What is to be done? Fifteen authors in search of a solution.

In a slender volume edited by Heinrich Geisenberger “The Great Regression”, fifteen, among the most important left-wing social thinkers of today, ask the  following question: what is the future of social-democracy now when global neoliberalism is crumbling and the forces of nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise?

– Branko Milanovic

I would not be letting you on a big secret, nor do I think I would undermine the book’s appeal, if I say that they do not have an answer; neither individually, not collectively. The reason is simple: the answer, as of now, is elusive, and it might even seem that it does not exist.

The contributors to this very good volume which, as I said, gives an excellent insight into the intellectual thinking of the left are (in alphabetic order): Arjun Appadurai, Zygmunt Bauman, Donatella della Porta, Nancy Fraser, Eva Illouz, Ivan Krastev, Bruno Latour, Paul Mason, Pankaj Mishra, Robert Misik, Oliver Nachtwey, César Rendueles, Wolfgang Streeck, David Van Reybrouck and Slavoj Žižek.

Not all contributions are, in my opinion, equally interesting, I find Zygmunt Bauman’s writing, as always, very convoluted and difficult to read. Ivan Krastev seems like an odd man out among this group of writers: he disagrees with Trump and Brexit but from what seem fully certifiable neoliberal positions.

It would not surprise the reader that the names that are often mentioned in the volume are Polanyi and Gramsci, with Erich Fromm with his “Escape from Freedom” coming back from a long oblivion. Be ready to see Fromm quoted more and more.

I would like to highlight three contributions that seem most interesting to me. Nancy Fraser has written an excellent and bold essay on the ideological background to Trump’s victory. She sees the main competitors to be “progressive neoliberals” and “reactionary populists”. Progressive neoliberals are the creation of Clinton’s “New Democrats” and his innumerable triangulations that eventually brought together “progressives” who cared about identity, gender and racial equality, and sexual rights together with the most hard-nosed Wall Street types. This was, at the origin, an unlikely coalition: LBGTQ activists together with Goldman Sachs. But it worked. The “progressives” enjoyed their newly-found influence. They got Goldman to pay lip service to equal rights, promote a few persons of “color” to top positions, and even realize the advantage, for its bottom-line, of being more open to diverse talent.* Goldman Sachs made the money. This is what in the 1990s and early 2000s went under the slogan of “socially liberal and fiscally conservative”.

Who played the serpent to this “progressive neoliberal” paradise? Those left out of  economic success, that is, losers of globalization, and those unable or unwilling to accept the new screeds of “progressivism”. The alliance of progressives and financial-sector neoliberals created, almost by definitions, its counterpart among those who were maladjusted: either economically or socially, So long as “the maladjusted” accounted for 20% or so of the electorate and made lots of noise with little political success (“The Tea Party”), they could be ignored by the winning coalition. It is one of the ironies of life that “the maladjusted” found in Donald Trump somebody who was able to express, and use that resentment. …


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