What Will Kill Neoliberalism? A roundtable on its fate.
Massive global inequality underlies our era of economic and political unrest. The rise of nationalist, populist movements, and the faltering influence of the Davos class of free-trade advocates, have rendered neoliberalism an ideology without committed ideologues. So what will bring about the end of neoliberalism—the left? the right? the incompetence of the professional political class?—and, when it’s gone, what will replace it? We asked five of our favorite minds for their views on the direction we urgently need to go next.
WILLIAM DARITY JR.
A Revolution of Managers
Marx’s classic law of motion for bourgeois society—the tendency of the rate of profit to fall—was the foundation for his prediction that capitalism would die under the stress of its own contradictions. But even Marx’s left-wing sympathizers, who see the dominant presence of corporate capital in all aspects of their lives, have argued that Marx’s prediction was wrong. It has become virtually a reflex to assert that modern societies all fall under the sway of “global capitalism,” and that a binary operates with two great social classes standing in fundamental opposition to each other: capital and labor.
Suppose, however, that Marx was correct in his expectation that capitalism, like other social modes of production before it, will wind down gradually, but wrong in his expectation that it would be succeeded by a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a civilization without class stratification. Suppose, indeed, that the age of capitalism is actually reaching its conclusion—but one that doesn’t involve the ascension of the working class. Suppose, instead, that we consider the existence of a third great social class vying with the other two for social dominance: what was seen in the work of such disparate thinkers as James Burnham, Alvin Gouldner, Barbara Ehrenreich, and John Ehrenreich as the managerial class.
Suppose, indeed, that the age of capitalism is reaching its conclusion—but one that doesn’t involve the ascension of the working class.
The managerial class comprises the intelligentsia and intellectuals, artists and artisans, as well as state bureaucrats—a credentialed or portfolio-rich cultural aristocracy. While the human agents of global capital are the corporate magnates, and the working class is the productive labor—labor that is directly utilized to generate profit—the managerial class engages comprehensively in a social-management function. The rise of the managerial class is the rise to dominance of unproductive labor—labor that can be socially valuable but is not a direct source of profit.
A surplus population under capitalism has a purpose: It exists as a reserve army of the unemployed, which can be mobilized rapidly in periods of economic expansion and as a source of downward pressure on the demands for compensation and safe work conditions made by the employed. Therefore, capital has little incentive to eliminate this surplus population. In contrast, the managerial class will view those identified as surplus people as truly superfluous. The social managers consider population generally as an object of control, reduction, and demographic administration, and whoever is assigned to the “surplus” category bears the weight of the arbitrary.
To the extent that identification of the surplus population is racialized, particular groups will be targets for social warehousing and extermination. The disproportionate overincarceration of black people in the United States—a form of social warehousing—is a direct expression of the managerial class’s preferences regarding who should be deemed of low necessity. The exterminative impulse is evident in the comparative devaluation of black lives that prompted resistance efforts like the Black Lives Matter movement. The potential for black superfluity in the managerial age is evident in prescient works like Sidney Willhelm’s Who Needs the Negro? (1970) and Samuel Yette’s The Choice (1971), both published almost 50 years ago.
The assault on “big” and invasive government constitutes an attack on the managerial class by both capital and the working class. Despite endorsing military spending, receiving lucrative government contracts, and enjoying the benefits of publicly provided infrastructure like roads, highways, and railways, corporate capital calls for small government. This is a strategic route to slashing social-welfare expenditures, with the goal of reducing the wage standard and eliminating all regulations on corporate predations. Despite benefiting from social-welfare expenditures, the working class gravitates to a new brand of populism that blends anticorporatism with anti-elitism (and anti-intellectualism), xenophobia, and a demand for a smaller and less intrusive state. Since “big” government constitutes the avenue for independent action on the part of the managerial class, an offensive of this type directly undermines the “new” class’s base of power.
Calls for smaller government are a strategic route to slashing social-welfare expenditures, wage standards, and regulations on corporate predation.
But the managerial class also possesses another attribute that is both a strength and a weakness. Unlike capital and labor, whose agendas are driven to a large degree by the struggle over the character of a society structured for the pursuit of profit, the managerial class has no anchor for its ideological stance. In fact, it’s a social class that is wholly fluid ideologically. Some of its members align fully with the corporate establishment; indeed, the corporate magnates—especially investment bankers—look much the same as members of the managerial class in terms of educational credentials, cultural interests, and style. Other social managers take a more centrist posture harking back to their origins in the “middle class,” while still others position themselves as allies of the working class. And there are many variations on these themes.
Depending on where the ideological weight centers most heavily, the managerial class can take many directions. During the wars in southern Africa against Portuguese rule, Amílcar Cabral once observed that for the anticolonial revolution to succeed, “the petty bourgeoisie” would need to commit suicide as a social class, ceasing their efforts to pursue their particular interests and positioning themselves fully at the service of the working class. One might anticipate that the global managerial class will one day be confronted with the choice of committing suicide, in Cabral’s sense, as a class. But the question is: If such a step is taken, will they place themselves fully at the service of labor… or capital?
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