FeatureLiberal Democracy in Question

The End of Progressive Neoliberalism

A chance to build a new, new left.

This article was originally published by Dissent on January 2nd 2017.

The election of Donald Trump represents one of a series of dramatic political uprisings that together signal a collapse of neoliberal hegemony. These uprisings include the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the rejection of the Renzi reforms in Italy, the Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic Party nomination in the United States, and rising support for the National Front in France, among others. Although they differ in ideology and goals, these electoral mutinies share a common target: all are rejections of corporate globalization, neoliberalism, and the political establishments that have promoted them. In every case, voters are saying “No!” to the lethal combination of austerity, free trade, predatory debt, and precarious, ill-paid work that characterize financialized capitalism today. Their votes are a response to the structural crisis of this form of capitalism, which first came into full view with the near meltdown of the global financial order in 2008.

Until recently, however, the chief response to the crisis was social protest — dramatic and lively, to be sure, but largely ephemeral. Political systems, by contrast, seemed relatively immune, still controlled by party functionaries and establishment elites, at least in powerful capitalist states like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Now, however, electoral shockwaves reverberate throughout the world, including in the citadels of global finance. Those who voted for Trump, like those who voted for Brexit and against the Italian reforms, have risen up against their political masters. Thumbing their noses at party establishments, they have repudiated the system that has eroded their living conditions for the last thirty years. The surprise is not that they have done so, but that it took them so long.

Nevertheless, Trump’s victory is not solely a revolt against global finance. What his voters rejected was not neoliberalism tout court, but progressive neoliberalism. This may sound to some like an oxymoron, but it is a real, if perverse, political alignment that holds the key to understanding the U.S. election results and perhaps some developments elsewhere too. In its U.S. form, progressive neoliberalism is an alliance of mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights), on the one side, and high-end “symbolic” and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood), on the other. In this alliance, progressive forces are effectively joined with the forces of cognitive capitalism, especially financialization. However unwittingly, the former lend their charisma to the latter. Ideals like diversity and empowerment, which could in principle serve different ends, now gloss policies that have devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class lives.

Progressive neoliberalism developed in the United States over the last three decades and was ratified with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. Clinton was the principal engineer and standard-bearer of the “New Democrats,” the U.S. equivalent of Tony Blair’s “New Labor.” In place of the New Deal coalition of unionized manufacturing workers, African-Americans, and the urban middle classes, he forged a new alliance of entrepreneurs, suburbanites, new social movements, and youth, all proclaiming their modern, progressive bona fides by embracing diversity, multiculturalism, and women’s rights. Even as it endorsed such progressive notions, the Clinton administration courted Wall Street. Turning the economy over to Goldman Sachs, it deregulated the banking system and negotiated the free-trade agreements that accelerated deindustrialization. What fell by the wayside was the Rust Belt — once the stronghold of New Deal social democracy, and now the region that delivered the electoral college to Donald Trump. That region, along with newer industrial centers in the South, took a major hit as runaway financialization unfolded over the course of the last two decades. Continued by his successors, including Barack Obama, Clinton’s policies degraded the living conditions of all working people, but especially those employed in industrial production. In short, Clintonism bears a heavy share of responsibility for the weakening of unions, the decline of real wages, the increasing precarity of work, and the rise of the two — earner family in place of the defunct family wage.

As that last point suggests, the assault on social security was glossed by a veneer of emancipatory charisma, borrowed from the new social movements. Throughout the years when manufacturing cratered, the country buzzed with talk of “diversity,” “empowerment,” and “non-discrimination.” Identifying “progress” with meritocracy instead of equality, these terms equated “emancipation” with the rise of a small elite of “talented” women, minorities, and gays in the winner-takes-all corporate hierarchy instead of with the latter’s abolition. These liberal-individualist understandings of “progress” gradually replaced the more expansive, anti-hierarchical, egalitarian, class-sensitive, anti-capitalist understandings of emancipation that had flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. As the New Left waned, its structural critique of capitalist society faded, and the country’s characteristic liberal-individualist mindset reasserted itself, imperceptibly shrinking the aspirations of “progressives” and self-proclaimed leftists. What sealed the deal, however, was the coincidence of this evolution with the rise of neoliberalism. A party bent on liberalizing the capitalist economy found its perfect mate in a meritocratic corporate feminism focused on “leaning in” and “cracking the glass ceiling.”

The result was a “progressive neoliberalism” that mixed together truncated ideals of emancipation and lethal forms of financialization. It was that mix that was rejected in toto by Trump’s voters. Prominent among those left behind in this brave new cosmopolitan world were industrial workers, to be sure, but also managers, small businessmen, and all who relied on industry in the Rust Belt and the South, as well as rural populations devastated by unemployment and drugs. For these populations, the injury of deindustrialization was compounded by the insult of progressive moralism, which routinely cast them as culturally backward. Rejecting globalization, Trump voters also repudiated the liberal cosmopolitanism identified with it. For some (though by no means all), it was a short step to blaming their worsening conditions on political correctness, people of color, immigrants, and Muslims. In their eyes, feminists and Wall Street were birds of a feather, perfectly united in the person of Hillary Clinton.

What made possible that conflation was the absence of any genuine left. Despite periodic outbursts such as Occupy Wall Street, which proved short-lived, there had been no sustained left presence in the United States for several decades. Nor was there in place any comprehensive left narrative that could link the legitimate grievances of Trump supporters with a fulsome critique of financialization, on the one hand, and with an anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-hierarchical vision of emancipation, on the other. Equally devastating, potential links between labor and new social movements were left to languish. Split off from one another, those indispensable poles of a viable left were miles apart, waiting to be counterposed as antithetical.

At least until the remarkable primary campaign of Bernie Sanders, who struggled to unite them after some prodding from Black Lives Matter. Exploding the reigning neoliberal commonsense, Sanders’s revolt was the parallel on the Democratic side to that of Trump. Even as Trump was upending the Republican establishment, Bernie came within a hair’s breadth of defeating Obama’s anointed successor, whose apparatchiks controlled every lever of power in the Democratic Party. Between them, Sanders and Trump galvanized a huge majority of American voters. But only Trump’s reactionary populism survived. While he easily routed his Republican rivals, including those favored by the big donors and party bosses, the Sanders insurrection was effectively checked by a far less democratic Democratic Party. By the time of the general election, the left alternative had been suppressed. What remained was the Hobson’s choice between reactionary populism and progressive neoliberalism. When the so-called left closed ranks with Hillary Clinton, the die was cast.

Nevertheless, and from this point on, this is a choice the left should refuse. Rather than accepting the terms presented to us by the political classes, which oppose emancipation to social protection, we should be working to redefine them by drawing on the vast and growing fund of social revulsion against the present order. Rather than siding with financialization-cum-emancipation against social protection, we should be building a new alliance of emancipation and social protection against financialization. In this project, which builds on that of Sanders, emancipation does not mean diversifying corporate hierarchy, but rather abolishing it. And prosperity does not mean rising share value or corporate profit, but the material prerequisites of a good life for all. This combination remains the only principled and winning response in the current conjuncture.

I, for one, shed no tears for the defeat of progressive neoliberalism. Certainly, there is much to fear from a racist, anti-immigrant, anti-ecological Trump administration. But we should mourn neither the implosion of neoliberal hegemony nor the shattering of Clintonism’s iron grip on the Democratic Party. Trump’s victory marked a defeat for the alliance of emancipation and financialization. But his presidency offers no resolution of the present crisis, no promise of a new regime, no secure hegemony. What we face, rather, is an interregnum, an open and unstable situation in which hearts and minds are up for grabs. In this situation, there is not only danger but also opportunity: the chance to build a new new left.

Whether that happens will depend in part on some serious soul-searching among the progressives who rallied to the Clinton campaign. They will need to drop the comforting but false myth that they lost to a “basket of deplorables” (racists, misogynists, Islamophobes, and homophobes) aided by Vladimir Putin and the FBI. They will need to acknowledge their own share of blame for sacrificing the cause of social protection, material well-being, and working-class dignity to faux understandings of emancipation in terms of meritocracy, diversity, and empowerment. They will need to think deeply about how we might transform the political economy of financialized capitalism, reviving Sanders’s catchphrase “democratic socialism” and figuring out what it might mean in the twenty-first century. They will need, above all, to reach out to the mass of Trump voters who are neither racists nor committed right-wingers, but themselves casualties of a “rigged system” who can and must be recruited to the anti-neoliberal project of a rejuvenated left.

This does not mean muting pressing concerns about racism or sexism. But it does mean showing how those longstanding historical oppressions find new expressions and grounds today, in financialized capitalism. Rebutting the false, zero-sum thinking that dominated the election campaign, we should link the harms suffered by women and people of color to those experienced by the many who voted for Trump. In that way, a revitalized left could lay the foundation for a powerful new coalition committed to fighting for all.

Nancy Fraser

  • michael

    this is a nearly hallucinatory version of history. one scarcely knows where to begin correcting the errors, misunderstandings, and outright falsehoods comprising it.

    let’s take just a couple. first, Fraser simply assumes, without argument or evidence, that across the landscape of representative democracies, political parties are functionally “masters” rather than vehicles for popular will, however compromised or distorted. but of course this undermines her central claim—that voters are “rejecting” their masters. how are they doing this? by voting for political parties! indeed, the GOP in the US is now the most powerful elected white supremacist, pro-business party in the world. quite a revolution against the masters this is!

    second, Fraser assigns extraordinary importance to the manufacturing sector. but here she gets almost everything wrong. industrial manufacturing began its long decline in the 70s, long before the forces she blames came on the scene. the voters she thinks were driven by the losses of manufacturing jobs had mostly never held such jobs (or never lost them), for the simple reason that they left long ago. even if they had, this group is a tiny minority that made an electoral difference in a few places because of the peculiar electoral system in the US; they do not in any way represent the prevailing public mood. and again, if they did, their vote could not be explained as an expression of that mood, since what they chose was positional superiority over minorities and the poor for which they are ostensibly willing to sacrifice they very things Fraser thinks they value.

    but this is not all. manufacturing has long since lost its symbolic value in US politics. and the economic policies Fraser disparages have not actually harmed it; on the contrary, US manufacturing is robust precisely because it relies primarily on automation rather than people. the manufacturing jobs exported abroad are hardly the necessary foundation of prosperity for workers; if the US still had a Rust Belt, the same people and the rest of us would be far worse off.

    I can (and am tempted to) go on, but Fraser’s analysis is so convoluted and misguided that there is little sense in following her down the rabbit hole. was there a “progressive neoliberalism”? that depends on whether neoliberalism is a coherent concept, which is still in doubt. and the revolt thesis still has to grapple with the rejection by the pro-business right of *its own* “neoliberal”genealogy. Ayn Rand has replaced F.A. Hayek as the touchstone for the contemporary GOP—and its religious, white, working class base. this, too began long before Clinton and the Third Way. conversely, but for a few technical—though absolutely decisive—details (the coronation of Clinton by the DNC; her strategy in the swing states; the EC; congressional gerrymandering), today we’d be talking about a sweeping popular rejection of right-wing ideology and the near-collapse of the GOP. indeed, we should be talking about it, since Trump lost the electorate by three million votes. how this can count as a revolt against the party masters is beyond comprehension.

    • simonmd341

      Indeed. This is a silly analysis by someone who obviously hasn’t studied her intellectual or economic history.

    • Pait

      I also find the article shocking. This faux-nouveau term “progressive neoliberalism” doesn’t seem to describe any meaningful political category – it’s just a jargony term of abuse for positions the author dislikes, and pretty much coincides with what everybody always described as plain old liberalism, perhaps of a whiggish bent.

      All in all it stops just short of celebrating the Manchurian Candidate’s victory – that would take one step further left, past Bernie, to meet the Wikileaks-Assange-Greenwald team.

      Anyway, it’s going to be a hard fight if democratic progressives and conservatives manage to get together to save the republic from the pit where the far-right and the far-left together threw it. If they don’t, there’s little hope for democracy; but at least we have the intellectual satisfaction of confirming that neither the left ever cared for democracy, nor the right for freedom. Which we all suspected, but hadn’t seen so clearly in writing.

    • It’s not important

      Progressive – a philosophy based on the Idea of Progress, which asserts that advancements in science, technology, economic development, and social organization are vital to the improvement of the human condition.

      Neoliberal – Belief that state intervention to encourage advancements in science, technology, economic development, and social organization will worsen economic performance.

      Progressive Neoliberals believe that advancements in science, technology, economic development, and social organization are vital to the improvement of the human condition, but they don’t want to pay for it.

  • Vince Carducci

    I have tremendous respect for Nancy and generally agree with her. In this case, while I agree with her analysis, I’m not so sure about her conclusion. Which is to say, yes perhaps the end of progressive neoliberalism (although not sure about the “progressive” part nor about the “end” part), but at this point it seems surely the opening of a door to something potentially much worse. I’m thinking specifically of Ken Wark’s Public Seminar piece on the two barbarisms. http://www.publicseminar.org/2015/12/stengers/#.WG_O9H3PoXg

    • Pait

      I understand the phrase “I have tremendous respect and while I agree with the analysis, I’m not sure about the conclusion” as a British-style academic understatement, a pre-tenure way of saying “their work has always been questionable but this is outright trash”. Well I’m not in the field so I won’t say anything about previous work that I’m not familiar with, but I do have tenure so I’ll say that this piece blaming liberals for the election is outright immoral.

      I dare speculate that its author may have voted against Hillary and is now trying to blame someone else for the catastrophe of which the anti-Clinton campaign is an accomplice.

  • laslanian

    My problem with this is this— is there really no such thing as racism and sexism that does not reduce to a class based expression of losing one’s job? Is there really one reason– the absence of a real left– that brought about Trump, that allowed neoliberal progressives to hijack the economy? Do you really think globalization is a result of one person’s policies? It seems to me that there are very real challenges in globalization, like how to you have a workforce that is not manufacturing based, that is global, with rights? I cannot answer the question because I am not an economist and to my mind, as much as I love Bernie, he did not answer it either.

  • COINTELPRO_MKULTRA

    Honest reflection on the ‘left’ and the task of adapting to our new political situation makes most people uncomfortable. This article evidently strikes a nerve. Great analysis!

    • Sara Hassani

      Agreed! This piece really neatly elaborates what’s struck me for some time, but that general audiences are perhaps not ready to hear. Fraser’s analysis implicates us and our struggles and many do not want to face up to the truth of a failed strategy. The sooner we acknowledge the problem, the sooner and better equipped we’ll be to fix it!

  • Sara Hassani

    Nail on the head! Fantastic read.

  • Kevin

    People voted for Trump not because they recognized the existence of a progressive neo-liberal cabal in the person of Hillary Clinton. They voted for Trump because they disliked Hillary so much–her personality, not her policies. They also voted for Trump because they actually enjoyed his coarse humor, barroom drunk style and juvenile rants. They admired his absolute indifference to how the Republican and Democratic party leaders, the educated liberal elite, the news media or anyone else thought of him. They have been conditioned by the very media Trump pretends to deplore to think of politics as a branch of show business or reality TV, and Trump was a certifiable star in this medium. They really don’t think Trump will actually do anything to alter the course of the economy, other than to try to make it even more favorable to capitalist corporations and entrepreneurs like himself to flourish in de-regulated joy. Witness his cabinet selections, not one of them with the least interest in the disenfranchised working class in the so-called Rust Belt. The people in states where the electoral college votes mattered did not vote for Trump because the economy has left them in the dust and they believed that he could lift them out of that dust, but because they enjoyed his boisterous, apparent immunity to any and all powers that be, other than himself–and because they did not like Hillary at all.

  • Nancy Fraser, my friend and colleague, seems to think that the major problem of our times still is neo-liberalism and therefore sees a silver lining in the election of Trump. I think this piece inadvertently reveals the problems of her position. The global threat of a new and challenging form of authoritarianism is downplayed. The threat of the triumph of irrationality is not confronted. The rise of xenophobia, racism, sexism and hyper-nationalism is viewed as a side show. Excessive financialization is certainly a problem, but it is not as much a consequence of the Clintons as she asserts. And I fear Hillary’s defeat was not an opportunity for progress, but a huge set back.

    • Heloisa Pait

      Fraser’s article illuminates the American Left’s bizarre reaction to the impeachment protest in Brazil, where millions fought for the reestablishment of the rule of law, free markets and government accountability. That recent process is a living proof of the value of anti-capitalist ideologies in cases when your own wages are not supporting a rogue regime.
      I wish the American people all the best in getting rid of the Trump administration before the damage to this great democracy is irreversible, but I understand you will have to count on the “extreme center” to do this most difficult and pressing job.

  • Daniel Wagnon

    The knee-jerk reactionary vitriol to what amounts to a blog-post is telling of either reactionary political ideologies or someone in need of a hug…. to Sum up the complaints – (1) please write a treatise re-justifying a Gramscian theory of Hegemony, (2) please write a treatise defining neoliberalism and the convergence with identity-politics, (3) please write a treatise on post-industrial political-economy — I find it a good cursory summary of what a forward thinking Marxist might write about the topic – by no means is it exhaustive, though then again that is to fall victim to a simple logical fallacy of conflation or false-equivalence – these are ruminations online, not in-depth, protracted, study – to expect the latter out of the former and then attack the author betrays my thoughts behind the first sentence I wrote

  • Charles Snyder

    Excellent analysis. Glad to see Nancy’s piece in this forum (in addition to Dissent). The failure to identify neoliberalism and its many instantiations continues to be an essential component of the irrationality driving the mainstream left, as many of the Comments here show.

  • Raphael

    I enjoyed Fraser’s article and I think she has been very coherent by reaffirming her criticism regarding the way feminism somehow embraced “neoliberalism” in some aspects. But there’s something I don’t understand: how can someone make a critique of capitalism only in very generic and abstract terms? For instance, she states that: “Continued by his successors, including Barack Obama, Clinton’s policies degraded the living conditions of all working people, but especially those employed in industrial production.” Well, I strongly disagree with that statement. First and foremost, Obama took power under very different conditions. I would like to hear from her what were the specific mistakes committed by Obama (or even Clinton) rather than blaming all for promoting, and here comes the generic formula, “neoliberalism” or “financialization.”

    I also disagree with her diagnosis of “the absence of any genuine left.” Obama’s farewell speech, just to go back to him, had plenty of references of a political and economic agenda for the left: reforming the tax code, improving health care, reducing the corrosive influence of money in politics and so on. Martin Wolf wrote a summary of his achievements for the US economy (including the poor and unemployed people) on the FT: https://www.ft.com/content/b5b764cc-d657-11e6-944b-e7eb37a6aa8e So, I would like her to address these achievements. She talks as if there were no regulatory responses following the subprime crisis (so, according to her, it doesn’t matter whether is Clinton or Obama, right?). What is the difference the Dodd–Frank Act makes? None?! Last, but not least, I would love to see her pointing out how to make things better or, to use her own terms, in what sense “a new alliance of emancipation and social protection against financialization” would work in real life.

    All in all, I’m very skeptical of the “let’s blame Wall Street” discourse. I understand Sanders had to do some of that since he’s a politician and it’s part of the game to pick some foes and show people you’ll stand with them against the enemy (a kind of Schmittian rhetoric is almost inevitable, specially when your opponent, namely, Trump, is doing that by blaming immigrants, China, or whatever). But we, as critical theorists, are supposed to be doing something different. She’s right calling Trump’s ideas “reactionary populism,” but I’m also afraid of left populism, so common – and not less damaging – back here in Latin America. An example of how Fraser gets closer to populist ideas is her suggestion of the election of the board of central banks (it appears in the answer she gives for the fifth question: http://kingsreview.co.uk/articles/crises-and-experimental-capitalism-an-interview-with-nancy-fraser/).

    Habermas wrote a great piece on the fall of the Wall where he calls for a “radical reformism” (What does socialism mean today?). I think he’s very accurate in stating that social integration must counter – without eliminating – systemic forms of integration based on money and power. In this sense, I rather prefer a social theory that is not committed (as Fraser’s notion of emancipation might be) to holistic conceptions.

  • Alex Bankuti

    There are some pretty good points in this article but it has a few flaws as well. I do agree with the notion that the American left has been neary non-existent during the last three decades. It is also true that democrats continued to pursue socially progressive policies while shifting away from economic progressivism in the wake of the Reagan and Gingrich “revolutions.” It is true as well that neoliberal economic policy has hurt white working and middle class Americas and many of these people resent the rapid social progress of the last couple of decades.

    I do think that the author places a bit too much of the blame for the Trump ascendency on the New Democrats and their “progressive neoliberalism.” Surely, the Republican party that used opposition to gay rights and abortion and immigration and the rest to get the white working class out to the polls. The truth is that the republucans have been courting the bigoted white guy crowd ever since the dems lost that bloc in the 60s.

    By aligning neoliberal politics with bigotry, the Republican Party was able to pass economic policy that harmed large parts of their constituency. However, with Trump, it’s the bigotry and fear that take center stage while neoliberalism gives ground in the face of protectionism.

    I can definitely see how Trump’s economic populism is a like a big stinking torpedo that could sink neoliberalism. However, I would take the “progressive neoliberalism” of Obama and Clinton over the “anti-authority authoritarianism” of Trump any day. Trump an unabashed authoritarian who used bigotry to get elected; he is also totally incompetent and believes every conspiracy theory he sees on cable news. He even goes on the Alex Jones show! Alex Jones believes extra dimensional beings control the government (which leads me to believe he took a bunch of acid and listened to Lateralus).

    Trump’s victory does disrupt the neoliberal order and may be better for the American left in the long run. However, right now there is more cause for fear of fascism that for celebration of the possible fall of neoliberalism.

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