Trumped up and buried under the ashes of neoliberalism


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.

Policies that make you

I went to a party last night and I realized the remnants of Canadian social democracy brought up a generation of refugee children who came here throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and who are from the Horn of Africa and who are A M A Z I N G, sassy, strategic, progressive, funny and insightful. Now that our little H of A community has come of age I especially want to say “All praises to the young Idil. Toronto, you did all right”.

Straddling the gap between charity and social justice, lost lives, and a changing immigration system bent on penalizing social citizenship and rewarding cold hard cash, last night’s party also reminded me that remnants of Canadian social democracy also gave us Baby Blue Sound Crew (Sean Paul and Lil X) plus Kardinal Offishall and Jully Black.

“Beyond their shared talents, what these names have in common is a little-known initiative of Ontario’s NDP government: a program called Fresh Arts. Fresh Arts was developed under the umbrella of JobsOntario Youth, part of the larger JobsOntario training and employment program the NDP government introduced to address the labour market fallout of the early ’90s recession.

Fresh Arts attracted young people of colour from areas the city now designates as “priority neighbourhoods.” Then, like today, these neighbourhoods were characterized by large immigrant populations, racialized poverty and high unemployment — most strikingly, youth unemployment.

[…]Yet, like other efforts to address systemic racism […](such as the Anti-Racism Secretariat), Fresh Arts fell victim to Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution. Harris ended JobsOntario Youth, and with it, Fresh Arts.”–remixing-urban-education

Institutions make and break us. But sometimes the remnants of once ambitious institutions can make us, long after the real thing has departed the scene.

But all the same let us banish all talk of gravy trains and a common sense revolution. There is sense in the commons, but to know it means we have got to get down with the commons, not atomize it into a million seemingly fragmented pieces.

Hopeful news

Paul Krugman is now debating the flank to the left of him with quasi seriousness and respect. Might not seem like much but actually in the context of the last 20 years of mainstream economic debate a fairly remarkable and somewhat hopeful sign. I have long argued that mainstream reform liberals will have little success unless they bring those to the left of them into the respectable conversation.

Social democrats need to take social democracy seriously Part I

I was just inspired by Marc Lee over a the PEF to deliver an overdue promise. Here is the background.

Originally posted on February 17, 2010

Part I

It is not exactly a secret that social democracy, at least in North America, has fallen on hard times. Any honest assessment of the NDPs platform reveals a grab-bag of for better or worse ideas. The problem is that it lacks not only a coherent animating vision but a realistic appraisal of the state of things. It lacks a certain pragmatism but not for the reasons commonly adduced. Indeed, usually realism and pragmatism are invoked to urge social democratic parties to make an accommodation with the existing politics and economics of the time. Yet, Tony Blair’s “there is no alternative,” or Schroeder’s third way social democracy are by now thoroughly discredited political exercises.

But what went wrong? Curiously, there is not any end of analyses which argued that in the case of New Labour it was too accommodative; too willing to make its peace with the political economy of neoliberalism. How then could such a political program of pragmatism now be so out of sorts with the reality of today? Ironically, part of the answer is that it is precisely because New Labour sought accommodation with neoliberalism that it was bound to fail. In very real sense it was indeed too pragmatic. What new labour failed to do was develop a clear headed vision that was not merely based on an acceptance of the status quo. Politically this may have been a symptom of the times. But what North American social democrats and Canadian social democrats in particular need to take stock of is the abysmal failure that was the pragmatism of New Labour without engaging in reckless magical thinking.

This magical thinking has taken two central forms. On the one hand it has manifest in a benign or malignant romanticism of the thirty glorious years or the golden age of the Keynesian welfare state. Let us skip over the debate about how glorious these thirty years actually were. The idea is that what social democrats ought to be advocating is a return to the universal bureaucratic welfare state of a by-gone age. Why on earth would social democrats hold this up as a model? Even beyond the fact that today there is simply not the type of social and political cohesion available to make this work in terms of tax policy why would social democrats hold up the high modernist, top down, bureaucratic welfare state as the solution to the contemporary anarchy of the market? Take welfare policy for example. And here I do not mean to denigrate or trivialize the compassion of welfare workers but the fact is there are humanist limits to what large bureaucracies can process. And yes that is what welfare bureaucrats do: they process. First, they employ a pre-determined formula to assess whether the prospective recipient is worthy. Second they then start a file and begin the process of monitoring their object (you just can’t have 300 subjects per case worker…ratio is of course illustrative not actual). So here subjects become objects: grist for the bureaucratic mill. And there is a limit to what can be done at this scale. It is indeed a poor substitute for a humanistic and democratic form of welfare. The bureaucratic solution to the necessity of welfare is alienating precisely because it both individualises its subjects and then renders them as objects of policy. It neither empowers nor thus liberates them: it does not give them agency it rather reinforces the lack of agency stemming from poverty. Now why would social democrats accept this as a democratic and humanistic model of how to deal with the anarchy of capitalism and the existential uncertainty of modern life? A realistic politics would attempt to address this, and the magical thinking that takes harbour in a unearned romanticism just kicks the problem down the road and plants the seeds of its own destruction.

On the other hand, magical thinking has captured the imagination of those social democrats who would look abroad. Often we hear Sweden, Norway, or Germany is evidence that another world is possible. Let us leave to the side for the moment the question over whether or not these countries have in the last 15-20 years been on a social democratic trajectory or on an accommodationist trajectory. That is, let us not ask the pertinent question as to the direction of political and economic change in the past two decades in these countries. Let us assume that all is well that is stylised well. Rather, the North American social democratic magical thinking consists in presuming that these model social democratic welfare states can be transplanted into the North American context. They can not. Even a cursory glance at the history of their welfare state institutions form training to unemployment insurance through to industrial relations reveals a complex web of socio-political compromises that would shape the development of their institutions and create natural constituencies for their reproduction over time. North America lacks these histories and hard institutionalisation of these institutions and there simply is no way to technocratically impose them. We have neither the legal nor the social precedents to enforce them let alone reproduce them.

The mater can be graphically illustrated. In the neo-Kaleckian framework economies exist in three potential states. A high road equilibrium characterized by practicable full employment, high productivity growth and the requisite institutions to ensure a balance between the rate of productivity growth and the rate of wage growth. We can call this a weak equilibrium as it rests on a series of historical compromises and institutional path dependencies that are difficult to maintain. Their durability rests on the fact of a balance of class forces which in which the significant social actors have the credible capacity to punish defection from the game. Neoliberalism in North America and Anglo Saxon countries in general was about forever depriving both the democratic state and the subordinate social partners such as unions from developing and maintaining this sanctioning capacity. This fact cannot be papered over. There is not in North America a state or a union movement strong enough to force the kind of class and institutional compromises into existence necessary to produce a credible sanctioning force. Thus it would appear that social democrats are left with one of two choices. An embrace of middling equilibrium between economic boom and bust in which more or less welfarist policies can be pursued or an acceptance of a low road, low employment, low productivity growth de facto model in which dogs eat dogs.

Thus far the pragmatist element within North American social democracy has been pre-occupied with redistributing boom time gravy and now bust time austerity. It is essentially parasitic on neoliberalism and thus is a sick pragmatism. Real pragmatism and serious realism demands that they start from where they are and guided by a coherent animating vision, set a bar for where they want to go. North American social democrats are in this regard totally lost.

In the second part of this post I will suggest how social democrats could realistically and pragmatically move forward. (a little arrogant hey!)