The Next New Neo

It starts with Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber who, like me, is dissatisfied with “neoliberals” (I’ll use the non-hyphenated throughout):

To be more precise – Neo-liberals tend to favor a combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions to solve social problems. But these kinds of solutions tend to discount politics – and in particular political collective action, which requires strong collective actors such as trade unions. This means that vaguely-leftish versions of neo-liberalism often have weak theories of politics, and in particular of the politics of collective action. I see Doug and others as arguing that successful political change requires large scale organized collective action, and that this in turn requires the correction of major power imbalances (e.g. between labor and capital). They’re also arguing that neo-liberal policies at best tend not to help correct these imbalances, and they seem to me to have a pretty good case. Even if left-leaning neo-liberals are right to claim that technocratic solutions and market mechanisms can work to relieve disparities etc, it’s hard for me to see how left-leaning neo-liberalism can generate any self-sustaining politics. I’m sure that critics can point to political blind spots among lefties (e.g. the difficulties in figuring out what is a necessary compromise, and what is a blatant sell-out), but these don’t seem to me to be potentially crippling, in the way that the absence of a neoliberal theory of politics (who are the organized interest groups and collective actors who will push consistently for technocratic efficiency?) is.

Matt Yglesias succinctly – and correctly, I think – writes back that opposing something on the grounds that an undefined “something else” would be better is not actually proposing a “theory of politics”:

The moment someone comes up with a workable idea on this front, please sign me up. But if there’s no idea to debate, then there’s no idea to debate. Debating the desirability of devising some hypothetical future good idea seems kind of pointless to me.

And here’s Brad Delong pointing out that today’s “anti-neoliberalism” argument is akin previous century’s iterations of dissatisfaction with whatever the dominant centrist politics were, and if one is out to concoct a political faction to smash the ossified power arrangement, it shouldn’t be laughable on its face:

Henry’s theory of politics is that successful and beneficial long-run politics can only be accomplished by a political party that is the political arm of a universal class–a self-confident, organized group whose material interest is in fact the public interest.

Adam Smith saw the improving landlords of Britain as the universal class. […] Only the landlords, whose rents rose with general prosperity and fell with general penury, had the brains, the organization, the far-sightedness, and the material interest to pursue policies to better the condition of Great Britain. Thus the landlords should rule.

Karl Marx, of course, saw the industrial proletariat as the universal class in embryo.

Henry Farrell doesn’t say what his alternative proposed universal class is. Perhaps it is composed of, in rough order:

  • Unions
  • Public employees
  • Technologists
  • Celebrity entertainers
  • Trail lawyers

But the argument that the Democratic Party should adopt the strategy of pursuing policies to enrich those six groups and hope that it all adds up to (a) the public interest and (b) long-run political dominance seems to me to be relatively weak. Left neoliberal policies may well not produce. But it is not clear to me that Henry’s alternative would produce either…

Mr Farrell responds in his own comment section that he didn’t mean that at all, he would never propose a universal class, but he is stuck proposing (or wishing for) a unifying political force without proposing what actual ideas / goals / interests should unify them.

Furthermore, there is no reason for the neoliberals to come over to the yet undefined program: they are mostly fond of the status quo.  It is, after all, their status quo.  Made by them, generationally reproduced by them, and rewards them.  This definitely deserves critique.  It is, as Mr Ferrell seems to intuit, dangerous when the technocrats in journalism, finance, media, and academia all converge on agreement.  (And they do in many ways, though this statement is mildly inflammatory.)  But the solutions proposed are not solutions at all, and even such as they are, they are very unlikely.  A trade union resurgence?  That is your new political coalition?

Here is an overly schematic theory of the history of European/American politics post-French Revolution: at any given period, a “rational” option is ascending, accreting followers via argumentation, convincing supporters of “traditional” political beliefs with sound argument, and sweeping them into the cause.  For example, the rise of the Bourgeois Republic from 1830, the variously extended forms of representation that grew under mercantile and military success in Bismark’s Germany, the complete embrace of Self-Determining Capitalist Democracy agreed to in 1919, etc.  At any given moment there is some political form that basically all “right-thinking” people believe is optimum.  History is always ending.

These rational, empirical, evidence-and-argument based political theories reach their apex.  Once there, suck up all the political energy of the rational empirical class, a class of which everyone, on their best days, is a member.  The next step is inevitable.  Fringe movements rise to oppose the rational center, arguing on terms outside rationality’s ceded ground.  Indeed, they often promise to dethrone rationality, or reveal it as a tool of interests or the province of an elite.

Most of these movements must fail.  But only one needs to survive to make common cause with that other agent of Rationality- the possessors of capital, who are tempted to view the state as either unnecessary or a source plunder, and so have very different, though quite changeable, goals from the rational center.  From there, our germ of a rising force need but one more piece of their coming coalition to move towards power: some peeled wing of the party of rationality who now suffers the disillusion of rationality’s promise, a group that cannot quite form a rational argument against rationality.

It is clear who is who today in my schema.  The neoliberal idea has been ascending for some time – at least since WWII – and has now reached its apotheosis.  It runs through Republican as well as Democratic periods.  It was thicker in Ike than it was in W, and it is disappearing in the current Republicans, but it is the key portion of the tacit agreement on the terms of the debate. Obama is the idea’s greatest representative, a man who appears completely “untainted” by irrationality, tribalism, vice, excess, or ideology.  He believes in science, evidence and economics.  He is the neoliberal par excellence.  And he is promulgating the factors of the idea’s demise.

Mr Yglesias hid a great phrase last week in a post wishing for parliamentary democracy instead of our version.  As he sees it, the benefit of a parliamentary system is the parties alternate their programs, pragmatically keeping those elements of their predecessor’s programs which have been proved to work.  The US, on the other hand, has its checks and balances not just on power but on policy:

America, by contrast, is stuck between people with apocalyptic visions of final victory and unrealistic visions of a “deal” that takes issues “off the table” via bipartisan consensus.

The phrase “apocalyptic version of final victory” calls to mind a Nazi rally, a Leninist overthrow of the czar, or (to a much lesser extent) the Republicans shouting “hell no” for two straight years.  But it is Yglesias’s side, the neoliberals, who’ve already won the apocalyptic victory, and won it so thoroughly that formulating another “rational” plan to compete at anything but the margins appears impossible. Farrell and his commenters (and, e.g., Kevin Drum, who baldly states: “I don’t know the answer” ) are an accurate slice of the sorts of people who might develop such a non-neoliberal rational model.  And they’ve got nothing.

Unless you believe history has ended, something will rise to overthrow neoliberalism.  This post is too lengthy, but the point is simple: argue about what you might come up with; but more importantly, watch out what’s coming for you.


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