The 2008 financial crisis has left us bereft of any meaningful mainstream political imagination. Indeed, the political spectrum today appears like a preposterous zombie film, with undead ideologies shambling across the airwaves and internet hungry for brains and tenaciously clinging to this mortal coil, if not their actual life or dynamism. Henry Giroux, for one, has called ours a moment of “zombie politics and culture,” equally devoid of imaginative animation and suffused with a morbid callousness that simply lets the vulnerable die. While the crisis has appeared to restage the 20th century debate between Neoliberalism and Keynesianism, both have been largely hollowed of their idealism and energizing aspirations. No one actually believes in their promise to make life better or fix our problems. We are left with undead ideologies that fundamentally stifle and constrain the political imagination we so desperately need.
On the one hand, austerity measures have been guided by the principles of Necro-Neoliberalism, a perverse but no less influential afterlife of the reigning ideology of the past 30 years. Based on the idea that the free-market is an inherently just and reasonable means of organizing human affairs (and that the state can only muddy the waters), neoliberals advocated (and won) the retreat of the welfare state and the accelerating erosion of government’s ability to shape economic life.
Neoliberalism was based on three key principles. First was privatization of socialized wealth. For example: cuts to social programs, the contracting out or selling off of public-sector jobs and programs, the implementation of user-fees, and the vetoing of all new social welfare programs. Second was the deregulation of controls on big business: the erosion of union and worker’s rights, the slackening of environmental protections, and the opening up of formerly government-run programs (like education and health-care) to private “competition”. Finally, neoliberalism was based on the systematic dismantling of barriers to international trade (or, really, the selective destruction of poorer countries’ ability to defend their economies) including global and bi-lateral trade agreements and new forms on transnational economic governance that effectively tied government’s hands when it came to regulating international capitalism in any meaningful way. This was all part and parcel of corporate-led “globalization” which saw governments around the world compete to fulfill the neoliberal agenda in the hopes of attracting foreign direct investment and securing economic prosperity. The sum effect, of course, was the intensification of social and economic inequality and suffering, and an unmitigated ecological crisis.
The neoliberal agenda was directly responsible for the 2008 economic crisis. Not only did it justify and promote the deregulation of the financial and banking sectors, it also created the underlying situation where, because real wages have stagnated or fallen in the US and elsewhere since neoliberalism became the policy norm, the vast majority of workers in the US and elsewhere are in tremendous debt. This, combined with the complete failure of states to effectively redistribute wealth, and the privatization of the costs of things like education, health and social services, has meant that economic volatility is not merely something that happens on Wall Street: it is the existential condition of everyday life for most of us. And it is this “grassroots” economic crisis that is really behind the financial crisis. After all, this crisis “began” when the banksters and their cronies poisoned themselves on the “toxic debt” of some of America’s poorest and most abject. Whatever economic recovery may be in store for us, we can be sure it will depend on Americans’ access to yet more dubious credit.
Yet despite the fact neoliberal policies got us into this mess, the ideology remains more powerful than ever. It has guided the logic of “austerity” that has been embraced by the G20 nations and forced on everyone else. Here governments will, ironically, pay for the financial crisis by borrowing money from the markets and banks in order to give it back to those markets and banks. To make up the shortfall, they will privatize and cut social services in ways that were almost unthinkable even in the heyday of neoliberal enthusiasm in the 80s and 90s. Of course, this will lead to even greater inequality and economic suffering on the proverbial “Main Street.”
What is interesting here is that, in response to its own crisis, the neoliberal ideology was embraced immediately and absolutely, with almost no debate. Partly this was due to it being pushed by all the captains of industry, social elites and leading intellectuals. But it’s tragically funny that no-one really believes in neoliberalism any more. No one except the staunchest Libertarians actually believes that the deregulated free-market will create an economic tide that “lifts all boats” or that, in the absence of the overbearing “nanny-state” a culture of fair-play and competition will allow the “little guy” to outmaneuver corporate behemoths. We may have reached Francis Fukayama’s “end of history,” where all social dilemmas will be solved on the playing-field of the free market, but no-one in their right mind can believe it will lead to freedom, equality or prosperity.
Instead we have Necro-Neoliberalism, an ideological agenda devoid of emotion, conviction and spirit, shambling forward with an unstoppable momentum. At its best, neoliberalism was animated by the belief that the free market could be used to achieve the goals of liberalism: individuality, democracy, equality, prosperity, peace, civil discourse and, ultimately, freedom. Today, these values are not even alibis for crass corporate power. Neoliberalism lives on merely because it is so entrenched in the political imaginary and so dearly held by the corporate and financial power-that-be that it cannot be dislodged. Thirty years of neoliberal supremacy have so blighted the politico-economic imaginations of a generation of opinion-leaders that the entire public discourse on the crisis and its aftermaths are meager and stunted, stinking to high heaven of yet-more market fundamentalism.
Sadly, on the other hand we are also pursued through the wreckage of civilization by another undead ideology: Necro-Keynesianism. Embraced by liberal economists, trade unions, social advocacy groups and public intellectuals, this approach suggests we return to the economic ideas of John Maynard Keynes who, following the Great Depression, was credited with developing the ideological justification for the intervention of governments into the economy. Keynes showed that markets do not and cannot regulate themselves and that, left to their own devices with no oversight or regulation, capitalism will destroy its own economy. He, along with others, developed an array of regulatory tools that saw the state police economic and especially financial activity – notably strong central banks and government departments that could effectively manage money supplies and international trade. From roughly the end of the second world war to the 1970s, Keynesianism was the dominant economic ideology in North America and its regulatory frameworks, along with the development of a welfare-state (health, education and social services) led to what many dew-eyed commentators call the “golden age” of middle-class bliss in the 1950s and 60s. Of course, if you happened to be a woman, queer, not white, or living in the “third world” during this time, you might be excused for not having seen much of this gold. Indeed, the worldwide cultural and political revolutions of the 1960s and 70s were a rejection of the claims of this “golden age” and the sort of cultural, geopolitical and neo-colonial system required to maintain it.
Since the 1970s Keynesian policies have been under unrelenting attack from neoliberal agenda such that, by 2008, its welfare state and the regulatory frameworks were shadows of their former selves. Hence, when the financial crisis hit the fan, the first temptation of many who had been doggedly defending the Keynesian approach was to utter a triumphant “we told you so!” to their (much more successful) neoliberal rivals. There was a moment, perhaps, as the world reeled from the shock, where a return to Keynesianism was entertained. But by the G20 summit in Toronto in the summer of 2010, the path towards undead neoliberal austerity was unquestionable.
Attempts to reanimate the corpse of Keynesianism are doomed, despite the fact that they have been associated with social movements like those against austerity in Wisconsin and elsewhere, and despite being behind the modest rhetoric of trade unions, left-wing think-tanks and non-governmental organization. For one, let’s recall again that Keynesianism never actually produced social justice. Not for women, not for people of colour, not for queer people, and not for youth. Not even for the majority of the white, working class men, for that matter. This is not because of “old fashioned” cultural prejudices from the 1950s and 60s. It is because in order to afford middle-class lifestyles for some straight white men (and a handful of others) and profit and riches for a smaller group of straight white men (and a thimbleful of others) you need to exploit the labour of other people. You need housewives to do the “reproductive” work of caring for families and households. You need low-paid racialized and migrant workforces to do the undesirable jobs for a pittance. And you need a third-world to exploit for cheap resources and labour. This system required a culture that justified some straight white men being at the top of the heap (and build solidarity between SWM (and some others) in the middle class and the rich) which was fundamentally sexist, racist, homophobic and imperialist, not to mention completely unequal. Neo-Keynesians selectively misremember the post-war period. At its best, Keynesianism was a temporary compromise between corporate power and people’s struggle. While it is critical to defend and buttress the state’s power to regulate capital and provide social security to people, these are not sufficient horizons for a substantial politics today. Let’s also recall that Keynesianism, in both its original form and its more recent imaginings is an industrial ideology based on the principle of constant economic growth, one that is fundamentally ecologically unsustainable. The benefits of Keynesianism, in terms of commodity wealth (cars, divided homes, appliances, cheap imported food, etc.), are also impossible to provide for the whole population of the planet without resource or ecological collapse. This means either (a) that present trends of global inequality be maintained (eg. The “first world” exploiting the “third”) or (b) that policies be enacted to “de-develop” the first-world (eg. dismantle the auto industry), which goes well beyond the Keynesian imaginary of modest state regulation of the economy.
The second problem is this: neoliberalism has seen corporate and elite power grow to such an extent that reversing the trend is now practically impossible. The financial markets now have a stranglehold over nation states around the world who, through bailouts, have mortgaged their sovereignty to the financial economy. Most governments today run either on huge deficits (loans from private lenders) or ready access to credit. Further, today most states have been forced (or volunteered) to trade their bonds and currencies on international markets, effectively ransoming their economies to transnational capital. Any meaningful Keynesian anti-Austerity policies (eg. the re-regulation of capital, the implementation or resuscitation of social programs) will result in brutal punishment from those markets, effectively crippling governments. This is not even to mention the sorts of friends you need to have to even take state power, and what those friends demand in return (that’s why Obama isn’t returning your calls).
Today, nation-states are so bound up with and reliant on corporate investment that they cannot risk controversial policies without fear of massive capital flight: corporations maliciously relocating to other countries where the government is more pliable. The effect of this threat is all the more palpable thirty years in to neoliberal globalization and its insistence nations orient their economic production towards specialized exports rather than fulfilling general domestic needs: most nations and areas are no-where near self-sufficient in terms of energy, agriculture and many other basic material necessities. Discipline from the financial markets (leading to currency devaluation and the inability of the state to afford social programs and salaries) or corporations (leading to the inaccessibility of key global goods, like oil) would today mean social catastrophe.
Add to this: Electoral politics in North America and Europe have been reduced to ridiculous and vacuous spectacles. Political debate has been almost totally sewn up by major media corporations. While the internet has offered a new venue for debate, it is mostly used for people to look at pictures of one another in the nude, or of cats jumping in and out of boxes. Lobbyists rule parliaments and advertisers and public-relations experts have monopolized public perceptions of key issues. Even alternative and “radical” veiwpoints have been commodified and turned towards hyper-neoliberal ends. Glen Beck and Sarah Palin routinely spout complete fabrications are taken more seriously by more people than any other political figures or institutions in the United States. The disastrous failure of a near consensus of global scientists to mobilize people around the ongoing disaster of climate change should be evidence enough that mainstream politics is dead, including putting our faith in elected officials, putting our energies into lobbying or advocacy, or imagining that we, the people, can somehow influence the halls of power as they presently exist.
Of course, that’s not entirely true. If we could build a movement strong enough to overcome far right populism and angry enough for force politicians to take a stand against rapacious capitalist forces, maybe we could use these avenues to create change. But there are two problems with assuming such a movement should or would call for Keynesian re-regulation and old-fashioned social spending.
First, we need to recognize that, to a very real extent, the hands of the nation-state are tied. No mainstream government, once elected, would reverse the Necro-Neoliberal tendency and its austerity politics because the forces that support them are too strong. The only way a state government could actually gain some autonomy would be a much more radical approach: sealing up the nation’s borders and effectively taking control of the entire economy, forcing firms and companies to change their ways and refusing to let them flee the country. It would require, effectively, the nationalization of the economy. Necro-Keynesians are dangerously disingenuous when they claim that anything significant can be achieved short of these dramatic measures. They are willfully self-deceptive when they interpret ostensibly progressive leaders’ eternal messages of “wait” (until “after” the crisis, until a second term, until…) as anything more than a feeble excuse for fatal inertia.
Second, creating the sort of movement necessary to overcome the political system as it stands is not going to be mobilized merely by demanding a “return” to good old Keynesian policies. For one, people don’t join and commit themselves to movements based on a “return to normal.” Normal isn’t good enough. People join movements as part of a desire for fundamental social transformation, for justice for themselves and those they love. I believe that people have an intuitive sense that a “return” to Keynesianism through the existing “democratic” system is functionally impossible and largely undesirable. Apathy is only partly the result of political illiteracy (a big problem, to be sure). It is largely the result of being offered nothing palatable in terms of the imagination. Unless social justice movements do a better job articulating and promoting a radical social vision, they will (at best) continue to plateau at their current levels of support. These were not sufficient in Wisconsin and will not be sufficient anywhere else. Meanwhile, people’s rightly-held anger at the economic pain of economic collapse will continue to be harnessed and stoked by the far-right who offer easy answers and scapegoats.
Third, when we build a movement worthy of us, our demands should and will necessarily go well beyond a return to Keynesianism. They will be for a radically different form of political and economic democracy that cannot be corrupted by corporate or financial interests. We don’t want a tamer, gentler capitalism. We want something new and different. We don’t want to construct new regulatory regimes only to get us back to “where we were” in 1970 or 1980 only to have to fight the rest of our lives to defend those “gains.” We want a different system that provides security and prosperity for all. Is that too much to ask?
Like Necro-Neoliberalism, Necro-Keynesianism has lost its soul, its animating values have become hollow invocations of outmoded ideas. Where are the calls for a fundamental redistribution of wealth? Where are the calls for people to control when and how they work? Where are the calls for radical equality and democracy? Where are the calls for an end to exploitative corporations and to the destructive financial markets? Where are the calls for real equity and diversity? Where are the calls for an end to racism and imperialism? You can hear them at every Necro-Keynesian party rally and union meeting, but they ring hollow because they are not backed by any significant political imaginary and because they are almost surely doomed to fail. In other words, Keynesianism is and has always been insufficient and when we set our political ambitions so low, we cannot begin to hope.
Undead ideologies hang around because they are wound up in a system, but it is a system that is collapsing. Necro-Neoliberals will quickly find themselves unable to believe in capitalism’s ability to achieve liberal values and will have to choose either to become shills for naked corporate power (if they weren’t already) or abandon their undead ideology. Necro-Keynesian intellectuals will quickly find that the parties, universities, unions and left-wing think-tanks that employ them have been left behind by the tide of history. The age of cynicism is over and populism is back. The “pragmatists” have proved themselves to be bankrupt of vision and strategy; it’s time for radical, self-critical idealism and for the Left to take real responsibility for articulating a vision of a different world. It is vitally important that we mobilize the radical imagination and direct our energies to creating new spaces to discuss, debate and create our post-capitalist future. There is no alternative.