Is the age of liberalism coming to an end?
The collapse of neoliberalism, the rise of fascism, and building the left.
You’ve probably stopped hearing much about Javier Milei. Two months ago you might have read about him winning the election to become the next president of Argentina. He’s a self proclaimed anarcho-capitalist libertarian who wants to deregulate everything, and has more than a few weird proclivities like bringing a chainsaw to campaign rallies, praising Al Capone, and claiming to speak to his dead pet through a medium. But I would hazard a guess that you’ve heard a little less about what he’s done since taking office.
Almost immediately Milei cracked down on civil society through executive decree. His fascistic orders constitute an all-out attack on protests and demonstrations. They call on police and military forces to break strikes, arrest protestors, “protect” children from families that bring them to street demonstrations, and form a new national registry of all organizations that help coordinate protests. Many of you surely won’t be surprised that the far-right “libertarian” who has already cut funding to half of all government departments isn’t too interested in shrinking the security apparatus. What he does want to shrink is the national government’s ability to help people, in the name of economic shock therapy to curb inflation, but of course only targeting public spending and not the corporations that in fact drive inflationary price increases.
Milei also wants to crack down on workers’ rights, naturally. These sweeping efforts to hurt unions, hurt workers, and help the corporate interests he serves are thankfully being held up by the courts, for now, but his government has vowed to appeal the latest ruling. The man is not yet one month into his presidential term, and already he is wreaking havoc, threatening Argentina’s democracy, and pledging to do much, much more. Now in some ways Milei appears unique in his oddities and his proverbial taking of a chainsaw to the national government with such rapidity. Yet in other ways, he is the exact opposite. He has an absurd head of hair and crude far-right politics, like Trump. He wants to be a dictator, like Orban. And many of his policies were crafted by the Atlas Network, like Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.
From Argentina to Hungary to the United States we need to reckon with liberalism’s various difficulties, from inability to unwillingness, with fighting fascism. I’m talking here about liberalism writ large, as one of the primary systems of thought that has shaped institutions in the West over the last several centuries. I’m talking about a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, representative democracy, and free enterprise as the foundation of society. It is also a political system that relies on respect for institutions and rules of order. This overarching approach to civilization and governance is something far larger than “being a liberal” as defined in the contemporary United States. Classic liberalism is one of the core features of Western society. But, after decades of political parties across the U.S. and Europe agreeing on these fundamentals, large swaths of the right increasingly reject core tenets of this ideology.
The intellectual and cultural vanguard of today’s Right, often called the “New Right,” is increasingly critical of classical liberalism — which was long the consensus philosophy of both major parties and holds that a combination of limited government, free markets and ordered liberty on social issues (that is, the protection of individual rights within a moderately conservative culture) would produce the best kind of state. These views dominated the U.S. Right for much of the late 20th century (though never completely unchallenged). Now, new doctrines have taken over, insisting that the old fusionist Right ceded too much ground to the Left, that egalitarian or economic principles rooted in classical liberalism have led to “decadence” (primarily LGBTQ rights), national decline (purportedly through “feminization” and “oversensitivity”) and growing disorder.
I wanted to pull this whole quote because it’s important to know that we’re dealing with people who are rejecting the norms which have largely structured our politics for decades, even centuries. These shifts are taking place in the United States and numerous places around the world. But, despite the importance of this development, it’s important to note that their reasoning and explanations are, in many ways, laughable. Their squabbles with the “feminization” of men and queerness are vulgar social conservatism. This is worth picking up on because it presents us, the left, with an easy opening to make much more convincing and appealing arguments — something we already see happening with young people moving left and rejecting this nonsense. But it’s also important to say that the fascists and oligarchs orchestrating much of this fascist surge around the world are less concerned with the LGBT community, Muslims, or whoever their current scapegoat is, and more concerned with what works to help them further their agenda of preserving and expanding capitalist exploitation.
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The relentless drive of capitalists to expand their profit margins and their mandate to demonstrate endless growth to shareholders had already planted the seeds that are today bearing fruit in the form of the end of the classical liberal ideology. This shift and decline of the liberal system organizing the West and the international order had already begun with the shift to neoliberalism. Under neoliberalism, capitalist profit-squeezing became even more of an extractive force, one that uses deregulation, austerity, and exploitative arrangements between the West and the global South to reinforce and further an oppressive economic system. Over the last several decades this arrangement has accelerated the global crisis of liberalism that we see today.
None of this is brand new. These massive international systems, both neoliberalism and classic liberalism, have been facing various challenges for some time. As an astute 2018 paper by Feyzi Ismail and Sangeeta Kamat reads:
The nature of neoliberalism as a mode of accumulation that penetrates virtually all aspects of economic, political and social life has meant that the global financial crisis is, of course, not limited to the economy. It has come to be accompanied by full-scale political and social crises in both the Global North and South, and a crisis of neoliberalism itself. Despite the intellectual vacuity of neoliberalism as a system capable of explaining the world, and its declining legitimacy the world over, the neoliberals themselves appear to have no alternative to neoliberalism, except authoritarianism.
The trend that the authors identify here, both the crisis of neoliberalism and its proponents finding authoritarianism to be their last hope, have only been increasingly borne out in the years since this writing was published. The decline of the neoliberal system has been accelerated by the massive harms that its extractive arrangements have wrought in developing nations, by the loss of faith in the ability of international organizations and arrangements to sufficiently mitigate these damages, and by the multiple cancers at the heart of global capitalism. Right now the world is seeing with frightening clarity that the international political order is unable to stop a genocide happening in plain sight. As I wrote in early November, regarding the U.S. context, “It’s frightening. Unconditional funding for genocide is terrifying, frankly, and it’s already starting to create a political realignment. But it’s not just that people might not vote Biden, or Democrat, it’s that people are fed up with the system as a whole … So people are joining organizations fighting for structural change and transformation, organizations trying to shut down the war machine, organizations that have a serious analysis of the systemic nature of imperialism and colonialism and capitalism.”
And in this pivotal moment people around the world are making a number of connections between Israel’s genocide in Gaza, the neoliberal system of extraction and exploitation of the global south, and the increasing failure to provide for the basic needs of people at home. These connections, and the ongoing inability to address these problems, are are the heart of the current crisis of liberalism. Again and again we see posts on every one of the dozen or more social media platforms in use today, where people express their frustration at the Pentagon getting another trillion dollars while we’re told that we can’t have universal healthcare or the cancellation of student debt or decent public transportation. These sentiments are of course just a beginning, just an entry point into a fuller and more comprehensive critique of the political and economic order. Now that criticism must be paired with education and organizing to be fleshed out and translated into action.
There’s a whole lot of urgency to this task. Argentina went out on a limb and elected Milei, with all his madness, largely because inflation has gone through the roof. In 2022 the inflation rate was at 70%, and in theory the devastating austerity plans from the new “anarcho-capitalist” far-right president are meant to address these concerns. But in reality they will likely spell mass suffering in both the short and long term. And the context in which he was elected was constructed in large part by the neoliberal policies of the IMF. By 2018 the Argentine government had become the largest holder of the IMF’s General Resources Account (GRA) funds. And as Mark Weisbrot and Lara Merling spelled out at that time, continuing to adhere to the IMF policies which had given the country massive debt and rapid inflation would likely lead to a manufactured recession and “increased suffering and hardship for millions of Argentines as unemployment and poverty increase with the recession.” Their predictions were born out, and the people responded with a wildcard candidate who talked as though he were an outsider and talked about blowing up this whole harmful system. Never mind that he is actually a grotesque creature of the system he claims to oppose, and that Argentina is likely about to reach a new IMF deal any day now.
To Americans, to people in the UK and Italy and the Netherlands and elsewhere this dynamic should, broadly, sound familiar. Our countries may be more the exploiter than the exploited on the international stage, generally, but the grand promise to take on the system, made by a member of the system pretending to be an outsider who then simply acts as an agent of the status quo once they get into a position of power should ring a few bells.
The good news may be hard to find here, but I am not interested in telling you that the system which orders the world may be collapsing into fascism and just leaving you there. My writing today, and the evidence that the right is taking advantage of the widening cracks in liberalism and capitalism is not intended to produce despair. It’s intended as a warning and as a clarification of the realities before right now so that we may then take action. I know it’s not easy. I don’t want to pretend it is. But a lot of letting go is necessary right now. A lot of letting go of the old, the outmoded, must happen before really are able to build something new and necessary.
In other words, a failure to acknowledge and address the reality that liberalism is likely faltering and breaking down leaves the right with every advantage and allows them to continue to surge while a lot of people stagnate in the collapsing center. Once we accept that reality we can move left, can build up a real alternative both to the decaying world order and to the fascist response that is rising as we speak. The only real, sustainable, just alternative to the current dominant systems must involve moving beyond capitalism, not doubling down on it and pairing its extraction with even more authoritarianism and violence. And it's up to us to present that alternative. We must show people that the world can run without scapegoating, without political oppression, and without economic exploitation. We must show people that we can build a world where human needs come before ‘free markets’ and where we collectively take responsibility for one another instead of telling anyone struggling to simple pull themselves up by their bootstraps. While fascists pretend to oppose the system, they are really working to protect and expand it.
So now it's up to us to say, “yes we know the current order of operations isn’t working for you, but join us in building a better world for everyone instead of pretending that crushing some vulnerable group will magically cure what ails us.” Only a real, strong, powerful left can step into the vacuum that is expanding right now, defeat the fascists who rush to claim that space, and build a better society. There is a lot of work ahead, but once we see the terrain clearly our job gets a little clearer and a little easier. So let’s get to work.
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