Has neoliberalism survived?

It is the current view of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) leadership that neoliberalism has survived the crisis of 2008. I think this is a wrong formulation. If by “neoliberalism” we mean to indicate a certain period of capitalism, then I believe that neoliberalism is over–or perhaps one should say “passing away” or “negated,” since undoubtedly many aspects remain. This is especially true in the higher realms of the capitalist superstructure, which always lag behind changes in the material base.

If the era of secular capitalist growth that began in (roughly) the mid-1980s ended in 2008–which it definitely did–then the economic preconditions for the neoliberal period have ended. Even if the policy (re)actions during the current “global slump” follow the same neoliberal grooves–financial bailouts, capitalization of the public sector, preference for raising exploitation over real capital investment, etc–they operate in a different context.

The development of capitalism can be “periodized,” but inevitably every period is subject to the same capitalist tendency to a system-wide overaccumulation crisis. The only solution to this crisis is the destruction of capital, which may be physical, market-mediated (eg, fire-sales), or (likely) both. Of course the first instinct of all the capitalists is to destroy/devalue variable capital (workers) through reduction of (direct and social) wages and layoffs. But this is never sufficient, so the capitalists begin a complex struggle amongst themselves (as individual capital formations, as sectors, as nation-states) to “pass off” the loss of capital onto each other. This breaks down the arrangements (commercial, political, diplomatic) between capitalists that characterized the period: the (relatively) stable capitalist equilibrium has been lost.

Different capitalists and bourgeois flunkies may be more or less conscious of this and propose more or less coherent programs to deal with it. The same goes, of course, for the working class–the most spectacular intervention of the working class in “disequilibrated” capitalism being, of course, the Russian Revolution. But in any case there’s a struggle, an interregnum between equilibrium lost and equilibrium regained. That’s exactly where we are now, in my view.

This interregnum can last a while in “human” terms, even though “historically” it has to be short if capitalism is to survive. There was something like three decades of interregnum (and two world wars!) between the collapse of “classical imperialism” in 1914 and the “postwar/Cold War” period. There was at least a decade of interregnum between the unwinding of the postwar period in the mid-1970s and the establishment of neoliberalism in the mid-1980s. (I would even be willing to believe that neoliberal hegemony wasn’t established internationally until the collapse of the USSR.)

Now where we in the ISO were totally wrong–as a concrete question but probably also in principle–was to expect that everything was going to change in 2009, with the capitalists heroically chucking their neoliberal practices out the window and making a fresh start of running society. Certainly we failed to understand the persistence of neoliberal policy and ideology, especially given the disarticulation of the working class (and in a sense, the disarticulation of the bourgeoisie). We failed to properly theorize neoliberalism; this is burning us now precisely because neoliberalism is negated. We can’t understand why aspects of it persist; nor can we really understand the potential lines of development during the current interregnum, because obviously this development is conditioned by what happened under neoliberalism. This is why the first point of the faction’s organizational perspectives is so essential.

Shaun J (Boston)

This is a Discussion article; it does not define faction policy and is not binding on members of the faction.

2 thoughts on “Has neoliberalism survived?

    • Yes, that’s basically it. I didn’t want to use the term “transition period” because the ISO leadership has made such a hash of it. It’s become almost as meaningless as “radicalization.”

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