From Wendy Brown, “Neoliberalism and the End of Democracy” (pdf) in Edgework. This, I hope, will clarify what I am talking about with personal branding and the neoliberal subject. Once these are connected, it paves the way to a broader point I’m trying to argue: that social media is part of the project of establishing neoliberal subjectivity. Facebook, in other words, is an emerging institution whose function (while seeming open-ended and eminently flexible, as the film The Social Network emphasizes — “We don’t know what it’s for, it’s just cool”) is to ground the neoliberal subject, supply it a field where it can be naturalized.
Brown attempts to pin down a definition of neoliberal political rationality — that is to say, how neoliberalism works in practice and manages to justify itself in democratic societies despite producing manifest inequality. The neoliberal state exists only to generate economic growth, and subjects of such state must adapt to suit that goal, adopting individual entrepreneurial goals and values themselves.
First, Brown’s overall point: “Neoliberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy; it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action, even as the market itself remains a distinctive player.” The assumption that market values or economic rationality yield truth or justice or efficiency is exported into other spheres of social life to organize them, to tell the truth about them. Things that aren’t conformable to economistic thinking don’t exist — they must be reshaped to become visible, processable by that type of rationality. Thus, incentives are said to be “everywhere,” and all human behavior is held to be comprehensible by analyzing them. The analytical tool (economic rationality) posits the content suitable to it, gives it recognized being. Everything else disappears.
Brown puts it this way:
Not only is the human being configured exhaustively as homo oeconomicus, but all dimensions of human life are cast in terms of a market rationality. While this entails submitting every action and policy to considerations of profitability, equally important is the production of all human and institutional action as rational entrepreneurial action, conducted according to a calculus of utility, benefit, or satisfaction against a microeconomic grid of scarcity, supply and
demand, and moral value-neutrality. Neoliberalism does not simply assume that all aspects of social, cultural, and political life can be reduced to such a calculus; rather, it develops institutional practices and rewards for enacting this vision. That is, through discourse and policy promulgating its criteria, neoliberalism produces rational actors and imposes a market rationale for decision making in all spheres. Importantly, then, neoliberalism involves a normative rather than ontological claim about the pervasiveness of economic rationality and it advocates the institution building, policies, and discourse development appropriate to such a claim. Neoliberalism is a constructivist project: it does not presume the ontological givenness of a thoroughgoing economic rationality for all domains of society but rather takes as its task the development, dissemination, and institutionalization of such a rationality.
Social media has become one of those institutional practices, with its own set of rewards for reinforcing that sort of subjectivity (my bold above). Brown emphasizes that a subject driven exclusively by profit motive in all things must be constructed; such a subject is not simply given automatically by human nature. Social media assists the neoliberal project by making the development of a personal brand seem second nature. Reciprocal self-promotion seems like the inherent content of social interaction.
Brown describes the consequences of neoliberalism (and its elimination of social safety nets) for its subjects, who must assume full responsibility for outcomes despite unequal resources and opportunities. These new neoliberalist subjects reject collective action in favor of self-aggrandizing consumerism.
The extension of economic rationality to formerly noneconomic domains and institutions reaches individual conduct, or, more precisely, prescribes the citizen-subject of a neoliberal order. Whereas classical liberalism articulated a distinction, and at times even a tension, among the criteria for individual moral, associational, and economic actions (hence the striking differences in tone, subject matter, and even prescriptions between Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and his Theory of Moral Sentiments), neoliberalism normatively constructs and interpellates individuals as entrepreneurial actors in every sphere of life. It figures individuals as rational, calculating creatures whose moral autonomy is measured by their capacity for “self-care” — the ability to provide for their own needs and service their own ambitions. In making the individual fully responsible for her- or himself, neoliberalism equates moral responsibility with rational action; it erases the discrepancy between economic and moral behavior by configuring morality entirely as a matter of rational deliberation about costs, benefits, and consequences. But in so doing, it carries responsibility for the self to new heights: the rationally calculating individual bears full responsibility for the consequences of his or her action no matter how severe the constraints on this action—for example, lack of skills, education, and child care in a period of high unemployment and limited welfare benefits. Correspondingly, a “mismanaged life,” the neoliberal appellation for failure to navigate impediments to prosperity, becomes a new mode of depoliticizing social and economic powers and at the same time reduces political citizenship to an unprecedented degree of passivity and political complacency. The model neoliberal citizen is one who strategizes for her- or himself among various social, political, and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options. A fully realized neoliberal citizenry would be the opposite of public-minded; indeed, it would barely exist as a public. The body politic ceases to be a body but is rather a group of individual entrepreneurs and consumers … which is, of course, exactly how voters are addressed in most American campaign discourse.
It’s also how Facebook addresses its users, a bunch of isolated nodes connected by its graces and its software, all competing for one another’s attention and approval, urged perpetually to up the stakes of their sharing by Facebook’s algorithms, which determine whether their content will surface widely and reap the sought-after recognition. The bolded part above pertains to Facebook’s success in encouraging us to “connect” on its commercial terms. Facebook has been credited with facilitating revolutions in the Middle East, allowing for groups to organize and communicate, but it’s possible that it only serves that role in a crisis, through a subversion of its implied intended use of multiplying commercial communication, by people who by and large don’t constitute the audience being sold to advertisers and marketers. The revolutionaries more or less freeload on the networks enabled by social media companies, with those companies possibly assuming that with greater freedom for protester/users will come greater chances for social media to harvest their activities commercially. Facebook is a transnational sort of neoliberal state — a idealization of the actual neoliberal states, which are burdened with legacy welfare obligations — whose citizenry need only fulfill the minimum requirements of working for free and scheming to be relevant.