To say that neoliberalism is totalitarian in its claims is a vague pronouncement; yet the basic concept warrants reflection and consideration

Germany’s Hidden Crisis (2016)

Previous posts underline that power speaks its own language; such a language is not necessarily congruent with everyday language.

In the language that power speaks, at times big is small, small is big, and inside is outside – in short, reality – including history – is what power says it is.

By way of exploring one of many ways of relating past to present, I’ve been reading Germany’s Hidden Crisis: Social Decline in the Heart of Europe (2016).

A blurb (which I’ve broken into shorter paragraphs) for the book reads:

Summary/Review: An excellent study of how neoliberalism is causing a crisis in Germany. One of the German-speaking world’s leading young sociologists lays out modern Germany’s social and political crisis and its implications for the future of the European hegemon.

Upward social mobility represented a core promise of life under the “old” West German welfare state, in which millions of skilled workers upgraded their VWs to Audis, bought their first homes, and sent their children to university. Not so in today’s Federal Republic, however, where the gears of the so-called “elevator society” have long since ground to a halt.

In the absence of the social mobility of yesterday, widespread social exhaustion and anxiety have emerged across mainstream society.

Oliver Nachtwey analyses the reasons for this social rupture in post-war German society and investigates the conflict potential emerging as a result, concluding that although the country has managed to muddle through the Eurocrisis largely unscathed thus far, simmering tensions beneath the surface nevertheless threaten to undermine the German system’s stability in the years to come.

Commentary

The book, which represents a standard narrative from what we can define as a left-of-centre perspective, is of interest. It provides one avenue – among a wide range of perspectives that are available to us – whereby contemporary events in Germany can be explored, with a focus on postwar (that is, after the Second World War) events in Europe.

Neoliberalism and totalitarianism

In previous posts I’ve spoken of the value of comparisons and contrasts between specified features of life in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the 1930s and 1940s. In particular, I’ve noted that totalitarianism is a general concept, and that it can be helpful to analyze history in a framework that goes beyond totalitarianism.

I read with interest, in Germany’s Hidden Crisis (2016), the following passage (p. 68):

“The values of neoliberal­ism had to be internalized, as Margaret Thatcher expressly indi­cated: ‘Economics are the method, the object is to change the heart and soul’ [28]. This succeeded principally by establishing a new subjectivity aimed at a new way of governing the self [29]. Neoliberalism’s power was secured from below and from inside, by the creation of incentives for people to see themselves as natu­rally autonomous and entrepreneurial subjects, and to view collective social solutions and institutions as suspect.

“Neoliberalism is totalitarian in what it claims, despite its constant promise of freedom. The market serves as final refer­ence for all spheres of life: it is seen as the central mechanism both of social processes and of individual modes of thought and action [30]. Spheres of society that were previously more or less protected from the logic of the market (‘de-commodified’) are subjected to it again (‘re-commodified’).”

As well, a footnote (No. 30 in the above-noted text) referring to control mechanisms adds (echoing a point emphasized by Karl Polanyi):

“This is often quite contradictory in practice, as mistrust of the state and recourse to the primacy of ‘freedom’ often require state application of market principles, sometimes by force.”

With regard to the statement that “Neoliberalism is totalitarian in what it claims, despite its constant promise of freedom,” I would say that the concept of totalitarianism is in this case being used in a very general and vague sense. The term is not clearly defined, in this particular narrative. Thus it is not a term that adds much of value, to the discussion.

That said, the fundamental point that is made in the text is worth noting. The point that comes across is that neoliberalism, which demonstrates tremendous power in contemporary society, seeks to ensure that reality is defined strictly within its own terms.

To an extent, a person has a choice, whether to buy into such a concept of reality, or stand outside of it. In practical terms, in my case that means limiting my access to news reports in social media. I prefer to access reality through non-digital means, much of the time, including through the reading of books borrowed from the Toronto Public Library.

 

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