U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Neoliberal Imagination

Last week I wrestled with Rick Perlstein’s reassessment of the historiography of conservatism, and particularly with his worry that in trying to throw off a tradition of writing condescendingly about conservatism, historians had effaced the record of right-wing extremism and its bizarre but significant place in the history of the conservative movement.

One of the most famous such instances of condescension—which Perlstein quoted—is to be found in the preface of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination—you probably remember it for the backhanded slap at conservatism as a series of “irritable mental gestures.” The notoriety of Trilling’s glib dismissal of conservatism has often overshadowed his more detailed but not really less acerbic demolition of liberalism’s flaccidity and lack of, well, imagination. One lesson we can take from Trilling’s arrogance—the lesson Perlstein took—is that condescension toward conservatism is dangerous: it risks underestimating the visceral appeal of many of conservatism’s core elements. But the more important lesson, I think, is that a critique of liberalism as a superficial ideology lacking in both passion and vision is equally plagued by a kind of eager blindness, and it bears its own dangers.

In the rest of this post and some that will follow, I want to try to make good on that claim. I do so not in the interests of defending liberalism per se, but because I have grown frustrated with the cramped conventions of leftist critique of liberalism and neoliberalism. This response is not meant to be polished or final in any way but rather a sort of thinking aloud, a mumbling as I try to pick my way through an increasingly unstable political landscape of acrimony and irritability.

The spur, in part, for this post is not a new intervention but rather a recent classic of the left, Capitalist Realism, by the late Mark Fisher. Our own Kurt Newman wrote extremely eloquently about Fisher’s ability to capture a certain structure of feeling common especially among young men who have come of age in the past, say, ten or fifteen years. I completely agree, although I’d add that Capitalist Realism not only depicted this feeling or sensibility but also performed it, that much leftist criticism of the past five or seven years echoes it closely.

What echoes particularly loudly is Fisher’s starting point: the idea of capitalist realism, a mode of being and a mode of thought, of making art and of making a living that acquiesces to the denuded creed of late capitalism: there is no alternative. Fisher begins with a semi-quotation of Fredric Jameson’s: it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.[1]

The meaning of this proverb appears to be self-evident: capitalism has colonized our imaginations in such a way that we are no longer able to think of genuinely better worlds, of utopias that do not scrimp for meager ameliorations of the status quo but that boldly declare new conditions of human freedom and pleasure. We accept with relief simply holding onto gains that already were won by our grandparents; we feel a thrill of victory when the budgetary ax relents, sparing the splinters of social democracy which we have left.

All this is true: this describes where we are today. But it is also oddly ahistorical to adduce a proliferation of dystopias as ipso facto a condemnation of the paltry imagination of the standing order. It has very often been much easier for human societies to imagine the end of the world than to imagine secular political change: that is not a feature of late capitalism, that is a recurring condition that we can observe in abundance in the historical record. Imagining the end of the world is one of the most common and, in a sense, one of the simplest things that humans have imagined, impelled, no doubt, by the horrible prevalence of devastating natural disasters and brutal violence.

It is thus peculiar to charge neoliberalism with a deliberate lack of imagination and to prove the case with its nightmares, as if Hollywood, publishing, and the videogame industry have been somehow blocked from selling us intellectually lush and authentically utopian images of a better social order. The halcyon days when utopias outnumbered dystopias are themselves a kind of utopia: I am not convinced they ever existed.

But the point, I think, of Fisher/Jameson’s maxim is not so much to insist upon the relation between dystopia and neoliberalism as it is to solidify the notion that neoliberalism is an imaginatively anemic ideology. Whether it is Fisher’s critique or David Graeber’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek complaint that neoliberalism/late capitalism has failed to deliver on its promise of flying cars, the presumption is never that neoliberalism has a utopia which some people find desirable and others find undesirable, but that neoliberalism’s utopia is what we are all forced into faute de mieux: no one really wants it, but the neoliberal technocrats try to convince us that no one could do any better either. It is not that neoliberals looked at flying cars and thought, “I would rather have something else—who wants a flying car anyway?, but that they simply decided that trying to make one wasn’t worth it.

I am increasingly convinced that this view of neoliberalism as intellectually impoverished and imaginatively stunted is both erroneous and unwise, that it sets the left up for a kind of bitter arrogance which is internally toxic and that it risks underestimating the resolve and ingenuity of the center-left (and center-right). That is not, in my opinion, an alternative worth taking.

[1] I say semi-quotation because it is uncertain whether Jameson actually coined the phrase. It has been attributed to him, but it is also by now a kind of folk wisdom of the left, as we can see.

6 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. “The halcyon days when utopias outnumbered dystopias are themselves a kind of utopia: I am not convinced they ever existed.”

    Wow, that is a brilliant line in a brilliant post. Beautifully, smartly done, Andy. Can’t wait to read the next one!

    • Ha! I’m just reading this today. I highlighted that *exact* passage before reaching these comments. …What’s that saying about great minds and thinking alike? 🙂

  2. SocraticGadfly–I’m not sure I know what you mean, but I love the term! Could you say more?
    And thanks, LD–you’re far too kind!

  3. Andrew — Always wonderful to read your thinking on these matters. It strikes me that neoliberalism is in much need of more careful delineations, as noted in recent writing such as essays by Bryant William Sculos, http://www.publicseminar.org/2017/04/on-theorizing-neoliberalism/#.WQJoJlLMyV7, and Jeffrey Goldfarb, http://www.publicseminar.org/2017/04/what-do-you-mean-when-you-use-the-term-neoliberalism/#.WQJoDVLMyV4 (was it Tim Lacy who circulated one of these on Facebook, if so I doff my cap to you, as usual). What is most striking is that neoliberalism stands for two different things. There’s the End of History Fukiyama Case Sunstein technocratic Nudge version, which amounts to, utopias are dead and the best we can do is a kind of mediocre effort to ameliorate the costs of progress under a liberal democracy. Then there’s the California Ideology version, filled with Ted Talks, disruption, Silicon Valley revolution, we can have a revolution through our gear (flying cars). Those are not quite the same, and yet since the 1980s (70s even? or dating all the way back to WWII?) they have intersected and diverged quite a bit. The first adopts a stubborn anti-utopian stance; the second an intensely utopian one. So maybe the task at hand is, as you start to suggest in part, not to frame a declension narrative about the end of utopia, as if previous eras had plenty, maybe even a surplus, of utopia, and the contemporary moment stands in contrast. Rather, the task is to name and historicize the peculiar kinds of utopia vying for ideological power in the present. An “it’s the best we can do” kind of ideal vs. a “my GPS software will bring about utopia” vs. other kinds of modern-day utopias: the queer futurity proposed by scholars such as José Esteban Muñoz, say; or the “fugitivity” described by Fred Moten; or the conservative utopias of making America great again, even (or are those just dystopian through and through?). Michael

    • Thanks for this, Michael! I agree that we (I) need to be clearer in using “neoliberal” but–and perhaps I’m alone in this–I feel like usages are converging as we get more perspective on neoliberalism as a longterm historical trend. I think the cognitive dissonances of using the same term to refer to, say, Thatcher and the Clintons, or Reagan and Blair, seem to have softened.

      On the other hand, we are also getting better books about the history of neoliberalism–chiefly Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion–which have helped to clarify matters immensely.

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