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.
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.