Saturday, September 3, 2016

Listen, Neoliberal

Thomas Frank's book _Listen, Liberal_ has a central problem: it describes U.S. political neoliberalism in detail but never makes the jump to calling it something other than liberalism. As a result, it's never quite sure what it's recommending. Something about going back to how liberalism was during the New Deal era -- but what was it then, and can we really go back to that now, and how would we get there?

Before writing more about his book I'll give a short description of what I think neoliberalism is: neoliberalism is the ideology of the global managerial class. It encompasses leading political neoliberals such as Clinton(s), Blair, and Obama, Eurocrats, the upper management of multinationals, the management of large NGOs, higher-up Chinese Communist Party members, and everyone else who comes together to make the current world system work via characteristic international agreements and arrangements. It may more or less be held as an ideology by middle management, and by most professional economists and international functionaries, but it has no mass base as such. Neoliberalism in policy becomes free trade agreements, austerity, the inability to address income inequality, free rides for banks, and general politics under the rubric of "there is no alternative" as elites loot whatever they can loot. Neoliberalism is a liberalism, and depends on conservatism being more objectionable than it is (and the left being generally absent), but it is not left-liberalism, and it is not classical liberalism since it exists within a system that has contemporary political actors in it.

Neoliberalism obeys the dictates of the elite without, itself, being composed of a classical wealth-owning elite: neoliberals are often very wealthy, but they are managers of other people's wealth rather than capitalists as such. But there is no base anywhere that demands austerity or the TPP, so neoliberalism always pretends to be a vaguely left centrism, and adopts left ideas on racism, sexism, homophobia and so on in the sense that it ideally treats people as meritocratically chosen.

Distinguishing neoliberalism from the remnant New Deal or left-liberal base of the Democratic Party might have been a good thing for Frank's book to do, but it doesn't. Looking up "neoliberalism" in the index, first the book mentions the U.S. Neoliberals of the early 1980s, then it refers to NAFTA in 1993 as a landmark of neoliberalism, but there's nothing about how we got from one meaning of the word to the other. This is a common confusion: there are still people who insist that neoliberalism is a word that describes a U.S. movement of the early 1980s that then disappeared, or Britain under Thatcher. But the rest of the world outside the U.S. has long since settled on the word "neoliberalism" to describe a worldwide politics and a worldwide system. Using it only in its anglosphere-historical sense is parochial.

As a result of not being able to call neoliberals neoliberals, Thomas Frank has no real way to describe what happened other than by going through a lot of detail, most of which will be long familiar to any left reader in the U.S. There's a lot about Clinton, Obama, and the prospective HRC Presidency. I really didn't learn much from the bulk of the book, other than that microlending has failed and indeed is rather like a predatory payday loan scheme for people outside of the U.S. (something which I should have suspected, in retrospect). It would be a good book to read for someone who still thinks that Obama is a left-liberal and who expects that from HRC. But Frank's analysis is a bit off when he identifies professionals as "the 10%" who support contemporary-Democratic-Party politics. Professionals broadly may be sympathetic to neoliberalism and certainly to meritocracy, but they don't broadly have the power to maintain a neoliberal system or the numbers to be a voting base for it.

Frank seems to believe that the Democratic Party can return to something like a New Deal coalition, something that I think is impossible. The system has moved on and can't be glued back together. The state fundamentally doesn't need most people and is looking for ways to shed them -- ways which neoliberalism makes possible -- and labor doesn't have the power that it once did, not because of the machinations of the elites (although those certainly are happening) but because we don't need as much labor or the same kind of labor as we once did. A new party of the non-elites is going to have to be based on something other than labor power, something that Frank's analysis isn't far enough from the mainstream to guess at. That said, this will still a useful book for some people.


  1. > Neoliberalism in policy becomes ...the inability to address income inequality, free rides for banks, and general politics under the rubric of "there is no alternative" as elites loot whatever they can loot.

    So essentially you are *defining* neoliberalism as a bad thing. I guess you're entitled to, if you don't like it, but it will then be dull if you draw the conclusion from that, that its a bad thing.

    Free trade is a good thing (sez I) but I agree with you it has no broad base of support, other than amongst economists, who are the people that understand it.

  2. I'm not really defining it as a bad thing: I'm saying that it has certain characteristics. Systems are bad in comparison to other systems, so neoliberalism is worse than some systems and better than others. For instance, the Paris Agreements are characteristic of neoliberalism, but that doesn't mean that they are intrinsically bad: they are better than the non-agreement or active denialism that would be all that some other systems could produce.