The thinker Wendy Brown (Modesto, California, 67 years old) is one of the most influential voices in the field of political science in the United States. From the left, he has theorized about how the perverse rationality of neoliberalism laid the foundations of authoritarian populism, about the wounds of modernity, tolerance and identity politics or (six years before Donald Trump's fixation on the wall with Mexico) about walled borders as the desperate simulacrum of a world of sovereign states in decline.
After retiring five years ago as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, she accepted a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, intellectual home, among others, of Einstein or Oppenheimer. In the spacious office of a brutalist building where he is working on his next book – it will be about climate change – Brown spoke last Monday for almost three hours on the occasion of the publication in Spanish of his latest essay, Nihilistic Times. Thinking with Max Weber (Lengua de Trapo, translation by Lucía Rheineck and Jorge Lago). In it, he returns to two of his obsessions: democracy in danger and the role of the university in society. And it does so from two famous lectures of the German thinker: Politics as a vocation, in which Weber (1864-1920) exposed his famous theory of the monopoly of state violence, and Knowledge as a vocation, critical of the calamities of the Academy in Germany at the end of World War I.
Brown is the partner of Judith Butler, famous for revolutionizing gender studies in the nineties. They divide their time between the university town of New Jersey and Berkeley, on the San Francisco Bay, their place in the world. "A good place," he says, "to live while Armageddon comes."
Question: Why Weber today?
Answer: He is an extraordinary power theorist and a dark thinker. With Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Nietzsche, he discovers that the meaning of the world is no longer tied to God. He was also the first to theorize about what we now call post-truth. I was inspired by his study of the nihilistic condition. He is conservative and nationalist. It is often narrowly reduced to that. Some unjustly consider him a precursor of Nazism. For me, thinking with and against him does not mean agreeing with all his ideas.
Q. Are classical thinkers cornered as a result of the extension of the canon for other voices to enter?
A. If the question is whether we are letting their ideas fossilize like those of guys with nothing to teach us, the answer is yes. There is a tendency to leave them behind.
Q. But the world described by Weber is strikingly similar to ours...
A. The parallels are obvious. In Politics as a Vocation, he describes an unbearable bureaucracy and essentially corrupt parties, and denounces narcissism and charlatans. At the science conference, he warns students against triumphant mediocrity and precariousness. And it seems that he was talking about the current neoliberalization of the university. His definition of vain demagoguery fits some current leaders, from Giorgia Meloni to Donald Trump. What he could never imagine is the extent to which such demagoguery would ally itself with two of our main problems: the media and social media. Narcissism is an essential characteristic of nihilism. When values are trivialized, only personal power matters. It is not fundamentally new, Weber already defines it as an effect of modernity, but it has intensified in these 100 years. We are no longer even surprised by this normalization of narcissistic gratification.
Q. Who wrote that manual applied to politics?
A. I could say Margaret Thatcher, but it would be too long to justify. Trump burst onto the scene in a way that took many people by surprise. If nothing has value, anything goes. It was probably he who wrote that manual, or at least, the one who perfected it.
Q. Eight years later, the American system still does not know how to deal with the exceptionality it represents. He could be president if he is convicted even if he ends up in jail. And it seems that many in the Republican Party would be happy to see it in the dustbin of history, but they don't even dare to say it.
A. They have no idea what to do. The Republican Party is no longer in control, which belongs to Trump's supporters. All in all, I see it faltering lately. He looks furious, and makes confusing statements. He recently referred to himself as the one who defeated Obama in 2016 [and not Hillary Clinton] and suggested that Biden was about to start World War II. His acolytes don't care about those things, nor do his crimes. They are fascinated by his bellicosity, his bravado, his remorseless exercise of white man privilege, even his pettiness and rudeness. It represents them. A large number of Republican voters would like him to go, but they are not enough. And the current dilemma of the party establishment is that they are unable to win without it.
Q. Back to Thatcher. Are nihilism and neoliberalism linked?
A. It's complex. Neoliberalism reinforces nihilism by reducing everything to market values. And then there's what makes us as people. Thatcher herself said it: the goal of neoliberalism is not only to change society, but also souls. One of the great successes of the neoliberal revolution, the most successful of the last 50 years, is that it has transformed not only states and economies, but also individuals into beings of value only in function of capital.
Q. Neoliberalism also conquered a part of the left. In the book, he recalls that Hilary Clinton was the neoliberal choice in the 2016 election.
A. The Clintons in the nineties fully embraced neoliberalism, and with them, the Democratic Party, which in this country has never really been left-wing. The problem is that Americans understood neoliberalism too late. We had already conquered Chile with its recipe. We had already disseminated it with the IMF throughout Latin America and Africa, but we did not know that it had also taken our country until about 10 years ago. One of the reasons neoliberalism won over the left here was that: ignorance.
Judith Butler: "We fight against social domination, not against men and their anatomy"
Q. Another characteristic of the nihilistic politician is that he will do what is necessary to remain in power...
A. The parties and their leaders, also on the left, are today more concerned with this than with concrete problems.
Q. Weber describes the virtuous reverse of those who practice "politics as a vocation." Who would fit that definition today?
A. It is easier if we turn to history: Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Che Guevara. When she appeared, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had that combination of charisma, and passionate commitment to a noble cause. That luster has been lost a bit.
Q. Do you share concerns about Joe Biden's age for re-election?
A. Of course, it is a serious problem. And then he has to solve the Kamala Harris affair as well. It's going to be hard for young people and African-Americans to get their hopes up. They're really about what the party did to Bernie Sanders. Although it is fair to admit that Biden has regained the legitimacy of the welfare state, and that has been surprising. Public housing is back on the agenda; It hadn't happened for 50 years. A symptom of their success is that the Republicans have abandoned their classic neoliberal program, to focus their agenda on anti-woke policies, on attacking gender identity and on defending Christianity and the family. The right in America is more fragmented than ever, and united by only one thing: hatred of liberals. That the left is unable to capitalize on that is really tragic.
The right in America is more fragmented than ever, and united by only one thing: hatred of the left.
Q. Is the spectacularization of the political circus another symptom of the nihilistic condition?
A. Nihilism not only brings the trivialization of values, but of politics itself. Today everything is politicized, but it is not a policy with a purpose, but ends up being a discussion about what you eat or what car you drive.
Q. What do you think of the rhetoric of extreme polarization in the United States?
A. Polarization is a symptom of the nihilistic condition, rather than its root. When both facts and values become weak and truth is displaced, polarization is inevitable. People believe what they want to believe. It is not that they do not contrast other points of view, it is that they do not care about the facts.
Q. Where did good leaders go?
A. Politics has become very unattractive, because it is so cruel. Social media fuels that cruelty. I think that dissuades many people from pursuing that craft, or leads them to abandon it quickly.
How to imagine the world after neoliberalism
Q. What is the role of a public intellectual in that super-aggressive environment?
A. To be a constantly alert reflective thinker, willing to tell the truth and to expose serious and honest positions about the world in which we live. Also hold politicians accountable.
Q. Let's talk about climate change. Is eco-anxiety another form of nihilism?
A. The ecological crisis is not taken seriously enough. I don't think apocalyptic thinking is misplaced. Now, when it prevents action, it becomes a problem. We have to be aware of its seriousness. And we must take action as if it is not going to kill us.
Q. How and when did the right appropriate the idea of freedom?
A. In the last 20 years. To the freedom to expand the rights of capital and property they have added that of religious practice, which they have used to reject the rights of women and minorities. In America, it has become a bull, backed by the Supreme Court, for everything from refusing to serve gay clients to rejecting secular education. It is also used to deny climate change and any regulation that, either we accept it, or the planet will die. Freedom has become the rallying cry of the right to destroy the planet. The left? She is lost, on the defensive, not knowing what to do.
Q. What is your proposal for the left to change that?
A. It must do more than just react to what the right says. You need to lay out your own vision. That vision must be broadly compelling, and not based on grievances but on proposals for a better and more livable world. Develop a language and narrative based on justice, ecology, sustainability and freedom that is engaging. It's not just about roll call, nagging, indignant. The left must leave rancor and cruelty to the right; That will end up poisoning them, it is almost the only proposal they have.
Q. What do you think of the criticism that progressivism is too concerned with the problems of minorities and not with what these critics call "normal people"?
A. That's where neoliberalism gets its way again. The challenge is to turn issues such as gender identity into a macro issue: to present them with broad arguments, because they affect everyone.
Wendy Brown in front of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton (New Jersey) last Monday. Pascal Perich
Q. Is the anti-intellectualism in American life that historian Richard Hofstadter diagnosed stronger than ever?
A. Yes and no. With social media, everyone thinks he's an intellectual. I think the problem today is that intellectualism has become detached from knowledge and education.
Q. There's been a lot of debate lately, I would say in a somewhat naïve way, about elite education in the United States...
A. This debate, naïve as it is, has brought out a truth: the important thing is who you know and who you relate to. Not what you learn. There is debate about who should come in, and whether rubbing shoulders with the rich or the poor is what moves you forward in life.
Q. What do you think of the Supreme Court's decision to knock down positive discrimination in access to universities?
A. That we will know how to get around it. The problem with affirmative action is that it left out the class argument, when higher education, in part because of the decline of public universities, is no longer affordable for the working class.
Narcissism is an essential characteristic of nihilism. If values are trivialized, only personal power matters
Q. If you listen to the media, you will think that American universities are cruel battlegrounds for academic freedom and expression and for identity politics. Places where only the culture of cancellation prevails. Is it so so?
A. It wasn't my experience at Berkeley. I think there are periodic eruptions, subcultures fighting for power, and students wanting certain truths taught, but I don't think it's that frequent. The problem is that it is not news to go to a university and find people thinking and studying. That said, there is a tendency, from right to left, to call out teachers for their views, or for the things they teach or the texts they do or do not include in their programs. It comes from the last 10 or 20 years. It does not help students learn or teachers teach. Another thing are the cases that can be included in the MeToo movement, which brought a necessary cleansing of a certain generation and certain practices. It is not the same to denounce that there is no black writer on a reading list than the impertinent sexual behavior of a professor.
Q. Could you be canceled?
A. Anyone can be canceled, but cancellation is also, in many cases, a very ephemeral phenomenon, a passing storm.
Q. Are students more emboldened than ever?
A. Let's put it the other way around. I believe that teachers, also harassed by managers, have less power than ever.
Q. In the book he denounces that the boundaries between information and entertainment are diluted in nihilistic times...
A. The boundary between personal and public life disappears. Everything is mixed. And everything, from politics to pedagogy, has to be entertaining. Teachers must stand up. One of the reasons I thought after 40 years it was probably time to quit is that a student said of me that I was a great speaker and that the subjects were good, but that I didn't use PowerPoint, or videos. I wanted a three-ring circus. The explosion of knowledge has to happen in your head, not come from outside.
Q. Do you sympathize with the motives of the white man who votes for Trump?
A. There is no more honest phrase from Trump than when he said he loved the unenlightened. Of course, they lack the ability to discern truth from lies, or to identify a conspiracy theory. Things you learn in universities. If the working class is left out of them, then this anti-intellectual sentiment of the right will become widespread. Many of Trump's voters are angry because they lost their status in the clutches of neoliberalism. This frustration is linked to the progress of the demands of feminism or anti-racist movements. Do they have the right to be angry? Yes. Is it for the right reasons? No. They are angry that their white status no longer has the automatic cache of the past. I think Barbie tells that well. It's when they're in the "real world," and Ken begins to understand how patriarchy works. He walks into a hospital and says he wants to be a doctor. They tell him that it is impossible, that he lacks studios. And he says, "Of course I can, I'm a white man."
Q. You are a feminist thinker who does not write about feminism. Rather, it uses it as a toolbox.
A. I wrote a book about feminism, the first one, Manhood and Politics, and I stopped there. There are so many people writing about feminism, I'll leave it to those people.
Q. People with whom he lives...
A. Maybe it's because of the division of labor between Judith and me. Feminism is always part of my thinking. When I analyze Trump, I think about his version of masculinity and what is attractive about these unhappy white men. The same goes for far-right parties in France or Spain, you can't understand them without thinking about their anti-feminism.
Q. In 2017, Butler and you were rebuked by a group of women at the São Paulo airport. They called them "pedophiles" and "witches" for, among other things, advocating abortion. How do you remember that incident?
A. It was a bit comical. We were at the airport and these women were yelling at us and beating us with their banners and bags. They had been trying to confront us for days, because Judith gave a series of lectures in the city. They were very frustrated because they couldn't make it. I don't know how, but they found out we were there, so that was their last chance, before we left. I found them a bit ridiculous. Judith had a worse time, I think, because they had burned her effigy in the street. They even gave us a bodyguard. I kept trying to talk to them. I asked one, "But have you read the book that condemns [Butler's Disputed Gender]?" He replied, "No! I would never read it!" Anyway, what to say about that?
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