There Was No Such Thing as “Progressive Neoliberalism”

There Was No Such Thing as “Progressive Neoliberalism”

Were social movements really handmaidens to the rise of neoliberalism? A response to Nancy Fraser.

At an anti-Trump march in New York, November 12, 2016 (Kelly Kline / Flickr)

Nancy Fraser’s analysis of Donald Trump’s election and thoroughgoing critique of the Clinton Democrats in “The End of Progressive Neoliberalism” offers much to agree with. But I disagree with her subtle, yet distinct, attack on social movements as handmaidens to the rise of neoliberalism. 

On the one hand, Fraser mostly tells us what we already know about the rise of neoliberalism—the role of Clinton’s DLC, the cozy relationship between the Democratic Party and financial capital, the increasing cultural dominance of tech elites, and the incorporation of liberal feminism and liberal multiculturalism into neoliberal politics and ideology. Also entirely familiar is her prescription for moving forward—building a left outside the Democratic Party that brings into coalition the struggles against social oppression and a challenge to the powers of corporate capital. Many of us have been arguing this for years. 

On the other hand, Fraser’s argument carries an undercurrent of blame toward feminism and other social movements for having participated in what she dubs “progressive neoliberalism.” It was, she argues, a revolt against progressive neoliberalism that led to Trump’s victory over Clinton. By shifting the analysis away from the capitalist class offensive that ushered in the neoliberal order, and which is primarily responsible for the U.S. political drift to the right, Fraser ends up attacking “identity politics” in favor of “class politics.” While her conclusion is that of course the left must embrace anti-sexism and anti-racism, her analysis implies the opposite—she’s clearly suspicious of multiculturalism and diversity.     

Fraser argues that neoliberalism “found its perfect mate in a meritocratic corporate feminism focused on ‘leaning in’ and ‘cracking the glass ceiling.’” This is true. But Fraser mistakes this feminism for feminism as a whole. She ignores the continuing struggle by other feminists—in trade unions; in immigrant rights, environmental justice, and Native women’s organizations; in grassroots civil rights projects and in groups organizing working-class transgender people; on college campuses, and elsewhere, where the politics she calls for has already been developing. The Platform for the Movement for Black Lives, which I think can be considered one of the most advanced and inclusive political visions we have ever seen in the United States, emerged from the thinking, activism, and lessons learned within these social movements over the last three decades. 

Fraser herself acknowledges that the term “progressive neoliberalism” sounds like an oxymoron.  Yet she goes on to make a case that “not neoliberalism tout court, but progressive neoliberalism” became the dominant politics of the Democratic Party, which abandoned the “middle-class” (white, male) voters who eventually rose up in revolt. She argues that, disastrously, corporate neoliberalism drew on the “charisma” of social movements in order to justify itself—offering a vision of “the good society” based on equality of opportunity for anyone to access the rewards of a highly competitive and hierarchical economic and political system. In this recounting of the trajectory of social movements, Fraser completely erases three decades of struggle as well as the theoretical and political evolution of the movements she critiques. She treats corporatist liberalism as representative of all movements, even though it is but one strain.

In the 1970s the emancipatory movements against oppression evinced a wide range of politics.  However, the dominant politics of feminism through the 1970s and ’80s was defined neither by radical or socialist feminism nor by classic liberal feminism. Rather, the feminist politics of this period was characterized by what I would call social-welfare feminism.

Social-welfare feminists share liberal feminism’s commitment to individual rights and equal opportunity, but go much further. They look to an expansive and activist state to address the problems of working women, to ease the burden of the double day, to improve women’s and especially mothers’ position in the labor market, to provide public services that socialize the labor of care, and to expand social responsibility for care (for example, through paid parenting leave and stipends for women caring for family members).

Winning these demands required a confrontation with capitalist class power. Yet, at the very moment when social-welfare feminism was at its strongest, in the 1970s, the tsunami of capitalist restructuring arrived, opening up a new era of assault on a working class that had little means of defending itself. As people scrambled to survive in this new world order, as collective capacities and solidarities moved out of reach, as competition and insecurity ratcheted up, as individual survival became the order of the day, the door opened for liberal feminism to move center stage, incorporated into an increasingly hegemonic neoliberal order. 

In other words, second-wave social-welfare feminism was not so much coopted as it was politically marginalized.

I would not deny that many middle-class advocates for women and minorities shifted their rhetoric in response to the obdurate political opposition they faced. For example, after Bill Clinton dismantled welfare reform in 1996, advocates embraced the rhetoric of economic “self-sufficiency” for single mothers, hoping to justify funding for education, childcare, and access to living wage jobs. Instead, of course, single mothers have been forced into insecure, low-wage jobs, mostly without access to publicly funded childcare. But these discourses were always contested even though those opposing them remained marginalized.

There were some important successes—for example, organizing by women of color pushed mainstream pro-choice organizations, especially NARAL and Planned Parenthood, to move away from using the bourgeois liberal “privacy” argument to defend abortion and toward “reproductive rights” discourses that are less easily aligned with neoliberal ideology. Women of color challenged the law-and-order feminism that came to dominate advocacy around gender violence. They developed alternative strategies (such as open shelters and restorative justice) and analyzed how interpersonal violence is linked to the violence inflicted by the state on their communities (see, for example, the website of INCITE!). 

Internationally, it is true that some organizations like the Feminist Majority foundation supported U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. However, there are well-organized feminist antiwar groups (such as Code Pink and MADRE) and other feminist organizations that reject and challenge neoliberal development policies (like the Women’s Environment and Development Organization). The Critical Resistance movement organized many young people to protest the carceral state from a feminist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist perspective. Many of the activists leading the most radical social movements of recent years, such as Black Lives Matter and the Dreamers, learned their politics through these various oppositional movements and on campuses where women’s studies programs were developing what came to be called “intersectional” analysis. The rise of the internet opened up a much larger space for such challenges to liberal feminism and the promotion of more radical, anti-corporate, feminist perspectives. The same is true for many other social movements. 

Fraser argues that “we” should reject the polarized choice between “financialization-cum-emancipation” and “social protection.” I’m not sure who this “we” is. Again, if Fraser is speaking about corporate feminists, the black political class, or Democratic Party hacks, then surely, yes. But in fact, many groups and organizations have all along resisted this supposed choice. Mainstream feminist and civil rights organizations have challenged the austerity agenda, for example, by defending social security against attempts of Republicans to privatize it. Mainstream feminist advocates continue to agitate for expansion of publicly funded quality childcare programs. Yes, they are mostly unsuccessful. And yes, they are unfortunately dependent upon a corporatized Democratic Party. And yes, they would be more successful if they were allied with a revitalized labor movement. But they are not “progressive neoliberals” caught up in the romance of competitive individualism, and they continue to identify politically with a social-welfare feminist program. 

Fraser argues that the American left is so weak today because “potential links between labor and new social movements were left to languish.” Of course the failure to build a coalition of labor and social movement activists led to the rise of the right. But does Fraser really think that this was due to deliberate decisions made by activists from social movements? They simply preferred to ally with the corporatist politics of the Democratic Party rather than with labor? Or, is the failure to build these coalitions the consequence of the bureaucratization of unions in the post–Second World War period, which left labor completely unprepared or unwilling to confront the employers’ offensive against wages and working conditions that began in the 1970s and has only intensified with capitalist globalization. Only a militant, politicized, and inclusive labor movement ready to challenge corporate power would be interested in and capable of overcoming the many divisions within the working class in order to build an alliance with social movements.   

In the context of the increasing power of globalizing capital and the increasing disempowerment of the working class, U.S. politics drifted to the right. Yet, the bureaucratic leadership of unions has been contested both from within (for example, by the “social justice unionism” of the radicals who took over SEIU Local 1021 in San Francisco and the Chicago Teachers Union) and from without (such as by worker centers like the Chinese Progressive Association, and community-based organizing projects, like Make the Road in Brooklyn). And then of course there is the Fight for $15 movement and the successful campaigns to raise the minimum wage in many states and cities over the past five years.    

Although it is true that Bernie Sanders mobilized many people new to activism, the resonance of his message drew strength from previous instances of resistance, including Occupy and Black Lives Matter. These challenges—dismissed by Fraser as “outbursts”—weakened the edifice of neoliberal hegemony and prepared the ground for the explosion of the Sanders campaign. 

Finally, although I certainly agree that white working-class Trump voters were expressing anger at the elitist liberalism of the Democratic Party (and also at establishment Republicans whom they rejected in the primaries), I also think Fraser understates the degree to which whiteness and masculine privilege shaped how they understood and articulated their distress. As other writers have pointed out, the black and Latino working class have many reasons to fault the Clintons and their Democratic Party collaborators (welfare reform, the prison-industrial complex, deportations, and so on). Yet it was defections by white working-class Democrats in swing states that put Trump in office. Clearly, a majority of black and Latino workers could not afford to “look past” Trump’s hideous misogyny and racism. It was all too easy for working-class white men (and women) to do so. Let’s therefore reject the counterposition of “identity politics” to “class politics.” Let us instead critique liberal multiculturalism and liberal feminism, while advancing a socialist-feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist vision. And let us try to leave behind the sectarian divisions that have hampered us and seize the opportunity to build a new left.    

Johanna Brenner is the author of Women and the Politics of Class (Monthly Review Press, 2000). Her recent articles have appeared in Socialist Studies, Jacobin, Against the Current, and Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture.

Read Nancy Fraser’s original article and her reply to Johanna Brenner.  

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