Does Progressive Politics No Longer Offer an Alternative to Neoliberalism? | Owain Leyshon
I realise the question posed in the title is too extensive to answer properly in one short essay, yet it’s still worth highlighting that the past few years have been underwritten with a justified and pertinent progress skepticism. In 2018 the average life expectancy of someone living in the UK or US dropped for the first time in decades. The populist revolts (left and right) of the post 08’ crash, have been beaten back by neoliberal politics with no obvious alternative to neoliberal capitalism, other than even more frightening Chinese state capitalism. The result of this deadlock has been detrimental, our public infrastructure is so underfunded and badly designed that the only plausible solution to a pandemic has been to put most of the country under house arrest. It has silenced much debate around this question, what kind of progress do those still faithful to progressive politics want? Liberal bourgeois progress, technological utopian progress, or socialism?
Today it seems even the ‘radicals’ are satisfied with the politics of controlled collapse. By that I mean what Slavoj Zizek calls ‘Left Fukuyama-ism’, a more morally pure and better controlled form of capitalism, and one that is no longer able to produce the same political and economic benefits that it had in the past. The problem is that what this looks like is ultimately what we have now, brutal and exploitative capitalism but with woke branding, and even more technocracy, alienation, and the disempowerment of those not a part of the elite. The radicals are in reality such defeatists that much of their ideology, whether anti-natalism or what is being increasingly referred to as ‘woke austerity, an environmentally friendly excuse to take away the basic right to do such things as drive or travel, is increasingly the obvious product of this politics of controlled collapse. The destruction of the middle and lower-middle class is of particular note here. The even deeper issue is that rather than an honest turn away from progress, these same forces must self-identify as ‘progressive’.
The fact of the matter is that, other than digital communications technology and big tech monopolisation, ‘progress’ doesn’t really happen anymore. Take the summer of protests and riots stemming from the killing of George Floyd in the U.S. The only thing it achieved, other than the destruction of many local businesses, was a PR campaign from a conglomerate of global corporations. From Amazon to Coca-Cola, all were proudly displaying the slogans of Black Lives Matter. Other than a few new diversity training roles for upper-middle-class managers and increasingly conformist work environments, nothing really happened.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the January 6th storming of Capitol Hill by Trump supporters ended up with not much more of a threat to the establishment than a few selfies inside Nancy Pelosi’s office. The most interesting thing about this all is not its political aspect but its intergenerational impotence. All one can do today in the world of subversive politics and counter cultures, left and right, is create a sort of satirical (even if the element of satire is not known by the participants) media spectacle which either gets quickly forgotten or rapidly integrated into the system itself. What both examples have in common is they are both expressions of total loyalty to the power of civil rights spectacles which come directly from the zombified imagery of 68’. Taking over the post office or railways, withholding labour, blocking supplies of profitable goods, or even forming a somewhat coherent ideology, are now remnants of the past when it comes to what we call, political action.
Adam Curtis’ new documentary series ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ delves into this problem quite admiringly, despite a fundamental flaw in his evaluation (which I will soon explain). To be more specific, by this problem, I mean the strange manner in which ideas and trends change and mutate as they move intergenerationally. Of particular note is how ‘progress’, stemming from more traditional early-20th and 19th-century labour politics, both revolutionary and parliamentary, in both the West and in China, turned into a new outlet for hyper-individualistic forms of technologically advanced capitalism. Crudely put, the film asks why all progressive politics post WW2, no matter how authentic their motive, always ends up being another outlet for highly profitable self-expression: a hyper-individualistic affirmation of the very system that it was supposed to oppose? Perhaps the problem is how we understood such notions as liberalism and consumerism.
Take, for example, how we interpret something like the postmodern turn or Fukuyama’s idea of the ‘End of History’. These were not necessarily announcements of the end of politics in general – a sort of utopian classless society where no more historical struggle would any longer be necessary, such as Marx envisioned (which Fukuyama provocatively posited as neoliberal capitalism). Postmodernism can be seen in the same light as what Wokeism tries to achieve. It gives up on fundamental and more traditional historical forms (such as replacing the state or economy in a way that does affect the class structure in fundamental ways). Its attention turns to the ‘multitude’ and the local instead of the universal and historical, yet the injunction for moral progress still moves on. Like the dead God of Nietzsche, it lacks any substance but keeps moving, nonetheless. What this has left us with is not merely a world of liberal consumerism and hyper-individualism, cut off from any concern for a greater good or new horizons. Rather it is the full integration of this kind of hyper-individualistic, passive, and comfort-seeking subjectivity, fully integrated into political progress itself. (what Nietzsche and Fukuyama referred to as the ‘Last Man’).
Change the way we use language, censor anything slightly challenging or ‘offensive’, provide a puritanical public relations makeover to the whole of society, even with much of the historical revisionism which comes along with this makeover, it can stem to the whole of human history. Wokeism is a giant moralistic rebranding of the political world itself. The post-communist turn in academia in the ’80s and ’90s were never efforts to give up on historical ideals, they merely told the new generation of comrades (who were largely replaced by middle artists, managers, and academics), that they didn’t have to risk their life for historical drives, but simply to vulgarize their sex habits, embrace the imagery of social justice, consume more conscientiously and go back to work.
Yet, the turn wasn’t simply a matter of replacing hardened workers with middle-class youth, who were more interested in job prospects than world history. The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk used the example of Islamic terrorists as the apex example of last men, in his work ‘Rage and Time. According to Sloterdijk, although last men could begin to despise liberal capitalism due to its notable failures, such as when they are excluded from its elite inner circles, they at the same time, couldn’t even imagine or postulate an alternative order which can overcome these initial failures. The 9/11 hijackers, for example, took no issue with visiting strip clubs and partake in profusive drug use before their infamous terrorist attacks; they express rage at the liberal, individualistic superficiality of the Western-led, liberal order, but they are often very attracted to what it offers. Envious of those they hate, they are caught into the same fascination with erotic pleasure, individualism and comfort that they justly see as an illegitimate telos of world culture. The fact nations like Dubai, Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are both entirely undemocratic and illiberal while at the same time offering Western-inspired, decadence and consumption getaways and lifestyles, for those who have the cash, is testament to this unrecognized contradiction belonging to those who claim to be opposed to the liberal West, whether because of progressive of religious reasons.
But why bother with all the complications? We should ask ourselves. Are such nihilists not better off simply embracing a hedonistic individualism, openly, and stop bothering with wasting time on this admittedly hard-working performance of moral puritanism, or in the case of Islamic extremism, of tempering their lastmanliness with devout religious belief and even suicide? It seems there might be something which liberal society requires from ‘progress’ (even Islamism is in its way attached to progress insofar as the utopianism inherited from the French revolution, as Curtis points out).
In the case of the liberal left or radical-liberalism of the 21st century, it can be noted that even if progress is done with some its more convulsive and chaotic historical upsurges, such as the French or Russian revolutions – as in, those based around universal and militant political projects – for the democratic West, the ideological fixation with moral-linear progress has entirely remained (all wokeism and technological utopianism is based to some degree around the idea of progressive historical theology). Judging by the way modern liberal states and corporations have embedded the ideology into their institutions, it seems it is almost impossible to function without it. Everything today is based on progress. From Elon Musk’s desire to wire our brains to machines, to your HR manager trying to censor your language to Greta Thunberg’s appearance as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year’. In terms of technology, capitalism in countries like China and South Korea, embrace technological progress to worrying degrees and likely couldn’t even function without an inner utopian attachment to it. Biogenetics and social control are of particular note here.
Referring again to Adam Curtis’ new documentary ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, the story of progress is at a crossroads. We seem to be left with two options. Embrace its hyper-individualistic consumer-driven form which has taken center stage in the post WW2 period, or more specifically again in the neoliberal period, or revert to what Curtis constantly refers to as political nostalgia. By this, he means a kind of political mythos that people drawback into to deal with the failures and miseries which modernity has imposed upon them. One can think of British nostalgia for the days of the empire or the German folk ideologies associated with Fascism in the 20th century- both of which Curtis has in mind. But should we take the choice of progress vs nostalgic-illusion as the absolute and only choice?
The dilemma here is far more crucial than people who simply wish for a better version of progress with less individualism and elitism etc., (Curtis included) care to grasp. Of course, a return to imperial nostalgia is both practically limited and with its dangers (slavery, conflict with neighbours, etc.) but the key question is; what makes it exclusively ‘nostalgic’? Is the very idea of an equal, meaningful, and well-functioning democracy, not the most nostalgic thing imaginable? After all, in the successful forms of it, where labour had more equal power share with capital, where democracies were more idyllic and more unified, while economics was less unequal and unstable- Are these all, for most people, not things of the past age of post-WW2 social democracy? Are they not themselves ’nostalgically’ longed for, even if justifiably so?
Perhaps one thing we could have learned from the so-called ‘war on terror’, which was ultimately imperialism in the name of liberal democracy itself, encapsulated by the phrase coined by Woodrow Wilson and the century-long quest of ‘making the world safe for democracy’. This resulted in equally brutal, violent, and anti-democratic politics as any other (torture, surveillance states, overthrowing democratically elected governments, assassinations, etc.). It shares both the attributes which Curtis and many others who wish for a ‘better progress’ fear, that is, a dangerous and potentially violent return to the past. The implication that this danger is exclusively a characteristic of imperial nostalgia, folk ideologies, or even any other more explicitly anti-liberal politics, such as communism or fascism, is just a proven lie.
Taking the still recent 2016 American political election as an example. While progressives love to criticise Donald Trump for his patriotic nostalgia embodied in his phrase ‘Make America Great Again’, the (very justified) rage against the elites embodied in Bernie Sanders was equally as nostalgic. It longed for Western democracy before neoliberalism. Sander’s favourite issues, which resonated with his support base, health care, better wages, lower student debts, higher taxes for the rich, and so on, are now all facets of the past age of 20th-century social democracy before globalisation and deindustrialisation came into full effect. Just like Trumpism, these political desires are looked back at (and not forward), just as much so as any other ‘nostalgia politics’. In fact, the failure for Sanders or Corbyn to take power and implement a subversion of neoliberalism whilst being neutered by their own left parties is simply proof that progress is a myth – a nostalgic illusion detached from social and economic’ realities’ and lost in the past ideal, just as much as any other. The entire idea that something is implausible or undesirable because it is looked back at, must so include progress itself.
The harder pill to swallow, red, black, or otherwise, for those who wish to remain true to some form of progressive politics and philosophy, is that perhaps the desire for an ‘alternative progress’, is just the problem. Perhaps one cannot simply argue that the hyper financial and individualistic form we have today is not ‘REAL progress’. This is exactly what, in the 21st century, progress is. To subvert it will take a lot more than a mere improvement of the same. Instead, perhaps a radical break from the very way we relate to politics itself could be the solution – one that has arisen out of the post-French revolutionary era and whose structures and concepts no longer make much sense in the world today.