The neoliberal case for Bernie

Mar 07 2020
Progressive Realism

Why neoliberals should love Bernie

Three months ago, on the website Counterpunch, Richard Ward wrote that Bernie Sanders is “the one possible challenger to the neoliberal order.” That status, he went on to assert, accounted for the timing of the Senate impeachment trial; it was the neoliberal order’s way of keeping Sanders off the campaign trail. I can only imagine what Ward thought this week after the Democratic establishment swung into action to convert Joe Biden’s victory in South Carolina into victory on Super Tuesday.   

If Biden’s resurrection was indeed in some sense the work of the “neoliberal order,” the effort may have been misguided. However qualified Sanders is to overthrow that order, he’s also qualified—maybe uniquely qualified—to save the things about it that many neoliberals profess to cherish, things that may otherwise suffer a grim fate.

To see what I mean, you have to first appreciate an odd thing about the word “neoliberal.” Unlike most ideological labels, it is claimed by virtually no one. It’s used mainly as a pejorative, typically to mean something like “a free market fundamentalist who happily does the bidding of corporate overlords, helping them run roughshod over the world’s working people.” And that’s not the kind of phrase you put in your LinkedIn profile.   

But even if no one wears the neoliberal label proudly, and even if the term is now thrown around so loosely as to make it unclear who really merits the label, it’s possible to apply it with some precision. If you follow the term “neoliberal” back to the 1990s, you’ll find it referring to a distinct set of policies—policies collectively called “the Washington consensus”—and an underlying philosophy. Adherents of that philosophy are still around, and many of them—neoliberals in a precise and not-necessarily-pejorative sense—are now being called neoliberals in the vaguer, pejorative sense.

These are the people I’m calling neoliberals, and here is the point I want to make about them: If their detractors are right—if they are mere tools of rapacious capitalism, cloaking their true motives in liberal cliches—then they should definitely oppose Sanders. But if their goals are the more high-minded ones that they profess, Sanders may be their man and Joe Biden may not.

Interviews

Freeman Dyson (1923—2020)

The New York Times obituary of the physicist Freeman Dyson, who died last week, includes such characterizations as “iconoclast,” “heretic,” “visionary,” and “religious, but in an unorthodox way.” All of that and more came through in an interview I did with Dyson two decades ago (one of the very first video interviews I ever did, back at the dawn of online video). Below is a mildly edited transcript of the interview. Reading it, I was reminded how eclectically adventurous Dyson was--jumping from the Gaia hypothesis to an eccentric definition of God to the idea that the universe involves “three levels of mind” and to many other things. I was also reminded what a nice person he was.

ROBERT WRIGHT: First of all, thanks very much for letting me come talk to you here today. I've never been within the walls of the Institute for Advanced Study before, and I feel kind of privileged. It has a kind of mystique about it. Do you find that people react to it that way?

FREEMAN DYSON: Well, I tried to demolish this aura of sanctity that surrounds the place. What it is basically is a motel with stipends. ... It's just a place where young people come from all over the world and are given a year or two with pay.

A somewhat more selective admissions policy than some motels have. Right?

Yes. But still that's basically what it is. Mostly the important thing is what they do when they get home, not what they do while they're here.

I see. But there have been—I mean, Einstein, von Neumann and so on—there have been a lot of people thinking deep cosmic thoughts here, right?

Yes, but that's not really what the place is for, that's accidental.

It's not for cosmic thoughts really?

Well, if you're lucky, of course you get a few of those. ...

You, in any event, have been doing your share of thinking cosmic thoughts.

Not very much.

Well, I don't know. Let's do a brief review. 

Readings

In the New York Times, Peter S. Goodman writes that the coronavirus has “accelerated and intensified the pushback to global connection,” heightening fears about immigration and exposing the vulnerability of global supply chains. And the pushback may be just beginning. As Jeet Heer notes on Twitter, Trump’s initial, optimistic messaging strategy—Don’t worry, we’re on top of this—may soon give way to xenophobic, anti-globalization fear mongering. Secretary of State Pompeo has already started calling the virus the “Wuhan virus.”

Elizabeth Preston reports in Quanta that the aquatic salamander known as the axolotl—which looks even weirder than its name suggests—has now had its genome fully sequenced. The resulting knowledge could someday give humans a quintessentially axolotlic skill: the ability to regenerate lost body parts

In Fast Company, tech writer Harry McCracken takes a look at the presidential campaign of 1996, “the first to be fought on the web.” It wasn’t a momentous battle; most voters weren’t on the web, and “nobody in politics was an expert on leveraging its power.” McCracken says the candidates’ websites were “eyesores…even by 1996 standards”—and a perusal of them provides some supporting evidence. But I was most struck by the air of innocence and earnestness. The home page of Phil Gramm’s site declares, “We have established this presence on the internet in the interest of providing a wide range of news and information that will interest those who are already involved in our campaign and those who want to learn more about our efforts.” That it took only 20 years to get from there to 2016—when the web was a battleground of bot-abetted, microtargeted deception—is sobering.  

The Trump administration’s support of the bloodless coup that deposed Bolivian President Evo Morales hasn’t wavered amid the repression unleashed by his military-installed successor, to judge by a piece in the Washington Post. And, to judge by another Post piece, the justification for that coup is looking even shakier than before. A statistical analysis by two MIT scholars casts doubt on the claim that there were “voting irregularities” suggestive of foul play by Morales.  

I’ve never been good at lovingkindness (“metta”) meditation. (People who know me aren’t mystified by this.) In Tricycle, Thai forest monk Ajahn Brahm suggests that metta-challenged meditators like me start the practice by imagining a kitten. No way, dude. But I’m willing to try a dog. Anyway, this short article is linked to Tricycle’s annual Meditation Month—a challenge to commit to 31 days of (not-necessarily-metta) meditation, along with a package of materials that help. 

In the New York Times, Alex Stone looks at a demographic of growing interest to scholars of marketing: people who are consistently drawn to new products that will wind up bombing in the marketplace. These “harbingers of failure” may someday be used by companies to abort the launch of doomed products (whose past examples include Crystal Pepsi, Watermelon Oreos, and Cheetos Lip Balm.) Apparently there are whole zip codes whose residents seem to have this sixth sense. 

The recent peace deal between the US and the Taliban looked tenuous this week as Taliban attacks on Afghan government targets brought American counterattack. John Glaser of the Cato Institute argues that the deal will remain fragile so long as the US continues to make compliance with it conditional on constructive engagement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, rather than acknowledge the limits of American leverage.     

On the Wright Show, I interviewed alleged Bernie Bro David Klion, author of a tweet so notorious that Mike Bloomberg featured it in an ad implicitly aimed at Bernie Bros. I thought I had convinced Klion that it would be a good idea to tone down his more hyperbolic, tribalistic tweets, but a few days later he tweeted this. Sigh.