From Hayek to Trump: The Logic of Neoliberal Democracy

Martijn Konings


The motivating force, ethical appeal, and emotional purchase of the neoliberal image of the market have all too often eluded progressive critics. To the extent that they have recognized the affective aspects of neoliberal politics, they have tended to focus on its alliances with neoconservative philosophies and to view these as instrumental and external. According to such accounts, neoconservatives have legitimated laissez-faire economics and private enrichment through appeals to conservative religious values, and large sections of the American public have been curiously unable to see through this obvious hypocrisy – often giving rise to a despair at the people’s irrationality.  Such approaches conceive of the legitimating spirit of neoliberalism as an external ideological moment, portraying populists’ loyalty to neoliberal discourses as a kind of cognitive impairment or moral failure.

To understand this properly, we need to attend carefully to what has sustained the legitimacy of neoliberalism. A key point of reference here is of course the financial crisis of 2007-2008, which was widely seen as heralding the end of neoliberalism. Explanations for why neoliberalism is at present still operational have tended to focus on the ability of financial elites to capture public discourses and institutions. But capture explanations are intellectually defensive, framed to provide a more or less plausible reason for something that was expected to occur yet has not rather than to explain what in fact happened. The question that needs answering is precisely how elites could continue to access such tremendous material, institutional, symbolic, and other resources even in a context where discontent with key neoliberal institutions was at an all-time high and the political air was thick with contempt and distrust towards bankers.

This essay argues that the paradoxical political dynamics that ensued following the crisis of 2007-2008 reflect a more basic logic at the heart of neoliberal governance. There is of course always a possibility that instability will result in simple breakdown, failure pure and simple; but one of the distinctive features of the neoliberal age is nonetheless that crises have often served to reactivate and intensify subjects’ attachments to the very norms and conventions that have been malfunctioning. The point here is by no means to belittle or denigrate the significance of the often highly creative and important forms of resistance that have emerged since the financial crisis. Rather, the aim is to bring into sharper focus what those movements are up against – neoliberalism’s distinctive sources of legitimacy.

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