Nancy Fraser on Progressive Neoliberalism

While some might find the academic style of Nancy Fraser’s recent piece slightly offputting, I recommend that everyone make the effort to read through what is one of the more perceptive and useful guides to where we are, how we have gotten there, and where we need to go.

As is required of any informed and rational discussion of these topics, Fraser recognizes the major force which is responsible for our current plight, namely, the set of political and economic assumptions categorized by the term neoliberalism.

Fraser’s main insight is to recognize a distinction between two variants of neoliberalism referred to by her as progressive and reactionary . The former, according to her, derives from an alliance of “mainstream liberal currents of the new social movements (feminism, antiracism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, and LGBTQ rights)” with “the most dynamic, ‘high-end symbolic’ and financial sectors of the U.S. economy (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood).”  The latter designates the more familiar combination of “unshackl(ing) market forces from the heavy hand of the state and from the millstone of ‘tax and spend,’ . . .  the liberaliz(ing) and globaliz(ing of) the capitalist economy . . .   the dismantling of barriers to, and protections from, the free movement of capital; the deregulation of banking and the ballooning of predatory debt; deindustrialization, the weakening of unions, and the spread of precarious, badly paid work.”

Fraser’s perspective runs counter some of the best known left critiques of neoliberalism, for example, those of David Harvey and Phillip Mirowski. They and their followers, most notably verticalist elements within the Jacobin circle, see neoliberalism as an exclusively reactionary project having its roots in the Mt. Pelerin society then gradually insinuating itself into the political mainstream creating a globalized, international consensus around a core of what are traditional reactionary right wing economic assumptions.

What this leaves out is progressive neoliberalism, or, more specifically, an understanding of its key role within the political trajectory required for neoliberalism to be established.   Why was it that labor based social democratic parties both here and in Europe capitulated to neoliberal policy prescriptions, accepting them as consistent with their core values even when it was clear that they were an attack on their fundamental essence?  How could an ostensibly left political formation advance these policies? Progressive neoliberalism provides the answer.

The most conspicuous domestic variant of this dynamic was the coup which took place in the Democratic Party following the McGovern defeat in 1972.  As recounted by Thomas Frank and Matt Stoller (whom I discussed here), among others, this involved labor unions and other traditional liberal interest groups being displaced from leadership positions in the party. Progressive neoliberalism added the crucial element of replacing these with what Fraser refers to as “the new social movements.” These simultaneously provided a smokescreen for the takeover of the party by Wall Street, business and finance while also conferring legitimacy on the enlightened wings of capital, most notably the high tech industries which were characterized by diverse hiring practices based on meritocratic advancement.

Those following Harvey and Mirowski in viewing neoliberalism as a reactionary monolith tend to ignore this history.  For them, the Democratic party was never an active site of class conflict. The New Deal gains, rather than as product of active struggle by activist organizations, are no more than temporary concessions by elites always firmly in control of the party agenda. Never seriously committed to social democracy, that they would roll back welfare state protections when they were in a position to do so was predictable.

With respect to the current opposition to neoliberalism now assuming the form of the Sanders insurgency,  attempts to re-establish the aspirations of the 99% at the center of the Democratic Party are seen as, at best, misguided and politically naive, easily manipulated by party elites.  At worst, those doing so are derided as opportunistic, mainly concerned with exploiting the political system for self-advancement at the expense of the constituencies they claim to represent.

Extending this analysis internationally, the left tendencies within social democratic parties serve mainly to corral opposition to neoliberalism into an organizational structure where they will be ignored and marginalized.

Of course, there is some evidence for this cynical view, most conspicuously in the capitulations of Syriza on which the left had placed hopes.  But while recognizing Greece as a defeat, it is becoming increasingly apparent that neoliberalism can be challenged. Most notably, within the British Labor party, the site of one of its major triumphs, neoliberalism has been effectively erased, with the likelihood that a return to something like traditional social democratic governance will materialize within the next years.

Similarly, within the Democratic Party, the near victory of the Sanders campaign showed the underlying tenuousness of party elites’ hold on power.  They will, needless to say, deploy every weapon at their disposal to defeat it in 2018 and 2020, as they did in 2016. Just as a unified front in the British Left is supporting Corbyn so too should there be a similar left consensus that the Sanders campaign and its offshoots provides the main, and perhaps only, vehicle through which neoliberalism can be dislodged.

But assuming this is in the cards, what will replace it?  Fraser proposes what she refers to as progressive populism centered around “combining egalitarian redistribution with nonhierarchical recognition.”  Fraser contends that “this option has at least a fighting chance of uniting the whole working class. More than that, it could position that class, understood expansively, as the leading force in an alliance that also includes substantial segments of youth, the middle class, and the professional-managerial stratum.”

Fraser does not hold out hope for an explicity anti-capitalist politics to emerge from it any time soon, even if Sanders forces begin to exert significant influence in 2018 and 2020.  What does seem reasonable is the prospect for an “anti-neoliberal” politics eliding into some sort of progressive populism as “a way station en route to some new, post-capitalist form of society.”

While there’s much to be alarmed by in the present political climate, it has been many years since anything similarly hopeful appeared on the political horizon.

Installing progressive populism and progressive populists at the heart of the national Democratic Party, possibly supported by local and even state level third party efforts where viable, appears to be where we need to place our hopes for this transformation to be achieved.

One could do worse for a New Year’s resolution to commit to devoting as much time and energy as one has available towards beginning to make it a reality.

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