What is Neoliberalism? Is there a definition of it that everybody accepts?
In the 1930’s, it basically meant FDR and The New Deal - the middle ground between The Gilded Age which expanded urban poverty to unheard of levels, and Socialist planned economies that necessitated horrible authoritarianism and repression. The New Deal was not only the primogenitor of modern liberalism, but it provided a model for how to set up the modern European social democracies. If that’s what neoliberalism is, then sign me up.
In the 1980s, neoliberalism became synonymous with Margaret Thatcher’s privatization of British industries. To a lesser extent, neoliberalism became synonymous with Ronald Reagan, and more sinisterly, with Augusto Pinochet, the military dictator of Chile. People on the Left began to reason that a system which produced Roosevelt and Clement Atlee (England’s first postwar Prime Minister who established the model for the European welfare state) can also produce Reagan and Thatcher, it must be corrupt at its core and has to be overturned. It’s a thought that seemed only to gain traction over the years of the Bush Administration and the Great Recession Bush left in his wake.
But what comes afterward. You can fight and win a war to topple the American regime, but how do you win the peace?
After the attacks in Paris and Beirut, the first book I checked out of the library was Bernard-Henri Levy’s Left in Dark Times. In that book, he makes this crucial point: in our generation, liberalism takes on various guises: socialists disparagingly call it ‘neoliberalism,’ libertarians call the very same belief ‘classical liberalism.’ When you realize that both of them are talking about the same phenomenon, it’s difficult not to conclude that they’re both talking about liberalism in any guise at all. In both cases, their definition of liberalism is completely divorced from why people ever believed in liberalism. Both the socialist and the libertarian definitions of liberalism are framed by Marx and his ideological heirs - the only difference is that Libertarians are Marxists on the side of the bourgeois oppressors. In both sides’ formulations, liberalism is synonymous with the market, with the economic jungle, with the state of nature that renders people impotent to form their own destinies. In the case of socialists, Liberalism is the jungle of an unregulated economy, in the case of libertarians, Liberalism is the jungle of government bureaucracy.
But Liberalism attempts to be precisely the opposite of both, and furthermore, Liberalism has a much longer record of efficacy in specifically that regard than any other governing system. It is the best attempt yet made to provide a legal shelter from the exact jungle which so many Socialists and Libertarians claim that it is.
Both socialists and libertarians attempt in their opposite ways to square that circle - alleging that their completely opposite definitions of neoliberalism are a system that allows for horrible corruption, and if we get rid of the system, we can get rid of the vast majority of the corruption. But how do you get rid of that corruption when human nature is itself corrupt? Liberalism at least puts laws in place to limit the effect which corruption can have. When government has too little power, Big Business reigns supreme. When government has too few checks on power, government reigns supreme. The key to a better world resides neither in business or government, or in pursuing liberty or equality to the exclusion of the other. The key to a better world resides in the balance and tension between all these forces, never letting one of them override the other. In either of these new world orders, where are the limits to the harm corruption can do?
I had an interesting conversation with a good friend a month ago - a social democrat for his whole adult life, in which he told me, with all seriousness, that it would have been better had the American Revolution not happened at all.
There’s a certain seductive logic in this. Had the American Revolution not happened, we might have been released from the British Empire on our own, and some version of the United States would have formed into yet another parliamentary democracy after the model of Canada and Australia.
And yet… come on…
Without the American Revolution, the sun never sets on the British Empire, or perhaps any empire at all. Without the American experiment, slavery might still be widespread. The very issues of liberty and equality which the American Revolution fought for might have been discussed in another revolution, they also might not have. Or perhaps in an alternate timeline, the United States would have fallen under the banner of Simon Bolivar, thereafter defining liberalism as something that’s little different from dictatorship. Every twenty years we might have vacillated between left-wing and right-wing presidents who were more like dictators: Castro and Chavez from the left, Trujillo and Pinochet from the right.
Over the last 250-odd years, America hasn’t done all that well. All things considered though, we’ve still done better than everybody else.
I have not yet seen the new musical Hamilton nor heard it. It’s the biggest hit Broadway’s had in the 20 years since RENT, and I eagerly look forward to getting acquainted with it because I’m sure I’ll enjoy it very much (or at least a shit ton more than I do RENT…).
But this is one of those rare musicals that you feel as though you’ve seen before you have. Everybody who knows even a small amount about musical theater knows the reinterpretation of history this promotes, so while I admittedly haven’t seen it, I think I can still say that there’s still something a little creepy about this recasting of Alexander Hamilton as a freedom fighter against the hypocritical slaveholder that was Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton believed in certain things which the modern Left believes. He believed in a powerful national government that had enormous control over the economy and taxed the wealthy at far greater rates than the poorer. Nevertheless, Hamilton had no belief in social welfare for the impoverished, he believed in strongly fastened systems of government that kept institutions in place and powerful people ensconced, and while not personally religious, he believed strongly in the health of the religious impulse - particularly in keeping the poorer classes docile. Most importantly, he believed in a constitutional monarch and a huge police presence to encourage law and order.
In other words, except on the issue of taxation, he was in every sense a traditional conservative. If, as I wondered in the last issue, Lincoln was a pre-modern equivalent to a Liberal Hawk like Harry Truman or Tony Blair, then perhaps Alexander Hamilton is the ideological ancestor to Richard Nixon. Both of them believed in the strongest imaginable state so that the world can be kept exactly as it is. So strong must this state be that the line between democratic and authoritarian becomes extremely blurred. In other words, the spirit of what Hamilton believed in was exact opposite of everything in which the Modern Left believes, which has its origins in the protests of the Sixties, whose chief villain was, of course, Tricky Dick Nixon.
The true ancestor of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter is not Hamilton, it is his greatest rival: the slave-holding, radical chic, falsely principled, imperialistically ambitious, infinitely hypocritical Thomas Jefferson. And like Thomas Jefferson, for all their flaws, there are issues of freedom and equality about which they are absolutely, gloriously, correct.
As I write this, internet debate over accepting refugees from Syria rages on and on, and suddenly, the example of the Holocaust is being used all over the world for why refugees have to be accepted. Godwin’s Law, which since the dawn of the internet, is used to disparage any mention of Hitler or the Holocaust, has been utterly discarded at the moment it was no longer expedient for those who enforce it.
I completely support the admittance of refugees, in no small part because of the example of what Jews like my grandparents underwent. But yet again, I find myself deeply ashamed by the bedfellows I keep. Short of dying in another Holocaust, is there any situation dire enough for an endangered Jew to earn anything but criticism and isolation from the world?
This sounds like it’s slouching toward a rant about Israel. We’re not going there…
Let’s just focus on Syria for a moment. Unwilling to repeat the mistakes of the Bush years, I used my minisculely small influence to oppose any involvement in Syria. Even with nearly 300,000 corpses piled up, my conscience rests a little too easily, because I believe in using lesser evils to mitigate greater ones. But if you’re a card-carrying member of the Left, yours probably shouldn’t.
If the Left should be able to do anything at all, it should be to raise awareness to prevent genocide wherever and whenever it happens. There is no other word for what Assad and his Alawite Christian government is trying to perpetrate on the country’s Sunni majority. Yet the silence with which their butchery is received by the international Left is loud enough to cause tinnitus. There can only be one explanation for how little attention the Syrian genocide has merited until now, and only one explanation for how much attention its refugee crisis suddenly merits.
When it’s a US ally who perpetrates crimes, often on a scale far smaller than genocide, the sense of outrage knows no bounds. However, when the violation is perpetrated by an opponent of the US, everybody turns into Henry Kissinger. Edward Said would say 'we have no right to interfere in that culture.' Henry Kissinger would say 'we have no right to interfere in that sphere of influence.'
Nevertheless, people are being oppressed to the maximum possible point, and you’re the goddamn Leftists. Where were your ideas to stop this genocide?
The single most important diktat of the Left is solidarity for the oppressed, and on that count, there are no words for how grotesquely the Left failed on this issue. Nobody even cared about the Syrian refugees until Republican politicians started stirring up demagoguery to refuse them entry into the United States. These refugees are nothing more than another prop with which the Left can beat Americans.
Just as conservative economics is truly socialism for the rich, leftist foreign policy is nothing but realism on behalf of the United States’ opponents.