The Accidental Neoliberal

Against the old sincerity

Coal from Kanawha Coal Field, West Virginia. From Jamie Kruse, Thingness of Energy. 2011-12. Photo by Elizabeth Ellsworth.

I left college in 1997 with a motto, Czesław Miłosz’s “What is unpronounced tends to nonexistence,” and a corollary, that pronouncing things might bring them into being. What I wanted to pronounce was politics. To me, that meant making all my book-learning come alive in a shared awareness that people create, preserve, or degrade their own world, joined to a sense that its justice or injustice, peace or violence, belongs to everyone. There were no movements then, and campus politics were tiny and self-involved. The dismaying figures on the big, pre-internet podiums—Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd—were materialists without dialectic, polemicists without politics, and I wanted to make them impossible. I set out to show how the hope for collective transformation had drawn into what I called “a tight neoliberal knot,” then cut the fucker with an Alexandrian stroke of a speech-act.

My blade was a 1999 book called For Common Things. I argued that the culture of the late ’90s was a congeries of tricks for avoiding politics: libertarian fantasies of self-reliance; New Age notions that all was always for the best; and, above all, a debased form of irony that amounted to preemptive dismissal of public speech, institutions, and efforts as a mere game of thrones. I defended the politics of structure, a politics about shaping the social world we all have to inhabit. That meant a politics in the tradition of democratic socialism, about the division of wealth between capital and labor, about workplace conditions and the balance of work and leisure; a politics in the voice of feminism, about who pays the cost of caregiving and how leave policies can break the grip of gender roles; an ecological politics that set limits on profit-making to preserve natural ecologies and inhabited landscapes. What gave these familiar leftish views a curious savor was my sense that a loss of faith in political language lay at the base of an apolitical time, barricaded with ancillary mistrust: of motives, movements, and historical possibility. The recovery that I proposed had the biographical and emotional nerves of a time soaked in identity politics: rebuilding any universalist politics would have to start from particulars. As an example, I described growing up on a very small farm in West Virginia, a place I never entirely belonged but that mattered to me in the way origin does, in a region wrecked by decades of drilling, mining, and timbering, but beautiful in its ruin and poverty.

I invoked collective improvement and self-emancipation. But I found my ambition entangled again and again in a neoliberal knot that turned out to be less tight than flexible and accommodating. Saying structural politics was one thing; acting, another. Action was what brought me back into the neoliberal end of history.

For Common Things was reviewed in all the places, and there were long author profiles in the Times magazine, which called my project “the new sincerity,” and the Washington Post Style section, which pounced on the commodification of the new sincerity. I turned down an offer to write for TV Guide (about the irony content of the fall lineup) and accepted a photo shoot for Glamour. The first too palpably invited me to turn what I’d said into a pure critique of cultural style. The second attracted me for reasons that are hard to recover: vanity, surely, and an excusing sense that no one was asking me to say anything vapid, just to select a sweater from the wardrobe rack. When A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius appeared, NPR styled the sincere ironist Dave Eggers as “the anti-Purdy.” Not long after For Common Things appeared, the conservative National Review identified me as the “it boy” of the left, while another general interest magazine picked me out as a promising young conservative. Many commentators assumed that because I was critical of Bill Clinton, I must be aiming for the space “beyond left and right.” Rather than dealing with substantive politics, most reviews leaned heavily on words like earnest and serious—to recall the charitable ones. The details are lost except on the Google trace, but the gist is indelible: ideological ambiguity with a whiff of the sermon about it. The revealing thing about this confusion is how easily the effort at political seriousness became pure style, politically vague to the point of reversibility. Aesthetics and sensibility had replaced substantive and structural politics: that had been my complaint, and now I was an instance of it.

Notice, too, how quickly that last paragraph, a summary of relevant facts, slipped into slightly preposterous and banal publicity details—preposterous, but also kind of essential to accounting for a book published in the last fifteen years. Sure, you may be interested in what it said, but really you need to know what became of it. Was it a thing? Did the author become, in that dead but tellingly pervasive metaphor, a brand? How was that brand positioned?

I don’t mean this to be the fussy humble-brag of a moralizer who parades his misgivings about the good times. I am trying to understand my writing as a symptom of the time, a way in to what it meant to write between 1989, when I was 14 and the Berlin Wall fell, and 2008, when the financial crisis brought capitalism into fresh question. Those two decades moved under the sign of Margaret Thatcher’s iconic phrase, “There is no alternative.” You could define yourself against the phrase, but still not escape the reality it called down.

How can one be a neoliberal while rejecting any position called neoliberalism? Neoliberalism is not so much an intellectual position as a condition in which one acts as if certain premises were true, and others unspeakable. It’s not doctrine but a limit on the vitality of practical imagination. Acquiescing to it means accepting a picture of personality and social life that pivots on consumer-style choice and self-interested collaboration. This is the basis of the realism, so-called, that is the neoliberal trump. It implies that market-modeled activity—ticking off the preferences, going for the ask—is the natural form of life. What I meant by irony, in the sense that I criticized, was the lightly worn cynicism that is the temperamental companion to this picture of the world. This kind of irony hinted that all was not for the best, but dismissed any hope for better, all in a single gesture, a complacent shrugging that could drive one mad.

The chief, and maybe sole, task of neoliberal politics is to stand watch over the market institutions—chiefly private property, free contract, and the right to spend money however one wants—that give those bargains their home. Neoliberalism welcomes market utopianism, wherein Bangladeshi factory conditions are automatically legitimate because workers agreed to work under them; but neoliberalism won’t be pinned down to a position where such conditions are celebrated. Challenged, neoliberalism switches to the tragic wisdom of (adulterated) Burke, (exaggerated) Hume, and (pretty faithfully rendered) Hayek. It might be nice if the world were different, neoliberal realism intones, but it is what it is, and so are we. Politics is no way out because, like the market, it is just the play of passions and interests, but lacking the discipline of the bottom line. Using politics to reorder social life is the dangerous dream of the utopian engineer. To try would just set loose the selfish, vain, and ignorant on our good-enough market system. Economic waste is the best we could expect from such efforts; the worst would be piles of dead. The neoliberal mind is never far from an interpretation of the 20th century’s worst disasters as symptoms of visionary politics.

Neoliberalism’s ideological premises are easy to name and quarrel with, even though they shift opportunistically from market utopianism to the tragic sigh that, alas, we can do no better than the market. What is more subtle is how neoliberal practice disables personal attempts to escape it. The neoliberal condition gently enforces an anti-politics whose symptoms are often in what doesn’t get said, or heard: nationalizing banks, nationalizing health-care payments, proposing to arrange work differently, naming class interests and class conflict as a reality every bit as basic as opportunity cost. In a time when financial capitalism is palpably endangering so many people, places, and things, you know neoliberalism by the silences it induces. To be a neoliberal, even despite oneself, is to come to find those silences natural.

The naturalness of neoliberal premises comes in the way that, in a neoliberal world, to act is to accept them. I suppose I simply mean that I couldn’t do anything but accept them myself. The neoliberal public writer can’t help being on the market, because the market is what any possible public has become. This was despite my best efforts. In writing For Common Things, I did my best to break through the affectless screen of ironic gestures that neoliberal culture encouraged, especially the imperative to market oneself as the bearer of a special identity. I laid into the cult of self-branding, and I still think it is a pernicious crystallization of the neoliberal attitude: rendering the self a flexible commodity—a platform for a suite of apps—and stripping relationships to instrumental transactions.

But writing an antibranding jeremiad draws one into the logic of branding as surely as founding a “socially responsible business” involves one in profit and loss. These are not only matters of attitude. Even the banker with a humanitarian conscience will ultimately behave like the greediest scrooge because banking is not a posture of the spirit but a role in an economic order. If you depart from the role, the system’s many representatives, playing their respective roles, will find another banker. The neoliberal writer is not so different. Simply writing critique at all seems outwardly hostile to a neoliberal age’s vacuity, but in order for the critique to lodge somewhere, you have to position yourself as a certain kind of writer first, and remake yourself as a brand that can be marketed. So the critics of neoliberalism tend to confirm it even as they denounce it—making them more interesting and, in some ways, deeper supporters than the most shameless market-utopian hack.

I gave my political argument a persona, tying the claims of For Common Things back to my unusual upbringing in West Virginia, which, I wrote, “was not an ironic place,” and where I recalled the confidence that things were certain, real, mine, and worth speaking for. I aligned that place with “knowing exactly what we relied upon” and with “perfect confidence in the reality of things.” My examples were relentlessly pastoral: haying, digging out hillside springs, tapping maple sap, slaughtering cattle I had named as calves. Although these “stable, certain, solid things” were unusual in obvious ways, I thought they might be universal in another: “We nearly all have the sorts of experiences and memories that West Virginia gives me. They reassure us of, or keep us from entirely surrendering, the possibility of trust, of confidence in reality.” That irony-proof anchor, carried somewhere in the divided, ambivalent memories of childhood, was the beginning of realizing that “more things than we usually recognize may deserve our trust or hope. . . . [And] if we care . . . for certain things, we must in honesty hazard some hope in their defense.” That would be the beginning of politics. “A good deal of what we value most, whether openly or in silence, clearly or confusedly, is necessarily common. These are things that affect us all, and we can only preserve or neglect them together. In the end they cannot be had alone.” The natural world that politics had to preserve and the social order it had to build were the common things of the book’s title, to be reached through a thousand idiosyncratic and treasured things, beginning with the author’s memories.

I don’t think anyone can really be blamed for trying, at 24, to give himself a usable past. The idea was meant to be that such pasts, in whatever version anyone might have, were starting points for political commitment, places where a person could get footing apart from the slipperiness of neoliberal irony. But nostalgia is no basis for politics, or even for self-understanding. The wish for a place without ambivalence can only lack emotional integrity and fall into a utopianism of origins and recovery. I was not entirely naive, and half of what I describe was a productive alienation, being neither entirely at home on a small and remote farm nor anywhere else after I left it. This sense of displacement, as widely shared as nostalgia and more generative, might have been a template for navigating between everyday reality and glimpses of better alternatives, and so a resource for radical imagination. My signal failure in the book was refusing to decide between nostalgia and alienation, keeping both in play, with plenty of concrete, rustic details to buttress the nostalgic reading.

That failure helped make the book a success. My call, for politics addressed to political economy and ecology and anchored in would-be universal ideas of equality and collective responsibility, fell nonetheless into the idiom of identity politics, a story about commitments that tied them essentially to origins. Calling for substance, I defined myself by style—by the careful, unfunny sentences of someone raised by artisans, of a purveyor of seriousness, whatever Harper’s or the New Republic might imagine the politics of seriousness to be. Against a sense that speech, relationships, and actions were thinned out and cheap, I offered the handmade, the locally grown, sustenance grabbed directly from trees and the bodies of beasts. I anticipated, as it happened, the substantial “artisanal” economy of this decade.

Which now seems one of my book’s greatest failings. Identity, style, and the integrity of objects are all things that this world knows how to market. I knew, in the half-naive, half-sophisticated way that bright young people do, that this kind of story—tying a political perspective back to an origin story, weaving it into an identity—made sense to readers, teachers, and editors. I do not think I knew how perfectly this anticommodification style would lend itself to a commodification that offered an anticommodification frisson among its features.

The trouble is not just this on-the-market dimension of writing; it is also the political content that attached itself, as if unchosen, to the posture of seriousness. Looking back over my writing in the decade that followed For Common Things, I find myself mouthing the high-minded bromides of someone who got too much of his political education from the New York Review of Books. In Being America, a 2003 book of essays on the confusions and ambivalences of American power in the US and abroad, there is much that I like, that feels important and well observed; but the general historical analysis and portrait of world politics runs something like this: Utopian visions bled and scarred the 20th century; an excess of idealism, a touching national innocence, carried the United States into Afghanistan and Iraq; we have to resist the siren call of belief in peace and progress and recognize the irrational passions that drive, and sometimes ravage, history; despite all this, despite all the harm we do and disappointment we meet, we must find resources for hope. Et cetera.

Most of that doesn’t seem exactly wrong, but the emphasis is critically misplaced, and the omissions reveal more than the generalizations. Where is the political economy of oil, or neoconservative grand strategy? Do the depredations of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and the Khmer Rouge really teach a general lesson about a problem called utopianism? And who, exactly, has that problem today? Having accepted the heavy-sounding instruction to avoid idle dreams of progress, what to do next? Resources of hope, yes, but for what?

How did I come to say what I did, and leave so much else unsaid? Political thinking is as thoroughly learned, as entirely social, as anything people do. It depends intensely on a sense of what history means, what experience suggests is possible, uncertain, and if anything, debarred. To believe that you know such things, you must rely on people who got here before you, who seem to have sussed out the circumstances you suddenly share with them. Political writing is an attempt to exercise judgment, but the grounds of that judgment can only be a shared interpretation of common life that you try to make your own. In the long 1990s, the traditions of the left became very difficult to claim, or even feel, as part of the formation of political judgment.

How exactly this happened remains mysterious to me. I am no exception to the general rule that children need some rescuing from their families, but it wasn’t my politics that especially needed rescuing. I grew up on the glancing edge of the nuclear freeze and Central American solidarity movements. Along with seeking out Ideas that Mattered, I was always on the lookout for radical sources and outlets. From early in high school, I placed anticonsumerist, antimilitarist rants in zines—true old zines, stapled together and distributed at the counters of record stores. These were, inevitably, conceits, but they were also a groping toward politics that thousands of people like me expressed, even if I didn’t know them yet.

And not everything was conceit: for a year before college, I was a full-time environmental activist back in West Virginia, where the economic power of coal, natural gas, and, in those days, East Coast garbage companies, was much more pertinent than either Wendell Berry’s pastorals or John Muir’s sublimity. To my mind one of the parts of For Common Things that holds up best is a reporting-based chapter on the coalfields and the ecological and social violence that secures cheap energy. That chapter described West Virginia’s landscape as the remnant that persists after destruction, that which has not been eroded or excavated. It showed the class conflict that brought militant miners into gun battle with the National Guard in the 1920s, and gave glimpses of the quite unpastoral realities that left so many of my high school friends looking to get out and never come back. Simply by stating facts, it achieved a realism that exposed neoliberalism’s realist trump card as an ideology and, at the same time, showed up the distortions in my own recollection of a “stable, certain, solid” reality to throw against neoliberal irony.

But there were few grips to get hold of that world in that way. There was, for one thing, an implicit prohibition: a seemingly unanswerable sense that the left, the left of political economy and universal emancipation from bad work, economic hierarchy, and political oligarchy, was done, fruitless—if not, worse, guilty. The no-longer-new radicalisms of the 1960s and 1970s, doubts about infinite growth, and calls to reconsider the human place on the planet as part of the general realignment of political economy were also implicitly shut down as nonsense, assumed to have been refuted, so that whoever raised them would put himself outside “serious” conversation. This limit on the substance of serious argument reinforced the reduction of political seriousness to a rhetorical style: one could point out, in all seriousness, that questions about how to shape an economy were inescapable, and inescapably political; but when all the “serious” answers are variations on one neoliberal theme, seriousness easily becomes a sonorous way of posing an almost trivial question. Realism was the watchword of the time—solving problems, wrangling facts, accepting “reality”—and although that realism was always limited and normative and seems now to have played us false, it made a great many alternatives seem fake or “improbable” along the way.

I have a fragment that catches something of how this faux-realist hegemony worked in practice. Sometime in the fall of 2001, I was in a room of journalists, commentators, and foreign-policy mavens at the New America Foundation in Washington. Most were some kind of left-tending realist, the sort of person who would staff the abortive Wesley Clark campaign in 2004 and then the first Obama campaign. I had arrived where ideas mattered. The convener asked who expected another major attack on the US within seven years. About two-thirds of the hands went up right away. The rest followed, in a few seconds that felt like a slow but inexorable tug toward the far side of something. Mine was one of the last, but it went up.

I wouldn’t have said, even then, that this forecast justified restricting civil liberties, the Iraq invasion, or the geopolitical vision of the “war on terror.” But it was clear to me, then, that we weren’t being asked to assess an actual threat, but rather to consent to a tacit program on the basis of a belief in probability. Beliefs constrain political visions, and those beliefs are not simply the product of sober reflection: they are, as 1990s book-learning taught us, social and performative. You believe what you treat as true according to your actions: if I could reserve my doubt, my sense of tactical concession, in that one moment, I did not manage to preserve a whole view of the world in which left alternatives were living things.

The absent left was like a brooding silence in a psychoanalysis session, occupying a dark space that bent other topics around it in avoidance. One compromise formation of mine was to choose heroes who embodied both the urgency of politics and the impulse of universalism while holding themselves apart from many or most of the movements and programs of their times: dyspeptic Orwell, exiled Camus, disenchanted Miłosz. In hindsight, their appeal lay partly in a false equivalence between their independence, a position with consequences in a time of political stakes, and the “independence,” or loneliness, of a writer without movements, trying to conjure stakes by speaking seriously.

Their moral sensibilities paid tribute to the universalist impulse, but the politics they lived with failed or betrayed them. They came down conveniently complete—two were long dead and Milosz thoroughly unpolitical by the 1990s—as humanitarian skeptics, absolutists in rejecting cruelty and tyranny. Taken this way, we turned them into human-rights people slightly before their time, prophets of the negative absolutism of that final 20th-century political vision: harm no one.

A reckoning is due here. There were lefts, even in the 1990s: internationalists, NAFTA critics, the remnants of Black Power movements, and, of course, many people doing the kinds of concrete, local work that I’d had a hand in before college. I knew those people had a point, or more. They even had the charisma of purity. I did not join them, instead signing a contract for my book, another for the fellowship that took me into the think-tank room that I now style, in hindsight, the Hegemony Clinic. The choices I am describing here confirmed that genuine dissidents were outside the world of serious ideas, and a story that makes those choices flow naturally ratifies that exclusion. Those dissidents kept alive a stance that has come to seem more indispensable than my attempts to map a middle distance between radicalism and neoliberalism—and theirs came at a cost, while some of mine was rewarded.

I would have said then that I wasn’t ready to make a pact of irrelevance. But seeing it that way meant acceding to the end-of-history sensibility that I thought I was doing my utmost to deny. Relevance expressed in audience, platforms, and responses to my words, tugged back toward the neoliberal market in authority, seriousness, and modest dissent. For me, what epitomizes this paradox in For Common Things and the three books that followed is a strange relation between the sweeping insight that we make our world, and above all our economy, through politics, and the narrowness of the examples and recommendations that I gave: paying living wages, relaxing patent protections to let the poor and sick access essential medicines, promoting unions in Cambodian garment factories—all eminently good, but so straightforward that they hardly seem to be instances of any general insight at all, certainly not a critical one. Their narrowness is the symptom of a political economy of ideas in which nothing Nicholas Kristof could not endorse counted as a serious proposal to those close enough to power, and so the radical premise skulked invisibly in the background like a bureaucrat’s nominal faith.

One drunken evening in February 2000, I hacked and carved a hardback copy of For Common Things into thousands of paper shards. My housemate found me sitting in this butchered confetti, bleeding from one hand. I looked up at him and explained, “It’s full of lies.” As far as I can tell, I meant that I had falsified, simplified, used the consonance of sentences to slip around the dissonance of people and things. I was hacking at my own nostalgia and the glibness of seriousness. I also meant that I had failed: my poetics of political imagination had made nothing happen beyond selling books.

Besides being harsh and violent, and no doubt pathetic-seeming and embarrassing to some, the capital sentence I carried out against my book now seems incomplete, and the standard behind it grandiose. Trying to imagine, in public, a way of being that is not neoliberal means, mostly, making ephemera: like cairns and leaf patterns, they will be pulled apart by the world’s ordering forces. The horror is in the way the words remain there after their conjuring is done, untrue, powerless, and undefended. It takes sympathy to understand that they are not lies but the record of disappointment.

I realize now that I was trying to undo by writing what could only be undone by action, not alone but with others—and through connections that incantation alone would not conjure. Words, it turned out, did not have all the performative powers that 1990s book-learning sometimes seemed to suggest. In the strange and wonderful final book of Leviathan, “On the Kingdom of Darkness,” Thomas Hobbes describes the job of thinking as untying superstitious knots that enmesh the mind. The superstition I recognized was neoliberal realism, which sets and polices the boundaries of the possible while pretending to map them objectively. But an equal and opposite superstition is the thought that language, style, and invocation could disperse those constraints, as if their being discourse meant they were only words, set to be scattered by other words.

I wrote at the beginning of For Common Things that I wanted readers who shared my hopes to hear, and say, “Yes, you are not alone in that.” That’s what the new left writing, in Jacobin and elsewhere, means to me, and, I imagine, to many readers and writers. Where public writing at the turn of the millennium felt monadic and zero-sum, a slow-motion scramble for attention and sponsorship, it now seems less desperately and exclusively that way. On the darkling plain of the market for ideas, there are encampments of allies, not just wanderers, and I am less compelled to imagine that another flame diminishes mine. I hope that, for readers a little younger or who spent the years from 1993 to 2008 differently, a strangeness in the past that I’m describing marks the distance between then and now by more than years.

But, again, I doubt that we have written, theorized, or organized our way out of the neoliberal condition, let alone that the crisis of 2008 broke its grip. As I learned to say real politics and call for radical imagination, we have learned to say socialism. A few people are learning to speak it. What we are learning to practice, even what we might practice in a world where all action tends to get drawn back into the dominant forms, is at best uncertain. Radicalism is as susceptible as seriousness to commodification. Neoliberal logic can embrace any number of dissidents who see behind it but can act only within it. There will be other disappointments to record.

The record of a disappointment is also the record of a hope, and surprising things can happen to a book when someone picks it up. I prize a photo of a waterlogged Tolerable Anarchy, my third book, retrieved from the wreckage of the Zuccotti Park encampment. It had been in the reference section of the People’s Library, partly because I volunteered there for a few days, but also because it was, among other things, full of responses to the questions that Occupy participants and visitors brought to the library: Has this happened before? When people did things like this before, how did they explain them? Is there anything to my feeling that this encampment is both a very radical and a very American thing? My ambition in that book was to remind others on the left, such as it was, that the American political rhetoric and impulses of “freedom” need not be so brutish and reactionary as George W. Bush had made them. I used mostly historical material to show how uncompromising ideas of personal autonomy have often worked both as dynamite to break apart settled hierarchies and, maybe more promisingly, as the starting points for new, more flexible, and inclusive forms of solidarity that count as solidarity nonetheless: Reconstruction, the New Deal, the Great Society, and whatever might come after that blowsy springtime of self-expressive narcissism and cowboy posturing. Like For Common Things, that book was full of lies, in a sense: dialectical moves toward imagining a new politics of solidarity. I hoped such imagination might shape the brief democratic flowering of the first Obama campaign, which of course it really never did. But those disappointments were also resources for other people trying to sketch an American form of solidarity, and those just relearning that there had been such a thing before, and beyond, the President waving a flag in front of the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

Occupy, like the first Obama Administration, now belongs to the record of our disappointments. Most of the little political writing I’ve done in the last year has grown out of my small role in Moral Mondays, North Carolina’s cross-racial, frequently religious fight against a Tea Party legislature that has attacked voting and abortion rights, public assistance, education funding, and more. The contribution one can make with short essays on civil disobedience, going to jail, and the strategic importance of state politics is strictly immeasurable—which is not to say large. The use they have is, at least, specific and palpable. Other protesters find a paragraph helps them explain themselves to out-of-state parents or sort out their own doubts; a foundation strategist in Washington decides to devote some staff and money to North Carolina. It is part of what there is to do.

Feeling out knots and tugging at them, looking for a loose end: you can help others by saying (when it’s true), Look here, this is stuck, try that. This good work fits the mood of the time. It’s modest, person-to-person. Is there anything spectacular left to do, without becoming fatuous? What will political writing look like if it continues to evade the neoliberal net, not just by getting smaller, helping individuals and local movements with their knots, but also by getting bigger, throwing aside the fealty to realism that favors consensus sources over radical ones, psychological analyses over structural ones, and incremental changes over vast ones?

It is an immense relief to be, today, just one of many people asking the same questions, and no longer among the youngest ones. So it is no more than my own thought to reflect that, in addition to the value of relentless critique and prospective imagination, one way would be to remember, in detail and without apology, how the world has looked to people, now mostly dead, who believed in its political transformation. That would be writing that recaptured, for example, the socialist promise of freedom and solidarity in language that helped make it a living thing, available to the sensations of imagination. To write that way, without bowing to the prohibitions of the age, would deepen the record of our disappointments. In my mind, it would make up for some of the things left unsaid in the last fifteen years. And it might, in some unforeseeable way, help to make those disappointments and silences into a source of still-prospective joys.

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