Saturday, December 3, 2016

The twilight of neoliberalism

As one European country after another falls to right-wing populism, people in the U.S. should stop treating Trump as if he is a total outlier, or thinking that his supporters are a peculiarly American phenomenon. The election was very close, and I'm not writing that the result was preordained, but that something larger than U.S. politics is going on. If you accept that all of these elections are part of an international pattern, you have to explain them in large part as due to some international cause. And that brings us back to neoliberalism. I don't think it's credible that all of these countries turned more nativist at the same time as part of some cultural syndrome unrelated to a world system that features austerity and ever increasing capture of wealth by elites.

I agree with a lot of this article by Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen, but I'm even more interested in what Ian Welsh has to say about it. Ian Welsh has, for a while, been making the very simple point that people will not put up with neoliberalism indefinitely and if the left can't stop it, people will turn to the right.

There is no mass base for neoliberalism, no group of people beyond perhaps a couple of percent of any population who really want free trade agreements, austerity, privatization, monetization, and all the rest. Neoliberalism depended on there being no alternative, and now that it appears that there is an alternative it's starting to come crashing down everywhere. The alternative isn't a left alternative, because the left was destroyed by the failure of left statisms. The right-wing alternative that is emerging is going to be worse than neoliberalism, but that always was a predicted problem with neoliberalism, because neoliberalism can't solve certain problems and always was unstable.

The first article linked above talks about coalitions and movements coming together. I hope so, but from my American vantage point the most salient fact about recent history is that when left movements spring up, they are destroyed by police. And the role of theory is not so easily replaced by evolutionary praxis. The strength of state repression requires horizontalism in organizing, but horizontalism in turn requires some kind of widespread basic understanding of common purpose. The last American election revolved on the center-left around a deliberate attempt to discredit leftists as racist or sexist (the whole Bernie Bro trope, cynically created by the HRC camp) and on a larger scale the left has never really fully incorporated ecological value into its basic economics, or (from my point of view) incorporated an anarchist critique.

No one really knows what will emerge from this era. But I think that it's time for people to stop trying to put everything back just as it was. Like it or not, I think that neoliberalism is not simply the natural center-left and waiting to return in the next electoral cycle.


  1. From your first link:

    > If the spoils from neoliberalisation benefitted that generation, their children now struggle to enter the housing ladder... key elements of the material offer then made no longer work

    But the housing problem (inflation due to too much money chasing too few houses) is pretty well entirely due to shortage of building permits, and so is pretty well entirely down to government regulation: which is to say, nothing at all to do with neoliberalism, indeed the opposite.

  2. And your second link thinks Corbyn is a promising sign. It is possible, but from here looks very unlikely. See the most recent by-election, for example. I think Corbyn is doomed.

  3. Thanks for commenting, William. At an international level, which is what I'm writing about, building permits / regulation really isn't the problem. It may be in part of the UK: I don't know. But for other countries, like the US, regulation is not very strict at all and the problem still exists, because a house on a small plot of land (or an apartment in a densely populated city) still costs money that younger people don't have.

    The analysis doesn't depend on whether Corbyn will actually succeed or not. The writer at the second link hopes that he does, but realizes that the chances may not be good.