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.”
Ten, or even five, years ago, Bloomberg’s concern would have probably seemed justified. 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 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 to have triumphed once and for all, ending the historical struggle between the competing ideologies that characterized modernity (hence the notion of the “end of history”). There was no more questioning capitalism, which had proved to be the economic system that corresponded most with human nature. (At least that’s what orthodox economists, who subscribed to the homo economicus, or “economic man,” model of human nature, told us.)
In his 2009 book, “Capitalist Realism,” the late author Mark Fisher described 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 wrote, was the “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”
In the decade-plus since Fisher wrote these words, a great deal has changed. Though it is still hard to imagine the end of capitalism, it is no longer universally accepted that capitalism is simply part of the “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 have further eroded the political and intellectual hegemony of the all-encompassing worldview.
Neoliberalism wasn’t even acknowledged as an actual ideology until fairly recently. In fact, many 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 that have been 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 that previous models of capitalism did not.” For this reason, Kotsko describes neoliberalism not just as an ideology but as a form of “political theology.”
In neoliberalism, Kotsko remarks,
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 that neoliberalism tends to create a world in which neoliberalism is ‘true.’
The very fact that we are now discussing neoliberalism, Kotsko writes, is a “sign that its planetary sway is growing less secure.” As the “planetary sway” of neoliberalism has weakened over the past decade, more and more people — especially young people who were born and raised in the neoliberal era — have started to question a system that has 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 that 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 confront this immiseration and proletarianization alone.”
Considering the hellish reality that it has created for so many people, the backlash against neoliberalism was as predictable as it was inevitable. In a real sense, neoliberalism has radicalized an entire generation, pushing many young people to revolt against the existing order as a whole. The fact that the Democratic Party’s likely presidential nominee (especially after his landslide victory in Nevada) is self-professed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders tells us that the secular religion of neoliberalism has quickly lost all 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 have returned, and unsurprisingly, mass movements opposing the current system also have 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 that elites 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 that has dominated the discourse for decades is being consigned to the dustbin of history.
Conor Lynch Conor Lynch is a freelance writer and journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in The Week, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications. You can follow him on Twitter…
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ce Fisher wrote these words, a great deal has changed. Though it is still hard to imagine the end of capitalism, it is no longer universally accepted that capitalism is simply part of the “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 have further eroded the political and intellectual hegemony of the all-encompassing worldview.