The Glory Days Are Over

Trump’s victory signals a deep crisis of neoliberalism.

Illustration by Marco Miccichè

PBS NewsHour is generally pretty staid stuff — like Ambien but less habit-forming. Election night, however, was something else. As the evening wore on, and the pundits succumbed to quiet bafflement, or barely concealed panic, the conversation became punctuated by awkward pauses and murmurs. Searching for a toehold, co-host Judy Woodruff asked Amy Walters whether Trump’s victory wasn’t similar to Brexit — both because despite close last-minute polls, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union was a shock, and because Trump himself had promised “more Brexit” for the United States.

The Brexit analogy was Woodruff trying to make sense of an event we were assured wouldn’t happen, akin for many liberals to the rogue gas planet colliding with Earth in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. She wasn’t alone. Many saw Brexit as a bellwether of the growing global discontent with elites, “globalism,” and the political status quo — a feeling confirmed by Trump’s victory.

In a NewsHour conversation over the summer, David Brooks and Mark Shields discussed this very topic. Brooks observed that “in country after country, we’re seeing a conflict between what you might call urban cosmopolitans and less well-educated ethnic nationalism, and ethnic nationalism is on the rise.”

Shields agreed. “I think the forces and the advocates of globalization have been primarily obsessed with the well-being of the investor class and the stockholders and the shareholders, and been indifferent, oftentimes callous, to the dislocation and the suffering that people in countries affected by this trade, the expanded trade, the larger economy, who have been victimized by it.” According to Shields, this “elitist condescension” facilitated the rise of right-wing figures like Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Trump.

Robert Reich summed up the sentiment in a nutshell two days after the election: “Americans have rebelled by supporting someone who wants to fortify America against foreigners as well as foreign-made goods.”

Yet Brexit and Trump’s election signify something more than popular anger, xenophobia, and cultural anxiety. They mark the end of neoliberalism’s heyday and the emergence of a competing capitalist vision. This vision, at least rhetorically, rejects two of the founding tenants undergirding contemporary global capitalism: the global trade architecture operating through institutions like NAFTA and the inter-state alliances buttressing America’s decades-old geopolitical vision and goals.

The End of “the End of History”

The decline of neoliberalism is emphatically not the decline of capitalism, so what does it mean to say neoliberalism is past its sell-by date? Neoliberalism is not, after all, just a set of policies that can be discontinued and replaced with something else — neoliberal capitalism has birthed a complex global economy that isn’t going to change overnight. Moreover, neoliberalism is also an encompassing set of orienting ideas that pervades all spheres of life; its core ethos of faith in private enterprise, ever-expanding commodification, and bootstrap individualism remains robust.

Yet Trump, at least rhetorically, has thumbed his nose at the two keystones of American hegemony: existing “free trade” agreements and the institutions and alliances that underpin US-led capitalism. This has created a deep crisis of legitimacy for the dominant ideas guiding global capitalism.

Now whether Trump actually “takes an ax” to these principles remains to be seen. His cabinet looks pretty “swampy” at the moment: the Heritage Foundation is quarterbacking his transition team, and his cabinet picks, for the most part, would sit comfortably in any Republican administration.

Moreover, Trump’s roadmap — like his plan to generate public-private partnerships to carry out a trillion-dollar infrastructure overhaul, or rewrite NAFTA by tacking a 35 percent tariff onto goods exported to the United States by American companies operating in Mexico — lacks a certain plausibility given the makeup of Congress and the deep, functional integration of global and regional value chains.

Nevertheless, this competing vision has the Third Way wonks committed to the thirty-year bipartisan consensus worried.

Francis Fukuyama, in a post-election op-ed, put it bluntly: “Donald Trump’s stunning electoral defeat of Hillary Clinton marks a watershed not just for American politics, but for the entire world order.” Fukuyama famously dubbed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union “the end of history” — a cute turn of phrase indicating the triumph of US-style global capitalism. Today, that era is over. According to Fukuyama, “we appear to be entering a new age of populist nationalism.”

Comparing Trump’s victory to the toppling of the Berlin Wall was a common trope in the days after the election. Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist at the Financial Times, thinks

it is symbolic and poignant that the election of Donald Trump was confirmed on the morning of November 9, 27 years to the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That was a moment of triumph for US leadership — and ushered in a period of optimism and expansion for liberal and democratic ideas around the world. That era has been definitively ended by Mr. Trump’s victory.

Political columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote something similar in the Washington Post:

Twenty-five years ago — December 1991 — communism died, the Cold War ended . . . That dawn marked the ultimate triumph of the liberal democratic idea. It promised an era of Western dominance led by a preeminent America, the world’s last remaining superpower … That era is over.

For these opinion makers, the death of the post-Communist liberal world is a terrible thing. For them it represents something great that has been thrown away in a fit of stupidity.

The funeral dirge for the liberal world order goes something like this: After World War II, some forward-thinking Americans began setting up a system of rules and institutions that allowed global trade, investment, and democracy to flourish. This system evolved and improved over the decades, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, giving us container ships full of Poäng chairs and PlayStations, all while boosting wealth and democracy for the global poor.

According to liberals, the linchpin of this awesomeness was the United States unselfishly superintending the global economy and providing a model of democracy that world masses aspired to and authoritarian governments feared. In his op-ed Richman shares a misty-eyed memory of John F. Kennedy back in 1961 saying, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Alas, no longer. Financial Times editor Lionel Barber declares that “in 2016, we witnessed the birth of the ‘Fourth Way’ — a new brand of politics that is nativist, protectionist and bathed in a cultural nostalgia.”

Instead of liberty first, liberals lament that now it’s America first, that instead of idealism we have the “pinched nationalism” of Trump, enabled by a generation “fattened by fast food and infantilised by reality television.”

But just as Trump has spun a fantasy of renewed greatness, in mourning the status quo of the past three decades liberals are engaging in some wishful thinking of their own. The bipartisan elements of hegemony — globalization and international alliances — that have underpinned the American Century have themselves generated the deep contradictions that explain Trump’s victory.

Globalization and Its Discontents

Consider the global trade architecture. The elite consensus of the past thirty years was that lowered barriers to trade, production, and capital were essential to liberty and prosperity. Today, globalization is increasingly being denounced by respectable folks, and not just the Pope. Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, recently insisted that “what we’re facing right now — in terms of the rise of populism and divisive and fearful narratives around the world — it’s based around the fact that globalization doesn’t seem to be working for the middle class, for ordinary people.”

Granted, many on the global left globalization. But the bloated center was gung-ho and criticism was slow to catch on. By the nineties, neoliberal policies and ideas had become common sense. For people like Tom Friedman, proof positive of globalization’s benefits was the rebirth of the US economy beginning in the 1980s. Following a decade when stagflation and political unrest were wreaking havoc, neoliberal ideas brought about a belle epoch, at least for the privileged.

The US government resolved its crisis on the backs of working people: it helped free up corporations to restructure operations, fire workers, and demand union givebacks; it deregulated finance, exploding its avenues for profitability; and it greased the wheels through militarism and debt spending.

Three decades of de- and re-regulation — signposted by Reagan-Thatcher, the WTO, the single European market and currency, the integration of China — closed the book on Keynesianism and the core ideas of Bretton Woods and essentially removed restrictions on the flow of capital, goods, and services. For global elites these were heady days.

These resolutions were successful for a time — profit rates soared, unemployment was kept in check, and America seemed back on top. And others seemed to benefit too. Sure, not those “failed states” in Africa or Latin American workers and farmers, but the global bourgeoisie, transnational corporations, and the Asian tigers did amazingly in the eighties and nineties, and China and India soared in the 2000s.

But if the bipartisan elite saw neoliberal globalization as a way of ordering the global economy that brought huge rewards, it also brought major crises.

The global financial and trade architecture that emerged in the eighties and nineties ensured that you can get your new iPhone in time for Christmas, but it was also a wrecking ball that devastated economies and working-class communities. Currency mayhem and spiraling debt, deindustrialization, environmental destruction, exploitation, and dispossession became the norm in the liberal world order now mourned.

These contradictions manifested themselves in dozens of financial crises in the 1990s and 2000s in countries like Argentina, Mexico, Russia, and South Korea. 2008 brought a crisis that dwarfed previous crises in its scale and scope as it rippled across the globe, dragging Europe into its undertow in 2010, and triggering a worldwide spike in food prices.

All the while the United States, the European Union, and the institutions they created kept trucking along, putting out fires, insisting that the kinks had been worked out. The facts speak for themselves.

In the United States workforce participation is down, and “globalism” has become enemy number one. The past few decades have seen real wages stall and then drop for most workers. Families have had to work harder and longer to stay in place, and many can’t even manage that. Good jobs — those with humane hours, decent pay, and benefits — are scarce, and anxiety about the economy is persistent. The rich are riding high — bolstered by tax cuts, corporate subsidies, bank bailouts — while poor and working people stand on the sidelines. As Reich says:

Recent economic indicators may be up, but those indicators don’t reflect the insecurity most Americans continue to feel, nor the seeming arbitrariness and unfairness they experience.

Advocates of the status quo are loath to acknowledge these plain truths. But their actions demonstrate a definite awareness of cracks in the system. Behind Hillary Clinton’s “Everything is fine, chill” campaign slogan and Obama’s calm were aggressive, ongoing moves to fortify the neoliberal model.

Consider the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal — which Barber neatly characterizes as “a geopolitical building block as well as a trade pact.” TPP advocates saw the agreement as a way to protect the system they’ve built since the 1980s — a global trade system for capital, but also heavily weighted in favor of protecting wealthy states and transnational corporations.

Protecting the system meant keeping China out of the deal, thereby limiting its disruptive competitive potential. But a growing chorus of voices didn’t want to protect the system any longer. In the end, Trump didn’t destroy the TPP; his opposition to the agreement reflected an already overwhelming sentiment rooted in popular anger over the costs and benefits of globalization.

Now that the pact looks dead in the water, China is pushing forward its own regional deal — the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — and countries like Japan and Russia are interested. This, to put it mildly, is a horrifying prospect for champions of the liberal world order.

The Iron Fist in the Velvet Glove

The question of China brings up the other half of the US hegemony sandwich that elites recall so fondly: the alliances that underpin the global trade and financial system. They represent the iron fist in the velvet glove — the institutions and arrangements that align states with America’s vision and goals, whether willingly or by force.

Like all hegemonic projects, America’s has always relied on both coercion and consent. The US government skillfully blended these elements in the decades following World War II with tactics that spanned the spectrum from full-scale war and slaughter, secret invasions, torture, and covert ops, to sanctions, diplomacy, and mutual agreements like the WTO, NAFTA, and NATO. Coercion and consent were the yin and yang of US power — a model of power that for the past three decades hid its nasty bits behind the apparent efficiency and neutrality of neoliberalism and liberal democracy.

Trump says this model of power isn’t making America great anymore. Angered by the snubs and slights of our ungrateful global inferiors, he is promising to go lone wolf. He’s talking to Taiwan on the phone instead of Theresa May, hiring pals of Putin, threatening to defund NATO, and stepping up denunciations of China.

This rhetorical realignment, much more than Trump’s racist slurs and misogynist quips, gives status-quo scholars the goosebumps. With Trump in charge, who will challenge China’s influence in Asia? Who will keep Russia’s aggression in check? Who will preserve the liberal world order? Instead of solemnly pledging allegiance to the Third Way, Trump is pushing an inward political-economic vision.

Granted, Trump is a masterful opportunist and a habitual liar, so it is impossible to get a bead on what he’ll actually do in office. As Leo Panitch argues, he may settle on a compromise, facilitating a “continuation of American-led global capitalism on xenophobic nationalist grounds” — a right-wing revival that blends most of the features of neoliberal globalization with “brown infrastructure capitalism” at home.

Nonetheless, Trump’s victory signals a deep crisis of legitimacy for the reigning ideology, in large part because he’s not alone. He’s the lead blowhard in a growing gallery of right-wingers whistling the same nativist tune. As Barber says, Trump gives “succor to the demagogues-in-waiting” like Le Pen.

Increasingly, states are rejecting the Third Way model of open borders and inclusion. This is a significant shift. In the decades after World War II, America’s signature blend of coercion and consent was viewed as a viable, valuable model — countries around the world signed on to the vision because it provided growth and prosperity and was seen as legitimate in the eyes of their populaces. Those countries that didn’t benefit or protested the rules of the game — poor countries, colonies, those in the Soviet bloc — were either repressed or excluded. After a rocky patch in the seventies, new trade agreements rejuvenated geopolitical alliances, while the solidification of the European Union and the dynamism of India and China revived the hegemony of the United States.

But the contradictions of this revival generated a crisis of legitimacy that can’t be papered over with more bank bailouts and quantitative easing. Today the global geopolitical landscape is increasingly fraught. Indeed, Barber thinks that a Le Pen victory in 2017 “would surely spell the end of the European Union.” The political and social costs of neoliberal globalization and financialization have proven impossible to repress in the long run.

Breaking the Impasse

This legitimacy crisis is what has birthed Trump. And the muddled nature of his vision speaks to the impasse that countries find themselves in. The reigning centrist elites and their party alliances are seen as hopelessly bankrupt, and the Left has no power to enact its demands. This leaves the Right to speak to working people’s fears and anger, but that right is itself divided between capitalist elites and social conservatives. Trump simply stepped into a vacancy, an opportunist capitalist speaking the confused language of an angry right-populist vision.

This is why the Brexit analogy resonated with observers. It provided the connective tissue to talk about a deep, multi-dimensional crisis. Unfortunately Brexit also showed the winning strategy so far for dealing with this crisis, and that strategy — laced with hate and fear — sucks.

But the wailing neoliberals are equally deluded if they think it’s possible to turn back time. Trump did not create the crisis of neoliberalism. He simply tugged on the thread of a model of power that has been rapidly unraveling for a decade or more.

Capitalism is a masterful crisis generator of course; contradictions are built into the DNA of our for-profit system, and crises have helped the system survive and adapt for centuries. But at the same time, the arrangements ordering the global geopolitical system seem to be generating more crises than they are resolving these days.

Put differently, while the serious problems we are facing — like global warming and labor exclusion — are the result of longue durée processes like industrialization, imperialism, and technological advance, they are now reaching acute proportions, exacerbated by financialization and neoliberal globalization. And as Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver have argued, the US hegemonic model is increasingly unable to deal with these problems.

The rise of demagogues like Trump show the withering away of consent, leaving only coercion. Heedless of its failures — after sowing nothing but chaos and suffering in Iraq, Afghanistan, and countless other war zones — the US state is rapidly extending its tentacles into Africa and ramping up its drone program. At home, Obama has deported nearly two million people, the NSA spies on our daydreams, and the police continue to kill with abandon.

Trump will not change this. He’ll make it worse. He’s a xenophobic, misogynist crook and his presence in the White House will empower the most reprehensible elements in US society. But contrary to the misconceptions of Third Wayers, Clinton would have made things worse too. The global order is in crisis. Nostalgia for the mythical days when America would bear any burden for the success of liberty is a waste of time.

We need something different — something more than a defensive “progressivism.” We need to challenge the common sense of our for-profit system by offering an alternative vision of change rooted in worker power, social rights, and democratic control over the institutions central to our lives.

And more than ever we need this movement in the United States. Trumpism is not going away, nor will the US government quietly relinquish the keys to some imagined global successor. The politics that prevail in America will determine whether the transition from neoliberal capitalism to something else is a step forward or a descent into hell.