In a slender volume edited by Heinrich Geisenberger “The Great Regression”, fifteen, among the most important left-wing social thinkers of today, ask the following question: what is the future of social-democracy now when global neoliberalism is crumbling and the forces of nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise? I would not be letting you in on a big secret, nor do I think I would undermine the book’s appeal, if I say that they do not have an answer; neither individually, not collectively. The reason is simple: the answer, as of now, is elusive, and it might even seem that it does not exist.
The contributors to this very good volume which, as I said, gives an excellent insight into the intellectual thinking of the left are (in alphabetic order): Arjun Appadurai, Zygmunt Bauman, Donatella della Porta, Nancy Fraser, Eva Illouz, Ivan Krastev, Bruno Latour, Paul Mason, Pankaj Mishra, Robert Misik, Oliver Nachtwey, César Rendueles, Wolfgang Streeck, David Van Reybrouck and Slavoj Žižek.
Not all contributions are, in my opinion, equally interesting, I find Zygmunt Bauman’s writing, as always, very convoluted and difficult to read. Ivan Krastev seems like an odd man out among this group of writers: he disagrees with Trump and Brexit but from what seem fully certifiable neoliberal positions.
It would not surprise the reader that the names that are often mentioned in the volume are Polanyi and Gramsci, with Erich Fromm with his “Escape from Freedom” coming back from a long oblivion. Be ready to see Fromm quoted more and more.
I would like to highlight three contributions that seem most interesting to me. Nancy Fraser has written an excellent and bold essay on the ideological background to Trump’s victory. She sees the main competitors to be “progressive neoliberals” and “reactionary populists”. Progressive neoliberals are the creation of Clinton’s “New Democrats” and his innumerable triangulations that eventually brought together “progressives” who cared about identity, gender and racial equality, and sexual rights together with the most hard-nosed Wall Street types. This was, at the origin, an unlikely coalition: LBGTQ activists together with Goldman Sachs. But it worked. The “progressives” enjoyed their newly-found influence. They got Goldman to pay lip service to equal rights, promote a few persons of “color” to top positions, and even realize the advantage, for its bottom-line, of being more open to diverse talent.* Goldman Sachs made the money. This is what in the 1990s and early 2000s went under the slogan of “socially liberal and fiscally conservative”.
Who played the serpent to this “progressive neoliberal” paradise? Those left out of economic success, that is, losers of globalization, and those unable or unwilling to accept the new screeds of “progressivism”. The alliance of progressives and financial-sector neoliberals created, almost by definitions, its counterpart among those who were maladjusted: either economically or socially, So long as “the maladjusted” accounted for 20% or so of the electorate and made lots of noise with little political success (“The Tea Party”), they could be ignored by the winning coalition. It is one of the ironies of life that “the maladjusted” found in Donald Trump somebody who was able to express, and use that resentment.
But, as Nancy Fraser shows, this alignment of forces totally ignored the left. The left was co-opted by the Clintonite and Obama’s grand coalition of sexual liberators and money bagmen, and whenever it threatened to get out of that coalition it was faced with the specter of terrible things to come. It became a hostage of progressive neoliberals. This completely neutered the left. It could not get out of Clintonite coalition without bringing racists and xenophobes to power, and it could not nudge the Clinton-Obama coalition left.
In this excellent analysis Fraser openly puts the responsibility for Trump’s rise on the ”unholy alliance of ‘emancipation’ with ‘financialization’”. What to do next?: “To reach out to the mass of Trump voters who are neither racists nor committed ‘right-wingers’ but the casualties of a ‘rigged system’” (p.48).
Wolfgang Streeck analysis for Europe is very similar to Fraser’s for the United States. The costs of “la pensée unique” adopted by social-democrats across the continent are being paid now through the absence of a credible social-democratic alternative that could attract the votes of “malcontents” and consequently check the rise of the right. In the opinion of “the progressive neoliberal” alliance, Streeck writes, “the fact that the Great Unwashed, who for so long had helped promote the progress of capitalism passing their time with the Facebook pages of Kim Kardashian…had now returned to the voting booth, appears to be a sign of an ominous regression” (p. 161).
Streeck is very critical of the use of the term of “populist”. He sees it, rightly in my opinion, as a useful shorthand to reject “en bloc” everybody who is against TINA (“There Is No Alternative”). The term of “populist” is useful to the “progressive-neoliberal alliance” because it makes no distinction between the left and the right, and because both Trump and Sanders can be dismissed as populists who are providing “simple answers to a complex reality”. Everything but TINA is simple and wrong because that immeasurably complex reality is understood only by neoliberals. “’Populism’ is diagnosed in normal internationalist usage as a cognitive problem” (p. 163). In other words, questioning TINA is seen by the elites as a symptom of some deep cognitive issue. Not surprisingly , there are calls to ditch the universal franchise and replace it by “gnosocracy”: vote given only to those who can show to be sufficiently smart. (Streeck quotes such instances).
Solution: None at the moment. We are in the Gramscian interregnum when "familiar chains of cause and effect are no longer in force and unexpected, dangerous and grotesquely abnormal events may occur at any moment” (p. 166).
Paul Mason (whose excellent “Postcapitalism” I have reviewed here) has penned a beautiful essay that draws on his, and his father’s, personal experiences. It is a story of the English working class, bound together in its contempt for the rich, swindlers and government, open to foreigners like themselves, and with strong social ties. All of that was, according to Mason, destroyed by Thatcherism. Companies went bust, coal mines were closed, work for which these people were prepared became hard to find, jobs got off-shored, social solidarity frayed, and atomization set in. Some left these now desolate places looking for better alternatives in the cities, others espoused the new dogma of financialization and easy money. Local rugby clubs folded. Instead of a rich social fabric, there was now a desert.
The description is strong and poignant. Mason wants things to go back to the way they were in the 1960s and 1970s. He is frank in stating that the left must undo globalization, bring back the jobs, forget about developing countries, and get rid of East European immigrants. The latter come for a special critique, unlike the earlier African and Sub-Continental immigrants because, through no fault of theirs, they came to the UK when the country was transiting from manufacturing to service economy: they thus could not be included into an essentially working-class ethos described by Mason because that world had by then ceased to exist. But Mason does not like them because he sees them also as being too pliant to the demands of globalized capitalism and too acceptant of neoliberal dogmas. Forget about the blond Polish baristas, give us back a strong, beer-swelling Kenyan worker!
But what kind of leftism, one could ask, is that, so indistinguishable from Marine Le Pen’s Front National?
The question left to the reader at the end of the book is, should the social-democratic left maintain its internationalism, in which case it would have to go back to Wall Street elites and ditch national policies of redistribution, or should it focus on domestic malcontents in which case it would move towards policies of national socialism? Or will be able to find a narrow path, between the two, that would combine internationalism with domestic redistribution?
* Fraser (p. 41) speak contemptuously of “corporate feminism focused on ‘leaning in’ and ‘cracking the glass ceiling’”.