The Culture War is about Liberalism

One of the frames I employ in my first book, “Politics for the New Dark Age: Staying Positive Amidst Disorder” is the [not original] hypothesis that there’s a statistical correlation between progressive economic values and libertarian social views, and a corresponding correlation between conservatism and authoritarianism. So, at least in the modern Anglo-Saxon social equilibrium, an economic progressive is more likely than not to also be socially liberal, and a laissez-faire capitalist is more likely than not to be socially conservative. I suggest that this correlation is driven by the question of interpersonal trust: progressives believe that other people will look out for both their own best interests and the those of others.

But correlation is not deterministic, so there’ll be a significant minority of voters on the Left who are economically progressive but socially conservative, and a significant minority of voters on the Right who are ‘fiscally conservative’ but socially liberal. In order to win a majority, each side’s base (i.e. the economic and social progressives vs the economic and social conservatives) must cobble together a coalition from the minority factions - so both the Left and Right aim to sway a mix of working-class conservatives and socially liberal capitalists. Since the 1980s, the global Right has won this battle overall - in my view, largely because parties of the centre Left gave up on offering genuine economic alternative. We’ll return to the question of who really ‘won’ the neoliberal era later.

The Stupidpol Nexus

I’ve been reading [the late] Mark Fisher lately, as well as a little bit of Zizek. Both are cynical philosophers, deeply critical of capitalism. Their work represents the kind of writing that could inspire a movement like “Occupy Wall Street” but not offer a blueprint for the future. Today’s Left is a lot more optimistic about the potential for transformative economic change. Both Fisher and Zizek, though, sometimes let their critique of neoliberal capitalism seague into a critique of the liberal project more broadly. Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle” is one of the seminal texts of what later became the anti-Identity Politics Left and Zizek has been such an effective foil against the Intellectual Dark Web-types largely because he’s a quasi-Marxist who agrees with their some of their criticisms of feminism, queer theory and immigration.

As I’ve written before, the correct Left take on identity politics is that we like it, but recognise that it doesn’t offer a blueprint for meaningful structural change. It’s a tool for perfecting liberalism, not transforming it.


Which brings us to the inspiration for this week’s blog, the 100th episode of the “Red Scare” podcast, guest starring Angela Nagle. I don’t normally listen to Red Scare for reasons I’ll explain shortly, but horrifying prospect of Sailor Socialism and Nagle offering an unfiltered look into the minds of anti-IdPol Left was too fascinating to pass up. Red Scare is a dirtbag left-adjacent podcast whose co-hosts flirt openly with the ‘Strasserite’ label. Nagle, who rose to fame as one of the foremost experts on the online extreme right, has in recent years raised questions about how must sympathy she has for her subjects, and provoked firestorms with takes such as “The Left Case Against Open Borders” which openly employed right-wing anti-immigration narratives [Zizek loved it]. Both are rapidly pro-Bernie, but largely for the same reasons the liberal-Left hate him: his understatement of race and gender issues, scepticism about open borders and opposition to US foreign policy.

Even knowing what I was getting myself into, I was appalled. Egging each other on, the episode was shockingly reactionary. Flirting ironically [or not so ironically?] with ‘national socialism’, openly contemptuous of both political correctness and cosmopolitanism, Nagle and the hosts openly praised communitarian philosophy (and leaders such as Brazil’s Bolsonaro) in opposition to an ethic of individual freedom. Red Scare’s central thesis is not just that liberal identity politics is philosophically and political weak, but that it is actually harmful [to the left]. One could make the argument they mean this tactically (as in: “we need to win back white working-class men”) - but I suspect Nagle at least sees liberalism as actualy corrosive to her idea of society, which may be socialist but is definitely communitarian and exclusionary. In this, the progressivism that Nagle represents is far closer to the European Left as embodied by people like Melenchon, who combine radical politics with a hefty dose of cultural chauvinism.

It’s for this this reason that the r/stupidpol crowd often find itself agreeing with the ‘anti-SJW’ Right. The centre-Right are so incapable of agreeing to any socialist policies that Nagle and the views she represents seem like a revelation. But to the smarter neo-Nazis, such as Richard Spencer and Matthew Heimbach, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, they represent an opportunity. True fascists have no compunction against economic resdistribution, so long as it favours their chosen in-group. What matters to fascists is destroying liberalism - with its emphasis on personal freedoms, its open and multicultural societies and social experimentation. And in the communitarian Left, they see willing accomplicies in achieving this goal.

The New Right crumbles

Coincidentally, I’ve also become aware of an emerging culture war split on the American Right, as embodied by the David French v Sohrab Ahmari debate. I don’t pretend to even remotely follow right-wing discourse and everything I know about the situation comes from summaries by other writers. In essence, there seems to be a sense that William Buckley’s New Right coalition of the pro-capitalist and socially conservative wings of the Right is coming under strain [we saw some analogies to this in Australia under the recent troubled Prime Ministerships of Tony Abbot and Malcolm Turnbull]. Despite the manifest success of this electoral strategy, there seems to be a growing view from the Right’s socially and economically conservative base that they no longer need the neoliberal/libertarian technocrats in suits - that, coupled with the populist [Trumpian] outreach to the socially conservative working class, a permanent socially reactionary majority is attainable.

In this, the hard Right has the same complaint about their alliance with right-wing liberals that the anti-IdPol Left has about their alliance with left-wing liberals. For social conservatives, pro-market liberalism is not just a philosophically and politically weak movement, but is actually harmful [to the right] and their desired society. And they have a point. “Woke Capitalism” may be dysfunctional and inegalitarian, but it‘s proved more than willing to accommodate movements for social change that don’t challenge capitalism, to integrate and even cater to minority populations, and to prioritise the interests of capital when it comes to migration over any communitarian concerns about social and cultural cohesion. Rather than seeing the last forty years as a history of unparalleled right-wing political dominance, the far right sees a series of cultural setbacks (particularly on gay rights and women’s reproductive freedom). Liberal political values of secularism and cultural pluralism are a meaningful roadblock to the communitarian kind of societies they want to build. Of course, they’re deluded - abortion is on the chopping bloc in the US and not as secure elsewhere as we might like, and the backlash against feminism and queer movements remains vicious and culturally powerful. But that’s their theory.

Liberal Socialism

Here then, is my central thesis. As I began at the top of this bog, dominant political coalitions tend to bring in at least some of the minority perspective of the other side. For the hard Right, the bipartisan coalition between laissez-faire economics, social progressivism and social conservatism incudes too many social progressives for their liking. For the Left, the coalition between social progressives of all stripes, economic justice and neoliberalism has included far too much accommodation of the neoliberal perspective. The very coalitions each side needs to win power include sufficient moderating forces to prevent them from becoming entirely hegemonic.

In other words, the Culture War that is consuming the intra-factional politics of both Left and Right is about how each side should adopt and incorporate elements of the liberal political and social programme, which at least in the modern era is the hegemonic, centrist status quo against which other ideologies contend. My own position on this is clear: socialism is the natural heir and development of classical liberalism and the libertarian Marxist tradition’s emphasis on both political and economic freedom and self-development is the obvious next step in human cultural evolution. Stripped of its commitment to bourgeois liberal values, socialism has historically become extremely communitarian, rigid and dare I say Stalinist. In other words, I am a firm proponent of the alliance between social progressives and egalitarians of all stripes.

I also think it’s in the Left’s best interest to encourage and widen the split between cultural conservatives and economic liberals. We already see the foundations of this in Europe and Australia, when the pro-business Greens and pro-gay marriage Liberals constitute a genuine political threat to the conservative heartland - which in turn in moving in an ever-more populist direction. The worst possible thing the broader left could do in response to these trends is to jump exclusively on the cultural bandwagon, and become committed to urban, white-collar liberalism. Our commitment to social justice is secondary to our commitment to structural economic change and we have to make sure we win back the working class vote. In doing so, the Left’s base has to be bridge-builders not mere followers - convincing working class conservatives that social liberalism poses no threat to them if it also secures the material basis of their their way of life, and urban liberals that higher taxes and economic redistribution is the only route to action on climate change and true personal freedom.

The new right is not what you think. It's worse.

I said in my interview with the Connect & Disaffected podcast last year that following the collapse of the neoliberal consensus both left and right were casting around for new or previously discarded ideologies to help us make sense of the world. The faultlines of modern politics are being shaped by familiar historical struggles as socialism and fascism modernise themselves in response to the manifest recent failures of liberalism. I wrote recently on the more mainstream right-wing liberalisms and recognised them as a sort of 'honourable enemy', noting their respectable philosophical roots and still significant political base.

Today's blog on the other hand concerns the new right. I am not here referring to the Trumpian 'new right' nexus as it's commonly used as a term in US-facing news media. The constellation of  alt-right, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim xenophobes, the traditionalists, neo-reactionaries and paleo-conservatives who have rallied around Trump's presidency reflect an easy-to-understand conservative impulse – the right rummaging through its graveyard of dead and discredited ideologies.  

The real 'new' right, the ones who represent a genuinely innovative response to the crisis of liberalism, are the so-called 'intellectual dark web' (IDW). Although IDW like to label themselves 'classical liberals', it's not accurate to see them as a simple resurrection of some form of Victorian British liberalism [although there are certainly superficial similarities, which we’ll return to]. Nor is it sufficient to understand the IDW purely in terms of what motivates them – their [white] [male] Gen X grievance and fear of loss of relative status. There are features of the IDW – most notably their hostility to universalist liberalisms, their deep commitment to Santa Barbara-style evolutionary psychology, general support for UBI schemes and flirtations with race realism – which they share in common with the alt-lite and which suggest a different perspective on archetypal liberal universalism. If the IDW are neo-Victorians, then they believe in social Darwinism on steroids. 

Michael Brooks is right on this. The IDW are laying the seeds of a new political narrative – a narrative that seeks to supplant the discredited rule of the neoliberals and co-opt the resentment of the alt-right, while outliving them both. The left is building its own counter-narrative, quite successfully so. But we need to know our opponents, and pay attention to what they're saying, because if the popularity of the Petersons and Harrises of the world is any guide, IDW-like ideas are finding an audience on YouTube and Twitch and spreading into a mass consciousness.

 A thesis statement

Which brings us to the motivation for today. The race realist Winegard science bros have a new piece on Quillette "The Twilight of Liberalism?", laying out the clearest thesis statement for the IDW I've yet encountered. To be clear, the Winegards are trash. So is Quillette - which is essentially the house rag of the IDW. The Winegards latest piece hits all their usual tropes – cultural Marxism, the authoritarian left, IQ fetishism and the cult of automation. But buried in the piece are hints of something honest about the IDW.

“[I]t is not the abstract logic of liberalism that is flawed,” they write, “but rather the attempt to apply it to fallible humans. Like communism, liberalism conflicts with immutable human characteristics.” Immediately, we encounter a pessimism that is at odds with the liberalism tradition, which is fundamentally optimistic about human nature and grounds its conception of natural rights on axiomatic suppositions about the universal human experience. The Winegard bros dismiss this outright in terms that are familiar to critics of capitalism on both the right and left: classical liberalism as an ideology was adapted to a social world still rooted in a traditional social order, which provided the social reproduction necessary for the capitalist mode of production to take off. Their critique - shared by many communitarians - is that as it matured, capitalism eroded the social foundations on which it relied and what it offered in exchange (universal equality, unlimited freedom, and ‘hedonism’) was a poor substitute.

The Winegards propose an ‘evolutionary mismatch’ between the ideology of capitalism and features of the human mind - or at least the minds of most people - that is as a severe as the supposed mismatch between utopian socialism and human nature. Determining whether a cultural technology is in fact maladapted is notoriously difficult. And it ignores the fact that biology and culture co-evolve. But as a thesis statement, the idea that [some] people cannot adapt to modern social life unites the misogyny of Jordan Peterson to the racial pontificating of Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris, to the elitism of Steven Pinker, and the cultural conservatism of Ben Shapiro and Christina Hoff Summers. It dichotomises the ‘cognitive elite’ - the genteel folk of the IDW who can calmly philosophise and make a living from Patreon - and the masses who engage in manual labour and require a firmer hand. The ‘cognitively inferior’ include women, of course, but also non-whites, cultural Muslims, trans men and women, the poor, the young, the religious and the irreligious alike. Some people simply aren’t morally equipped to be ‘free’.

There are precedents for these beliefs, of course. The Winegards are barely disguising their re-purposing of the Bell Curve, and Murray has long argued that his argument in that book is all about meritocracy and its totally not his fault at all that cognitive differences happen to be racialised. Sure buddy. But this worldview is also implicit in much of behavioural economics and the ‘authoritarian libertarianism’ of Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein’s ‘nudge’ approach to public policy. Neoliberals, drawing on mid-twentieth century views of the Mont Pelerin society, have long believed that society needs to be governed with a firm hand to deliver outcomes that are optimised for the greater good. The wrinkle that the IDW add is that some [Westernised men] can govern themselves free from the state, but that others [largely women and non-Westerners] are categorically incapable of doing so.

The IDW are therefore critics of liberalism, but critics who think we cannot possibly improve upon it. The theory is not wrong, it just has the wrong subject. Classical liberalism is therefore an ideology by and for the ruling elite - and not for everyone else. Liberty for me but not for thee. The various members of the IDW have different emotional reactions to the burdens of rule - the Weinsteins and more centrist-leaning adherents look upon the ‘cognitive inferiority’ of humanity with regret, but treat benevolent rule as the white man’s burden [recall Brett Weinstein’s incredibly patronising response to the Evergreen controversy]. Those of a more conservative inclination, including Shapiro, Peterson and the Winegard bros, believe strongly in the need for order and discipline of the masses, lest they ‘slump into an empty and unsatisfying hedonism that is ruinous to communities and to society more broadly.’

It is for this reason that the IDW are properly categorised as a right-wing movement. Their reverence for order and hierarchy puts them in good company amongst conservatives. The alt-right, neoliberals and libertarians all serve the interests of power and hierarchy in different ways. Fascists do so consciously, libertarians by neglect and neoliberals behind a veneer of technocratic governance. The IDW are the apologists of domestic empire. If fascism can be thought of as the application of the tools of colonial rule to the metropolitan population, then the IDW narrative is the justification of imperialism and the ‘tutelage’ of ‘inferior’ peoples brought home to justify dominion over the majority of the population.

Unlike their neoliberal colleagues like Pinker, who tend to believe that with the right combination of education and public policy, the masses can [eventually] mature to enjoy the full right and privileges of liberal citizenship, the IDW are pessimists who are prepared to write off the vast bulk of humanity as a burden upon the white man’s pursuit of a glorious future. As best, the masses are to be pensioned off with a UBI so they no longer disturb the peace - at worst, as Matt Christman of Chapo Trap House fears, they are rhetorically preparing for a future in which their ‘cognitive inferiors’ are either permanently enslaved or fenced off and left to die on the doorsteps on the enclaves of the elite as climate change burns the world down around them.

It is for this reason, also, that the IDW serve as such a gateway to the actual alt-right. It’s not fair to call a fan of the IDW a fascist. But they are certainly travelling on the same road, because their diagnosis of the crisis of liberalism is the same [including their complete and utter aversion to any consideration of a socialist solution]. An IDW-rationalist looks at the cognitive divide and thinks they’re going to come out on top; a supporter of fascism probably recognises they aren’t going to. At the leadership level, the two movements probably share 99 per cent of their beliefs, but unlike the Richard Spencers of the word, the writers at Quillette are unwilling to lower themselves to engage with the MAGA cultural wasteland. It remains to be seen which is the more effective political strategy.

What is to be done?

I’ve said many times that the first step of any socialist movement is to defend and uphold liberal democracy. Without upholding the basic principle that every citizen is entitled to equal dignity and equal say over the decisions that affect their interests, we cannot argue that a materially unequal society is one that does not uphold the social contract. Mere rejection of the IDW is not enough however. The IDW are very, very good at propaganda and are learning how to package misogyny, racism and transphobia under a veneer of scientific and philosophical legitimacy that is superficially persuasive to many people.

The left is getting better at countering these narratives - but there’s a disconnect between the very online progressive movements who are the ground troops of this war of stories and the movement activists who are seeking and contesting power. It doesn’t help that many of the [white, male] writers and academics who naturally support this movement enjoy socially privileged positions and access to expert knowledge. For many serious politicians, the IDW may be beneath their notice. But its cultural influence should concern us. We won’t be able to enact our agendas if the narrative ground has been disappeared beneath us.

Listen to my talk at NIBS

A couple of weeks ago, on 2 April, I gave a talk on my first book, “Politics for the New Dark Age: Staying Positive Amidst Disorder” at the New International Book Store in Melbourne. For those not able to be there, there are now two recordings of the talk available online:

Firstly, via the podcast of NIBS itself here.

Secondly, there’s a slightly edited version available in the first half hour of the 6 April episode of 3CR’s Solidarity Radio here.

Utilitarianism, Intersectionality and Epistemic Injustice

I’ll be talking about my first book, “Politics for the New Dark Age: Staying Positive Amidst Disorder” at the New International Book Store (NIBS) at Trade’s Hall in Melbourne at 7pm on Tuesday 2 April 2019. If you’d like to come and hear me speak about how we got here and where we go next, check out NIBS’ Facebook page here. Hope to see people there!

In Chapter IV of my book, “Politics for the New Dark Age: Staying Positive Amidst Disorder”, I diagnose the inherent authoritarianism of the technocratic, utilitarian mindset thus:

“Authoritarians believe their actions are for the good of all, as they see it. Anyone who [believes] that people should behave in certain ways or that their answer to a social problem is the right answer for all people is acting in an authoritarian mode; as is anyone that attempts to limit personal choice – even ‘wrong’ choices. Authoritarians are motivated by a desire to prevent unfavourable outcomes, including (or especially) outcomes that will primarily affect others. . . . An authoritarian world view is often synonymous with . . . .[u]tilitarianism, [which] as a philosophy or system of ethics, reduces politics to the actions of an idealised dictator who weighs up the balance of interests of society and makes decisions as if those interests were his own.”

Utilitarian calculus inherently relies on a universal accounting of interests and preferences - or more realistically, a process of deciding which interests and preferences are really important and those that aren’t. Oddly enough, it often turns out that the interests that utilitarians value serve the purposes of the powerful and the wealthy, and the link between technocratic impulses and authoritarianism and hierarchy has been a consistent theme of my writing.

I’ve also tried, over the last eighteen months on this blog, to come to an understanding of the politics of identity, solidarity and recognition - a topic I explicitly avoid in the book. In that self-examination, the strongest endorsement I could offer to Kimberle Crenshaw’s concept of ‘intersectionality’ is that it represents good progressive tactics. Useful, in other words, but temporary. Necessary, but not sufficient. As I write in the “Introduction” to the book, “[O]nce victories have been secured . . .there’s no guarantee that every minority voter will remain a leftist. Indeed, there is a very good reason to assume the exact opposite: that minority communities contain approximately the same distribution of political beliefs as the rest of society.”

This blog is yet another effort to correct and improve upon that record. I’ve come to the conclusion that my dismissal of utilitarianism already includes within it the philosophical case for intersectionality and the equalisation of subjective epistemology (i.e. personal ways of knowing). This conclusion is of vital importance to the modern left, because pretensions of utilitarian universalism and the rejection of the subjective experience and axieties of the working class, women, racial minorities and especially trans individuals are the sina qua non of the modern ‘classical liberal’, i.e. devotees of the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW).

Epistemic Injustice

Steven Pinker has been at it again this week, this time [where else?] on the pages of Quillette offering a defence of his most recent book, “Enlightenment Now”. Pinker’s descent into to “house wonk” status amongst the IDW has been inevitable for sometime now, and in this article his prejudices are in full force - alongside his otherwise excellent prose. Between essentially conceding the point that his book is not actually about the real historical enlightenment (but rather Pinker’s idealised notion of it), and repeated bizarre Rousseau bashing (which he seems to have possibly picked up via Hannah Arendt), Pinker devotes most of the article, and I presume his book [full disclosure: I haven’t read it] to proving that the subjective experience of poor or declining quality of life is untrue, and that empirically human life is improving. To the extent that people disagree, it’s either because of their irrational biases, ignorance, or the unequal distribution of knowledge.

Pinker’s data project has obvious strengths and weaknesses, and I’m not here to challenge it on those terms. Rather I take aim at the technocratic epistemological worldview of which he is a part: that happiness can be measured, that experts and think tanks agree on how to measure it, and that this elite consensus on the meaning of happiness is the only basis on which we could, or should, make public policy. Pinker’s style of thinking is typical of right-wing liberalism in all its positive and negative manifestations. It’s good to believe, as Enlightenment thinkers largely did, that we can improve the world through reason. But reason also serves to justify privilege. Why not support the slave trade (like Locke and Jefferson) since it objectively improved welfare, as least as far as it could be measured in the 18th century? And why believe women’s experiences about #metoo when, objectively speaking, women have never had it better in the workplace? Why believe African-Americans who tell us they experience systematic harassment and discrimination in their everyday lives, when the data shows they’ve never been better off? And perhaps most tellingly of all, why believe trans people about their experience of gender dysphoria when science says there are only two sexes and transgenderism is a mental disorder?

As should be clear by now, the worldview which Pinker and the IDW represent is one which systematically devalues the knowledge and experience of those not in positions of power and authority. Not only is the testimony of minority groups systematically discounted, but those groups do not have access to the same tools of influence and persuasion to make their case even if they were potentially going to be listened to. The English philosopher Miranda Fricker has in recent years termed the phrase “epistemic injustice” to describe this phenomenon, and it’s certainly a framework that was being made growing use of in academia during my recent studies in Switzerland. Epistemic injustice is simply the observation that knowledge - and perhaps more importantly, ways of knowing - are not equally distributed in society and that some viewpoints, such as Pinker’s, are systematically privileged by the current structure of power.

Utiliarianism is Epistemic Injustice

Intersectionality, then, in the sense of listening to and taking as authoritative others’ subjective experience of their own social position and resisting the temptation to impose our own knowledge and narratives on their lives, is the first step towards remedying epistemic injustice. It’s not a total solution of course - no permanent social change can be effected solely at the level of the individual and insisting that it can be serves only to demoralise people who can’t perform perfectly (i.e. everyone). Just as individual awareness of our impact on the environment will hopefully form the basis for structural economic change to fight climate change, so to can intersectional personal interactions lay the groundwork for structural political change that ends the unequal distribution of knowledge.

My book offers a robust defense of the democratic form of socialism in particular because I am firmly of the view that democracy is deeply under threat from the liberal technocrats who claim to be it’s champion. I’ve written before that right-wing liberals have a long history of distrust of popular democracy, and if democracy [in the abstract] is to mean anything at all, it is that the people most affected by group decisions should participate in the making of that decision. Liberal technocrats distrust real democracy because at their core they do not believe that real groups of people possess sufficient knowledge to make decisions in their own self-interest. Sure, an idealised Republic of white, male philosophers might all be able to deliberate together and agree on the ‘right’ thing to do, but the degree of social inclusion or material redistribution required to extend the right of democratic deliberation to everyone is unworkable, undesirable - and consensus may be impossible even on those terms.

Utilitarian public policy making, therefore, is inherently unjust from an epistemic viewpoint. Who gets access to knowledge about the world, whose experiences matter, and who possess the social capital to make their case most persuasively - these are questions whose answers are not distributed fairly. The only solution to this unfair epistemology, as with all things, is socialised democracy. Real democracy - in which everyone regardless of their socio-economic status, gender identity, ethnic or religious background gets to meaningfully participate in the public decisions that affect their interests as they themselves define those interests. The first step is always going to be getting recognised as a group of individual that has a stake. Now, I’m no utopian. No society is ever going to deliver on a perfectly equally distribution of knowledge. But like all aspects of the socialist project, I’m confident in saying that we can do better than we are right now, and we know what direction to start the journey in.

The Establishment Right - Not Dead Yet

I've written several times before on the tensions within the liberal democratic consensus, and how the Great Recession (and Iraq War that preceded it) exposed and aggravated them. Both in my first book (“Politics for the New Dark Age: Staying Positive Amidst Disorder") and in my writings on my blog, I’ve argued that only democratic socialism offers the possibility of both more 'freedom' and more democracy – while also delivering on the left's other social goals included fairer, more resilient progress. There is, in other words, left-wing populism and it is good.

I've always been interested in the anatomy of right-wing political philosophy, because we on the left have to understand our opponents if we are to defeat them. The purpose of today's blog is to look briefly at the two 'establishment' right-wing liberal philosophies that are still in contention – neoliberalism and right-libertarianism – and see how they're responding to this moment of crisis. My interest in writing about this topic was sparked by a recent episode of Jacobin's "The Dig" Podcast with Daniel Denvir, discussing the history of neoliberalism. Like most leftists of a certain age, I find it both hilarious and gratifying that some people nowadays self-consciously identify as neoliberal (including my old friend @EconoMeager) rather than taking it as the invisible aether in which we all swim.

An anatomy of fools

Neoliberalism and right-libertarianism share common DNA. Philosophically, they are distinct from the various flavours of conservatism: idealist and utopian – neither especially empirical nor pragmatic – right-wing liberalism permits a degree of social and personal freedom that is anathema to the hard right. They are too 'centrist' for reactionaries in the same way that liberal democrats are too 'centrist' for us on the left. Both neoliberalism and libertarianism are committed to the Hayekian consensus of modern economics: that individual autonomy is the only just way to satisfy individual preferences, and that it is also economically efficient if every social actor engages in autonomous self-help in pursuit of those preferences. At a stretch, both may even argue that autonomous free contracting provides the social glue that binds society together and enables peace and prosperity amongst societies. It posits a harmony between individual and collective ends that is, of course, empirically false (because of collective action problems, market failures and a half dozen other factors).

Of the two, libertarianism gives ontological primacy to the autonomous individual. The boundaries of the private – including and especially private property – are sacred in a very literal way. Upholding the negative rights of the individual – the absence of violence or coercion – is the sine qua non of a just society and no violation of that principle can be tolerated. Right-libertarians distrust the democratic state (as do left-libertarians) because of the significant potential threat it poses to those rights. However, because of the primacy of principle, they are blind to the way in which unequal structures of wealth and power are just as much of a threat to individual freedom as the state. Right-libertarianism justifies authoritarianism by neglect – if it's not the state, then it's not exploitation. And it’s for this reason that right-libertarians tend to have the Trump-iest populist politics.  

Neoliberals take a different tack, and here I am relying explicitly on Dan's interview with the economic historian Quinn Slobodian. Neoliberals give primacy to the market as whole. They value the collective ends of efficiency and growth, and therefore are attracted towards the technocratic and utilitarian. For neoliberals, democratic impulses threaten the efficient operation of the market, so the legal institutions of the state must be made immune from popular accountability. Neoliberals are very comfortable exercising state power, but are deeply ambivalent about its democratic form and are prone to actual honest-to-goodness authoritarian behaviour. Neoliberals are less committed to the principle of individual autonomy – although it’s a valuable aesthetic ornament – and as a result may be more sceptical towards private concentrations of power that corrupt market efficiency (for example, they are often committed to breaking up monopolies in the interest of preserving competition). Neoliberals are anti-populists - and are preserving their elite status by standing with the Never Trumpers.

Different narratives, different faults

The Great Recession, therefore, posed a different challenges to neoliberals and right-libertarians. Like the Iraq War before it, the Great Recession showed that the idealistic utopianism of right-wing liberals was no better at economic management and securing international peace than the utopianism of the left-wing communists. But because of the affective weights they place on different elements of their political and economic model, each diagnoses the political threat from populism differently. These different viewpoints will determine their response to the populist moment and affect their short- and long-term political trajectories.

The neoliberals have the same response as always. The cause of the Great Recession was clearly too much state intervention in favour of housing loans, driven by populist visions of expanding home ownership. Put in charge of their own destiny, people vote for idiots like Trump who blindly rip up decades worth of international law and institutions. The state just needs to be run by smarter people, and if the masses cannot be educated, then they can at least have their biases studied and manipulated so they no longer get in the way. Neoliberals are most content with moving in the direction of further liberal undemocracy: while they can tolerate Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, they’d much rather live in Xi Jinping’s China than Trump’s America.

The libertarians, too, identify the state as the problem but their response to the current moment of crises has been less coldly calculating and more emotive. For libertarians, the cure for economic inquality and sluggish growth is worse than the disease. Blind to the threat posed to their liberties by private concentrations of capital, libertarians have been eclipsed by the populist right. The true believers remaining are those wealthy or privileged enough to be immune from the consequences of their own ideology. Other [let’s suppose white, working-class] men and women who have been materially affected by the Great Recession are those most likely to follow the siren song of illiberal democracy and right-wing identity politics, trading away the rights and freedoms of others (migrants, women, LGBT communities) so long as they preserve their own slice of the economic pie. It’s only self-interest after all.

What is to be done

I think the left writes off neoliberals at our own peril. Right wing libertarians have always been a fringe movement: well-funded, yes, but incapable of gathering lasting popular appeal outside small groups of narcissists. The defection of most of its voting base into nationalist reaction has shown libertarianism for the paper tiger it always was. But the neoliberals are playing a longer game. When Trump is gone, and the populist moment has passed, they’ll [deservedly] get credit for opposing his free-spending, institution-smashing policies. Moreover, the more they discredit Trumpism, the more they’ll delegitimise the very idea of populist democracy itself. The WTO may be saved by the very people now trying to destroy it. Neoliberals, in other words, retain their considerable social capital amongst elites, and that social capital is going to given them a great deal of political and ideological power in the long-term. If and when right-wing populism fails, it will be up to the left to resurrect the cause of popular democracy.