That’s what I’m thinking most deeply about these days, in part because I’ve embarked on my third book, which will focus on the topic. Neoliberalism is defined in many ways on either side of the Atlantic, but for me, it’s the system of institutions, trade agreements and global governance that allows business and capital markets to operate internationally, even as politics is conducted mostly at the national level. As I’ve written in the past, neoliberalism has brought with it huge amounts of wealth creation, but also unprecedented wealth inequality, mostly because capital can travel much more freely than labour. It’s also fuelled the huge divide between global markets and national politics, which is to my mind a big reason for the political extremism that characterises our moment.
I have so far focused mostly on the period from the Reagan/Thatcher revolution onwards. But as part of my research, I’ve been reading Quinn Slobodian’s terrific work, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. He goes back further, to the foundational thinkers of neoliberalism, people like F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, who were less about deregulating the market than protecting it from national politics. They thought that the only way to protect the world from nationalism, populism and fascism of the sort that was on display this past week in Washington was to knit together global capital markets and trade so tightly that political extremism could not disintegrate the world as a result. If a bit of democratic agency was lost in the process, so be it.
It’s ironic that since then, global capitalism has evolved in such a way that market driven national inequality is itself spawning fascism. I think part of the problem is that when the structures of the neoliberal world were being created, nobody could have predicted that as many jobs and as much wealth could be offshored as is now possible. It simply wasn’t economical or practical.
The question is whether we have reached peak neoliberalism. I would argue yes, obviously, not because we won’t still have some globally integrated supply chains or outsourced jobs (indeed, in the post-Covid era, we may find that there is a whole new area of white collar work still to be sent to lower wage locales, as my colleague Sarah O’Connor has written), but because there are huge demographic, technological and political tailwinds that now support change.
The list is long, but I’ll point to two key factors — unlike the last half century, the global workforce is now shrinking, not expanding. And the biggest growth industry of the next decade — healthcare — is one that can’t be easily outsourced (yes, there are exceptions like telemedicine but caring for the elderly will largely be done at home). Decentralised technologies will allow people to work more easily from rural areas or smaller cities rather than the usual expensive superstar hubs. Place will once again matter.
Of course, there are plenty of people who would argue just the opposite (on that note, I am just stunned at the continued rise of bitcoin as a hedge against national governments). Ed, where do you come out on this neoliberal debate? Are we at the beginning of the post-neoliberal era, or just in a particularly difficult moment of the old paradigm? And do you imagine the new administration is even thinking about this?We’re offering a free 30-day trial to Swamp Notes, which includes access to FT.com. Please spread the word by forwarding this newsletter to friends and colleagues who you think would find it valuable. And if this has been forwarded to you, hello. Please sign up here.
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Rana, I must admit that I tend to avoid the term neoliberalism. Much like fascist, it has been devalued by overuse to the point where I’m never entirely sure what people mean when they use it. Sometimes people mean globalisation. Sometimes they mean economic financialisation. At others they are referring to rising inequality. Or to excessive faith in the free market. Or perhaps all of these things. So I’m not really sure whether we have reached a neoliberal peak.
You refer to the declining size of the global labour force and link to a review of the Great Demographic Reversal by Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan, which I missed at the time. Thank you. Their argument is that the ageing of our populations will have an equivalent impact on the economy as the “China shock” did in the 1990s — and since. Only, in this instance it would lead to secular stagflation, rather than the secular stagnation that Larry Summers has written about. Everything else would stay the same — low productivity growth and skewed distribution of wealth. Meanwhile higher spending by an ageing population would unleash inflation and lead to rising real interest rates, which would undo the disinflationary effects of the China shock. That would take us to a pretty dark place.
This may well be what is about to happen — indeed, we could be in its early phases. But I have two questions. One, why do the authors assume that changes in technology will not lead to some kind of productivity boost? And two, why are they silent about the political implications of this great reversal? Which brings me to your question. Does the Biden team have a world view on this? One or two, such as Jared Bernstein — who will serve on the Council of Economic Advisors — undoubtedly do. But I don’t think Biden sees himself as the un-Reagan, who is about to usher in a big paradigm shift. I think he sees his presidency as an exercise in damage limitation after Trump. If he can redistribute income a little bit through tax reform, he will. If he can accelerate the shift to the green economy through public investment, he will. But the goals that stir him the most are political — to restore democracy at home and America’s standing abroad.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to ‘The silver lining to Washington’s insurrection’:
“Here is a footnote to the speech made by Senator Cruz this week. He cited the commission that resolved the Tilden-Hays presidential election. Tilden won the election, with 4,288,546 votes to Hays’ 4,034,311 votes. However, four states sent two sets of electoral votes to Congress, creating an opportunity for senators from the former Confederate states to radically alter Federal Reconstruction policies in the South. Cruz failed to mention the results of his precedent: the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the Jim Crow era in the US.” — James Jackson, Portland, Oregon
“McConnell is the sorcerer's apprentice — playing with something he can’t control and in need of being rescued from his own overweening arrogance. His wife’s resignation was not so much on principle, I would suggest, but more a recoiling from horror at the prospect of possibly being asked to participate in action resulting from the 25th amendment. Self-interest rules again. A worthy emulator of her husband’s principle of leading from behind the man (or woman) in front and letting them step on the mine first.” — Stephen Bloomfield, Essex, England