Round-up of Undoing the Demos Book Colloquium

Critique and discussion of Professor Wendy Brown's book
04 April 2016

Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown’s critically-acclaimed book, which examined the ‘stealth revolution’ of neo-liberalism and hollowed-out democracy, has been hailed as something of a breakthrough in constitutional and legal theory.

A panel of experts gathered in Oxford for a Foundation for Law, Justice and Society book colloquium to discuss this accolade and to explore, in detail, the strengths and weaknesses of the book’s claims.

Chairing the panel and opening the discussion, Denis Galligan, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies at Oxford University, set out the broad argument that democracy had, since the days of the Cold War, provided us with the mode of thought and reason for political, legal and constitutional order.

He outlined Brown’s stance that, over the past three decades, neoliberalism had crept in and political and social aspects of society were now increasingly measured in economical terms. With this, Brown argues, ‘homo economicus’ comes into play.

But do people really behave as ‘economic man’? Do they use rational judgement to pursue wealth for self-interest only and avoid unnecessary work? Are they always fully informed when making economic decisions?

Prof Galligan questioned whether this model of thought over reason mattered. He argued that Brown’s theory would have serious consequences if social and political spheres were structured according to this new mode of thought, in that how we ought to behave would be value-laden, implying consequences for non-compliance.

The second question he raised was whether Brown’s model excluded other rationalities, in particular liberal democratic thinking. ‘That mode of thought would no longer be viable because of the economisation of law, politics and society,’ he said. 

Prof Galligan went on to evaluate Brown’s ideas from three perspectives: theoretical (are they coherent, do they make sense?); empirical (does the model account for what goes on in the real world?) and normative (is it too prescriptive and should we commit ourselves to it, embrace it or reject it?).

Dr Amir Paz-Fuchs began his critique by saying that Wendy Brown’s book appeared to rely heavily on Foucault’s Lectures at the College de France in 1978-9, where it was argued that neoliberalism’s effects are far deeper, wide-ranging and long-lasting than just its proposals for a strong economy, in that it provides the context in which we think, interact and act.

This view supplants values such as equality, justice and fairness with others, such as ‘good governance, efficiency and value for money’.

Dr Paz-Fuchs said he thought the first half of the book was a fantastic exploration of contemporary political economy against the background of Foucauldian insights, with sharp analysis and prescient and relevant reference to the arguments of Aristotle, Adam Smith, Lock and Rousseau.

However, with his background as a legal academic and an interest in public law and legal theory, the second half of the book’s chapters did not, for him, offer the same clarity and focus on governance, law and higher education.

He wondered whether Brown, as Professor of Political Theory at UC Berkeley, was, perhaps, less comfortable applying theories to practice in these areas and that the rich, theoretical platform in the first half of the book wasn’t as well connected to these important aspects of public life as it might have been. 

Despite this, Dr Paz-Fuchs felt the book was well-written and would be highly recommended to those interested in a critical reflection on the concepts we use and the alternative worlds we can imagine.

Dr Chris Decker offered a critique from an economist’s, rather than a social scientist’s viewpoint. He questioned the way Brown has configured people as ‘market actors’ and asked whether people really do have both the self-value and economic mind set to become economically driven.

Dr Decker, like Professor Galligan, also found a lack of empirical evidence to back up the strength and forcefulness of Brown’s model. Social media, he said, was a good counterargument in that it is not about people seeing themselves but a way people connect to other people. This directly contrasts with the homo economicus model.

He said that a market-organised society was a familiar argument but questioned whether it was the right way and whether Brown’s model adequately engaged with counter arguments or offered an alternative way. He concluded that it didn’t.

Rounding off the critiques, Prof Galligan concluded that the book was an important contribution to the neoliberalism argument, but Brown mixed conceptual with empirical analyses and there was little empirical substance in the mostly anecdotal examples used.

A lively debate then followed, with questions form the audience.

This round-up is longer than usual because, due to a technical error, there will be no podcasts of the event.