It may seem strange to resurrect a neoconservative thinker to address questions of neoliberalism, yet Irving Kristol’s largely forgotten Two Cheers for Capitalism (1978) helps us understand the turn to ‘progressive neoliberalism’ as well as enabling a different critique of neoliberalism.
Neoconservatism offers a unique perspective. Comprised of those who had grown up within the socialist left, neoconservative circles moved into a rapprochement with capitalism as part of what was termed liberal bourgeois capitalism and democracy. It was precisely this realignment, from socialist to capitalist, from left to right that gave the neocons a unique insight into capitalism and more so into the forms of neoliberalism we see today.
Neocons were not free market neoliberal capitalists nor, as bourgeois liberals, open to the offerings of what has been labeled ‘progressive neoliberalism.’ Drawing on EM Forster’s “two cheers for democracy”, Kristol states: “A capitalist society does not want more than two cheers for itself. Indeed, it regards the impulse to give three cheers for any social, economic, or political system as expressing a dangerous –because it is misplaced–enthusiasm.”[i] Here in many ways is what can be termed the neoconservative starting point, that is, in Kristol’s famous phrase: “A neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality.” This is why neocons are anti-utopian, aiming at most for “a society of civil concord, not a community of mutual love.”[ii] In contrast, neoliberalism seeks varying forms of utopianism, both economically and socially.
Our starting point is that, in contrast to neocons, neoliberals opposed the central role of bourgeois virtue in bourgeois capitalism that began from a basis in Judeo-Christian morality and arose out of a Puritan-Protestant ethos and society. Because its moral capital has been depleted over the past 150 years, bourgeois society found itself without any legitimate basis. This societal change gave rise to neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism expresses anti-bourgeois sentiment, whether on the right in the economic neoliberalism arising from Hayek and Friedman, or on the left in progressive neoliberalism. To understand this, we need to consider the role played by Foucault’s lectures published as The Birth of Biopolitics and his notions of agency that spread across liberal arts colleges and Ivy League universities in the 1970s and 1980s and beyond.
Consider the incendiary effect of this statement by Foucault from Lecture 5, 1979: “What is at stake is whether a market economy can in fact serve as the principle, form, and model for a state which, because of its defects, is mistrusted by everyone on both the right and the left, for one reason or another”.[iii] Foucault’s social shift became the playbook of progressive neoliberalism: “what is sought is not a society subject to the commodity effect, but a society subject to competition. Not a supermarket society but an enterprise society. The Homo oeconomicus sought is not the man of exchange or man the consumer; he is the man of enterprise and production.”[iv]
This is agency for a purpose: the meaning offered by neoliberalism is the transcendence of doing and producing. Drawing his own conclusions from reformulating Hayek’s Why I Am Not A Conservative, Foucault argues for a liberalism that can offer the type of utopia that socialism is unable to; for “it is up to us to create liberal utopias, to think in a liberal mode, rather than presenting liberalism as technical alternative to government.”[v] For Foucault, the neoliberal is “an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself”[vi] wherein Liberalism must be “a general style of thought, analysis and imagination.”[vii]
Such entrepreneurship, notes Kristol in discussing neoliberalism, expands beyond economics because the more affluent and freer a society, the more the responsibility of coping with “’existential’ human needs – with the life of the psyche, and of the spirit’ falls to the individual.”[viii] Capitalism in itself doesn’t provide the meaning humanity requires, and the underlying moral tradition is increasingly absent. Existential or transcendent meaning is now the ‘work’ of the individual within ‘the spiritual malaise’ of the end of liberal bourgeois society.
The 1970s saw the growth and rise of ‘the New Class’ who, except in economics, were more truly libertarian than liberal. Because corporate capitalism provided having but not being, the New Class, having taken care of having, now looked for being. That is, they sought the transcendental element that in the past was provided by the moral tradition in religion and culture. Having left religion and traditional high culture behind, the new class turned to forms of Foucault’s technology of the self. They now complemented ‘capitalist having’ with ‘neoliberal being’.
Kristol foresaw a tension due to the incompatibility of values shaped by human memories with “the ‘values’ shaped by technological innovation and shaped by emerging technological possibilities”.[ix] The common ‘keystone’ of emerging neoliberal economics and society was the belief that happiness was the outcome of individual utility choices in a free market, a belief that before modernity did not exist and would have been considered “shockingly pathological and perverse.”[x]
In other words, neoliberal society is a combination of two elements. On the economic side, it involves a break with the past that outsources all choices and outcomes to the individual. On the political side, there is a focus on a libertarian New Left question of agency that seeks to combine what were separate elements of tastes and preferences with underpinnings in wisdom.
In contrast to its current claims of revolutionary politics, the New Left is understood by Kristol as counter-revolutionary action, because, while it situates itself “as some kind of progressive extension of modernity,” it is actually “a reactionary revulsion against modernity.”[xi] This is because the New Left “implicitly rejects both the bourgeois-liberal and the Old Left idea of the common good” and so also rejects “ the ideological presuppositions of modernity itself.”[xii] The result is what we experience today as identity politics and cancel culture.
It is in this context that Friedman’s market romanticism with its central call for individual liberty finds willing adherents. But neo-liberal liberty is not underpinned by any collective virtues, which is why, when it is combined with the effects of the New Left, Kristol proclaimed (and did so in italics for emphasis): “The enemy of liberal capitalism today is not so much socialism as nihilism. Only liberal capitalism doesn’t see nihilism as the enemy, but rather as just another splendid business opportunity.”[xiii]
This meant that an economic system became a social system wherein business was reduced to the pursuit of affluence. Business now began justifying its rights and prerogatives because it claimed it could perform tasks more efficiently than government. But, Kristol warned, efficiency is amoral in ethos and outcomes.
The tension is that a free or an efficient society is not the same as a just one. A free society is, however, also not the same as a capitalist one, because bourgeois capitalism saw itself as a just social order arising out of the Puritan-Protestant-capitalist ethic. The problem Kristol identified was that the dynamics of capitalism unleashed an inner spiritual chaos. While bourgeois capitalism provided a moral substance to draw upon, both neoliberalism and the New Left sought a free society that gave rise to ‘free spirits’. However, too many of these ‘free spirits’ lacked a moral substance to draw upon, having rejected the existing moral order for being too tightly entwined with bourgeois capitalism.
A paradoxical situation developed whereby, lacking a common moral substance to draw upon and with which to validate themselves, the most successful citizens, those who were ‘free spirits’ economically and socially, became disenchanted and discontented. This was the legacy of the 1960s white middle-class counter-culture, especially when it gave rise to the yuppies of the 1970s and 1980s. From the top down, society began to lose stability and common purpose in morality and politics. This arose out of the nihilistic communalism of the New Left with its “insistence that, under capitalism, the individual must be free to create their own morality.”[xiv] We could say as an aside that Bill Clinton became the living embodiment of this ethos, while Trump became Clinton’s perverse, inverse mirror image.
Kristol criticized the singular turn to the profit-motive in liberal capitalism, asking: what does it mean to live in a society with such a focus on material gain and self-interest? His answer was that such a society, celebrating selfishness and self-seeking as its primary virtues, lacked any religious and philosophical basis that would make it fit for human existence.
Such is the main sickness of the social order we find ourselves within. For, ‘the self’ realized under liberal capital now despises this regime and uses its liberty to subvert and abolish a free society. This is the origin of the contemporary cancel culture of progressive neoliberalism, as well as the earlier expression of political correctness that arose amongst the 20th-century New Left and their inheritors.
Society is offered today a market-driven and market-derived definition of distributive justice aligned with a New Left “pre-liberal proposition – that to be good is to be free.”[xv] But here the sense of ‘to be good’ comes to be expressed by progressive neoliberalism. Because, in Kristol’s view, “neoliberalism is the ethos of not only a post-Christian society but actually an anti-Christian society”, central to neoliberalism is the rebellion against tradition: culturally, societally, religiously, morally and economically. In this, Kristol is correct to label the New Left counterculture as post-modernist “as it is alienated from the modern tradition,”[xvi] but he fails to articulate the thought that neoliberalism is economically post-modernist, too.
Because progressive neoliberalism no longer believes in socialism, we get a utopian neoliberal religion mixing it with identity politics: the technology of the self. At the same time, progressive neoliberalism fails the test of Friedman’s political freedom – “the absence of coercion”[xvii] – whether by governments or our fellow human beings. Friedman, with his central belief in the rational human being, argues for putting our faith in a consensus reached by people recognizing their imperfections and limitations, but willing to undertake free discussion that includes learning by trial and error. Friedman believed we should not, via coercive force, impose our taste and attitudes on others, but rather seek change through the power of persuasion. If we consider contemporary society, whether economically or socially, this has not happened.
Already in 1994, in the wake of the first culture wars, Kristol warned of “a new spiritual and ideological conformity that rushes in where liberals fear to tread”.[xviii] He saw this as the legacy of utopian-socialist communities that had a religious core indoctrinating the young into their key values. But if you challenged or criticized those values or the community way of life, you faced the risk of expulsion. Here we see the roots of contemporary progressive neoliberal cancel culture.
The problem is that the utopian demand of both neoliberalism and the New Left negates any possibility for Friedman’s ‘common, rational, free discussion’. Instead, we find ourselves in a postmodern biopolitics of irrationality and enforced conformity.
The collapse of liberal bourgeois capitalism and its social order left the field open, first, to a new alliance and, more recently, to a new battle, between forms of neoliberalism: the progressive neoliberalism arising from the New Left, Foucault and the New Democrats versus what Nancy Fraser terms the “reactionary neoliberalism”[xix]of the Right and the Republican party. What aligns, yet also divides, them is that both are focused on the issue of recognition, not distribution.
We find ourselves left with a battle within post-bourgeois capitalism: a battle for agency. Neither side wishes to give up agency and return – even if such a return were possible – to liberal bourgeois capitalism. And neither side can see – nor wishes to see – an outside not just to capitalism but actually to neoliberal capitalism, other than forms of non-agential anti-democratic state capitalism. Threatened by neofascist populism, neoliberalism provisionally unites the middle and the upper classes, both economically and socially. In other words, the center is neoliberal. The question has become reduced to: what form of neoliberalism do you want?
[i] Kristol, Irving, Two Cheers for Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1978) p.ix.
[ii] Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, p.x
[iii] Foucault, Michel, in ‘Lecture 5, 7 February 1979’, The Birth of Biopolitics, ed. Michel Senellart; Trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) p.117.
[iv] Foucault, in Lecture 6, 14 February 1979, The Birth of Biopolitics, p.147.
[v] Foucault, in Lecture 9, 14 March 1979, The Birth of Biopolitics, p.219.
[vi] Foucault, in Lecture 9, 14 March 1979, The Birth of Biopolitics, p.226.
[vii] Foucault, in Lecture 9, 14 March 1979, The Birth of Biopolitics, p.219.
[viii] Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, p.xi.
[ix] Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, p.35.
[x] Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, p.59.
[xi] Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, p.60.
[xii] Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, p.62.
[xiii] Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, p.66.
[xiv] Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, p.69.
[xv] Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, p.69.
[xvi] Kristol, Irving, Neoconservatism. The Autobiography of an Idea (Chicago: Elephant paperback, 1999) p.137.
[xvii] Friedman, Milton, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962) p.15.
[xviii] Kristol, Neoconservatism, p.146.
[xix] Fraser, Nancy, “From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump – and Beyond” American Affairs Winter 2017 vol 1 no.4