Trumped up and buried under the ashes of neoliberalism

Introduction

At the time of preparing this talk, January 2017, Donald Trump had just been elected the 45th president of the United States of America.    This talk is not really about the United States under the tutelage of the newly elected American President Donald Trump.  Rather this talk is more about how we arrived here: about the legacy of neoliberal policies that forged the trump card for the explosion of right wing populist movements and their victories across the advanced capitalist zone including in the United States.  As the vivid title of this talk makes clear, I am not arguing that we have moved to a post neoliberal order as of yet–although there are signs we may be in a bad transition out of the neoliberal epoch.  Alternatively, I will argue that we are living with the consequences of neoliberal institutions and policies: suffocating under the ashes of neoliberalism with Donald trump as the brightest burning coal at the top of the ash heap.

As most people know, to play the “trump card” in any game—political, economic or otherwise—confers a decisive advantage to the person who plays it given the right circumstances and timing.  The idiomatic expression “trumped up” refers to situation that has been manufactured to produce one set of outcomes while falsely claiming to produce another.  A trumped up criminal case is promulgated on phony evidence where the wrongly accused faces a criminal sanction while the broader public is misled to believe justice is being done.  There is close analogue here to the phrase gaslighting.  Much of neoliberalism, indeed an important explanation for its ideological spread was the initial promise of employment and renewed economic growth, i.e., what we might call the remedy to economic shame[i].  There is a sense in which neoliberalism is and was a scam and a manipulation of public morale: the difference today is most, including significant sections of the ruling classes admit this. They simply do not care because its all just a contemporary communications game.

If you are on the left it is easy, in this context, to simply be against Donald Trump and the sundry list of right wing populist movements and leaders. Who reading this post is for racism, sexism, xenophobia and soft and hard bigotries of all stripes?

Rather the problem for the putative left, particularly but not solely, its formal parliamentary forms; the Democratic Party in the United States, the New Labour Party in Britain and Australia, the Socialist party in France, the New Democratic Party in Canada, and the Sozialdemokratische Partei in Germany, for example, is to come to terms with what is now 40 years of their own internal drift to the right and their own hand in building the very neoliberal institutions which  created the conditions in which right wing populism and inequality flourish and left wing politics languishes.[ii]

In the above regard, it is my suspicion that it will be much harder for the institutionalized left to come to grips with the folly of neoliberalism than the right.  This is particularly so in the upper echelons of the progressive social structure (intellectuals, academics, politicians and the quasi woke citizenry).

Here is why.  For the right, neoliberalism was an internally motivated project, which sought to roll back, dismantle, and or fundamentally restructure the post World War II social order.   Neoliberalism was never about jobs, productivity, or economic growth for conservative elites: it was about a redistribution of power upwards.  In this regard, the adoption of neoliberalism did not require a conversion of ideological convictions as it did for the left. It was broad and important segments of the left which made the conversion:  It is the Clinton democrats, Tony Blair’s ‘new labour’, Gerhard Schröder’s ‘third’ way, and the legions of intellectuals and academics which made their own accommodations, and indeed in many cases who crafted neoliberal innovations that will have to do the hard work of soul searching, shame letting, and back tracking.

I am not very sanguine about the prospects of the aforementioned coming to pass for three reasons.  For one thing, most left accommodations to neoliberalism were made within the reality of a very constrained political economy characterized by high unemployment,fears of high inflation, and low economic growth and a concomitant ideological restructuring to the right.  For example, Tony Blair inherited Margaret Thatcher’s new United Kingdom, and Bill Clinton inherited Ronald Reagan’s “New Day in America.”  It would be impish to maintain that these were not real reconfigurations to the possibilities facing policy makers—left or right.

The second reason I am not optimistic about the chances of a volte-face on the part of the neoliberal left is quite simply that we are now almost two generations into the neoliberal epoch and easily one generation into its hegemony.  Educational attainment, political identities and careers have been formed and built within a neoliberal cognitive and material framework.  None of which is particularly easy (and in some cases possible) to walk away from.

Third, the left remains fractured between insiders and outsiders.  Because the political insiders on the left will not admit to the paucity of neoliberalism and the role they played in constructing the neoliberal order, the most vigorous and energized elements of the left remain largely outside formal political institutions and the broader public policy processes.  Indeed many insiders on the political left are still gaslighting the outsiders.  And if they are not merely sociopaths, its fairly hard for serial abusers to admit they have a problem…lotta shame needs to be overcome.

Moreover, it is by now blatantly apparent in American politics that the political process is over-determined by campaign and party financing—with the democrats still requiring that some professional politicians and administrators be the front for the donors and with Trump era republicans increasingly disposing of the political ‘middle men’ (sic) and opting instead to just put the donors in power. That is, within American politics it is increasingly the case that the Democrats and Republican parties do not merely represent different fractions within the haute bourgeoisie–they are the haute bourgeoisie.  There is, therefore, a toxic stasis on the European and North American left facing a dynamic, well funded, and popularly organized right.

Afterword to the introduction

It has been almost a year since I gave this talk and there is reason today to feel a bit more sanguine than one may have felt in the morning after Trump was inaugurated.   The British labour party had a major coup d’état with the victory of Corbyn. Equally positive has been the increasing traction of non normie style democrats.  Moreover, and I think more importantly, there are some positive signs that that the non parliamentary left is finally working through some of its major dysfunctions of which I will just touch on two below.

First, there are strong signs that the non parliamentary left intelligentsia is moving beyond the internecine, unproductive and self defeating debates of the naughties and teenies.  I think Trump’s election was a brutal wake-up call signalling that the prosaic and bitter debates of grad school educated lefties had become a waste of real resources.  Do not get me wrong, I think those debates had to be had, but they went beyond their best before date and ossified  into petty silos.  It was as if by sitting in grad school seminars and by standing giving grad lectures we were going to change something all on our own, as if the logical consistency of our interior ontological righteousness could alone change the world:  to be sure a much more meaningful exercise than Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium models, but often not much (there is a future post in this analogue, someone remind me of it).

Second, while we were busy, people like Jane McAlevey and countless others were actually being a part of helping communities organize.  Her title gets right at the problem, there are no shortcuts to the real work of organizing: there is no one big existential idea, no coupling of mobilizing and online communication hubs (often falsely called communities) for living in, and being a part of, organizing ourselves in the broader (as in not self selected) communities we live in.  Life has an unavoidable spatial context and real social complexity.  Organizing involves dealing with both.  I think the non parliamentary left is finally getting this.

[i]   See Arlie Russel Hochschild, “Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”, (2016), The new press.
[ii]  It remains to be seen if Jeremy Corbyn marks a shift in English politics.

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