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Neoliberal aggression against the publicness of the public

The weakening of European societies over the past decades is a consequence of political will. It has been the basis of politics since Ronald Reagan in the USA and Margaret Thatcher in the UK: an outspoken political goal to weaken the very idea of society through instrumental politics in the service of the market (Shaminas, 2017). The market is also a metaphor, not only for the workings of the economy, but also for the totality of social relations.

In consequence, instrumental politics weakening the public as a self-defining entity, its popular sovereignty, dissolving and dispersing the excess of human relations in the multitude, negating what is foundational for any social formation in a pluralist democracy. The public is dispersed and dissolved as selfdefining to introduce the market and its tools: individualism and competition are the defining characteristics of social life.

Moreover, the neoliberal economy includes the will to downsize public institutions that are necessary for a strong society and for liberal democracies to work, and replace such ideas with privatization, competition and individualism, again regulated by the market. Public education in such a context can no longer make public concerns of private interests, which is suggested by Biesta (2017) and Masschelein & Simons (2013) to be a defining task of schools within liberal democracies.

The task of schooling in this new reality is, instead, to strengthen private interests, not least since such interests are understood to increase the capacity for competition in the market, based on parents’ right to choose a school for their offspring (Englund, 2010).

The aggression against the idea of a strong society, based on what I have named self-defining publics (with Dewey, 1954) or popular sovereignty (with Butler, 2015), is maybe most straightforwardly expressed by Margaret Thatcher’s infamous speech in 1987 claiming that there is “no such thing as society” (Cunningham, 2015). The point she made was in a way absurd, since that there is such a thing as society is the very condition for her statement.

The claim, though, is ideological rather than literal, and meant that if society was not dead, it needed to be killed, destroyed, for something new to rise. It is, as I understand the claim, a clear expression of the aggressive instrumentalism of the neoliberal political project. Moreover, even if today it is debatable if there is such a thing as an affirmative neoliberal politics, it has left deep marks, 1 think, on the very social fabric of our liberal democracies, and as such still marks our reality today.

The mark of the neoliberal political project is in destroying the idea of society as something more than the regulation of self-interested egos through the logic of the market, fulfilling their projects in aggressive competition with everyone else, and through such competition progressing not only the economy, but the nation itself.

Neoliberalism is, therefore, as I understand it, fundamentally a destructive project of aggression, making economic progress, as well as life in general, an inevitable outcome of its aggression. Such aggression without love, as Judith Butler (2019) says, is a violent force of destruction of the present, emptying the present for a future to come, feeding the economy of destruction with motivation and energy, with progress, which here means the aggressive accumulation of (economic) value at the cost of liveable life itself.

A cornerstone for the neoliberal economy is conceptually the project of destruction inspired by what Joseph Schumpeter (1942) called “creative destruction”. Such destruction, Schumpeter claimed, is necessary to revolutionize the economic structure. Neoliberal economics incorporated the idea of destruction, like downsizing, to feed growth through austerity measures, among other things (that is also why the risk of destruction of the economy following on a hard Brexit is not a threat for this economic theory, but rather a promise and a goal). Still, what is an inevitable part of the neoliberal project, I think, politically as well as economically and socially, is the instrumentalism of destruction and aggression without love for a supposedly better neoliberal future to emerge at the end of the day.

However, ponder what may happen to people living in the neoliberal hegemony of the west, if the future increasingly starts to look like a sham planted by a clown president for one of the largest neoliberal economies of the world? Also, what happens if the future, and the political instrumentalism it signifies in a neoliberal worldview, can be upheld only through violent suppression and blind denial of the fast-approaching Anthropocene, fuelled by global warming and repeatedly warned about by the UN climate panel and multiple scientists all over the world?

What if there is a growing insight spreading through the socio-psychic sphere of the neoliberal populations in the west - that the promised future may not happen, not only as anticipated by individual positive thinking, goalorientation, motivation, effectiveness and accountability, but may not happen at all? In such a situation, as psychoanalysis has suggested, aggression would turn inward as depression (Britzman, 2010, Farley, 2014, Berardi, 2017). So depression, I think, is an inevitable outcome of the aggression of the neoliberal hegemony in which we live, an era of depression, that is, where depression and impotence are the new normal.

This new normal is summarized by Berardi in the claim “political hope is dead. Forever” (Berardi, 2017, p. 39). Because if society and hope, as well as the future, are dead, there is no longer any way for politics to regulate the absolute power of the rich and their aggressive organizations and corporations influencing all aspects of life, and by so doing killing the very possibility of a strong society and a liveable life for the many — killing popular sovereignty.

What Berardi claims is happening in what I have called the new normal, all over Europe and North America, and with global consequences, is a violently played out aggression, what Berardi (2017) calls a war against all institutions that support a healthy society and what makes such a society possible. It is a war against a plurality of self-defining publics and the democratic public institutions supporting such publics. It is also a war against education, as public education responding to a rich variety of diverse publics, by verifying the diverse publics as legitimate embodiments of pluralist democracy.

The war against public institutions is firstly a war against their publicness, a war against that which makes democracy possible, a war against popular sovereignty in favour of instrumental politics within a neoliberal worldview. Such a war hits public education hard, which is evident in North America as well as in most European countries, since the aim of public education is to verify the very diversity and pluralism of the publicness of democracy (Dewey, 1916; Englund, 2010). The war against public institutions has resulted in the transformation of the understanding of education within liberal democracies.

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