Against Progressive Neoliberalism, A New Progressive Populism

This article concludes a debate on “progressive neoliberalism.” Read Nancy Fraser’s original article and Johanna Brenner’s response.

Johanna Brenner’s reading of my essay misses the centrality of the problem of hegemony. My main point was that the current dominance of finance capital was not achieved only by force but also by what Gramsci called “consent.” Forces favoring financialization, corporate globalization, and deindustrialization succeeded in taking over the Democratic Party, I claimed, by presenting those patently anti-labor policies as progressive. Neoliberals gained power by draping their project in a new cosmopolitan ethos, centered on diversity, women’s empowerment, and LGBTQ rights. Drawing in supporters of such ideals, they forged a new hegemonic bloc, which I called progressive neoliberalism. In identifying and analyzing this bloc, I never lost sight of the power of finance capital, as Brenner claims, but offered an explanation for its political ascendance.

The lens of hegemony also sheds light on the position of social movements vis-à-vis neoliberalism. Instead of parsing out who colluded and who was coopted, I focused on the widespread shift in progressive thinking from equality to meritocracy. Saturating the airwaves in recent decades, that thinking influenced not only liberal feminists and diversity advocates who knowingly embraced its individualist ethos, but also many within social movements. Even those whom Brenner calls social-welfare feminists found something to identify with in progressive neoliberalism, and in doing so, turned a blind eye to its contradictions. To say this is not to blame them, as Brenner contends, but to clarify how hegemony works—by drawing us in—in order to figure out how best to build a counterhegemony.

The latter idea supplies the standard for assessing the fortunes of the left from the 1980s to the present. Revisiting that period, Brenner surveys an impressive body of leftwing activism, which she supports and admires, as do I. But it does not detract from that admiration to note that this activism never rose to the level of a counterhegemony. It did not succeed, that is, in presenting itself as a credible alternative to progressive neoliberalism, nor in replacing the latter’s view of who counts as “us” and who as “them” with a view of its own. To explain why this was the case would require a lengthy study, but one thing at least is clear : unwilling to frontally challenge progressive-neoliberal versions of feminism, anti-racism, and multiculturalism, leftwing activists were never able to reach the “reactionary populists” (that is, industrial working-class whites) who ended up voting for Trump.

Bernie Sanders is the exception that proves the rule. Though far from perfect, his campaign directly challenged established political fault lines. By targeting “the billionaire class,” he reached out to those abandoned by progressive neoliberalism, addressing communities struggling to preserve “middle-class” lives as victims of a “rigged economy” who deserve respect and are capable of making common cause with other victims, many of whom never had access to “middle-class” jobs. At the same time, Sanders split off a good chunk of those who had gravitated toward progressive neoliberalism. Though defeated by Clinton, he pointed the way to a potential counterhegemony : in place of the progressive-neoliberal alliance of financialization plus emancipation, he gave us a glimpse of a new, “progressive-populist” bloc combining emancipation with social protection.

In my view, the Sanders option remains the only principled and winning strategy in the era of Trump. To those who are now mobilizing under the banner of “resistance,” I suggest the counter-project of “course correction.” Whereas the first suggests a doubling down on progressive-neoliberalism’s definition of “us” (progressives) versus “them” (Trump’s “deplorable” supporters), the second means redrawing the political map—by forging common cause among all whom his administration is set to betray : not just the immigrants, feminists, and people of color who voted against him, but also the rust-belt and Southern working-class strata who voted for him. Contra Brenner, the point is not to dissolve “identity politics” into “class politics.” It is to clearly identify the shared roots of class and status injustices in financialized capitalism, and to build alliances among those who must join together to fight against both of them.


Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.