The Failure of Neoliberalism Radicalizes a Generation

by Conor Lynch edited by O Society Feb 27, 2020

When the conversation veered toward “capitalism” and “socialism” at last week’s Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, the preeminent capitalist on the stage, Michael Bloomberg, could hardly believe what he was hearing:

“I can’t think of a way that would make it easier for Donald Trump to get reelected than listening to this conversation,” lamented billionaire Bloomberg, who pronounced the discussion ridiculous. “We’re not going to throw out capitalism,” he said. “We tried that. Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn’t work.”

Five or ten years ago, Bloomberg’s casual dismissal  may have seemed justified to most Americans. In the recent past, having a serious discussion about the benefits of socialism versus capitalism on American national television — and at a major presidential debate, no less — appeared almost inconceivable.

For as long as many Americans have been alive, capitalism has been widely considered the underlying natural order of things. Questioning its existence seemed not only wrong, but woefully naive and dangerous.

Since the Cold War began in the mid-20th century, the United States has been viewed as the center of the capitalist world. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, capitalism seemed on television to have triumphed once and for all, ending the historical struggle between the competing ideologies that characterized modernity; hence the quaint notion of the “end of history.”

There was no more questioning of capitalism to be done, as it proved itself to be the economic system that corresponded most with human nature. Survival of the fittest, at least that’s what orthodox economists, who subscribe to the homo economicus model of human nature (and who decidedly are not actual biologists or natural scientists) told us.

In his 2009 book, “Capitalist Realism,” the late author Mark Fisher describes a certain pessimistic attitude on the left, captured by the popular saying: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Capitalist realism, Fisher writes, is the “widespread sense not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”

In the decade since Fisher wrote these words, a great deal changed. Though it is still hard to imagine the end of capitalism, we no longer universally accept capitalism as simply part of any “natural” order, or that there is “no alternative” (as the United Kingdom’s former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, famously proclaimed). The armor of neoliberalism was first pierced by the global financial crisis, and the rise of populist movements on both the left and right in the years since further eroded the political and intellectual hegemony of the once all-encompassing worldview.

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Neoliberalism wasn’t even acknowledged as an actual ideology by many in the ivory towers until fairly recently. Some neoliberals continue to deny its very existence. As scholar Adam Kotsko notes in his book, “Neoliberalism’s Demons,” neoliberalism “loves to hide” and its “very invisibility is a measure of its power.”

Neoliberalism, according to Kotsko, is more than just a set of economic policies implemented throughout the world in the last half-century. Rather, it “aspires to be a complete way of life and a holistic worldview, in a way previous models of capitalism did not.” For this reason, Kotsko describes neoliberalism not just as an ideology but as a form of “political theology.”

Kotsko on neoliberalism:

An account of human nature where economic competition is the highest value leads to a political theology where the prime duty of the state is to enable, and indeed mandate, such competition, and the result is a world wherein individuals, firms, and states are all continually constrained to express themselves via economic competition. This means neoliberalism tends to create a world in which neoliberalism is ‘true.’

L0076366 The Prince of Darkness, Dagol devouring human limbs

The very fact we are discussing neoliberalism right now, Kotsko writes, is a “sign its planetary sway is growing less secure.” As the “planetary sway” of neoliberalism weakened over the past decade, more and more people — especially young people born and raised in the neoliberal era — started to question a system that left their generation drowning in debt, burned out and mentally exhausted, and stuck in an endless loop of precarious uncertainty.

Neoliberal ideas, political scientist Lester Spence writes, “radically change what it means to be human, as the perfect human being now becomes an entrepreneur of his own human capital, responsible for his personal development.”

Young people entering the workforce today are expected to cheerfully embrace their own alienation and the commodification of their whole existence. Under neoliberalism, citizens become producers/ consumers who are “free” to participate in the market economy but not necessarily free to engage in political protest or to form unions.

Neoliberalism is the opposite of solidarity. It encourages an extreme form of selfish individualism that ends up depoliticizing the populace and eroding the collective spirit of democracy. It also leaves the individual isolated and alone.

“In a brutal, competitive, and atomized society, psychic well-being is so difficult, success on this front can feel like a significant accomplishment,” observes political theorist Jodi Dean. “Trying to do it themselves, people are immiserated and proletarianized and necessarily confront this immiseration and proletarianization alone.”

L0076365 Illustration of Asmodai (MS 1766)

Considering the hellish reality it creates for so many people, the backlash against neoliberalism is as predictable as it is inevitable. In a real sense, neoliberalism radicalized an entire generation, pushing many young people to revolt against the existing order as a whole. The fact the Democratic Party’s likely presidential nominee (especially after his landslide victory in Nevada) is self-professed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders tells us the secular religion of neoliberalism quickly lost its credibility and authority.

During the Cold War, under the threat of communism, America and other capitalist countries in the West embraced social democratic reforms that played an essential role in curbing the more extreme contradictions of capitalism. This led to a less brutal and unequal system, and therefore a more stable one.

When communism fell in the late 20th century, the neoliberal age was already in full swing, with both parties uniting to reverse many of the progressive reforms that had been enacted after the Great Depression. Now, after 40 years of neoliberalism, the worst contradictions returned, and unsurprisingly, mass movements opposing the current system also returned.

When Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor of New York City came to an end in 2013, a few years after the Great Recession, it was already clear the neoliberal era was on its last legs. Bloomberg used the New York Police Department (the world’s “seventh largest army,” he once boasted) to crush Occupy Wall Street in 2011, but the spirit of the movement could not be crushed. On the debate stage almost a decade later, Bloomberg’s neoliberal talking points no longer sounded like Thatcherist truisms.

Sanders began his “political revolution” in 2016, and he is clearly still leading it in 2020. For most people in the halls of power, his electoral success has come as an utter shock. “Something is happening in America right now that actually does not fit our mental models,” remarked journalist Anand Giridharadas on MSNBC after Sanders’ big win in Nevada. The donor class, the media elites and those in the political establishment, Giridharadas said, are behaving like “out-of-touch aristocrats in a dying aristocracy.”

While 18th and 19th century aristocrats in Europe were coming to terms with the collapse of monarchism after it was undermined by the radical critiques of enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau, today’s elites are dealing with the collapse of neoliberalism, the ruling ideology for the past half-century.

There’s little doubt the ultra-rich will do whatever they can to stop Sanders from winning the Democratic nomination and perhaps the general election. Although they are less likely to succeed after Nevada, it is unwise to underestimate the reactionary impulses of a dying aristocracy (the Bloomberg campaign is already plotting its brokered convention strategy).

Regardless of what happens in the next few weeks, one thing is absolutely clear: The neoliberal worldview which dominated the discourse for decades is being consigned to the dustbin of history.

4 thoughts on “The Failure of Neoliberalism Radicalizes a Generation

  1. No, the younger generation are hard core capitalists, like their parents. They equate human worth itself with one’s place in the capitalist job market. They call for a measure of “socialism” to benefit the middle class, and think the very idea of restoring basic human rights of food and shelter (UN’s UDHR) to those left jobless, to be outrageous. The socialists are those few who point to America’s poverty crisis as proof of the failure of our 19th century capitalism.

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    1. Articles like this overestimate the failures of the neoliberal policies that exist today in one form or the other in almost every major economy around the world today and underestimate it’s staying power. Btw, Conor Lynch, gallup polls are not going to give you anything meaningful about this issue. I see, as usual, the average American or Anglo-sphere resident seeks truth in statistics and numbers. Too much emphasis on believing what your eyes see. Getting back to the point I’m trying to make, the roots of neoliberal policies are actually so entrenched in our globalized world that it’ll take more than incidents like 2008 and coronavirus and climate change to change them. All the qualities that you have described about neoliberalism are not just something you’ll find in the marketplace, far away from people’s private lives. No No. Neoliberalism is a way for life for Americans now. And you see, this ideology can only be weeded out of it’s roots through a lot of capital, resources and atleast a couple of generations of consistent social conditioning of people to change their view and support high government regulation and for pro-social safety net issues to be debated on American television by mainstream media. And the simple matter of the fact is, I don’t see the anti-neoliberal proponents weilding power today. They simply don’t have the money and clout to make things happen. I agree with dhfabian. Americans today in the 18-35 age group are hardcore capitalists. Upper-class & middle-class. Hyper-individualism is deeply deeply embedded into American society. Plus the failures of socialist policies around the world and the American cold-war victory are consistently touted in mainstream discourse amongst the American public as evidence. People today think Trump or Michael Bloomberg are the reason why America is the way it is today. They like to insult these people. No, they are simply the embodiment of a value-system that Americans embraced half a century ago. Trump and Bloomberg are the poster-children for American values today. Meaning, they are simply a face for what the majority of Americans believe today. Yes, even the educated ones. And no. going to college and getting a degree and having 20 years of life experience doesn’t make them “educated”. This is what most Americans like to think though. As far the blue-collar and poor Americans are concerned nobody even asks for their opinion at all anyway. So they are just expendable collateral in this discussion. Hate to say this, but American citizens are all talk and no show. Sissified. American citizens, atleast the middle-class and upper-class ones are partisans essentially. And American discourse today is simply steeped in partisanship. As to why this happened, we’ll have to trace it’s roots in the 20th century when mass opinion and mass culture became a major societal force. American citizens like to engage in what I like to call the “He said – she said” scenario. And technology has been cleverly used to keep the current neo-liberal system stable. Of course, this outcome unfolded both intentionally and unintentionally in recent decades. Silicon valley is just one of hundreds of examples I give as evidence. The current neo-liberal holders of power today, have all the right cards and the American citizens ( and through subservience) the citizens and governments of every developed nation today who are it’s allies have ceded their power in exchange for hyper-individualism and unrestrained globalization. And anti-neoliberals today hold none of the right cards.

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