There is a unique tradition of American thinking about economics that holds a more intense relationship to liberalism than that found in the context of continental Europe, from which much work in political theory draws. Michel Foucault’s series of lectures on economics at the College of France from 1978-1979 acknowledge the distinction between developments in economics in the European context and American. Foucault sets out to argue that the role of economic reason is not simply to regulate civil society, but instead to constitute a regime of knowledge that is ontologically inaccessible to governmental reason. As he puts it, the market, allowed to function unencumbered, produces relationships that come to represent truths as dictated by the logic of the market, coding market judgment as the legitimate expression of a collective will: “ When you allow the market to function by itself, according to its nature, according to its natural truth…it permits the formation of a certain price which will be called, metaphorically, the true price…the market must be that which reveals something like a truth.” The revealed truth then implies a corresponding set of appropriate and inappropriate actions by governments, as “The formation of a natural price…enables us to falsify and verify governmental practice when, on the basis of these elements, we examine what government does, the measures it takes, and the rules it imposes.”[i]
The result is that prices (and, correspondingly, social locations) are read as expressions of a market’s judgment. The legitimacy of this market judgment is further established through Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” which functions like “the existence of something like providence which would tie together all the dispersed threads” and for Foucault the key element is the inability apprehend from where the hand acts, as “invisibility is not just a fact arising from the imperfect nature of human intelligence which prevents people from realizing that there is a hand behind them which arranges or connects everything…It is an invisibility which means that no economic agent should or can pursue the collective good.”[ii] For Foucault, even Smith, a figure which some have tried to rehabilitate by reading against some modern market fundamentalists, implies that the world of governmental regulation and economic action are incommensurable realms, where the very idea motivation government (some notion of the common good) renders the government absolutely incapable of aiding the economy, which realizes its promise only through legitimating the expressions of pure individual interest.
Crucially, Foucault recognizes there is a tendency to temporally narrativize the work of the market. For example one imagines the production of a good, (say, a widget), that the good is sold (or not sold) at a certain price, and eventually reaches a point where it has achieved its “natural” or “true” price in the economy, which reflects the optimal point of its sale for both its producers and consumers. In practice, however, the process of production and sale is considerably messier. At the center of liberal economic theory lies a self-interest human, what Foucault calls homo economicus, the “person who must be let alone” to pursue “his own interest.”[iii] Their own interest is not the same as the collective interest, but, theoretically, the exercise of self-interest will end up coincident with the common good or common interest. Foucault implies that there is more than a little magical thinking in this account, as he says of their interest that it “is such that is converges spontaneously with the interests of others.”[iv] The notion is that the economy works without any kind of outside intervention, with no external signals or signs as to what the “right” action would, as those would constitute market distortions.
The result suggests a kind of crisis for economic theory. Or, at least, it suggests a theoretical problem that arises if individual choice fails to produce conditions of public stability. This proposition is what drives work like that of David Harvey who, in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, suggests an inability for us to draw a line between what he calls neoliberalism’s promise to better society “by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” and its actually existing products of instability, poverty, and violence. [v] On Harvey’s view, the “theoretical utopian of neoliberal argument has…primarily worked as a system of justification and legitimation” for the rollback of state regulation and the upwards accumulation of wealth for elites.[vi]
Foucault’s canny mention of the magic of “spontaneous convergence” of interests suggests how the promise of individual freedom naturalizes political conditions as expressions of (legitimate) market judgments. Because homo economicus does not and cannot aim at producing a public good, what he really is an entrepreneur of himself, “being for himself his own capital” and with that production comes the capacity to consume.[vii] By engaging in processes of consumerism, homo economicus “produces his own satisfaction” which suggests that the classical division between production and consumption as two elements of a subject has instead been conflated in the proliferation of a more intense vision of economic liberalism, where labor directly produces satisfaction.[viii]
This analysis is especially trenchant in the case of America, where the function of the market comes to encompass much more than in other contexts:
neo-liberalism evidently appears much more radical or much more complete and exhaustive. American neo-liberalism still involves, in fact, the generalization of the economic form of the market. It involves generalizing it throughout the social body and including the whole of the social system not usually conducted through or sanctioned by monetary exchanges.[ix]
Where in, say, the European context, the failure of the market to provide certain goods and services might be more readily read as expressing a gap between the needs of the nation and the needs of the market, in American the liberal/individual element in the political grammar can be taken to imply that the failure to provide for a common good is a result of the refusal to commit more fully to market orthodoxy. This suggestion works in concert with the appeal of a regime of liberal individualism itself, which preys on romantic conceptualizations of heroic individuals agency.
Moreover, the health of the consumer economy itself has become conflated with the national interest. Lizbeth Cohen suggests that this conflation was particularly notable in America following World War Two, when this fantasy of national consumption was tied to existing political winds:
As Americans lived better and on a more equal footing with their neighbors, it was expected, the dream of a more egalitarian America would ﬁnally be achieved. Politicians never tired of tying America’s political and economic superiority over the Soviet Union to its more democratic distribution of goods.[x]
The capacity to exercise one’s own consumerist agency, to participate in directing the gestures of the invisible hand, can be taken as an index of one’s membership of the polity. The importance of these practices increased as a kind of compensatory mechanism for a decline in the intensity of attachments to other sources of authority, like religion, family, and social homogeneity. The market comes to reflect not just the judgments of consumers, but also reflects the capacity of citizens to participate in the production of values and reality. The channeling of imagination of agency to these highly individualized and consumerist visions also dovetailed nicely with the state-phobia referenced earlier in this chapter: twixt and tween the recent threat of German fascism and the current Soviet menace, consumerism was not only an expression of one’s capacity to own their entrepreneurship of the self, but also a method of suggesting that there were some mechanisms of expression that could not come under state control.
The health of the economy, then, does not just reflect a string of numbers on the Dow Jones, an index of consumer confidence, or the amount by which the gross domestic product has increased or decreased in a given year. Instead, the health of the economy corresponds with the imagined health of the American “people,” whose capacity to act as their own entrepreneurs is taken as a key marker of their fitness and health as a “people.” A bad economy may not only reflect poorly on political actors or economic elites, but also suggests an inability of consumers to properly judge their own self-interest and contribute appropriately to the economy. The special kind of market fundamentalism that developed as a response to the fifties consensus about Keynesian spending and government intervention into the market was itself a populism, one that constituted itself against the government’s separation from not only the subject position of actors who existed “within” the market but also with a basic incommensurability thesis at work about the capacity of the government to pass judgment on the legitimacy of popular reason. Economic crises do not, then, only suggest crises for capitalism, but they threaten liberalism by indicting the judgment of individual actors themselves.
So far work in rhetoric has competently advanced the study of modern economics, either by suggesting the intrinsically rhetorical elements of economics as in the case of Deirdre McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics and its familial relations to the Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry, or in various studies that generate sophisticated understandings of the relationship between neoliberalism, citizenship, and economic rationality. Joshua S. Hanan, for example, connects the democratization of economic rationality to the housing bubble that was partly responsible for the 2008 collapse, suggesting that neoliberalism’s paradoxical relation to its utopian promises and its actually existing exclusions means that “neoliberalism materially uproots the very materiality needed to view the economy as a representation of reason.”[xi] Catherine Chaput concludes that the most nefarious danger posed by neoliberalism is its capacity to interpret any situation (and thus exert a perverse presumptive capacity to frame each situation) by moving “from situation to situation, disregarding spatial boundaries between the political, economic, and cultural realms as well as their attendant modes of persuasion, wearing away at the rhetorical linkages between appropriate discursive choices and agentive power.”[xii] Bradford Vivian connects neoliberalism’s capacity to generate intense relationships to malleable political terms like liberty and freedom to its actually depoliticizing effects, namely to restrict the scope, character, and subject of political speech to only safe and apolitical topics.[xiii] Finally, Megan Foley’s astute examination of the federal mortgage crisis involving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac accurately assesses how the “economic” has come to crowd out the “political” by positioning citizens as the figures who have the capacity to make market judgments with a government rendered into incompetent architects of an “infantile politico-economic apparatus” made helpless in the face of market judgment.[xiv]
Taking for granted this set of observations about the capacity of the “economic” to both colonize and confabulate politics, I hope to outline how the conflation of economic agency and political agency configured the public response to the 2008 financial crisis and the ongoing production of the American “people” both through the 2008-2010 electoral cycle and the ongoing economic recession. Considering public discourse both as attempting to perform a triage operation on the American dream while at the same time disclosing anxieties and fears related to the state of the economy enables me to suggest that the development of a rather unique form of individual populism coincident with rather than antagonistic to market fundamentalism was no accident but instead reveals how America imagines itself collectively in moments of crisis. Foucault concludes in The Birth of Biopolitics that one of the key insights of liberalism is the motto that one must “’Live Dangerously’” as subjects are constantly experiencing their lives, presents, and futures as dangerous.[xv] The turn to collective political vocabularies, I hope to show later, can be read as a means of managing this condition of permanent danger, these anxieties associated with appearance during times of economic and social crisis.
[i] Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 31-32.
[ii] The Birth of Biopolitics, 279.
[iii] The Birth of Biopolitics, 270.
[v] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 2.
[vi] A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 19.
[vii] Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 226.
[ix] The Birth of Biopolitics, 243.
[x] Lizbeth Cohen, "A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America," Journal of Consumer Research 31, no. 1 (2004): 237.
[xi] Joshua S. Hanan, "Home Is Where the Capital Is: The Culture of Real Estate in an Era of Control Societies," Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7, no. 2 (2010): 194.
[xii] Catherine Chaput, "Rhetorical Circulation in Late Capitalism: Neoliberalism and the Overdetermination of Affective Energy," Philosophy and Rhetoric 43, no. 1 (2010): 2-3.
[xiii] Bardford Vivian, "Neoliberal Epideictic: Rhetorical Form and Commemorative Politics on September 11, 2002," Quarterly Journal of Speech 92, no. 1 (2006): 3-4.
[xiv] Megan Foley, "From Infantile Citizens to Infantile Institutions: The Metaphoric Transformation of Political Economy in the 2008 Housing Market Crisis," ibid.98, no. 4 (2012): 387.
[xv] Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 66.