by Thomas R. Wells
The left has been at war with neoliberalism since the 1980s. The result has been intellectual, political, and moral collapse.
The first problem is that there is no such thing as neoliberalism. It exists entirely as a critique by the left. It thus mirrors the fantasy of political correctness that the right rages against – indeed the resemblance is so great that I can repurpose Moira Weigel's elegant turn of phrase in her essay ‘Political correctness: how the right invented a phantom enemy'
[U]pon closer examination, “
political correctnessneoliberalism” becomes an impossibly slippery concept. The term is what Ancient Greek rhetoricians would have called an “exonym”: a term for another group, which signals that the speaker does not belong to it. Nobody ever describes themselves as “ politically correctneoliberal”. The phrase is only ever an accusation.
Since no one admits to being neoliberal – unless they are trolling leftists for the lulz – the entire theoretical apparatus of neoliberalism is written by leftists, either for each other or for the general public. The theory of neoliberalism thus consists of whatever you want to argue against right now – it is a classic man of straw, invented anew by every critic. Some claim that neoliberalism is something to do with how neoclassical economics look at the world (Foucault), or else US capitalist imperialism (David Harvey), or else selfishness masquerading as meritocracy (George Monbiot), and so on. Neoliberalism has been terribly convenient for the left. They can blame it for anything they hate about the modern world.
But that very convenience is a problem.
If your theory can explain everything and its opposite then you have mistaken emotional catharsis for intellectual rigour. You are not making progress in understanding how the world works and could be made to work better. Sometimes China is claimed as a counter-example to neoliberalism – because it got rich quick without following conventional economics rules like free trade or property rights. Sometimes it is claimed as a paradigm of neoliberalism – because it is an evil crony-capitalist state run for the benefit of well-connected political insiders. Sometimes you have to wonder what world these anti-neoliberals are living in. They bleat continually about deregulation, for instance, when the most obvious thing about contemporary capitalism post 1980 is the scale of the regulation – as our politicians shifted to governing the economy by arms length rules instead of direct managerial control. They complain that neoliberal exploitation is making the world poorer and more unequal, which is about as wrong as it is possible to be.
This theorising by emotion is at the root of the Left's intellectual failings of the last decades. How could they develop a positive new idea to replace the failed socialist experiments when their understanding of themselves and their project is ‘anti-neoliberalism', i.e. as not-not-a-real-thing?
It is the Left's intellectual failings in turn that are responsible for its political failures. It has no vision of a brighter future of real equality and democracy and no idea either of what to do about the problems of today. The Left once engaged us in a radical principled utopian politics of the future which, even if we disagreed, lifted our imaginations to see other possibilities. Now all they have to offer is a sullen backward looking risk-averse ‘protectivism'. They strive to protect the losers of modernity's twists and turns – like Walloon dairy farmers unwilling to compete with Canadian cows, or Barcelonans priced out of a tourism fuelled real-estate boom – by blocking the trade deals with dastardly foreigners and killing the tourism industry. They offer no real hope to the losers of a better future, only more causes for anxiety. No wonder their voters are leaving, for other populists who at least promise to make them winners instead.
Yet here neoliberalism is once again convenient, not as theory but as conspiracy. The truth of politics is a shadowy conspiracy of the elites over and against the true will of the people. The institutions of liberal democracy, of law, of government, of international treaties, the media, and everything else are all no more than components of the giant neoliberal corruption machine. Jeremy Corbyn's suspicion of the lying press permeates every interview. You may not think it makes him sound any more convincing, but it does provide him with the excuse he needs to explain why Theresa May now governs a one-party state.
Here, finally, is the moral bankruptcy of the Left. The only thing they have managed to achieve in 40 years of anti-neoliberalism is to undermine trust in liberal democracy, in all that politics can achieve within the system and to improve it. Liberal democracy – by which such radical ideas as universal free healthcare were achieved – is the problem to be overcome. The only politics left is populist revolt against the system itself. Welcome to Trumpland.