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  1. The Weekend Essay
23 December 2023

America after neoliberalism

The traditional US coalitions of left and right face battles they were not set up to fight.

By Julius Krein

Measured against the shocks of 2016 and chaos of the Trump presidency, the Biden era can seem like a return to normalcy. Media decorum and Oval Office professionalism aside, however, it is not a return to the status quo ante. Indeed, Joe Biden has, in terms of legislative achievements and official policy, presided over far greater change than his predecessor.

Two interrelated historical developments – the end of neoliberal hegemony and the end of the “end of history” – which marked the rise of Donald Trump’s right-populism, are now being institutionalised in the outlook of a decidedly establishment, centre-left White House. Yet if Trump represented the revolutionary toppling of the neoliberal consensus, the Biden administration has not been able to consolidate anything approaching a new policy order or electoral realignment, despite the passage of significant (and in some cases) bipartisan legislation, including the CHIPS and Science Act – intended to boost US semiconductor production – and the Inflation Reduction Act. American cultural and electoral polarisation has instead taken on new dimensions, and polling suggests the 2024 election is up for grabs.

The fact that the most common name for the supposedly emerging new paradigm remains “post-neoliberalism” demonstrates the difficulty of forging a new consensus. Beneath this failure to consolidate a new order – electorally, culturally, intellectually – is the chasm between the established partisan frameworks of an oligarchical society and the challenges of a new era of geopolitical, economic and technological competition. Both left and right coalitions now face battles they were not set up to fight, and neither has been able to effect a much-hoped-for “realignment” on the order of Roosevelt or Reagan. Instead, US economic strategy, cultural debates and foreign policy all remain trapped in an uneasy interregnum.

***

The confusion surrounding what post-neoliberalism is arises from an incomplete understanding of what neoliberalism was. Critics no less than defenders of neoliberalism tend to accept its own ideological self-conception: the free movement of capital, goods and labour; insulating economic policy from democratic politics; privatising public services, and so on. The end of neoliberal hegemony, therefore, is often thought to mean a little more “state” and a little less “market” in setting economic policy, or more “Polanyi” and less “Hayek,” as the economist Brad DeLong put it in a recent book. This academic approach is perhaps appropriate for intellectual history, but it fails to provide a direction for state intervention going forward. Nor does it adequately account for the concrete changes in economic incentives and corporate behaviour that resulted from neoliberal policies. Neoliberal governance did not merely shift the distribution of wealth or shrink the state (the latter was arguably never accomplished in the United States; only the state capacity for public projects was diminished). More importantly, neoliberalism incentivised specific modes of wealth generation, and the resulting changes in corporate and investor behaviour are arguably the most profound and enduring effects of the neoliberal revolution.

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In the Fordist economy of the mid 20th century, dominated by large integrated manufacturers (Ford, General Motors, General Electric etc), the most profitable companies were also the largest employers and capital spenders, as Herman Mark Schwartz has shown. After the neoliberal turn, however, a “fissured” economy arose, in which intellectual property and financial rents became the main drivers of corporate profits. In the fissured economy, the most profitable enterprises – today’s leading tech and financial firms – have relatively few employees and capital investment needs and mostly outsource physical production and infrastructure.

The construction of this fissured economy was America’s response to the crises of the 1970s. Once it became clear that American integrated manufacturers could no longer dominate global production, US firms increasingly outsourced manufacturing and organised themselves around intellectual property and financial rents. These shifts were not always conscious or intentional, and factors beyond policy (such as technological change) played a role. 

But neoliberalism essentially functioned as the ideological gloss justifying this transformation, and the associated policy changes were critical catalysts. For example, from the 1980s until the Trump administration, US trade policy consistently sought to reduce tariffs and other protections for domestic manufacturing, while strengthening intellectual property protections and foreign investor rights. In antitrust law, limitations on “vertical restraints” were gradually weakened, allowing firms like Apple to capture the lion’s share of profits, and exert effective control over outsourced suppliers and labour, without having to manufacture their products or directly employ (and share profits with) most of the workers involved. Patent laws became increasingly favourable to big business, and federal R&D policies were changed to allow for easier private commercialisation of government research. Changes in corporate governance increased the power of institutional asset managers vis-à-vis business executives. These changes were more important in creating the neoliberal economy than any tax cuts.

The fissured economy generated early returns, but its costs and contradictions have grown burdensome. Unlike the virtuous cycle of Fordism – in which high investment drives high wages which drive strong demand – the sequestration of corporate profits away from the most labour- and capital-intensive pieces of corporate value chains breeds financialisation, stagnation and heightened inequality. Despite ideological pretensions of fiscal rectitude, the neoliberal model relies upon debt to sustain consumption, exacerbating household precarity and systemic financial instability.

[See also: This is what plutocracy looks like]

Moreover, the hollowing out of manufacturing and the abandonment of capital-intensive industries has gradually undermined US capacity for innovation in many sectors, threatening the American geo-economic position and some upper echelons of the economy, in addition to creating internal strains caused by the steady erosion of the middle class and growing regional divides. US firms have ceded not only “commodity” production but advanced manufacturing and technological leadership in a number of critical areas. At this point, even parts of the US defence industrial base and other critical supply chains are dependent upon the production capacities of geopolitical rivals.

In sum, the problem with neoliberalism in the United States is not simply that taxes are too low or billionaires are too greedy or corporations are too “globalist”, but that neoliberal modes of wealth accumulation are increasingly undermining the economic, political and security conditions on which they rely. It is precisely these issues that have motivated a rethinking of neoliberal orthodoxy, among both elite and popular constituencies, yet these problems are rarely discussed in these precise terms, and post-neoliberalism struggles to find an established constituency.

A true post-neoliberal developmental agenda, aimed at reshaping corporate incentives – altering “predistribution” rather than redistribution – fits awkwardly with both legacy political coalitions. The progressive self-image, which emphasises a moralistic and symbolic-identitarian welfarism, has little space for new state-capitalist development coalitions with essentially nationalist ambitions. Those elements of the New Deal are distant memories. Conservatives, meanwhile, have for decades indoctrinated themselves in the belief that the state can only hinder economic progress, inflected with the right’s own identitarian commitments. Social conservatives, although no longer true believers in neoliberal policy, remain suspicious that any expanded state power will only be wielded against them. Considerable factions of both parties’ donor and intellectual networks, who remain wedded to neoliberal arrangements, whether for material or idealistic reasons, are of course eager to sharpen these divides.

Thus, bipartisan disaffection with a generic “neoliberalism” tends to quickly crystallise into entrenched partisan positions. These quarrels have shifted somewhat: the old battles over privatising social security and repealing Obamacare have faded (though they still occur occasionally) after Trump declared peace in the Republican war on entitlements. Spending battles in general have become increasingly farcical, as seen in the recent Republican Freedom Caucus brinksmanship over a government shutdown, averted by party leadership at the last minute. Instead, both parties are invested in pushing seemingly shared economic concerns in polarising directions: progressives focus on racialised inequality while conservatives decry “woke capital” and cultural elitism; displaced Appalachian coal miners are pitted against precarious urban service workers, Rust Belt factory workers against student-loan borrowers. Post-neoliberal energies are thus reduced to culture war tropes, while the potentially unifying concerns surrounding the vicissitudes of the fissured economy are muted.

On the other hand, progressives and conservatives alike maintain their adherence to a key neoliberal, or at least neoclassical, assumption: that the abstract concepts of “market” and “state” are inherently in opposition rather than intertwined, and that the goal is to balance antagonistic forces rather than harmonise mutually reinforcing ones. Despite a rich tradition of national developmentalism – the “American System” of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln, along with the later efforts of both Roosevelts – Americans have not had to think too deeply about national economic development for some time, and lack a common conceptual framework for such approaches or a robust apparatus for implementing them. These topics are largely confined to technocratic wonkery, while public discourse, to the extent that there is any in our hyper-fragmented media environment, revolves almost exclusively around culture wars and cults of personality.

Hence the recent policy departures from neoliberalism, though the effects of this legislation may prove significant, do not yet represent a new intellectual consensus, nor do they herald an imminent electoral realignment. They are, rather, idiosyncratic cases in which the legacy moral-ideological commitments of existing partisan coalitions (national security, environmentalism) happened to align with incumbent industry lobbies (semiconductors, universities, automakers). They may ultimately be seen as pieces of a larger puzzle, but at this point there is no consensus vision of what that puzzle picture is, or how to put it together. Further legislative momentum has stalled, at least until the 2024 elections.

Confusion likewise prevails in the realm of foreign policy (though any separation between foreign and economic policy at this point is increasingly artificial). The “end of history” is over: China has become the world’s largest economy by purchasing-power parity, in the process becoming the leading trade partner with most of the world, a near-peer technological competitor with the West in some areas, and the dominant player in a number of critical supply chains. Beijing has constructed its own global sphere of influence while defying Western expectations of political liberalisation, if anything moving in the opposite direction. Any lingering hopes for the Pax Americana were dashed when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, accelerating the reorganisation of geopolitical and geo-economic blocs. In 2016, Trump’s hawkishness towards China was unusual; today, it is one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement.

Yet such a decisive break with the conventional wisdom of a few years ago, largely forced upon the American mind by external events, does not necessarily translate into a consensus agenda going forward. While Russia has revived Cold War memories and alliances, China resists Cold War categorisation. Nominally communist, firmly authoritarian and effectively capitalist, to Americans educated to believe in the essential unity of economic and political liberty, America’s rival appears as a chimera and a conundrum.

Unlike the Soviet Union, China is deeply embedded in US supply chains, corporate value chains, financial networks, university research systems and beyond, after decades of intentional integration. Whether to preserve Chinese markets or supply chains, most industry lobbies oppose any US action that might antagonise China. Beijing has also strategically cultivated powerful sectors, such as finance. Although corporate America has lost some enthusiasm for China in recent years – with many Western “partners” finding themselves subjected to forced technology transfers, pushed out of the country’s markets, or worse, after China developed its own national champions – American big business is still Xi Jinping’s most important ally in DC. Yet, unlike America’s last major economic rival, Japan, China is not under the US security umbrella and pursues clearly conflicting foreign policy ambitions. A grand settlement along the lines of the 1985 Plaza Accord, therefore, seems improbable.

The asymmetric nature of corporate-government relations within and between the two countries adds further complications. Corporate lobbies are much more powerful forces in US politics than they are in China, where the state, together with the party, exerts effective control over the Chinese corporate sector. Thus, US corporate actors seem to genuinely fear the Chinese Communist Party, rarely criticising Chinese policy in public and often making highly visible efforts to ingratiate themselves with Beijing. In contrast, corporate America seems comfortable demanding more or less unconditional subsidies from Washington while publicly eschewing any obligations to support US national interests. Elon Musk – whose companies continue to benefit from a raft of US government subsidies and contracts, and whose SpaceX is now perhaps America’s most successful and admired aerospace company – recently pledged loyalty to China’s “core socialist values”. Musk’s Tesla, of course, is heavily exposed to Chinese supply chains, subsidies and end markets. 

Similarly, Intel and other semiconductor companies, after securing billions of subsidies through the CHIPS Act, have lobbied against export controls and restrictions on semiconductor investment in China. Nike and other apparel companies even lobbied against efforts to prevent the sale of goods produced using Uyghur forced labour in Xinjiang. Entertainment companies from Hollywood to the NBA have engaged in pre-emptive self-censorship to avoid the displeasure of Chinese authorities. The policy substance of some of these issues can be complex, but the optics are straightforward. While national security discussions revolve around export controls and a rather naive notion of “decoupling”, corporate kowtowing starkly illustrates the limits of US resolve – and the extent of US economic dependency.

The Biden administration has attempted to pursue a compromise position of “small yard, high fence”, as articulated by the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, in a major address earlier this year. This peculiar figure of speech seems to imply a strict line on technologies related to national security, and a more relaxed approach to everything else. But in an era of dual-use technologies, and when dominance of seemingly low-end production (such as critical mineral processing) can secure strategic supply chains, such rhetorical flourishes satisfy no one.

In theory, nations can engage in economic and technological competition without seeking to delegitimise their rivals ideologically. But the prosaic pursuit of national interests does not come naturally to American elites steeped in culture war moralism, so efforts to reinvigorate the Cold War dichotomy between “democracy” and “tyranny” have intensified. Conservatives relish reminding audiences that China is officially communist, and have also revived war-on-terror rhetoric about respecting the Chinese “people” while loathing the Communist Party “regime”. Yet combined with Republicans’ subservience to corporate lobbies and the party’s overall unwillingness (despite some notable exceptions) to address supply-chain dependencies or an eroding defence industrial base, the right’s symbolic hawkishness appears fundamentally unserious.

Progressives, meanwhile, have increasingly emphasised the (socially) “liberal” part of liberal democracy, extending domestic political debates into the realm of foreign policy. This narrative is somewhat more robust than anachronistic anti-communism, insofar as China and Russia are in some ways more socially conservative than they are “communist” at this point. The problem, however, as Ross Douthat observed in the New York Times, is that “you cannot rally sustained bipartisan support for a pro-democracy grand strategy if you’re constantly linking this strategy to your conflict with your domestic political opponents. Or, for that matter, if you’re constantly linking it to values that are the province of only your own political coalition. A grand strategy that equates democracy simplistically with social liberalism or progressivism is never going to get sustained buy-in from Republicans, and it will always be hostage to the next election cycle.”

Defining “democracy” along the lines of fairly parochial Western cultural mores can also make building alliances to “contain” China more difficult, and seems unlikely to appeal to Modi’s India, Erdoğan’s Turkey, Amlo’s Mexico, Middle Eastern monarchies or the Communist Party of Vietnam. Unlike the Soviet Union, China does not promote ideological communism as a vector of global political influence. On the contrary, Beijing often advertises its lack of interest in other countries’ domestic politics as a selling point to prospective economic and foreign policy partners, in contrast to Western programmes that tie economic aid to liberalisation and democratisation. Americans have been surprised by developing countries’ evident desire to stake out “non-aligned” positions after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but they shouldn’t be.

Recently, American media have focused on the apparent decline of China’s growth model. Certainly, a major economic collapse, especially if it brought political pressure on the Communist Party, would be welcome news in the United States. But this narrative may be too simplistic. China’s advanced manufacturing industries are doing relatively well; China recently became the world’s largest auto exporter, for example, and has made surprising progress on semiconductors. It is the country’s leveraged property sectors, used to stimulate growth and employment, that are sputtering, an issue long discussed by analysts inside and outside the country. In line with initiatives like “Made in China 2025”, Chinese authorities seem intent on building up advanced manufacturing, while weaning the country off debt-driven construction. Whether China’s leadership can execute this transition successfully remains an open question, but the Chinese strategy for dominating strategic supply chains remains intact.

By contrast, although competition with China can be a unifying theme in US politics, it is just as often used as a cudgel in the domestic culture war. Between these quarrels and an ambivalent (at best) corporate sector, nothing like a consensus strategy for US-China relations has emerged.

Lurking behind America’s economic and foreign policy confusion are larger shifts in partisan orientation and ambition. After decades of neoliberal depoliticisation, basic assumptions about the nature of democratic politics – that the goal is to build large majorities with the aim of wielding government power to implement a coherent policy agenda for public benefit – no longer seem operative.

The Historian Charles S Maier’s recently published The Project-State and Its Rivals: A New History of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries is an attempt to analyse the collapse of the (neo)liberal consensus that seemed unassailable at the end of the Cold War. I would argue that the book’s treatment of current politics is flawed, but Maier’s concept of the “project state” is nevertheless illuminating. Based on the experience of the 20th century, with its activist states and grandiose ideologies, we tend to think of partisan conflict as arising from competing ideological projects or policy agendas. But the fundamental question in American politics today is not which competing policy vision will triumph, but whether any political project is possible or desirable at all – whether right, left, or centre is even capable of offering one.

The right has essentially abandoned any pretence of having a positive project, as evidenced by the Republican Party’s inability to put forward a policy platform in the last two election cycles, and the difficulties faced in simply electing a speaker of the House. Conservative donors seem satisfied as long as the party can function as an oppositional force, obstructing Democratic initiatives and keeping taxes low. Right-wing media, intellectuals and voters, meanwhile, seem happy as long as they are entertained, and have few expectations of candidates beyond symbolic affirmation and meme generation.

The Republican retreat from policy is in part an outgrowth of the catastrophes of the George W Bush administration. As Donald Trump proved in 2016, this conservative “establishment” had become – rightfully – discredited, even among Republican voters, and its policy apparatus has continued to atrophy. Many establishment conservative pundits and intellectuals effectively left the party after Trump’s election.

Less obvious, but perhaps more fundamental, has been the collapse of 20th-century social conservatism as a positive political project. The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs Wade in 2022, ending the federal right to abortion, was the culmination of a previous generation’s project, which began 50 years ago. But the aftermath has only revealed the exhaustion of this branch of movement conservatism. Since Roe was overturned, every ballot measure to restrict abortion has failed, including multiple initiatives in “deep red” states. If anything, the “pro-life” movement is now much less visible in national politics; it has not seriously attempted to put forward an electoral agenda for a post-Roe moment and has become a source of embarrassment for Republican politicians.

As American culture has moved left and family formation has plummeted under neoliberalism, Christian traditionalism has been marginalised as both an ideology and a way of life. As a recent New York Times headline put it, referring to the foundering Mike Pence presidential campaign, such “old-school conservatism” represents a “dwindling flock”. Today, it is progressives, rather than Bible-thumping evangelists, who are more likely to demand public adherence to a strict moral orthodoxy, pressing for new educational curricula, speech codes and civic observances. With a shrinking electoral and intellectual base, meanwhile, social conservatives are typically the ones seeking exemptions and toleration for their unusual ways of life, a sharp reversal of the attitudes of the 20th-century culture war. 

On the whole, politically relevant social conservatism in America today has drifted away from the moral-majority ethos of the 1980s and towards a sort of moral insouciance that commentator Matthew Walther has termed “Barstool conservatism”, after the irreverent sports website Barstool Sports. Barstool conservatives resent “woke” political correctness, environmental strictures, Covid restrictions and the like. But they have little interest in banning abortion, bringing back school prayer or restoring a Christian public square. They are sometimes called “folk libertarians”, though they have little interest in esoteric market theory or policy experiments, nor in dismantling the welfare state or imposing fiscal austerity. According to cliché, at least, they mainly want to grill, watch porn, bet on sports, play video games and make jokes without fear of being “cancelled”. Depending on the relative unpopularity of progressivism, Barstool conservatism can be an electoral force, but it is not a political project of any kind.

Seen from this perspective, Trump is not the avatar of evangelical “Christian nationalism” or of neo-pagan ethno-nationalism. Nor did his presidency herald the birth of a serious “New Right” economic agenda in the Republican Party. To the relief of his critics and the chagrin of his ideological supporters, Trump never accomplished a political project, nor showed any consistent interest in one. The chaos and apparent lack of instrumental rationality, the tweets, the flouting of norms, the entertainment spectacle, were – and remain – the essence of his appeal and ambition.

The left, by contrast, is still project-oriented, but it seems to be oriented more around a project-NGO than a project-state, showing little interest in building large democratic majorities. As Justin H Vassallo put it, the progressive left is neither a “shrewd coalition partner” for elected Democrats nor a “credible, independent political force”, limiting the potential appeal of “Bidenomics” and other agenda items. Its principal projects of environmentalism and (in a word) “wokeness”, far from serving as the foundations of a new national project, often function to undermine the formation of any broad-based consensus. Thus, despite the dismal and divided condition of the Republican Party, Democrats face a Republican House and uncertain election prospects.

Progressive environmentalism – even assuming the most alarming interpretation of climate change – suffers from numerous and seemingly self-imposed blind spots. It fixates on disrupting everyday lives – recently launching a crusade against gas stoves, for example – while it scarcely mentions, at least in the United States, the massive estates and private jets of billionaire donors. It focuses almost entirely on penalising fossil fuels, domestic industries and the regional economies they support, while mostly ignoring trade-driven environmental arbitrage and pollution offshoring. These obvious class and sectionalist biases undercut its self-proclaimed urgency, as does its litigious opposition to virtually any new construction, including of clean energy projects. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club are often the fiercest opponents of new solar and wind fields, and battery production facilities. Some “supply-side progressives” have recently taken an interest in permitting reform to rectify this, but reorienting a movement steeped in de-growth ideology is no easy task.

To be sure, the environmental lobby’s leap to the forefront of national industrial policy, as seen in the Inflation Reduction Act, is in some ways a surprising shift for a movement that previously emphasised global agreements, transnational regulation, and financialised carbon trading. Not only have these neoliberal approaches manifestly failed the green cause in recent decades, but they seem hopeless now that the world’s largest emitter, China, has established itself as an independent pole in a multipolar world. Nevertheless, despite the change in tactics, American environmentalism has struggled to expand beyond archetypal neoliberal constituencies – NGOs, multinational, corporations and technocratic experts. At every stage, it has resisted transformation into a genuine project of national mobilisation, offering instead moral validation and financial incentives for its upper-class, white-collar base, while demanding austerity from everyone else.

Progressives’ other great project, “wokeness”, is perhaps even more polarising. It is also a response to failure. The consensus of “colour-blind” racial integration, which prevailed after Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement, simply has not, for whatever reason, overcome significant racial disparities in earnings, wealth, educational attainment, incarceration and other metrics. Progressives have responded by adopting a new “anti-racism” that rejects colour-blindness in favour of positive discrimination, along with new national histories, holidays, speech codes, school curricula and the like. Whether one agrees with this movement’s premises or not, however, it seems unlikely to form the basis of a national consensus of the kind the civil rights movement eventually constructed.

In the first place, woke politics is anti-majoritarian in a way that seems inherently self-defeating. It seeks to affirm aggrieved minority identities, and award symbolic and material concessions on that basis, leaving the majority as the de facto oppressor. More concretely, it seeks “allies” rather than coalition partners, and emphasises moral absolutism over pragmatic policy. While colour-blind integration could in theory posit an end goal, woke activists often suggest that American racism is inherent and irredeemable, implying that their policy prescriptions are aimed more at personal atonement than societal transformation.

Thus, despite significant inroads at elite institutions, considerable fundraising and the major Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, woke policy accomplishments are negligible and the movement seems to be fizzling out. Its few concrete policy forays, such as “defunding the police”, have arguably been most successful at producing backlash, including in ultra-progressive cities like San Francisco, which recalled its district attorney (and, separately, members of its school board). The anti-woke rallying cry is one of the few things holding the fractious right together, and recent controversies over anti-Semitic speech at elite universities show that opposition to “woke” institutions is broadening to include constituencies well beyond the political right.

Whereas American conservatism seems to have abandoned any sense of political responsibility, and with it the capacity to develop positive political projects, progressives suffer from a surfeit of moral enthusiasm, a self-indulgent hypermoralism that precludes democratic coalition building. In a revealing, though thoroughly unscientific, Twitter poll, the Democratic senator Chris Murphy recently asked if progressives should moderate some of their cultural commitments in order to build a larger coalition around their economic agenda. The response was resoundingly negative. And one suspects that reversing the question – moderating economic policy to secure a larger cultural coalition – would yield similar results. Although not a real poll, it captures a palpable sense that the ambition of building a decisive majority to implement a policy project is no longer the animating impulse of democratic politics.

Ultimately, the collapse of the post-Cold War consensus might be best understood as the collapse of neoliberalism as a political project. The idea of building a neoliberal society has failed on its own terms and is no longer viable: it is no longer plausible to believe that another tax cut will supercharge growth, or that another trade agreement will democratise China, or that a new carbon-credit scheme will end climate change. But that does not mean that a new consensus has supplanted the old, only that all political projects seem equally implausible. Indeed, the abandonment of the programmatic neoliberal project may represent the ultimate triumph of the neoliberal instinct: absent any common project, politics becomes conceptualised entirely as a process of individual self-actualisation – through personal enrichment, personal atonement, or even personal entertainment – rather than collective self-government.

In this sense, it seems that the conditions required to forge a new post-neoliberal consensus remain unfulfilled. As in a post-communist transition in which former party apparatchiks change titles but retain power, deviations from neoliberal orthodoxy in official policy have not altered the underlying modes and structures – or in many cases, the personnel – of political influence. Major donors, top-down NGOs, Big Tech platforms and other intellectual-property-driven corporate lobbies remain the dominant forces in US politics. The mass organisations of the New Deal era have not been revived, nor have new political forms and industry coalitions emerged to take their place. Octogenarian politicians and donors remain leading players on both right and left.

On the other hand, “post-neoliberalism” has gone from a leftist dream to a Trumpist revolt, and now informs the agenda of an establishment liberal administration. It may yet evolve from generic critique to substantive project and shared consensus. The appetite for new policy paradigms seems enduring, as is the momentum of external events. Decades of neoliberal depoliticisation have warped Americans’ understanding of political action and national possibility, but the emptiness of legacy ideological categories has also created new opportunities for cross-partisan collaboration and policy experimentation.

Fifty years ago, neoliberalism arose as the ideological expression – and in key respects, mystification – of America’s response to its loss of economic dominance. Today’s turn away from neoliberalism, motivated by the same concerns, may similarly proceed without full self-consciousness, under various inherited ideological guises that do not necessarily cohere. Yet whereas neoliberalism aimed at depoliticisation and de-collectivisation, post-neoliberalism will require a shared constructive vision to advance much further.

The post-neoliberal moment has now persisted across two very different presidential administrations, but it is still a moment in search of its own movement, and even its own self-definition.

[See also: We are still living with the wreckage of liberal globalisation]

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