The neoliberal era is ending. What comes next?
Some figures from the beginning, the high point, and the late stages of the neoliberal era: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump.

This op-ed by long-time activist and radical historian Max Elbaum originally appeared at Organizing Upgrade. It was submitted to People’s World for consideration. We publish it here as part of the wide-ranging discussion currently going on around the 2020 elections, the Democratic primary, and progressive strategy and tactics in the current period. Like all opinion articles published by People’s World, the viewpoints represented here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the publication.

This column will get to the Biden-Bernie battle and the underlying context of the 2020 election, but first an acknowledgment of the moment: The intertwined coronavirus and economic crises are escalating at breakneck speed. The political terrain is changing rapidly and immediate fights take on outsize importance. The structural and political trends discussed in this column (written 24-48 hours before mid-day Friday, March 13) remain in force. But as we consider and debate those and gear up for a long haul fight whose immense stakes are underscored by the current crisis, it is urgent to stay up to date, stay healthy, and take care of one another.

Now to taking a more stepped-back look.

However severe the current crisis, and whatever the outcome in November, big changes are coming in how the U.S. economy functions, how this country is ruled, and its role in the world.

This week’s jolts are big markers of instability. But the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s denialist response, the Russia-Saudi oil price war, the stock market meltdown, and possible large-scale corporate debt default are not the reasons major shifts lie ahead. They are symptoms of something deeper.

The political and economic arrangement that has dominated the world for forty years is on its last legs. What is not determined is what will take its place and the pace at which a transition to some new arrangement will occur.

The gains made and strength accumulated by the broad left in the battle over immediate national priorities in next few weeks, between now and the Democratic National Convention, and then between August and November, will determine our capacity to influence what is certain to be a high-stakes, conflict-ridden process.

End of the “End of History” era

In the 1980s, and especially at the beginning of the 1990s, a full-of-themselves ruling elite was proclaiming, “There Is No Alternative.” They were boasting that their mode of rule marked “The End of History.” They blathered that “free markets” and “less government” (today termed neoliberalism) were going to deliver the goods to all. They confidently asserted that the Anglo-Saxon model of elite-dominated capitalist democracy was going to last forever. The United States, with a few junior partners, was going to ensure permanent order and peace on a global scale.

The guardians of empire really believed these things. They were feeling their oats after vanquishing the 20th century effort to build a socialist counter-system. Capitalist profits were up again after the serious slump and stagnation/“stagflation” of the 1970s.

Resistance from grassroots movements certainly existed, and sometimes won victories for specific constituencies. But the opposition was not nearly strong enough to pose a systemic challenge.

That bubble has now burst. The global financial crisis of 2008 exposed the system’s dysfunction. Bailing out the finance capitalists who caused the crisis while leaving the working and middle classes to fend for themselves was a jolt to public opinion worldwide. The steady rise in inequality since has turned that jolt into a deep well of anger against the powers-that-be.

Demographic changes, especially in countries where whiteness and Christianity have long been components of the majority’s “national identity,” spurred powerful racist and nativist movements. Washington’s inability to win any of its endless wars revealed the limits of U.S. power and added to large-scale skepticism about the competence of the political establishment.

The escalating crisis of climate change now hangs over everything. The coronavirus pandemic, whose impact is still in its very early stages, does too.

It’s end times for the “end of history/there is no alternative” era. The fight is on over what will replace it.

Bitter polarization

In the U.S., the tumultuous character of the transition underway has already produced a political polarization unmatched since the Civil War. The Trump coalition is on one side, an anti-Trump camp on the other.

As in the 1840s-1860s, race and racism are at the pivot. But the divide is especially sharp because racial polarization now almost completely overlaps with partisan political polarization; with geographical (urban-suburban-rural), separation, and with a basic information polarization whereby the two camps live in two different factual realities.

The reactionary side of this polarization is united on what they want to replace the current structure of the country.

The driving class force in the Trump coalition—a set of right-wing billionaires, the fossil fuel industry, and the military-industrial complex—envisions permanent U.S. global dominance based on military force and an even more de-regulated and anti-labor economic model. White supremacy serves as the main lever mobilizing some layers of middle- and working-class whites behind this program. To ensure the dominance of this bloc against the will of the U.S. majority and the growing clout of rivals across the globe, authoritarian rule and a strengthened “imperial presidency” is required.

It’s not exactly the fascism of the mid-20th century, but its function and the danger it poses are essentially the same.

The camp opposed to the Trumpists does not share a common vision. At one end of the anti-Trump spectrum is a wing of the U.S. elite whose agenda might best be termed “neoliberalism with a human face”: U.S. society pre-Trump is considered basically sound, all that is needed is to address some unfortunate flaws that produce “too much” inequality, bigotry of various kinds, and inaction in the face of climate change.

At the other end is a dynamic insurgent movement fighting for radical change to a “people before profits” society. Some in this movement aim for a New Deal-type capitalism or think in terms of an updated social democracy; others foresee such arrangements as intermediate stages on a road to democratic socialism or revolutionary transformation. The boundaries between these visions and the specific outlines of each are, at least for the moment, very blurry to all except each one’s most fervent ideological partisans. It could hardly be otherwise given the complicated experience of the 20th century radicalism and the wide divergence in left evaluations of what happened and why.

What a Trump re-election would mean

The battle between these warring political forces and agendas is fierce and will go on well into the future. But the outcome of the 2020 election will be decisive in determining which force holds the initiative and on what terrain the next phase of battle will play out.

If the Trumpist camp keeps the White House and retains its Senate majority, it will be able to entrench additional elements of a Jim Crow 2.0 authoritarian state. Trump will follow the path already trod by Modi in India, Orban in Hungary, and Putin in Russia. The process is already underway here: the lockstep Senate acquittal green-lighting presidential impunity; the installation of toadies and conspiracy theorists in key government positions; deploying large numbers of elite ICE agents to Sanctuary Cities; Erik Prince of Blackwater-notoriety hiring ex-spies to infiltrate progressive groups; tackling the coronavirus crisis using the information-management playbook of authoritarian states.

A second Trump term means even worse.

The fight within the anti-Trump camp

What will happen if Trump is defeated is far harder to predict. It depends in large measure on a struggle within the anti-Trump camp that is still in progress.

One thing about that struggle is already clear. Unlike the Republican old guard, the Democratic Party establishment has not folded up in face of an insurgent challenge. There are important lessons for left strategy in understanding the reasons for this difference.

Going into 2016, the Republican establishment had no serious program for addressing the economic anxieties and hardships within their political constituency. They had no ideas about how to maintain U.S. global hegemony other than to continue increasingly unpopular endless wars. The allegiance of their mass base had been secured largely by dog-whistle racism for decades, and they were faced with a right-wing populist force that—buoyed by talk radio and Fox News—had been organizing and winning down-ballot elections for years.

So when a demagogue feeding red meat to their already-primed base appeared, the GOP leadership was vulnerable. After a relatively brief and ineffective effort to resist, they calculated there was plenty of upside and little downside in letting Trump take over. His economic policies were going to advance rather than hurt their interests. His racism and sexism would secure the needed mass base. And they believed (their one miscalculation!!) that they could keep his lunacies under control on matters where he might blunder into disaster.

Why the Democratic “centrists” held on

The Democratic establishment also had—and still has—no workable plan for building a viable “neoliberalism with a human face” or a stable world order under peaceful U.S. hegemony. They have no compelling narrative to inspire deeply felt mass support. The result in 2016 was the lackluster Clinton campaign, in 2020 it has been the inability of all the “moderate” candidates to stimulate much enthusiasm.

But the dynamic in the Democratic Party differs from that in the GOP in three important ways.

First, the progressive insurgency represented by Bernie Sanders’s and Elizabeth Warren’s campaigns had far less infrastructure to build upon than Trumpism had in 2016. These campaigns ran well ahead of, not behind, a buildup of progressive power at the local and state levels (elected officials and their political operations, community organizations on the scale of white Evangelical churches, anything to compensate for the steady decline in trade union membership.) Combined with real weaknesses even in an impressive effort like Bernie’s, this meant the insurgents have less strength relative to the Democratic old guard than Trump had in the GOP.

Second, the Democratic establishment is eager to get the votes of progressives but has no material incentive to embrace us as partners (much less leaders) like the GOP elite had in relation to Trump. The policies we advocate threaten, not advance, the interests of key factions in the Democratic Party: the health care industry and high-tech capitalists, developers and real estate profiteers, the Israel Lobby, and more. So, the Democratic elite’s determination to resist insurgency is much greater.

And third is the fear of Donald Trump. This factor pushes the “electability” argument to the forefront of the campaign. There was always a case that Sanders or Warren were at least as likely to defeat Trump as any of the “center lane” candidates, and both candidates consistently argued it. But there were counterarguments too, and with fears of Trump being both intense and well-grounded, the idea of a “safe” choice had the edge. And the appeal of familiarity and risk avoidance was reinforced at a key moment in the primary season by the coronavirus outbreak and stock market gyrations.

The upshot is that even without a compelling narrative, strong candidate or viable governing plan, the Democratic establishment has been able to maintain its edge.

Joe Biden, a poor campaigner whose only assets seem to be that he is considered a nice guy, evokes the “old normal” of the Obama years, and is the last moderate standing, seems on track for the nomination.

Yet as pundits across the spectrum have conceded, the animating ideas in the Democratic campaign—especially those that galvanized younger voters—all came from the left. Polls show that large numbers, in some cases even majorities, who voted for “center lane” candidates support a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and other changes pushed first and foremost by Bernie Sanders. As Bernie said in his press conference acknowledging that he was “losing the debate over electability”: “Our campaign is winning ideological debate…and winning the generational debate.”

What this means for a post-Trump period

The balance of forces within the anti-Trump camp—and how much it can be shifted over the next eight months—will shape the contours of a new administration if we manage to beat Trump. A future column will offer opinions about how matters might play out if Sanders turns things around, but I will focus here on the dynamics if Biden is inaugurated president.

The fundamental reality of a Biden administration will be that it has no workable path to put its preferred agenda in place.

On top of the basic fact that Biden is aiming to re-establish a model that has run its course, he will have come to power without a mandate for his backward-looking, “just-tweak-what-we-had-before” program. If he wins, it will be because a U.S. majority rejects Trump and Trumpism, but is not yet ready to pursue an uncharted path to radical change. He may benefit from a moment of national relief, but a Biden administration’s level of popular support will likely be fragile from day one.

Pressure on the new administration will be intense. For starters, the polarization with the Trumpist right will continue. It could even intensify since it is quite possible that significant sectors of the Trump coalition will deny the legitimacy of the election result and turn to a level of resistance, including violence, that throws the U.S. into territory unseen for 150 years.

There will be voices in a Biden administration, in Congress, and in the Democratic wing of the corporate elite that counsel conciliation of the racist right or even outright capitulation. But coming off a bitter, smear-filled campaign, and for reasons of partisan survival, there will be incentive to go the other direction. It is a sign of the way current political winds are blowing that a pundit as conservative as David Brooks thinks major moves to the left would be the most likely result:

Some people are saying a Biden presidency would be a restoration or a return to normalcy. He’ll be a calming Gerald Ford after the scandal of Richard Nixon.

But I don’t see how that could be. The politics of the last four years have taught us that tens of millions of Americans feel that their institutions have completely failed them. The legitimacy of the whole system is still hanging by a thread. The core truth of a Biden administration would be, bring change or reap the whirlwind.

There would be no choice but to somehow pass his agenda: a climate plan, infrastructure spending, investments in the heartland, his $750 billion education plan, and health care subsidies. If disaffected voters don’t see tangible changes in their lives over the next few years, it’s not that one party or another will lose the next election. The current political order will be upended by some future Bernie/Trump figure times 10.”

“Or reap the whirlwind”? That’s where the left comes in

Brooks gets it that big changes are on the agenda. But he is afraid of the whirlwind, while we aim to be the whirlwind.

We will need a whirlwind even to get the changes Brooks lays out. Like many pundits, Brooks dwells in the world of ideas, where a Biden administration doing those things seems a rational choice. But desired political outcomes only come when the world of ideas gets rooted in the world of power. Even to push through the items Brooks specifies—and voting rights restoration, dents in mass incarceration, and a big shift in immigration policy need to be added to his racially oblivious list—will require massive pressure from organized grassroots movements; that is, from clout built up outside as well as inside the electoral arena, locality by locality, state by state, and giving due weight to the South and the Black and Latinx communities.

And we aim for more than that. We are for “upending” the current political order! That means turning these kinds of reforms into steps that increase the confidence, political sophistication, and unity of a multiracial, all-inclusive working-class movement that fights for them. It means steadily growing the layers of people who view changing this country as part of an international project to make things better for people across the globe.

We have a lot to learn from the way the Trumpists captured the GOP and then won national governing power. We need to scale up in every area to win elections at every level, revitalize the labor and other social movements, and build an information apparatus with a greater reach than Fox News and talk radio combined.

The coming eight months give us the chance to make progress toward those goals. And the November balloting is a possible tipping point where even replacing Trump by someone whose goals are not ours can open the door to a new political cycle.

Becoming the whirlwind means embracing a new normal. We’ve made it out of the margins and at least have a foothold in the game. Now each new stage is more challenging than the one before:

Fight for the most aggressive and socially responsible government action in response to today’s global pandemic and the human and economic hardships that fall on the global majority.

No scapegoating China or anyone else.

Stay in for Bernie as long as he does and maximize progressive influence on the 2020 campaign.

Beat Trump whoever turns out to be the Democratic nominee.

Put pressure on a new administration from day one so that the potential of 2020 to become a turning point to a new progressive cycle is realized.

Scale up our infrastructure on every level so that we move that cycle forward as fast and as far as it can go.

Listen to public health experts and stay healthy.

Organizing Upgrade


Max Elbaum
Max Elbaum

Max Elbaum is a member of the Convergence Magazine editorial board, and the author of "Revolution in the Air," reissued by Verso Books. He is also a co-editor, with Linda Burnham and María Poblet, of "Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections" (OR Books, 2022).