Jagged Edges: neither Neoliberalism nor Vectoralism.
I don’t think neoliberalism is the root of all our problems. In fact, I don’t think that there is such a thing as “the root of all our problems.” When it comes to questions of social power and complexity, I just don’t think they can be answered by extirpation, by uprooting. Likewise with critiques that comprehend “capitalism” as both total and unitary, rather than as an historical ensemble of market relations, private property regimes, industrial technologies, bourgeois society, the nation-state system, various forms of supremacy and exploitation, and so on, in which parts change and deeply interrelate but do not necessarily mutually inhere. Maybe it’s my own limitations, but whenever I try to wrap my mind around unitary totalities like this, it reminds me of the metaphysics of Parmenides, in which All Being is One, and change is not only impossible but inconceivable… No wonder we’re stuck.
Ensembles, on the other hand, allow us to both analyze the moving parts and see how they work together, rather than trying to either impotently blame the whole or merely isolate and excise the bad part. Even an historically-minded, immanent-critic like Moishe Postone, when examining both American and European capitalism and Soviet communism, will still presume that both forms of domination share a common root or historical condition (the abstraction of labor) rather than each ensemble sucking for a wide variety of different reasons. This throws me. I see no reason why there can’t be a multiplicity of Bads and a multiplicity of Goods, or Goods nested in Bads, Bads nested in Goods. I know that this isn’t as satisfying. People want a cardinal good-bad orientation. But that’s another hard lesson of social power and complexity. Even harder to swallow, about historical ensembles, is that even your most cherished, incorruptible program may itself suck or lead to domination when placed alongside the wrong things, and that the most reviled, idiotic program or ism may, in some unforeseen form and context, turn out to do exactly the trick you had in mind. Not to say that there aren’t some plain bad ideas out there, just that our most entrenched social ills and evils are dynamic and emergent.
So however adamantly the Feed may hand-wave, neoliberalism isn’t to blame for everything. It’s one pathology in competition with many others from which it has to be distinguished, like classical liberalism, libertarianism, financialization (with which it’s deeply intertwined but not identical), and all the modalities coming out of Silicon Valley that, borrowing McKenzie Wark’s notion of the “vectoralist class,” we might roughly gather under the term “vectoralism.” More often though, I find it very undistinguished, even in the books of thinkers I admire like Achille Mbembe, who begins his Critique of Black Reason by defining neoliberalism as “a phase in the history of humanity dominated by the industries of the Silicon Valley and digital technology.” Am I crazy or isn’t that like thirty years off the mark, and a misreading of our current state of affairs, which to my mind, includes a crisis in a moribund neoliberalism? As a non-expert trying to get my bearings — and you may disagree — I define neoliberalism pretty narrowly, as a kind of “governmental reason” in which the form of the public — or the would-be, should-be, could-be public — is hollowed out yet still instrumentalized for the ends of private, corporate profits, accompanied by an ideological framework that came to the fore during Reagan and Thatcher, maintained its Washington Consensus for some decades, then started to buckle under the Obama administration — in part because of the vectoralist “disruption” of social and political being.
In other words, for me, neoliberalism isn’t merely either marketization or privatization (which for me, are too longitudinal, like rationalization or secularization), but privatization through the ruse of an ideologically-maintained, socially-cherished public form or apparatus — like the town hall or public sphere, the nation-state, or the university or library— forms which reached their most “public” in midcentury America and Europe through waves of progressivism, social democracy, democratic socialism, and Dewey-ish social thought. Neoliberalism is a shell game best exemplified by the “public-private partnership,” in which the public is less a partner than it is a “mark” or a sucker, and corporate profits hustle under the cover of maintenance or efficiency. The erosion of workers’ rights by transnational corporations wasn’t just a consequence of globalization as such, but an exploitation of the integrity and limitations of the nation-state, the scale on which many of those workers’ rights were formulated and their powers and movements constrained. Many of the most heinous neoliberal experiments, from Pinochet’s Chile to Cheney’s Iraq, were likewise shell games played with the nation-state form and not merely marketization alone — or really, marketization at all. This same ruse describes the Olympics in its diversion of public investment to private contractors and propertied interests under the banner of “international peace and cooperation through sport,” and it also describes the Stay Puft Marshmallow status of today’s “corporate citizen,” in which the short-term profit imperatives of shareholders are protected by legal personhood — entitled even to that highest of public ideals, “free speech.” It also applies to the absolutely criminal and peak-neoliberal “Elizabeth River Tunnels Project” that, at the hands of then-governor Bob McDonnell, nearly suicided my home region of Hampton Roads, Virginia, and left the area on the hook for 58 years of guaranteed profits to Elizabeth River Crossings (now purchased by Albertis Infraestructuras in consortium with the investment firm John Hancock).
To my mind, this specific public-private relation is one of the things that distinguishes neoliberalism from the libertarian eschewal or diminishment of public for private forms, or a classical liberal paradigm of separate, delimited private and public spheres, or — most relevant today — the vectoralism now circling like a vulture, waiting to feed on neoliberalism’s bloated corpse. Vectoralism has no need to maintain or streamline public forms. It has little use for them. Where it’s not actively seeking to supplant or circumvent them, such as Uber supplanting or circumventing public transportation, it’s pushing to dispense with the public-private distinction altogether as a relic of modernity. This is one reason why it’s so backwards to mischaracterize Silicon Valley as a form of “techno-libertarianism.” I’m not saying techno-libertarianism isn’t a thing, only that it doesn’t apply to Silicon Valley, which absolutely liquidates most of the 19th and 20th century notions at the source of libertarianism, such as “self-ownership” or “the private individual.” I would even argue that vectoralism’s switch from the “market” to the “algorithm” as an organizing metaphor yanks away one of the load-bearing pillars holding up the public-private distinction in law and political economy running through classical liberalism, libertarianism, and neoliberalism, and muddies the distinction between “free markets” and “central planning” that is so axial in contemporary Youtube commentary.
There’s of course some continuity from neoliberalism to vectoralism, in their social relations for example, but the discontinuity is more important to understand because the dangers are newer. Where you clearly see this discontinuity is with that now-thoroughly neoliberal institution, the modern American university — neoliberal in its internal administration, privatization of research, and reliance on ballooning and largely government-backed student debt. As a ruse, it’s society-wide and God tier, and it couldn’t have been pulled off were it not for the ideologically-maintained, socially-cherished form of the University (whether technically public or private) that still holds a monopoly over higher education — and a monopoly over even the image of higher education. It’s simply what one does. Even the cleverest (maybe especially the cleverest) expect University Life to be something along the lines of Raphael’s School of Athens (which was actually painted behind one of the auditoriums of my undergrad alma mater, the University of Virginia). Yet if the curtain dropped, and universities were understood as transactionally as their administrators understand them, if the public soberly weighed its costs and benefits against other possible forms of higher education, the jig would be up.
And that’s the thing: the curtain is dropping and the jig may soon be up. Then, lo and behold, waiting in the wings is Silicon Valley, ready to offer things like “Google Career Certificates” in lieu of diplomas, and at a fraction of the cost. These certificates primarily cover tech but what would stop them from expanding into every other discipline or into new forms of legitimacy? For the last century or two, what kept higher education from finding franker forms was both the Veblen good of university prestige and the closely related fact that education is only about twenty percent “learning” and eighty percent social reproduction, stratification, and subjectivation (that is, the making of us as subjects). Recently, this prestige has lost some of its spell, due in part to the rise of the Californian Ideology, which has always glorified the dropout and the digital autodidact. And already for some time now, vectoralism has institutionally challenged the university classroom with MOOCs, coding boot camps, a host of other online para-academic environments and private tutoring platforms, and from the looks of it, is generally hoping to overtake the university system in the transmission of “knowledge,” and many times free of charge. Point being that concerning methods of education, neoliberalism and vectoralism are, broadly speaking, at odds.
In terms of options and convenience, the academy pales. And the avid and disciplined autodidact can access some the best of today’s knowledge-production through a variety of sidedoor vectoralist means. This being the case, if we start shopping around and comparing the university with all the other potential platforms for discourse, culture, training, knowledge production and transmission — those purported “services” of a university — we’re left to wonder what exactly we’re paying so much for. Is it for the honor of working and character-building? A shot at the bustling academic job market? For discounts at the natural history museum? It makes sense if the system is a given, as it long has been — you just have to pay your dues. But if the system itself is called into question, it has little to defend itself with.
Were this all that was at stake, “access to knowledge,” a new conveyance of culture and knowledge, we might think of the vectoralist disruption as an improvement or a welcome addition. The real shift though is in the new methods of social reproduction, stratification, and subjectivation in the vectoralist models of education and pedagogy (and “media” as well, but that’s a question for another day). This is what we need to keep our eye on. Ask anyone who knows: Gramsci, Althusser, Ivan Illich, Pierre Bourdieu or even Thomas Piketty. We have to ask what’s being restructured in the name of or under the guise of education, naively understood. In his most recent Capital and Ideology, Piketty even marshals data to explain the political realignment from social democracy to neoliberalism largely in terms of educational attainment (the social democrats losing the working class for a “Brahmin Left”). I don’t fully buy this as an explanation, but we can surely make out the faultline here, the jagged edges of one mode grinding against the jagged edges of its successor… The shift from social democracy to neoliberalism then; now the shift from neoliberalism to an ascendent vectoralism.
However — and this is why I’m going to such pains here — this shift itself involves a sort of ruse, a second order ruse, in that vectoralism is going to be sold to us as a solution to the failures and bankruptcy of neoliberalism. Vectorialism will come to seem like a wiser steward of sectors like education or media, where the “products” have never been scarce and the central grift will be a matter of controlling their flows and mediating their superabundance (as if the problem of education was ever that “we just couldn’t get it to them,” a problem of access to knowledge). From there, it will boastfully go on to “solve for scarcity” in all the countless other sectors that neoliberalism has left in shambles, then exert greater control through characteristically vectoralist means. The ruse will offer us a false choice between two competing forms of domination, just as we faced during the Cold War, and our answer as always should be “neither.” This refusal involves acknowledging the varieties or domination and differentiating between them, whether through the pretexts of markets versus algorithms, the changing relations to scarcity and abundance, or the way they configure or reconfigure the public and private. Because domination has always been, if anything, innovative.