Brian Holmes on Mon, 19 Mar 2018 03:11:36 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Troll factories in some shitty St Petersburg office?

On 03/18/2018 04:04 PM, Eric Beck wrote:
Neoliberalism is not really an institution-conceived and -directed thing like you seem to think. To the extent that the term usefully describes anything, it would apply to a more or less improvised set of policy and political responses to both the economic downturn of 1973-82 and worldwide resistance and refusal.

I hear you. Once I tried to retrace in detail the different forces that led to the Volcker interest-rate shock and so-called "monetary turn" in '81-82 (basically the beginning of contemporary financialization) and while it was possible to identify a lot of the major theoretical and policy inputs, there were also important twists that no one, or at least, very few seem to have expected. Plus all that was bipartisan, Volcker himself was a democrat, the Council on Foreign Relations which was so influential in those years was certainly liberal not conservative, so I would also agree that partisan political divides are not very good keys for analyzing political economy. Although there was a clear demand for a new doctrine from the owners of capital after '68 and even more intensely after the stagflation began in the early '70s, still it took two decades for the neoliberal doctrine to become such common sense that former social-democrats like Clinton and Blair could perfect its imposition on their own countries and most of the world, and get re-elected for doing so.

Right now (agreeing with Allan) I think it's so tumultuous that no future shape of the global political economy can be foreseen by anybody. What's happening is the continuing breakdown of the neoliberal order. Its contradictions struck the core countries with full force in 2008 and yet its collapse is far from over. Trump, for instance, has no strong economic doctrine, nor any workable vision of world order, his government is deeply incoherent and now he has kicked out both a major representative of global finance (Cohn) and of the top-tier extractive industries (Tillerson). What's left is a rabidly pro-industrial, anti-environmental, Christian fundamentalist/white supremacist gang of hip-shooting sycophants who stoke all the regressive political passions of an outdated and declining national-capitalist society.

Just to finish the point, if you want to retrace how a strong neoliberal doctrine did emerge, in addition to the stuff on Mont Pelerin that Kevin cites and you likely know, I'd follow his lead and check out the book Democracy in Chains, which tells how the economist and ideologue James Buchanan developed his ideas and found the people to spread and implement them. This process took longer than ten years, but still, it didn't just happen after the fact. Over decades, Buchanan's evolving ideas and those of his peers helped give the system the coherency to produce the new facts of financially driven globalization As Jonathan says, "This is also what we might expect from a theory of praxis. It develops, it is not born completely well thought out."

It is remarkable, though, that you can write mellifluously about Russia and Trump and psy-ops etc., but end up not having a single word to say about the fact that the fascist US president and his coterie are working on many fronts with the Russian state and its offshoots on reviving a pan-Western traditionalism that is racist, sexist, antiqueer, and eugenicist. That stuff is less sexy than brainwashing is, but it hits people where they live and comprises the actual content that's being whispered into people's ears.

There's a lot to say about that without a doubt, it's just not what I was trying to get at in a few short words. Also I'm not repeating what's said in the press about the threat that Russia poses to our democracy, blah blah blah. The point is that the far bigger threat comes from inside US capitalism. I am talking about a juncture where formal democracy of the kind we have known for a long time - with all its inequities and iniquities - either asserts itself institutionally or it is pushed aside in favor of an authoritarian order, potentially under the cover of war. To agree a bit with Angela, the neoliberal inheritance in all this does not come from Trump and certainly not from Bannon, but from Mercer and his daughter - billionnaire oligarchs who emerged from the world of computerized finance that was built by the theorists of Mont Pelerin (including Buchanan), the bankers and traders of London, New York, Chicago and Tokyo, and all those in government who saw them as the geese that lay the golden eggs. The plan that really does stretch from the Powell memo to today is that of restoring the class privilege of uncontested ownership of both financial and industrial capital, against the social-democratic transformations that began in the '30s with a very different set of doctrines including collective/state ownership and regulation. Yet as you point out, reality is a complex and chaotic mix of social forces, and Mercer's bid to buy covert computerized control over the political process is producing unforseen and unwanted consequences, just as the Koch support of the Tea Party also did. Populism is definitely not part of the classic, Buchanan-style playbook, and fascism even less, although a covert appeal to white supremacy definitely is part of it.

I think that as that appeal ceases to be covert, the neoliberal period is ending. The forces of contestation from many different levels of civil society are really tremendous, and they've kept growing in different phases since 2008. They stoke a conservative backlash which is equally impressive (or depressive). Given the global drift toward authoritarianism, if Trump were to survive political neutralization and impeachment, it is possible that some new figure of capitalism could be shaped in his wake over the next decade. Mercer, the Kochs and the other oligarchs who have emerged from the neoliberal period would undoubtedly have a lot of influence in such a case. But still, what ultimately crystallizes cannot be just a more authoritarian version of Mont Pelerin. As in every major crisis, the system has to change some of its fundamental tenets in order to keep others intact. We haven't mentioned the rise of Asia, or climate change - two other forces pushing inexorably for a system reset.

I don't reckon Trump will survive the present challenge with enough political capital to help constitute any kind of future hegemony. The reason is, neither he or any fascist can solve enough real problems to keep the system afloat. Still he's got this far and the threat is real. Whether the resolution of the current leadership crisis will really produce any reform of the networked media system and the public sphere it helps structure (or destructure) is anyone's guess. I'm not one of those who believes it has to get worse before it can get better. It could easily get worse and then get worser. Even if you don't think we live in a real democracy, still the institutional struggle has objective consequences.

Anyway, it's great if people contradict me and put forth other ideas. There's a lot more to cover - in terms of political theory, social network manipulation, neofascist ideology, changing international alignments, and the list goes on. I wanted to spark this debate because it helps everyone understand what's happening.

best, Brian

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