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Neoliberalism in Crisis

Interview by Sofia Cutler, Sara Farah and Emanuel Guay.

This year marks the 150th publication anniversary of Marx’s Capital. While the world has inevitably changed in the last century and a half, Marx’s work remains crucial to explaining—and critiquing— the logic and historical development of capitalism today. As Ernst Mandel notes in his introduction to the English translation, Capital lays bare “the ruthless and irresistible impulse to growth which characterizes production for private profit and the predominant use of profit for capital accumulation.”

To mark this anniversary, and to better situate Marx’s pièce de résistance in our own contemporary moment of neoliberal crisis, we have interviewed two leading, but slightly diverging voices on Capital: Kevin B. Anderson and John Bellamy Foster.

Sofia Cutler, Sara Farah and Emanuel Guay: We want to start by asking you both to address the rise of right-wing initiatives we have seen in the last few years like those of Trump, UKIP, Le Pen. These claim to take a stance against the establishment and allege to represent the people’s real grievances. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon? What does it say on the state of progressive forces today?

JBF: We are seeing a crisis of the capitalist state (and I have made this argument elsewhere). More specifically, we are seeing a weakening of the liberal-democratic state structure that has been the dominant form of the capitalist state in the post-Second World War years.

CFG: When do you think this crisis began?

JBF: This structural crisis has its roots in the deepening economic stagnation of the capitalist economy and it came to the foreground with the bursting of the financial bubble in 2007-09. In our book, The Endless Crisis, Robert W. McChesney and I argued that the system was now facing a period of secular stagnation due to the overaccumulation of capital.

CFG: But this was almost ten years ago. Would you say this secular stagnation is getting worse or better?

JBF: It has worsened. There has been an inability in the new circumstances to reignite the financialization process (or the bubble economy) in order to propel capital accumulation, as it was the case in the 1980s and ‘90s.

CFG: And you see this stagnation in relation to the rise of so-called fascism since it is, at least in part, a crisis of the capitalist state?

JBF: For me, it is clear that we are currently in a period of structural crisis of capitalism going back to the 1970s, but deepening in our time. Persistent economic stagnation together with neoliberal austerity has at this point seriously undermined the stability of the liberal-democratic state and thus the political command sector of the capitalist system. This has led to a dangerous resurgence of political movements in the fascist genus (fascism, neofascism, post-fascism), representing an alternative way of managing the state of the capitalist system, opposed to liberal democracy. Trump, Le Pen, UKIP are to be explained in these terms, though the class dynamics differ somewhat from country to country.

CFG: Kevin, how do you explain the rise of these right-wing initiatives like those of Trump, UKIP, Le Pen and so on?

KA: Trump is a hybrid phenomenon as I see it. He is somewhat like UKIP and Le Pen with his right-wing populism that espouses some fascist overtones, but he’s also partly just the old neoliberalism in disguise, especially if we look at some of the people he appointed to his cabinet. The continuities are actually less interesting than the differences.

CFG: So, what are the differences here?

KA: The differences are that the old right-wing of the past thirty or forty years have been linked to neoliberalism, to figures like Reagan, Thatcher, and also— at least in the United States and some other parts of the world—to religion in politics in a reactionary way, and the so-called Christian right in the United States.

CFG: Can you elaborate?

KA: Most of the left has put its eggs in the basket of combating neoliberalism, but I think we have to look beyond neoliberalism and look at capitalism itself. This means looking at the social practices of the present form of capitalism, which is moving away from neoliberalism and toward some kind of right-wing populism. Obviously, this is in response to the self-evident refutation of neoliberalism by the Great Recession.

CFG: So when did this shift away from neoliberalism begin and what does it mean for capitalism more broadly?

KA: Since 2008, we have moved away from a number of crucial aspects of neoliberalism. While neoliberalism took us out of the old welfare state type of capitalism of the period after World War II – and was dominant from 1975 to 2008 – it is likely that we are in some kind of new phase of post-World War II capitalism.

CFG: How do you think progressive forces ought to react to this phenomenon?

KA: The phenomenon has several aspects, but just telescoping, I think there are two major ones. One is an intensification of the racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic appeal (that were already part of the Right and the Republican party in the United States), you can see that in certainly all the right-of-center parties in Europe, how they beat the drum against immigration. But the blatant, open sexism of Trump, the really blatant anti-immigrant and islamophobia with the Muslim ban, this is new. I do not, however, think that this necessarily represents a qualitative shift, but rather it consists more of a quantitative shift from what was already happening, an intensification of it.

I think an equally important shift is the one towards a right-wing class politics that appeal to part of the working class, obviously the “white” part. (I don’t like the phrase “white working class” that much because there is a working class– people in different industries and occupations tend to be racially and ethnically mixed.) There is nevertheless an appeal to the so-called “white” working class, which to a certain extent is more “rural.” That is where Trump was more successful and this is also true for all these groups.

CFG: How do you view Trump’s brand of anti-establishment protectionism so to speak?

KA: There is a kind of class appeal that Trump makes which is tied to protectionism, anti-neoliberalism and anti-immigration. That form of appeal was able to outflank Clinton. Clinton would probably have been able to beat a Romney-type, a typical neoliberal republican candidate. I’m not saying it was a huge victory by Trump, but frankly, it is shocking he got over twenty percent of the vote considering how reactionary his politics are. But as Walter Benjamin reminds us, History doesn’t always fall in a progressive direction.

CFG: So what is the role of the Left in resisting?

KA: What the left should do is take cognizance of this. We cannot do what some of the right-of-center people in the Democratic Party are doing. We cannot make any concessions on any of those fundamental issues such as race, gender, sexuality, Islamophobia, and so forth. I think we need to really think about how to approach the white working class, but also rural people in general because social uprising are not just about numbers; they are also about a strategic place.

CFG: Are the so-called populist responses such as those of Bernie Sanders and Mélenchon credible answers, or should we aim for something else?

KA: Some movements are doing what the left needs to do in terms of focusing on class issues. But what Sanders says we can do is return to the old Keynesian welfare state. The problem with this logic is that the reason we got to neoliberalism in the first place was because the welfare form of government had exhausted itself. If you look over the last century, it can appear as an exceptional period in capitalism.

Sanders thinks that if we can change the tax structure, stop being neoliberal, we can return to a more human type of capitalism. This is false. If it were true, places like Sweden and Germany, for instance, would be doing a lot better. These movements are thus more opposed to neoliberalism than capitalism. I think the economic model of it is not viable. It sounds depressing, but we must stare that in the face.

CFG: John, how do you think the left ought to respond to this rise of the far-right?

JBF: The left is most effective when it correctly grasps the strategic conjuncture and then is able to organize on those terms. Essential is not falling into the trap of an ambiguous populist discourse that avoids the real issues represented by the capitalist economy and state and the question of the socialist alternative. Nor should the left seek to side with one faction or another of the ruling class, i.e. Hillary Clinton and Macron as opposed to Trump and Le Pen. Rather what is required is the creation of a genuine, class-based socialist alternative for the 21st century.

CFG: How would you classify movements like those of Sanders and Mélenchon?

JBF: Bernie Sanders, who openly refers to himself as a “socialist” and is a genuine social democrat is a sign of the cracks in the U.S. system. He demonstrated that it is possible to go left in a genuine way with a class-based strategy (though we should not have illusions about social democracy) and that people will flock in the tens of millions to the political movement. Mélenchon in France seems to personify a more genuine socialist tendency threatening the powers that be and gaining wide support. Of all the political-party leaders in the electoral struggles now taking place in the advanced capitalist states Jeremy Corbyn in the UK is probably the most interesting, and to be taken the most seriously, because of his strong anti-imperialist stance.

We should not place all or even most of our emphasis, however, on these electoral contests, particularly as the real struggle goes beyond the question of elections. Class and hegemonic struggle is about building power bases. Stress should be placed on the development of mass movements and extra-parliamentary struggles that don’t simply march in passive protests aimed at attracting a very fleeting visibility courtesy of the corporate media, but rather in finding ways of taking civilly (or uncivilly) disobedient actions.

CFG: This is all great! Thank you. Let’s now turn to Marx: in what way would you say Marx’s thought, and his Capital in particular, relevant to our contemporary moment or helpful in addressing these questions?

KA: Part of the ideological opposition to Marx comes from post-colonialism and post-structuralism. These schools of thought sometimes think that they are the only ones who understand race and gender or sexuality. It’s important to show that the Marxian tradition talked about those issues to the extent that it did, and that movements around race, gender and sexuality sometimes neglect to talk about capitalism.

CFG: This is true. How did Marx understand the relation between race and class, for instance?

KA: Marx never separated race and class. In his analysis of the state of the Irish or African Americans, he shows how race divides the working class and distorts the social consciousness of white workers toward condescending attitudes toward Irish and black workers, and this aligns them more closely to the dominant classes and attenuates revolutionary impulses. But he’s a dialectical thinker. He also turns that around. He thinks that an Irish uprising in Ireland could help spark a working class uprising in Britain and create new forms of militancy in revolutionary consciousness that can spread.

CFG: What is lacking in today’s discourse on race and class?

KA: As Marxists we talk a lot about how race divides working movements. This consists of a class divide and an important one. But if we want to talk about class, there has to be the possibility for class solidarity across racial and ethnic lines. Today this is viewed as such a remote possibility that it is not even posed as a problem. We need to do that and Marx’s work – and notably his Capital – are crucial for this.

CFG: Thank you, Kevin. For you, John, how would answer this question on Marx’s thought, particularly his work in Capital and its relevance to our contemporary moment, especially in the face of ecological crisis since this is what you work on?

JBF: In the last few decades we have seen the extraordinary rise of ecosocialist movements around the world inspired in large part by Marx’s ecological critique of political economy, knowledge of which expanded at the same time. Marx was indeed influenced by some of the earliest attempts to develop what we now call an ecological-systems view, rooted in the concept of metabolism. Building on this perspective, Marx defined socialism as the rational regulation by the associated producers of the metabolism between society and nature in such a way as to conserve energy and to promote the satisfaction of human needs.

CFG: Can you get into specifics as to how Marxian thought also functions as ecocritique?

JBF: In Marx, we find concerns with most of the major environmental questions of our time — as these were evident in the nineteenth century — such as regional climate change, desertification, deforestation, species extinction, pollution, the town-country divide, a non-Malthusian conception of population issues, degradation of the soil, the abuse of animals, etc.

As Naomi Klein pointed out in her famous argument that “The Right Is Right” in This Changes Everything, the radical right understands that the climate change movement is inherently driven in an anti-capitalist direction, and that there is no reconciling capitalism with the preservation of a stable climate. Hence, they have chosen, in perhaps the greatest instance of commodity fetishism that the world will ever see, to side with the capitalist commodity economy against the climate and the Earth system (as these pertain to humanity’s own survival). Trump, Breitbart, and the entire neofascist alt-right has made the destruction of all attempts to mitigate climate change — extended even to climate science itself — the enemy. To combat these dire tendencies, it is necessary to create an eco-revolutionary movement aimed at substantive equality and ecological sustainability. An even more inclusive meaning, reflecting our expanding sense of the community of humanity and the earth, must be given to the famous words of the Internationale:

The earth shall rise on new foundations,
We have been naught we shall be all.


Emanuel Guay is pursuing a PhD in Sociology at McGill; Sara Farah is pursuing PhD in English at the University of Minnesota; Sofia Cutler is a writer in Montreal.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 13th, 2017.