The 2016 Democratic presidential primary brought about an unexpected discussion of neoliberalism in US political discourse. The term, which refers to a generation-long agenda of public policy that aims to reshape as much of society as possible on the model of a competitive market, has long been regarded as a piece of jargon that is restricted to academic, and occasionally left activist, circles. The contest between the avowed socialist Bernie Sanders and the ultimate political insider, Hillary Clinton, whose husband’s presidency marked the definitive shift away from social democracy and toward neoliberalism among the Democrats, lent the term neoliberalism a new cachet in the public sphere. Something similar had happened earlier in the UK and on the continent, as the austerity measures implemented in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis – often mandated directly by the European Union – were taken to be a sign of neoliberal hegemony. These critiques opened the space for the socialist Jeremy Corbyn to take the reins of the UK Labour Party, which had made its own neoliberal turn under Tony Blair.
For the most part, however, the post-Crisis environment was more propitious for the right than the left. Most spectacularly, the right- wing nationalist Donald Trump prevailed over Hillary Clinton, and the UK public defied the cross-party neoliberal consensus by voting to leave the European Union. In both cases, there were claims on the left that these developments, however alarming, were actually beneficial in that they presaged a break with neoliberalism. Some in the UK, for instance, argued that Brexit, while originally motivated by racism and xenophobia, could create the opportunity to reestablish social democratic institutions that EU regulations rendered impractical. In reference to the US context, some commentators (most prominently Slavoj Žižek) claimed before the election that Trump was preferable to Clinton, because he would at least upset the neoliberal status quo and open up the space for some alternative.
I have my doubts about these positions but before we assess their practical prospects, we need to ask a prior question: does the right- wing reaction actually represent an alternative to neoliberalism? My short answer is no. As I say above, at the heart of the neoliberal order is an ethos of endless competition. For neoliberals, justice and human flourishing are best served if people, firms, cities, regions, and countries are continually competing with each other. It is often claimed that this competition will increase efficiency, innovation, or aggregate social wealth, but at the end of the day, it is an end in itself – market competition is the highest instantiation of human freedom, the best reflection of human dignity. From this perspective, it is clear that Trump does not break with neoliberalism. This is not to say that Trump simply “is” neoliberal in a straightforward sense (if only because conscious adherence to neoliberalism would require more systematic thinking than he appears capable of). Instead, I think it is more helpful to think of him a parody of neoliberalism, exaggerating its worst features.
It is not controversial to point out that Trump views the world as an endless series of zero-sum competitions. In that respect, he is neoliberal to the core. There are of course well-known areas where Trump has violated neoliberal “best practices”, like withdrawing from international agreements or imposing various trade restrictions. But the way he talks about these actions is revealing. He is constantly ranting about how America has gotten a bad deal, how other countries are taking advantage of us, how people are laughing at us, etc. This fits with his general sense that he and his followers are constantly being cheated. The hidden premise here is that in a fair competition, the US and the “best people” (Trump’s people) would have won. Since they are not winning – or at least not winning as much as they believe they should – then the system must be rigged. What outsiders view as Trump’s own cheating and corruption, he and his followers view as a necessary countermeasure to restore fairness to the competition so that the right people will start winning. In other words, he is not offering us a way out of the endless competition of neoliberalism – he is offering to give us the pure form of neoliberal competition for the first time.
Hence, while Trump’s “us vs. them” mentality is superficially contrary to the cosmopolitan aspirations of the globalizing neoliberal elite, it is recognizable as an especially crass and vulgar instance of the general neoliberal value of competition. And it is in this context that we should understand Trump’s overt bigotry – which seems so contrary to the official cosmopolitanism of neoliberalism – as a specifically neoliberal form of bigotry. Once again, the hidden premise is that whites are superior and a fair competition would reveal that. Any advantage (real or imagined) that non-whites enjoy must be the result of cheating. Hence, for example, Latin Americans seeking asylum are liars who want to take advantage of us, migrant workers are cheaters out to steal our jobs, illegal immigrants are coming to the US to vote and steal our elections, etc., etc. We can extend the same logic to the movement that launched Trump’s political career: Birtherism, which claimed that the first black president was not an American citizen at all. It is impossible that Obama won fair and square, so he must have cheated – indeed, the very fact that he ran in the first place was a violation of the US Constitution in the Birther worldview. For all the important differences between the US and UK contexts, there is a similar dynamic at work in Brexit. For Brexiteers, freedom of movement within the EU leaves UK workers helpless to stem the flood of cheaper competition from Eastern Europe while opening the door to supposedly threatening Muslim immigrants. Meanwhile, the EU itself is presented as parasitic, though with the twist that it is draining a beloved welfare program, the NHS. Whatever cheating and lies were involved in the campaign are not viewed as serious moral failings among Brexiteers, for whom a more fundamental truth was at stake – namely, national sovereignty. Yet as the Article 50 deadline looms, that precious freedom has mostly been deployed in the service of securing a deal that will supposedly increase the UK’s global competitiveness by opening up exciting new possibilities for trade with the US or China. The fact that this deal is an impossible fantasy only highlights the degree to which neoliberal standards are shaping Brexiteers’ thinking.
In short, the right-wing reaction is neoliberalism by other means. Yet even that claim may be overstated, because there are strong parallels between the horrors presently unfolding before our eyes and the original installation of the neoliberal order beginning in the late 70s and early 80s. Think, for example, of the infamous figure of the “welfare queen” – the poor black single mothers who were supposedly defrauding the public purse in order to buy filet mignon and Cadillacs. This demonized figure was central to the campaign to discredit the welfare state as a parasitic institution that existed solely to allow blacks to take advantage of the generosity of the white majority. This agenda to cut the welfare state was not simply aimed at reducing public spending, however, but was part of a broader effort by which neoliberal policymakers aimed to reshape society. The cartoonish moral turpitude of the welfare queen represented the belief that the state safety net incentivized moral irresponsibility by reducing people’s reliance on – and hence loyalty to – their families. Reduced social support would reverse this dynamic, creating a situation in which everyone would have good reason to freely choose to strengthen their relationship with their families. Of course, these opportunities for moral edification were not equally distributed. In the black community in particular, the massive disinvestment represented by “white flight” to suburban areas led to mass unemployment and substandard schools, tilting the incentives toward criminal activity as a survival strategy. Meanwhile, the War on Drugs led to a massive increase in police presence in poor black communities – despite the fact that whites have always used and sold drugs at the same rate as blacks – and the resulting mass imprisonment rendered it even more difficult for black families to remain stable.
Above I referred to the welfare queen as a “demonized figure”, and that description is not accidental. In my book Neoliberalism’s Demons, I argue that neoliberalism works via mechanism of demonization. By this I don’t mean simply saying hyperbolically negative things about someone, but setting someone up for a fall, providing them with just the barest sliver of agency necessary to render them blameworthy. My model here is the account of the fall of the devil in Christian theology, where God demands instant obedience from all of the angels and consigns those who show resistance to eternal damnation, changing them from angels to demons. This is the same kind of arbitrary demand for obedience that we see in US police shootings, which are overwhelmingly committed against black men. We always learn that the victim “had a choice” and was therefore responsible for his own death – and inevitably, some episode from the victim’s past is uncovered that supposedly proves he was “no angel”. This is only the most extreme form of a dynamic of demonization that pervades the policy of criminalizing the black population through overpolicing that Michelle Alexander has dubbed “the new Jim Crow” – and that I argue we should understand as a specifically neoliberal Jim Crow.
Among more privileged segments of the population, neoliberal scenarios of choice are not so extreme. Often there is genuinely some time for deliberation and reflection. Yet in those cases, the options are usually so lopsided that the “choice” is an empty one. A major example that many American young people – and an increasing number of British young people – face is the “choice” to take on student loans. On the one hand, they are constantly told that a college education is the only possible path to a moderately comfortable and secure life, and that the benefit in higher wages more than makes up for the debt they will take on. On the other hand, most often we are dealing with young adolescents who have never lived on their own – hence the prospect of a lifetime of inescapable debt seems very abstract to them. It is not surprising, then, that so many students consign themselves to decades of inescapable penury. And when that promised great job does not materialize, few are able to resist the belief that their situation is their own fault: if only they had chosen a different school, a different field, a different group of friends to “network” with...
This self-doubt is perhaps the most insidious effect of neoliberalism’s reliance on this demonizing dynamic of forced choices. The neoliberal order convinces us that we really are ultimately responsible for our fates – after all, we had a choice! Even the most well-informed critics of neoliberalism can’t help being haunted by a nagging sense of personal shame as our culture continually pushes us to think of social injustices in terms of personal inadequacies. It is this sense of shame that is perhaps behind the right-wing reactionaries’ insistence that the game is rigged – because if the game is not rigged, if it is really a fair competition, then the only possible conclusion is not only that they have lost, but that they are losers. From that perspective, perhaps the extreme “us vs. them” mindset we see in Brexit and Trump is based on a deep hatred of self, generated by an endless competition that entraps more and more of us in a dynamic of failure even as it insists that we are to blame for our status as pathetic losers – after all, we had a choice.
Adam Kotsko is on the faculty of the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College. His research focuses on political theology, continental philosophy, and the history of Christian thought. His latest book Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capitalism was published last year by Stanford University Press. adamkotsko.com / @adamkotsko
From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 2 ('Us and Them').