In the Biden Era, Neoliberalism Is Alive and Kicking
The past few years have seen widespread speculation about the death of neoliberalism and a restoration of the state to a larger role in society. But the evidence isn’t there. Instead, market-based approaches are redefining themselves for a new era.
- Interview by
- Rafael Khachaturian
Since the beginning of the pandemic, commenters across the political spectrum have suggested that neoliberalism is on its last legs. Yet it has proven to be a resilient political and economic ideology in past crises, capable of adjusting to continue the form of capitalist governance originally forged in the 1970s.
In this interview, originally recorded for the podcast of the University of Pennsylvania’s Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, Rafael Khachaturian sat down with Martijn Konings, associate professor of political economy at the University of Sydney, to discuss neoliberalism’s ongoing appeal for both elite and mass politics, the responses of the Democratic center and the Republican right to current circumstances, and whether this global, American-backed order is now under threat.
Perhaps we can begin with some of your thoughts about the present conjuncture. The pandemic has created a ripple wave of crises across the entire world. It also led some to claim that this marks the end of the neoliberal framework, characterized by the return of the state and the revival of post-Keynesian approaches.
You have previously pointed to the resilience of neoliberalism in the midst of past crises, and its ability to adjust and reinvent itself in such moments. Is neoliberal hegemony under threat?
The death of neoliberalism has been announced prematurely many times, and I think we need to wonder whether the lens of imminent decline is a useful one. That model is always looking for an ideological turning point and always hopes for or expects a return to mid-twentieth-century Keynesianism and the welfare state. That way of thinking is premised on the idea that the past four decades are reversible, that neoliberalism has not changed the rules of the game in a structural, irreversible way. I think that’s a really limiting vantage point.
So, first of all, what do we mean by neoliberalism? That itself has become a contentious question. Some say it is about free markets. Others have emphasized the market-driven solutions to public sector management that defined the 1990s and have come to associate neoliberalism more with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton than with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Currently we’re also seeing a trend of thinking of neoliberalism as ill-disguised authoritarianism. Lastly, there is a strand of thought that wonders whether neoliberalism is a really a thing: perhaps the past four decades can just be seen as a series of pragmatic adjustments to changing circumstances, characterized by the same complexity and messiness that public policy is always subject to.
The neoliberalism debate has remained too focused on ideological paradigms at the expense of more complex historical forces. People first set their theoretical standards for what neoliberalism is and then examine to what extent reality measures up to the theory. This seems misguided: the key characteristic of neoliberalism as a world-historical force is not that it understands fully, that its practical manifestations are fully in line with its self-image. So while I think the idea that “there’s nothing new under the sun” is completely misguided, the conceptual logic of the neoliberalism debate makes it a plausible position.
In the aftermath of the 2007–8 crisis, many argued that neoliberalism was done, that the bailouts meant a return of the state and a return to Keynesianism. What that missed completely was that bailouts had already been thoroughly institutionalized as neoliberalism’s key MO. They were particularly visible at that point, but they were far from new — bailout logics are fully baked into the neoliberal cake. Progressive thinkers had their attention diverted so much by their own theories that the persistence or resurgence of neoliberalism after 2008 became a real surprise.
In the current moment, some people have learned that lesson and are a bit more cautious about making strong declarations. But the core of the problem is still there: in particular, there is still a strong tendency to view the crisis as a manifestation of the fact that neoliberalism was never sustainable to begin with, so that we’re just seeing the neoliberal chickens coming home to roost. Again, I don’t think that is the right way of looking at it, because it assesses developments against external standards, not taking into account how neoliberalism has transformed the socioeconomic rules of engagement.
For me, the debate on neoliberalism has yet to come to grips with how neoliberalism incorporates this strange configuration of speculative impulses, bailouts for some, austerity for others. What really stands out about the COVID crisis is that, even though the crisis was not economic in origin, bailouts and liquidity infusions of various sorts have featured so prominently in the response to it. Bailouts have become the go-to option for dealing with the effects of major shocks to the system. To my mind, we can see a very distinctive neoliberal signature across the response to the crisis.
Popular discourse treats neoliberalism as more as a causal agent rather than as a consequence of social forces. For example, it is said that neoliberalism led to the opening up of capital flows, and it was neoliberalism that deconstructed the welfare state.
What would you say are some of the biggest misconceptions in the way that neoliberalism has been discussed in public discourse, whether in the wake of the Great Recession or in the present day? Why does it still have some kind of explanatory purchase?
I completely agree with the way you just phrased it, that too often neoliberalism is understood as an external force that impinges on our basic social and political arrangements from the outside. In recent years, people have become more interested in the “immanence” of neoliberal phenomena, how it shapes subjectivity from within by engendering a particular kind of governing rationality. The interest in Michel Foucault and neoliberalism is very much bound up with that perspective, and theorists like Wendy Brown have written about neoliberalism as a new kind of practical reason. I’m broadly on board with that, but especially when it comes to political-economy questions, it’s still very tempting for people to quickly go back to treating neoliberalism as a causal agent.
The way I have mostly addressed that in my work is by engaging with the way Karl Polanyi has been interpreted and appropriated in the study of neoliberalism. His core concept is market disembedding — the idea of capital as something external to how society works, affecting it from the outside in sometimes acceptable and at other times illegitimate ways. The flip side to the disembedding movement — the reembedding movement — is always conceptualized in fairly conservative terms of community, values, and so forth.
One of the main bad habits of thought that we have as progressive intellectuals is to always look to the 1950 and 1960s as a golden age, as representing a reconciliation of capital and democracy. At a certain level, we know that Keynesianism was premised on any number of pernicious exclusions. But it often seems we’re so afraid of capital that we cannot help but think of the mid-twentieth-century mixed economy as just a better option; and we then assess the present against it. That is quite constraining, and we end up with this rhetorical framework of “capital versus democracy.” That framework ignores that democracy was only ever a reality for a white middle class, and it also turns a blind eye to the deep compatibility between neoliberalism and the institutions of our actually existing democracy.
The key thing that you end up missing out on with this disembedding model is the democratic, popular appeal that neoliberalism has had. If neoliberalism was just this destructive, unsustainable, and undesirable disembedding movement, presumably it wouldn’t be that hard to convince democratic publics to act more forcefully against it. But that’s not what we’re seeing. Democracies have voted neoliberal politicians into office, time and again, and distinctly neoliberal policies like the turn to austerity of the past decade have enjoyed considerable democratic legitimacy.
What neoliberalism does very effectively is appeal to a republican tradition of thinking about capitalism, and this is something that the progressive critics of neoliberalism have generally been unable to put their finger on. Neoliberal discourses do not advocate miserable utilitarianism or out-of-control financial speculation. Instead, they position the market as a check on arbitrary authority, a bulwark against monarchical concentrations of power and wealth. The market is depicted as a flat, decentralized way of organizing society that is inclusionary, potentially universal, and systematically counteracts corruption and the concentration of power — and that idea has a lot of appeal.
Of course, that republican tradition that neoliberalism has appropriated and repurposed can be very critical of capital. But it always criticizes the problems of capital through the lens of the market as a proper way of organizing society. You get this fantasy of what capital is — which comes to function as an inbuilt safety valve, where every piece of evidence that actually existing capitalism does not work like a neutral market only becomes another occasion for doubling down on that initial idea and makes recapturing the imagined original innocence of these institutions even more important.
Progressives tend to be critical of this fantasy in a way that is too out-of-touch: they are often too addicted to the hope that you can fact-check neoliberalism out of existence, i.e., that if only we managed to catalog all the ways in which doesn’t live up to its claims, we could leave it behind. That is of course its own kind of fantasy.
The rise of Thatcherism and Reaganism gave the neoliberal turn a popular gloss. For example, in the Thatcher period that legitimacy was partly articulated through a turn to asset ownership and the privatization of public housing, as well as the defense of small businesses and the spirit of entrepreneurship against big capital.
Does something like homeownership today continue to legitimize neoliberal approaches for deflationary social policy? Or is it at the center of a new social cleavage between those who do have those assets and those who do not, and is that where new antagonisms are going to be formed?
At this point in time, homeownership is the way in which a large segment of the population is enrolled in the republican fantasy of the market. But it wasn’t always just homeownership. Neoliberalism started off in a more ambitious way with a much more expansive agenda promising that anyone could be a capitalist: there was the human capital agenda, people could start investing in the stock market through their pensions or just on their own. There were no clear limits on the investification of society, in a way. That’s what I think truly gave neoliberalism democratic traction and gave capital a new claim on representing some kind of political universality.
If you look at the 1970s, you see the wage-earner model run into specific contradictions: it could not be extended without eroding its foundations. Neoliberalism responded to the growing difficulty of integrating people into society on the basis of wages, and it shifted toward something else — asset ownership, which promised a much more encompassing political program. For a while that was quite successful on its own terms, and that’s why people often feel so nostalgic about the 1990s, when all these investment-driven options for securing your life seemed to have some meaningful reality.
That part of neoliberalism has really come under pressure, most notably with the crisis of 2007–8, which was very much a housing crisis, of course. Some of those other projects have perhaps not failed but certainly faltered, meaning that people are aware of how risky it can be to build up your pension in a place like the United States. Similarly, the human capital dream is not gone yet, and it may yet be reinvented in some way, but it has not delivered on what it promised. Almost by default, house inflation has become the key promise that is left for the middle class.
But of course, the contradictions there are very obvious, because keeping house-price inflation going means it becomes harder and harder for aspiring middle-class households to get into that market. It’s a very generational thing that has particularly affected millennials. Increasingly, the only way to break into the market is to have wealthy parents or access to some independent source of money. The idea that you can save up for a deposit and then pay off your house just on the basis of a decent middle-class job is mostly gone. The Asset Economy, which I wrote with Lisa Adkins and Melinda Cooper, describes these trends.
There is definitely a problem that the neoliberal order is facing: How do you run a system based on the promise of universal wealth that constantly excludes more and more people? But we also know that capital has a very unpleasant way of reinventing itself and giving itself a new lease on life.
Back in the spring of 2021, there was the hope that the Joe Biden administration had a window of opportunity to implement a progressive break with some of those policies, building a new legitimacy around public support for state investment in national infrastructure and more generous social policies.
Now, in the year since, that ambitious social legislation has been either rolled back or stalled in the Senate. What would you make of the possibility of a progressive break or transition from the neoliberal order? Is Biden, whether willingly or unwillingly, going to become a caretaker president for the status quo as we knew it?
I was never that hopeful that Biden would end up doing all that much, and by that standard I’m still somewhat impressed with what he’s been trying to do. But it was never a paradigmatic shift to begin with. With my colleagues Lisa Adkins and Gareth Bryant I have done some work on some of the measures of the Biden administration, and part of the argument we make is that we miss the picture if we think of them as an attempt to return to old-fashioned Keynesianism.
This was never about demand stimulus — it was really about intervening in the particular logic of the asset economy. The kinds of policies that we are seeing now are calibrated to address issues that have specifically arisen from the neoliberal order. It’s not an attempt to go back but to deal with an economy that has come to revolve around asset values, liquidity problems, payment issues, and those kinds of things.
Thinking further ahead, what are the prospects for the Biden administration or more broadly for the ability of mainstream progressivism to manage or reshape neoliberalism? My main inclination here is to say I don’t think we’ll know until we develop a much better understanding of neoliberalism, one that is not captive to this idea of disembedding and reembedding. That framing can be tempting as an easy way to view some of the current problems, but seen from a more sophisticated theoretical perspective, it’s just a conservative stance.
The notion of capital as a disembedding force is basically a premodern critique of capital, one that would be recognizable to the medieval Catholic Church. What it misses is that we are constantly making and remaking the kind of capitalist structures that we’re so unhappy with. It’s very important to get away from this idea of positing capital against democracy. Instead, we should be talking about how capital works in democracy and how it has thoroughly reshaped our understanding of democratic engagement, the way we live in society.
Aspects of neoliberalism’s asset-driven politics have petered out, but at the same time, it is remarkable how resilient some of them still are. I’m thinking here especially about the human capital promise. As much as we now know that effortless appreciation is not really on the table for many people, the fact that so many of us have come to naturally think of our own professional standing in terms of building a brand and making sure that the brand appreciates — online, in universities, everywhere — is a very telling manifestation of how thoroughly transformative neoliberalism has been. Michel Feher’s Rated Agency makes the point that asset politics is not just about my having to make the right investments so that I can enjoy solid returns, but about having to ensure that people will invest in me, so that my brand can appreciate. That entails much more profound and thoroughgoing modes of subjectivation that I don’t think we’ve really come to terms with yet.
Capital has become a provocation machine — we are always responding to something it wants from us. People tend to associate this dynamic primarily with social media, but it’s increasingly a good model for understanding capitalist society at large. There is this sort of unique enveloping force of capital that gets into our bones and our psyches, and that is a problem when you think about social transformation.
That’s not to say there are no openings, but I think that seeing those requires taking a step back. One of the main things we should and could be doing is trying to rid ourselves of some bad habits of thought, in particular our obsessive concern to disavow our own role, our own responsiveness to capital’s provocations. This is, of course, especially relevant for Western populations and especially relevant for middle-class populations in those countries. The idea that this is coming from outside, being done to us, is not a great basis for political transformation.
Turning to competing approaches to resolving this legitimation problem with neoliberalism, what alternatives might be presented by the Right? During the first Donald Trump campaign, there was some inkling that the Right could mobilize around a protectionist, anti-neoliberal, right-populist rhetoric and politics.
But whatever transformative goals Trump or people like Steve Bannon might have had were stifled by both the economic and intelligence apparatuses of the American state. Will the Right be able to present a comprehensive mass alternative to neoliberalism? Or is the Right also trapped in the cycle?
I think it is. The basic idea of current writing on “postneoliberalism” is that neoliberalism lost too much legitimacy after 2008 and that we are seeing a break with a more basic or civilized version of neoliberalism. To my mind, that makes too much of what neoliberalism was, viewing it as a coherent formation that works according to specific rules. And it makes too little of how authoritarian, fascist elements were always present in the neoliberal project to begin with. If we think of neoliberalism as a particular middle-class politics, one of its objectives will necessarily be to exclude particular groups and to rationalize that.
When I look at the past decade of populist mobilization, I mostly see ideological continuity. The Tea Party was very much driven by anger over bailouts, which represented the corruption of capitalism and the need to return to the allegedly honest, flat, decentralized markets that worked as a check against corruption. With Trump, there is a similar underlying structure. Steve Bannon said Trump is basically the Andrew Jackson of our time. I think that he was right in the sense that his mission was to restore a white middle class while ruthlessly excluding others who did not fit that description.
I think these populist-fascist impulses have a very strong link back to that same republican image of the market, where the critique of capital becomes a paradoxical affirmation of capital. This of course has a long history. Michele Battini’s Socialism of Fools discusses this tradition of critiques of capitalism that also immediately work to scapegoat Jews (and other minorities). The resurgence of antisemitism during the Trump administration was interesting because it was largely targeted at an amorphous or abstract idea of Jews (although of course it opened the door to the targeting of actual Jewish populations as well). One felt that he was trying to bring back a classic fascist critique of capital that could be somewhat flexibly deployed as the occasion demanded.
To me, this is all very neoliberal. That doesn’t, of course, mean that we cannot hope for popular movements that completely break the mold. We don’t know what’s going to happen. But again, the idea that, after four decades of neoliberalism, our only choices would be progressive Keynesianism hearkening back to the 1960s or some kind of fascist Keynesianism — that doesn’t really compute for me.
There are other compounding factors, such as the heightened rivalry between the United States and China. Having worked with Leo Panitch, what do you make of this idea of the persistence of American empire in this context?
This brings me back to discussions that I used to have with Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin back in the day. Their claim was always broader than mine. Their key idea was that American power had not declined but had just assumed different kinds of institutional forms. I was completely on board with that assessment and worked on the financial aspect of that theoretical take, but for me it was really always more a claim about what was happening within the Western world. They saw it as having much wider application and saw China as also falling under this imperial umbrella. I was always a bit skeptical about that. Certainly in the present, you do see a certain kind of sudden escalation of tensions between the United States and China that were always latent. It’s anyone’s guess how that will go.
But when it comes to the empire that America has built across Western countries, I still see that as very much intact. Occasionally I think back to 2007, when I moved from Toronto to Amsterdam to start a postdoc. In Holland at the time, there was a whole discourse about how the subprime crisis was a symptom of the excesses of American capitalism, spelling its imminent decline, while Europe was seen as doing well thanks to its prudential regulations. For a little while, there was a real sense in the air that Europe had finally come out from under America’s shadow. That didn’t last long, of course. In the current moment the idea that Europe can chart its own distinctive path and craft a more “civilized capitalism” is completely gone. We have to look elsewhere.