What Will Kill Neoliberalism?

What Will Kill Neoliberalism?

A roundtable on its fate.


Massive global inequality underlies our era of economic and political unrest. The rise of nationalist, populist movements, and the faltering influence of the Davos class of free-trade advocates, have rendered neoliberalism an ideology without committed ideologues. So what will bring about the end of neoliberalism—the left? the right? the incompetence of the professional political class?—and, when it’s gone, what will replace it? We asked five of our favorite minds for their views on the direction we urgently need to go next.

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Joelle Gamble

Populism Ascendant

The dramatic effects of deindustrialization, automation, 
globalization, and the growing disparities of wealth and income—including by race and region—are undermining political norms in much of the West.

Activists and academics alike have linked these trends to the neoliberal ideology that has guided policy-making over the past several decades. This ideology has resulted in pushing the widespread deregulation of key industries, attempting to solve most social and economic problems through market competition, and privatizing public functions like the operation of prisons and institutions of higher education. Neoliberal ideas were considered such common sense during the 1980s and ’90s that they were simply never acknowledged as an ideology. Now, even economists at the International Monetary Fund are willing to poke holes in the ideology of neoliberalism. Jonathan Ostry, Prakash Loungani, and Davide Furceri wrote in 2016: “The costs in terms of increased inequality are prominent. Such costs epitomize the trade-off between the growth and equity effects of some aspects of the neoliberal agenda.”

We know that neoliberalism has now provoked populist responses on the left and the right. But are either of them sufficient to end its rule?

Left populism, if organized, could end the neoliberal order: As espoused by leaders like Pramila Jayapal and Keith Ellison, left populism demands public control as well as redistribution; it is pro-regulation, pro-state, and anti-privatization. These values are inherently at odds with the small-government, anti-regulatory tenets of neoliberalism. If an aggressive left-populist agenda is successfully implemented, neoliberalism would be defeated. The barrier to implementation is the left’s inability to be consistent and organized.

Populism on both the left and right has proved difficult to organize and suffers from a lack of leadership. On the left, the struggle for organization has been playing out in the Democratic Party’s leadership fights. Politicians and activists are attempting to close the ideological gap between the party’s base and its leaders. Without enough trust to allow leaders to set and execute a well-resourced strategy—to say nothing of the resources themselves—the left faces huge obstacles to actually implementing an agenda that spells the end of neoliberal dominance, despite having an ideology that could usher in a post-neoliberal world.

Left populism can technically end neoliberalism. But can right-wing populism?

One should hope that right-wing populism doesn’t become organized enough to end the neoliberal order. Public control is not a cogent ideology on the right. That leaves room for privatization—a main pillar of neoliberalism—to continue to grow. Only if right-wing nationalism turns into radical authoritarian nationalism (read: fascism) will its relationship with corporate power turn into an end to the neoliberal order. In the United States, this would mean: 1) the delegitimization of Congress and the judicial branch, 2) the increased criminalization of activists and political opponents, and 3) the nationalization of major industries.

Right-wing nationalism seems to be crafted to win electoral victories at the intersection of protectionist and xenophobic sentiments. Its current manifestation, designed to win over rural nativist voters, appears to be at odds with the pro-free-trade policies of neoliberalism. However, the lines between far-right nationalism and the mainstream right are blurring, especially when it comes to privatization and the role of government. In the United States, Trump’s agenda looks more like crony capitalism than a consistent turn from neoliberal norms. His administration seems either unwilling or incapable of taking a heavy-handed approach to industry.

As with many of his business ventures, we’ve already seen Trump-style nationalism fail in his nascent administration. The White House caved to elite Republican interests with the attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and with Trump’s decision to stack high-level economic-policy roles with members of the financial elite. Trump’s proclaimed nationalist ideology seems to be a rhetorical device rather than a consistent governing principle. It’s possible that the same might be true for other right-wing nationalists. France’s Marine Le Pen has cozied up, though admittedly inconsistently, to business interests; she has also toned down her rhetoric, especially on immigration, over the years in order to win centrist voters. Meanwhile, Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders notably lost to a more mainstream candidate in March’s general elections. Yet the radical right is more organized in Europe than in the United States. We may not see the same level of compromise and incompetence as in the Trump administration. Moves toward moderation may only be anomalous and strategic rather than a sign of a failing movement.

So what does all of this mean for the future of neoliberalism, particularly in the American context? I believe there are two futures in which neoliberalism’s end is possible. In the first, the left decides to stop playing defense and organizes with the resources needed to build sustained power, breaking down the policies that perpetuate American neoliberalism. This means enacting policies like universal health care and free college, and ousting the private-prison industry from the justice system. In the second future, a set of political leaders who have been emboldened by Trump’s campaign strategy gain office through mostly republican means. They could concentrate power in the executive in an organized manner, nationalize industries, and criminalize communities who don’t support their jingoistic vision. We should hope for the first future, as unlikely as it seems in this political moment. We’ve already seen the second in 20th-century Europe and Latin America. We cannot live that context again.

Paul Mason

Take the State

I wrote in Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future that if we 
didn’t ditch neoliberalism, globalization would fall apart—but I had no idea that it would happen so quickly. In hindsight, the problem is that you can put an economy on life support, but not an ideology.

After the 2008 financial crisis, quantitative easing and state support for banks kept the patient alive. As the Bank of England governor Mark Carney said last year at the G20 summit in Shanghai, central banks have even more ammunition to draw on should they need it—for example, the extreme option of “helicopter money,” in which they credit every bank account with, say, $20,000. So they can stave off complete stagnation for a long time. But patchwork measures cannot kick-start a new era of dynamism for capitalism, much less faith in its goodness.

The human brain demands coherence—and a certain amount of optimism. The neoliberal story became incoherent the moment the state had to take dramatic steps to support a failing financial market. The form of recovery stimulated by quantitative easing boosted the asset wealth of the rich but not the income of the average worker—and rising costs for health care, education, and pension provision across the developed world meant that many people experienced the “recovery” as a household recession.

So they began looking for answers, and the right had an easy one: Ditch globalization, free trade, and relatively free migration rules, as well as acceptance of the undocumented migrants who keep the economy working. That’s how we get to Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Viktor Orbán, the Law and Justice party in Poland, and UKIP in Britain. Each of them has promised to make their country “great again”—by diverting growth toward it and migrants and refugees away.

For 30 years, neoliberalism taught national elites that they were better off collaborating in the creation of a positive-sum game: Everybody wins, ultimately, even if your factory moves to China. That was the rationale.

Economic nationalism is logical if you believe that stagnation will last a long time, creating a zero-sum or even a negative-sum game. But the projects of economic nationalism will fail. This is not because economic nationalism has always been a losing strategy: Adolf Hitler practically abolished German unemployment within five years, and Franklin Roosevelt triggered a spectacular recovery and reindustrialization with the New Deal. But these were programs of another era, in which business models were primarily national and monopolies operated in the sphere of one big nation and its colonies; where the state was heavily enmeshed in the national economy; and where global trade was puny and economic migration low compared to now.

To try a repeat of autarky in the 21st century will trigger dislocation on a large scale. Some countries will win: It’s even feasible that, although led by an imbecile, the United States could win. However, “winning” in this context means bankrupting other countries. Given the complexity and fragility of the globalized system, the cities of the losing nations would resemble New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

In the long term, for the left, the transition to a system beyond capitalism must be based on the possibility of a low-work, high-abundance society. This is the essence of the postcapitalism project that I proposed: automate work, replace wages with a basic income and heavy state provision of services, and enforce competition among the rent-seeking monopolies in order to force the price of their goods so low that people can survive scarce and precarious work.

As Manuel Castells’s research group in Barcelona has found, as the market staggers, more and more people actually begin to adopt nonmarket survival tactics, mechanisms, and institutions like informal lending, co-ops, time banks, and alternative currencies. And that’s the basis for an economic counterpower to big capital and high finance.

But in the short term, a whole generation of the left that reveled in aimlessness and horizontality needs to split the difference between that and effective, organized politics. Call it “diagonality,” if you want: Without ceasing to care about the 100 small causes that have animated us in the past, the one big cause that needs to animate us in the future is a systemic project of transition beyond capitalism. For now, that project has to be pursued at the level of big cities, regions, states, and alliances of states—that is, at scale.

The hardest thing for the old left to accept will be that this means using the existing, oppressive, imperfect state while simultaneously trying to democratize it. Street protests, mass resistance, strikes, and the occupation of squares are great ways to assemble the forces. But the arc of the story from 2011 to 2015—Occupy, the Indignados, and the Arab Spring—shows that we have to do more than simply create a counterpower: We need to take power and diffuse it at the same time.

Bryce Covert

The Crisis of Care

American parents are being crushed between
 trying to care for their families and working enough hours to survive financially. This problem plagues parents of both genders, up and down the income scale, and it is upending the way Americans view the capitalist system. This crisis of care is fostering solidarity among the millions of Americans who share this challenge, as well as support for solutions that will end the reign of neoliberalism.

Among low-income Americans, especially people of color, both parents have often worked outside the home to make ends meet. Nonetheless, the ideal has been, until very recently, a stay-at-home mother and a father working for pay outside the home. World War II undermined this idyll, pushing women into factories as men went to fight abroad. The gauzy 1950s dream of single-earner families masked the reality that women continued to pour into the workforce.

Today, women make up about half of the paid labor force in the United States, including more than 70 percent of women with children. This means that in about half of married heterosexual couples, both the husband and wife work. This has given women far more access to the public sphere and, with it, greater status and equality both inside and outside the home.

But it’s also meant a crunch for families. There is no longer a designated parent to stay home with the kids or care for aging relatives, and the workplace isn’t designed to help with that predicament. Instead, work is devouring people’s lives.

You can see this problem in the rising number of Americans who worry about their work/life balance. About half of parents of both genders say they struggle to reconcile these competing demands. Fathers are particularly freaked out: More than 45 percent feel they don’t spend enough time with their children, compared with less than a quarter of mothers (probably because more women reduce their paid work to care for children). As the baby-boomer generation ages, a growing elderly population threatens to trap even more working people in the predicament of caring for aging parents, raising young kids, and trying to make a living.

The result has been that more and more people are being forced to reckon with the fact that capitalism’s unquenchable thirst for labor makes a balanced life impossible. This, in turn, is fostering a greater sense of solidarity among them as workers struggling against the demands of corporate bosses. This growing crisis has already led to some policy-making. The expansion of overtime coverage by the Obama administration means that workers will either be better compensated for putting in long hours or have their schedules pared back to a more humane 40-hour work week (though it remains to be seen what will happen to the overtime expansion under President Trump). Legislation guaranteeing paid time off has swept city and state governments. These are policies that challenge the idea that we should give everything of ourselves to our jobs.

The crisis of care has also revived the notion that the public should deal with these shared problems collectively. While other developed countries have spent money to create government-funded solutions for child care over the past half-century, Americans have insisted child care remain a private crisis that each family has to solve alone. The United States provides all children age 6 to 18 with a public education, but for children under the age of 6, it offers basically nothing. Head Start is available to some low-income parents, and a smattering of places have started experimenting with universal preschool for children ages 3 and 4. Outside of that, parents are left to a pitiful private system that often doesn’t even offer them enough slots, let alone quality affordable care.

Americans have increasingly come to recognize that this situation is ridiculous and are throwing their support behind a government solution. Huge majorities support
spending more money on early-childhood programs. American parents haven’t yet gone on strike against capitalism’s endless demands on their time or the government’s failure to provide public support. But the crisis is reaching a boiling point, and it’s transforming our relationship to America’s neoliberal system.

William Darity Jr.

A Revolution of Managers

Marx’s classic law of motion for bourgeois 
society—the tendency of the rate of profit to fall—was the foundation for his prediction that capitalism would die under the stress of its own contradictions. But even Marx’s left-wing sympathizers, who see the dominant presence of corporate capital in all aspects of their lives, have argued that Marx’s prediction was wrong. It has become virtually a reflex to assert that modern societies all fall under the sway of “global capitalism,” and that a binary operates with two great social classes standing in fundamental opposition to each other: capital and labor.

Suppose, however, that Marx was correct in his expectation that capitalism, like other social modes of production before it, will wind down gradually, but wrong in his expectation that it would be succeeded by a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a civilization without class stratification. Suppose, indeed, that the age of capitalism is actually reaching its conclusion—but one that doesn’t involve the ascension of the working class. Suppose, instead, that we consider the existence of a third great social class vying with the other two for social dominance: what was seen in the work of such disparate thinkers as James Burnham, Alvin Gouldner, Barbara Ehrenreich, and John Ehrenreich as the managerial class.

The managerial class comprises the intelligentsia and intellectuals, artists and artisans, as well as state bureaucrats—a credentialed or portfolio-rich cultural aristocracy. While the human agents of global capital are the corporate magnates, and the working class is the productive labor—labor that is directly utilized to generate profit—the managerial class engages comprehensively in a social-management function. The rise of the managerial class is the rise to dominance of unproductive labor—labor that can be socially valuable but is not a direct source of profit.

A surplus population under capitalism has a purpose: It exists as a reserve army of the unemployed, which can be mobilized rapidly in periods of economic expansion and as a source of downward pressure on the demands for compensation and safe work conditions made by the employed. Therefore, capital has little incentive to eliminate this surplus population. In contrast, the managerial class will view those identified as surplus people as truly superfluous. The social managers consider population generally as an object of control, reduction, and demographic administration, and whoever is assigned to the “surplus” category bears the weight of the arbitrary.

To the extent that identification of the surplus population is racialized, particular groups will be targets for social warehousing and extermination. The disproportionate overincarceration of black people in the United States—a form of social warehousing—is a direct expression of the managerial class’s preferences regarding who should be deemed of low necessity. The exterminative impulse is evident in the comparative devaluation of black lives that prompted resistance efforts like the Black Lives Matter movement. The potential for black superfluity in the managerial age is evident in prescient works like Sidney Willhelm’s Who Needs the Negro? (1970) and Samuel Yette’s The Choice (1971), both published almost 50 years ago.

The assault on “big” and invasive government constitutes an attack on the managerial class by both capital and the working class. Despite endorsing military spending, receiving lucrative government contracts, and enjoying the benefits of publicly provided infrastructure like roads, highways, and railways, corporate capital calls for small government. This is a strategic route to slashing social-welfare expenditures, with the goal of reducing the wage standard and eliminating all regulations on corporate predations. Despite benefiting from social-welfare expenditures, the working class gravitates to a new brand of populism that blends anticorporatism with anti-elitism (and anti-intellectualism), xenophobia, and a demand for a smaller and less intrusive state. Since “big” government constitutes the avenue for independent action on the part of the managerial class, an offensive of this type directly undermines the “new” class’s base of power.

But the managerial class also possesses another attribute that is both a strength and a weakness. Unlike capital and labor, whose agendas are driven to a large degree by the struggle over the character of a society structured for the pursuit of profit, the managerial class has no anchor for its ideological stance. In fact, it’s a social class that is wholly fluid ideologically. Some of its members align fully with the corporate establishment; indeed, the corporate magnates—especially investment bankers—look much the same as members of the managerial class in terms of educational credentials, cultural interests, and style. Other social managers take a more centrist posture harking back to their origins in the “middle class,” while still others position themselves as allies of the working class. And there are many variations on these themes.

Depending on where the ideological weight centers most heavily, the managerial class can take many directions. During the wars in southern Africa against Portuguese rule, Amílcar Cabral once observed that for the anticolonial revolution to succeed, “the petty bourgeoisie” would need to commit suicide as a social class, ceasing their efforts to pursue their particular interests and positioning themselves fully at the service of the working class. One might anticipate that the global managerial class will one day be confronted with the choice of committing suicide, in Cabral’s sense, as a class. But the question is: If such a step is taken, will they place themselves fully at the service of labor… or capital?

Peter Barnes

Universal Base Income

There is no single solution to economic
 inequality and insecurity in America, but there’s one that could go further than any other. It’s a universal base income, as distinct from a universal basic income.

A universal base income of a few hundred dollars a month is not the same as a universal basic income of, say, $1,000 a month. The latter, at least in some places, is enough to survive on; the former decidedly is not. And while the latter is the dream of many, it is far too expensive—and threatening to America’s work ethic—to be enacted anytime soon. If a universal basic income ever happens here, it will be because it was preceded for many years by a universal base income, gradually nudged upward like Social Security and the minimum wage. So let’s take a look at that.

A universal base income is both a springboard and a cushion for every participant in our fast-changing market economy—like giving everyone $200 for passing “Go” in a game of Monopoly. It supplements, but does not replace, labor income (which for the last 30 years has stagnated or declined), and it does so without judgment or stigma. It is grounded on the principle that, in a prosperous albeit volatile and increasingly unequal economy, everyone has a right to some cash flow they can count on.

In practical terms, a universal base income would be simple to administer. Eligible recipients (anyone with a valid Social Security number, which can include legal immigrants) would receive an equal amount of money every month, wired to their bank accounts or debit cards. The system would look and feel like Social Security, or a monthly version of the dividends that all Alaskans receive. People who don’t need the extra income would be enabled by a check-off option to donate it to any IRS-approved charity.

A universal base income, I should note, has nothing to do with automation, robots, or artificial intelligence. It has a lot to do with enhancing every American’s security, reducing their stress, and giving our poor and middle classes a leg to stand on—the very opposite of what our economy does now.

A universal base income would have other benefits as well. It is an answer—perhaps the answer—to long-term economic stagnation, a trickle-up form of Keynesianism that would stimulate our economy through increased household spending. Moreover, if funded by fees on unproductive activities like pollution and speculation, it would help solve two other deep problems of 21st-century capitalism: climate change and financial instability. And it wouldn’t need to replace or reduce spending on current programs that benefit the poor, a regressive trade-off that conservatives favor but most progressives oppose.

There are six large demographic groups (with some overlap) that could form the core of a movement for a universal base income: millennials (the first generation of Americans destined to earn less than their parents), low-wage and on-demand work­ers (the so-called precariat), women (who still earn less than men and aren’t paid at all for much of the work they do), African Americans (who suffer from past and present injustices), retired and near-retired workers (who can’t live on Social Security alone), and poor people of all colors. Environmentalists might also link arms with the cause if one of the revenue sources is a tax on pollution. It will, of course, be no simple feat to persuade these diverse groups that what they can’t achieve separately they may be able to achieve together. But it has happened before, and, in the post-Sanders era, it could happen again.

In the political realm, a universal base income would bring our nation together by affirming that we are all in the same economic boat. It would unite our desperate poor and our anxious middle class, young and old, women and men, white people and people of color. It would make millions of Americans less stressed, healthier, and perhaps even happier. And it could make many of us proud to be American.

Fourscore and two years ago, Franklin Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security produced the classic report that led to passage of the first Social Security Act. The report itself went beyond security for the aged. It proclaimed: “The one almost all-embracing measure of security is an assured income. A program of economic security, as we vision it, must have as its primary aim the assurance of an adequate income to each human being in childhood, youth, middle age, or old age—in sickness or in health.”

The committee added that, for reasons of political expediency, it was proposing only an assured income for the elderly, but it hoped that the rest of its vision would be implemented in the not-too-distant future. Much of it has been, but not all. A lifelong base income, along with health insurance for all, are the next pieces.

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