The Need for Neodemocracy

William J. Novak and Stephen W. Sawyer –

We live in a neoliberal age. For ideological reasons bound up in the epic struggle against totalitarianisms both left and right, a bold experiment in hyper-liberalism took root in the wake of the Cold War. Allowing the democratic achievements and aspirations of liberal and social democracy to atrophy, intellectuals and policymakers began an audacious celebration of the unmitigated benefits of economic liberty and private power. A new politics and policy consensus emphasized market expansion and economic growth over social welfare and public well-being, personal rights over collective responsibilities, private interests over public goods, and individual aggrandizement over social equality. So much have neoliberal assumptions captured policymaking and public imagination across the political spectrum, that it has become difficult to think beyond its tightly patrolled borders towards a programmatic, philosophically-grounded alternative. Indeed, for many, neoliberalism has grown synonymous with a sacrosanct – natural, neutral, and necessary – 21st century capitalism.

The consequences of this neoliberal turn are now everywhere around us. And substantive assessments of deregulation, privatization, and the return of market and constitutional fundamentalism are quickly moving from mixed to dire. Long gone are bumptious celebrations of the end of history. In retrospect, the end of the Cold War looms larger as a historic missed opportunity. Today, intellectual critics are documenting the rampant socio-economic debris left in the wake of neoliberal consensus: climate change; poverty and economic inequality; corporate concentration; big tech surveillance; election manipulation and voter repression; fake news; the aggrandizement of executive and war powers; the revival of virulent forms of racism, group hate, and xenophobia; the return of populist and authoritarian nationalism; mass incarceration; an opioid epidemic; and the rise of new global oligarchy and kleptocracy.

The egregious failures and transparent limitations of neoliberalism have now generated a host of provocative assessments and blueprints for moving on, beyond, and forward. Talented social theorists like David Harvey, Axel Honneth, and Wendy Brown have skewered the pretensions and exposed the contradictions of neoliberal political economy and mapped some attractive alternatives. At LPE, the manifesto by David Grewal, Amy Kapczynski, and Jed Purdy moves these concerns from the abstract realm of social theory to legal action. And on the ground, grassroots protests and social movements like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Indignados, and the Umbrella Movement urgently and divergently capture widespread popular aspiration for a post-neoliberal future. Even mainstream political candidates battle furiously to present themselves as the most radical antidote to the neoliberal status quo.

Yet to date, the alternatives to neoliberalism struggle for recognition amid a cacophony of options, including centrist calls to return to Cold War liberalism, technocratic revivals of Third Way social democracy, and defanged, post-totalitarian versions of “socialism light.” Advocates for change seem not yet to have a name or concept or program for what they are striving for after the end of neoliberalism.

We propose a deceptively simple solution — a mere starting point in a longer and larger conversation about a future beyond neoliberalism. We start simply enough by introducing or coining a new word – or at least a new usage.

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