In Australia and New Zealand, I was often asked after my lectures whether I thought Trump was a neoliberal. I answered that since neoliberalism is a specific set of ideas, it was unlikely to be within Trump’s grasp. Then, on a more serious note, I said that I really don’t think he is neoliberal and that I would actually prefer standard neoliberalism to Trump. Indeed, that preference guided my vote for Hillary Clinton, the virtual incarnation of neoliberalism, over Trump.
If we grant for the moment that Trump is not neoliberal, how does the Trump phenomenon stand in relationship to neoliberalism? The most common narrative seems to be that neoliberalism atomizes the social body, leading to a right-wing explosion of nationalism or other revanchist forms of social identification. In this narrative, the right-wing reaction is somehow external to neoliberalism — it just so happens that these national or racial identities persist from previous eras, as it were — but necessarily entailed as a predictable backlash. This narrative strikes me as a variation on the well-known theory that racial and national identities are extrinsic “distractions” from the reality of economic exploitation.
I don’t find that narrative very satisfying as an answer. Perhaps it’s just my desire for conceptual elegance, but it feels very cobbled together. And it’s not clear why it should start from the assumption that national and racial identities are extrinsic to either capitalism in general or neoliberalism in particular. Under neoliberalism, national and sub-national groupings are very explicitly placed in competition with each other. Free trade produces a “level playing field” so that cheap Chinese labor can compete directly with expensive American labor, for instance. Within each country, a formal colorblindness prevents reserving jobs for particular racial groups, at least de jure if not always de facto, leading to a similar “level playing field” wherein less privileged ethnic groups, whose members are more tolerant of harder work or lower pay, will tend to beat out more privileged ethnic groups who believe they deserve better but don’t have anything concretely better to offer. This often results in a de facto racial caste system in certain types of jobs — as illustrated anecdotally in a sign I once saw posted at a Thai restaurant looking for a dishwasher, which was written in garbled Spanish, as though only Latino people do that kind of work.
As in all previous eras of capitalism, that is to say, national and racial identities are directly articulated into economic outcomes. They are in no sense leftovers from previous eras — both the nation-state and the modern concept of race emerged together with nascent capitalism, and both have always been intrinsic to its functioning. Only in the toy models of economists has it ever been different.
It’s also unsatisfying because what Trump supporters are protesting is not a vague feeling of social ennui. They are not asserting a desire to be part of something bigger than themselves in an individualistic culture. They are contesting the way that specifically economic benefits are parcelled out on racial and national grounds. The figure of the immigrant — who is both racially other (from a white perspective) and foreign competition (from a US perspective) — helpfully congeals both complaints into one. Trump supporters do not want the state to preserve the level playing field within its own economy and be open to international competition from without. They want the state to directly pick economic winners and losers on racial and national grounds.
The disadvantageous competitors must be expelled from the national space, while barriers must be set up to international competition (reversing free trade trends). These desires are not racial and national as opposed to properly economic. They represent a different economy of race and nation from the neoliberal hegemony of the last forty years. The racism and nationalism aren’t distractions from some economic reality, but form the basis for a rearticulation of economic reality. The fact that establishing that new economic reality will require violence — perhaps even terrible violence — is no counterargument, because the establishment of every mutation of capitalism, up to and very emphatically including neoliberalism, has required violence.
Is this a predictable reaction to neoliberalism? Insofar as it has been brewing for decades now, it is in fact predictable, even if its success in the present juncture is very surprising and seemingly disproportionate. But I’m not sure that means it is a necessary reaction to neoliberalism or is somehow entailed by it. In fact, given the origins of neoliberalism in the aftermath of fascism and the internationalist/cosmopolitan bent of neoliberal projects such as the EU, it is a deeply ironic reaction to neoliberalism.
In any case, now that it’s “on the table,” as it were, it seems impossible to go back naively to neoliberalism or to view something like Trump as a mere episode or temper tantrum. It is a political-economic vision. It may seem simplistic, but from a certain perspective neoliberalism is pretty simplistic — that’s what makes it so powerful. The answer, if there is one, is to recognize it as a political-economic vision and articulate an equally powerful alternative vision.