The Second Time Around: James Traub on Neoliberal Technocracy

James Traub—last seen in the 1990s (when it was fashionable to shit all over public institutions that helped advance the cause of black and brown people) attacking Open Admissions at CUNY, which had done so much to make higher ed accessible to students of color—is back, calling, in the wake of Trump and Brexit, for a global realignment of political forces.

In a blog post at Foreign Policy titled, “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses,” Traub writes:

One of the most brazen features of the Brexit vote was the utter repudiation of the bankers and economists and Western heads of state who warned voters against the dangers of a split with the European Union.

That is, chunks of parties from the left and right of center could break away to form a different kind of center, defending pragmatism, meliorism, technical knowledge, and effective governance against the ideological forces gathering on both sides. It’s not hard to imagine the Republican Party in the United States — and perhaps the British Conservatives should Brexit go terribly wrong — losing control of the angry, nationalist rank and file and reconstituting themselves as the kind of Main Street, pro-business parties they were a generation ago, before their ideological zeal led them into a blind alley. That may be their only alternative to irrelevance.

Perhaps politics will realign itself around the axis of globalization, with the fist-shakers on one side and the pragmatists on the other. The nationalists would win the loyalty of working-class and middle-class whites who see themselves as the defenders of sovereignty. The reformed center would include the beneficiaries of globalization and the poor and non-white and marginal citizens who recognize that the celebration of national identity excludes them.

Did I say “ignorant”? Yes, I did. It is necessary to say that people are deluded and that the task of leadership is to un-delude them. Is that “elitist”? Maybe it is; maybe we have become so inclined to celebrate the authenticity of all personal conviction that it is now elitist to believe in reason, expertise, and the lessons of history. If so, the party of accepting reality must be prepared to take on the party of denying reality, and its enablers among those who know better. If that is the coming realignment, we should embrace it.

On the one side of this new alignment will be a neoliberal coalition of elite, well-educated technocrats (the “beneficiaries of globalization”), poor people, and people of color. On the other side, an ethno-nationalist racist rump of losers on the right.

Traub’s is a useful clarifying statement from the neoliberal center, which confirms something I wrote just the other day on Facebook:

The Clinton forces want nothing more than to make all of American politics—not just in this election but for the foreseeable future—into a battle between a racist, ethno-nationalist right and a multicultural, neoliberal center. Our job is to make politics into a struggle between a multicultural neoliberal center and a multicultural, multiracial socialist left.

The only drawback of Traub’s statement is that it bears so little relationship to reality.

First, neoliberal technocracy has been in the driver’s seat for some time. Traub says it’s now time, at last, for the educated, globalizing elite to rise up against the ignorant nationalist masses. The very last book of Christopher Lasch, published two decades ago, was an attack on precisely this political formation of an Ivy-League elite at war with the middle and working classes of this country. The title of his book? The Revolt of the Elites.

The world Traub longs to bring into being has been around for a long time. The very force he recommends as a new solution is, to many, the long-standing source of an old problem, the very problem Traub would like to address.

Second, Traub’s imagined ruling class of neoliberal technocrats lacks the taste and the talent for exercising the sorts of political skills that he thinks are now in order. These technocratic elites show no desire or aptitude for seizing the political field, taking command of the debate, and instructing the masses in the hard facts of reality. Clinton tried it for a day—remember when her message was, essentially, “It doesn’t get better“—and was forced, by the victories of a 74-year-old Jewish socialist in a string of primaries, to beat a hasty retreat behind a phalanx of race and gender happy talk.

Traub’s vision—and, make no mistake, it is a vision—is basically an Aaron Sorkin script in the guise of a blog post.

Or, as that old Shalamar song has it:

The second time around
Ooh, the second time is so much better, baby
The second time around
And I’ll make it better than the first time


  1. PY June 29, 2016 at 9:45 am | #

    As Thomas Ferguson has pointed out (e.g.,, “ignorant” or “low-information” voters would not be any less reluctant to support establishment candidates were they well-informed. A protest vote is a protest vote, and it is gratifying to see it interpreted that way by the pundits — even though it is unlikely that the political winners will do anything to resolve these voters’ problems.

  2. Rowenna Bethany June 29, 2016 at 11:02 am | #

    I used to think “smug liberal” was a trope invented by the right. The truth of it has been brought home by rants on Facebook proposing that the Brexit referendum – stemming from the opinion of ill-informed bigots – should simply be overturned by parliament. Something similar is taking place within the Labour Party, where the parliamentary party are trying to remove a leader who trounced the establishment candidates among the membership, and may well trounce them again.

    This is a sad and complicated situation – Corbyn may not be a viable leader for the British left but back to Blair cannot be an option (Owen Jones writes about this for Medium). Reading the above, I was struck by how fittingly Corey’s line “lacks the taste and talent for exercising the sorts of political skills that [they think] are now in order” might be applied to the Blairite wing of Labour.

  3. Roquentin June 29, 2016 at 11:19 am | #

    I have so many things to say in response to this:

    1) Over the past few months I’ve recognized to a greater degree than ever before the alignment between the interests of capital and mainstream liberalism. They support multiculturalism not out of humanistic concern but for the simple and straightforward reason that this easily allows capital to cross ethnic and national boundaries. The right is used to having capital on its side, but those days are coming to a close. They are being kicked to the curb by capital because they are no loner useful to it, and they are very angry about it.

    All the things liberals advocate: open immigration (a constant influx of cheap labor to suppress wages), multiculturalism (more consumers and workers for capital to exploit), internationalism (capital flowing freely across national borders, larger populations to use for its aims). Liberalism is now the most efficient way for capital to valorize itself.

    2) I recently read Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and it’s only gotten better with age (despite what a lot of people say). The vast majority of his arguments transfer seamlessly from the conformist bureaucrats of the 50s to the bourgeois technocrats of the present day. The argument doesn’t change much. They are the operationalist experts, this insulates them from any and all criticism. We currently live under the reign of the bourgeois technocrat. That’s the true sovereign power in the us. Dare to criticize them, and you’re written off as an ignorant crank. The space from which critical ideas could arise has successfully been stamped out.

    3) The open contempt which they have for the working class is now on full display. It’s like the old Brecht poem “dissolve the people and elect another.” There’s nothing benevolent about any of it. While the nationalist right may be racist, this is absolutely a direct result of neoliberal capitalism. All of the stuff I mentioned in #1 directly serves the interests of capital and they instinctively understand it. Their proposed solutions are wrong, can never and will never work. But on some level they understand what the problem is, the forces which are exploiting them.

    • Chad Vincent Stanton July 2, 2016 at 2:43 pm | #

      “While the nationalist right may be racist, this is absolutely a direct result of neoliberal capitalism”

      Again, and again, and again this is the trip line so many folks on the left run into. It would be convenient if this were true because it would make capital the enemy of all and allow folks to gently elide the fact that racism is a force in and of itself.

      Reducing all that’s wrong with the world to class only is an own goal that will continue to give centrists the advantage because it is something that PoC know not to be true, because of our very experience. Repeatedly telling us that we simply don’t understand that the racists we know are just misguided won’t make it any more true and it will keep serving as a repellent to a large number of PoC.

  4. Where are you, Jean-Jacques? June 29, 2016 at 12:00 pm | #

    Well done. Notice how pro- Brexit voters are ignorant because they ignore economic “facts,” such as overall GDP–statistics that purposely ignore larger questions of distribution. And, the refrain about lower consumer prices also serves as a distraction from wage pressures and job security. While I don’t pretend to know much about the economic issues involved, is it so difficult to understand that English blue collar workers don’t want to compete with Polish and Bulgarian immigrants for jobs and housing? Ultimately, the EU may be the best thing for England. I am somewhat perplexed,however, that our neo-liberal technocrats have so much trouble understanding, or at least saying out loud, that globalization can benefit the nation as a whole and simultaneously economically brutalize large segments of the population. Maybe I shouldn’t be–it resembles most of the disputes I had with some of my more political” sciencey” colleagues in graduate school, who also were paragons, if I may use the term, of anti-intellectualism.

    And, so much for Bernie pulling HIllary to the left. In today’s LA Times, she apparently met yesterday with millennial techies in Denver and LA, promising them, in the midst of a Reaganesque reference to America being “future-oriented,” to place a three year moratorium on college loan repayment and refinancing if they get a business up and running. After all, they are the job creators and we cannot burden them student debt. So, free higher education has turned into delaying payments and jiggering with interest rates–and for those who are fast on their way to become elites (and presumably donors). Of course, there was also the obligatory pander to give everyone high speed internet and introduce more technology education in schools. Education, as we all know, is only for job training–we don’t need any pointy-headed intellectuals studying art history and philosophy, or anything else that might get them to think “two-dimensionally.”

Leave a Reply