The Logic of Capitalist Accumulation Explains Neoliberalism

Gary Gerstle’s new book The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order tackles important questions of the last century about democracy, economy, and war. But it fails to answer a basic question: why governments in capitalist democracies are compelled to serve capital.

President Bill Clinton speaks about the North American Free Trade Agreement at a town hall meeting on November 1, 1993. (Renaud Giroux / AFP via Getty Images)

How do we make sense of the last hundred years in the United States — an era of virtually uninterrupted warfare, layered with transformative social movements and bookended by devastating economic depressions? How, in turn, do we make sense of the politics of that century, of the ways in which political actors thought about or responded to those challenges and sought or engineered popular consent? And how do we make sense of the persistent tension, across this era, between capitalism and democracy? Gary Gerstle’s ambitious new book The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market Era tackles these important questions but, in many ways, also manages to avoid them.

Gerstle traces the historical arc of a “New Deal order” characterized by a durable political alignment, a compromise between capital and labor, and a “hegemonic belief in the value of government constraining markets,” and then — in greater detail — of a “neoliberal order” characterized by another durable political alignment, an assault on working people, and a blind faith in the ability of unfettered markets to order social and political life.1 In each case, the new “political order,” featuring both a coherent organizing vision and the power to bring others (including opposition parties) into line, is assembled in response to economic crisis — and to the political and intellectual failure of the old order to address that crisis.

The first two chapters trace the rise and fall of the New Deal order, and the story line is familiar. The New Deal is portrayed as a reluctant but powerful compromise that effectively marginalizes both small-government conservatives to the right and radicals to the left (within and outside the labor movement) and saves capitalism from itself. All this is solidified by the postwar threat of communism, which, in Gerstle’s view, commits Democrats and Republicans alike to both the national security state and the New Deal’s labor-capital accord. The fall comes a generation later, sparked by the economic travails of the 1970s, the reckoning of Vietnam, and the civil rights movement.

At this point, the neoliberals rushed into the political and intellectual breach. For Gerstle, this was an eclectic crowd — counting not just familiar free marketeers like Friedrich Hayek or Ludwig von Mises but also the individualist elements of the New Left and those (like Ronald Radosh and Murray Rothbard) who flirted with both. The neoliberal ascent was bolstered by a business counteroffensive, the development of a conservative political and intellectual infrastructure (the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society), the rollback of any meaningful constraints on money in politics, and the Ronald Reagan administration’s ability to reconcile social and economic conservatism. The triumph was completed as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s: the collapse of the Soviet Union removed the last intellectual obstacle or alternative to market fundamentalism (and any imperative for continued concessions to labor); and the Bill-Clinton-era “New Democrats,” shaped in equal parts by the cosmopolitanism of the New Left and the emancipatory promise of big tech, conceded what was left of the New Deal orthodoxy.

But it didn’t last. The political legitimacy of the ruling class was shaken by the disputed 2000 election, and partisan consensus at the center of the political order began to give way to bitter polarization. The September 11 attacks and the subsequent war and occupation in Iraq exposed the limits and hubris of American empire in the new century, and the Great Recession dramatically shattered the neoliberal fascination with deregulated markets, individual responsibility, and an “ownership society.” In the wreckage, as Gerstle suggests, we can discern significant dissent on the Left (Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter) and the Right (the Tea Party) but little clear sense — through the Donald Trump administration and beyond — as to what the next political order will look like.

There is much to recommend this learned and brisk political history of the last century. Rise and Fall joins a growing body of historical work that abandons (or at least interrogates) the stale categories of “liberal” and “conservative,” decenters the New Deal in our understanding of modern American political history, and takes seriously the market imperatives underlying our policy and political choices.2 At the same time, it is a frustratingly elusive and imprecise account. In many ways, it is a staunchly traditional political history, its focus rarely wavering from the actions and ideas of national political figures. The analysis is further narrowed by disciplinary blinders: in narrating the rise and fall of these political orders, Gerstle makes no effort to engage the considerable work in political sociology, political science, and Marxist state theory that assesses the same historical developments and asks the same questions.3 Why do governments in capitalist democracies do what they do? Under what conditions do they change what they are doing?

The explanatory limits of this kind of history are a symptom of its blow-by-blow fascination with the ebb and flow of national partisan politics and its relative neglect of the structural conditions and constraints under which policy choices are made. In capitalist democracies, political attention is routinely and reliably confined to policies that sustain the infrastructure of private markets (property rights, central banking), ensure the conditions for profitable economic growth, resolve conflicts and collective action problems among or between market interests, and defang any political threat posed by those getting the short end of the stick. Political deference to market relations is locked down by the disproportionate influence of “business interests,” which are uniquely positioned to make demands of the state and to assume that those demands will be met. All this effectively confines or imprisons the autonomy of political actors, political parties, or “political orders.”4 Those political orders may disagree on the details and on the social division of rewards and benefits, but they are still inescapably handmaidens to accumulation.

In Rise and Fall, Gerstle devotes a lot of attention to intellectual innovations and ideological constraints. The high priests of neoliberal economics are always waiting in the wings, finally settling in at the University of Chicago and then “branching out from there into public policy and politics.”5 The anticommunist imperative hems in Democrats and Republicans alike and then, when it evaporates in the late 1980s, emboldens the right wing in both parties. The Clintonian New Democrats came to market fundamentalism by way of the emancipatory individualism of the New Left. All this is superficially true, but such ideological formulations have little causal weight; they might have helped legitimize or rationalize policies, but they didn’t create them. Paeans to liberty or freedom were both ubiquitous and empty. As a constraint on politics, domestic anticommunism was more a cynical ploy than a response to a genuine threat.6 Neoliberal economists rose to prominence because their ideas became useful, not because they persuaded politicians or voters of the virtues of market fundamentalism.

The “political orders” traced by Gerstle have more in common than he lets on; they mark not the retreat or advance of market principles but varieties of market fundamentalism calibrated to particular constraints and circumstances. New Deal innovations in economic regulation, labor law, and taxation were necessitated by the Great Depression and sustained (as Gerstle acknowledges) by the unique domestic and global economic conditions of the postwar era. But the provision of public goods or economic security was still remarkably timid by international standards, and the benefits flowed largely (if unevenly) to white male breadwinners in core industrial occupations.7 Across wide swaths of policy, deference to private markets, often deeply racialized, was pointed and systematic. These were not just unfortunate lapses or reluctant political concessions; they were a central organizing principle of the New Deal order.8

Consider social policy, a topic — from its New Deal origins through the end of welfare in the 1990s — that Gerstle touches on only in passing. In their logic and their reach, federal social programs were designed from the outset to dovetail with both materialist expectations and the demands of local and regional labor markets.9 The core social insurance programs rested on labor force participation and the expectation that private benefits (especially health care) would pick up most of the burden.10 Cash assistance was left largely to the states, a concession — in both policy design and administration — that gave state and local officials wide discretion as to eligibility, benefits, and disciplinary sanctions.11 The postwar trajectory of social policy only reaffirmed and hardened these premises, especially after the welfare rights movement challenged its racial underpinnings.

The neoliberal era marked a dramatic “risk shift,” as changes in both public policy and employment relations eroded conventional sources of economic security. But this was scarcely, as Gerstle would have it, a retreat of the state and a triumph of the market. Increasingly, social policies redeployed state resources to create and sustain opportunities for private accumulation, absorb and socialize the costs of market failure, and impose market discipline and expectations on workers and families. The task of imposing these incentives and disciplining those who failed to meet them required more state effort, not less. Neoliberalism, as its social and carceral policies underscore, had little interest in lifting the heavy hand of the state; it just brought it down in different ways and in different places.12 “It requires statecraft and repression,” as Fred Block notes, “to impose the logic of the market and its attendant risks on ordinary people.”13

Or consider housing policy. Gerstle cites George W. Bush’s promotion of an “ownership society” centered on private investments in housing as an exemplar of neoliberalism.14 But steep subsidies of homeownership, housing markets, and the local politics of growth have been a hallmark of federal housing and urban policy since the 1930s. The Federal Housing Administration and its successors accommodated and institutionalized the goals and values of private realty — even in their most racist and predatory forms.15 Across this span, political commitments to public housing lasted only long enough to clear “blighted” central cities for private redevelopment.16 Building houses, and building wealth through home equity, have always been core policy goals. Gerstle is quite right to see the Great Recession as a brutal interruption of this logic, but I am unconvinced that the response — Occupy Wall Street on the Left, Tea Partiers on the Right — has done much to change it.

Just as Gerstle’s account glides by policies (like welfare and housing) that don’t fit neatly into his political orders, Rise and Fall barely touches on jurisdictional realignment: the growing importance of state politics and policy in shaping both the “fall” of the New Deal and the emergence of alternatives. Neoliberalism has been accompanied by devolution, rendering national policies and national political alignments less and less important. In some respects, devolution is a neoliberal strategy, an effort to offload political responsibilities onto units of governance without the capacity to handle them. More broadly, polarized gridlock in national politics has pushed policy down to the states, a setting where stable trifecta control is more reliable, where organized interests can run roughshod over understaffed (and often part-time) legislatures, and where the political clout of economic interests is exaggerated by the threat of exit.17

Indeed, much of what comprises the neoliberal assault on the New Deal — including the diminution of collective bargaining rights for public and private sector workers, the emergence of “workfare,” regulation of the employment relationship, basic labor standards, and the starvation (or privatization) of public services — has taken place in the states.18 While the federal response to the Great Recession carried with it (at least briefly) hints of the New Deal, states largely doubled down on neoliberal austerity.19 Neoliberalism (and whatever takes its place) are at best patchwork political orders in which broad ideological dispositions are overlaid with fragmented political and policy institutions. Whatever the contours or coherence of any national political realignment, as the four long years of Donald Trump underscored, substantive policy decisions are more likely to come out of statehouses than out of Washington, DC.

For all the invocations of novelty — New Deal, neoliberal, New Democrat, New Federalism — the continuities outweigh the changes. Partisan configurations (Dwight Eisenhower’s accommodation of the New Deal, Bill Clinton’s embrace of neoliberalism) mark coherent political orders less than they do the peculiar weakness of American party politics as a mechanism for organizing consent or representation. On this score, Gerstle overstates the extent and the sincerity of working-class support for Ronald Reagan, and then for Trump. The modern Republican Party has proven adept at mobilizing economic and racial resentments and at riding bait-and-switch social issues to electoral success. But if such voters are suspicious or resentful of “big government,” it is only because it has failed them and their families so spectacularly.20 In a context in which neither national party offers a solution to precarious employment and crushing inequality, it is hard to hold up electoral outcomes as popular confirmation of any particular policy or political direction. “The real story was not so much the ideological, passionate emergence of the free-market right and its efforts to remake the social order,” as Kim Phillips-Fein argues. “It was the crisis of the liberal state, which faced serious internal challenges regardless of the assaults on it from outside.”21

In the end, Gerstle cannot help but view the last century through Roosevelt-tinted glasses. The New Deal is the moral and political benchmark of this account, an assessment that sticks despite its market deference, racist concessions, and narrow ambit of economic security. After the 1970s, neoliberal policies abandoned that pretense of economic security, yielding increasingly precarious employment and yawning inequality. It’s hard to disagree with this characterization, at least in broad strokes. But it understates the precarity and repression experienced by many (if not most) working families across the entire arc of this story. And it understates the threat posed by market fundamentalism, not just to economic security but to social and political citizenship. The hallmark of neoliberalism, after all, is not simply its fascination with unfettered markets but its willingness to pursue economic freedoms at the expense of political freedoms. The embrace of the market as efficient, moral, and just yields a narrowly contractual concept of citizenship in which gainful employment crowds out any other sources of reciprocity or solidarity.22

While Rise and Fall exaggerates the coherence of the New Deal and neoliberal orders, as well as the practical distance between them, it nicely captures the larger historical context, the political incoherence, and the danger of our current moment. Battered by the market and persistently disappointed by political solutions, Americans are increasingly suspicious of both. Politics on the Right is now largely occupied by the mobilization and exaggeration of those suspicions — a tack that yields some electoral success but is devoid of any programmatic vision or goals. In full recognition of the poverty of those politics, all this is accompanied by efforts to demobilize opposition by starving public goods and strangling the franchise.23 This might mark the dawn of a new political order, but, in practice and consequence, it seems more like the persistence of the old — albeit stripped of any pretense of popular consent, ideological consistency, or concern for the common good.

About the Author

Colin Gordon is a professor of history at University of Iowa.