Fiscal Crisis or the Neo-liberal Assault on Democracy

by | 14 Nov 2011

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 quo. 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undocumented – because the value of social services or economic rights to basic provisions like shelter and food has been replaced by an economic calculus that values only the entrepreneurial capacities of individuals and moralizes against all those who are unable to fend for themselves or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.

Greek Left Review

1 Comment

  1. Her usual crystal clarity then.

    A useful precept is that someone who can’t explain what they are talking about doesn’t really understand it either.

    Some people say ‘Judith Butler dares us to say we don’t understand’. And I guess if I did say this to her face about her writings, I’d be greeted with a wry smile or a telling pause. But probably no explanation.

    A couple of examples for you: The first sentence isn’t a very common sentence structure – to say the least. And “forms of political mobilization” could mean several things. Never mind…

    Second sentence – two “periodicals”. OK I guess she never said she was writing poetry. Third sentence is back to the old game of making long puzzle-sentences as a challenge to the reader, with lot’s of vague terms that could once again mean anything. Not good. (I didn’t count the sentence length)

    The argument about ‘new forms of precarity’ sounds dubious. There will always be new forms of precarity (or even precariousness). I don’t think that using the word ‘abandonment’ is anything more than the closest thing Butler gets to emotive language. Etcetc.

    Overview: a clever-clever quasi-Marxist play on the idea of democracy – arguably an attempt to justify a revolution. No deep arguments, because there is no clarity.

    I think this piece is an attempt to lump together civil unrest in different countries in vastly differing positions – with a single vague and shallow explanation that fits Butler’s world view, and her wish for radical change.


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