Neoliberalism by Another Name: From Trump’s Putsch to Biden’s ‘Moderation’

The shocking scenes from Washington D. C. have reinforced the idea that what the country needs right now is to ‘heal’ and avoid the excesses of both the right and the left.

Costas Panayotakis Jan 11, 2021

The sense in recent months that Donald Trump was increasingly becoming an embarrassment for the capitalist elites his administration has faithfully served has solidified after his fascistic and (in the eyes of capitalist elites) plebeian followers’ violent invasion of the Capitol. In fact, as embarrassment gives its place to an understandable sense of alarm, even the National Association of Manufacturers has called for Trump’s replacement even before his term comes to an end less than two weeks from now.

The threat that Trump’s and his followers’ brazen attack on the symbolic center of democracy in our plutocratic political system should not be underestimated.  And yet it is important to point out that much of the vehemence of mainstream media’s hand-wringing over the latest shocking development has the intended or unintended function of paving the way for a Biden administration that may very well continue the neoliberal course that, his faux populism aside, Trump inherited from his predecessors.

Before the November election fixtures of the North American Left as diverse as Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Ben Jealous, Naomi Klein, Cornel West and even Bob Avakian declared their support for Joe Biden’s campaign, reasoning that his election would create a more favorable terrain for the left while increasing the chance that movements from below could force the adoption of more progressive policies than the ones that ordinary Americans have endured for decades.  Against this hope, one of the preoccupations of mainstream punditry even before Trump’s grotesque putsch was to interpret the results of the recent election as a mandate for a moderate political course that would sideline the priorities of progressive Democrats, while preserving neoliberalism by ridding it of some of the most grossly offensive and disreputable elements that Trump has burdened it with.

Recent developments may prove the usually less astute mainstream commentariat more prescient than the numerous left-wing intellectuals who placed their hopes on a Biden victory.  After all, the very day that Democrats won control of the Senate (thus making it harder for moderate and progressive Democrats alike to blame the likely continuation of neoliberal business-as-usual on Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism) was also the day that Trump’s rag-tag army descended on the Capitol.  This turn of events has boosted the mainstream interpretation of the conjuncture in a number of ways.

The idealized version of America and its institutions is also implicit in the portrayal of most mainstream media of the Capitol police as being ‘caught off guard’ by the Trumpist mob.

First, the shocking scenes from Washington D. C. have reinforced the idea that what the country needs right now is to ‘heal’ and be brought together.  In this narrative Biden can only carry out this redemptive function by avoiding the excesses of both political extremes (which, in this narrative, might be embodied by Trump, on the right, and AOC and Bernie, on the left) and seeking a bipartisan modus vivendi with his moderate Republican former colleagues in the Senate.  Repudiating Trumpism as a phenomenon fundamentally at odds with ‘the soul of America,’ this narrative glosses over both the centrality of racism, sexism and xenophobia to American history and the fact that Trump and his followers are not an unprecedented aberration but rather a manifestation of the multiple and interlocking forms of social and economic oppression that have long characterized this country (and the wider world).

This idealized version of America and its institutions is also implicit in the portrayal of most mainstream media of the Capitol police as being ‘caught off guard,’ ‘unprepared,’ or numerically overwhelmed by the Trumpist mob.  As even Joe Scarborough, a long-standing member of the anti-Trumpist establishment, pointed out, however, this portrayal glossed over the fact that, far from finding it impossible to resist the Trumpist mob, many members of the Capitol police seemed to fraternize with the Trumpist invaders.  

This uncharacteristic moment of clarity in his daily rants aside, the conclusions that Joe Scarborough drew from the Trumpist putsch was nevertheless completely in line with the mainstream media pleas for a return to neoliberal political ‘moderation.’  What is needed, Scarborough opined, was exemplary punishment of the transgressors so as to send a message to all extremists, from the left or the right, that such behavior will not be tolerated by the forces of order.  What Joe Scarborough misses, apparently, is that the fraternization between segments of the police force and elements of the violent far right is not an aberration but a commonplace occurrence in all capitalist societies, which regularly use the police to repress even protests of the left that are infinitely more well-behaved and law-abiding than the Trumpist shock troops.  

Needless to say, were Scarborough’s seemingly naïve pronouncement to inform policy, the repression of any left-wing protests aimed at pushing Biden to the left would become all the more easy, even as the affinities between the repressive apparatus in the U.S and the most fascistic and racist political forces in this country are unlikely to be loosened.  Pointing in this direction, of course, was also how liberally mainstream media used the word ‘anarchist’ and its derivatives to describe a mob following the directions of a ‘strong’ and authoritarian leader and seeking not to emancipate people from centralized coercion but to concentrate the coercive instruments of the capitalist state into the hands of an unaccountable leader.  Laughably flawed as this analogy between Trumpism and anarchism may obviously be, its obvious function is to preemptively portray any future left-wing movement against the continuation of neoliberal business-as-usual from a moderate Biden administration as no less serious a threat to democracy than Trumpism’s violent and fascistic shock troops.

In short, we should not be surprised if a new Biden administration proves harder to push to the left than some of North America’s public intellectuals imagine.  It is tempting to think otherwise in view of last summer’s inspiring popular upsurge in response to police violence and systemic racism.  We should not forget, however, that both Joe Biden and too many of his cabinet picks are seasoned veterans of the Obama administration, which, after repressing the Occupy movement, proceeded to turn the movement’s energy into a ticket to reelection and a continuation of the disastrous neoliberal policies that fueled Trump’s meteoric rise to power only four years ago.

 Costas Panayotakis is Professor of Sociology at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and author of The Capitalist Mode of Destruction: Austerity, Ecological Crisis and the Hollowing out of Democracy (Manchester University Press).

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