For What It’s Worth: Neo-Liberalism or Democracy?
See the link below to an article entitled “After Neoliberalism,” for which I have appended some comments, for better or worse. My comments are in red.
“The central question of our time is what comes after neoliberalism. New political paradigms emerge in response to the challenges and failures of the preceding era, and today, four possibilities for the future are emerging.”
This is not the central question because (a) neoliberalism isn’t dead yet and (b) what the author labels “neo-liberalism” is actually oligarchy. To think that the target is something called neo-liberalism is to guarantee that you will miss the real target.
“The first possibility is reformed neoliberalism.” There is no such thing as “reformed neoliberalism” because there is no such thing as neo-liberalism. As noted above, the current arrangements, the prevailing regime, are oligarchic where the wealthy rule at the expense of the not-wealthy. To “reform” these arrangements means nothing more than moderating the degree to which the wealthy benefit and the not-wealthy lose. This illustrates why it is beneficial to call our current arrangements “oligarchic” and not “neo-liberal.” Oligarchies are less amenable to change than the rather vague phenomenon neo-liberalism. And the author seems to recognize this. “Others, like those who see the Universal Basic Income as a paradigm for the future, want to correct the dislocations that neoliberal policies created—but they are hesitant to attack the root causes of inequality head-on. The real danger of this path is that it threatens more of the same: persistent disaffection, further erosions of trust and social solidarity, and demagogues waiting in the wings.”
“The second possibility is nationalist populism, which combines ethnic, religious, or cultural nationalism with economic populism.” This is, to me, rather weird as a distinct “possibility” because nationalism is endemic to a world composed of “nation states.” Show me a nation that does not embrace to one degree or another “populistic, ethnic, religious, cultural, and economic” nationalism. As the author identifies this with Steve Bannon, I believe this is just a category meant to isolate the likes of Bannon – and of course Trump – as aberrations. They are not aberrations; hence, their abiding popularity. The author dismisses this possibility because it does not, he argues, constitute “a governing strategy,” which is also odd to me in that it implies that politics is about governing. When will people like this author learn that politics is not primarily about governing? It’s about the pursuit of “the good,” although “the good” is understood differently by democrats and oligarchs and aristocrats. This is why the likes of Bannon is appealing: Because he makes no bones about pursuing a particular understanding of “the good.” And if that pursuit renders government less than “efficient” or “progressive,” then so be it. Human beings desire “the good” and pursue it continuously. They desire “the good” even more than they desire power, contra Hobbes, Locke, or even Nietzsche.
“The third possibility, which many refer to as authoritarianism, has gotten the most attention.” Once again, to refer to a distinct phenomenon as “authoritarianism” is weird to me, especially from someone who takes seriously politics as being about governing. Government is authoritarianism, plain and simple. This is what Machiavelli knew and helps explain why he helped create the phenomenon we call “government,” in distinction from, say, Aristotle who wrote an entire book on politics and never once used the word “government.” Government is, as Machiavelli understood it, essentially bureaucratic and, of course, bureaucracies are “authoritarian,” as Max Weber knew so well, calling bureaucracy the “iron cage of rationality.” The author seems to understand this:
“The better term for this third future is “nationalist oligarchy,” and Trumpism is its American variant. This form of government feeds nationalism to the people but delivers oligarchy—special privileges to the rich and well connected. Its economic approach is a corrupt outgrowth of neoliberalism. Its social policy is nationalist backlash. Its political program involves rigging the rules so popular majorities cannot overthrow the powerful. Nationalist oligarchy is undesirable, to say the least—but it could easily define the next era of politics.”
Although the author recognizes oligarchy here as a distinct phenomenon, incredibly he identifies this option with Trump, as if Trump created “special privileges to the rich and well connected.” And then he goes to assert that “Its political program involves rigging the rules so popular majorities cannot overthrow the powerful.” Given the consistency with which our political parties have rigged the rules to perpetuate their rule, one could accuse the author here of suffering from what Jimmy Dore calls “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” And it seems to me that “nationalist oligarchy” is precisely what we have today. So don’t be surprised if it does “define the next era of politics.”
And then we come to the fourth and obviously the favored possibility, democracy. The author sees that democracy requires equality: “For thousands of years, since at least the ancient Greeks, political leaders and philosophers have recognized that democracies could not succeed in the presence of extreme economic inequality.”
This is all well and good. But what he does not seem to see is that the fact of economic equality is not sufficient. That is, he does not seem to see that a middle class mindset is essential for democracy. People must be convinced and act as if being middle class is better than being wealthy. They know of course that being middling is better than being poor but they need to embrace equality not just as a fact but as an aspiration. The wealthy in such a society are tolerated and, if John Adams was right, they should be isolated – say in a senate – where they can be watched and controlled. They are not to be idolized or lionized as they are in the United States these days. And they are certainly not to be given wealth wholly disproportionate to the not-wealthy. In fact, in democratic societies, the wealthy would try to hide their wealth, try to appear to be middle class by acting and living like they are middle class. Otherwise, as the author points out: “In an unequal society, either the rich would oppress the poor and democracy would descend slowly into oligarchy, or the masses would overthrow the rich, with a demagogue leading the way to tyranny.” In other words, the rich as well as the not rich must embrace the fact that justice requires equality, that the just seek equality, not distinction. Equality is “the good” that should be pursued.
And this leads to the author’s next argument about democracy: “And an economic and united democracy cannot be achieved or sustained without a political process that is responsive to the people.” He is correct, of course, but again his language leaves something to be desired. It is not that in a democracy, as described above, that the governors are “responsive to the people;” rather, it is that they are responsive to the demands of justice. Responding to the people is, of course, reactionary language while pursuing justice is not.
And again our author: “It requires that elections capture the popular will rather than the will of interest groups and wealthy individuals, that elected officials act in the public interest rather than doing the bidding of lobbyists, and that civil servants and judges do not stray from their popular mandates. As important as constitutional restraints and protections of minorities are, majoritarianism is critical to democracy.” The author’s focus here is on the popular will as opposed to interest groups and wealthy individuals, on the public interest and popular mandates and majoritarianism. But the focus should be on equality as “the good,” equality not as a manifestation of “the popular will” but as a manifestation of justice. The popular will could be corrupted by the appeal of wealth or by appeals to greatness ala’ Pericles. The popular will is of ambiguous value whereas justice is not. The popular will might point toward “the good,” but justice necessarily points toward or is that “good.”
When Lincoln said that a house divided against itself cannot stand, he was, I believe, talking about justice, about how a nation that is divided on the question of the justice of slavery cannot go on in that condition. Human beings pursue justice and, therefore, either the nation would become either all slave or all free, there being no way to reconcile these different versions of justice. Lincoln was appealing, as best he could in his time, to justice, not to the popular will, as Stephen Douglas did. Lincoln knew that the popular will did not and would not – at least not then – support equality. But justice required Lincoln to save the union as a free nation, not a slave nation. And through it all, Lincoln held firm to his belief that slavery was unjust and, hence, had to be destroyed. This is what Frederick Douglass perceived about Lincoln and led him, despite his clear-sighted assessment of Lincoln as “the white man’s president,” to honor Lincoln and to recommend that the freedmen should honor him also. Lincoln’s goal was justice and this would, Douglass knew, benefit, eventually, the former slaves as well as white men. Justice is good for all.
What the United States needs these days is what it has always needed, viz., a politics of justice. A “responsive political system” might or might not be just; an oligarchy, whether populistic or nationalistic or both is not just. An interventionist foreign policy, as some like to call it, might or might not be just; an imperialistic foreign policy is unjust. Justice is “the good” and it is or should be the goal of our political system. It would be good if a politics of justice succeeded our current oligarchy.