In this engaging new book, Wendy Brown employs a careful reading and critique of Michel Foucault’s 1978-1979 lecture course The Birth of Biopolitics as a way to think about neoliberal government rationality in advanced democracies today. Her basic claim, as the title indicates, is that neoliberalism increasingly renders democratic political agency impossible. Rather than democratic political agency, individuals are construed (and increasingly construe themselves) simply as economic actors (or as entrepreneurs of themselves as Foucault puts it in The Birth of Biopolitics). The book is divided into two parts, with the first three chapters delineating Brown’s conception of neoliberalism followed by two chapters that engage Foucault’s lecture course at the Collége de France. The second section of the book, consisting of final three chapters of the book, examines the impact of neoliberal rationality upon the institutional structures of politics, the judiciary, and education. The conclusion makes a case for what is lost when practices of democratic subjectivity have little more than formal significance and examines the role that sacrifice plays in neoliberal governmentality.
There has been a spate of recent books on neoliberalism. What distinguishes Brown’s account from books by an author such as Philip Mirowski whose analysis of neoliberalism is, like Brown’s, inspired by Foucault’s account of neoliberalism in The Birth of Biopolitics is that Brown focuses more on neoliberalism as an account of governmentality that affects individual conduct rather than simply a new form of economic rationality. For this reason, her book should be read alongside Dardot and Laval’s The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society, which also focuses on the broader social context in which strategies of neoliberal governmentality are deployed, although its authors focus on the European context rather than that of the United States.