Will Neoliberalism Morph Into Fascism in the United States?

Neoliberalism, at its heart, is class war waged from above under the guise of rational, technocratic management of an economy that must — as neoliberals claim —be shielded from the corrosive influence of democratic politics.
— Chris Maisano, “Liberalism, Austerity, and the Global Crisis of Legitimacy,” The Activist, 7/19/2011.

[W]hat’s becoming increasingly clear to many scholars and intellectuals is that there is a new morphology of fascism that is taking place in the United States, one that is integrated into, and supportive of, the political logic of neoliberalism.
— Eric J. Wiener, “Neo-Fascism, Or The Political Logic of Neoliberalism3 Quarks Daily, November 9, 2020.

The ideology of neoliberal capitalism was the promise of growth. But with neoliberal capitalism reaching a dead end, this promise disappears and so does this ideological prop. To sustain itself, neoliberalism starts looking for some other ideological prop and finds fascism.
— Utsa Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik, “Neoliberal Capitalism at a Dead End,” Monthly Review, July 1, 2019.

In a recent, exceedingly instructive piece entitled,”This Crisis Has Exposed the Absurdities of Neoliberalism. That Doesn’t Mean It’ll Destroy It,” Greek political economist Costas Lapavitsus asserts that  state intervention in response to the COVID-19 public health crisis was both breathtaking in its magnitude and also in revealing the glaring hypocrisy of neoliberal ideology of “The market rules,”  as previously scorned Keynesian policies were temporarily rushed into service. ((Costas Lapavitsus, “This Crisis Has Exposed the Absurdities of Neoliberalism. That Doesn’t Mean It’ll Destroy It, Jacobin, March 27, 2020.))

Some of these measures included massive liquidity injections, lowering interest rates to zero, credit and loan guarantees, Federal Reserve purchase of government bonds and as pitifully small and delayed one-time direct payment to most Americans.  The fiscal stimulus packages already enacted are a quarter larger than those put in place during the Great Recession of 2008 and Biden recently proposed an additional $1.9 trillion coronavirus package in new federal spending.This episodic intervention in a crisis can be seen as another selective intervention by the state to ensure class rule. But the larger context includes the countless, irrefutable examples of the state’s welcome intervention to redistribute wealth upward and in prescribing critical market state functions in terms of policing, incarceration, surveillance, militarization and a host of other supportive services. U.S. interventions around the globe in support of the empire are so transparently obvious as to not warrant further elaboration.  Lapavitsus speculates on whether this massive state intervention in the economy could result “…in a more authoritarian form of controlled capitalism in which the interests of the corporate and the financial elite would remain paramount.” Unless there’s a mass mobilization from below there is no evidence suggesting that whatever is done will address the needs of working people.  Although Lapavitsus never explicitly suggests that neoliberalism will be transfigured into fascism, it’s not implausible to draw that conclusion.

Neoliberalism (“neo” is a Greek prefix for new) is the ideology of modern capitalism that was resurrected from the original laissez-faire liberalism that had been thoroughly discredited by the Great Depression and a spurred mass movement intent on abolishing capitalism. Neoliberalism has now held sway for over four decades and is the state religion in the United States, the common sense belief that this is simply the only way to organize society.

Neoliberalism was a repudiation of Keynesian economics under which the government intervenes to stabilize the economy, a theory that had a fundamental influence on the New Deal. It’s sometimes forgotten that both Keynesianism and neoliberalism are ideologies, flexible adjustments that capitalists made when a structural and political crisis undermined “enough” profitability. If Keynesian policy was an attempt to put a human face on capitalism on behalf of class survival, neoliberalism is, as economist Sam Gindlin has noted “capitalism with no face at all.”

The celebrated social theorist and geographer David Harvey explains that neoliberal ideology serves the following principle:

There shall be no serious challenge to the absolute power of money to rule absolutely. And that power is to be exercised with one objective:

Those possessed of money shall not only be privileged to accumulate wealth endlessly at will, but they shall have the right to inherit the earth, taking either direct or indirect dominion, not only of the land and all the resources and productive capacities that reside therein, but also assume absolute command, directly or indirectly, over the labor and creative capacities of all those others it needs. The rest of humanity shall be deemed disposable. ((David Harvey, “The Party of Wall Street Meets its Nemesis.”  Also, by David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005.).))

Neoliberalism was incubated in the thinking of neoliberal intellectuals like Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman. They, along with 35 other individuals, formed the Mont Pelerin Society at a gathering in Switzerland in 1947 and began the slow process of gaining public acceptance of their ideas. Fulsomely funded by wealthy individuals and corporations, neoliberalism was first imposed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1975-1990) and by Ronald Reagan (1981-1989). Untold numbers of opportunistic politicians, academics, celebrities, journalists, public intellectuals and even artists, served as enthusiastic midwives.

The disastrous economic effects of 40 years of neoliberalism on American workers have been repeatedly catalogued and are irrefutable. Perhaps less well known, is that neoliberalism has largely succeeded in destroying working class values like solidarity and collective aspirations and replaced them with dog-eat-dog rugged individualism. A deliberate goal of neoliberalism is to eradicate the notion from people’s heads that collective action can improve their lives. One astute critic identifies the resulting pathological culture as the political economy of narcissism where a perverse “rational calculus of self-interest,” where everything is commodified, including morals. ((Scott Preston, “Age of Delusion: Reflections on Narcissism and Self-Destruction, IV, The Crysalis, February a4, 2012.))  Empathic motives come to be seen as irrational, self-defeating, and existing beyond neutral, immutable market logic. Predictably, there has been a measurable diminution of empathy in U.S. society. ((Konstantinos Tsoukalas, “The Deregulation of Morals: The Ultimate Phase of Globalization,” Situations, Vol. IV, No. 2 (Spring, 2012), pp. 6-36. For a book length treatment, see, Gary Olson, Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain (NY: Springer Publishing, 2013).))

Whither Fascism?

Neoliberalism periodically creates its own crises, contradictions and tension-producing conditions. We know that the devastating effect of the pandemic further exacerbated already extreme social and economic inequality. Between 1975 and 2018, $47 trillion was transferred from the bottom 90 percent to the top 1%. ((Faramarz Farbod, “Late Capitalism and Its Runaway Inequality Problem,” Dissident Voice, January 1, 2020.))  In addition, neoliberalism faced a host of seemingly insoluble problems of its own self-serving creation, including:   more low-wage workers falling behind, deindustrialization, endless wars, no single-payer health insurance, increased off-shoring, the “gig” economy, a militarized police state, massive underemployment, global overproduction, under-used capacity, a falling rate of profit, the looming threat of ecocide, a refugee crisis, glaring racial disparities across the board and the debilitating drain of 800+ military bases in 70 countries.

Neoliberalism became ascendant in the 1980s and gained strength under Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. As their policies began to produce stress and public dissatisfaction, Trump’s campaign promised voters that his “America First” project would respond to their grievances. Abetted by race-baiting, xenophobia and religious chauvinism, he prevailed over the traditional neoliberal, Hillary Clinton.

Whether Trump, a symbol of neoliberalism’s disease and not its cause, possessed any convictions behind his promises or, more likely, was simply hoodwinking the voters with his right-wing populist pandering is immaterial because he could never have succeeded in solving the system’s deep structural problems. After his narrow defeat in the electoral college in 2020, when he still garnered 74 million votes, the other party in the capitalist duopoly assumed control but it also has nothing to offer. Part of the reason is that state intervention under neoliberalism has built-in limitations relating to legitimacy issues that portend potential danger for the ruling class.  That is, if the state is directly involved, for instance, in creating employment, it prompts the question, “If the state can do the job here and on other pressing matters, why do we need capitalism at all?” ((Patnaik and Patnaik, op.cit.))

Ironically, one unexpected consequences of neoliberalism was the January 6, at times, cartoonish spectacle of  a few hundred of Trump’s clueless, costumed and cult-like followers invading the “citadel of democracy” for a few hours, smashing stuff, taking selfies with cops and grabbing mementos. Whatever their motives, and surely they were mixed, if any of these intruders believed they were overthrowing the U.S. government, they were delusional. When the event fell risibly short of their hyperbolic Doomsday predictions, establishment narrators doubled down on them in the apparent belief that the public will believe anything if they hear it enough times. In retrospect, the riot proved to be a serendipitous gift to the establishment who then set about 24/7 scaremongering about an “insurrection” and “attempted coup.”

While pontificating about the security threat posed by “white supremacist, violent extremists,” the  Kabuki theater of seemingly endless official investigations and serious prosecutions (a few which are warranted) proceeds apace. They are meant to scapegoat Trump, deflect blame from failed Democratic policies and soften up a frighted public for accepting necessary, “fighting fascism” national security measures. Stepping up censorship is one of the first.

What follows won’t be Trump’s mendacious, crude and jingoistic neofascist rhetoric and tactics but a sophisticated, insidious, below the radar and hence infinitely more dangerous variant of fascism,  a “reset” promulgated from the top down by the Bidenadmin/nationalsecuritystate/MSM and their enablers. Although fascism follows when neoliberalism reaches a terminal point, this will be a hybrid, less apparent and hence more “acceptable,” crafted for American sensibilities.

It will appeal to those who still believe that voting matters and who retain reverence for the country’s governing institutions. In other words, procedural democracy minus substance.  Further, as Eric Weiner’s adroitly explains, “North American fascism requires a degree of individual freedoms and rights in combination with the the perception that these rights and freedoms are inalienable by the state.” ((Eric Weiner, Neo-Fascism, Or The Political Logic of Neoliberalism, “ 3 Quarks Daily, November 9, 2020.))  This variant can even co-exist with a modicum of dissent, provided that it remains ineffectual.  Robert Urie labels this version, “fascism with better manners.” Given their track record of controlling the unfolding narrative, one hesitates to underestimate the state’s ability to shepherd this fascist hybrid into existence.  Whether the marginalized left makes use of the remaining but vanishing interstices of limited freedom to resist this outcome remains an open question.

Where  neoliberalism becomes potentially vulnerable and open to scrutiny is when it becomes trapped in its own inevitable contradictions and linked to unvarnished political and economic realities, when its fraudulence as the means to attaining the vaunted American Dream becomes more apparent and the gross inequities of the system reveal themselves in ever starker terms. When this happened in the 1930s, some of capitalism’s most ingenious defenders found the means to stave off fundamental structural change by making the sufficient  temporary adjustments to save the capitalist system. ((Gary Olson, “Was it only ‘fear itself?”: FDR and Today,” Common Dreams, June 18, 2020.))  But, as noted earlier, after these stopgap measures neutered organized resistance, neoliberals proceeded to methodically undo them. The absence of resistance from below, makes this all the easier.

The question is whether, if the second iteration of liberalism also becomes a discredited doctrinaire ideology and as many critics contend, has indeed reached a dead end, what’s next? The answer is uncertain and depends on several variables: whether the public concludes that society’s problems are intractable, permanent features of the capitalist economy; on the political savvy of elites and their two corporate parties;  on the willingness of the ruling class to employ the state’s punishment function and finally, whether the new iteration can be sold to people already irreparably harmed by neoliberal policies.

When seen from this perspective, it’s a mistake — one that even some on the left are making — to view Biden’s election with a sigh of relief, a welcome breathing space. Rather, the  U.S state is using the so-called insurrection at the Capitol to distract the public while proceeding to further consolidate big capital and the state on behalf of the neoliberal project. ((Further elucidation on this point, see, Ajamu Baraka, “Neoliberals Seek to Establish Their Own Brand of Fascism,”  Black Agenda Radio, February 15, 2021.)) In the aftermath of January 6, far-right groups are rapidly splintering, many adherents are leaving the movement and far-right disorganization prevails. ((Neil Macfarquhar, “Far-Right Groups Are Splintering in the Wake of the Capitol Riot,” The New York Times, March 1, 2021. Not surprisingly, Macfarquhar concludes that this makes them “even more dangerous” and without evidence, claims that Russia is assisting them.)) In short, this  threat pales in significance when compared to the neoliberal fascists already in power. For now, Biden, the oligarch’s tool, is the front man, behind which the ruling class will decide how to proceed.

We know the inexorable, capitalist imperative of exploitation and accumulation will continue and both parties are committed to maintaining and expanding U.S. global hegemony. Further, while neoliberalism in the United States and fascism are not yet identical, the former now has sufficient affinities with the latter to assert that an “immoral” equivalency exists and the distinction becomes an academic one.

Ultimately, the answer doesn’t lie in voting or trying to pressure the Democratic Party but in new forms of collective agency from below, a movement  prepared to engage in sustained, nonviolent, massive civil disobedience. Given the foregoing analysis, one might be resigned to restating  Gramsci’s pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will and heart.  However, upon further consideration, knowing that the ruling class is unwilling to solve our problems tends to leaven the pessimism and lend cautious support to optimism.

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. Contact: garyleeolson416@gmail.com. Per usual, thanks to Kathleen Kelly, my in-house ed. Read other articles by Gary.