The political economy of inequality
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Michel Feher on Right Wing Populism in the Age of Asset Appreciation

by Melinda Cooper on August 13, 2019

The philosopher Michel Feher is one of the most insightful observers of financialized capitalism writing today. Many English-speaking readers would have first encountered Feher’s thinking with the article “Self-Appreciation: or, the Aspirations of Human Capital,” a masterpiece of compression that in a few pages, updates Michel Foucault’s late seminars on neoliberalism for the era of financialization, tells us why the Chicago-school neoliberal and human capital theorist Gary Becker was both ahead of his time and behind the times, and why human capital as a mode of government and subjectivation is less about the utilitarian logic of commodity exchange than the process of asset appreciation, where the “self” functions as the most universal of assets. Many scholars would agree that today’s financialized capitalism prioritizes asset appreciation and capital gains over wealth accumulation and industrial profits. But few have so carefully traced the avenues through which asset appreciation permeates the sphere of social policy and subjective experience. Renewing Foucault’s project of a history of subjectivation, Feher proposes that contemporary strategies of subject formation are all about appreciating the value of the self (“self-esteem” in popular psychological parlance), hence attracting credit to oneself.

Feher’s recently published book, Rated Agency: Investee Politics in a Speculative Age, unfolds the same ideas at a slower tempo and in closer detail, with greater attentiveness to the historical periodization and contradictions of neoliberal reform. Of particular interest is Feher’s suggestion that third-way neoliberals such as Tony Blair in Great Britain, Bill Clinton in the UK, and Gerard Schroder in Germany (to which we might add Paul Keating in Australia) were more successful than right-wing neoliberals in bringing the promise of human capital theory to fruition. By blunting the edge of right-wing neoliberal reform from above — by inciting the activation of the unemployed, the democratization of credit among the low-waged and the continuing appreciation of skills among a disposable workforce — third-way neoliberals often achieved a degree of affective buy-in that had always eluded more hardline reformers. But their success was also their weak point, because the same mechanisms that enrolled so many into the game of asset appreciation also intensified the sense of personal failure and insecurity among those who inevitably failed. Third way neoliberalism, moreover, has always had a flipside: just as it sought to attract migrants who had already invested in themselves (think Australia’s migrant point system) and to help people who were willing to help themselves, it had to repel those who threatened to burden the state and so tarnish its credit score in the eyes of international bond holders. So governments resort to all kinds of measures to “dispose of the discredited,” by eliminating the long-term unemployed from the welfare rolls, channeling low skilled migrants into temporary work visas or refusing entry to so-called “illegal refugees” and “economic migrants.” Third way neoliberals were often the first to introduce the mandatory detention, workfare and anti-union laws that were later perfected by more right-wing (sometimes far right) governments.

Michel Feher recently held a three week visiting fellowship with SSSHARC (Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre) and took part in events organized by the FASS research initiative Asset Ownership and the New Inequality. Here he delivered a series of lectures and workshops based on his recent book, Rated Agency: Investee Politics in a Speculative Age, and his work-in-progress. Feher is currently working on a coauthored project with two other Paris-based theorists, Aurélie Windels and Eric Fassin (who has recently published a powerful critique of left populism). The book extends Feher’s analysis of “investee politics” in the sphere of labor and employment to examine its synergies with the rise of the populist far right in Europe. Perhaps Feher’s most provocative thesis — and one that refutes a near-hegemonic assumption on the critical left — is that right-wing populism is less a reaction to financialized capitalism than an extension of its logics, such that mainstream parties have continually absorbed the lessons of far-right xenophobia. For its part, the left has in general responded to the harmonization between neoliberalism and right-wing populism with two disastrous kinds of compromise politics. On the one hand, the third-way social democratic left which took centre-stage in the 1990s has made so many concessions to neoliberalism that it became increasingly irrelevant, and in France, moribund, when faced with the extreme austerity wrought by the sovereign debt crisis. On the other hand, proponents of a left populism such as Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau are so intent on courting the “understandable” patriotism of an imagined popular class that they end up accepting the very terms of the problem as defined by the far right. These strategies, Feher insists, are not only ethically bankrupt but strategically misguided. By endorsing the framing of neoliberal austerity as a contest between outside and inside — the rootless cosmopolitans and territorially grounded worker-citizens — or high and low — the elites and the common people — the left abandons the more urgent task of rethinking solidarity for financialized times. How this is to be done is the animating question of Feher’s new work. 

On 28 April, Feher presented a seminar on this new work, under the title “The Worth of Nations: Population Management in the Age of Appreciation.” A podcast of the seminar can be found here: