On The Attainability of An Alternative - 'The Left', Neoliberalism, and The Chain of Equivalence

As it stands, the hegemonic status-quo of the Neoliberal order rests virtually unopposed in Europe. Broadly speaking, ‘Neoliberalism’ is a theory of political economic practices proposing that human well-being is achieved through liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutionalised framework underpinned by an ideological market-logic of expansion, consolidation and de-regulation.[1] It would be disingenuous if I were to omit that some of the greatest advancements and benefits of living in the time that we do are indebted to being formulated within the neoliberal framework. Neoliberalism has both politically and institutionally facilitated the incubation and engrained reproduction of a certain logos (λόγος) that goes hand in hand with the uttermost revolutionary aspects of the capitalist spirit that, on Marx’s terms, sweep away long-fixed social relations, melt all that is solid into air, and turn all that is holy into the profane.[2] States which were yet to make the transition to even a minimal standard of institutional democracy did so with the spread of free-market values, our capability to communicate has excelled in but a few short decades beyond that yet achieved in our species’ history, and now more individuals globally hold a semblance of civic rights and liberties than ever before. This cannot be ignored.

Nonetheless, Neoliberalism has with its proliferation and normalised ideological principles reformulated a control over life that makes it perceivably impossible to overcome its numerous contradictions and flaws. As much as Neoliberalism has created a ‘free-er’ world – at least if ‘freedom’ is conceptualised through the prism of ‘negative liberty’ where freedom is ‘freedom from’ interference – it has led to an era of marketized consumer society in which all things (almost without exception) may be commodified on a market, leading to a world of disposability. We experience the disposability of a common world (illustrated in the contemporary ecological crisis), the disposability of our commodities (illustrated in the over-hyped consumerism of goods, as observed annually on Black Friday for example), the disposability of our labour (illustrated in the ability to reduce industries to superfluity, and as such those communities that spored and clustered to create a way of living through those industries), and even the disposability of welfarism (illustrated in the Austerity politics of the post-2008 epoch). Neoliberalism has brought an experience of life that is marred by contradiction. For instance, we experience a world in which one is less overtly dominated by the state apparatus than in the past, where technology permits horizontalist and disseminated communication capabilities through social media, and yet simultaneously our bodies and activity are surveilled by the state and those agents that provide our platforms of communication in the form of ‘data harvesting’, which, like all else, can be sold or utilised as any other commodity – technology that totalitarian political police forces could only have dreamt of in their wildest fantasies.[3] Globally, it has become apparent that a new form of what Michel Foucault called into being as ‘Governmentality’ exists – this being an art of government with the citizen-body as its target, which forges a series of particular governmental apparatuses and ‘legitimated’ epistemological  frameworks to construct how we know what we know for the purpose of the secured ‘governmentalized’ administration of individual bodies.[4] And, what’s more, as a result of the ideological market-logic permeating through the surface of this mode of governmentality, we have become unable to break with what the late Mark Fisher in his ‘Capitalist Realism’ discusses as the mass-grasp of the capitalist imaginary – to the point at which even alternatives beyond the neoliberal capitalist system are perceived as unimaginable.[5]

In spite of this, as Fisher so beautifully contends, the “oppressive pervasiveness” of the situation means that “even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect…From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again”.[6] Over the course of the past two or three decades, ‘the left’ has not necessarily seen to aid the phenomenon of this potentially messianic and quasi-theological deliverance into an alternative that Fisher opens our political discourse to survey and think in the name of. Indeed, with the collapse of the ‘socialist’ era in the 1990s, ‘the left’ in Europe chose not to engage in the forging of a genuine alternative to the neoliberal-capitalist framework, but rather to reconstruct social-democracy in its image, synergising the neoliberal ideological hegemony with welfarist policy – think of Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, François Hollande, Romano Prodi, or even, to a lesser extent, Bill Clinton. Through this ‘Third Way’, we fell into an era of the ‘post-political’ or the ‘post-democratic’, in which the role of corporate interests and elites in the affairs of governance have greatly contributed to an entropy of democracy and democratic accountability, and as such a genuine civic discourse, a genuine politics, to contemplate the potentiality of alternative frameworks cannot be brought into being.[7]

This is the problem that ‘the left’ face, i.e., how to conjure the terms from which an alternative, an escape out of the neoliberal frame, can be theorised. For the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, this can be achieved through the creation of a ‘left populism’, engaging with the ‘populist moment’ that we seem to have found ourselves in as a result of the dominance of the neoliberal hegemony, but preventing a right-wing dominance of such a moment to the extent that democracy is guarded from erosion, and that an alternative frontier, a frontier that distinguishes between an inclusive construction of ‘the people’ and all else, may be composed in an anti-hegemonic frame to combat the excesses of the neoliberal hegemony.[8] This is interesting as she draws on her work with Ernesto Laclau in ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’, whereby they expound  the notion of the ‘chain of equivalence’.[9] Through an agonistic model of struggle, Mouffe maintains that marginalized and disadvantaged groups of society may assemble together to construct a thoroughly political strategy in order to undo the hegemony that limits their existence somehow – a chain of equivalence. This does not imply that this vast collection of subjectivities necessarily needs to wholly agree, but simply that the groups in the chain acknowledge that each holds their own distinct relations to the existing hegemony, and that each group's interests are irreducible and incomparable to others’. In this, unity and assembly would come into being through the retainment of commonality in difference, i.e. they see themselves as equivalently disadvantaged by existing power relations, but not identical in experience, enabling them to act in concert and construct the potential opening for the alternative that Fisher speaks of. Chains of Equivalence would incorporate the class dimension of past socialist thought, but on a broader anti-essentialist scale that would disseminate the notion of a ‘proletarian class’ beyond the cliché realm of industrialism alone.[10] Capitalism always requires a working class, and as the forces and relations of production slowly evolve and mutate, so can too the social classes who have their existence limited in some way by the existing hegemony. Perhaps the invocation of Chains of Equivalence is what should be strived for, for the sake of its potentiality.

I do however see a handful of questionable issues with the pragmatics of reinforcing these chains. The first concerns how to ensure the acknowledgement of equivalence from within. Mouffe and Laclau reveal that the logic of equivalence is itself both necessary for the chains themselves to arise, but are yet equally abstract and fully require a rearticulation and redefinition of political and social spaces.[11] Therefore, if the logic of equivalence breaks under the retro-active hegemonic norms, these chains will subsequently break down. For example, can traditionalist religious minorities act in concert and form a common counter-hegemonic strategy with the LGBTQ+ community, or the Feminist movement, when by virtue of their normative differences these groups interpret the fabric of the political world on different terms, with different signifiers. Are some differences too essentialist that no abstract application of a logic of equivalence can overcome them? Perhaps a different bind can be found, as in Judith Butler’s ‘The Force of Non-Violence’, where ‘grievability’ – the recognition of the right to grieve for bodies that acknowledges and co-creates the idea of an inclusive liveable life - could reinforce a notional equality as the basis of the chain?[12]. Or would this fall prey to a similar exceptionalism, requiring bodies to be acknowledged on a logic of equivalence to begin with in order to view all lives as primarily liveable and thus grievable?  Equally, with the globalised network of deteritorialised communication, can such chains form across cultures, languages and territories, even if we have the material and tangible capability to do so? Although some claim that social media can have an effect on encouraging popular assembly in its networkable existence [13], if social media acts as a mirror of norms, would it equally disallow chains of equivalence to form between those who are equally dis-enabled from experiencing a life on their own terms as a result of the neoliberal hegemony? Social media may allow connectivity, but can it permit a recognition of equivalence beyond localised and wholly subjective norms? If ‘the left’ seeks to truly provide the basis for an alternative, these are but just some of the questions it must ask, or perhaps return to the hermeneutic chalk board of interpretation altogether and follow the Zizekian reformulation of the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, that: ‘the philosophers have hitherto attempted to change the world, the point now, however, is to interpret it again’. Whatever the case may be, ‘the left’ must not forget what distinguishes itself, its emancipatory position. In the words of Mark Fisher:

“Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed impossible seem attainable.”[14]

[1] For more information, see: David Harvey (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 2-3; Wendy Lamer (2000) 'Neo-Liberalism: Policy, Ideology, Governmentality', Studies in Political Economy 63(1), pp. 5-25; Henry Giroux (2004) The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy, New York: Paradigm.

[2] This reference is taken from: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1968) The Communist Manifesto, London: Penguin Classics, pp. 222-223.

[3] On the topic of ‘Data Harvesting’ and the influence of contemporary technology on the political plane, see: Jamie Bartlett (2019) The People Vs Tech: How The Internet is Killing Democracy and How We Save it, London: Penguin Books.

[4] To explore Foucault’s grasp of ‘governmentality’, see: Michel Foucault (2009) Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at The College De France - 1977-78, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 87-114.

[6] Ibid, pp. 80-81.

[7] For a discussion of the ‘post-political’ era, see: Chantal Mouffe (2005) On The Political, Abingdon: Routledge. For the theoretical articulation of the ‘Third Way’, see: Anthony Giddens (1998) The Third Way: The Renewl of Social Democracy, Cambridge: Polity Press; (1994) Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics, Cambridge: Polity Press; and Ulrich Beck (2005) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: SAGE Publications Ltd. For a discussion of ‘post-democracy’, see: Colin Crouch (2004) Post-Democracy, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[8] Chantal Mouffe (2018) For a Left Populism, London: Verso.

[9] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (2014) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Second Edition, London: Verso.

[10] In his ‘Why Marx Was Right’, Terry Eagleton stunningly explains why this would still be in fitting with the Marxian tradition, breaking the simpleminded notion that contemporary social class is limited to “frock-coated factor owners and boiler-suited workers”; see: Terry Eagleton (2011) Why Marx Was Right, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 178.

[11] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (2014) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Second Edition, London: Verso, pp. 130.

[12] Judith Butler (2020) The Force of Non-Violence: An Ethico-Political Bind, London: Verso.

[13] I am Thinking of Zeynep Tufekci here in her: (2017) Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[14] Mark Fisher (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Winchester: Zero Books, p. 17.