When Firms Become Persons and Persons Become Firms: outstanding lecture

UC Berkeley Political Scientist Wendy Brown came to the London School of Economics last week to discuss her book Undoing the Demos, and her lecture (MP3) is literally the best discussion of how and why human rights are being taken away from humans and given to corporations.

Brown looks at the human rights enumerated in the US Bill of Rights, and how they have been interpreted in successive Supreme Court rulings like Hobby Lobby (corporations are people whose religious freedom entitles them to deny contraception to their workers) and Citizens United (corporations are people and have the free speech right to buy politicians). She suggests that these have been misread as merely conservative/business-oriented thinking gaining influence, and that rather, they are best understood as an ongoing project that grants personhood to companies at the expense of real people.

Brown speaks for more than an hour with almost no poli-sci/econ jargon, building elegant, beautiful arguments that should be accessible to anyone. If you listen to anything this weekend, make it this.

Neoliberal rationality — ubiquitous today in statecraft and the workplace, in jurisprudence, education, and culture — remakes everything and everyone in the image of homo oeconomicus. What happens when this rationality transposes the constituent elements of democracy into an economic register? In vivid detail, Wendy Brown explains how democracy itself is imperiled. The demos disintegrates into bits of human capital; concerns with justice cede to the mandates of growth rates, credit ratings, and investment climates; liberty submits to the imperative of human capital appreciation; equality dissolves into market competition; and popular sovereignty grows incoherent. Liberal democratic practices may not survive these transformations. Radical democratic dreams may not either.

In an original and compelling theoretical argument, Brown explains how and why neoliberal reason undoes the political form and political imaginary it falsely promises to secure and reinvigorate. Through meticulous analyses of neoliberalized law, political practices, governance, and education, she charts the new common sense. Undoing the Demos makes clear that, far from being the lodestar of the twenty-first century, a future for democracy depends upon it becoming an object of struggle and rethinking.

Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution [Wendy Brown/Zone Books]

When Firms Become Persons and Persons Become Firms: neoliberal jurisprudence in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores [LSE]