This post will necessarily be quite long, so I’m hiding most of it behind a break. If you don’t like longer posts, you should skip this one.
In recent years, there’s been a curious rhetorical move developed by prominent neoliberals: the pretense that they don’t understand the term “neoliberal,” the pose that they literally don’t understand what the term means when leftist critics use it. I’ll be upfront: I think that this is a dodge, an act. I don’t believe that there’s a single neoliberal political mind that has ever actually been ignorant of how we mean the term when we use it. I think it’s a part of a neoliberal tactic to marginalize and silence leftist dissent, which I’ll get to later. Neoliberalism is no more vague, complicated, or ill-defined than any other conventional political ideologies, which are by nature shaggy beasts. But since I keep hearing this claim, I thought, hey, let’s define.
There are lots of consequences and complications that stem from its basic definition, as there are with any political ideology. But the fundamental meachanisms aren’t complicated. To put it simply, neoliberalism is the pursuit of traditionally liberal ends through traditionally conservative means, with the important corollary that when faced with a conflict between those liberal ends and those conservative means, neoliberals will always choose the means. In practice, this means that neoliberals prefer redistributive economic justice, but only insofar as it is achieved through “market” mechanisms. So let’s posit that traditional leftists and neoliberals both want better living conditions for the working class. A traditional leftist pushes for worker organization and collective bargaining, which enables them to secure their own best interests, such as higher wages and better benefits. Additionally, traditional leftists push for legal protections in the workplace against predatory employers and in favor of fair, equitable, safe, and clean working conditions. In contrast, neoliberals hope to advance the conditions of those same workers by making conditions better for employers, by dismantling regulation, lowering tax burdens, and facilitating growth. Economic growth, then, will “raise all boats,” raising worker wages and allowing them to buy iPhones, soda, and sneakers. Both traditional leftists and neoliberals tend to favor redistributive social programs, although the correct degree of redistribution and the programs that achieve it are subject to contentious debate.
The essential point, of course, is that neoliberals supports establishment power– corporations, financiers, and the wealthy– while traditional leftism opposes it.
There are a few important realities to understand. First, neoliberalism is the West’s dominant policy platform, and has essentially been so for 30 years. Democrats and Republicans differ greatly on both social issues and on the necessity of redistributive social programs, and these are hugely important distinctions, but on the question of dismantling the regulatory state and worker protections, there’s been remarkable continuity since the Reaganite-Thatcherite turn. The reason for this success with elites is straightforward. Neoliberalism provides intellectual cover for economic policies that benefit the wealthiest and most powerful. The wealthiest and most powerful control our policy apparatus.
Despite this success with elites, neoliberalism has been a profound political failure. By that I mean that neoliberalism has failed to develop an enduring political consistency among voters. The ideology is very much one of the elite, political writers and thinkers and philosophers, people who work at think tanks, “wonks,” etc. It’s an affluent constituency. Indeed, this is one of the major intellectual failures of the ideology: it is made up almost exclusively of those who will never suffer due to the trade offs that it prefers. The political bloggers who advocate neoliberalism don’t work in factories (and may never have met anyone who does), so it is very easy for them to call for, say, dismantling work place safety protections. When your own workplace involves nothing more dangerous than a Macbook, such protections seem antiquated. When you never have to change in a workplace locker room, your interest in preserving labor laws that provide workers with a way to confront sexual assault or its threat is muted. When there is no chance of your boss insisting that you work hours you will not be compensated for, or be fired, you don’t see the need for unions. Etc.
Why has neoliberalism failed to resonate with those outside of the educated political elite? Because it turns out that people don’t want to be wards of the state. They want self-determination, meaningful work, and the confidence that comes from knowing you have power to secure your own interests. This is the failure of pity charity liberalism. Even in its purely theoretical form, neoliberalism has little to offer workers beyond the promise of higher monetary compensation. (You sometimes hear neoliberals say that full employment will give workers the ability to quit if their work life becomes untenable, but of course we have observed systematic exploitation of labor even in times of full employment.) Because of this, neoliberals constantly advance a “currency exchange uber alles” mentality, a philosophy dependent on the notion that there are essentially no human goods other than economic goods. This is what compels neoliberals to look for “markets in everything,” to reduce every aspect of human welfare to monetary terms, and to insist that GDP and growth are the only meaningful metrics of human flourishing. But people want more, as well they should.
Consider a middle aged worker living in a factory town in the suburbs of Cincinnati. You were able to work at a local plant and provide more for your family than your own parents were able to provide for you. Thanks to a powerful union, the conditions at your plant were safe, mechanisms were in place to redress grievances, and you earned a living wage. The local community flourished. The neoliberal policy apparatus pushed to remove any structural incentive for corporations to keep the plant going. It closed. Now you are forced to consider shitty jobs with bad benefits, no chance of union representation, and no security of any kind. There are no pensions, only 401(k)s that are subject to the vicissitudes of the market. Your children are unable to find work. The local community has been devastated. For your town, the result has been nothing but bad. Yes, as the neoliberals constantly remind us, you can buy an iPhone if you can afford one. But these material goods do nothing to make you more feel more secure or fulfilled, and don’t help in a culture that (for good or ill) associates a meaningful life with meaningful work.
Neoliberals not only refuse to recognize the human tragedy of all of this, referring to it as “creative destruction” and the necessity of capitalism. (Note, again, that as they are employed at magazines, think tanks, and universities, and thus don’t live with the consequences of these changes, creative destruction is an entirely academic concept.) They not only refuse to define costs and benefits in any terms but monetary ones, and thus pointedly ignore your suffering. They actually insult you for thinking that the situation sucks. They call you fundamentally irrational, nativist, populist, and probably racist. Openly. This is the fundamental political dynamic of our time: working and middle class people have had their working conditions systematically destroyed, and in the face of this, neoliberal elites have reacted with callous disregard. This failure to respond to genuine need has opened up space for conservative ideologues to play on their insecurities and resentments, leading to a political nightmare that makes liberal governance impossible. I don’t excuse the ruinous decisions of those who have turned to the GOP out of feelings of desperation and anger, but you simply cannot understand the dominance of conservatism and the rise of the Tea Party without understanding the failure of neoliberal policy elites to respond to real economic devastation.
(Why can’t we get the appropriate Keynesian countercyclical response to the current depression? We don’t have a political constituency that can fight elite resistance to such a response.)
For all of these reasons, for conservatives neoliberals are the ultimate useful idiots: they support deregulation and attacks on workers’ rights, which also enjoy conservative support, while their redistributive preferences are easily defeated. Liberalism and leftism face long odds under the best of times: the rich and corporations get what they want by default. By lending their political efforts to both the conservative preference for laissez faire economics, which enjoys the support of reactionary power, and to the liberal preference for redistributive social programs, neoliberals essentially ensure that they will get the former and not the latter.
I find it totally uncontroversial to say that in recent decade efforts to deregulate, globalize, and attack the power of labor have been vastly more successful than efforts to expand the social welfare state. There is this notion of a neoliberal grand bargain, wherein corporations and the financial class get the continued dismantling of worker protections and the lower classes get more wealth redistributed to them. I wouldn’t support such a bargain anyway, as I believe in worker power and self-determination. But ultimately it’s irrelevant; what neoliberals have achieved is the widespread dismantling of worker protections without a proportionate expansion of the welfare state.
Consider PPACA. (Obamacare.) While a compromise, and not sufficient, it’s an incredibly important and necessary bill, and the record will show that I argued for it vociferously when it was under debate. But consider the conditions. You’re talking about a unique political moment, with a new party and president replacing a deeply unpopular president, where the president’s party controlled both houses of Congress and where the president had run on an explicit promise of passing health care reform. Despite all of that, a watered-down compromise bill passed by only the thinnest of margins. The law remains in considerable jeopardy, from both judicial and legislative threat. (Again, a problem with pity-charity liberalism: it ensures that the material conditions of the lower classes will be subject to the whims of a cyclical political system.) Is that, truly, the best that can be hoped for, when we have bargained away so much of the regulatory state? It amazes me, the plainly self-aggrandizing way in which neoliberals speak about their project, when you look at the acres of failure that the project has wrought.
This speaks to a simple reality: neoliberalism is immune to reality. Neoliberals have dominated the economic policy apparatus of the West for three decades. I could point out that the rise of neoliberalism in the early 80s tracks stagnant wages and spiraling inequality almost perfectly. Or just look at where we are. Look at the uncertainty, the loss, the human devastation. The US government, the leadership of the European Union, the IMF, the World Bank– each has unequivocally embraced the neoliberal platform. Our conditions are what they are. But the discourse remains one that assumes the superior seriousness of neoliberals. My alternative is driven by strong unions, powerful protections for workers, a robust regulatory regime, large-scale redistribution of wealth, nationalization of the banking system, socialized health care, and strict checks on the power of corporations and the wealthiest, up to and including tax rates that essentially cap the resources an individual can control. To suggest such an alternative does not invite just disagreement but contempt.
And that leads to my final point, which is that neoliberals argue with those on their left solely through an idiom of disrespect. This is not an intrinsic part of the ideology, but I suppose an enculturated artifact of those who are most prominent within neoliberal circles. I have argued with neoliberals for my entire adult life. I can count on two hands the number of times that my interlocutors engaged without snark, dismissal, or sarcasm. Consider, again, the pose that a neoliberal doesn’t know what neoliberalism is. Typically, this pretense is dropped as soon as they meet with an actual response, and they reveal that they never really cared in the first place. The typical neoliberal argues against both conservatives and leftists, but he reserves his contempt for the latter. We are not met just with derision but with the bullying insistence that there is no alternative. We are consigned to political nonexistence.
We are all of us living in the shadow of a terrible financial crisis, one which was unambiguously the fault of the wealthiest and one which has wrecked economic devastation on the bottom. To spend political capital complaining about interior decorator licensing in such a context is obscene. Now is the time to speak the clear truth, which is that for America to be the nation that we want, we have to make things for those at the top worse. They can afford it. Perhaps that’s the greatest sin of all of it: the notion that what’s good for the wealthiest is good for the poorest. If we derive any wisdom from this terrible crisis, let’s start by acknowledging the obvious: that different classes are in fact natural antagonists, that sometimes we need to support one against the other, and that when those on top have too much power and too much money, it has to be clawed back, by the people, in a way that some won’t like. No more lies about rising tides, but instead the reality of class conflict.
Are we going to get that? Probably not; the rich and powerful tend to get what they want, and they can ensure that the always have pet philosophers, ready to defend their interests with the pretense of humanitarianism. And so much the worse for us.