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The Sunset of Neoliberalism

To anyone who lived through the Clinton years — or merely remembers the Obama era — the discrediting of neoliberal ideas that were once sacrosanct among Democrats is nothing short of astonishing.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton embrace on the third day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center on July 27, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Cheer up. The Left is winning the battle of ideas. Ideas are the basis for organization, and organization is prior to change. The signs are in the evolution of statements and platforms presented by Democratic presidential candidates. As the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote, eighty and some years ago:

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

It’s our “madmen” (and women) who are more in evidence these days — not as public personalities, but in the guise of campaign commitments offered by leading Democratic politicians. Their ascendance parallels the decline of neoliberal ideology.

In this essay, I’d like to give credit where it is due for the raising of consciousness. In the process, I would like to foster a keener appreciation for the difference between progressive and neoliberal doctrine. What does it mean to be left these days? Everybody knows the extreme point — wholesale socialization of the commanding heights of the economy. But where is the separation between hackneyed liberalism, “woke” and otherwise, and emerging progressive platforms?

It does not always pay to highlight differences. But our ambitions go well beyond a restoration of the old order under Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. For one thing, the not unlikely shortcomings of a President Joe Biden could lead us straight back to the current dilemma, perhaps with a younger, smarter version of Trump. Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Tom Cotton of Arkansas wait impatiently in the wings, tanned, rested, and ready to wreak havoc anew. We bitterly recall the triumphant victories of 1992 and 2008. Democrats won the White House and held both houses of Congress; then they stunk up the joint, leading to the midterm electoral debacles of 1994 and 2010.

The urge to paper over differences, in the interests of antifascist unity, intermingles with sympathy for the old liberal verities and a reluctance, if not an incapacity, to offer a forthright critique of progressive alternatives. Among friends, the label “neoliberal” is often taken as an insult. The desire by liberals to avoid being flanked on the Left is strong. Of course, being “more left” is not necessarily better, much less a sign of virtue. There have always been virtuous liberals and low-down radicals.

From my own policy standpoint, I would assert that the radical or progressive option is not intrinsically preferable to the neoliberal: we need to get down to cases. Here are some leading examples of the dwindling currency of neoliberal thinking.

Up From Deficit Reduction

By now the Republican hypocrisy on “fiscal responsibility” has become blindingly obvious: nondefense spending is always bad because it increases the national debt, tax cuts are fine even though they do the same. The political scam here may be more plain than the economic. Democrats understand that if they undertake the onerous task of closing budget deficits with unpopular tax increases and spending cuts, it only sets up the other side to make hay in the next election, then in office to blow up the deficit all over again. We’ve seen this three times since 1980.

The economic bankruptcy of deficit reduction remains elusive to many Democrats. In increasingly globalized capital markets, the impact of higher deficits on interest rates and the fabled “crowding out” of investment have failed to transpire. Neither low unemployment nor monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve set off ruinous hyperinflation, contrary to the conventional wisdom.

The growth in popularity of Modern Monetary Theory has further winnowed the ranks of liberal budget balancers. An exception is Mayor Pete, who had the fortitude to identify himself as an outlier. In this case, the exception proves the rule, which is that deficit reduction and a balanced budget have been removed from the panel of Democratic hot buttons.

The Siren Song of Economic Opportunity

When the issues of poverty and inequality came up, a common neoliberal dodge was to invoke the Horatio Alger myth — that in America, with hard work one can, or should be able to, raise oneself up by one’ bootstraps. This switches the question from security made possible by the public sector to an individual responsibility for economic mobility.

As it happens, mobility has declined over the long term in the United States, but that aside, it’s a two-way street. The escalator of life runs in both directions. Moreover, it’s a separate issue from that of poverty or inequality. One can have more mobility and the same or worse poverty or inequality. The rising tide goes out as well as in.

The neoliberal remedy for poverty and inequality is commonly held to be education, because workers lack the requisite skills to earn a living wage. It’s kind of their fault. All that’s needed is some reasonable public expenditure. No deeper structural factors are at issue. This mindset is contradicted now in two ways.

First, the idea of education as an essential, missing ingredient is being supplanted by the idea that what’s at issue is power, both political and economic. The wealthy control streams of income and institutions of credentialization that could be rerouted, via taxation, to finance education (“free college”) that has an equalizing effect on wealth and enhances economic security. Most candidates support ways to reduce the costs of post-secondary education.

Second, power also stems from the operations of racial and gender oppression. Nonwhites and women are held back due to institutions of racism and sexism. One such institution is the pairing of local government finance of public education with racial segregation. Segregation simultaneously stems from and reinforces housing discrimination and wealth inequality.

I would also suggest that wealth inequality and employment discrimination impair family well-being and foster single-parent, female-headed families with children, which promotes gender-based oppression in the forms of unequal pay and occupational segregation. Women with a disproportionate responsibility for the care of children have less power to command livable wages and to advance in the labor market.

Democratic candidates are aiming closer to the roots of these problems in proposals to combat institutional racism and to expand subsidized childcare. Pete Buttigieg has proposed a comprehensive program to deal with institutional racism. Cory Booker has talked of “Baby Bonds,” a prominent proposal aimed at racial wealth inequality. Most candidates pledge a significant increase in resources for childcare. We are some ways beyond Bill Clinton’s “Mend it, don’t end it” response to the limits of affirmative action, or Barack Obama’s “Beer Summit.”

Medicare for Lots More People

The limits of Obamacare have become painfully obvious, even as the added benefits of the program have stoked public appetite for more serious progress. One constraint on the Affordable Care Act’s design at the time was reservations about its impact on the budget deficit, a concern that looks farcical in retrospect.

The debate among Democrats now is not whether to extend public support for health care, but by how much, and how rapidly. The implication is that health insurance markets are fatally flawed, despite neoliberal attempts to improve them.

More broadly, the burgeoning critiques of monopoly, not least in the form of rapacious, privacy-destroying tech giants whose business models entail pollution of public debate, raise fundamental questions about markets and the neoliberals who “believe” in them.

It does not require much contemplation to realize that merely splitting up the largest, most offensive corporations brings little promise of curbing their abuses. The Standard Oil monopoly was cut into pieces a century ago, and nobody has accused their spawn (Exxon, Shell, etc.) of being creditable public citizens. Three search engines that send you to the same scurrilous, paid-for content are no better than one. There is no reason to think life in a Walmart warehouse is any better than one in Amazon’s.

A critique of monopoly can be channeled into consideration of shifting industries into the public sector. Public broadband can diminish the power of Big Media, which relies on vertical integration of cable, broadband, and content production. The same could be said of the clawback of “intellectual property” rights in film and music. Postal savings banks can shield savers, home buyers, and taxpayers from the adventures of big players in the stock market. Nationalization of pharmaceutical patents could save consumers billions of dollars a year.

War Is a Racket

Neoliberalism in foreign policy means the use of lethal force for the ostensible objectives of humanitarian intervention. This has always been the mask for US efforts to maintain its hegemonic position among world powers. Pressure on Iran or Venezuela or Iraq, for instance, was never credible as any sort of defense against existential threats to the United States, since no such threats from those nations could be demonstrated. The same can be said for the endless US presence in Afghanistan.

Credit for the ebb of faith in the use of US military power is due to multiple sources. Foremost among these is the abject debacle of US machinations in Iraq (and Libya, if you’re paying attention). These arguably contributed to caution on the part of the Obama Administration with respect to Iran and Syria. Among political figures, perhaps the strongest pressures are generated by Bernie Sanders and yes, Donald Trump.

Among Democratic candidates, support for Obama’s Iran agreement is universal. In the debates, when the question of involvement in Afghanistan came up, only no-hope candidates Rep. Tim Ryan and Governor Steve Bullock offered hesitant support. There was no appetite for staging new confrontations with any other nation, except Russia in the case of elections interference. Some stray remarks about dealing with the rising power of China are not gathering any steam.

The combined postures of Sanders and Trump are key. Democratic candidates are loath to provide any targets for Sanders to their left. Nobody has forgotten how Obama lambasted Hillary Clinton in 2008 for her support for the Iraq war. Even worse is giving any fuel to Trump, who has the best of two worlds here.

On one side, Trump’s supporters will never be persuaded that he is “weak” on national defense. They have endured his romance with Vladimir Putin and enjoyed his overturning the Iran deal. They don’t care about his indifference to traditional alliances. Nobody is going to beat him by upholding the importance of NATO. With his right flank secure, Trump has the flexibility to seize upon any sign of imperial stretch by a Democratic opponent. From the standpoint of a typical disinterested voter, he is bulletproof on foreign policy, as long as he doesn’t involve US troops in a new shooting war.

I’ve always thought that Trump is a threat to peace in the world. In the realm of public statements pertaining to US military intervention, however, he has been more good than bad. He stirred up tension with North Korea but walked that back. He made noises about Venezuela but evidently got bored and forgot about it when nothing happened. Iran remains a concern.

The point is that, at least in the primaries, we’ve seen no meaningful critique from Democratic politicians charging Trump with insufficient militancy in world affairs, a critique we could easily imagine coming from Hillary Clinton, or from Joe Biden in a different year. For the time being, US foreign policy resembles the relative quiescence of the years following withdrawal from Vietnam, a period then excoriated by Cold Warriors as one stricken by the “Vietnam syndrome.”

The cherry on top of this cake is the ice broken by Sanders on Israel and Palestine. His statements of support for Palestine, however qualified, are a departure from the preceding decades of Zionist boosterism. In a different time, his opponents would be trying to make hay out of his statements. This time around, the best his rivals for the nomination can offer is silence.

It doesn’t hurt Sanders that the Israeli state under its current leadership has aligned itself closely with the Republican Party and with Trump himself. Perhaps the last redoubt of foreign policy neoliberalism is unqualified support for whatever indignities and atrocities are set upon Palestinians by the Israeli government. Trump’s fanatical support for Israel, combined with his ever-emerging anti-Semitism, has profoundly changed the frame for the discussion of Palestine.

As this article was being written, the Sanders campaign released additional, detailed plans pertaining to labor rights, the Green New Deal, and how law enforcement deals with race. In this respect, his opponents are invariably more fated to play catch-up than to reject his proposals. The few who tried to plant a flag on their opposition to socialism are passing from the scene. It’s as if Democratic voters have been thirsting for progressive proposals for decades, and now they will drink as much as can be offered. No candidate so far has proven willing to rain on this parade.

That’s why I say we are witnessing the sunset of neoliberalism.