Let's begin this book review with a speech delivered by Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner. The speech, which was made on June 25 in downtown Seattle to 300 business leaders and government officials, had this as its nut: "[Boeing's] survival depends on being competitive—and the state of Washington has a lot at stake... By taking steps to remain competitive, much like we did earlier this year... we will ensure that Washington continues to benefit from the jobs, revenue, and technological skills we contribute to this region. I've never seen such a fierce marketplace." Later in the speech: "The realities of our business require us to constantly renew and refresh our focus to ensure we can compete and win... This is a harsh reality of our business today, and it's here to stay." So Boeing is going through tough times right now? No, it's not. Conner: "I know it can be confusing to some people, because we're doing so well at the moment..."
Here is where things get really bizarre. The following day, not only did the Seattle Times put Conner on the cover with the headline "Ray Conner asks for understanding as Boeing cuts costs in 'fierce marketplace,'" but the story, written by aerospace reporter Dominic Gates, did not at all question Boeing's need to shed Washington jobs during good times ("record profits"). "He added that the company's leaders must make tough decisions in the face of intense competition from Airbus and the threat of other potential, new competitors." The market is so fierce that Boeing is also competing with companies that do not yet exist!
In a normal world, Conner would have been laughed out of town, and the Seattle Times' cover story would have been about how hallucinogens had clearly become the drugs of choice for the corporate class. But our world is far from normal. A man like Conner can say things that make no sense at all and, on top of that, have the confidence to call those who dare to point out the nonsense in his thinking the confused ones. How is this at all possible? And why does Conner feel so certain that the word "competition" has the power to obscure Boeing's obvious motives: to extract more value from a reduced and vulnerable workforce, to increase profit margins, and to protect shares from stagnation or declination?
The answer to that question is found in The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society by the French authors Pierre Dardot (a philosopher) and Christian Laval (a sociologist). What the two do in this book is to extend, deepen, and confirm an analysis that the philosopher Michel Foucault presented in 1978–79 in a series of Collège de France lectures called The Birth of Biopolitics. In those lectures, Foucault explained the roots and future of a new kind of subject, the neoliberal subject: a man/woman who sees him/herself no longer as a citizen of a nation with social obligations, but as an independent enterprise in a universal market. What Foucault saw in a state of emergence at the end of the '70s, Dardot and Laval see in a state of completion at the end of the '00s (the book was first published in French in 2009).
The key word in the transformation of citizens into enterprises is "competition." We no longer believe in a common goal or even a political community, argue Laval and Dardot, but see ourselves only as rational individuals in competition with other rational individuals for limited resources. Our lives are now our businesses. Everything we do either benefits or harms the business of our lives. In short, we think and behave like entrepreneurs. "We are all entrepreneurs," they write, "or, rather, we all learn to be; we train ourselves exclusively through the play of the market to govern ourselves as entrepreneurs."
When and how were the citizens of yesterday transformed into the entrepreneurs of today? This was a process that began humbly in the 1930s after the collapse of a form of liberalism that dominated 19th-century Europe. Self-regulating markets and few to no government interventions/restrictions in business affairs (laissez-faire) were the core preoccupations of 19th-century liberalism. But after the first great war of the 20th century (a capitalist war) and the massive Wall Street crash of 1929, that way of thinking lost a great deal of public and political support. The new way of the world was to see the social value of government intervention/management of the economy (Keynesianism) and the real dangers of self-regulating markets. This order of things lasted until around the '70s, when a new strain of liberalism began to grow, spread, and transform societies first in the West and then in the rest of the world.
What distinguished this new liberalism from the old, and why it was able to profoundly restructure not only society's economic priorities but also the very way that humans thought of themselves, is that it did away with the old liberalism's obsession with small government. For the new liberalism, called neoliberalism, the truth of the matter was not the size of government (look at how government debt exploded under Reagan and Bush 2), but what government does, how it intervenes. "Neoliberalism combines the rehabilitation of public intervention with a conception of the market centered on competition... [it makes] competition the cardinal principle of social and individual existence." The job of the state in this context is to defamiliarize or estrange the values and logic of labor and normalize those of the market in all spheres of society, including the state itself. "Hospitals, schools, universities, court, and police stations are all regarded as enterprises..."
Self-help is the ruling ethic of this entrepreneurial rationality. You must help yourself, make yourself more adaptable, never rest on your laurels, and accept at all times the ruling importance of being competitive. This is why Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner did not get laughed out of town after his ridiculous speech, and got instead a sympathetic write-up in the Seattle Times. You and I are like Boeing. We are all enterprises. This is the way of our world.