Five years ago yesterday, I attended a “Welcome Workshop” at the London Gender Identity Clinic. Ostensibly held as a part apology, part information day to referred transgender individuals, already long overdue their first official appointment, these open days were (and indeed still are) in fact generally acknowledged to be a thinly veiled vetting process in and of themselves and, by way of introduction, lead clinician James Barrett wished to convey to diverse cross-section of a community famously replete with communist and anarchist sympathies several points of order:
- That the police were our friends and could be relied upon to defend our rights.
- Accordingly, we should avoid an overtly political existence.
- That, whilst openly expressed non-binary identities might be reasonable discursive fare for a “gender theory professor in Brighton,” they would not serve us as well in “the supermarkets of the inner city.” He indicated thus that he would assist us in living as any identity he believed we could “make fly.”
- That he was proud to serve the transgender community because, as he saw it, “treating gender dysphoria is good for the economy.” Dysphoric, dysmorphic and depressed subjects are unproductive workers – those who die through suicide or self-destructive misadventure even more so – and thus, the strictly administered distribution of hormonal and surgical technologies of microsurveillance could also operate as a mode of economic social reproduction.
Reading through Wendy Brown’s account of the neoliberal reconstitution of the state and subject in Undoing the Demos – and particularly her analysis of Barack Obama’s State of the Union address – it was impossible not to have this encounter replaying in my head. Brown’s astute commentary that “democratic state commitments to equality, liberty, inclusion and constitutionalism are now subordinate to the project of…capital enhancement…and, the speech implies, would be jettisoned if found to abate, rather than abet, economic goals” are entirely reflective of the transgender homo oeconomicus model against which I and my fellow “workshoppers” found ourselves being investigated: one not defined through political engagement, but rather one who would be weighed and measured on a basis of existential “success,” founded upon a distinctly calculated assessment of which classes and races could be afforded which state-endorsed genders: a uniquely pink, white, and baby blue striped form of human capital.
To return, for a moment, however, to Brown’s above criticism of the Obama address, I wish to invoke Slavoj Žižek’s observation that, throughout most of the 20th century, capitalism – at least experienced in the Western global north – was predicated on a basic, liberal semblance of democracy. Indeed, Brown herself acknowledges this: “liberal democracy has also carried – or monopolized, depending on your view – the language and promise of inclusive and shared political equality, freedom, and popular sovereignty.” Today, however, he offers the example of Singapore: a form of capitalism which is “brutally efficient, but no longer needs democracy” to grease the wheels of its multivalent dispositifs. Thus, the displacement of a Keynesian liberal capitalist ideal which might still contain a social safety net, a welfare state, is already in play and, indeed, has been for quite some time.
If I find myself disagreeing with Brown’s general assessment of the amorphous ubiquity of neoliberalism, it is only really a position against the overly-broad brushstrokes with which I see her illustrating the “developing / developed nations = hard / soft power applications” divide. Instead, I wish to propose a more insidious interpretation, which I am cautious not to found upon a position of white privilege that would overzealously co-opt postcolonial discourse for a uniquely Western class analysis Indeed, although the examples I shall provide pertain to the United Kingdom, I believe these may well have global ramifications (neoliberalism seeming to be as plastic as it is extensive), and I locate my analysis in the UK for the reasons a) it is my home country, thus it is my immediate go-to, and b) it is one of the key sites in the Fukuyamaist neoliberal turn, as predictably indicated by Brown’s consistent references to Margaret Thatcher.
But I digress: my contention with Brown is that, rather than discussing simply “hard” vs “soft” applications of power, what we should instead consider are the “soft” ramifications of “hard power,” and also the “hard” ramifications of “soft power.” I wish to indicate positively here Brown’s third noted ramification of financialization’s rendering human beings as human capital: “when everything is capital, labour disappears as a category, as does its collective form, class, taking with it the analytic basis for alienation, exploitation, and association among labourers” (38). Indeed, following the closure of the United Kingdom’s mines and factories (something achieved very much by the Thatcherite government’s implementation of “hard power”), many Conservatives in the UK would and do argue that the “working class” is now a meaningless concept. Few if any “means of production” in a Marxist understand are left extant and, accordingly, the ability not just to mobilise but even to vocalise one’s experience of the extraction of one’s surplus labour value is significantly reduced – a “soft” (i.e. social, ideological, discursive) intrusion of power which one may tentatively consider in relation to Spivak’s notion of the speechlessness of subalternity.
On the other side, I address the scope of “soft power’s” wilful ignorance and refusal to address the logistical implications of the acknowledgdly flammable cladding which adorned the Grenfell Tower social housing apartment block in the otherwise exceptionally affluent London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, for the dual reasons of a) being the cheapest option for the council and b) being supposedly less of an “eyesore” for the project’s often-millionaire neighbours. The “hard” result ultimately being the deaths of 72 residents, and the injury of 70 more. I suggest the process of dehumanisation that reduces the subject to human capital allows for at the very least microcosmic necropolitical death-worlds, in which the impoverished homo oeconomicus experience the neoliberal landscape as the living dead. The zombie oeconomicus.