Wendy Brown, philosopher: ‘Instead of being so reactive to everything the right says or does, the left needs to set out its own vision’

A feminist who doesn’t write about feminism, this American thinker describes the times that we’re living in as ‘nihilistic.’ ‘Freedom is being used as a rallying cry for the entitlement to just destroy the planet,’ she says

Wendy Brown
Wendy Brown at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, on September 18, 2023.Pascal Perich
Iker Seisdedos

Wendy Brown, 67, is one of the most influential American thinkers in the field of political science. From the left, she has theorized about how the perverse rationality of neoliberalism laid the foundations for authoritarian populism, as well as about the wounds left by modernity, and about tolerance and identity politics. And — six years before Donald Trump’s claimed that if elected he would “build the wall and make Mexico pay for it” — she wrote presciently about walled borders as theatricalized reactions of states’ sovereignty in decline.

After retiring as a professor at the University of Berkeley, she accepted three years ago a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the former intellectual home of — among others — Einstein and Oppenheimer. In the spacious office of a brutalist building where she’s working on her next book (about climate change), Brown spoke with EL PAÍS about the publication of her latest book, Nihilistic Times: Thinking with Max Weber (2022), where she returns to two of her obsessions: democracy in danger and the role of the higher education in society. In the book, she examines two famous lectures that were given by the German thinker: Politics as a Vocation — in which he presented his famous theory about the state monopoly on violence — and Science as a Vocation, in which he examined the German academia near the end of World War I.

Brown is the partner of Judith Butler, famous for revolutionizing gender studies in the 1990s. They divide their time between their university town in New Jersey and Berkeley, in the San Francisco Bay Area, their favorite place in the world. “Northern California is the best place to live until Armageddon comes to get us,” she jokes.

Question: Why write about Max Weber today?

Answer: He was an extraordinary theorist on power. And a dark thinker. That’s a matter of temperament and of the historical times he lived in, especially Germany, running up to a World War One and beyond. He was deeply steeped in a tradition of thought, along with Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Nietzsche, that discovered nihilism in the fact that the meaning of the world is no longer tied to God in modernity. He was also the first to theorize what we today call “post-truth” condition.

I was drawn to his appreciation of the nihilistic condition as the setting for knowledge and politics today. He’s conservative and nationalistic... Some unfairly consider him to have been a precursor of Nazism. For me, he’s a rich thinker, but that doesn’t mean I agree with everything he had to say.

Q. Are classical thinkers as the ones you once described as your “five guys” (Weber, Freud, Foucault, Nietzsche, and Marx) being forgotten, as a result of the diversification of the canon to allow in other voices — women, post-colonial and global thinkers?

A. Are we allowing the canonical thinkers to become kind of ossified as the old conservatives who have nothing to teach us? That’s a great question. I don’t think many people think about it dialectically like that, but for those of us who do both, for example Fanon and Freud, Frederick Douglass and Karl Marx, it’s a problem. I do see a tendency to leave the old guys out of the curriculum and the conversation.

Q. The world described by Weber is surprisingly similar to ours…

A. It doesn’t take much to see the parallels with our times. In Politics as a Vocation, he describes an unbearable bureaucracy and essentially corrupt parties, and narcissism and chicanery in individuals. In the lecture on science, he warns aspiring professors against both mediocrity and precariousness in the profession, akin to the current neoliberalization of the university. And his definition of vain demagoguery fits some current leaders, from Giorgia Meloni to Donald Trump. What he could never imagine is to what extent this demagoguery would be amplified by the media, social and otherwise.

Narcissism is an essential characteristic of nihilism. When values are trivialized, only personal desire and power matters. This isn’t fundamentally new — Weber already defined it as an effect of modernity — but it has intensified in the last 100 years.

Q. Who wrote the notebook on narcissism in politics?

A. I would say Margaret Thatcher, but that would take too long to explain. If he didn’t write it, Trump obviously polished and perfected that manual.

Q. Eight years since Trump launched his first campaign for president, the American system still doesn’t know how to deal with the exceptionality he represents. He could become president again, even if he’s convicted of the charges he faces. And it seems that many in the Republican Party would be happy to see him in the garbage dustbin of history… but they don’t dare say it.

A. They have no idea what to do. The GOP isn’t in control of this; Trump’s base is. At the same time, he appears to be coming undone in some ways — he’s raging more wildly and making more confused public statements. He recently referred to himself as defeating Obama in 2016, and suggested that Biden was about to start World War II. But this kind of thing doesn’t matter to his base, any more than his criminality does. His supporters are not weighing whether he would be a fit president, and few of them care much about politics, let alone democracy. They are attached to his bellicosity, bravado, unapologetic white masculine entitlement, even to his meanness and rudeness. He’s acting out something for them. Yes, a large number of Republican voters would like to see him go. But not large enough. And the current conundrum of the GOP establishment is that they can’t win without him, or probably with him.

Q. Returning to Thatcher: are nihilism and neoliberalism linked?

A. Neoliberalism reinforces nihilism by reducing everything to market values... which is not value as substantive meaning, only measure. And then, there’s what it does to us as people. Thatcher herself said it: the goal of neoliberalism is not just to change the economy but to change the soul. One of the great successes of the neoliberal revolution — the most successful revolution of the last 50 years — is that it has transformed not only states and economies, but also individuals into creatures who treat themselves as bits of capital.

Q. Neoliberalism also conquered a part of the left. In the book, you recall that Hillary Clinton was the neoliberal option in the 2016 elections.

A. The Clintons, in the 1990s, completely embraced neoliberalism — and with them went the Democratic Party, which has never really been left-wing but solidly liberal. The problem is that Americans understood neoliberalism very late. We had already conquered Chile with it in the 1970s. Reagan brought it to the door with “supply side economics” in the 1980s. But Americans didn’t even have a language for it until about 10 years ago. That was consequential. We didn’t understand what was happening to us.

Q. Another characteristic of nihilistic politicians is that they will do whatever is necessary to remain in power...

A. That’s another symptom of our age: the parties and their leaders — also on the left — are more concerned about that than about compelling visions or specific problems. Everything is political theater.

Q. Weber describes the “virtuous reversals” of those who practice “politics as a vocation.” Who would fit that definition today?

A. When she appeared, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had that combination of charisma and passionate commitment to a noble cause. That shine has been lost a little.

Q. Do you share the concern about Joe Biden’s age for his reelection?

A. Of course, it’s a serious problem. And then he also has to resolve the Kamala Harris issue. It’s going to be difficult for him to excite young people and African Americans. The kids are really pissed off about what the party did to Bernie Sanders. That said, Biden brought back the legitimacy of the social state, which really surprised a lot of people. Public housing is back on the agenda, we haven’t had it on the agenda for 50 years.

A symptom of [his] success is that the Republicans have abandoned their classic neoliberal program to focus their agenda on anti-woke policies, attacking gender identity and defending Christianity and the family. The right in the United States is more fragmented than ever, it’s united only by one thing: hatred of liberals. That the left can’t figure out how to cash in on this is tragic.

Wendy Brown
Wendy Brown at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton.Pascal Perich

Q. Is the spectacularization of the political circus, seen in Washington in things as the looming shutdown of the government, or the impeachment of Joe Biden based on Hunter Biden, another symptom of the nihilistic condition?

A. I don’t think Biden will lose any voters over the impeachment, or his son, but it will keep The New York Times busy. One of the arguments about nihilism that I treat at some length in the book is that it’s not just the trivialization of values, but the trivialization of politics itself. Everything is politicized, but not in the big sense, it’s not politics as a matter of values and purpose and a cause. It’s a matter of what you eat or what kind of car you drive. There was a Times article this morning about how Americans have grown fed up with the wokeness of corporations. They probably have. I have. But the reason corporations did that was not because they’re actually woke, they did it because they thought they could sell stuff by branding it with political values. That’s part of the nihilistic degradation of politics.

Q. On Sunday, The New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthaut wrote that America has reached the “peak woke.” Do you agree?

A. Wokeness is a pan political thing. That is to say, it operates on the left and the right. Fundamentally, it’s about attitude. It’s all about how you speak, what you eat, how you present yourself, in terms of values, but actually it has no depth. And I think the idea that it has reached a peak would have to explain how we’re suddenly going to return to politics that has deeper purpose.

Q. What do you think about the rhetoric of extreme polarization in the United States?

A. In my view, polarization is a symptom of the nihilistic condition, rather than its root. When both facts and values become weak and truth is dethroned, polarization is inevitably going to be one of the results. You just believe what you want to believe, what makes you feel good.

Q. Where did all the good leaders go?

A. Politics has become very unattractive, because it’s very cruel. Social media has really changed it. Even if an academic in remote and quiet places like this publishes an editorial in The Washington Post or The New York Times, their email will just be flooded with hate for days or weeks. If that happens to academics who occasionally opine politically, imagine what the daily wage is for a political leader. I think this discourages many [good people] from pursuing the profession, or leads them to quickly abandon it.

Q. What’s the role of a public intellectual in this super aggressive environment?

A. Be a thoughtful analyst willing to lay out serious, honest positions about the world that we’re in now. This includes calling politicians to account, not currying favor with power.

Q. Let’s talk about climate change. Is eco-anxiety another form of nihilism?

A. The ecological crisis cannot be taken seriously enough. I don’t think apocalyptic thinking is out of place… but when apocalyptic thinking veers into hopelessness it becomes a problem. Right now, we have to take steps to address the crisis, as if it wasn’t hopeless.

Q. How and when did the right appropriate the idea of freedom?

A. Freedom has never not been weaponized. But one of the things that we’ve seen in the past 20 years is the right not only uses freedom to expand the rights of capital and property, but to expand the rights of white men and to do so through religious liberty. In the United States, religious liberty has been used by the right to push back against gains by women, sexual minorities, and racial minorities. It has become an entitlement, endorsed by our Supreme Court, to do everything from refusing to serve LGBTQ customers to rejecting secular education. And of course now it’s been used in our schools to eliminate sex and gender education, and education about our racial histories. Under the auspices of religious freedom, parental rights, and family rights are being deployed deeper and deeper into the secular civic realm. More generally, I would say freedom is also being used to reject the very idea of climate change and a rallying cry for the entitlement to just destroy the planet. So religious freedom, I would call it anti-ecological freedom and the freedom of capital together, have become very powerful weapons in the hands of the right. ¿The left? It’s on its back foot and doesn’t know what to do about it.

Q. What is your proposal for the left to change that?

A. Instead of being so reactive to everything the right says or does, the left needs to set out its own vision, including its own account of freedom. That vision must be broadly compelling, and not iterate grievance but a better, more livable world. We must develop language and stories of justice, ecological sustainability, and freedom that bring in those not already in our ranks, and that isn’t about checklists, scolding, and outrage. Leave the rancor and cruelty to the right — it will poison them soon enough because it’s almost all they have.

Q. What do you think of the criticism that liberals are too concerned with the problems of minorities and not with what the critics call the problems of “normal people”?

A. We could make our arguments for equality and freedom in the domains of sexuality, gender, race, and class in a different way than the one which appears to make these things about a small portion of the population. That is where neoliberalism has its way with the left, where we get caught up in these micro issues. That actually could be a macro issue; we could be making very expansive arguments about equality and freedom that resonated more broadly with everybody, rather than being seen as the party of identity.

Wendy Brown
Wendy Brown, photographed in front of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Pascal Perich

Q. Is the anti-intellectualism in American life — which was diagnosed by historian Richard Hofstadter — stronger than ever?

A. Yes and no. With social media, everyone thinks they’re an intellectual. I think the problem today is that “intellectualism” has become disconnected from knowledge and education.

Q. On that note, there has been a lot of discussion lately about nepotism and elite education in the United States…

A. This debate has brought up the honest truth about these schools: that it’s mostly about who you meet, who you hang out with, and how you’re credentialed. It’s not really about what you learn.

Q. What do you think of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn affirmative action in university admissions?

A. We can work around it. I mean, we knew it was coming. One of the problems with affirmative action was always that it was difficult to work class into the argument. It was initially introduced for both gender and race, [but] it’s increasingly just reduced to race. And it’s reduced to race without taking class into consideration. This is a big problem, in part due to the decline of public universities, which I’m a product of, and which is where all the genuine diversity really is and which educates 80% of American college students. They are neither as affordable nor as excellent as they were before neoliberalism had its way with them.

Q. If you follow the media, you’d think that American universities are cruel battlefields fighting over freedom of speech and academic freedom and identity politics — places where only cancel culture prevails. Is this really the case?

A. I mean, that was certainly not my experience at Berkeley. I think there are periodic eruptions… There are subcultures in some universities, [where some students] want certain truths preached in classrooms and on campus. But I don’t think this is as prevalent as the news would make it. Of course, there’s nothing newsworthy about going to a university and just finding people studying, or thinking about a problem in their field.

That being said, there’s a tendency — on both the left and right — to call out teachers for their views, or for the things they teach, or the texts they do or do not include in their curriculums. This has grown over the last 10 or 20 years. And it doesn’t help students learn or teachers teach. Though, I think it’s not the same when somebody says “you don’t have any Black writers on this list” or when an effort is made to call out inappropriate sexual conduct by faculty. The MeToo movement was an extremely important cleaning out of a certain generation and a certain set of practices in our universities.

Q. Could you be cancelled?

A. Anyone can be canceled. “Canceling” doesn’t really stick for the most part, it’s very temporary, unless the conduct is really egregious.

Q. Are students more empowered than ever?

A. Let me put it the reverse. I think faculty is more depowered than ever. What you see on campuses today is a lot of administrative power, and a lot of student voice. But I don’t think you see a lot of faculty governance. You don’t see a lot of faculty getting together trying to figure out what should our curriculum be, what should we be teaching, how should we approach the problem of wokeness on the left and the right, how should we manage political explosions. It’s the faculty that’s missing.

Q. In your latest book, you criticize how the boundaries between information and entertainment are diluted in nihilistic times.

A. The boundary between personal and public life disappears. Everything gets mixed up. And everything today — from politics to pedagogy — has to be entertaining. And to redress that, you would have to have teachers and politicians say, “that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to think, we’re here to learn.”

One of the reasons — after 40 years of teaching — that I thought “it’s probably time to wrap it up” is that I began to get student evaluations that would say, “you know, she’s a really great lecturer and the materials were good, but there’s nothing else going on. There’s no PowerPoint, there are no videos…” and I realized they wanted a three-ring circus. That’s what they were used to. They were used to splitting attention and a lot going on, a lot of lights and music. [But the] explosion is meant to happen inside your mind — not outside.

Q. What do you think about the angry white men who vote for Trump?

A. They feel angry in several ways. But fundamentally, they were dethroned by neoliberalism. Because their unions were busted. Their good jobs were sent south and east… They lost the capacity to be able to support their families or have dignity in their work. But are they angry at the right things? No, I don’t think so. I think they should be angry at big capital, but they’ve been pushed to be angry at Blacks and women and immigrants.

The most honest Trump phrase was when he said that he loved “the poorly-educated.” And once we’ve priced higher education out of reach for the working class and poor people, and we have an anti-intellectual movement coming from our right-wing party, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Q. You’re a feminist thinker who doesn’t write about feminism. Rather, you use feminism as a epistemology.

A. I wrote one book about feminism –—Manhood and Politics (1988). And feminism is a minor theme in most of my books, it’s just not the main theme. There are so many people writing about feminism, I’ll leave it to them.

Q. One of those people lives with you.

A. Maybe there’s a division of labor between Judith and me. But you know, feminism is always part of my thinking. When I analyze Trump, I’m not just thinking about his version of masculinity and why it’s appealing to the dethroned, unhappy, white male… I’m also thinking about how he’s appealing to white suburban female voters.

Q. In 2017, you and Butler were harassed by a group of women at the São Paulo airport. They called you “pedophiles” and “witches” for, among other things, supporting abortion rights. How did you feel about that incident?

A. It was a bit comical. We were at the airport and these women were yelling at us and hitting us with their signs and their purses. They had been trying to confront us for days, because we’d been at a public conference in São Paulo and then disappeared to Rio for some private academic workshops. They were very frustrated, because they couldn’t [get to us]. I don’t know how, but they found out we were at the airport when we were leaving Brazil. I found them a little ridiculous. Judith had it worse because her effigy had been burned in the street during the public conference.

I kept trying to talk to the protestors. We asked one: “But have you read the book you’re condemning?” [Butler’s Gender Trouble]. She replied: “No! I would never read it!” What can you say in response to that?

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