Neoliberalism Is Dead: Or Is It?

Aabid Firdausi

Is neoliberalism dead at last? This is an urgent question that needs some provisional resolution – not just because of the proliferation of excellent scholarship on the variegated forms and consequences of global neoliberalism, but also because the question has political and strategic value in understanding capitalism as it is today. Scholars have been marking the implosion of neoliberalism since the 2008 financial crisis, but the pandemic, climate crisis, and geopolitical instability have precipitated what is now popularly called the “polycrisis” (Tooze 2022). Occupy, the Sanders-Corbyn campaign, Black Lives Matter, the feminist strike, an apparent resurgence of unions, the Pink Tide, and mass protests for Palestine seem to have revitalized progressive mass politics. The resurgence of economic nationalism in the US – through the Trump tariffs and Biden’s unprecedented Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), not to mention American policy-elites proclaiming a New Washington Consensus – has further reinforced this idea that the state is back (Golub 2020, Levitz 2023). 

What do we make of the current conjuncture and what implications does it have for neoliberalism as we know it? This requires us to grasp the historical specificity of our moment without losing sight of the structural/organic tendencies of capitalism – conjunctural analysis through a Gramscian lens is best suited for this (Gramsci 1971: 178-79, also see Hall 1988; Hart 2024). Conjunctural analysis is neither a purely theoretical exercise, nor is it a descriptive mapping of different events at a particular moment – instead, it is historically rooted, stretches theories in the Fanonian sense, attempts to make sense of the multi-faceted complexities of our dynamic present, and is geared towards counter-hegemonic movement politics. 

This would require us to analyze whether there has been a concrete shift in the balance of power between socio-political forces and whether there has been an ideological shift against the hegemonic “common sense” underpinning neoliberalism. Fanon (1963: 40) famously argued for stretching Marxist analysis in the colonies. Likewise, we need to stretch our analysis of neoliberalism in two ways. First, any conjunctural assessment of neoliberalism or post-neoliberalism should move beyond assessing shifts solely based on state investment or the lack thereof. Second, as Hart (2024) argues, Gramsci’s conjunctural analysis is inherently comparative and relational – and since neoliberalism has been a global project that unfolded (and was imposed) unevenly, we must situate the debates on the death of neoliberalism beyond the North-Atlantic, and grapple with the relations between different sites under global capitalism. This essay is an invitation to think along these Gramscian lines, to see what the conjunctural method can offer to make sense of what on the surface-level seems to be a break with neoliberalism, but in several important ways, it is not.

Within the core – what changed?

The starting premise of such an analysis would be to accept that the complexity of the moment cannot be reduced to a single cause, that is, the conjuncture is “overdetermined”.  Neither the origins nor the demise of our current conjuncture can be reduced solely to one explanation – thus neoliberalism is not just about state regulation/de-regulation. Rather, as multiple scholars of different persuasions have shown, it is best seen as a multifaceted social project built on a particular configuration of political, economic, cultural, and social axes of domination. Neoliberalism is a set of spatial political-economic policies that empowers global capital at the expense of labor through privatization and de-regulation (c.f. Harvey 2005); it is a legal-institutional project to protect the interests of the globalized investor class against democratic pressures (c.f. Slobodian 2018); and it is an uneasy ideological project that involves a cultural compromise of refashioning of one’s identities as competitive entrepreneurial subjects in the cosmopolitan global economy (c.f Brown 2003) along with the reproduction of traditional forms of gendered and racial domination in the realms of production and social reproduction (c.f. Cooper 2017; Kundnani 2021). 

The sheer diversity and complexity noted above have led some critics to argue that neoliberalism as an analytical concept is confusing and hence useless (c.f. Dunn 2017), but this multi-dimensionality can serve as a point of departure for conjunctural social theorizing to inform counterhegemonic politics of various kinds. Neoliberalism is sustained as a historic bloc in the Gramscian vein, through contradictory coalitions between economic, political, and cultural actors that are often unstable, which opens cracks that can be exploited by different collective actors. Along these lines, Nancy Fraser sees Trump as a reactionary version of neoliberalism as opposed to the progressive neoliberalism articulated by Clinton and Obama, and the Biden administration as a compromise with the progressive populist bloc of Sanders (Fraser 2021). This compromise is especially stark when it comes to the climate provisions of the IRA, a deal struck between West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and New York’s Chuck Schumer. The IRA’s climate provisions effectively appeal to the “professional-managerial class” through its EV tax credits and residential clean energy tax credits, but more importantly, the vast majority of the clean energy investments have flowed into right-to-work states where unionization is extremely difficult. And as political economists like Daniela Gabor (2021) have pointed out, the American state still does not have effective disciplinary power over capital; instead, the state bribes certain fractions of capital to crowd in investment through subsidies and incentives – Gabor refers to this as the Wall Street Consensus. 

Biden’s industrial policy is certainly a detour from textbook neoliberalism – but to decisively say this means we have moved beyond neoliberalism (i.e., post-neoliberal) is predicated on the false assumption that state intervention is always antithetical to marketization. What matters the most is the nature of the state intervention – thus, while eco-socialists have always pushed for a greener welfare state and public investment in care infrastructure, their fall-out with the IRA suggests that the state-capital hybrid re-articulated a diffident neoliberalism with mercantilist elements with national security as the primary concern, this time through the terrain of climate. That the real inflation reduction was pursued by the Fed through attempting to deliberately engineer unemployment shows that the lineages of monetarist neoliberalism remain central to the American political economy. And even as unions have resurged amidst a pandemic-induced hot labor market, and an intersectional labor movement seeks to build rank-and-file militancy, labor has not yet become a coherently organized bloc that can undo neoliberalism. 

Beyond the core – more of the same?

Reshoring supply chains coupled with the IRA can be seen as the American state-capital hybrid’s long overdue neo-mercantilist “fix” to the fragilities of just-in-time supply chains, and it is articulated through the lens of national security, environmental sustainability, and geopolitical tensions. The flouting of WTO norms by the American state much to the distress of European allies along with the unconditional aid to Ukraine and Israel has further eroded the legitimacy of American world leadership. This is a contradictory geopolitical conjuncture – just as China remains integral to the green transition through its dominance in EV battery production, the US Dollar remains integral to speculative global finance. Without an overhaul of the global financial architecture at least through a transitional phase of capital controls, proclamations of post-neoliberalism seem to be premature. 

While a few global southern countries from Mexico to Indonesia have exploited the cracks in the US-China trade war, the green transition as is envisioned only reinforces the extractive model that most of the raw-material-producing countries have been familiar with since the time of the British empire. This is more concerning given that the green transition is especially material-intensive compared to carbon-intensive infrastructure _ minerals like lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite for EV battery production, and copper, zinc, nickel, chromium, and rare earths for offshore wind parks. Mining companies are at the forefront of reaping dividends from this emergent commodity supercycle – and we are likely to see a sharpened articulation of indigenous eco-politics that collides with the dominant state-capital-led transition. 

The resource-intensiveness of the attempted green transition, when coupled with the  challenges faced by labor in the global South, raises even further concerns. While industrial supply chains have re-articulated what Du Bois referred to as the racialized global color line through global labor arbitrage since the 1970s, the burgeoning service sector since the 1990s has conjured up false imaginaries of a high-tech knowledge economy. In reality, the service sector encompasses a heterogeneous set of informalized economic activities where workers are under-employed at extremely low wages. Much of the global south remains mired in a structural trilemma of stagnant manufacturing growth, environmental catastrophes, and a shrinking working-age population (Oks and Williams 2022) – the green transition in the North-Atlantic does little to address these. 

Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2011) has called the neoliberal state an “anti-state state” – where the repressive apparatus of the state has grown while welfare services remain underfunded – leading to an organized abandonment of racialized surplus populations. The “return” of the state in strategic industries is historically specific to this geopolitical conjuncture – while this has certainly opened up space for contentious politics within the core (and possibly a formation of a nationally-oriented progressive bloc), this does not automatically imply we have moved beyond neoliberalism. As a brutal reminder, Oxfam recently estimated how even as the IMF encouraged spending on public goods in the global south during the pandemic, it was undermined significantly by its austerity drive (Kentikelenis and Stubbs 2023). Neoliberalism is global, and talks about post-neoliberalism should be global as well – with all its variegated specificities. 

Globally, neoliberalism continues

In sum, states intervene all the time. Unprecedented state investment within the capitalist core in strategic industries amidst escalating geopolitical tensions cannot be seen as evidence for the death of neoliberalism. Even within the US, where the post-neoliberalism thesis enjoys the most purchase, we have neither seen a sustained systemic challenge to oppression based on social difference nor have we seen the erosion of the hegemonic neoliberal common sense. Instead, the most progressive forms of state intervention have redirected investment to right-to-work states and geared green consumption towards the more educated and wealthier sections, with very few indications of a radical transformation towards public welfare. 

Though we see various kinds of state intervention around the world, this has neither broken the stranglehold of global finance nor the North-South inequalities that are integral to global trade. Instead, global economic governance institutions have sought to accommodate these state interventions within neoliberal considerations of market-price stability (Alami and Taggart 2024). The green transition has deepened concerns that the state is incapable and/or unwilling to discipline private capital, without which the large majority of the informalized working class would not see a reversal of their grim fortunes – this perpetuates what I referred to in this essay as “diffident neoliberalism.” The conjunctural question is, therefore, to analyze the ways and forms in which neoliberalism has adapted to the emerging geopolitical and environmental concerns, even as we remain open to the ways in which its contradictions can be leveraged for counter-hegemonic politics. 


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