William Davies on the governing logics of neoliberalism – and what resistance looks like

William Davies is Professor in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he directs the Political Economy Research Centre. A sociologist and political economist, William studies the interface of knowledge and power; his areas of focus include neoliberalism, happiness science, environmental politics, and anti-expert politics. He is most recently co-author of Unprecedented? How COVID-19 Revealed the Politics of Our Economy.

Competition and economic evaluation: these are the logics by which neoliberalism organizes society, using devices like financial balance sheets and zero-sum rankings. William shares how this all came together. The 1920s, which inaugurated mass politics and technological modernity, were pivotal. As were the late 1960s, a moment of radical moral subjectivism on which the Chicago School capitalized. He also details how neoliberalism's logics and devices have inflected efforts to escape it – from resurgent discourses of national sovereignty, to movements that encourage people to financialize anti-capitalism.

You've written about neoliberalism extensively, including in your book, The Limits of Neoliberalism. Before we start talking about its limits, how do you define it?

In that book, I defined neoliberalism as the expansion of economic rationality – in particular, the rationality of competition – to hitherto non-market domains of human existence and society. In particular, neoliberalism targets public services and education. The state becomes reorganized around the logics of competition and enterprise, in the form of things like New Public Management theory. Crucially, universities become reorganized according to ideas of zero-sum competition, in the form of things like league tables. 

On this topic, various thinkers have picked up the work of Michel Foucault, who tried to understand how whole new forms of selfhood and ethics have been created around trying to live as if you were a firm. You make investments in yourself, which you expect to pay off in the future, even though there is deep uncertainty as to whether or not they will. You brand yourself, present yourself in ways that are considered to be attractive. This logic of self-management extends to potential employers, but also to entirely non-market relations such as seeking a date, spouse, or friend. Wendy Brown, in particular, has advanced this type of understanding of neoliberalism and how it eliminates political modes of freedom and expression.

In my own work, I traced the logic of competition and competitiveness through this expansion of market principles. One of the curiosities about neoliberal reforms from the 1970s onwards is that, despite preaching the language of competition, they were extremely sympathetic to monopoly. This was a paradox resulting from a new defense of monopoly put forward by the Chicago School. They said that monopoly is the result of very efficient practices, and therefore that the correct stance for regulators was not to break up monopolies, but to leave them for others to try and disrupt as best they can. This ideology was extremely supportive of Silicon Valley as it was taking off in the 1980s and 1990s.

Is competition a logic of neoliberalism that is limited to firms and individuals?

A lot of the talk about the post-neoliberal moment concerns contemporary global geopolitics. Another focus of mine has been the logic of national competitiveness. This is a discourse led by Michael Porter at Harvard Business School, and it suggests that whole nations and cities and regions can be seen as competitive actors – a little bit like firms, only led by these people we call politicians rather than entrepreneurs or executives. These entities are all seen as participating in a global race for supremacy.

In the US, this discourse took off in the mid-1980s, while in Europe it was the 1990s. At those times, it was seen as relatively innocent in relation to market liberalism and free trade. It was resolutely pro-trade. It fit with the idea that there were no longer any borders in this huge global economy, in which everyone has to be an entrepreneurial actor. But I think now, as you look at the rhetoric coming from the Biden administration and the recent fusing of national security objectives with industrial policy objectives, it's interesting to reconsider that discourse of national competitiveness. The same language is being deployed to justify policies that would cause free market economists far more anxiety.

In recent years, that older logic of market competition has come directly under fire, even from libertarians. Peter Thiel derided competition as something “losers” believe in, as you have observed. How widespread is this feeling, and does it represent a departure from neoliberalism?

What figures like Thiel object to specifically is the idea that capitalism requires certain rules or laws to constrain everyone equally, so that the powerful don’t just take control of the entire game and run it in their interests. For egalitarian liberals, and also for the German ordoliberal school, it is a job of the state to ensure that competition doesn’t collapse into domination by the strong over the weak. But for Thiel, that would be a positive outcome, indeed the natural way of things, in a Darwinian sense. If the state gets out of the way entirely, then a more radical, more existential form of competition might come to the fore, and whole new political entities might come into existence – start-up societies and states, for example. This is one thing that Quinn Slobodian's recent book has examined. 

This certainly represents a departure from the applied neoliberalism of the 20th century – the neoliberalism that reshaped regulation, multilateral institutions, and inspired the dominant schools of neoliberal thought in Europe and the United States. But it was always lurking on the fringes of the movement as a more radically anti-state ideology, and ultimately as an illiberal ideology, seeing as it offers very few freedoms or rights to those who fail to survive the creative destruction of monopolistic combat. 

But this thinking seems largely confined to libertarian circles and ultra-conservative think tanks. Multinational corporations or banks don’t wish to live in a world without rules or laws, as their business models depend to some extent on stable regulation. Hedge funds and what Marlène Benquet and Théo Bourgeron refer to as “second wave” finance, which emerged much later than the Thatcher-Reagan economic revolution, are different. They profit from disruption. One could even say that it has been an inspiration to Silicon Valley firms such as Uber, whose rhetoric has always been to destroy rivals and take control.

If neoliberalism consists of a set of logics, how can we account for its emergence to begin with? For traditional Foucauldians, it's an easy question to avoid – just identify the epistemic ruptures – but that logic arguably has a historical origin in neoliberals’ fight against their ideological opponents, whether that was socialism or fascism.

There's an established literature that does show how the logic itself emerges in the 1920s in Europe, specifically in opposition to socialism. It was originally an anti-socialist logic before becoming an anti-fascist logic. In the 1920s, Ludwig von Mises, who would later become a hero to the libertarian right in the United States, produced work on the impossibility of socialism – or at least the irrationality of socialism. This is where we see the first attention to the market and to entrepreneurship not simply as contributors to economic welfare, but as the central and archetypal engines of rational modernity. 

Of course, Adam Smith had celebrated the market on a mixture of moral and utilitarian grounds, but what von Mises does – and some people have connected this to the work of Max Weber – is to say that free market capitalism is the necessary condition for making calculated, rational decisions about the allocation of resources. If you can't make price-based decisions, then on what basis are you going to make rational decisions at all? There is no answer to that question; he famously says that the only alternative is to fumble in the dark.

So, during this very dark and very turbulent era in European history, capitalism comes to embody something that is not simply about welfare enhancement or peace. This is how it had often been defended since the 17th century, as we know from Albert O. Hirschmann’s work. Now, capitalism is seen as the only grounds towards reason, towards something that looks like a form of objectivity and reliable knowledge. Without capitalism, there would only be chaos and irrationality. That's the kernel of something very important that starts in Vienna, and then spreads to the different centers of European neoliberalism as discussed by Angus Burgin and Quinn Slobodian, among others.

Then, what happens in the second half of the 20th century in the United States is that neoliberalism mixes with familiar anti-communist politics, but also with the individualism and consumerism of the 1960s. This decade generates a Boomer-led crisis of moral authority, undercutting the traditional sources, which the Chicago School seizes on. Obviously, there are many well-documented political economic crises that afflict the United States at this time, from the later parts of the Vietnam War and the fiscal crisis of the late 1960s, through to the Bretton Woods crisis of the 1970s. But, what I’ve focused on is how the Counterculture was a turn not towards inwardness, but towards a radical subjectivism in the face of moral values. And this was combined with a massive expansion of consumerism. 

The likes of Milton Friedman, who was ultimately a radical liberal, and Gary Becker, who was a deeply relativist thinker, used this moment to say we have no moral grounds for deciding how society should be organized. They renounced the search for some consensual political grounds for decision-making. Instead, they argued that if the state could be re-imagined to secure certain minimal rules of the game, free market capitalism would support a radical diversity of opinions, of lifestyles, of values, of choices, of tastes – in ways that relieve politics of the need to actually achieve any form of consensus. That was seen as crucial around 1968, a moment of upheaval when the United States – already an unwieldy experiment – became even more unwieldy.

In her history of the rise of finance in the United States from the 1970s onwards, Greta Krippner brilliantly shows that what would later become called financialization – the massive expansion of finance as a share of the overall GDP, and specifically as a share of total profits – was really a byproduct of politicians stepping back from basic social decisions about the allocation of capital and the allocation of credit. This deregulation was partly a side effect of the broader crises of democracy of the 1960s and 1970s, which increased the legitimacy of policies that appeared to be amoral.

It's interesting that the market was thought of as an escape from consensus-seeking, because some of the advocates of democratic planning in the 1930s and 1940s – like Otto Neurath, von Mises’ opponent – were arguing for precisely the same thing. They thought planning could avoid the need to arrive at a common denominator, and instead facilitate the coexistence of many pluralistic projects. Here we have two schools of thought, which are considered to be in opposition, both insisting on pluralism.

That's right. In the writings of the American neoliberals from the University of Chicago, the market is really no different from democracies. It's actually seen as a more effective form of democracy, because every time you buy something, every time you engage in a transaction, you’re casting a vote. 

The high point of this conception of the market is what I have called the combative epoch of neoliberalism, which ran roughly from the late 1970s through to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The central moral impetus behind this period of neoliberalism was the destruction of socialism, both internationally but also domestically. That's what granted the likes of Thatcher and Reagan their authority. 

But it was followed by a 20-year period of what I call normative neoliberalism, which was an attempt to instantiate the market as the ultimate and unchallenged measure of value – not just in relation to spheres in which the price mechanism was present, i.e. spheres of economic exchange, but also spheres where the price mechanism was absent. Things like education or the arts again come to mind. One of the functions of a university is now considered to be boosting the earnings of its graduates. This is normative neoliberalism: it's not simply about trying to defend the market within the terrain of economic liberty – which is what liberalism had done for 300 years – but actually about asserting certain mechanisms of economic valuation and evaluation as the ultimate denominators for organizing society.

Was it laissez-faire liberal capitalism that neoliberalism was succeeding? The socialist calculation debate didn’t itself contain a governing logic.

The standard history is that laissez-faire enters a crisis in the 1870s. Karl Polanyi writes about the preceding period, between the 1820s and the 1870s, when fictions of laissez-faire and free-market liberalism were hegemonic, and when Britain controlled its vast global empire. But in the next period, which lasts until World War I, it's not so clear what the governing rationality is. It's a period of colonial expansion by all of the European powers; a period when large-scale territorial conflict seemed imminent, as all these powers were simultaneously industrializing and expanding themselves.

The logic that von Mises was taking issue with in the 1920s was specifically a logic of military mobilization. Neurath had been writing about the war economy, arguing that if states were able to mobilize in a collectivist fashion for war, then they should be able to continue mobilizing in a similar fashion for peace. We see this argument still being made in relation to the Green New Deal. Some corners of the environmental movement use statistics from how the US militarized in the late 1930s and early 1940s as evidence of how rapid decarbonization could look. 

But Neurath was focusing on the potential for radical modernization, which socialists saw lurking within the machinery of World War I. He, along with others like Lenin, believed that the war had made visible the possibilities for effectively applying things like Taylorist and statistical managerial techniques. World War I also witnessed rapid innovation and massive expansion in the forms of data that were being collected. This is the beginning of what we would now recognize as dashboard technologies, which were used for all sorts of logistical matters, from distributing munitions to determining how many shoes needed to be produced.

This fueled a huge excitement on the left, who believed these techniques could represent the death knell of enterprising free market capitalism. That’s specifically what von Mises was debating. Not the views of Edwardian, pre-World War I, neo-mercantilist colonizers, but this hyper-rationalist view of socialism, borne out of the many early-20th-century, avant-garde ideas around how the tools of modernization were waiting to be put to work by the proletariat. For von Mises, this mode of rationality was an illusion, a fiction.

Where else can we identify the views about the market and capitalism that were implemented by neoliberals?

People famously talk about TINA, the idea that “there is no alternative,” a Thatcherite and Reaganite mantra. It holds within it the expectation that all forms of pluralism would be taken care of – but only if this system is put into place, only within the terrain of this particular legal–managerial game. 

That's what allowed the 1990s to be the glory years of neoliberalism. This period – the period of the Third Way, of globalization, of the New Democrats and New Labour – was when the imaginary of the Chicago School, of Becker and Friedman, was most fully realized. Their goal was to move the market beyond challenge, and let it penetrate those areas of society – like the university, or spaces that belonged to trade unions – where the market was still treated with suspicion. They believed this would allow the system to work effectively. And, on its own terms, it did work very effectively until 2007, when the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) began.

Then begins what I call the punitive era of neoliberalism. This is what happens when the grid of economic calculation and rationality still exists, and yet the amount of money that is flowing through it is shrinking. Suddenly, the whole affective and moral experience of that economic grid feels utterly different than when it was implemented as a way to share a growing pie. Things like student debt, which has rocketed in recent years, is a manifestation of how economic logic can come to feel punishing and demoralizing when it is linked to less money being available.

You have also written about utilitarianism, which can similarly be seen as the subordination of the political to the economic. How should we account for the innovation of neoliberalism when viewed against utilitarianism?

It's an important comparison. I've written about Jeremy Bentham, who is not just the founder of utilitarianism in a philosophical sense, but also the architect of a technocrat-led view of politics that is reducible to instrumental rationality, in Weber's terms. Bentham was a hero to the Law & Economics movement at the University of Chicago, which wanted to eliminate political and moral language from the sphere of the judiciary. The Virginia School of Public Choice did something similar for bureaucracy and elections. Bentham was definitely a pioneer of a certain vision of progress, in which economics trumps politics.

But there are crucial differences between the 1790s, when Bentham was writing, and the 1920s – including the rise of mass suffrage. With mass suffrage after World War I, there is also the rise of what is considered to be the problem of the mass more generally. This causes great anxiety among neoliberals, who fear that an irrational mob was about to gain the political upper hand, that the emotions and herd-like sensibilities of the crowd were entering the political arena. There had been an unthinking aristocracy that persisted between the high point of the Enlightenment in the late 18th century and World War I. The assumption was that the elites would continue to be in charge. Some of the elites might be good and some of them might be bad, and the mass would of course have its various moments of uprising, but the political arena would still formally belong to this aristocracy. That changed from the 1920s onwards.

This creates a deep phobia of politics among figures such as Joseph Schumpeter, a deeply conservative thinker. It's a major anxiety throughout the 1920s and 1930s. It's something that distinguishes neoliberalism from other forms of conservatism before World War I. Bentham believed he was simply trying to clean up the language of public policy and of law and justice. He was pushing back against the metaphysics of natural rights theory, as well as the lurking metaphysics of feudalism and monarchy. He was trying to create a scientific basis for politics, but he wasn't doing so in order to push back against the demos. (This is why Wendy Brown’s book is called Undoing the Demos, naming one of the distinguishing features of neoliberalism.)

In postwar America, neoliberals like Friedman were making a different kind of appeal to the demos, against the arrogance of the Keynesian technocrats. They attempt to come up with a form of mass participation that is safe for capital and for capitalists, so they can achieve a return on their investment and not have it taken away through inflation or revolution. If anything changes with WWI, besides the rise of much more ambitious forms of planning, it is the demands that arise in the aftermath of mass public participation in politics. So, while I agree that utilitarianism is a form of the disenchantment of politics by economics, it's the urgency of and justification for that disenchantment that changes in the 20th century.

You have also commented on the resurgence of the demand for the political in the 21st century. Is this backlash against too much neoliberalism, or is it also a consequence of the GFC?

I think it's both. As a result of the GFC, the centers of technocratic power acquired even more power than they had before. And when I say technocratic power, I mean the central banks; I mean the European Commission; I mean the ability, particularly in the Eurozone and in Britain, to implement austerity. 

In Britain, austerity worked through the logic of financial balance sheets of one kind or another. The Cameron government cut the budgets of local governments in the UK by 40 percent. These are the budgets that cover things like care for the elderly, libraries and swimming pools and playgrounds. The local public realm was demolished during the five years after the GFC. But it wasn't done so politically. It was done by telling council leaders that they had 40 percent less money, and they now simply needed to study these spreadsheets and work out where they could take money from. Everything was pushed through the logic of cost–benefit analysis and finance.

But there has been a rebellion against that. This rebellion expresses a desire for a non-financial logic, a desire for excess of one kind or another – a desire to overflow the frame of finance, of the balance sheet, of cost–benefit analysis. In his book Rage and Time, Peter Sloterdijk frames anger as a desire for moral redress that overflows the categories of justice that have been available to societies. When people come to think that the very tools for measuring justice – the tools of balancing things out, the tools of calculation, the tools of rationality – are themselves corrupted, unfair, and completely oblivious to human suffering, then anger is how one searches for a rebalancing, in ways that actually reject those tools.

That is what happened in Europe. Mediterranean Europe was told by the powers in Brussels and Frankfurt that they had brought this upon themselves, and showed them why on a balance sheet. When that logic becomes insufferable and intolerable, then you have to go for something which looks, on the face of it, like a form of anger, but is really an overflowing back into the sphere of the political. Ever since Aristotle, the sphere of the economic has been the sphere of restraint and necessity, and the sphere of the political has been the sphere of rhetoric and full human flourishing. And I think people have been thrust back out into the political. Whether that thrusting back into the political has achieved any of the objectives offered during those crucial years around 2015 is another question.

What happened around 2015? How should we understand the changes that occurred as we went from Brexit and Trump and the turn towards nationalism, to Covid and Biden and the confrontation with China?

Before we talk about this period, we have to be clear on one other consequence of the GFC of 2007–2009. That crisis dramatically demonstrated where sovereignty really lies: in the shared interests and structural unity of the financial sector and states. People were reminded that the capacity of treasury departments to issue bonds, in order to borrow money, in order to bail out banks, entailed forms of sovereignty that neoliberal thought actually had very little to say about. 

Neoliberal thinkers have always believed in a strong state, but they've always wanted it to be guided by very strict norms and limits. Whereas what happened between 2007–2009 was that exceptional decisions were taken at extreme speed by very small groups of technocrats – some of whom, in the United States, had previously worked in Wall Street. And this remained true in the aftermath of the crisis, when central banks pursued quantitative easing through asset purchasing programs meant to re-inflate economies, but in ways that were hugely lucrative for banks themselves, as well as for other asset owners.

Things do seem to die down for a few years after that rupture, although there were certain political conflicts, like the rise of the Tea Party movement in the US. That was not exclusively prompted by things like quantitative easing, but from a distance, it reasonably appeared to them as some sort of secretive, elite, East Coast project. This was one manifestation of the discourses of sovereignty that were already around, and which finally erupted around 2015.

I've called this development “the revenge of sovereignty on government,” using a motif of Foucault’s. He talks about how the discourse of sovereignty shrank as this greater discourse of governmentality expands. Governmentality encompasses both the sphere of the political and the sphere of the socioeconomic, not through power and violence, but through a utilitarian calculus of welfare enhancement. But suddenly, with the GFC, the discourse of sovereignty reentered politics, in ways that couldn't be easily written off.

That's partly what happened with Brexit, too. It took certain populist leaders to start using a language of national sovereignty – although it had been available for at least 200 years – and to point their finger at the people in Brussels. The populists tend to focus not on financial sovereignty, but on the sovereignty of things like borders. That still leaves them the capacity to point to where sovereignty has been lost and urge their base to reclaim it. That's where slogans like “Make America great again" and “Take back control" come from.

The designs of neoliberalism, as well as its failures, undoubtedly made this possible. But, from how I work on these things, I would not say that leaders like Trump or Farage or Salvini are manifestations of neoliberalism. Maybe they express a mutant neoliberalism, to use Callison and Manfredi's term, but that would mean they have adopted and repurposed some of the fixes that neoliberalism was required to introduce after 2008.

So, how do you make sense of the post-neoliberalism discussion?

One reason why people might be talking about post-neoliberalism now, in the pages of The Atlantic and similar publications, is not because people have been studying the long history of neoliberal thought the way we've been talking about it. They are working with the assumption that, from the Reagan era onwards, neoliberalism sought to minimize the friction on the international movement of capital, goods, and services. This is part of the Washington Consensus. And if anybody is to stand up and actually advocate for certain forms of friction on the international movement of capital, goods, and services, this must be a post-neoliberal moment. When politicians argue that we onshore supply chains, they contradict the key tenets of globalization, so it strikes observers as post-neoliberal. That’s how it appears from the perspective of the liberal center.

Are the pandemic, along with government responses to it, responsible for these changes in the public debate?

They are certainly a cause. One can hear echoes of Neurath and World War I, in how emergency planning came to the fore over 2020 and 2021. But more than that, the pandemic demonstrated what states now need to do in order to be resilient. It highlighted the vulnerability of being dependent on these international supply chains and on China. So, the pandemic was absolutely crucial for resurrecting a vision of economic nationalism, for want of a better term. In a special issue about post-neoliberalism I co-edited, we wrote about the various challenges to the orthodox neoliberal imaginary. Covid and the resurrection of the nation are indeed among them. 

But another would be the massively elevated epistemic authority of centralized statistics. Lots of people on the right absolutely hated how the pandemic gave epidemiologists the power to say what was going on. Experts usurped the epistemic authority that, from a traditional neoliberal perspective, only the market can have. Suddenly, there were scientists standing up and using statistics to talk about what needed to happen now and what would happen in the future. This was exactly what someone like Friedrich Hayek was scared of when he wrote about scientism in the 1930s and 1940s.

Finally, you have written about the “financialization of anti-capitalism.” Which groups are responsible for this seeming contradiction in terms?

People may have heard of the FIRE movement, an acronym that stands for “financial independence, retire early.” This movement tends to include men in their 20s and 30s, often with a background in finance or programming, who express a certain disillusionment with capitalism. They have experienced the alienation of working for someone else, of owing money to someone else, or being manipulated by the adverts that sell you cars and get you into more debt and make you work harder. 

Their ideology is fundamentally about reappropriating time. From their perspective, value is free unalienated time – time when you're not working for someone else, you're not working in order to pay off a debt to someone else, and you're not consuming things you don't need. Their goal is to retire as young as possible and pursue an unalienated existence. They want to live in the woods, build their own house, go fishing and sailing, hang out with their family and look after their kids. 

But, the logic through which to get to that unalienated existence is a radical form of self-economization, if not a quantification of the self. They create various calculative tools and share them online. These let you, first of all, calculate how much you need to have in financial assets in order to retire. All of this is done on the assumption that the stock market will indefinitely rise 3 percent per year, which is itself an assumption that capitalism is permanent, that this form of growth is permanent.

Then there are other calculative tools, which demonstrate how radical forms of frugality and saving will bring the moment of your retirement closer. For instance, buying a coffee machine is an investment that will save you all sorts of money that you might otherwise have spent when buying coffee from a shop. There's a frugal, cost-saving component, but it clearly fits within a capitalist mentality, which encourages you to invest in your lifestyle and decision-making. The goal is to minimize your outgoings and maximize your savings rate, so as to maximize your financial assets – so that you can retire as soon as possible, and maximize the number of hours you have on this planet where you are not alienated by some economic existence.

How does this process express the new subjectivities that might be emerging at this moment, both within capitalism and against it?

To approach this ideology, we draw on a recent set of literatures in economics, sociology, and political economy, which suggest that maybe the way to understand contemporary capitalism is not to focus on the concept of a commodity – as Marxists and political economists do – but instead on the concept of the asset. An asset is not something which is produced in order to be sold, as a commodity is. An asset is something which is owned with a view to some longer-term return on investment.

If you think of the person who has engaged in this “life hack,” this early retirement project, everything they're doing is based around the logic of assets, around trying to get money into the stock market. This movement would have you buy a bicycle and think of it as possessing the characteristics of an asset: it will save you all of this expenditure on buses and cars and transport, and therefore pay you a return over many years. It’s all oriented to investing your time and money now, so as to optimize your future existence as a human being with only so many years on this planet. It's an existentialist logic, but it's one borne out of a profound alienation from work, from consumerism, and – particularly in the United States context – from consumer debt.

That's why we call it the financialization of anti-capitalism. It clearly borrows aspects of anti-capitalist motifs and Marxian critiques of alienation (at least critiques made by the early Marx). But the central tools with which to achieve this non-alienated existence remain the stock market, financial balance sheets, and the logic of assets.

There's also a subplot here. A lot of these men, because they're living out in the countryside with quite decent broadband connections, might also do a little bit of work or stock trading on the side. Their guilty secret is that they often do top up their income.

What are the differences between how this community makes use of the logic of the asset, and how neoliberals preach about human capital?

I've never taken the FIRE movement as evidence of post-neoliberalism. As Foucault and others since have observed, neoliberalism had to deal with the political problem of labor under capitalism. Foucault was mainly arguing about the American neoliberals, and especially Gary Becker, but it was also true of the ordoliberals in Germany. Their thinking was that if everybody could become seen as a capitalist, and if human beings themselves could become seen as capital, then labor would no longer be this fixed, homogenous entity that has to be bought on a market by capitalists. Instead, everybody would be engaged in various forms of investment; everybody could see themselves and their family and their home and their garden – whatever it might be – as an asset to be exploited in various ways, to be invested in in various ways. Everybody would be a capitalist.

This was a utopian, ideological dream for the likes of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s. What if the working class also acquired ownership of capital? When Thatcher privatized utilities such as gas, there was a massive campaign to try and get everyone to buy shares. Equally, one of the interesting things about employee stock ownership is that, in the US, Republicans are among its most enthusiastic supporters. They believe that if everyone owned capital, people wouldn't be joining trade unions or voting for socialist parties anymore. The logic of investment, and return on investment, would come to dictate everything. No one would identify themselves as part of a mass any longer.

Now, one consequence of this thinking has been these rather strange rentier lifestyles. It's an international phenomenon by now, but in Britain, early retirement has become a major problem for the economy. There are a lot of people in their fifties and sixties who simply don't have to work; they paid off their mortgages, and now would rather sit in their gardens than keep working. They're not capitalists in the way that Thatcher and Reagan wanted them to be, which would be closer to the dynamic figure who goes out and takes risks. Rather, they are using ownership of capital as a way to retreat from capitalism.

There was a good recent piece in Harper's about the legitimation crisis of the labor market. To many people, the labor market has come to seem an alienating and dehumanizing experience, just as Marx argued. Of course, some people are dependent on the labor market, but we've spent 40 years telling people that the way to a fully realized human existence is to live off the proceeds of capital, rather than the wages from labor. Having advanced and translated this argument into various strategies – from financial inclusion to incentivizing people to get private pension schemes – we now get this figure who no longer wants much to do with the rest of the economy. 

That, really, is the story of this FIRE movement in the context of neoliberalism, although their movement is tinged with ecological principles. The problem is their defensive entrepreneurialism: instead of wanting to go and change the world, as Schumpeter imagined entrepreneurs, it becomes a form of lifestyle entrepreneurialism that dreams of just finding an escape.

Interviewed by Evgeny Morozov and Ekaitz Cancela

Edited by Marc Shkurovich

Further Readings
William Davies, Nicholas Gane
Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 38(6)
William Davies
New Left Review, Vol. 101
Erik Baker
Harper's Magazine
William Callison, Zachary Manfredi (eds.)
Fordham University Press
Marlène Benquet, Théo Bourgeron
Pluto Press
Angus Burgin
Harvard University Press
Greta R. Krippner
Harvard University Press
Peter Sloterdijk
Columbia University Press