Neoliberalism and anti-state ideology on the US left
There's an odd current of hostility towards the state among today's socialists and Marxists, and anarchism doesn't explain it.
I regret to inform you that Jonathan Chait was half-right. Chait, you may recall, used to spend a lot of time complaining about the term neoliberal, insisting that it doesn’t really mean anything and that it really just functions in our discourse as a vague pejorative. Chait, of course, was completely wrong about the term being meaningless; Mike Konczal wrote a pretty good corrective about that here.
But looking at the way people use the term these days, it’s hard not to concede that he was noticing something real. When Ajamu Baraka refers to the “neoliberal fascists” who support social media censorship, he really just means to say that they are liberal in their cultural sensibilities but illiberal in their views about speech; “neoliberal” has nothing to do with this. When Bree Newson criticizes the “centrist, neoliberal mythology” that there used to be moderate Republicans, she’s just using “neoliberal” as a redundant synonym for centrist. Dan Cohen refers to government restrictions on businesses as “neoliberal”, but this is, again, exactly wrong: if neoliberalism means anything, it means opposing government restrictions on business.
I want to dwell on that last point, not just because we need to understand neoliberalism, but because we need to understand what it has done to the US left. Neoliberalism is specifically organized around the demolition of the state as a countervailing force against capitalism. And though it was born in direct opposition to Marxism, it exercises such ideological hegemony in our age that it has even become the prism through which Marxism is understood.
The bipartisan consensus
The intellectual origins of neoliberalism, as David Harvey has argued, can be found as far back as the 18th century; but if we want to understand it as an ascendant political project, the story really begins in the seventies. By then we can see the so-called “Washington Consensus” emerge as a set of ten priorities that would dictate domestic and foreign policy under neoliberalism to the present day. These priorities — things like privatization, deregulation, and defunding welfare — are what we are talking about when we talk about neoliberalism. And they are, in every case, priorities that disempower the state.
Though the body of intellectual apologetics for neoliberalism is often quite technical and obscure, its expressions in our discourse should be utterly familiar to anyone who has ever heard the right talk about capitalism. Big Government needs to get out of the way and let capitalism work its magic. Red tape is binding the hands of businessmen and entrepreneurs. Welfare disincentives work. Government budgets need to be cut because deficits are dangerous. Taxation is theft. Property rights must be defended at all costs because individual rights are always more important than the common good.
All of this, again, is stuff that Republicans in general (and libertarians in particular) say all the time. What makes neoliberalism an ideology, however, is that it isn’t just a controversial doctrine championed by the right: these are ideas that worked their way left as well. The notion that welfare disincentives work, for example, is mostly accepted as common sense in the United States, especially among the powerful; usually, the only real controversy on this point involves how much it disincentives work, or whether we should provide welfare even though it does disincentive work, out of compassion. Among Democrats, this kind of skepticism towards welfare was a distinct shift from the age of the New Deal and the Great Society. But it did not come out of nowhere; it specifically came from an ideological opposition to the state. When Clinton argued for his infamous 1996 welfare reform bill during that year’s State of the Union address, he made his rationale quite clear:
We know big Government does not have all the answers. We know there's not a program for every problem. We know, and we have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic Government in Washington. And we have to give the American people one that lives within its means. The era of big Government is over.
To understand neoliberalism’s domination of US politics, one has to understand how a deep hostility towards state power has been baked into every major institution in our country — Democratic and Republican alike — for decades on end. To see what this has done to our country’s radical left, however, I think we are best off returning to that first decade, the 1970s, in France.
The second left
One of the clearest illustrations of neoliberalism’s influence on the left can be found in the life of Michel Foucault — a man who still looms large over the US left, particular its academic wing. A lot has been written about Foucault’s intellectual journey, but much of what follows comes from Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora’s indispensable The Last Man Takes LSD.
Foucault, to put it in his own words, understood his work as a “war machine against Marx.” Dean and Zamora write that
Marxism, and what it represented in intellectual life (a strong state, universal social rights, centralized economy and investment, the idea of revolution, etc.) became a target for Foucault and many other intellectuals.
The authors situate Foucault within an important schism on the left of his time. On one hand, there was the ascendant Union of the Left — a coalition of communists, socialists, and other radicals who championed a strong central state against capitalism. On the other, meanwhile, there was a much smaller Second Left splinter faction organized around opposition to state power. This second faction was inspired by the anti-communist dissident campaigns of the late 70s (think Gulag Archipelago) and came to believe, as Michael Scott Christofferson writes, that “political projects inspired by Marxist or revolutionary ideology inevitably result in totalitarianism.”1 Dean and Zamora continue,
It is essential to understand that Foucault and many other post-’68 intellectuals took part in the process of thinking about a Left that was not socialist… From this perspective, neoliberalism provided Foucault with interesting insights into how…we might ‘not be governed too much’.
I recount the case of Foucault to make two simple points. First: the understanding of Marxism as a politics that empowers the state to demolish capitalism is not just some exotic perspective found in former Soviet states, or in China, or in the Global South; nor is it simply the rhetoric of right-wing scaremongers trying to frighten workers with visions of Orwell; nor is it a perspective one just finds among marginal “tankies”. It has long been the dominant understanding of Marx everywhere. Second: whatever one thinks the left is, socialism is, and Marxism is, we cannot ignore what neoliberalism is. It is the reigning ideology of our age, and it turns anything it touches into a weapon against the state.
The case of state censorship
To see what I mean by that last point, consider a simple issue: censorship.
In the Soviet Union, there were substantial attempts to ground justifications for state censorship in Marxist theory. Lenin, for example, drew from Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State the conclusion that in a capitalist state “power is in the hands of capital, whether there are voting qualifications or some other rights or not”. Thus he argues that
“Freedom of the press” in bourgeois society means freedom for the rich… Yet if large Soviet newspapers were to be published, with all advertisements, it would be perfectly feasible to guarantee the expression of their opinion to a much greater number of citizens—say to every group having collected a certain number of signatures. Freedom of the press would in practice become much more democratic, would become incomparably more complete as a result.
This has always been the basic argument for censorship within the Marxist framework. Lenin does not just pull it out of nowhere; if you take seriously some of the ideas about the relationship between class and state articulated by Marx and Engels himself, it’s a perfectly defensible implication.
Nevertheless, even if a justification for censorship can be drawn from indispensable points of Marxist theory, it does not seem very plausible that Marx himself made that connection. Marx writes that “one must have loved freedom of the press, like beauty, to be able to defend it”2; much of his career as an editor was spent railing against censorship, punctuated by his declaration that “The real, radical cure for censorship would be its abolition”.
Which, then, is the correct “Marxist” position? I have my own take on this of course, but instead of getting derailed I would like to ask: what kind of answer might we expect to see in an intellectual culture dominated by the ideas and institutions of neoliberal capitalism?
The answer to that is easy. In the United States, ideas about Marxist theory are mostly produced and disseminated through a massive network of universities, media outlets, and occasionally think tanks. And for ideological and economic reasons, everyone in this apparatus has a powerful interest in defending their intellectual independence against the state. If you are a graduate student studying Marx in a philosophy or critical studies class, your professor probably opposes state censorship; all of the aspiring professors in your class, along with those who simply want to pander for good grades, also probably oppose state censorship; the books you are reading were probably written by an author who opposes state censorship, published by a private company that opposes state censorship; the potential employers who might see your paper about Marx if you post it online also oppose state censorship; and even you, dreaming of tenure or some other career in the letters, probably also oppose state censorship. Every single thing around you wants you to read Marx as either an enemy of free speech (and therefore bad) or a champion of free speech (and therefore good) — and some of the most powerful incentives have nothing whatsoever to do with the text itself.
Does this mean that it is incorrect to read Marx as a champion of free speech? Absolutely not; as already noted, there’s a strong case to be made that he was. But what this does mean is that basically everyone who has access to a mass media platform or a university press has powerful reasons to argue that he was a champion of free speech regardless of what the text actually says. We should expect this fact about our economy to be directly reflected in the industry of Marxist academia, media, and so on; the shocking thing would be if it had no influence whatsoever.
The neoliberal shadow
This is the shadow we should expect neoliberalism to cast on left politics in the United States today — even on our understanding of Marx. The more influential you are in Marxist discourse, the more likely you are to have neoliberal sensibilities about state power (whether you recognize them as such or not); and not because of anything having to do with Marx, but simply because of the architecture of influence that exists under neoliberal capitalism.
Among the Second Left in France we saw exactly what this would look like: anticommunism, attraction if not outright collaboration with the libertarian right, and efforts to reorient left politics away from class struggle and towards a vague fight against the “authoritarianism” of capital and the state. Among the US left, I would argue that the influence of neoliberalism is expressed in all kinds of ways:
The persistent popularity of overtly anti-Marxist anarchism;
The compulsion of democratic socialists to redundantly qualify socialism as “democratic” (not, that is, that bad kind with a powerful state!)
Fixations on localism and decentralization;
Opposition to electoralism that is categorical rather than situational;
Opposition to global governance;
Concern about interpersonal growth and relationships in which taking state power is at best an afterthought;
Cultural skepticism towards state power as a solution to economic problems (IE jokes about “socialism is when the government does stuff and the more the government does the socialister it is”);
Critiques of fascism that revolve around state power, that characterize communist governments as fascist, and that neglect contributing factors like austerity, inequality, ethnonationalism, psychopathology, and so on;
Susceptibility towards ill-advised support for opponents of state power (libertarians, liberals, etc);
Exaggerated and flat-out inaccurate characterizations of the historical left, of socialism, and even of Marxism as fundamentally anti-state; and
Rampant confusion about neoliberalism.
Those last two points, of course, are directly related. If you do not understand neoliberalism then you will not appreciate just how thoroughly radical opposition to the state has saturated intellectual culture in the United States — even on the left. And if you do not understand left politics in general, and Marxism in particular, then you will have a hard time understanding neoliberal ideology and the role it has played in shaping our politics.
‘An Antitotalitarian History of the French Revolution’, French Historical Studies 22:4, 1999, p.568.
Karl Marx - Freidrich Engels. Pressenheit und Zensur by Iring Fetscher, p.49