In this section of the BJCT we publish selected book reviews. If you have any suggestions, don't hesitate to write us.
Amy Allen and Eduardo Mendieta (editors): Power, Neoliberalism and the Reinvention of Politics. The Critical Theory of Wendy Brown. (2022) The Pennsylvania State University Press, 196 pages.
Amy Allen and Eduardo Mendieta, two well-known exponents of contemporary Critical Theory, have produced a very concise volume of essays (in addition to two by Wendy Brown herself) from a total of six intimate connoisseurs of Wendy Brown's political philosophy from her first publications in 1988 to the present. These are: Robin Celikates, Loren Goldman, Asad Haider, Robyn Marasco, and Johanna Oksala. The presentation of the book is well done in several respects. First, all the contributors know Wendy Brown personally and also theoretically very well. They, therefore, approach her critically, but nevertheless with a positive attitude toward her principled approach that has nothing to do with the often admiring exegesis of similar volumes. Second, the volume itself is in a sense a conversation, not only because it was produced as the result of a discussion held on April 19 and 20, 2019, but because Wendy Brown once again summarizes the principles of her political philosophy at the beginning of the book (after a joint introduction with Eduardo Mendieta) and responds to the critiques of the other contributors at the end.
An important developmental step in Wendy Brown's philosophy is her departure, already twenty years in the making, from an identitarian feminism to a structurally much more thorough analysis of contemporary social conditions. In place of the social role type "woman", intersectional structures of discrimination have since become more and more central to her thinking. These are gender, race, class, culture, and religion. The focus of Brown's critique, however, is and remains today's neoliberalism, which has its most extreme blossoms in the USA. This in turn thrives on the foundations of a state that, at least in the global West, is ideologically strongly tailored to neoliberalism. This includes, in particular, the strict separation between the public and private spheres. This, in turn, has long been criticized by the now traditional feminism, insofar as only through this separation can the banishment of social reproduction, especially the rearing of children, be relegated to the private sphere. This, in turn, is one of the main reasons why women around the world, once they have children, revert to a politically deaf private world, forcing the public sphere and politics to be left to male design criteria.
However, the authors besides Wendy Brown also pose some critical questions to her. Brown, for example, places great emphasis on the political significance of the contemporary state, which places itself primarily in the service of the economy. The non-economic sectors of the social, especially biological reproduction, are thus not only primarily attributed to women, but fundamentally removed from the political. Behind this are certain hierarchies of values that should be questioned. In this regard, Eduardo Mendieta raises the very general question of how one can appear in political discourse at all without insisting either on the truth of one's positions or on some axiomatic principles. His somewhat provisional answer is that discourse is only open-minded when the participants reflect on the history of the development of their own position, ie. when they argue in a genealogical way. In another contribution, Johanna Oksala analyzes very precisely what space the political can actually occupy in relation to the economy if one opens up the usual restriction of the political to the public-economic sphere. It is questionable that the neoliberal-capitalist structure of society will be rendered invalid if only, for example, women and their reproductive services are brought back into the public sphere and thus also into the political sphere. Asad Haider examines a related question that is only seemingly contrary to Johanna Oksala's perspective. He examines the plausibility of Brown's repeated suggestion that a major goal of neoliberalism is the depoliticization of society. Haider shows with Foucault that things are not so simple. Power and structures of domination are located at a much deeper level than the relatively frequently changing political surface structures historically. Neoliberalism merely uses means typical of it to prevent the politicization of social issues that stand in the way of its program, for example, by means of a technical reduction of social problems, delegation to experts, and so on. In the end, it emerges here that the concept of the political already conceptually logically presupposes a boundary of the political to a sphere of the apolitical surrounding it, because both phenomena can only exist at all in their dialectical relationship. An important point, also raised again later, concerns the nihilistic tendency of neoliberalism.
An important point, also raised again later, concerns the nihilistic tendency of neoliberalism. Depoliticization and nihilism are closely related, insofar as with the loss of the political, the public criteria of social solidarity are also lost, leaving only private consumerism as a social dynamic. In particular, out of this development, the suppression of sexual needs in the period leading up to the end of World War II has been reversed into an excessive celebration and even ubiquitous promotion of the sexual, so that "sexual liberation" has now become part of the dynamic of depoliticization of society.
In her concluding rejoinder, Wendy Brown does not address in great detail the individual questions, some of them critical, raised by the other contributors. Instead, she tries once again to lay out her approach in one broad line. In doing so, she also addresses the sometimes contradictory attitude of the left toward the nation-state. On the one hand, the left criticizes the authoritarian or even oversized nation-state, as expressed, for example, in Russia, China, or the United States. On the other hand, it sympathizes with the demands for its own nation-state of, for example, the Palestinians, the Kurds, or the Puerto Ricans. And it also criticizes an attitude on the part of the left that transforms resistance to existing conditions from a means to achieve something better into an end. As a result, the left loses sight of the need to present a viable proposal of its own for a democratically better society in order to remain credible. And even in an optimal democracy, it will not be possible to completely abolish relations of domination. They would only have to be justified differently. Ultimately, however, this means working on a new concept of the political and also working on a new self-understanding of a polity, if it does not want to rely only on a state and its borders, which have somehow grown historically. The volume reveals that a constructive, new form of political discourse will only be possible if all participants agree to acknowledge their own historically evolved position and thus also expose themselves to change through newly occurring circumstances. Wendy Brown is one of the few critical political philosophers who openly states that the formulation of a new, better form of a modern polity is anything but an easy task and that today's left has much to make up for itself in this regard. (ws)