Is Progressive-Populism Our Best Option in These Troubled Times?

When order ruptures it leads to a state of crisis manifest in many ways, as we see emerging throughout the world. What can we do?

The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born
Nancy Fraser


Apr 2019


We're facing a crisis, writes American critical theorist Nancy Fraser. Given the rise of neo-fascism and the economic plight resulting from skyrocketing income inequality, precarious jobs and sinking economies, many would probably agree with her. Many in recent years have blamed the crisis on neoliberalism – the economic deregulation inherent to that ideology, favouring privatization and an unregulated free market, has fueled inequality and poverty, which in turn has fueled the rise of fascism, xenophobia, militarism and other social woes.

But it's not enough to blame neoliberalism, says Fraser in her latest work The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born: From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump and Beyond. Neoliberalism is an economic-political system, not a worldview.

In its place, Fraser offers a new analysis of the crisis and its cause. In place of simple neoliberalism, she offers the culprit of a more expansive 'progressive-neoliberalism'. When the western world was led away from the New Deal-style welfare capitalism that characterized the post-WWII 'golden years' of capitalism, the dominant worldview which emerged was one that wedded a progressive politics of recognition with a neoliberal political economy, she says.

Key to Fraser's analysis is the idea that a hegemonic worldview – here she draws on Antonio Gramsci's notion of hegemony, or the way a ruling class tries to shape what is considered 'common sense' in society as a way of making its own domination appear natural and not actually like domination – is comprised of both a politics of distribution (how resources, income, goods, etc. are distributed; in other words, its economic structure); and a politics of recognition ("how society should apportion respect and esteem"; in other words, its hierarchy and status structure). The combination of these two things characterizes a hegemonic order.

Water drop by qimono (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

In recent decades, and up until the 2016 election which brought Donald Trump to the US presidency, America was dominated by a 'progressive-neoliberal' hegemonic order, she says. Its dominant economic structure was neoliberal capitalism – grounded in deregulating capital, financialization, dismantling of unions and economic rights, growing precarity. Yet its dominant politics of recognition was progressive, espousing principles favouring diversity and empowerment of minorities. This doesn't mean it was effectively anti-racist, but that it blended progressive principles with (regressive, exploitative) neoliberal economics. The resulting system masked the rapacity of its hyper-capitalist economics by putting on a nice face of social inclusion and tolerance, contributing to the illusion of overall progress. Everybody knew their economic lives were getting worse, but the fact that society has appeared to become more tolerant maintained the illusion of progress.

The result was that 'lean-in' culture which was really more about making space for minorities to join the economic elite (the handful who actually made it to the elite, that is) than about improving opportunities for everyone. The dominant progressive identity-based movements were not about making life better for the majority of the disenfranchised, but about removing barriers for a few token minorities to enter the ranks of the elite. The inheritors of the post-WWII, 1960s-era social and civil rights movements – feminism, anti-racism, queer rights – were, with few exceptions, deradicalized and co-opted, buying into progressive neoliberalism, abandoning their critique of capitalism and its underlying political economy in favour of a hollowed-out progressiveness that primarily benefited elites. In exchange for implicitly agreeing to accept neoliberal capitalism and overlook its many flaws, the marginalized subjects these movements claimed to represent were granted (small and token) space in its elite ranks.

It's undeniable that this has led to some improvements in day-to-day life for women, queer folk, and others whose lives were affected by the liberal progressive social agenda of neoliberal elites. But the gains were a far cry from the goals those movements had originally set, and were deliberately constrained by mainstream activists' refusal to integrate a critique of neoliberal capitalism in their agenda. This has directly contributed to the crisis of today: deteriorating living conditions for women, racialized Americans, queer folk and other minorities resulting from the depredations of neoliberal capitalism has led many of those marginalized subjects to turn against the progressive-neoliberal hegemonic regime and seek hope elsewhere (even, for some, in the likes of Donald Trump-style populism).

Pitted against the 'progressive-neoliberal' hegemonic blocs in recent history, Fraser says, were the 'reactionary-neoliberal' blocs. This included the minority of those espousing neoliberal economics but melding them to a white, patriarchal, Christian politics of recognition that devalued everyone who wasn't a cis white straight male (the men in the Alabama state senate legislating on women's reproductive rights are a prime example). Because fewer people are outright bigots, the reactionary-neoliberal bloc played second fiddle to the progressive-neoliberal bloc for much of recent history.

But then everything changed, and the entirety of this hegemonic dynamic – the hitherto dominant progressive-neoliberal order and the rising reactionary-neoliberal bloc – were trampled over by Trump, who represented a complete break with what had appeared to be the naturalized order of things for decades. Trump espoused a mish-mash of perspectives and policies that cross-cut all hegemonic positions. He championed the working-class, nationalism, capitalism, protectionism, attacked elites and progressives alike, was overtly racist and sexist, denounced the basic building blocks of neoliberalism. There was something for everyone to both love and hate in what he preached.

His election, therefore, signified a total rupture, or at least a desire for and openness to a total rupture on the part of Americans, with the pre-existing hegemonic order. No longer were Americans willing to commit their futures to either progressive-neoliberals or reactionary-neoliberals. They wanted something new, they were willing to gamble on something new, and insofar as Trump appeared to offer something completely new and different, he reaped the political benefits of the rupture he appeared to offer. In reality, he quickly abandoned his electoral promises – he tossed his working-class supporters under the bus, embraced the neoliberal elites, and sought to reinforce his (betrayed) working-class base by appealing to their reactionary politics of recognition instead. He did this by deliberately stoking divisions, embracing racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic policies designed to appeal to other reactionaries, and hoped they would ignore his betrayal of commitments to curb the exploitation and corruption of the rich. So in the end, his tenure has proven not so much a break with the hegemonic order as a stealth capitulation to reactionary neoliberalism.

But what's important to note, says Fraser, is that Trump's populism, and the fact that so many Americans embraced the break with tradition which he appeared to offer in the 2016 election, indicates that western publics have had enough of the progressive and reactionary forms of neoliberalism alike. Now that this has been shown to be the case, it will be impossible to prevent other populist appeals to create new forms of politics and society from emerging in the near future. "The populist cat is out of the bag and won't quietly slink away," she warns. "And that means preparing the ground for future Trumps – ever more vicious and dangerous."

So what do we do? First of all, she observes, it's important to acknowledge the failure and rejection of neoliberal capitalism. Even many of its former adherents recognize this, and have abandoned the temple of neoliberalism or sought to temper its predations with welfare initiatives. It might linger on in various forms, maintained on life support by elites determined to suck every last vestige of fiscal gain they can from its carcass, but the hegemonic worldviews which sustained it are no longer viable. The collapse of neoliberal capitalism is due largely to its own inevitable failings – the fact it is unable to deliver sustained growth, decent jobs, a sustainable economy, and above all the fact that it is no longer able to hide these inherent failings.

It is imperative, then, for progressives to abandon their doomed affiliation with neoliberal capitalism, and pursue a progressive populism, she says. Fraser isn't the only one calling for a progressive populism – political philosopher Chantal Mouffe has recently made the same call. The timing of these two remarkably similar calls for progressive populism is striking (and both offer important contributions to the academic literature), although Fraser does so in much more broadly accessible language.

There is an urgency to this, reflected in the title of Fraser's book. When a hegemonic order ruptures – as ours has – this leads to a state of crisis, which is what we see emerging in so many ways both in America and around the world. To try to maintain, or revive, the now ruptured former order will simply intensify the crisis, she says.

"What, then, can we expect in the near term? Absent a secure hegemony, we face an unstable interregnum and the continuation of the political crisis. In this situation, the words of Gramsci ring true: "The old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear," she writes.

The best hope for bringing a quick end to the crisis, Fraser asserts, is to replace the ruptured old hegemonic order with a new one; and the most appealing, strategically viable option is a progressive populism. Building a progressive populist movement requires a "strategy of separation", asserts Fraser.

"First, less privileged women, immigrants, and people of color have to be wooed away from the lean-in feminists, the meritocratic antiracists and the mainstream LBGTQ+ movement, the corporate diversity and green capitalism shills who hijacked their concerns… other emancipatory movements should copy that strategy.

"Second, Rust Belt, southern, and rural working-class communities have to be persuaded to desert their current crypto-neoliberal allies. The trick is to convince them that the forces promoting militarism, xenophobia, and ethnonationalism cannot and will not provide them with the essential material prerequisites for good lives, whereas a progressive-populist bloc just might."

Fraser makes clear that she's not proposing to compromise or dilute progressive values for the sake of attracting reactionary allies. Combatting Islamophobia, homophobia, racism and other reactionary values must be central to progressive populism, she says. Yet she is critical of the tendency of progressives to respond to their critics with "moralizing condescension". It is imperative, she says, to engage and to demonstrate the ways in which capitalism is inherently racist (for example), and show how this inherently exploitative dimension of capitalism is also classed, and gendered, and so forth. "[T]he forces destroying the life chances of people of color are part and parcel of the same dynamic complex as those destroying the life chances of whites – even if some of the specifics differ."

Mouffe, in her argument, deliberately avoids outlining the specific contours of progressive populism, noting that it must be locally variable and adaptable to local needs and conditions. Similarly, Fraser acknowledges that progressive-populism is not necessarily a coherent end-point. It's likely to lead to some other eventual, post-capitalist social order. Yet if we are to move beyond the suffering that characterizes this moment when "the old has died and the new cannot be born", progressive-populism offers the most hopeful alternative at the present time, she says.

The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born provides an excellent, persuasively argued analysis of the present crisis and offers a direction, if not a road-map, for moving past it. It's really little more than an elaborate pamphlet, yet it's worth noting that some of the most powerful works of modern thought emerged in similar brevity of format (the Communist Manifesto comes to mind). The book also includes an excellent interview with Fraser, conducted by Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara, in which Fraser makes many of the same arguments in even more succinct, accessible form (one discussion in the interview which is important surrounds the danger that progressive-populists might also wind up capitulating to progressive-neoliberalism in the same way Trump has capitulated to reactionary-neoliberalism, and in the same way proto-progressive-populists like Greece's Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras did following his election).

Fraser's prose is scholarly yet accessible, and her analysis is strikingly innovative. She is in many ways a Marx-for-our-times, and her work makes important and hopeful reading.





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