What Is The Alternative To ‘Neoliberalism’?

The fact that Doug Henwood disagrees with me about monetary policy has suddenly turned into a sprawling cross-blog discussion of “neoliberalism” and its discontents. Personally, I find the argument to be infuriatingly devoid of content, but here’s Henry Farrell’s core claim, devoid of examples:

Neo-liberals tend to favor a combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions to solve social problems. But these kinds of solutions tend to discount politics – and in particular political collective action, which requires strong collective actors such as trade unions. This means that vaguely-leftish versions of neo-liberalism often have weak theories of politics, and in particular of the politics of collective action. I see Doug and others as arguing that successful political change requires large scale organized collective action, and that this in turn requires the correction of major power imbalances (e.g. between labor and capital). They’re also arguing that neo-liberal policies at best tend not to help correct these imbalances, and they seem to me to have a pretty good case. To put it more succinctly – even if left-leaning neo-liberals are right to claim that technocratic solutions and market mechanisms can work to relieve disparities etc, it’s hard for me to see how left-leaning neo-liberalism can generate any self-sustaining politics.

Having read this and various people agreeing with it, I have no idea what it is that we’re disagreeing about. Neoliberals on this telling, favor progressive taxation. Non-neoliberals criticize this agenda as not politically workable in the long-term. And they counterpose as their alternative, more workable agenda, . . . what? Kevin Drum offers this effort:

I don’t know the answer either. But as I said a few months ago, “If the left ever wants to regain the vigor that powered earlier eras of liberal reform, it needs to rebuild the infrastructure of economic populism that we’ve ignored for too long. Figuring out how to do that is the central task of the new decade.” It still is.

So I really, strongly, profoundly agree with this. The moment someone comes up with a workable idea on this front, please sign me up. But if there’s no idea to debate, then there’s no idea to debate. Debating the desirability of devising some hypothetical future good idea seems kind of pointless to me.

This is too bad, because I think Henwood and I actually started out with a reasonably concrete disagreement on an important point. I think that better monetary policy, though hardly the solution to all of America’s ills, could do a lot to reduce unemployment. His view seems to be not just that a more thorough economic restructuring would be desirable, but that it’s strictly necessary to achieve recovery. In my view, that’s factually mistaken. Better monetary policy over the past several years would, I believe, have produced a much shallower and shorter recession and left progressive politics with a much stronger hand to play on all kinds of other questions.