Neoliberalism as Reactionary

Yesterday’s post worried the question of (in Lear’s words) whether there is “any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts”?  Seeking the answer in psychology, in some persistent, albeit not universal, set of motivating impulses (ambition, the quest for status, envy, and resentment) is one way to go.

Another possibility is to refuse to personalize things in that way—and to look instead to structural causes.  That path is suggested by Hardt and Negri’s insistence that neoliberalism is reactionary.  (I am reading their latest tome, Assembly [Oxford UP, 2017].)

Here’s my reconstruction of the argument: The Keynesian welfare state compromise worked well enough from 1950 to 1965, but the social upheavals of the sixties revealed the deep discontent produced by capitalism even in its most benign form.  Neoliberalism—starting with Reagan and Thatcher—was a direct move to reign in the students, union workers, and other malcontents who had shaken things to the core in the 60s.  Turning the economic screws down tighter went hand-in-glove with various strategies to diminish democratic input, heighten the power of elites, and demonize both dissenters and those who agitated for continued and even increased welfare (such as provisions for health care).

This analysis has more than a little plausibility going for it.  Oddly, it is not accompanied in Hardt and Negri (who, when all is said and done, are Marxists) with an economic analysis focusing on the economic woes of the 1970s.  Certainly, it is true that today’s conservative economists are continually refighting the wars of the 70s, where inflation is the dragon to be slain—despite the fact of almost non-existent inflation for over twenty years now.  Similarly, the zombie of the welfare queen and, more generally, of the undeserving poor has proved unkillable—perhaps even more as the danger conservatives must continually work against than as a figure in the public imagination.  Neoliberalism is the set of nostrums meant to control the hungry masses who are coming after the plutocrat’s and the nation’s wealth.

Ironically, of course, the traditional fear that in a democracy the masses will plunder the public treasury has been turned on its head over the past forty years in America—and around the globe.  It is the rich, through privatization primarily but also through the state abetting more predatory business practices, that has plundered the collective wealth of the nation.  Hardt and Negri are good on this score, even if their way of describing it—namely, as “extraction of the common”—is rather different than mine.

In short, don’t look for the evil in men’s hearts—or even for the errors their passions lead them into.  Look instead to whom they identify as their enemies, what they understand as the threats to their well-being.  It’s a conflict ridden world—and the key is to see where and how the lines are drawn.  Then identify on which side someone stands.

Still, what happened in the 1970s beyond the counter-revolution against the radical forces of the 1960s?  What produced inflation accompanied by stalled economic growth—the combination that led to the belief on the part of many elites that the largesse of post-war Keynesian state was no longer sustainable?  Yes, there were tax revolts etc., just the niggardly refusal to pay the bill any longer.  So we could say that cutting off the funds led, predictably, to a recession caused by a lack of demand—in other words, a classic capitalist downturn.  When you don’t pay the workers enough, when you extract excessive profits that immiserate the many, you end up with a crisis of over-production and need to shut down the factories for a while, which means laying off the workers, which impoverishes them even further, and thus deepens the crisis because demand is depressed even further.  The classic viscous circle.

But that doesn’t explain inflation, which (just as classically) occurs when too much money is chasing too few goods.  Inflation should be the result of under-production.  Except—and here comes the rub. The other source of inflation is the result of open, globalized trade relations as contrasted to the kind of closed system analysis that explains inflation through under-production.  Inflation in a globalized system occurs when the national currency no longer buys as much on the world market.  The “oil shock” meant the American dollar went into the tank.  In 1972, a three week visit to England and Scotland (not counting the airfare) cost me $200.  Yes, I was doing it on the cheap, but still . . .  Another three weeks in England in 1978 cost me $1200.  The change in the almighty dollar was that drastic and that fast.

The eventual response to this shift in America’s position in the global economy was to outsource manufacturing to other lands and to have America concentrate on finance capital rather than industrial capital.  Neoliberalism—and its imperatives—can’t be understood without taking this transformation into account.  Here, again, Hardt and Negri are useful.  And maybe even help to answer a puzzle that goes back to the hard hearts of our Republican legislators.

The puzzle is a familiar one: if capitalism depends on consumers to fuel continual growth (i.e. if capitalism is always in need of new markets or in ways of exploiting existing markets more efficiently), then why does capitalism, especially in its neo-liberal and globalized form, seek so relentlessly to drive down wages.  It’s the opposite of the Henry Ford principle of paying his workers enough so they could buy his cars.  It takes the soft-hearted liberals from FDR to Bernie Sanders to save capitalism from the fate Marx predicted for it.

BUT . . . maybe the logic of finance capital makes that view of things a misunderstanding of the forces currently in play.  Finance capital is not seeking profits from people buying produced goods.  Instead, finance capital finds its profits in ROI (return on investment).  Think of how private equity firms work.  They swoop in to buy up a company, they then use those company’s assets to take out loans, and then (in many cases) drive the company into bankruptcy because of that high debt.  The game here is not to get people to buy things.  They just need people (usually other financial institutions) to buy debt.  The profits are the result of “extraction,” as Hardt and Negri say.  So long as someone places a value on something, that thing can be leveraged—and money made.  Who needs consumers?  Who needs the people?  It’s just a self-enclosed world of financial dealings, only related in incredibly abstract and distant ways to anything “real.”

This might seem far-fetched, but Hardt and Negri offer a great example: gentrification.  Properties in the most desired cities—New York, Vancouver, London, San Francisco etc.—spiral upward in price not just because people wish to live there, but also because they are seen as both safe and incredibly lucrative investments.  Money just chases money, with nothing “real” (except perhaps the “upgrades” to granite countertops and glass brick showers) changing.  Of course, such spirals lead, inevitably, to bubbles and collapses.  An odd term: bubble.  Because you can’t know it’s a bubble because it isn’t a bubble until the moment when confidence collapses, when the hive mind decides everything is overpriced.  Overpriced in relation to what?  There is no measure, no standard, beyond that mysterious collective sense of what is sensible.  Of course for most of us—those not in 1% or 5%–“sensible” prices were left behind four or five years ago.

Critiques of speculation as disconnected from anything real are as old as the Tulip craze and the South Sea Bubble of the 1700s.  As is the use of debt—both taking it on and forcing it upon others—to gain wealth.  (If we believe David Graeber, debt goes back 5000 years.)  What seems to distinguish neoliberalism is the orientation of capitalism (and of the political, legal, and social institutions that enable it) away from production of goods and towards the profits to be made through finance.  In other words, financial speculation was always there—but social and political policy was not constructed to aid and abet it since the conventional wisdom remained that the production of goods was the primary road to wealth—both personal and national.

Trump offers a good case for how hard it is to think about this shift.  The man never produced a single thing in his life, yet seems to think that wealth comes from the production of goods.  He even seems to think that he has produced some things.  In any case, his rhetoric is all about restoring prosperity through a return to industrial capitalism.  But most of his actions (his anti-immigration policies are an exception here) are directed toward enabling finance capitalism.  In other words, the full import of the shift hasn’t registered yet for many people.

A full-scale economic determinism, then, would tell us not to look for motives for hard-heartedness within the Republicans, but look instead to the changed nature of capitalism to explain their actions. Causes are external, not internal. The masses—defined here as those with no money to invest—are no longer relevant to prosperity, so should be ignored on that account.  And if democracy can be contained, then the masses need no longer be feared either.  The legislator will prosper by knowing who his true master is: not the voters, but the plutocrat.

So, for the determinist, neliberalism is reactionary in another sense: it is a reaction to this shift from industrial to financial capitalism.

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