Saturday, January 6, 2018

Deplorables--Now and Forever!

I don't necessarily endorse all the claims Nancy Fraser makes in this thoughtful essay in American Affairs, but she does offer a very interesting narrative of our current political turmoil. Arguing that distribution (of goods) and recognition (of social practices, values, etc.) are core defining traits of any political hegemonic bloc, she finds that Donald Trump's election challenged the reigning paradigm of progressive neoliberalism:
That may sound like an oxymoron, but it was a real and powerful alliance of two unlikely bedfellows: on the one hand, mainstream liberal currents of the new social movements (feminism, antiracism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, and LGBTQ rights); on the other hand, the most dynamic, high-end “symbolic” and financial sectors of the U.S. economy (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood). What held this odd couple together was a distinctive combination of views about distribution and recognition.
The progressive-neoliberal bloc combined an expropriative, plutocratic economic program with a liberal-meritocratic politics of recognition. The distributive component of this amalgam was neoliberal. Determined to unshackle market forces from the heavy hand of the state and from the millstone of “tax and spend,” the classes that led this bloc aimed to liberalize and globalize the capitalist economy. What that meant, in reality, was financialization: the dismantling of barriers to, and protections from, the free movement of capital; the deregulation of banking and the ballooning of predatory debt; deindustrialization, the weakening of unions, and the spread of precarious, badly paid work. Popularly associated with Ronald Reagan, but substantially implemented and consolidated by Bill Clinton, these policies hollowed out working-class and middle-class living standards, while transferring wealth and value upward—chiefly to the one percent, of course, but also to the upper reaches of the professional-managerial classes.
Fraser argues that reactionary neoliberalism had been the main political rival to progressive neoliberalism, but Trump instead championed reactionary populism, which was premised on the diffusion of economic goods and more "reactionary" cultural values.  She claims that, in governing, the president has largely failed to deliver on his populist distributive promises and instead has offered a kind of hyper-reactionary neoliberalism, in which the president stokes "reactionary" cultural feuds while continuing to support the economic policies of neoliberalism (with things like TPP excepted).  Fraser suggests that some kind of progressive populism could be a corrective to the Trump presidency.

I have some real doubts about breaking cultural narratives down to the "reactionary" and the "progressive," and probably have a slightly different view of the merits of a capitalist economy than Fraser does.

Nevertheless, many of her comments about the architecture of neoliberalism (finance, labor, etc.) are revealing.  And her points about hyper-reactionary neoliberalism are not entirely dissimilar from my piece for NRO earlier this week, in which I warned of the political and policy dangers of President Trump immersing himself in cultural feuds while supporting unreformed GOP policy nostalgia.  (I also suggested some areas for a populist-conservative reset--read the rest here!)

One of the revealing things about the neoliberal consensus has been the fact that, for all its celebration of disruption, the neoliberal order has in fact grown fairly sclerotic.  At least in the United States, a certain elite consensus on immigration, trade, and so forth has hardened.  It's proven surprisingly resistant to reform, even as the current paradigm of globalization has reached a point of diminishing returns and grows increasingly unstable.  The post-2000 United States has witnessed a number of depressing trends--from GDP slowdown to climbs in mortality rates in certain areas.  But the overall architecture of the current iteration of globalization could not be challenged, either from the left or the right.

One of the signs of the sclerosis of the neoliberal order is the fact that many proponents of that order cling to shame politics--the effort to shut down debate by calumny and to distract from problems by heaping opprobrium on someone else--even as it too has reached a point of diminishing returns.  The "deplorables" strategy ("calling out" both Donald Trump and his supporters as rabid animals) is quintessential shame politics.  It was the core of Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016, and it failed miserably.  Yet many of Trump's opponents have doubled down on this effort.*  Denunciations of the president and his "deplorable" supporters fill our airwaves and social-media feeds, but how to correct some of the ills of the neoliberal paradigm has gotten much less attention.

As I've written before, reform could be a way extending some of the real benefits of the post-WWII and post-Cold War global order.  The rise of populist disruption is a sign that the current iteration of globalization needs updating.  History shows that rigidity often weakens a political paradigm, so the defense of globalization by saying that it cannot be changed in any way might end up not being much of a defense at all.

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*Note: That's many--not all.  Some Trump critics have advocated for reforms (calling for the Left to dial back its culture war, for instance, or the Right to advance more worker-friendly policies).  Critiques of Trump that emphasize the need for changes probably have more political viability than those that merely denounce Trump while defending the status quo.  Of course, forceful criticism of a president is a necessary and healthy component of political life.  Fierce denunciations of a president's supporters--including calls to excommunicate them from political life--can be more troubling, however.

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