Neoliberalism is Liberal

This morning my Urban Economics seminar looked into Aurora Wallace’s “Mapping City Crime and the New Aesthetic of Danger.” In her article Wallace shows how the way these maps are designed “supports a neo-liberal agenda of individual responsibility over safety in the context of outsourced security” (J of visual culture 8(1):5). Wallace’s thesis reinforces the difficulty cities and citizens have even conceptualizing, much less cultivating, public space. Conceptually this difficulty arises out of framing “public goods” in private terms, so that we end up subjecting public good “markets” to the same metric as private goods. “Public goods” therein become a subset under “private goods.” At the same time, when we fold public goods into private goods we end up with a more consistent and faithful characterization of the city than when we arbitrarily isolate the two; begging the question: what is a public good?

In his Nicomachean Ethics and his Politics, Aristotle invited his students to qualitatively differentiate between πολιτεία and οἰκονομία. Πολιτεία is the formal space occupied by equally equipped citizens of the πόλις, the city. Οἰκονομία, by contrast, is both the practice and the science of managing the οἶκος, the private household economy. Aristotle readily admits that, although we may be political animals by nature (Pol. 1253a1-18), cities governed by free, equally equipped, citizens are the historical exception, not the rule. By far the most common ways of governing the πόλις are through despotism or tyranny. When a πόλις was governed tyrannically, its citizens were governed by rulers less qualified than themselves. When a πόλις was governed despotically, its citizens were counted as δοῦλοι (slaves or employees) within the despot’s (δεσπότης) private enterprise. Rarely, if ever — and certainly not in Aristotle’s Athens — did equally equipped citizens govern a city. And, in this sense, πολιτεύω or republican rule was far from natural. For, as Aristotle noted in his Politics, it was far more common to govern the πόλις as though it were a private enterprise, an οἶκος, where each individual is equipped differently and where individuals dominate or submit to one another.

From this vantage point, the capitalist social form entails the universalization of both the οἶκος, the private enterprise, and the principles that govern the οἶκος, i.e., οἰκονομία. So, for example, when “public goods” are evaluated in terms of their marginal benefit and marginal cost, they are, in fact, being treated as though they were private goods produced by the private enterprise for consumption not by citizens, but by consumers.

Our failure to be able to think of public goods in any other manner is specially troubling for “political” entities that count themselves “republics,” from the Latin equivalent (res publica) of the Greek πολιτεύω. Nothing could be more certain but that the framers of the US Constitution conceptualized the entity they were constituting as a commonwealth or republic. Absent a clear grasp of what a republic is, and how it differs from a tyranny or a despotism, “public” figures in the US have simply adopted the conceptual framework of the οἶκος and applied it indiscriminately to the πόλις.

These distinctions help us to better understand the rapid degeneration of  liberal democratic rule into neoliberal post-democratic rule. For, at least as an economic system, liberal means only that the social relations within a community are governed by free markets. From this vantage-point, from 1929 until 1972, the US grew increasingly illiberal. Beginning in the 1970s under President Carter, policy makers gradually reclaimed ever larger, broader, and deeper segments of American social life for free marketsLiberalism, then, is already neoliberal; or, we could say, neoliberalism is liberalism that has passed through a phase of illiberalism. From this vantage-point 1929-1972 is the anomaly. The rapid degeneration of the illiberal into neoliberalism could, on these grounds, be credited to the failure of policy makers to adequately distinguish πολιτεία from οἰκονομία, public space from private enterprise.

A more rigorous defense of republican values — here referring not to the US political party, but to traditional republicanism — would have clearly identified the equipment without which citizens would be ill-equipped to participate in government. This was precisely what Aristotle set forth in his lectures on Politics. As the American colonial expression has it, citizens in a republic needed to be equally “healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Since the survival of the republic depends upon these goods, they — i.e., healthcare, a living wage, and superior education — will not be made subject to the rules that govern the private enterprise, the οἶκος.

A “public good” is therefore not simply a private good that has public utility — water, roads, electricity, etc. — or that would be inefficiently or insufficiently supplied by private entities. A “public good” is any good that is necessary to equip all citizens to govern ενάρετα, or virtuously.

Turning back to Wallace’s article, we can now see that the liberal map of the city was already neoliberal, that the justification for the New Deal was principally, though not entirely, οικονομικός, i.e., economic. Between 1932 and 1972 a much stronger case had to be made, but was not made, for the public character of public goods. So long as the economy was growing and expanding, which for the most part it was from 1938 to 1968, the distinction between public and private hardly mattered. When it finally did matter, from 1968 forward, policy makers had either lost or, perhaps, never enjoyed a sufficient grasp of how public and private goods differed from one another. More disturbingly, I cannot think of a general economic textbook that fails to measure public goods in private terms: we have lost the capacity to even conceptualize in what this difference might even consist.

Unfortunately, this incapacity is not limited to post-democratic neoliberals. It cuts across methodological and even ideological lines. If therefore anything remotely like republican values and institutions are to be restored, we desperately need policy makers who enjoy a clear understanding of how public and private goods differ from one another. The alternative is an endless series of more or less despotic, more or less tyrannical public officials for whom the lines between public and private have completely disappeared.

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