Neoliberalism Is Being Rejected Around the World: Can Genuine Progressives Capitalize?

Is Mexico’s new president anything like Donald Trump? Only in that both represent a moment of global revolt

Andrés Manuel López Obrador waves to supporters at a rally in Mexico City.
Photo Credit: (Wikimedia Commons / ProtoplasmaKid)

When Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected president of Mexico earlier this month, many in the mainstream American media couldn’t help but see the left-wing candidate as the Donald Trump of Mexico.

“The parallels between Mr. López Obrador and President Trump are hard to ignore,” wrote the New York Times in its report on the former’s victory, describing both men as “tempestuous leaders” who lash out at enemies and “view the media with suspicion.” Alice Driver similarly observed on CNN.com that López Obrador “may well be, at least in terms of temperament, the Trump of south of the border.”

This rush to compare the two politicians in the media was met with some well-deserved scorn from the left. “Is the NY Times really this stupid?” asked the leftist magazine Jacobin on Facebook.

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Meanwhile, in the New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson, who accompanied López Obrador on three campaign trips, rejected the comparison. “Those who have compared his populism to Trump’s are fundamentally mistaken, in my view,” wrote Anderson, who explained that the Mexican president-elect’s populism is “built not on a hatred of ‘the other,’ or on a need to prevail at the expense of others, but rather on an intuitive faith that Mexicans can overcome their current reality with a redeployment of their most outstanding national traits — hard work, resourcefulness, pride, modesty, and bravery.”

The knee-jerk comparisons of the two leaders were lazy (albeit predictable), and lumping together politicians based on personality traits is typical of our current era of personality-driven politics, where the press often focuses more on a politician than his or her politics. (To be fair, it is hard not to focus on personality when discussing President Trump, whose politics seem inseparable from his personality.)

READ MORE: Donald Trump's startling global agenda: Taking white supremacy worldwide

At the same time, however, it seems fair to point out that Trump and López Obrador both represent what the Times described as “a global repudiation of the establishment." Indeed, this fact could actually help to distinguish between the two leaders (along with other populist leaders) and their competing worldviews. While they stand on opposite sides of the political spectrum, both Trump and López Obrador are part of the global revolt against what critics call neoliberalism, and this is important for understanding our current era.

The past 30-plus years has been defined by the political project of neoliberalism, spearheaded by the U.S. government and international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, with the utopian aim of creating a global capitalist economy perfectly guided by the invisible hand of the market (for neoliberals and free-market fundamentalists, the invisible hand is an almost divine concept, worshipped in economics departments around the country). The neoliberal era peaked in the 1990s, and in America it was Democratic President Bill Clinton who accomplished neoliberal “reforms” that right-wingers had long dreamed of, including financial deregulation, NAFTA and “ending welfare as we knew it” (he would probably have privatized Social Security too had it not been for Monica Lewinsky).

Though the 1990s is often remembered as the beginning of our hyper-partisan age (demonstrated by the Clinton impeachment scandal), the irony is that Democrats and Republicans became closer than ever before on economic issues during this decade. The “Washington consensus” dominated this period, and it took a Democrat to pass a Republican trade deal and other conservative economic policies. (Not surprisingly, the Democratic Party’s shift to the right simply resulted in the GOP shifting even further to the right.)

Neoliberalism was a global project advanced by economic elites. Not surprisingly, then, the neoliberal policies of the past few decades have benefited those who pushed for them, creating enormous wealth for the richest individuals while leaving the world grossly unequal. According to Oxfam, 82 percent of the wealth created in 2017 went to the top one percent, while the poorest half got nothing. In America alone, inequality is at historic levels and more than 40 million people live in poverty; a UN report from last month notes that the U.S. “now has one of the lowest rates of intergenerational social mobility of any of the rich countries,” and zip codes “are tragically reliable predictors of a child’s future employment and income prospects.”

In Europe, Latin America, Asia and the United States, the status quo is no longer acceptable to a populace that has been betrayed time and again throughout the neoliberal era. Leaders who represent this status quo are being thrown out of office left and right. Those who have challenged the “establishment” have been labeled “populists” by the press, of course, and thus are categorized more for what they stand against than what they stand for (this would be like identifying the Soviet Union and the U.S. for their anti-fascism, rather than their communism or capitalism).

Some dispute the characterization of right-wing populists as anti-neoliberal, and correctly point out that most of the Trump administration’s economic policies have actually been neoliberalism on steroids (e.g., the GOP tax bill, deregulation, etc.). Right-wing populism is purely about racism and xenophobia, these critics insist, and to make it about economics is to ignore these ugly realities. But as Thomas Frank pointed out in The Guardian back in 2016, “trade may be [Trump’s] single biggest concern -- not white supremacy.”

“It seems to obsess him,” wrote Frank, who watched several hours of Trump’s speeches. “The destructive free-trade deals our leaders have made, the many companies that have moved their production facilities to other lands, the phone calls he will make to those companies’ CEOs in order to threaten them with steep tariffs unless they move back to the US.”

Say what you will about Trump’s tendency to lie and spew falsehoods, but on the issue of trade he has actually been pretty consistent since entering the White House, and free trade is one of the staples of the neoliberal project. On the left, free trade deals like NAFTA and TPP have also been major talking points, as we saw with Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign in 2016. There are other economic issues where some agreement exists, and right-wing populist parties in Europe are even more likely to be anti-neoliberal on economic issues. Marine Le Pen’s National Front, for example, opposed austerity cuts and promised to increase welfare for the working class (at least for French citizens), while lowering the retirement age and increasing tariffs to benefit French companies (and, the claim goes, workers too).

Still, the left- and right-wing alternatives to neoliberalism are poles apart, and the differences between left-populists like López Obrador and Sanders and right-populists like Trump and Le Pen are hard to overstate. To appreciate just how different their worldviews are, it is worth considering how the left and right have historically understood themselves in relation to the Enlightenment and modernity.

Throughout the modern era progressives and reactionaries have more or less rejected the status quo, with thinkers from both sides offering critiques of the modern world. The fundamental difference was that the left considered itself a part of the Enlightenment tradition, while the right was part of the “counter-Enlightenment” (this goes back to the French Revolution, when revolutionaries sat on the left side of the Estates General and royalists sat on the right).

The left criticized modernity not because it rejected the modern world, but because it saw the Enlightenment project as incomplete. Karl Marx praised the bourgeoisie and called capitalism a “great civilizing influence,” considering it to be a positive development in history. He also wrote the most influential critique of capitalism to date, and while he acknowledged that capitalism was progress over feudalism, he also believed that it must eventually be replaced with socialism to realize the goals of the Enlightenment. Put simply, Marx and other leftists believed in the idea of progress, long associated with the Enlightenment.

On the right, criticisms of modernity came from a very different perspective. Reactionaries did not see the modern world as progress over the pre-modern world; rather, they saw it as a decline. Driven by nostalgia and resentment, reactionaries romanticized the past and believed that the ills of modernity could be cured by simply turning back the clock and restoring the status quo ante.

In his classic book “Escape from Freedom,” the psychiatrist and social philosopher Erich Fromm attempted to make sense of the rise of fascism in the early 20th century, and in doing so offered a penetrating analysis of modernity. While the modern world had liberated men and women from social conventions of the past and various restrictions on the individual (i.e., “freedom from”), it had also severed what Fromm called “primary bonds,” which gave security to the individual and provided meaning. Forced from their communities into urban and industrial environments, modern men and women were left alienated and rootless, feeling powerless and purposeless in the new world.

There were two ways that people could respond to this situation, Fromm argued; either they could reject freedom altogether and embrace counter-Enlightenment movements like fascism, or they could progress to a “positive freedom,” where one can relate oneself “spontaneously to the world in love and work.”

“If the economic, social and political conditions on which the whole process of human individuation depends, do not offer a basis for the realization of individuality,” wrote Fromm, “while at the same time people have lost those ties which gave them security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden.” Freedom, he continued, “becomes identical with doubt, with a kind of life which lacks meaning and direction. Powerful tendencies arise to escape from this kind of freedom into submission or some kind of relationship to man and the world which promises relief from uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of his freedom.”

The reactionary impulse would be to “escape from freedom” and restore the conventions and “primary bonds” of the past, while the progressive impulse would be to progress to a more complete and dynamic kind of freedom.

The reader may be wondering where all of this fits in with the current revolt against neoliberalism. Put simply, the neoliberal age has left many people with the same kind of doubts and anxieties that Fromm discussed in his book almost 80 years ago. Numerous articles have been written in recent years about how the policies of neoliberalism have worsened stress and loneliness, exacerbated mental health problemsdriven rising rates of suicide and the opioid crisis, and left people feeling desperate and hopeless in general. Globalization, deindustrialization, consumerism and "financialization"; all these economic trends are contributing to the breakdown of our democratic society, leading some to embrace authoritarian alternatives, as many did in Fromm’s day.

From this point of view, the global rise of populism that continued with López Obrador isn’t much of a surprise. The popular rejection of neoliberalism around the world is undeniable at this point, but it is still unclear whether this rejection of the status quo will lead to reactionary or progressive change in the long run. López Obrador represents progressive change, as does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's surprise primary victory in New York’s 14th congressional district. Trump and other far-right populists like Le Pen represent something very different.

It will ultimately come down to which side can offer the more appealing alternative, and the left should recognize that the more realistic and “pragmatic” approach isn’t always the most politically persuasive. One of the most common criticisms of populists has been that they are selling a pipe dream, which to an extent is true -- especially for right-wing populists who base their entire worldview on falsehoods. If the left wants to stop reactionary populism, however, it will have to adopt an unapologetically populist approach of its own, and reject the dogma of neoliberalism once and for all.

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Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, The Hill, AlterNet, and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter.