Redoing the Demos?

The following discussion with philosopher and political scientist Wendy Brown, seeks to apply her provocative and indispensable ideas to recent political events and problems, in particular focusing on her work in Undoing the Demos (2015) and returning briefly to consider Politics Out of History (2001) in today’s context. The questions were collectively authored and the interview itself was conducted by Sebastian Raza via Skype on 23 rd May 2017. We would like to thank Wendy Brown for the generous contribution of her time and for answering the questions so directly and clearly. This interview has been published in Theorein. Revista de Ciencias Sociales and Theory, Culture & Society



Question 1: In Undoing the Demos (2015), you address the impossibility of radical or emancipatory politics whilst the market is the only source of ‘verification’ and its fiction, the Homo Oeconomicus, is the last figure standing. In order to grasp this problem, you develop an interesting triangular space between Foucault, Marx and Democracy, which proves to be fruitful, yet also finds opponents in each corner. Could you elaborate further on this theoretical space you have created? Why is it important, and how can we best tackle the critiques arising in each corner? 

Question 2: As you demonstrate in Undoing the Demos (2015), neoliberalism has changed the nature of law,
education, and state governance. However, with the recent rise of neoconservatism, the role of the state is surely the more urgent of these, and you have found disturbing convergences between the operations of neoliberalism and fascism (2015, p219). Could you elaborate further on these convergences? Does the affinity between neoliberalism and fascism, for instance, help us in any way to understand the rise of President Trump?

Question 3: One of the campaign slogans for the so-called ‘pink tie’ nations (initiated by Chavez when he was elected in 1999) was ‘The Return of the State’. When compared to the ‘withdrawal’ of the state in the 1990s, this was meant to indicate the strengthening of democratic institutions in order to establish mechanisms for economic redistribution and increased political participation. Some authors (e.g. Emir Sader ref, Atilio Boron ref) therefore saw in this ‘return of the state’ an indicator of post-neoliberalism yet, as you point out in Undoing the Demos (2015), the state did not wither under neoliberalism, but simply operated under a different rationality. What is your position on ‘the return of the state’ as an anti-neoliberal gesture? What are your thoughts on claims that we are now moving towards a post-neoliberal era in these spaces of the Global South?

Question 4: Confronting a new political context in 2017, it seems that there may be a need to re-diagnose the state of the Left today. In the face of new (post-) feminisms, anti-fascist and anti-racist movements like Black Lives Matter, international solidarities, and the election in some places of ostensibly Left-wing politicians; we perhaps need to revisit the question of ‘Leftist melancholia’ as being attached to ungrievable losses that create political impotence, rage and righteous moralism. Is it still fair to criticise Leftist politics as possessing a slave morality, or a ‘stubborn clinging to a certain equation of truth with powerlessness or as acting out of an injured will’ (2001, p23) as you did in Politics Out of History (2001)? What’s more, should we continue describing the Left’s relationship with power as largely defensive – as one of a ‘siege mentality’ (2001, p39) – or are there more affirmative forms of politics beginning to rise to the fore?

Question 5: In the epilogue of Undoing the Demos (2015), you propose the idea of ‘bare democracy’ that cannot be part of any governmentality because ‘it features no continuous or consistent account of why people ought to rule, only the negative one that we should not be rule by others’ (2015, p203). Could you elaborate further on this idea of ‘bare democracy’? Can there be such a thing as a positive, productive part of democracy in the Foucauldian sense or, as it were, a ‘democratic governmental rationality’?