, to a degree. I can only warn to naively conclude that what works for the US has to work for Greece, too, or vice versa. If you invest some time in reading Greek media and blog sites (there are some in English language, gladly), you will soon see that there are very specific issues where the nations differ. Those issues require individualized solutions. Remember the saying “all roads lead to Rome”. Well, depending on wether you are to the north, south, east or west of the city, the road will lead in a different direction, right?

  6. @Gray

    I planned on skipping your “philosophy is of no use” part of your replies, but from reading the rest I’m not sure you got the article. JB isn’t saying “capitalism won’t fix this shit”, she is saying neo-liberalism won’t (that particular “flavor”, as you say). You’re bringing up communism as if that’s what people are talking about (or as if that’s what the OWS movement is about), which nobody has (btw, it hasn’t been tried in “countless ways” either, but whatever).

    You are basically having a typical knee-jerk reaction to an attack on neo-lib. I prescribe more philosophy.

  7. Carlos, Butler’s whole posting is fluffy, nothing concrete at all in it. Of course, that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. But imho it’s useless to invest even more time and discussing what actual system or policies she may support or not. What’s necessary now is realistic left wingers coming out with specific reform plans instead.

  8. Pingback: Fiscal Crisis, or the Neo-Liberal Assault on Democracy? « Under The Floorboards·

  9. I very much agree with J.Butler’s point…she’s criticizing neoliberalism and the new paradigm being establish that moralizes joblessness, hopelessness etc and selectively celebrates individual success (i.e. those not getting it are fools who don;t deserve it anyways) and ignores recyclable social problems
    She is against capitalism, but she is blaming neoliberalism for the present situation (fair point).

    She does not want to substitute the people’s voice, that’s why she is not giving any concrete answers or steps…she is saying choose democracy, what the people want…
    That is certainly non-concomitant with neoliberalism, it must move towards another way…
    …which way? Let the people decide…

    I believe this is where the whole point of the article ends…

    It is no use reading more into it…if she had taken up proposing a way out, with regard to financial measures, she could be criticized or not for her particular views…

    But surely, for the people who will be voting in the Greek upcoming elections the part not addressed is the more important…
    What the people want…ok, what do they want? They surely want an end to be put to those memorandums…
    What will that mean? Can greek economy be restructured and revived while staying within the Eurozone (but not receiving bailout money) ? Will it need to move towards a national currency (no need to be called drachma) ? Will it erase all debt?

    Butler says let’s at least give them the choice…right now they are not being given an option, they are being dragged against their will…

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  16. Public banking may be the best option for Greece. It is probably the best option for every nation. Allowing private ownership of national central banks is equivalent to allowing oil corporations to control nations’ energy policy. In America this would find the end of the privately owned Federal Reserve and taking that tremendous power and giving it to the people as a whole with a public utility institution of money creation and quantity control. Private central banks are the problem – the drain of wealth, sucked like a vacuum upward to the owners of the central banks, will continue until it is stopped. It is not only the problem of the Greek people. It is the largest issue for every human being on Earth who lives in a nation with privately owned central banks. Ellen Brown and Bill Still are two people who have spent much time and study on monetary system reform, and finding their writings and work will allow people to “cut to the chase” on public banking solutions.

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