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Review Essay: Who Did Neoliberalism?

Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora. The Last Man Takes LSD. Verso, 2021.

Terence Renaud. New Lefts. Princeton University Press, 2021.

Paul Sabin. Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism. W. W. Norton, 2021.

JOSEPH SCHUMPETER THOUGHT, with some justification, that he was not like other intellectuals. For one thing, they were poor—“psychically unemployable in manual occupations.” The typical intellectual also struggled to find work in the white-collar professions, Schumpeter wrote in his 1942 chef d’oeuvre, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. The problem was the “vigorous expansion of the education apparatus” witnessed in “the later stages of capitalist civilization,” which doomed most graduates to fungibility. Schumpeter himself, however, was able to rise above the herd and seize a lucrative economics professorship at Harvard in the early 1930s. His good fortune, he felt, gave him a firsthand acquaintance with the virtues of the capitalist class, but the also-rans were condemned to watch from the outside with mounting resentment. Hence the “critical attitude” and “thoroughly discontented frame of mind” that characterized most intellectuals. They had no sympathy for the social traditions that conservatives like Schumpeter held dear. They scorned the bourgeois family and experimented with alternative gender relations. They “invaded labor politics” and poisoned the minds of workers with their own antagonisms. They concocted newfangled theories like Marxism, through which would-be planners sought to substitute their own intellectual prowess for the spontaneous order of the market. In short, the “freedom of public discussion” they sought to encourage was really just the “freedom to nibble at the foundations of capitalist society.”

If Schumpeter’s analysis of the intelligentsia was histrionic and conspiracy-theoretical in tone, its substance was actually pretty banal. Ever since the Dreyfus affair of Third Republic France, when intelligentsia entered everyday usage, the intellectual per se was understood to carry an element of the subversive; to possess loyalties that were cosmopolitan and principled rather than pragmatic and rooted in the soil; to prefer thinking to working and therefore to have a hard time behaving like a team player in modern capitalist societies. In his 1929 book Ideology and Utopia, arguably the world’s first treatise on the sociology of intellectual life, the Hungarian social theorist Karl Mannheim extolled the ability of the “free-floating intelligentsia” to transcend the determination of thought by social location—to enter the perspective of other classes and envision utopian alternatives to the present order. 

Schumpeter and Mannheim, despite their divergent sympathies, both picked up on the important role of intellectuals in the left wing antifascist movements of the late 1920s and ’30s, the heyday of what Michael Denning has called the Cultural Front. In a brief for the 1932 USA Communist Party presidential ticket, the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford issued the era’s most emphatic statement on the conflict between authentic intellectualism and the capitalist status quo. “It is our business to think and we shall not permit business men to teach us our business,” the pamphlet insisted. “No genuine culture can thrive in a society in which malnutrition is a natural cause of death, the exploitation of man by man the natural cause of wealth, and foreign war and domestic terror the natural means of retaining political power.” The cause of revolution—even the proletarian revolution imagined by the CPUSA—was the cause of cultural and intellectual renewal, and vice versa.

By the late 20th century, many of these fears, hopes, and prophecies had come to seem faintly ridiculous, or even incomprehensible. The problem was that in the 1960s, the long-anticipated mass movement of anticapitalist intellectuals finally materialized. In the United States and throughout Western Europe, there erupted a New Left, as it came to be known. The term originated to describe British Communist Party defectors and dissidents such as E. P. Thompson, Stuart Hall, and Perry Anderson, who blended an antiauthoritarian socialist political strategy with a commitment to critical engagement with heterodox Marxist theorists from the continent, including Herbert Marcuse and his Frankfurt School colleagues, Antonio Gramsci, and Louis Althusser (Anderson’s lodestar, Thompson’s nemesis). Soon the term broadened to include student movements in the US and West Germany that focused their ire on the pathologies of university bureaucracy and the Vietnam War. The social basis for these movements was the postwar higher education boom, which dramatically expanded the availability of a “free-floating” intellectual identity in both quantitative and qualitative terms. 

In the late 1960s, the movement seemed to reach its apex in a transnational eruption of labor militancy shaped in part by the activity of radical intellectuals. Amid the Parisian general strike of May 1968, posters appeared that read “UNIVERSITÉS, USINES, UNION” (Universities, Factories, Union). The aspirations of the circle of radical autoworker-intellectuals that formed around C. L. R. James in Detroit in the 1950s finally materialized in a series of Black-led wildcat strikes throughout area plants, culminating in the 1969 formation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. The multiracial ringleaders of the wave of rank-and-file labor insurgency that besieged GM’s state-of-the-art Lordstown, Ohio, plant in the early 1970s captivated journalists with their youth and long hair. Here it was, it appeared, at last: a coalition of antiauthoritarian campus denizens, professional agitators, and outcast rebels—in alliance, at its moments of greatest power, with the younger and more radical segments of the industrial working class—was challenging the militarism, bureaucracy, alienation, and (at least rhetorically) racism and patriarchy endemic to contemporary capitalist societies. But it failed. 

Or so it would seem. The New Left did not manage to seize political power in any straightforward sense. There is still a rather significant quotient of militarism, bureaucracy, alienation, racism, and patriarchy kicking around in capitalist societies. Some issues that New Leftists broached in a comparatively speculative register—the risk of ecological catastrophe chief among them—now seem all too inescapable.

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