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The Uses and Limits of Anti-Neoliberalism

We live in the stories we tell, but no particular story is the whole story. Narratives can be true or false, but even when they are true one should expect them to be inadequate and incomplete. The same holds true of theories and conjectures. As Alfred North Whitehead once put it, the guiding maxim of good philosophy is, or should be, “Seek simplicity and distrust it.”[1] Without generalization we understand nothing, but every generalization glosses over something that may be either inconsequential or momentous. Theorists and storytellers alike need to have the practical wisdom to tell the difference, and the willingness to branch off into new directions if our words are fading out when we need them most.

There is a generalizing story circulating about the 2016 presidential election that is, I think, a clear example of how trust and suspicion not only can but must coexist whenever we reflect on events: call it “the anti-neoliberalism narrative.” The story goes like this: the establishments of both the Republican and Democratic parties have, for decades, been beholden to big business, especially big finance, among other special interests, and have functioned as an insider’s club, a mutual admiration society. As a result, they had completely lost touch with ordinary middle and working class Americans. Both the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns were “insurgencies” against these establishments; both represented a surge of “populism” against political, economic, and intellectual/technocratic “elites.” In the Republican Party, the elite was “the business wing” and a shrinking faction of foreign policy neoconservatives. In the Democratic Party, the elite was composed of professional-class neoliberals like the Clintons, who combined deference to the market with “lean-in” bourgeois feminism and “identity politics.”

By nominating Hillary Clinton and ignoring the democratic socialist / social democratic concerns of the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing, the Democratic Party sealed its fate in the presidential election. The electorate was in an angry mood, impatient with the status quo. Given the choice between two very unlikeable and unpopular candidates, voters (and disillusioned non-voters) made the race far closer than it had any right to be. While winning the popular vote, Trump siphoned off enough “rust belt working class white males” to give him an electoral edge in what should have been a blowout for Clinton. The election was the Democrats’ to lose, and if they wish to win again, they need to clear out the old guard and rebuild itself into the party of “ordinary Americans” once again. When the Democrats do this, they will regain the progressive-populist momentum that Barack Obama built in 2008 and then slowly but ineluctably abandoned.

In past contributions to Public Seminar, I have argued along similar lines.[2] Other contributors, most notably Nancy Fraser, have deepened and broadened this analysis into the claim that neoliberalism, a la Bill and Hillary Clinton and, however reluctantly, Barack Obama, has run its course and needs to occasion a turn to the Left, not just on social issues such as LGBT and minority rights, but on the bread-and-butter economic matters that account for the precarious state of the middle and working classes. A new “Left populism” is needed to counter Trump’s “Right populism.”

I still basically endorse this narrative. The Left needs to start making some noise, and the Democrats need to wake up (and clean house). And I am pleased to see Sanders and, to a lesser extent, Warren in the vanguard of opposition not only to the Trump administration and its frank authoritarianism, but to neoliberal DLC-Democratic “business as usual.” But the anti-neoliberalism narrative is incomplete, and distorts as much as it clarifies. It is not the whole story.

Trump’s victory is often framed, in the “end of neoliberalism” narrative, as a victory of “populism” over “elitism.” I am skeptical of this way of framing events. It assumes that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump represent two species of one genus — “populism”, and it evades the fact that Trump, and the bulk of his cabinet, are nothing if not members of an “elite.” The “Bernie and Trump are two sides of the same coin” conclusion is far too facile, despite the fact that both Sanders and Trump ran as “outsiders”.  A closer look at the noun “populism” reveals it to be in the same category of descriptive terms as “postmodernism” or “irony”: it is used in such an amorphous, broad-brushed manner as to be fairly useless, unless the speaker is willing to give it a precise sense-in-context. When one does this, I think that Trump and Sanders come off as representatives of two drastically different movements.

The political philosopher Jeffrey Stout, in Blessed Are the Organized[3], a chronicle of successful political organizing across the country, sharply distinguishes between “populism” and the “grassroots democracy” he champions in both its methods and its goals:

Both populism and grassroots democracy place power in the hands of ordinary people and encourage the flow of influence from the bottom of the social hierarchy upward. But populism, as I am using the term, treats “the people” as a relatively undifferentiated mass. It does without precisely defined constraints on ends and means; invests little time and energy in the ethical formation of participants; relies heavily on the scapegoating of alleged enemies; and attributes authority mainly, if not exclusively, to charismatic leaders. In all of these respects, it differs from grassroots democracy as practiced in the great reform movements of the past or in contemporary broad-based organizing. “Going rogue”, to use Sarah Palin’s expression, is very different from hammering out a disciplined, differentiated, bottom-up structure of authority. It is what happens when an undifferentiated, populist mass rigidifies its external boundary while abandoning its internal structures of normative constraint and democratically earned authority. (p. 231)

If we accept Stout’s definitions of “populism” and “grassroots democracy”, it is clear that Trump and his followers fall into the former category, and Sanders’s in the latter.[4] Trump is clearly governing as a “populist” in Stout’s sense: his executive order on immigration scapegoats Muslims as an “enemy without”, and his vindictive and insulting tweets against the judges who ruled the orders unconstitutional exemplify a contempt for “normative constraint” — they are the “enemy within.” The rule of law and the informal norms that govern democratic political discourse are consistently ignored in favor of an appeal to “the people”, understood as the “undifferentiated mass” of those who voted for Trump, and excluding all those who opposed him, Left, Right, and Center. “The People”, for Trump, speak in one voice, which is that of Trump himself and maybe Stephen Bannon. If this is “populism,” it is hard to see this as sharing anything substantial with the sort of grassroots political vision endorsed by Sanders, Warren, and the democratic Left, generally.

But perhaps “populism”, even as understood and criticized by Stout, is not quite an apt description of what Trump and his acolytes are up to. Josh Marshall has made a solid case that the unifying message of the Trump administration is less an endorsement of populism, under any interpretation, than it is of “an aggressive, zero-sum nationalism.” Populists, as the name would suggest, at least claim to look after the interests of the people, of politically equal citizens who have been on the receiving end of injustices by other citizens who may be formally equal to plain folk, but who through an unjust distribution of wealth, power, or status, are effectively unequal, with no actual, material political clout. While Trump has given rhetorical lip-service to populist themes, his agenda is focused not on the people but a people: an American Volk putatively abused by others, some domestic but mostly foreign. This explains, for Marshall, Trump’s walking back many of the promises he made to the electorate on domestic issues and the misrule of homegrown neoliberal (and neoconservative) “elites”:

You’ll notice that President Trump often talks about “workers” but it is almost always in the vein of protecting American workers from abuse by foreigners. Especially since Trump virtually never speaks about wages. And he never spoke about wealth inequality, financial security provided by programs like Medicare and Social Security, let alone worker protections or labor unions. . . The real theme is one Trump articulated in his National Prayer Breakfast speech: “We have to be tough. It’s time we’re going to be a little tough, folks. We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually. It’s not going to happen anymore. It’s not going to happen anymore”. . . We may say that Trump is flip-flopping or being hypocritical by embracing the individuals, policies, and priorities of the country’s financial elite, who he nationally campaigned against. Both are true in a way. But that does not tell us enough. The Trump message was about nationalism, power and aggression against the nations of the world who are “taking advantage of” us and laughing at us. That kind of aggression against outsiders, with their domestic counterparts, the “elites”, can overlap with economic concerns. [But] They’re quite distinct.

If we flesh-out Marshall’s analyses, I think we can understand a perplexing aspect of the burgeoning Trump regime. Aside from a protectionist attitude toward global trade, much of Trump’s economic agenda actually coincides with neoliberalism, both a la Bill Clinton (relaxation of regulations for the financial sector and pharmaceutical industries) or a la Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (massive tax cuts for the 1%, massive reduction in government benefits for the middle and working classes, open hostility toward unions). Trump is a plutocratic wolf in populistic sheep’s clothing, barking about neoliberal elites while instantiating their most noxious qualities. This leads me to wonder whether a moribund neoliberalism is the true center of what ails the United States of America as a nation.

I am not suggesting that neoliberalism is not a problem: it is an ideology that has been definitively clobbered by reality. But if its defeat was so salient in the minds of the “typical Trump voter” – whoever that is – then Trump’s absence of serious concern for wages, unions, affordable healthcare, widening inequality, and so on should have occasioned skepticism, if not disillusionment. Again, the contrast with the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party is stark. Yet while there does seem to be a rising tide of “buyer’s remorse” among some Trump voters, particularly the exurban white working class, Trumps hardcore disciples still seem to think his agenda is proceeding just fine. They remain happy campers, despite Trump’s embrace of Wall Street and other one-percenters. He may be a plutocrat, but he is their plutocrat.

I deliberately placed “typical Trump voter” above in scare quotes. All the journalistic and sociological cameras have panned in on rural Rust Belters: they clearly were the demographic that flipped the election to Trump. (Although to give “credit” where it is due, FBI director James Comey, the fecklessness of the DNC and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, simple racism, an insanely anachronistic Electoral College, and probably Vladimir Putin and his cyber-goons also deserve “honorable” mention as possible “flippers.”) Most hardcore Trump voters did not come from swing states, and most have a higher median income than those who voted for Hillary Clinton or did not vote at all.  Viewed thus, it would seem that for many of these voters forcing “establishment elites” to bend to the will of average American citizens was not the top priority. Perhaps their idea was not so much to smash the plutocracy as to get in on its action — at least by way of tax breaks for the more affluent among them and the spectral promise of a new and better job taken back from the Mexicans or Chinese for the less affluent. Perhaps the nationalistic aggressiveness of Trumpian rhetoric was the thing that seemed so attractive about Trump: his willingness to stir the pot of trouble, make enemies, and then WIN for a change! That Trump has stocked his cabinet with the very swamp creatures and vampire squids from Goldman Sachs et al. that he said he would throw into political exile is at best a minor concern. Nationalism trumps plutocracy every time. (No pun intended.)

If the chief problem with neoliberalism all along has been that it generates a plutocracy which can buy its way into the corridors of power and call all the shots, then except for the virulent nationalism Trumpism seems to be less a rejection of neoliberal economic policy than the continuation of its worst aspects by other means. Neoliberalism on acid, perhaps.

Trump’s radical, belligerent nationalism is thus not a bug, but a feature, and it is not as if jingoism and xenophobia have never been part of the lingua franca of the United States. Trump sold his followers not the economic steak but the quasi-religious sizzle of a “great” America, with greatness understood not as Nietzschean grandeur but as violent domination, as a vengeance born of resentment, the resentment of those who understand themselves as erstwhile losers in search of an easily-identifiable “other”, who, when found, will pay for it. Big league.

Let me conclude with two observations. First, words matter — naming matters. When we use common nouns like “populism” and “neoliberalism,” we draw inferential links between beliefs, perceptions, and practical skills that help us identify and re-identify that whereof we speak. But sometimes those links break, or slip, and we speak of things not quite meaning what we want to mean. I have tried to draw attention to the fact that common names like “populism” often seem to have a clear meaning, but are essentially and inevitably vague. Populism it can mean “power to the people”, but it can also mean “advance the cause of some people by excluding ‘the other’”. Whether one can correctly view Trump and Sanders as different manifestations of the same “populist” wave, or whether the “populist” name is valid for Sanders but not for Trump, is a matter that goes beyond mere lexicography: it demands, as Orwell might put it, making sure that what is meant is clearly expressed in speech rather than obscured by it. Wittgenstein spoke of the need to counter our tendency to be bewitched by language, with philosophy as the way one can escape its spell by getting clear about what we mean. Much of the analysis of the Trump phenomenon has been, I fear, bewitched by the very words we use to understand what happened — words like “populism.”

The same goes for “neoliberalism.” If what is wrong with neoliberalism is its clockwork exacerbation of inequality — economic, political, or social — then by all means criticize and oppose neoliberalism. But do so with the understanding that resisting inequality and domination is a game of whack-a-mole: domination’s head will pop up in different places at different times in different ways. Neoliberalism is one way of enabling irrational and unjust domination: there are many others. It was the keen insight of Marx that, for all his shortcomings as a political economist, the alienating domination and exploitation of capitalism was the main problem, liberal “civil society” being primarily an aftereffect. So too with neoliberalism. Perhaps what Trump’s and Bannon’s “economic nationalism” shares with the fading “(neo)liberal world order” of the WTO and IMF and the EU and the general reign of unconstrained capital is more important, and more lethal, than their differences.

Second, while I think Marx was basically right to note that life determines thought rather than the other way around, he was too quick to simply leave Hegel standing on his head. Thought, when it becomes entrenched in the practices and institutions of human day-to-day existence, takes on a life of its own. So while much more quantitative, demographic number-crunching work needs to be done on the election that hardly anyone saw coming, the qualitative work of figuring out and criticizing what Americans, as a nation, were thinking on November 9th last year is just as urgent. Why such a strong nationalist turn? Why did many who presume to be “populist” embrace a card-carrying member of the moneyed elite, an obvious and practiced demagogue and liar? Or was their populism just a pose? Were they scammed by Trump, or did they admire who he is and envy his position? Why did so many Trump enthusiasts presume economic and social life to be a zero-sum game, where every winner demands a loser? Is that even remotely plausible? Why the indifference to facts? To character? To sanity? What were we thinking?

These are questions that the mining of Big Data in polls and questionnaires can help us answer. But such analyses cannot answer this question by themselves. Culture is qualitative, and this election gestures toward a serious, possibly massive flaw in American political culture. I suspect there is a very deep qualitative problem haunting the American psyche, one manifested in the sort of heedless, acquisitive individualism epitomized by Fitzgerald’s characters Tom and Daisy Buchanan, who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made”. Maybe the United States is finally harvesting the bitter fruit of this entrenched “vast carelessness” right now. Maybe. It is hard to say.

Quoting the oracle, Socrates enjoined his listeners to “know themselves.” It is clear that Americans have lost that knowledge. It is equally clear that they had better return to that oracle and heed her advice, before the times darken further.


[1] The Concept of Nature (1919), Ch. VII, p. 143

[2] “Prisoners of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, 12/28/2015; “Circular Firing Squads”, 2/2/2016; “Walking the Walk: A Plea to Fellow Sanders Supporters”, 7/29/2016

[3] Princeton University Press, 2010

[4] A similar point is made by Jan-Werner Müller — i.e., that “populism” can be differentiated from other movements critical of economic and professional elites by its principled rejection of pluralism, and its need to exclude those not deemed morally representative of “the people”. See What is Populism? (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

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