Courtesy of Bruno Cordioli (https://www.flickr.com/photos/br1dotcom) democracy

Interview with Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval about their “Never-ending nightmare: how Neoliberalism dismantles democracy”
Click here to read the original post in French.

In your book “Never Ending Nightmare: How Neoliberalism Dismantles Democracy” you refer to Aristophanes’ comedy Pluto, which reminds us of a ghost often mentioned by Mussolini: plutocracy. Could you explain by means of simple examples how the economic power and the financial oligarchy interfere with what we may call popular sovereignty?

We carefully avoid using the term “plutocracy”, which has been strongly discredited by fascism’s use of it and which today would accomplish the main function of dissimulating the subordination of the whole political class to the capitalistic system. What is ruling today is a political block in which the experts, not only the financial experts, hold power. It’s an “experts-cracy” in the service of the richest, not a government of the rich only (which literally means “pluto-cracy”.) That’s why we use the terms “oligarchy” and “oligarchic block”, which correspond exactly to the current state of things.

Obviously, this domination can take different shapes according to the countries and national histories, but what is striking is the will to fix long-term political lines regardless the electoral changeovers to impose on the following governments, included those arisen from opposite electoral majorities. A good example is Michel Temer’s decision to engage the following governments of Brazil to suspend public spending for 20 years, an austerity measure concerning above all expenditures in the fields of health and education. Temer had shown his cards before becoming president, by stating that his “social policy” is based on three pillars: monetary stability, balanced budget, free and not biased competition.

The far prevailing trend is the imposition of a “framework” that enables political guidelines to escape the public debate, included its deviant parliament (take for instance Macron’s massive recourse to ordinances to reform the labour code, or the practice of “discussion” instead of “negotiation” with “social partners”.) Popular sovereignty is not the only one to be trampled; the classic parliamentary and representative democracy is also emptied of content.

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In the book you make distinctions between the two economic conceptions of liberalism and neo-liberalism. For neo-liberalists, the best economic philosophy is that of deregulation and the almost absolute absence of the state from economic governance. In neo-liberalism rules and laws are the means to create new markets. Bureaucracy makes the market.

The neo-liberal economic policy is very similar to what we have seen so far in the EU. Don’t you think that your book, paradoxically, could encourage someone to appreciate neo-liberalism? Wouldn’t neo-liberalism and its economic philosophy based on deregulation and laissez-faire end up benefitting financial oligarchy even more?

We don’t distinguish between two “economic philosophies”, but between two trends of neo-liberalism: the Austro-American trend, namely embodied by Hayek, and the German ordo-liberal trend, particularly supported by Walter Eucken, Franz Böhm, Wilhelm Röpke. We are not in favour of the choice to use two different words to designate these two trends. There is certainly an underlying theoretical divergence between the two: is the market a spontaneous order, as Hayek maintains, or rather the effect of a juridical and political construction, as the German ordo-liberalists claim? However, we should not let ourselves deceived by the practical scope of this theoretical divergence. The political leaders managed to demonstrate a sense of adaptation to understand each other on the “framework”, dependent on everybody’s possibility to experiment in every situation. That’s why such a disagreement has not prevented an increasing practical convergence in the implementation of neo-liberal policies.

In this regard, the example that you mentioned about the European Union is very clarifying. It’s an illusion to oppose a virtuous Europe and the policies of “wild deregulation” carried out by the USA and the UK. The construction of the big European market needed the implementation of “deregulation” policies which had serious social effects as much as in Anglo-Saxon countries. Simply, this “deregulation” must not be interpreted as a non-regulation or as the absence of any rule and norm: on the contrary, it was pursued through an inflation of “community” norms which will prevail step by step over the national legislation. The federal framework which is under construction demands it, and it demands it further and further. But the worst illusion would be to believe that coming out of this framework will invariably result in “less neo-liberalism”. The example of Theresa May is there to show us to what extent this illusion can be dangerous. In general, no current neo-liberal trend advocate for the total absence of the state and of every rule in economy. We must not confuse neo-liberalism, both trends, with libertarianism or anarcho-capitalism. Therefore, we should not fear that our criticism of ordo-liberalism could benefit the supporters of a total deregulation.

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Photomontage of the Wolkenbugel, El Lissitzky (Via Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70)

Competition both in Neoliberal and Neoliberalist ideology is an absolute and inevitable principle affecting all the subjects, from companies to individual workers. However, thinking about such a scandal as the Volkswagen case, we could think that competition is, rather than a value, a rhetoric mechanism and an effective bugbear, which can be used to justify a reduction of worker’s rights and salaries. The general perception is that companies prefer to avoid fighting each other, in favour of placing cartels or manipulating the market, by mean of media; companies also use devices, such as the one of the Volkswagen switchboard, in order to pretend to be competitive and effective. In this light: is competition only a structural reality or is it only a rhetorical trickery?

Competition is neither a structural reality, as you called it, nor a simple rhetorical trickery. By contrast it could be better defined as a method of running a society and its individuals, according to a capitalistic principle; it is a general normative way, a method which involves each level of the society, not only the economic sphere. Concerning a strictly economical level, a policy based on competitivity is the ground on which the European Community was built after 1957. This policy is also heading the working and public services reforms. Your question poses a real problem, which is related to the “perfect and pure competition” models and their limits. Since the 1930s, the “imperfect competition” economic theories have been widely diffused. Still now it is very clear that the capital concentration in the hands of few people has led to an oligopoly, aimed at the limitation of the internal competition, on the national market. Consequently, the neoliberalist governments have defined two obvious choices: to turn the national public monopolies into private oligopolies, following the idea that competition based on an oligopoly, which according to the walrasian model is an imperfect competition, is better than a public monopoly; to make any effort in order to support (comprehensive of public funds and fiscal measures) the national industrial and bank groups, on the basis that global competition, at this point, justifies the irregularities of concurrence on national markets. Neoliberalism on a practical level should not be confused with an ideal and abstract economic theory, which must be applied. Again, it is a method of running a society.

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In this book, debt is often seen as an economic blackmail weapon, towards both countries or individuals. In reading this book you jump back in the Middle Ages, in which the feudal lords play the role of multinational companies and the of big financial actors, while consumers and workers are the serfs. Is it too much?

Generally, we avoid mentioning the very diffused topic of society’s re-feudalisation, which can be explained as the idea that the State and its sovereignty are threatened by the financial power and by the new “lords of the economy”, to mention the same picture. In no way we deny the power of capitalistic forces, such as investments funds or banks; during the 1970s they imposed their interests and their agenda over the governments, as we have seen in America Latina or in Africa, above all the structural regularization projects. It seems that the “FMI method” is spreading all over the world, particularly in Europe. The Greek case is a clear example. Neo-liberalism as a form of government doesn’t mean that power is exclusively given to the “lords”. The State has not a passive role, by contrast has a central role all along the process of private powers’ rise. This process gives evidence that the State and private dimensions of the economy and of the society are built on the competition-enterprise model. The State does not disappear, how can it be possible? It turned into a mega-enterprise or into a meta-enterprise.

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In the last chapter you describe the central role of people and an international direct democracy as the only possible exit solution from a system based on the “Oligarchic Block”. How could direct democracy be an obstacle to neoliberal ideology’s power and to its power machine? Isn’t your proposal in contradiction with the Syriza case, in Greece, where there is an evident failure of the referendum? Moreover, direct democracies in our history very often turned into dictatorships. Have you considered this possibility?

Syriza couldn’t escape the double traps of the politics and integration experts, within the mechanisms of the European institutions. The only results have been the approbation of a popular movement against the Trojka diktat. It will not be simple to apply, but it would be better than a treason. Actually, the Greek support our point of view, which is based on the internationalist idea. By contrast, the main stream is going towards the opposite direction, that of xenophobic nationalism. It is not because there are adverse winds that we have to run with them. A left-wing party has supported the idea of sovereignty, arguing that the unique solution is at a national level. We think that we are facing an impasse, maybe a more or less fascist far-right wing will impose its own concept of “possible”. Moreover, we don’t identify “populism” and “direct democracy”. In most cases we call “populism” a form of government according to which power is delegate to a providential man, or group of people, since they identify with people’s interests. This is the opposite of our idea of “principle of common” which consists of the self-government of all the political and economic institutions. This is the only form of government which can prevent a singular Party or a Chief who claims to own the truth from taking control, as it happened during the communist revolution in the XX century.

Mercì beaucoup.

QUID, JUPE & AMY

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