Potash Hill

Thinking Against the Machine

By Meg Mott

Artwork by Connor Linden ’17Since Plato, political philosophers have taken on the responsibility of intellectual freedom. Politics professor Meg Mott explores how political philosophy and collective action combat the isolation of neoliberal economics.

The political theorist is committed to thinking outside the box or, as Plato might say, “thinking outside the cave.” Without this rigorous activity, the masses would remain shackled, forced to consume the same mind-numbing shadows produced by the regime. Without the intervention of the political theorist, the cave dwellers would understand politics to be a spectator sport. Only when the shackles come off do the cave dwellers start asking political questions, the first being, “What can we do about these ankle bracelets?”

Looking back across the millennia, it’s easy to see the value of political philosophers, especially during times when the cave was so stuffy. Most of us think of the Middle Ages as a time when church orthodoxy obliterated the marketplace of ideas—a time when political philosophy was really needed. But nowadays, with everyone on their mobile devices and contemplating their various options for where to dine out and whom to dine with, the need for political theorists seems less necessary. And yet, every era has its own particular cave, as invisible to its inhabitants as it is dismissed by succeeding generations.

The relatively new cave that political philosophers want us to notice is known as neoliberalism, an economic theory developed by Friedrich Hayek and then embraced by the University of Chicago School of Economics in the 1970s. Better known in this country as “Reaganomics,” neoliberalism operates under the assumption that markets make better decisions than government bureaucracies. Neoliberal leaders, such as Margaret Thatcher and Augusto Pinochet, privatized national industries and cut social services.

The effect on political culture was profound. With everything framed in terms of economic efficiencies, political values, such as deliberation and collaboration, bordered on extinction. Instead of practicing collective life, a society of individuals competed with each other for personal advantage.

Neoliberalism rewrote the metaphor of the cave: instead of looking at the same shadows on the wall, each cave dweller is fixated on their individual screen. At least in the ancient cave we might have rolled our collective eyes at the stupidity of the protagonist or found ourselves weeping in unison. Even the industrialized cave, described by Marx, provided the basis for a common experience. Once the workers saw how they were each alienated from their labor, they would rise up and demand better conditions in the cave. By making us think that our natural condition is separate, neoliberalism destroys the very possibility for collective action. Under neoliberalism, we aren’t just alienated from our labor. Rather, the I is alienated from the We.

Protestors make signs during the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in 2011. Photo by Caleb ClarkMichel Foucault was one of the first political philosophers to raise the alarm about these new conditions. In a series of lectures in the late 1970s he spoke about a type of power that used “techniques oriented towards individuals and intended to rule them in a continuous and permanent way.” This “pastoral power” wasn’t an entirely new way of organizing the masses: Christian kings had used it successfully for centuries to guide their flock. However, when pastoral power was combined with market rationality the result was dangerously antipolitical. Where the medieval rulers moved the flock toward a shared and blessed future, the neoliberal rulers moved each member into total isolation.

Since Foucault’s time, the situation has become even more dire. According to contemporary political theorist Wendy Brown, entire “vocabularies, principles of justice, political cultures, habits of citizenship, practices of rules, and above all, democratic imaginaries” are slipping away. Political questions such as “What do we need to improve our neighborhoods?” have been displaced by “How can I get ahead?” With all aspects of existence described in individual terms, we can’t see ourselves as anything but isolated players in a highly competitive game. This is even true in higher education, argues Brown, where college administrators have abandoned political conceptions of life for the metrics of the marketplace.

Brown’s concerns are well founded. Under the Obama Administration, colleges and universities are required to report average student debt and expected earnings for their graduates. It makes sense, then, that college students would come to see themselves in purely economic terms. Who can afford to invest their time reading Plato or Foucault? The denizens of the neoliberal college do not have the leisure to think politically, but must figure out the cost and benefits of studying a particular major.

It would appear that we have become the very society that Foucault predicted would emerge under neoliberal policies. “We are at the civilizational turning point that neoliberal rationality marks,” concludes Brown, pointing to its deep antihumanism and surrender to a condition of human impotence. Normally, this would be a time when political philosophy flew in for the rescue, but with so few undergraduates investing their time in political theory, who will free us now? Has political philosophy finally met its match under neoliberalism?

A Vermont delegation from the recovery community arrives in Washington D.C. for the UNITE to Face Addiction Rally in October 2015. Photo by Brittany KirvanWhile I share Foucault’s and Brown’s concerns, I’m too much a student of Aristotle to cede our natural political instincts. Even in this era of handheld devices and precarious economics, collective political action has not been erased. If anything, we’re seeing an upswing in democratic action, such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. The individuals who participate in these social movements are not alienated from each other but are compelled to act together. They find themselves having to organize themselves and make collective decisions. The conditions of the neoliberal cave, like the conditions of Marx’s capitalist cave, provoke a social response.

Black Lives Matter, for example, has used the conditions of police violence against unarmed black persons to organize toward greater political action. By challenging police violence, Black Lives Matter threatens the most invidious quality of neoliberalism: the process of individualization, when each person is obsessed with his or her isolated screen. When everyone’s eyes are on the same disturbing event, the audience discovers its power. Earlier protests expressed outrage at what the state was doing, with calls like “No justice, no peace.” As the group realized its strength, the line shifted to Kendrick Lamar’s “We’re gonna be alright.” Like Marx’s proletariat, protestors began by focusing on what was being done to them and then began imagining what they could do for themselves.

If social movements respond to real world events, not to lectures delivered by erudite philosophers in refined auditoriums, why do we need political philosophy?

Political theory’s enduring contribution is its capacity to step out of an existing framework and offer a different set of values. As my dissertation advisor Nick Xenos recently said, political theorists do not study the Thing. We study the Thing behind the Thing. In other words, we study the Thing that runs the projector. Where social movements organize around the disturbing events on the screen, political theory asks, “What does police violence tell us about the crisis of capitalism?” We study patterns of control across centuries in order to assess the current manifestations. We study the past so that we can think beyond the syntax of the present.

Marlboro students and others at the People’s Climate March in September 2014, the largest climate march in history, balance a giant “carbon” bubble through the streets of New York. Photo by Kyhl Lyndgaard Political theory becomes crucial when social movements are asked to speak to the larger public. This is particularly true of Occupy Wall Street, which is often dismissed for not having achieved any goals. Looked at from the rubric of neoliberalism, where success is defined as “meeting one’s objective,” OWS clearly failed. But explored under the values of democratic philosophy, where success means developing political habits and enlarging a group’s political imagination, OWS clearly succeeded.

Even with groups with clearly articulated goals, such as Black Lives Matter, social movements run the risk of winning battles and losing the war. If community policing is instituted in this country, it will need a different set of principles than were developed under neoliberalism. Most of the tough tactics used by police were developed with the support of black leaders in black neighborhoods that were being destroyed by drug use and crime. These community leaders, like all leaders operating in the cave known as the War on Drugs, believed what the screen told them to believe: that crime was the result of individual actions and personal choices. Black Lives Matter may reject those principles but they need other vocabularies and political imaginaries, to quote Wendy Brown, to explain those noneconomic principles.

In fact, many of the organizers of Black Lives Matter are doing what the organizers of the Civil Rights Movement did: they are developing political habits. They are meeting in church basements and role-playing encounters with the police, who are afraid of getting hurt; and homeowners, who are afraid of riot; and business owners, who are afraid of looting. Building on the lessons learned by Freedom Riders in the 1960s and AIDS activists in the 1980s and other nonviolent organizers who use creativity and imagination to resist the logic of the marketplace, organizers in Black Lives Matter are increasing our collective capacity for democratic action. And while the habits are themselves liberating, one still needs the political principles to anchor these habits outside the cave.

Political theorizing, a capacity we all share, reminds us that we can think beyond the logic of whatever rationality is keeping us shackled to the shadows of the day. Even the tightly ordered neoliberal cave, with its insistent demands for productivity and efficiency, will not keep us from our political natures. The world reliably gives us the conditions to be more than the sum of our individual anxieties. We just need to see ourselves as political actors: the sort of people who know that what they create is infinitely more interesting than anything being projected on the screen.

Meg Mott teaches political theory at Marlboro and is director of Speech Matters, a semester intensive that investigates a single issue through the many ways it is talked about (see Fall 2015 Potash Hill). 

Up from Substance Use Prevention

“If you come in from a perspective of ‘this substance will only destroy your life’ you are creating an environment of shame—you are only keeping people further disconnected,” said sophomore Ariana Rodrigues-Juarbe, a student in Speech Matters last fall. She presented her final project, a ‘zine on how we talk about substance use in our society, at a public forum by eight students from the semester intensive at the Marlboro College Graduate Center in December. Ariana’s emphasis is on turning “prevention into comprehension,” or to take Meg’s metaphor one step further, to step outside the cave of “Just Say No.” “It all came together with the idea that if we want to actually address substance use, we have to understand that not everyone is coming from the same place, both in how they use, and in what that use means in their life,” said Ariana. See video excerpts from the public forum.