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Digital Subscriptions > Boston Review > Economics After Neoliberalism (Summer 2019) > THE FALSE PROMISE OF ENLIGHTENMENT

THE FALSE PROMISE OF ENLIGHTENMENT

WE NEED METAPHORS to make sense of reality. But we are often unaware of how those metaphors can then dictate our reality. By defining our problems and challenges, the metaphors we choose to use inadvertently imply solutions. Three recent books, for example, paint a disturbing and dark vision of our present. By their telling, the worlds of data, finance, and law are like aquifers beneath our feet, an alternative geography of accumulation and extraction to which we are each bound by catheter-like lines. Handheld devices transmit our every experience for purposes of revenue creation while the rise and fall of pension funds and asset prices map our futures and those of our children and grandchildren.

If it gives you chills, it is supposed to. All three books are written as conscious interventions into what they see as an unacceptable state of affairs. We need to think carefully about the tales these books tell, but even more carefully about the remedies their metaphors propose.

The means of exit or opposition on offer, after all, are conditioned by the symbolic language they use to spook us.

FOR SHOSHANA ZUBOFF, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), the status quo is nothing short of pre-apocalyptic. Her book may be the most perfect specimen yet of a genre fated to expand: let us call it the social science horror-memoir. She folds subjective experiences of dread into projected scenarios of immiseration, collective disempowerment, and likely violence—an unavoidable conclusion except by treading a narrow path whose coordinates she concedes are hard to discern. David Wallace-Welles’s The Uninhabited Earth (2019) and Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s Climate Leviathan (2018) follows this model, as does David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends (2018).

In Zuboff’s case, the story begins with her family’s house burning down and her efforts to reconstruct a sense of home in its wake.

The death of her husband, to whom the book is dedicated, as well as her German editor, Frank Schirrmacher, also cast an understandably long shadow. Her 688-page book is often less analysis than gut-wrenching scream—a sometimes moving, often exasperating, attempt at mourning what she sees as a passing relationship to our innermost selves.

She implores us to fight the “coup from above” being staged by Google and other tech giants. The book is self-conscious agitprop, designed to “rekindle the sense of outrage and loss over what is being taken from us.” It resonates with the ash-sifting moment around the end of World War II, and there are analogies to the highly personal political interventions of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944), B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948), and Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Indeed, Zuboff likens herself to Arendt, plumbing the present to find the origins of a new threat which, like totalitarianism, is all-consuming but which takes the new forms of a “muted, sanitized tyranny.”

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Economics After Neoliberalism offers a powerful case for a new brand of economics—one focused on power and inequality and aimed at a more inclusive society. Three prominent economists—Suresh Naidu, Dani Rodrik, and Gabriel Zucman—lead off with a vision “for economic policy that stands as a genuine alternative to market fundamentalism.” Expanding on “the state of creative ferment” they describe, Boston Review has commissioned responses to their essay from economists, philosophers, political scientists, and policymakers across the political spectrum as well as new essays that challenge the current shape of markets and suggest more democratic alternatives. Lenore Palladino explores the misguided logic of shareholder primacy and points to more equitable approaches to corporate governance—such as employee ownership funds. Amy Kapczynski examines how the courts have developed a new, anti-democratic First Amendment that protects corporate speech at the expense of regulation designed to protect public health and safety. And Robert Manduca explores the importance of public discussion about economics by revisiting Chester Bowles's remarkable book, Tomorrow Without Fear, which explained Keynesian ideas to the public after World War II.