Are We (Finally) in Late Neoliberalism?

The current wave of protests against austerity and imperialism indicate that we are at (another) crisis point in the roughly half-century since neoliberalism replaced Keynesian economics as the basis of contemporary capitalism.

It’s fitting that Chile, beginning with mass evasion of increased subway fares, and continuing to general strikes and a complete shutdown of the national infrastructure, is part of this wave. Neoliberalism, in its doctrinaire form, began in the aftermath of the 1973 coup that overthrew Salvador Allende and installed Pinochet as a dictator. The uprising in Haiti also connects to a longer historical process, as the Haitian people have been subject to imperialist efforts by major European powers (France historically, the United States now) to make them economically subservient and to overthrow or frustrate any attempt to build a political movement that is against austerity and foreign interference.

From Late English to Late Neoliberalism

Years ago, I wrote a post on this site about the evolution of the English language, and how future linguists will define the current moment. The feeling I had is that since Old English and Middle English both have fairly set beginning and end dates, that whatever form of the language we’re speaking today (usually dubbed “Modern English“) will eventually be given some historical marker, for the contemporary must eventually become the historical. This will be especially interesting given how English has become a highly diverse, global language since the beginning of Modern English, with English in different countries evolving at different rates, in different directions.

This general concept of evolution and the resulting terminology we use applies to capitalism, and neoliberalism more specifically. The term “late capitalism” (The Atlantic wrote about the term in 2017) is now used frequently, though I don’t run into it in academic literature as I do in podcasts and social media. The term usually refers to absurd products and business practices that seem unsustainable, thus giving a general feeling that capitalism is beginning to hollow out and collapse on itself. The saga of WeWork, which was once valued at $47 billion USD, despite losing huge amounts of money and having an obviously untenable business plan, fits into this. At some point I will write a more detailed, economics-focused post on the various players in the contemporary capitalist landscape, as we are likely on the edge of another Great Recession. WeWork fits into this landscape in being a venture capitalist-backed mirage, somewhere between the juggernaut companies that have enough cash on hand to survive even a terrible economic collapse, and the companies engaging in the same speculation that caused the 2007-2008 crisis, who will either be bailed out with public money and no accountability, or perhaps face some kind of takeover and structural change, depending on who wins the 2020 election.

I’ll quote a Jacobin interview with David Harvey to talk about what neoliberalism has meant in the context of post-war history:

I’ve always treated neoliberalism as a political project carried out by the corporate capitalist class as they felt intensely threatened both politically and economically towards the end of the 1960s into the 1970s. They desperately wanted to launch a political project that would curb the power of labor.

In many respects the project was a counterrevolutionary project. It would nip in the bud what, at that time, were revolutionary movements in much of the developing world — Mozambique, Angola, China etc. — but also a rising tide of communist influences in countries like Italy and France and, to a lesser degree, the threat of a revival of that in Spain

. . .

There were very few crises between 1945 and 1973; there were some serious moments but no major crises. The turn to neoliberal politics occurred in the midst of a crisis in the 1970s, and the whole system has been a series of crises ever since. And of course crises produce the conditions of future crises.

In 1982–85 there was a debt crisis in Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, and basically all the developing countries including Poland. In 1987–88 there was a big crisis in US savings and loan institutions. There was a wide crisis in Sweden in 1990, and all the banks had to be nationalized.

Then of course we have Indonesia and Southeast Asia in 1997–98, then the crisis moves to Russia, then to Brazil, and it hits Argentina in 2001–2.

And there were problems in the United States in 2001 which they got through by taking money out of the stock market and pouring it into the housing market. In 2007–8 the US housing market imploded, so you got a crisis here.

Neoliberalism is characterized by the hollowing out of the state, the mass privatization of state assets, and the commodification of all things such that everything that’s not in the market begins to look and act like it. If we concieve of society as existing in three parts- the state, the market, and a civil society that exists externally of both, like this:

shows-a-conventional-Venn-diagram-depiction-of-the-spheres-of-civil-society-interacting

 

In a neoliberalized society, the market expands at the expense of the other two sectors, and the state and civil society begin to have more market-influenced aspects. In civil society, we see the rise of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, which combines market forces with state surveillance. In the government, we see the rise of business metrics and corporate jargon that define and shape state action.

Is There A “Late Neoliberalism”?

So as Harvey says, neoliberalism has led to a series of interlocked, perhaps escalating crises all over the world. In the era of managed, Keynesian capitalism, central banks and governments were paying keen attention to growth metrics and financial speculation, so matters could only get so out of hand before actions was taken- bubbles were popped early or prevented entirely through regulation of speculative investments, slowdowns were countered with state investment. Since the state has become irrelevant in terms of financial regulation- instead being the muscle of the market to force compliance- the neoliberal era is a set of austerity reforms, a crisis related to these reforms, and further reforms in response. The thing is, none of these reforms actually solve anything- they just create further chaos that can be exploited. As Tony Weis states in a 2004 paper about how neoliberal reforms have destroyed the Jamaican agriculture industry, neoliberal action is not logical action, though contemporary economists attempt to depict themselves as following rigorous mathematical and logical precepts.

The question is whether there can be a crisis, a revolutionary reaction, so large that it overwhelms the neoliberal state. There are several directions this can take. One is the rise of far-right populism in the United States and parts of Europe, which use the gutting of the welfare state by neoliberal reforms and places the blames on various Others, stating that removing the undesirable parts of society will allow an era of abundance as existed in a (perhaps mythical) past.

Another is electoral anti-austerity movements. This includes the Bernie Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020, the Corbyn era of the Labour party, political parties that grew out of anti-austerity protests like Unidos Podemos in Spain and Solidarity-People Before Profit in Ireland. With the recent coup in Bolivia, and the releasing of Lula in Brazil, in addition to mass movements in Chile and Ecuador, the electoral and non-electoral responses to austerity and far-right reactionaries in Latin America are mixed together. This is not new- social democratic and democratic socialist politicians and parties have used social movements to help press for redistributive policies while in power, and against austerity when out of power.

Is neoliberalism in crisis? Yes, it always is somewhere in the world, and that’s pretty much the point. Is the crisis deep enough to lead to a new society? Well, here’s a bunch of Chileans with a banner reading “Chile will be the tomb of neoliberalism”, so they definitely think so:

ChileNeoliberalism

The remnant of the state in places like Chile, which is an oversized military and police force with some other things of much less importance, has to contain mass protests and general strikes while having very little to offer people to placate them. This is not the era of the New Deal, where programs were created in large part to stave off radicals who were making inroads in the working class. The neoliberal state has nothing but the stick, or as Loïc Wacquant calls it, the “iron fist” of the penal state. This polarizes people and totalizes the conflict. If the security forces blink, then it can be over- like the Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia at the dawn of the millennium. When a nationwide protest rocked the capital, the police and military decided to stand aside. And with that, the people, not the US and its enormous military, overthrew Slobodan Milošević. The federal buildings were seized, and the dictatorship melted away.

Perhaps it is happening again.

BulldozerRevolution
Belgrade, 5 October 2000

 

 

 

Privilege in activism: avoiding white monopolization

Criminal is an eclectic, short-form true crime podcast, part of the Radiotopia network of eclectic, short-form podcasts. It’s genuinely a great listen, usually dealing with stories that are local, often in a historical context. The most recent episode, “The Finger”, deals with a white Oregon man who tested the limits of free speech protection by giving every cop he sees the bird.

This episode highlights something that I think is important, if we wish to have healthy social justice activism. The question of how white people fit into Black Lives Matter as a structure is not new- the White Panther Party is proof of that. What “The Finger” represents is a deep double-standard where authorities criminalize speech for marginalized groups, but are indifferent when coming from traditionally dominant ones.

If I decided to flip off every police officer I saw, there would be some consequences. My car would get pulled over more. Small infractions like jaywalking or speeding could get me fined. A cop might even yell at me and be confrontational. And though I can’t say this for sure, I’m relatively confident that I would not suffer bodily harm for my choices. This applies to acts of protest in general. The same action has a fundamentally different meaning depending on who does it. For me, the consequences are real, but limited. For a black person, someone LGBT-identified or undocumented, people have been killed for much less than The Finger.

Recently I read a 2010 paper titled “The achievement gap and the discipline gap: two sides of the same coin?” (PDF). A section talks about how white and black students are disciplined for different acts, despite similar levels of misbehavior.

reasons for referring White students tended to be for causes that were more objectively observable (smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, obscene language), whereas office referrals for Black students were more likely to occur in response to behaviors (loitering, disrespect, threat, excessive noise) that appear to be more subjective in nature.

The arrest of Sandra Bland was similar to this– based on subjective judgement about “attitude” and “disrespect.” Her minor traffic offense was inflated- despite white drivers doing a similar maneuver all the time. Similar actions, but vastly different consequences.

So that gets back to privilege and protest. I have space that others do not- I can get away with more provocative and militant tactics. The police are more likely to issue warnings before physical confrontation. Authority figures divulge more information around me because they don’t automatically assume I oppose them. This means people with privilege can be the most provocative, visible members of the movement. In the process, it diverts attention away from communities that are under attack by the state.

That’s unfortunate and counterproductive, because one of the most powerful aspects of Black Lives Matter is how dangerous it is to publicly confront the police as a black person in the United States. I can flip The Finger and curse out a police officer, but it doesn’t carry the same meaning.

One line of thought is weaponizing privilege. That is, people with privilege should exploit it to fight for social justice. My critique of white supremacy, the theory assumes, has special meaning because it is a critique of one’s own identity. But at the same time, it feels like things are going in the wrong direction. Privilege used for noble purposes is still fundamentally unjust, and its use cements it within society.

A counter, which after a year and a half around BLM, is that white, male allies are taking leadership positions within the movement when they weaponize privilege. I think that does happen, and I have witnessed it.

Ultimately, I feel my actions should exist within the democratic framework of a movement. That is, not unilaterally using my advantages, but rather offering it as an option should others feel it can be used in some way. White people have a tendency to make decisions personally, and then seek retroactive approval. That’s dangerous and undermines social justice movements. Marginalized groups should have their autonomy acknowledged and respected.

So I choose not to give cops The Finger, because most people cannot. It is important to respect how dangerous activism can be for certain groups of people, and not casually antagonize just because I can get away with it.

Bernie Sanders and the Graveyard of Social Movements

In the final hours before the Iowa caucuses, it’s productive to take a step back and look at the Democratic presidential primary from a structural perspective.

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Sanders at a rally in Charleston, South Carolina. August 2015.

American presidential campaigns used to be managed exclusively by machine bosses. There were no democratic primary elections- there was a convention, the candidate was often a compromise made in a smoke-filled room. Money and patronage were divvied among those who could mobilize resources. Popular participation did play a role, but party leadership counted for a lot- and much of the mobilization was under political machines controlled by said bosses.

All that has really happened since the 19th century convention-based system is that there are now primary elections. Of course that’s a big addition to the process, but the old forces haven’t been replaced. Party elites still try as much as possible to make the primary elections a coronation process; they also have the advantage that those with the most party loyalty are the main electorate. Thus even in a competitive race like 2008, the party structure was not threatened. A couple people got mad and said they wouldn’t vote for Obama, but otherwise unity was quick and very few people in power changed ideology as a result.

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Lance Selfa on the role of the Democrats since the 19th century (The Democrats: A Critical History, Haymarket Books, 2008)

 

This is a meandering way of getting to the relationship of Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party. As Matt Karp writes today, the inner core of the Party has been nearly unanimous in endorsing Clinton, or at least not endorsing Sanders. Even second and third-tier primary candidates of elections past got at least a small handful of national figures, even if they never polled in the double digits.

Sanders is far from the first major candidate that the leading cadre have despised. The Democrats did have a chance to move leftward (to essentially the social-democratic politics that Sanders triumphs) in the late 60s and early 70s, but conflict with the conservative establishment caused so much chaos that there was little time to, ya know, campaign and win elections. If you’re wondering whether the Party will ever embrace a truly different direction, ask whether the people that control it would benefit from higher corporate taxes, more regulation, and eliminating industries like private health insurance.

So the institution doesn’t like him because of his politics. A factor that I’ve yet to see someone articulate clearly is an issue for both officials and primary voters. Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat and has never been one. I’ve run into plenty of people for whom party identification is a core part of their personal identity. They are Democrats. Their parents and grandparents, going back to the New Deal, were Democrats. Partisanship has an ideological component, but it also has the same nationalist substitute you get with sports teams and Kirk v. Picard. The instant Sanders decided to run as a Democrat he entered foreign turf that he doesn’t fit into well.

If history is our guide, the Sanders movement is not going to fundamentally change the structure. My stance on the Party has been consistent to the point that friends are surprised when someone else invokes it- “the graveyard of social movements.” The radicalism of groups since the 19th century has been neutered to the point that once the most militant of working class organizations run away from any genuine progressive politics. Clinton, who has never supported a $15/hr minimum wage, won the endorsement of the SEIU. Currently, their signature campaign is Fight for 15. Much of labor has been so institutionalized that its leadership will choose party loyalty, even if it undermines fast food workers who have lost their jobs advocating for $15.

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From Mike Flugennock: sinkers.org/stage/?p=1707

So as this primary season begins, the question of change needs to be separated. Can Bernie Sanders win despite near-universal Party opposition? Maybe, I don’t know. My concern is that even if he wins, the Party is not the vehicle to achieve progressive change. We have seen how much a President can be handcuffed by Congress- the opposition, yes, but also within the delegation.

I’ve seen people make the argument that Clinton v. Sanders is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. I don’t buy that interpretation (Don’t Believe the Hype!), nor any analysis that says the Party is destined to end up at this or that ideology. The best predictor of the future is the past, and the Democratic Party has been around for about two hundred years now. American party politics has flipped multiple times, but the Democrats were never radicals. When the Democrats fought in the 1890s over the Pullman strike, a Democratic president overrode a Democratic governor to crush it. Attempts to form a progressive, radical opposition has never lasted. Odds are that the Democratic Party will continue doing what it’s been doing, with no substantial change.

It is good to see more independent organizations liked National Nurses United bucking the trend of contradicting policy goals and endorsements. In their last post about the Sanders campaign before the caucuses, a nurse going door-to-door said:

We talked about what it means to have someone who is a champion, but also has a movement behind him. You have to have both to achieve change.

She’s right. You need both. But is that movement to come from a Party run by his opponents and funded by many of the same heinous corporations that fund the Republicans? Perhaps these buried organizations need to rise from the dead.

Because despite claims to the contrary, I think people power still has some life left in this country.