Media

New Republic Gets Dose Of Its Own Neoliberal Medicine

The publication denied the existence of disaster capitalism. Then Chris Hughes turned a crisis into an opportunity.

The New Republic is going through major change as its new owner, Facebook billionaire Chris Hughes, has brought on Gawker alumnus Gabriel Snyder to helm the publication. Snyder reportedly wants to refashion the money-losing entity into a streamlined, clickable, online outfit capable of competing with sites like Buzzfeed. This plan prompted two of the magazine's senior staffers—editor-in-chief Franklin Foer and literary editor Leon Wieseltier —to resign, and has moved the magazine from Washington to New York City while drastically reducing plans for print issues.

Hughes’ plans provoked predictable howls of protest from many of the magazine's staffers, with around 65% quitting in protest. Their central complaint was summarized by a former staffer who told PandoDaily they were worried TNR was being turned “into another Buzzfeed,” driven by profitability of the content rather than some larger cultural narrative. Indeed, the magazine’s base had been reduced to 50,000 subscribers, and while we don't know what Snyder's makeover will look like just yet, trying to drive the magazine toward the Internet-age of clickbait headlines and viral content would boost its bottom line.

The irony is that while a cast of scribes clamor about a Silicon Valley uber-capitalist’s rapacious ways, the magazine has itself promoted neoliberal economics for decades, castigating those who worried about the unleashing of market forces that created widespread job insecurity. With the Hughes-Snyder makeover, in ways its staff refuses to acknowledge, TNR is getting a dose of its own medicine.

TNR's Love Of Disaster Capitalism For Others, Not For Itself

Contributing editor Jonathan Chait, who no longer regularly writes for the magazine but has a perch at New York Magazine, was one of those who asked TNR to remove his name from the masthead. Chait was offended by the idea of upending TNR's tradition to turn to Internet-based profitability, though he never showed such regard for other workers facing off with neoliberal tradition.

In 2008, he wrote a TNR review of Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Klein’s book explains how neoliberal economic policies like downsizing, deregulating and mergers are implemented beneath a cover of political crisis and reform, or what is known as disaster capitalism. To Chait, the book was evidence of a “Dead Left” that was tied to a “classic Marxist-materialist analysis.” He chided Klein for castigating right-wing planners for exploiting tragedies, writing that she “repeatedly implies that there is something immoral about using crises to advance the right-wing agenda without explaining why this is so.” He mocks the idea of the corporate accountability left-wing that protests business outrages, declaring with contempt that it once believed “the most sinister force on the planet...was Nike.” To Chait, the idea of disaster capitalism was just a “conspiracy theory” that “lacks internal logic.”

Chait mocked critics of the Facebook economy in a 2011 post at New York Magazine, writing that there “is a reason the movement is called 'Occupy Wall Street,' not 'Occupy Main Street' or 'Occupy Silicon Valley.' It is no doubt because most of the participants, or sympathizers, understand that Wall Street is not the same thing as free enterprise — that it is one element that, unlike Apple, poses a unique threat to the functioning of the free marketplace. If you define the problem as 'corporations,' then you lose the capacity to make these distinctions.”

From Chait’s perspective, the ethos that Big Business and Silicon Valley apply to reshape the global economy is good, as long as you don’t apply it to his treasured magazine. 

The case of former TNR editor Peter Beinart is similar. Back when he was on the fast-track to being TNR’s senior editor, a handpicked acolyte of publisher Marty Peretz, Beinart denigrated opponents of “free trade” agreements and global trade rules that expanded corporate rights as the “flat earth and black helicopter crowd.” Beinart said “the anti-globalization movement” was motivated by hatred of the United States” and promoted neoliberal trade policy as necessary for human betterment. 

Now that the same philosophy of unfettered monopoly capitalism is being applied to the magazine that brought him fame and renown, Beinart is apoplectic, joining the ranks of contributing editors submitting their resignations and signing onto letters complaining that Hughes is overseeing the magazine's “destruction” with his restructuring program. 

The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza was the first of the contributing editors to ask for his name to be removed from the masthead. He was also behind a 1999 hit piece in TNR that attempted to link free-trade critics to South Carolina textile magnate Roger Milliken, arguing that the movement was really about enhancing Milliken's profits as a textile importer, not about genuine opposition to a project that would produce record-level inequality and hollow out the middle class.

There were few tenets of neoliberalism TNR did not endorse at one point or another, no matter how absurd or self-parodying. One piece from 2012 focused on a Cinnabon franchise in Benghazi, Libya to “explain” the Arab world, and by extension, to cheerlead a Western military intervention that has transformed Libya into a playground for petty warlords and jihadists. The same year, a piece by Lydia DePillis (who is now at the Washington Post) half-seriously called for Silicon Valley corporations to sign their own internal “free trade agreement” to ensure that she could use all the same apps on different products. 

In its final throes, Foer and senior editor Noam Scheiber published searing indictments of Silicon Valley institutions like Amazon and Uber. But by then, TNR had established its neoliberal brand and inadvertently signed its own death warrant. After the magazine denied the very existence of the Shock Doctrine, Chris Hughes decided to turn a crisis into an opportunity.

The Newer Republic

None of this is to say that the new TNR will be worse for journalism or for America than the old one. After all, this was a magazine owned for more than three decades by an open racist who mused that “Muslim life is cheap”; which endorsed Joseph Lieberman for president and supported the contras in Central America; which promoted the advancement of the war in Iraq and published screeds baselessly accusing Israel's critics of anti-Semitism. Perhaps Hughes and Snyder may be able to inject new blood into a magazine that has too often represented the viewpoints of a narrow band of white elites against those of a rapidly diversifying American public.

But the irony here is that the writers who are so loudly protesting change today were advocates of those same sorts of shifts in the economy that impacted regular people who didn’t have the benefit or security of a sinecure at an elite magazine. The World Trade Organization, NAFTA and the wider Facebook economy have undermined job security, basic benefits and social stability for literally billions of people. Neoliberalism began by disrupting the lives of ordinary workers, and now it's starting to disrupt the disrupters.

Zaid Jilani is an AlterNet staff writer. Follow @zaidjilani on Twitter.

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