A few years ago University of Illinois–Chicago English professor Walter Benn Michaels advanced his theory of “the neoliberal novel“Going Boom,” Bookforum (February/March 2009).” This theory of his found inspiration in, of all things, a remark made by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the marmish muse of free-marketeers. “There is no such thing as society,” she once famously intoned. “There are individual men and women, and there are families.”
Thatcher with her two children, 1959In novels published from the early 1980s to the present day, Thatcher’s sentiment bulks large as a motif. The “Thatcherite genre,” which consists primarily of memoirs and novels, “tells us that there are only individuals and (most memoirs add) their families,” Michaels writes. Such works draw their dramatic force from “moving stories of the struggles of other people to overcome destructive (although sometimes seductive) parents and seductive (although always destructive) addictions.” To invert Ben Jonson’s remarks on William Shakespeare, these works are not of all time but of an age.
Michaels’s theory of the Thatcherite neoliberal novel has the clear ring of sound sense. But perhaps it’s best to pause and consider how well neoliberalism as a term lends itself to the kind of critique Michaels wants to perform. Marxist geographer David Harvey A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005) defines neoliberalism as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” As this definition suggests, the adjective free tends to be promiscuously bandied about in neoliberal circles.
But as former U.S. president George W. Bush informed Americans after 9/11, freedom isn’t free. The function of the state, Harvey continues, “is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices.” The price of freedom is freedom, basically. Freedom tout court is replaced by a state-enforced political-economical conception — one whose vicious circularity all but a tiny, well-connected minority find anything but liberating.
Rest assured, the state has many resources at its disposal to force its citizens to be free: “it has to guarantee … the quality and integrity of money,” Harvey observes. “It must also set up those military, defense, police and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper function of markets.” But once the state births markets and they begin to walk on their own two legs, the state is kindly asked to bug off:
State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to [neoliberal] theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies) for their own benefit.
As Harvey characterizes it, neoliberal political economy is nothing less than a coming-of-age story, complete with the requisite struggle against parental authority. To the state is born a little bundle of joy, the market, which the state does everything to nurture and protect. After a toddling infancy and an awkward youth, the market develops into a brilliant, multifaceted creature. At this point the state, incapable of appreciating the free market’s many deep and subtle complexities, becomes more of a hindrance than a help, overweening in its abiding impulse to interfere in its child’s affairs — for the child’s own good, naturally. Against this parental impulse the market asserts its freedom and eventually wins it. The novel practically writes itself.
Facile reduction to a theme of parent–child conflict obscures more than it clarifies. Michaels deems Thatcher’s pronouncement telling because it suggests that, when you get right down to it, society has no particular content. Everything in the domain of political economy can be understood by way of individual and familial relations. So-called social relations are but the latter splashed across a larger canvas. What you take to be political is really just personal.
It stands to reason, then, that what you take to be personal is really political. This is the implication Michaels finds objectionable. “What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference is that it sentimentalizes social conflict, imagining that what people really want is respect for their otherness rather than money for their mortgages,” he observes. “But they don’t.” By presenting respect for otherness as the primary object, the neoliberal novel assumes that improved ethnic or cultural relations are the final hurdles to clear on the way to the well-being promised by free-market ideology. The neoliberal novel traffics in formalisms of ethnic and cultural dispute, a sort of kabuki drama emptied of any legacy of economic exploitation, and in so doing provides cover for the steady, ongoing expropriation of the so-called 99 percent.
What Michaels discovers in contemporary literatureMichael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001) are two novels Michaels regards as paradigmatically neoliberal in their themes and conceits., he also detects in the culture itself. He writes in “What Matters,” an August 2009 piece for The London Review of Books, that the “neoliberal ideal is a world where rich people of all races and sexes can happily enjoy their wealth, and where the injustices produced not by discrimination but by exploitation … are discreetly sent around to the back door.” This image of a multihued elite, though immensely seductive, masks the fundamental legerdemain going on. (Call it perception management.) “A society in which white people were proportionately represented in the bottom quintile [of income earners] (and black people proportionately represented in the top quintile) would not be more equal; it would be exactly as unequal,” Michaels insists. “It would not be more just; it would be proportionately unjust.”
You see what Michaels has in mind with all his neoliberal this and neoliberal that. It is his conviction that neoliberals and their water-bearing litterateurs intend simply to shuffle the deck of inequality while leaving its structural causes in place — or, indeed, expanding and refining them. Once you see past their politically correct put-ons, you find yourself marching over well-trod narrative ground. “Why, it’s the same old deification of family happiness, of the multiplying of children, and capital,” cries Pyotr Verkhovensky in Dostoevsky’s Demons (1872), “and they live happily ever after, for pity’s sake!” Or to modify Milton’s famous line, neoliberal prose is but old bourgeois novel writ large.
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The suspicion that behind novelistic discourse in all its permutations lurks the same old deification of family happiness, of the multiplying of children and capital, leads you to despair of any Götterdämmerung being possible. If such an event does prove impossible, however, it wouldn’t be for a lack of trying. Indeed, several significant attempts in this direction have been made. The art journal October devoted its entire Fall 2006 issue to the life and work of Sergei Tretyakov, a 20th-century Russian dramatist and associate of such cultural luminaries as Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sergei Eisenstein. Tretyakov aligned himself with the Constructivist movement, an outgrowth of Futurism that came to dominate the art of the young U.S.S.R. before giving way to Socialist Realism in the 1930s. Futurists and Constructivists alike reacted to the Impressionism and Expressionism that reigned during the late 20th century; they dedicated themselves to scraping away the vestiges of those movements.
One of Tretyakov’s contemporaries, artist, designer, and eventual Soviet cultural commissar Alexei Gan, offered this programmatic formulation of ConstructivismConstructivism (1922), emphasizing how it embodies the spirit of the revolution and the incipient workers’ paradise:
Construction must be understood as the coordinating function of Constructivism.
If the tectonic unites the ideological and formal, and as a result gives a unity of conception, and the faktura is the condition of the material, then the construction discovers the actual process of putting together.
Thus we have the “third discipline,” the discipline of the formation of conception through the use of worked material.
All hail to the Communist expression of material building!
The “ideological,” “formal,” and “material” reflect each other harmoniously, yielding an art that serenely synthesizes the seemingly disparate elements of existence.
Others had made a similar effort before the Constructivists, most notably Richard Wagner, whose idea of Gesamtkunstwerk (the “total work of art”) set the standard for his own compositions. Of course, history records what this idea of Wagner’s eventually led to: namely, fascism.
Any art that professes to aim for a fusion of all possible experience should be treated with extreme suspicion, especially while the whole “lone genius” idea leftover from Enlightenment idealism and Romantic individualism yet prevails in certain areas of culture. Lone geniuses elevate themselves above trivial affairs of the world. Sordid mundanities like patron’s influence, news of the day, rivalries, or jealousies among fellow artists don’t affect the essential timeless character of their art. Or so the belief went. And though perhaps exploded since, this belief proved compelling enough to foster the novel, a historically younger form of literary representation than such other genres as poetry and drama. In certain respects, the rise of the novel documents the rise of the moneyed middle-classes, and vice versa. As time wore on the affinities between the two presented themselves so powerfully as to suggest an allotropism: The novel was the bourgeois form par excellence. This insight impressed itself on certain revolutionaries; they reasoned that a socioeconomic order’s reform required reform of its literature.
Tretyakov was one such revolutionary. In his 1929 essay “The Biography of the Object,” he claims that idealist and individualist biases warp the character of external reality in what he calls the classical psycho-biographical novel, bending all its various aspects toward the central figure who serves as the centripetal axis. “In the classical novel that is based upon the individual hero’s biography, the relative scale of the characters is largely reminiscent of Egyptian wall paintings,” he writes.
The colossal pharaoh is on a throne at the center; near him, in a slightly smaller size, is his wife; still smaller are the ministers and army commanders; and finally, in faceless heaps of copper coins, is the entire varied mass of the population: the servants, the soldiers, the slaves…. [T]he hero is what holds the novel’s universe together. The whole world is perceived through him. The whole world is, furthermore, just a collection of details that belong to him.
As a proper Constructivist, Tretyakov disdains the Cartesian dualism that the psycho-biographical classical novel not only preserves but valorizes. Tretyakov suggests the biography of the object — a narrative account of some item’s passage through various stages of production — as an alternative, made plausible not by some sort of God’s-eye view of an artist-genius but by technological advances in manufacturing. The point of view in the sort of works Tretyakov proposes would literally belong to no one. Individuals would figure only incidentally, serving simply as “incorporate[d] human material” entering into composition with the raw material destined to become the finished object.
The envisaged whole admits of no seams and leaves no remainder. “The compositional structure of the ‘biography of the object’ is a conveyor belt along which a unit of raw material is moved and transformed into a useful product through human effort,” Tretyakov continues.
The biography of the object has an extraordinary capacity to incorporate human material. People approach the object at a cross-section of the conveyor belt. Every segment introduces a new group of people without disrupting the narrative’s proportions. They come into contact with the object through their social aspects and production skills. The moment of consumption occupies only the final part of the entire conveyor belt. People’s individual and distinctive characteristics are no longer relevant here. The tics and epilepsies of the individual go unperceived. Instead, social neuroses and the professional diseases of a given group are foregrounded.
Tretyakov’s “conveyor belt” achieves a perspective that privileges no one individual’s subjective perceptions; it instead traverses several but only insofar as they are relevant to the object’s journey from raw material to commodity. Because making the object requires collective effort, the psychology of that collective, with its “social neuroses” and “professional diseases,” is explored instead of that of an individual hero. Unlike psycho-biographical novels, the biography of the object presents a world without alienation, without exploitation (save that of resources), without surplus value and its extraction; because such effects are deemed a priori as proceeding directly from the distortions of a capitalist ideology, which maroons individuals in false Cartesian self-consciousness. This subjective isolation represents the source of any subsequent malaise. The biography of the object, on the other hand, lends dramatic force to the only sort of human experience that actually matters to any self-respecting Soviet: relations of production.
Tretyakov’s relations with Stalin deteriorated over time and culminated in his execution in 1937. His “biography of the object” has not fared much better. Psycho-biographical conceits reign undiminished in contemporary novels. You might find yourself tempted to conclude that Tretyakov’s pet theory couldn’t survive as a viable literary method without a Soviet state to lend constant ideological support. True, folks in the Cold War–era West did read the novels of Arthur Hailey, who penned the mid-1960s best sellers Hotel and Airport. Slavoj Žižek notes that his novels “always focused on a particular site of production or complex organization, mixing a melodramatic plot with lengthy descriptions of that site’s functionsIn Defense of Lost Causes (2009).” Žižek calls this “capitalist realismŽižek’s notion of capitalist realism should not be confused with that that of Mark Fisher, which is altogether more eschatological in tone. “Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable,” Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009). This has led to such a state of hegemonic constriction that people find it “easier to imagine the end of the world” than to imagine the end of existing order.,” and you can observe in his description how elements of Tretyakov’s biography of the object survive, albeit in alloyed form, with elements of individualistic psycho-biography grafted onto it; the production site or organization remains relegated to supporting status, the furniture of a world centered on a single colossal — inevitably bourgeois — consciousness.
It might be, however, that Tretyakov’s biography of the object was an idea whose time had not yet come and may now only be just arriving. Specifically needed was development in the direction of what has come to be termed “post-Fordist” relations of production, in which value inheres no longer in goods primarily but in information and services. Within such relations, labor becomes immaterial, and Tretyakov’s conveyor belt doesn’t so much disappear as attenuate and ramify, becoming more a mediating trope than a real mechanism. In the novel Personal Days (2008), author Ed Park offers a spirited send-up of postmillennial, post-Fordist office drudgery. The final section consists of an enormous e-mail composed on a laptop by a character named Jonah while he is trapped in an elevator. The correspondence, addressed to a former colleague of Jonah’s named Pru, ends with this arresting observation:
You said yourself, once, waiting for stuff by the asthmatic printer, that the office generates at least one book, no, one novel every day, in the form of correspondence and memos and reports, all the reams of numbers, hundreds of sentences, thousands of words, but no one has the mind to understand it, no one has the eyes to take it all in, all these potential epics, War and Peace lying in between the lines.
Here Park manages to articulate a narrative point of view you might call first-person corporate — which, incidentally, he marshals throughout the whole of Personal Days to great effect, giving new impetus and texture to Dilbertian anomie. The resonances with Tretyakov’s biography of the object are obvious; but whereas Tretyakov points toward overcoming workers’ alienation, Park simply characterizes such alienation in terms consistent with 21st-century work life. Tretyakov imagines a novel without a hero. Park imagines one without a reader.
The difference between these two methods comes down to the condition of anonymity. For Tretyakov, anonymity ensures everyone’s freedom from the epistemic trap of bourgeois realism, which erects a hierarchy among characters by privileging certain subjectivities to the exclusion of others (the very hierarchies that make capitalism possible). A narrative told from an object’s point of view privileges no one person’s. No one exploits, and no one is exploited.
For Park, anonymity doesn’t remedy his office drones’ neuroses; it is their very source. The contents of their consciousnesses do not correspond to cut-and-dry Marxist-Leninist categories but to the master tropes of popular media. To Park’s characters, it’s worse than wage slavery or capitalist exploitation to be denied the spotlight or screen time. If the sensibility of Tretyakov’s “Biography of the Object” is vintage communist, then the sensibility of Park’s Personal Days is contemporary neoliberal. The valorization of the individual is everything. The greatest anxiety you can experience is that of being the hero of your own life’s novel which no one will ever read.
The New Inquiry Magazine, No. 2: Youth is available now. Subscribe for $2.Social media simply consolidate and lend greater force to the anxiety felt by the characters of Personal Days. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter are the treadmills that fuel this anxiety. They become much more than communication devices; they are the means by which people attempt to secure an effective ontology of a resolutely Cartesian kind: “I tweet, therefore I am.” The daily output of digital written matter becomes the stuff of the first-person-corporate novel. Imagining the former this way seduces you into believing that you figure as the hero of a classically psycho-biographical narrative unfolding in real time, when really you function merely as one of many others in an anonymous collective, meeting over a virtual conveyor belt of successive dispatches that quickly get pushed down the screen or diverted to a spam folder. Given this, you’re left to conclude that Michaels is more correct in his critique than perhaps even he realizes. In its present neoliberal expression, novelistic fiction leads you to wonder whether, in addition to there being no society, there are in fact no families — or even individuals.Earlier versions of this essay appeared at Generation Bubble.