Power Politics: Neoliberalism as a Critique of Centralized Power
The essence of a competitive market is its impersonal character. No one participant can determine the terms on which other participants shall have access to goods or jobs. All take prices as given by the market and no individual can by himself have more than a negligible influence on price though all participants together determine price by the combined effect of their separate actions. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962, 119-120).
The market that is celebrated by neoliberals like Milton Friedman is guided by this kind of spatial imaginary of decentralization. It is a vision of a dispersed price mechanism where no central node has power over the market. Because of this idolatry of decentralization, neoliberalism is based around a critique of centralized power. Neoliberal ideology scorns all kinds of large, centralized institutions – constructed as monopolistic corporations, greedy unions, and rigid universities. In contrast, neoliberalism celebrates all that is small, decentralized, local, nimble, flexible, and, most importantly, competitive.
At the core of neoliberal hegemony – on both left and right – is a critique of a ‘privileged’ position in the market. Those of us on the left tend to focus on the 1% rigging the system while those on the right focus on the state itself, unions, and most importantly, recipients of state benefits (And, here we see the overlap between neoliberal populism and racist disdain for the poor). This neoliberal critique does not see class distinction. It holds similar contempt for the corporate monopoly and what Ronald Reagan called the “welfare queen.” All are examples of centralized nodes of power over a market the must be free of politics, or an apolitical economy. Again, the key to this vision of the market is that competition must be dispersed: only through decentralization will there be an “even playing field” or what Obama constantly calls a “fair shake” for all participants.
What does this have to do with energy? In a more conventional sense, the politics “of energy” – as a contained object of political contestation –is inundated with accusations of unfair “political” interventions in the market. Big Oil uses money to corrupt the political system. Solyndra receives unfair tax payer subsidies. OPEC is a centralized global force playing politics with oil prices. Those of us who advocate for a carbon tax insist fossil fuel polluters aren’t paying the full (and “fair”) cost of their ecological destruction. The underlying logic of these critiques is the idea that a competitive, free and fair market is possible – if only we can erase the residues of monopoly power, subsidies, externalities, or whatever.
Yet, I want to make a different point. What if we don’t think of energy as only an object of politics? What if we seek to understand the relation between energy and this larger neoliberal ideology itself? Here we must confront the role of energy in powering a geography of decentralized privatism. This geography becomes conducive to a politics of what I call, borrowing from Foucault, “entrepreneurial life” – the idea that our lives are singular projects reducible to individual choices and competitive tenacity. This politics was made common sense through the postwar expansion of an energized geography of privatized living – suburban single family detached home ownership and oil-powered automobility. This geography of decentralization would not be possible without oil and electricity.
If the market is a dispersed system of buyers and sellers, suburban privatism also appears to be a dispersed geography of individuals (it was Margaret Thatcher who said, “There is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families.”) The massive deployment of hydrocarbons makes this somewhat outlandish appearance of atomized self-sufficiency seem possible – like the “everyday conqueror” who is “comfortably in command” in this 1990s advertisement for an SUV. Life itself is a spatial quest to achieve an individualized “to do list.”
It appears that wealth and life success is itself a product of individual choices and efforts. This is despite the fact that suburban privatism is itself a product of a project of public investment – federal road building, mortgage subsidies, and tax breaks. It is also part of vastly unequal system – 98% of FHA mortgages went to whites between 1934 and 1962. While suburbanites increasingly forgot the public basis of their success, they more and more imagined themselves as masters of their own lives. Of course, those who remained in the cities were simply not hard working enough, or developed a pathological “culture” of poverty. Such narratives ignore that these urban geographies were specific products of socially engineered inequality – racist housing policies and corporate disinvestment.
Yet, as suburban privatized living become more and more difficult in the era of neoliberal wage stagnation and the slashing of the public sector, the logic of entrepreneurial life turned its critique toward those centralized forces unfairly intervening in the marketplace – government, unions, welfare recipients, and also corporations. These institutions had not “worked hard” for their wealth like the propertied, tax paying masses that Richard Nixon referred to as “The Silent Majority.”
I want to suggest that this critique of centralized power is not only essential to a narrow populist coalition of right winger Tea Party types. It has infiltrated our basic ‘common sense’ ways of thinking about politics. It is the reason why a certain vocabulary has animated all forms of viable political resistance (many of which are important and worth supporting) – words such as ‘local’, ‘community’, ‘grassroots’, ‘decentralized’, ‘autonomy’, and ‘self-organization’. Much of what is popular in anti-capitalist political thought and organizing is focused on anarchism, the emphasis on horizontal linkages over central “vertical” leadership, and self-organized community scale political organizing. I don’t want to suggest that these forms of politics are neoliberal or right wing. Yet, I think it’s a different claim to suggest that certain political theorizing and organizing on the left is itself a complicated product of neoliberal hegemonic conditions. In our neoliberal moment, any institution –with “top down” systems of centralized power – is not only seen as inherently bureaucratic and exploitative, but is also seen as rigid, inflexible, impervious to creative or democratic negotiation.
But what does this mean for our relation to energy? This fetish of decentralization also infects our notions of energy policy. There is the obvious focus on the decentralization of the electric grid, wherein the centralized power utility is vilified as the sole inhibitor of a renewable (and more ‘participatory’) energy transition. But, in a broader sense, the only acceptable policies are ones that harness the decentralized power of the price mechanism (energy taxes, cap and trade). The most viable form of “taking action” (at least to many of my students) appears to be dispersed consumer actions of buying light bulbs, hybrids, or recycling. Yet, as Naomi Klein argues, what we need is strong state power to coerce, mandate and plan our way to energy transition to renewable power
Moreover, we need to consider how energy itself powers a society that fetishes decentralized solutions to collective problems. Fossil fuel has powered a privatism; an anti-social politics against all that is collective or public. Going beyond fossil fuels might allow us to understand better that our lives our not singular atomized projects – they are collective projects – and it is up to social struggle to shape what collective projects will be undertaken into the future.