I have belatedly caught up with some of Nancy Fraser‘s analysis of the current worldwide political condition that has seen Trump in the US and a rise in ethnocentric and authoritarian movements worldwide and I’d like to try to set out her ideas over a few posts here as I find opportunity. Above all, I’d like to try to simplify Nancy Fraser’s articles that come across to me at an overly high conceptual level. (If anything in this series of posts is not clear or accurate then I expect to be called to account.) Gramsci was criticized (while also being highly honoured) by Noam Chomsky for his obscure intellectual jargon. Given that Fraser acknowledges a debt to Gramsci it may not be surprising that she also writes above the level of everyday language that is always clear to all. I think Fraser’s analysis is correct, or at least among the most explanatory that I have heard for making sense of the situation of the world today and how someone like Trump is where he is now. These posts will be extracted from the points made by Nancy Fraser in . . .
- Fraser, Nancy. 2017. “From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump—and Beyond.” American Affairs Journal 1 (4): 46–64.
The crisis is global
- In the USA we see Trump
- In the UK we have the Brexit debacle
- In the European Union we have the disintegration of the social-democratic and centre-right parties that had been its mainstay
- Throughout northern and east-central Europe we have been witnessing the rise of racist, anti-immigrant parties
- In Latin America, Asia, the Pacific we have seen the rise of authoritarian (proto-fascist) forces.
The above changes all share one thing in common:
All involve a dramatic weakening, if not a simple breakdown, of the authority of the established political classes and political parties. It is as if masses of people throughout the world had stopped believing in the reigning common sense that underpinned political domination for the last several decades. It is as if they had lost confidence in the bona fides of the elites and were searching for new ideologies, organizations, and leadership. Given the scale of the breakdown, it’s unlikely that this is a coincidence. Let us assume, accordingly, that we face a global political crisis.
So it is fair to look for something that is happening on a global scale to explain the above retrograde shifts.
And it’s not just political. It involves serious ecological, social and economic stresses. Some of the major challenges within the US have been
- the changing nature of the finance industry;
- the proliferation of precarious service-sector McJobs;
- ballooning consumer debt to enable the purchase of cheap stuff produced elsewhere;
- conjoint increases in carbon emissions, extreme weather, and climate denialism;
- racialized mass incarceration and systemic police violence;
- and mounting stresses on family and community life thanks in part to lengthened working hours and diminished social supports.
It’s about time the above stresses had a serious impact on the politics of countries where they are found together. And we have seen the first political “blowback” of these stresses in the U.S. with the rise of Trump.
But how was it, exactly, out of all of the above, that the Trump presidency came about?
How the ruling class rules
Nancy Fraser’s perspective builds on the concept of hegemony as developed by Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist who died in a Mussolini prison. Put simply, hopefully not too simply, the idea of hegemony is that a ruling class needs to make its worldview and values the worldview and values of the groups it dominates. Simply controlling the wealth and all the businesses and factories etc is not enough to maintain control. The subordinate classes must accept the belief systems of their rulers for the system to work smoothly. The ruled must accept that their world and their place in it is only natural and commonsensical. The term hegemony implies ruling by attaining the willing consent of the lesser powers. If there is consent then what is the problem? Read on to see.
Fraser identifies two types of common sense values that the upper classes expect those they dominate to accept:
- they must share a common belief in what is right and fair regarding wages, wealth and ability to get ahead, job status and opportunities, or in other words, a common belief in what is fair and right concerning the distribution of the wealth accumulated within the society;
- they must share a common belief in what is right and fair regarding respect and status, personal recognition and esteem, and who has a right to be a part of recognized elites.
In other words, the owners of the wealth, or the owners of all the businesses that produce that wealth (mining companies, service industries, etc) must form an “ideological” or “belief system” bond with those they wish to rule. Their position of power would not be very secure otherwise.
Values pertaining to Recognition
Leaders of a certain sector of the U.S. economy positioned themselves as promoters of human rights. The “most dynamic, high-end “symbolic” and financial sectors of the U.S. economy” — Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood — embraced the values of feminism, antiracism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, and LGBTQ rights that had been emerging out of progressive liberal activist movements from the 1960s and 70s. These values served the interests of both classes: “Sure, we believe in equal opportunity rights for women, blacks, gays — we want the very best talent from any quarter to get to the top and make the most of their (not to mention our corporate) potential” (my paraphrase).
Anyone who was capable of doing a job should be given the opportunity to do that job regardless of their race, gender, etc. It was a subtle form of meritocracy to see who was worthy of class advancement.
And that ideal was inherently class specific: geared to ensuring that “deserving” individuals from “underrepresented groups” could attain positions and pay on a par with the straight white men of their own class.
The progressive-neoliberal bloc combined an expropriative, plutocratic economic program with a liberal-meritocratic politics of recognition.
Values pertaining to Distribution
Here is where the Left divided. Large sectors of the Left were seduced into supporting the other set of values (concerning distribution of wealth) of those economic leaders.
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.
The program in the U.S. was launched under Ronald Reagan (and elsewhere, of course, by Margaret Thatcher; and dare I even say Labor leaders Hawke and Keating in Australia?!). Democrat Bill Clinton followed up as the one who “substantially implemented and consolidated” the policies.
We know the results: the great transfer of wealth from working and middle classes whose standards of living declined to the 1% and those closely connected to them, the professional and managerial classes.
The irony. It was the “left” (those most outspoken for the “new progressive values” of recognition of women, blacks, immigrants) Clinton, Blair, Hawke-Keating, who accelerated this shift in wealth distribution from the masses to the elites. Popular support for those who would implement these changes was won through exploitation of promotion of the new values of recognition — for the hitherto disadvantaged members of society. The promise was that the new economy would likewise make everyone better off. Recall those “trickle down” promises?
So the neoliberals promoted themselves as progressives. Fraser calls them the “progressive neoliberals”.
We should not be surprised. That’s how the ruling class rules, as per Antonio Gramsci.
How it began
Where did this new economic idea of “liberalizing everything” come from? I was taught in school that our society had learned to live safely and in economic responsibility as a result of the lessons of the Great Depression. We had all sorts of regulations and supervisory bodies, both national and international, to keep a check and prevent any would-be excesses of capitalism from breaking out again. But I guess those with the money do not necessarily see things that way.
Progressive neoliberals did not dream up this political economy. That honor belongs to the Right: to its intellectual luminaries Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan; to its visionary politicians, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan; and to their deep-pocketed enablers, Charles and David Koch, among others.
Nancy Fraser seems to assure me that my own recollection of past attitudes and values relating to the dangers of capitalist excesses are not amiss:
But the right-wing “fundamentalist” version of neoliberalism could not become hegemonic in a country whose common sense was still shaped by New Deal thinking, the “rights revolution,” and a slew of social movements descended from the New Left. For the neoliberal project to triumph, it had to be repackaged, given a broader appeal, linked to other, noneconomic aspirations for emancipation. Only when decked out as progressive could a deeply regressive political economy become the dynamic center of a new hegemonic bloc. (my emphasis)
I can still recall feeling some nervousness when Keating announced derugulations — I had always thought the regulation was there for a good reason, to avoid a repeat of another “great depression”.
So in the U.S. it was the New Democrats who found the way forward for their corporate financial backers. Win over public votes through the new progressive values. In effect, though, the values were being hi-jacked for ends contrary to their original goals:
These ideals were interpreted in a specific, limited way that was fully compatible with the Goldman Sachsification of the U.S. economy. Protecting the environment meant carbon trading. Promoting home ownership meant subprime loans bundled together and resold as mortgage-backed securities. Equality meant meritocracy. (Discussed above)
And so the Left split:
Skewed as it was, this politics of recognition worked to seduce major currents of progressive social movements into the new hegemonic bloc. Certainly, not all feminists, anti-racists, multiculturalists, and so forth were won over to the progressive neoliberal cause. But those who were, whether knowingly or otherwise, constituted the largest, most visible segment of their respective movements, while those who resisted it were confined to the margins.
Thus “a new spirit of capitalism” was advanced with “an aura of emancipation”. Economic policies that had once been deemed regressive were now lauded as the hope for a new liberation and advance of human rights.
In the U.S. the “new capitalists” had to replace old alliances:
In place of a historic bloc that had successfully united organized labor, immigrants, African Americans, the urban middle classes, and some factions of big industrial capital for several decades, they forged a new alliance of entrepreneurs, bankers, suburbanites, “symbolic workers,” new social movements, Latinos, and youth, while retaining the support of African Americans, who felt they had nowhere else to go. Campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1991/92, Bill Clinton won the day by talking the talk of diversity, multiculturalism, and women’s rights, even while preparing to walk the walk of Goldman Sachs.
(An aside personal note: I looked up what was meant by “symbolic workers” and for the first time understood in simple coherent terms why I have never been able to explain exactly what my job of “metadata specialist” has involved. To say I’m a librarian does offer an answer that means something to most people (I shelve and stamp out books) but it actually conveys nothing at all what I really do. If next time I answer “symbolic worker” or “symbolic-analytic worker” let’s see what happens.)
The “new capitalists” also had to defeat the appeal of “reactionary neoliberals” — those who mostly looked to the Republican Party to care for their interests — but who embraced a different set of recognition values.
While claiming to foster small business and manufacturing, reactionary neoliberalism’s true economic project centered on bolstering finance, military production, and extractive energy, all to the principal benefit of the global one percent. What was supposed to render that palatable for the base it sought to assemble was an exclusionary vision of a just status order: ethnonational, anti-immigrant, and pro-Christian, if not overtly racist, patriarchal, and homophobic.
I’ll look at that group more closely in the next post in this series.
Fraser, Nancy. 2017. “From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump—and Beyond.” American Affairs Journal 1 (4): 46–64. https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2017/11/progressive-neoliberalism-trump-beyond/
Remainder of series:
- Understanding the Rise of Trump (2)
- Understanding the Rise of Trump (3)
- Understanding Trump’s Rise, Presidency – and Beyond (4)
- “Deplorables” Losing Hope in Trump (an addendum of my own)
- Understanding Trump’s Rise, Presidency — and a Positive Resolution to the Crisis
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