Daniel Monk on the Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism

The coeditor, with Mike Davis, of the essay collection Evil Paradises, now out in paperback.

Daniel Bertrand Monk, right
From Dubai to Beijing to Sao Paolo, the world's wealth is concentrated in the hands of an ever tinier global elite, and this elite is reshaping its environment in extraordinary ways. Underwater hotels, mile-high skyscrapers, nation-sized hunting preserves - each day brings a new, more insane project, often relying on the labour of minimum-wage workers "liberated" into desperate poverty by the very same free market reforms that anointed this glittering plutocracy. In Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk bring together essays on this fascinating and under-reported topic by a global team of contributors, from science fiction writer China Mieville to theorist Timothy Mitchell.

Dazed Digital: What was the initial inspiration for this project?

Daniel Bertrand Monk: Mike and I taught a course together called Socialism in the City. We analysed a lot of nineteenth century utopian projects, like Owen’s New Lanark community or James Silk Buckingham’s Victoria, which people have come to see as emanations of an emerging bourgeois order rather than true workers’ paradises, often advancing the very same dynamics of the capitalist metropolis that they were supposed to ameliorate.

DD: But surely the enclaves you write about in your book make no pretence of ameliorating anything for anyone but the very rich.
DM: Yes, and that disparity is exactly why this book was necessary. If liberal political thought used to see capitalism as a kind of necessary evil, the worst effects of which had to be mitigated, today’s neoliberal ideology sees the market as an ethical end in itself. In that respect the plutocracy of this planet is telling us a lot about the trajectory of human existence.

DD: What else are they telling us?
DM: We think they’re already separating themselves from the rest of the planet in anticipation of a big catastrophe. That’s what paradise is for them. They’re recreating the world inside high walls, believing that everything outside those walls is soon going to be virtually uninhabitable. So phenomena like those artificial archipelagos in Dubai in the shape of the continents, or Ted Turner’s hunting parks the size of Patagonia, those are not merely playful – at a deeper level they’re ciphers of how the elites see the future.

DD: And yet if there really was some environmental or social catastrophe, these enclaves might be doomed.
DM: Of course, it’s all terribly fragile. But this is not a calculated rational class strategy - we’re not talking about some calculating nefarious scheme in which Warren Buffett and 17 other billionaires have said “Let’s remove ourselves from humanity”. This is the plutocracy’s flight into pure fantasy. And this is the principal argument of the book: that we can't follow them there. In some ways it’s an interesting echo of an old colonial order, where you had imperial visitors establishing completely imagineered environments for themselves in other parts of the world. If you go to Jerusalem, for instance, and look at the 19th century architecture, there’s a Cambridge college court, there’s a Bavarian monastery, there’s an Italian compound. It’s the same paradigm.

DD: You write a lot about the fears and desires of the rich, but of course none of these people will give interviews, so you can only make deductions from what they build for themselves. It sounds like a sort of architectural psychoanalysis.
DM: Actually, we’re not that interested in individual motivations. Ted Turner, for instance, is a member of a category of human beings. So a more productive analogy might be zoology. It’s as if we’re looking at elephant spoor.

DD: As an academic, that must be an interesting change of approach.
DM: Well, Mike and I have both been very much influenced by the Frankfurt School. They believed that the most effective access to the deepest and most serious historical processes comes from what might appear to be epiphenomenal surface expressions. So you have Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, or you have Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, in which he wrote short essays about concrete experiences that we all have – when someone kisses you on the cheek and doesn’t quite touch the cheek – and turns that into a deeper philosophical reflection. You take hold of some loose yarn and you pull and pull and pull and soon you’ve unravelled the entire sweater of historical circumstances.

DD: It’s a shame that Adorno is so rarely read today.
DM: Yes, but he’s very much a philosopher who cannot be assimilated in a facile way into current scholarship. His work does not lend itself to instrumentalisation, so really the fact that he does not have an afterlife is a great tribute, and he would have recognised that.

DD: I’ve got a column in the October issue of Dazed & Confused about Dubai and all its mad excess; it seems to me to be one of the biggest stories in the world right now, and yet we read so little about it. Why have I never read, for instance, a New Yorker profile of Sheikh Mohammed?
DM: Implicit in your question is that if the truth were made known, there would be a sort of call to action. But if that New Yorker piece were written, what do you imagine would really change? The truth is already known, and there is a tremendous social, political and economic incentive in our society to disregard it.

DD: What do you mean?
DM: Let’s use the academy as a microcosm. In the academy today, you’re far better off if you don’t discuss Adorno but rather Foucault or Habermas. It’s a self-reinforcing network with tangible rewards. You’re driven to think “Yes, this is all true, let’s go on with business as usual,” and if you try to rage against the machine you automatically get put into the social category of those who rage against the machine. It reminds me of those people I see when I go out on a Saturday morning in my car who stand on the street protesting the war in Iraq. They’ve got all the good will in the world, but they’re just proclaiming their impotence.

DD: In a recent interview, Naomi Klein says she’s disappointed that there’s been no “ballsy, unapologetic, ‘We have to go after the fat cats’ type of discourse” from Obama and the Democrats. Do you think she’s right?
DM: This connects with my previous point. I don’t think that would win an election. In the United States, historically, we have no evidence that people identify with their own class interests. In this country, to suggest that the poor should recognise their stake in the question of inequality is to tell them to abandon all hope of getting rich. Also, poverty in our country is racialised much more than it is in the UK, so sometimes identifying with poverty means identifying with another race. That won’t have legs in the US at all, until perhaps 2042, when white Americans will be members of a plurality not a majority.

DD: What are you working on now?
DM: I’m writing a book called The Era of Euphoria about the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War.

DD: Are there any plans with Mike Davis for a sequel to Evil Paradises?
DM: Mike and I are both runners. So we joke about doing a book called Dangerous Runs, where we go to dangerous places and run in them and write a travelogue. I’m going to make a strong pitch for that!

Evil Paradises is out now in paperback.

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