An important insight in Asin Shivani’s article, “This Is Our Neoliberal Nightmare: Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Why the Market and the Wealthy Win Every Time” (Alternet, June 8, 2016), is that neoliberalism is more than economic policy. It is a philosophy of life that interprets everything from the perspective of the market. And as result of the fact that neoliberal policy and philosophy have dominated the public discourse of the nation since 1980, it has arrived to influence the beliefs and assumptions of many. But not all. Many people in US society are ill at ease with neoliberal philosophy and its cultural implications, without having the capacity to articulate their discomfort.
Shivani maintains that the unarticulated divide among the people of the United States with respect to neoliberalism is playing itself out as a basic factor in the US presidential elections, without it being formulated as such. Among the candidates, Hillary Clinton has been the fullest expression of neoliberalism. Shivani writes:
“In the current election campaign, Hillary Clinton has been the most perfect embodiment of neoliberalism among all the candidates. She is almost its all-time ideal avatar, and I believe this explains, even if not articulated this way, the widespread discomfort among the populace toward her ascendancy. People can perceive that her ideology is founded on a conception of human beings striving relentlessly to become human capital (as her opening campaign commercial so overtly depicted).”
Bernie Sanders, in contrast, rejects neoliberal assumptions. Sanders endorses the conventional progressive affirmation of the responsibility of the state to guarantee the social and economic rights of the people, such as education, health care, nutrition, and housing. Shivani writes:
"The reason why Bernie Sanders, self-declared democratic socialist, is so threatening to neoliberalism is that he has articulated a conception of the state, civil society, and the self that is not founded in the efficacy and rationality of the market. He does not believe—unlike Hillary Clinton—that the market can tackle climate change or income inequality or unfair health and education outcomes or racial injustice, all of which Clinton propagates."
Donald Trump also rejects neoliberalism, but in a manner different from Sanders. Shivani maintains that “Trump is an authoritarian figure whose conceptions of the state and of human beings within the state are inconsistent with the surface frictionlessness neoliberalism desires.” And he asserts: “while Trump supporters want to take their rebellion in a fascist direction, their discomfort with the logic of the market is as pervasive as the Sanders camp.” Trump represents an inhumane rejection of neoliberalism, in contrast to Sanders, who expresses a humane alternative to neoliberalism.
Shivani interprets the emergence Sanders and Trump as an indication of the “breakdown of both major political parties.” He attributes the breakdown to the frustration of the people, which has been caused by the fact that “there was no sustained intellectual movement to question the myth of the market” following the crash of 2008.
I submit that the failure of progressives to offer an alternative paradigm to the neoliberal myth was evident long before 2008. It dates to 1980, when the nation took the neoliberal turn, and the Left failed to draw upon the insights of the various popular movements to formulate a comprehensive analysis and plan of action, delegitimizing the ahistorical and superficial discourse of neoliberalism. The period of 1955 to 1972 was a revolutionary period in the United States, during which the fundamentals for an alternative progressive paradigm were formulated by popular movements. The African-American movement had proposed: full political and civil rights for persons of color (NAACP, SCLC, SNCC); a coalition of the poor of all colors, including whites, for the attainment of social and economic justice (Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign); black control of black community institutions, including economic, political, educational, criminal justice, and cultural institutions (Malcolm’s formulation of black nationalism); and an end to imperialist policies with respect to the Third World (King and Malcolm). For its part, the student/anti-war movement: rejected the classical Marxist class analysis as not applicable to the United States; cast aside the anti-communism of American liberalism; and formulated an anti-imperialist perspective with respect to US foreign policy (SDS). Meanwhile, the women’s movement emerged with a gender consciousness that named patriarchy as a central dynamic of domination in human history and that called for full citizenship rights for women. And the ecology movement emerged to defend the rights of the earth and to critique unsustainable forms of production and consumption. All of these movements assumed a central role of the state in addressing issues of racial, gender, income, educational and health inequality as well as questions of global inequality and the ecological balance of the earth. None believed that these problems could be addressed by the market. All possessed historical consciousness and a fundamentally accurate reading of contemporary national and global dynamics. All appreciated the democratic heritage of the nation and were indignant at policies that intended to dominate and exploit in the name of democracy.
Thus, all of the elements necessary for the formulation of an alternative paradigm were present in US political culture in 1980. But we intellectuals and activists of the Left failed to formulate an alternative paradigm. Academics have been trapped by the bureaucratization of the university and distorted assumptions with respect to scientific objectivity, and they have been unable to formulate an alternative interdisciplinary paradigm tied to political practice. Activists have been disconnected from intellectual work and have been unable to formulate an alternative comprehensive paradigm, and they have moved from issue to issue in the organization of protests. Intellectuals and activists of the Left have been unable to move forward with the revolutionary thinking and proposals of the period 1955 to 1972 in order to present to the people an alternative to the neoliberal paradigm, an alternative rooted in the historic struggles of the people for the attainment of full democracy. Jesse Jackson pointed us in the right direction with his presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988, but his project was rejected by white society (he received only 12% of white votes in the presidential primaries of 1988, as against 95% of the black vote and 67% of the Latino vote), and Rev. Jackson himself was not committed to the development of the Rainbow Coalition as a mass organization following the 1988 elections.
Thus, the failure to seize upon the crash of 2008, converting it into an event that could galvanize the people into new ways of thinking and political action, was predictable, reflecting an historic failure that was rooted in the inability of the Left to build sustained popular movements in the post-1972 period.
We intellectuals and activists of the Left have the duty to offer an alternative understanding of national and international issues to our people, thus tapping into what Shivani has described as the unarticulated frustrations of our people. Drawing upon the historic popular struggles in the United States, and also learning from revolutions in other lands, we have the capacity to formulate a progressive alternative that is more advanced and developed than that offered by Sanders. A more comprehensive historical and global understanding, tied to concrete popular needs and to political action, could be more attractive to our people that what Sanders has offered, and it could eclipse the potential for fascism that Trump represents. This is the challenge and the duty that we intellectuals and activists of the Left confront in the years ahead.
Please take a look at an earlier post, “Presidential primaries in USA” 8/25/2015. I maintained that the unexpected success of Sanders and Trump in the presidential primaries is an indication that the people of the United States are not satisfied with the two mainstream political parties and established politicians. And I argued that the emergence of Sanders and Trump suggests that intellectuals and activists should reflect on the possibility of an alternative political party of the Left, giving consideration to the characteristics that such an alternative political party ought to have.