Listen closely and you can hear the sound of the great consensus machine whirring to life as it cranks out another verdict on the way the world works. Neoliberalism, it has been decided, is finished.
Yes, left-wing magazines like this one have been publishing obituaries for the neoliberal order since the Clinton administration. But look who’s saying it now. In April, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan announced that a generation of policymaking has gutted the middle class, accelerated climate change, and made the world dependent on brittle global supply chains—tough talk from a former senior policy advisor to Hillary “breaking up the banks won’t end racism” Clinton. On cue, the New York Times declared that thirty years of market-friendly governing is “running off the rails,” and Louis Menand dropped 5,000 words on the readers of the New Yorker surveying “the rise and fall of neoliberalism.”
It would be nice if neoliberalism were behind us. Really, it would. Nice for politicians who want to imagine they’re changing the course of history. Nice for foundations that want a story to tell donors about winning the war of ideas. Nice for journalists who want to think the fights they’re covering (and the sources they’re puffing up) will outlast the news cycle. And, not incidentally, nice for all of us who want to live in a more just and equal world than the one we have now.
But nice stories only take you so far. With this special section on neoliberalism—past, present, and future—we want to take you farther.
That means acknowledging what has changed. The shifts are real. A few of the big ones include a revolt against free trade, the resurrection of industrial policy, growing recognition of organized labor’s significance, a rebirth for antitrust prosecutions, increasing talk about the clash between geopolitics and open markets, sincere concern about the social costs of economic inequality, and fear about what climate change will bring.
An honest reckoning also means taking into account how much has stayed the same. Joe Biden talks more about unions than Barack Obama did, but the percentage of organized workers in the labor force continues to decline from its already anemic level. Industrial policy doesn’t undo the fundamental logic of globalization, or the threat it poses to an American working class whose wages are well above the international average. A feistier Securities and Exchange Commission hasn’t stopped a handful of asset managers from gobbling up over a fifth of the shares in the members of the S&P 500, an astonishing consolidation of economic power in a tiny number of hands. And a Democratic Party that counts on donations from Silicon Valley and votes from white-collar suburbanites to eke out victories over Republicans (if we’re lucky) isn’t exactly positioned to launch a political revolution for the working class.
The truth, in short, and as usual, is complicated. In the pages that follow, you’ll find competing perspectives on whether neoliberalism is fading, changing shape, or even existed in the first place. But there is one place where all of the authors agree. Regardless of whether or not we’re moving toward a post-neoliberal world, the question that matters—and that remains undecided—is if we’ll make a better one.
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.