This past weekend, the big Trump story was not that his DC hotel has become a hive for bribes, or that he defrauded thousands of students with a phony university, but his Twitter war with the cast of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. Trump demanded that the cast apologize for reading a harmless letter to the vice president-elect Mike Pence, who attended Friday's performance. The big story on Monday? The cast of Hamilton refuses to apologize and Trump refuses to let the matter go. The incident generated over a million tweets, and many (too many) called for a boycott of the musical. What all of this amounted to was stress for liberals and entertainment for white racists.
Socialists who, like Kshama Sawant, argued that there's no difference between the neoliberal Hillary Clinton and the social/white conservative Trump need to appreciate what exactly happened this past weekend: Energy that might have been spent on reporting about and discussing and further exposing real issues (bribery and fraud) was spent on a non-event. Welcome to the next four years of American politics. Also, welcome to the post-neoliberal age. Its death has already been announced but poorly examined by the theologian Cornel West. Though still alive in Berlin, the capital of Europe, in the US, it entered the tomb with Clinton's loss. Its last American president might very well be Obama. But here is the bad news: We on the left did not destroy it; it was instead abandoned by capitalism.
The thing that made neoliberalism so effective and so troublesome for the left for so long is that it resolved the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s. As Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello explain in their important work The New Spirit of Capitalism, traditionally speaking, there have been two types of critiques of the market system: One is social and the other is artistic. The social deals with the meat-and-potatoes problems of wages, benefits, paid leave, and the like. The artistic one involves exposing and often mocking the emptiness of a commercialized existence, the vapidity of suburban homes, the spiritual deadness of shopping malls, the uniformity of consumption and forms of entertainment—in short, the patriarchal white family. This artistic critique, which can also be called the cultural critique, was unified with the class critique in the 1960s. Capitalism's response in the 1970s was to absorb the cultural criticism and reject the class one. This form of capitalism became neoliberalism, a political program that matured during what the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke called the Great Moderation (1985 to 2005).
With this form of political economy, you can have your black rights, your gay rights, your women's rights, your immigrant rights, and so on as long as the market and its class relationships remain intact and at the center of the society. This is why neoliberalism abandoned culture (particularly in its white form) and replaced it with excellence, as Bill Readings pointed out in his book The University in Ruins, which was published in 1997—the peak year for neoliberalism. Anyone (black, brown, white), anywhere (China, South Africa, Mexico), of any orientation (straight, gay, trans), and in any position (CEO, artist, parking attendant) could strive for excellence. What mattered was your performance, which was measured only by how it affected short-term profit margins.
And so the enlightened side of neoliberalism (adopted from leftist artistic/cultural studies programs, such as those advocated by the late Stuart Hall), the protection of human rights, was made possible only by the most dehumanizing economic system. We were allowed to be black, but not allowed to not participate in market competitions. Also, though it was enlightened at the cultural level, neoliberalism did not remove or meaningfully reduce many of the inequalities established by white-male supremacy. Black poverty was not eradicated, women still earn less then men, most CEOs are white men. But the gist of neoliberalism was to avoid entanglement with white social conservatism and to support cosmopolitan values.
The left agreed with the enlightened side of neoliberalism but wanted deep structural changes—or, to use Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello language: class criticism. You can be a woman, the left insisted, but you must also get a fair wage, functional social services, access to a good education, and so on. This is what the 1999 WTO riots in Seattle initiated—the struggle to displace the market from the center of the neo-global system and institute profound institutional and policy changes. But this movement, which conference after conference, and demonstration after demonstration, was making another world possible, went into the night at the very moment a national news outlet changed its projections on Florida in the 2000 presidential election. Fearing the combination of the anti-globalization movement in its leftist form and an environmentally informed president, capital chose the neocons. These men (mostly white men) came into power and soon went to war, excited islamophobia, rethroned energy oligarchies, and pumped debt into a housing bubble that would expand to fantastic proportions. During those years, the left was tied up with the anti-war movement.
In the US, the neocons' failed war program and the economic crash of 2008 cost neoliberalism its legitimacy. Markets were not so perfect or so efficient, and very much needed government support. The collapse of the legitimacy of Europe's monetary union, which began with Greece's debt crisis in 2010, meant that neoliberalism there and its private and governmental institutions had to continue in the mode of a zombie. This zombie blocked all efforts by the left to restructure the European system, and what remained as its opponent was the ever-present anti-neoliberalsim of white nationalism. That is what happened with Brexit, which is why the left in that sequence of events found itself siding with neoliberalism. The far right was not demanding anything like structural changes, but instead a return to a capitalism that bluntly privileged whites and their culture (the pre-1965 world).
The exact same thing happened in the 2016 US presidential election. The neoliberals blocked Bernie Sanders, because he would have instituted structural changes that displaced and restrained the market, and left voters with two choices: the ghost of white cultural dominance, Trump, or the continuance of a political mode supported by economists and banks that had become zombies. (For more on the zombification of economics read John Quiggin's Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us.)
In this situation, the left in the US had to choose neoliberalism. Why? You only have to see what happened at Hamilton to see why? With neoliberalism, the left could focus on structural changes (class criticism), and we were making big gains in that direction: Kshama Sawant, an open socialist, was elected to the city council of a major American city; there were socialist bubblings in Minneapolis (another major city); Sanders, a social democrat, became one of the most popular and powerful politicians of our moment; increasing the minimum wage became a leading issue; the market and its advocates (mainstream economists) were under constant attack. Now we will lose all of that ground and return to the tiresome and time-consuming ditch of culture wars. Why was it important that socialists and Sawant supported Clinton, a neoliberal? Because we needed to spend our resources fighting for the right to feed and provide good care for a baby, not just in the old battle for a woman's right to choose to have a baby.
When the actors on the Broadway stage asked the vice president-elect to protect their rights (and these gay, straight, white, black, brown women and men are actually performing excellently by neoliberal/market measures), all I could think is: We've gone a long way back, baby.