Neoliberalism and the revenge of the “social”


Neoliberalism was launched as an attack on socialism, as a state-centric project; it is now being subtly reinvented, in ways that take account of the social nature of the individual. 

William Davies
16 July 2013

The recent exposure of mass surveillance activities on the part of the US National Security Agency (NSA) poses some troubling questions about the politics of the digital networks on which our social lives are now heavily dependent. From the birth of the world wide web in 1990, through the emergence of ‘web 2.0’ circa 2003, the internet had been celebrated as a space of spontaneous bottom-up organization, a manifestation of the counter-cultural values of the Bay Area that is credited with developing it. But now it seems that we’ve simply invited the state to spy on us to an extent that the Stasi could never have dreamed of.

This also poses questions about the latest manifestation of ‘neoliberalism’. The fact that it is social media that is facilitating this new form of state power, that it is social networks that are the object of its gaze, may indicate that neoliberal government no longer places quite so much emphasis on the market, as a mechanism for organizing knowledge, regulating freedom and achieving transparency. If we think carefully about the longer history of neoliberal thought and politics, this is a very significant change. Because from its origins, neoliberalism was a movement that was partly defined in opposition to the very idea of the ‘social’ as a distinct domain or logic of human activity.

The idea of the ‘social’ or ‘society’ has always been an enigmatic one. If it is to mean anything at all, it cannot be reduced to a logic of individual incentives or markets; that would be to render it ‘economic’ instead. But nor can it simply be identified with the state, which would be to convert it into some political or sovereign category such as the ‘nation’ (rather as Blue Labour might wish). States play an important role in making ‘society’ visible and measurable, through collecting and publishing large quantities of statistics. But the claim of social theorists and sociologists in the tradition of Emile Durkheim is that ‘society’ has some reality, over and above the particular statistics through which we come to know it.

The social hovers as a paradox, between a space of state coercion governed by law, and a space of market spontaneity governed by individual incentives and price. When acting socially we are both rule-bound and free at the same time. And it was precisely this mysterious and contradictory nature that led pioneering neoliberal thinkers, such as Friedrich Von Hayek, to pour scorn on the very idea. The term ‘social’, he argued, is a “weasel-word par excellence. Nobody knows what it actually means”.

In their sparring matches with socialist economists and intellectuals during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Hayek and his compatriot, Ludwig von Mises, argued that socialists, social scientists and states were guilty of inventing ‘society’ out of thin air. The collective could not act spontaneously on its own, or make its subjective wishes known other than via markets, so it was having the values and ideas of socialist elites imposed upon it, with these subjective values masquerading as objective facts.

It’s important to stress – as Philip Mirowski does in his new book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste – that neoliberals were never hostile to the state, which they understood as a necessary source of coercion, for the purposes of preventing political upheaval. But they were always hostile to the idea of some autonomous-yet-collective will of the form proposed, for example, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the ‘General Will’. ‘Society’, for neoliberals is a dangerous metaphysical nonsense, that states use to start pursuing their own ethical programmes, over and above their neoliberal function of creating and policing rules.

Hayek would be distressed to know that in recent years, there has been an explosion of new types of accounting, governance and policy intervention which come dressed in the rhetoric of the ‘social’. Social enterprise, social media, social indicators, social impact bonds, social neuroscience. The list goes on. What are we to make of all this? If neoliberalism is understood as a programme dedicated to ridiculing the very idea of the social, as a distinct sphere of activity, are we therefore witnessing neoliberalism in retreat? Or should we just dismiss all of these new socials as rhetorical flimflam? I would suggest that, lying between these two interpretations, is a third option: that neoliberalism is being reinvented in ways that incorporate social logic, as a means of resisting critique and delaying crisis.

One reason for thinking this is that neoliberalism is being threatened by the fact that individuals are quite manifestly unable to operate as isolated, calculating machines, with only the law and the market to guide them. Without other people to guide and support them, provide norms and examples, they start to behave in ways that are self-destructive and destabilizing. This is the central insight of behavioural and happiness economics, which are achieving growing influence in policy-making circles right now.

The ‘social’ is brought back in as a way of providing support, such that individuals can continue to live the self-reliant, risk-aware, healthy lifestyles that neoliberalism requires of them. The phenomenon of ‘social prescribing’, in which doctors recommend participation in local community activities as a way of improving wellbeing, is indicative of emerging policy techniques. Neoliberalism was launched as an attack on socialism, as a state-centric project; it is now being subtly reinvented, in ways that take account of the social nature of the individual.

What has changed fundamentally, since Hayek and Mises were attacking socialism, is that new techniques for the measurement and representation of the ‘social’ have emerged, which rebuff or accommodate a number of neoliberal critiques. Hayek and Mises argued that the social world was only knowable in the aggregate (that is, statistically) from the perspective of the social scientist or state. This, they argued, meant that the internal dynamism and dispersed individual preferences which occur within society are utterly ignored.

But social media, and a range of techniques for analyzing it (such as ‘sentiment analysis’ and various types of ‘social analytics’), make networks, relationships, communities and patterns visible, while working with the logic of individual expression. Moreover, these techniques can operate in real-time, revealing constant fluctuations in social activity, just as prices reveal constant fluctuations in economic activity. In these respects, this is a form of social-ism that overcomes the critique of socialism mounted by neoliberalism.

At present, the digital tools used to analyse social life are in their infancy, and are largely attracting interest from marketing firms. But new techno-utopian policy visions, of ‘smart cities’ and digital tracking of health behaviours, look set to make pattern recognition and relationship management a key purpose of government. This represents the coming of what Geoff Mulgan has termed the ‘relational state’, or what I have previously described as ‘neocommunitarianism’.

This all represents a supplement to neoliberal logic, rather than its replacement. The new form of sociality that is emerging may not represent a buffer between the coercive state and the spontaneous economic individual. Instead, it may be that this is precisely how the two are most firmly cemented together. Following the NSA revelations, the fear is that social media potentially offers a proximity between the spontaneous individual and the state, far greater than that offered by markets. 

In view of this new mutation of neoliberalism, it is worth reflecting on one of the defences that was made by the telecom companies and social media firms, who were accused of co-operating with the NSA. This was that they had only shared meta-data, and not data itself. This plea tells us something about the historical juncture that we’re at. From a liberal and traditional neoliberal perspective, this defence is a good one: if the state can’t pry on individual activities, individual preferences and statements, then privacy is being upheld. No problem.

But this misses the logic of the emerging technical apparatus of government. Where neoliberalism integrates the logic of the social, it is precisely relationships between actors that are being observed and measured, and not the actors themselves. It is in correlations and patterns where value lies in a 21st century Big Data society, and not in the properties or preference of individuals, as was the case in a 20th century statistical and market society. And it is in the identification of hitherto invisible relationships that networked digital media holds out promise for security agencies. There is nothing innocent about meta-data.

In an effort to stave off their opponents, political movements can often end up stealing their clothes. Britain’s Labour Party arguably delivered a better version of Thatcherism than the Conservative Party was ever able to. Neoliberalism’s abiding passion was always to destroy socialism, but in practice it may have ended up with far more of the technocratic elements of ‘actually existing’ state socialism than its ideologues could ever imagine (as I discuss here). When one considers our current predicament, in which our social and private lives are subjected to relentless quantification and optimization, the following prediction looks prescient: “the whole of society will have become a single office and a single factory”. This was in fact expressed as an optimistic vision of what a good society might look like in the future. And the visionary was none other than Vladimir Lenin.


An engagement with this article by Jeremy Gilbert is here. 


This article is part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and the Centre for Modern Studies at the University of York. It was funded by the University of York's Pump Priming Fund, the British Academy, and York's Centre for Modern Studies.

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