Neoliberal Catastrophism

According to The Washington Post:

Former president Barack Obama gently warned a group of freshman House Democrats Monday evening about the costs associated with some liberal ideas popular in their ranks, encouraging members to look at price tags, according to people in the room.

Obama didn’t name specific policies. And to be sure, he encouraged the lawmakers — about half-dozen of whom worked in his own administration — to continue to pursue “bold” ideas as they shaped legislation during their first year in the House.

But some people in the room took his words as a cautionary note about Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal, two liberal ideas popularized by a few of the more famous House freshmen, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

“He said we [as Democrats] shouldn’t be afraid of big, bold ideas — but also need to think in the nitty-gritty about how those big, bold ideas will work and how you pay for them,” said one person summarizing the former president’s remarks.

Obama’s words — rare advice from a leader who has shunned the spotlight since leaving office — come as the Democratic Party grapples with questions of how far left to lean in the run-up to 2020. Most Democratic candidates seeking the presidential nomination have embraced a single-payer health-care system and the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to make the U.S. economy energy efficient in a decade.

It seems like there are an increasing number of areas where the discourse among centrists and liberals follows a fairly similar script. The opening statement is one of unbridled catastrophe: Trump is fascism on the ascendant march! Global warming will destroy us in the next x years! (I’m not making any judgments here about the truth of these claims, though for the record, I believe the second but not the first). The comes the followup statement, always curiously anodyne and small: Let’s nominate Klobuchar. How are you going to pay for a Green New Deal? Don’t alienate the moderates.

All of these specific moves can be rationalized or explained by reference to local factors and considerations, but they seem like part of a pattern, representing something bigger. Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Eric Hobsbawm for a piece I’m working on, but the pattern seems to reflect the reality of life after the Cold War, the end of any viable socialist alternative. For the last quarter-century, we’ve lived in a world, on the left, where the vision of catastrophe is strong, while the answering vision remains inevitably small: baby steps, cap and trade, pay as you go, and so on. Each of these moves might have its own practical justifications, but it’s hard to see how anyone could credibly conjure from those minuscule proposals a blueprint that could in any way be commensurate with the scale of the problem that’s just been mooted, whether it be Trump or climate change.

I wonder if there is any precedent for this in history. You’ve had ages of catastrophe before, where politicians and intellectuals imagined the deluge and either felt helpless before it or responded with the most cataclysmic and outlandish utopias or dystopias of their own. What seems different today is how the imagination of catastrophe is coupled with this bizarre confidence in moderation and perverse belief in the margin.

Neoliberal catastrophism?



  1. Michaela Brangan March 26, 2019 at 3:41 pm | #

    Seems like especially wrongheaded advice, since he won in 2008, and Dems won down ticket, on expansive visions and policies of a hopeful new era that…he and they then modified, disavowed, botched or failed to implement. And then they lost Congress.

    “You should temper your expectations, since you too could end up in a position where you might be able to do something substantive and find yourself maintaining the status quo and not upsetting Grover Norquist and Mitch McConnell, who will call you a socialist anyway. No, You Can’t! Make a playlist instead.”

  2. haaretzeds March 26, 2019 at 3:45 pm | #

    I’m all for radical solutions to radical problems, but I don’t kid myself that they will be painless or that a majority will agree to it so readily, if ever. I’d love America to be like Scandinavia, but it would require about a 50% overall tax increase (the difference between the tax bite out of GDP in Scandinavia and in America). Bernie Sanders’ “socialism” doesn’t tell you that; he offers Scandinavia on the cheap, or strictly on the backs of the rich, which is now it’s done in Scandinavia. Taming global warming is going to require unimaginable sacrifices. AOC’s New Green Deal makes catastrophic global warming seem like the greatest opportunity mankind has ever had to create utopia, like a cause for celebration. I’m waiting for HONEST radical solutions to radical problems, a politics that’s connected to reality, which simply isn’t on offer from the left today.

    • Frank Talk March 30, 2019 at 10:00 pm | #

      You’re engaging in the very neoliberal catastrophism that the OP criticizes. I support these progressive policies in principle, but how are we going tp pay for them? What Bernie and AOC don’t tell you is that taxes will go up! It’s the same condescending rhetoric that Obama is rolling out – we’re the adults in the room, and you’re just acting like irresponsible children.

      And yet, while taxes might go up in order to pay for Medicare-for-all, so too will disposable income, because we won’t be paying for insurance contributions anymore and M4A is cheaper than private insurance.

      So, who’s being honest and whose being dishonest? Supporters of M4A who realize that its cheaper than private insurance, and will therefore actually lead to an increase in disoposable income, or those who criticize it by calling into question how we’re going to pay for it, and warning that people won’t buy in because taxes will go up?

  3. Ghosty Ghost March 26, 2019 at 3:51 pm | #

    I would say that the response to the development of nuclear weapons is an appropriate example of how we continue to deal with existential threats. It’s frankly amazing that once we learned about the world ending potential of these bombs that we a species didn’t immediately dismantle the bomb nor immediately start another worldwide war to eliminate all budding nuclear rivals (even though there were and are people who’ve advocated for both of these responses). We just kinda fell into a complacency that the adults in charge, including the numerous madmen and drunks who’ve had that power over the past couple of decades, won’t actually use the bomb so we tinker with treaties and inspections etc. But perhaps that’s insane and we will one day know that the dreamers of a nuke free world were the only sane ones.

    When it comes to climate change sometimes my way out of despair is to just think “maybe a scientist will figure it out” and move on – I can’t yet bring myself hope in action that a mass movement can win and succeed in stopping catastrophe

    • jonnybutter March 27, 2019 at 4:45 am | #

      Unlike climate change, the threat of nuclear weapons is binary – extinction/major devastation happens or doesn’t happen. If it doesn’t happen, you can watch reruns of “Seinfeld” “House Hunters” tonight (‘but I wanted to be right ON the beach!”) and believe in Moderation. If you live (or lived) in Luanda or Beira your regularly scheduled broadcast is interrupted.

  4. jonnybutter March 26, 2019 at 4:02 pm | #

    It is strange. I can’t think of another time like it. Maybe even 25 years afterwards, US politicians’ imaginations (such as they are) are still dominated by the cold war, in a mixture of PTSD and nostalgia. Or rather their lack of imagination makes them unwilling to give that ‘framework’ up, at least without a fight. One of the psychological products of that period in the US, in my reckoning, is a faith in moderation for its own sake – no matter what’s happening, it needs a moderate response. It runs so deep and dovetails with extant American mildness. The cold war in the US had that eerie calm and mostly booming economy, giving denial a chance to really settle in.

    The politics of it is pure contempt: rile up the rubes, then ‘gently’ scold them. I guess some people like being riled up and then lightly spanked. Notice that Republicans rile up their rubes and leave them – keep them – riled up.

    • Ghosty Ghost March 26, 2019 at 4:12 pm | #

      Republicans tolerate a lot more radicalism on their side but check out the writings of some of their true believers and you will see a lot of anguish about half measures and lack of progress (or I guess re-gress). If you truly believe that an angry God will soon deliver his wrath to punish the West for abortion and gay marriage, how can you excuse the slow delivery on turning back the advancement of these civil rights? If you really believe that keeping a white majority in America is the one thing that will secure a future for your children – where is the wall that will keep the brown invaders out? Mitch McConnel has been singularly successful at keeping the Republican Party in power but his name is a curse word in right circles for compromising and keeping final victory over the left out of reach.

  5. jonnybutter March 26, 2019 at 5:39 pm | #

    Yes, Ghosty Ghost, all true, though there’s no symmetry; the Dems don’t tolerate *any* radicalism. They don’t even tolerate left-liberalism. Advocate for mild social democracy and you get bopped on the nose like you’re a puppy.

    On the one hand you have McConnell preserving GOP power, holding the dead serious apocalyptical fringes at bay, and on the other we might (I hope) have Sanders (at national level anyway) saving the Dems, not from zealotry, but from their own obdurate complacency, their cheesy, outside-of-time view-from-nowhere careerism. Who has the harder job? Sanders!

  6. SamB March 26, 2019 at 6:41 pm | #

    Why refer to the Soviet Union as a “viable socialist alternative”? It seems to me that the further the stain it left on socialism recedes from historical memory, the closer a truly “viable” socialist alternative will come to being conceivable.

  7. Daniel Caraco March 26, 2019 at 7:12 pm | #

    Regardless of what one may think about his views on anti-semitism, Paul Valery’s essay/letters, “The Crisis of the Mind”, speaks to the question of another time. They are interesting reads.

  8. Pacific Loon March 26, 2019 at 8:56 pm | #

    If Obama had come out at the gate with a proposal for single payer health care, the Republicans would have demonized it and then countered with RomneyCare, on which the ACA was based. They would not now be continuing to disown what was essentially their own plan.

    Republicans don’t seem to feel the need to moderate their ideas before pushing for them. I suggest the Democrats learn from that example.

    • Tom March 27, 2019 at 7:42 am | #

      The GOP never proposed an ACA style plan in good faith. What if Obama proposed single payer? It would not have had the votes, most likely. Even a public option did not have the votes.

      ACA was a great improvement to the status quo. Why are Republicans still fighting it? Maybe it’s not socialist enough for the true left, but I would love to see a leftist try to convince a republican that ACA is not socialist. There are improvements to be made in ACA: end the subsidy cliff, public option, and othe stuff in ACA 2.0. It wont happen until 2021 at earliest but the work goes on. And Work on the M4A proposals go on. They are not enemies; both will help people, M4A is probably better, if you can get it passed.

      • Alexandra White March 31, 2019 at 7:54 pm | #

        The ACA was based on Massachusetts Republican Gov Mitch Romney’s healthcare plan, which originated at the conservative Heritage Foundation. It would have been the GOP response to a proposal for Single Payer (or any type of Medicare for All) plan.

  9. Chris Morlock March 26, 2019 at 9:14 pm | #

    I keep reading and re-reading the Green New Deal. It’s filled with many things I agree with, but it’s also filled with language that pays fealty to Left Identitarian concepts that aren’t popular and aren’t where my head is at. It also leverages environmental apocalypse without paying any attention to Nuclear, i.e. fission, as the only real alternative. So we are back at a resounding square 1, which is to pursue “green” energy when there is no green energy solution.

    Just had a long debate with friends last night about the nature of AOC, if she is for real and if she is the person to look to, especially when Bernie is not viable future option. The discussion was surprisingly heated. We all came to the conclusion at the end that we liked what we saw, despite the flaws and sense that she won’t be ready for years. The push to suborn her ideology by the MSM is obvious.

    I still feel as if Leftism as a ethos has only one real chance in the US, and that’s a New Deal Democrat that leads with a message of universal economic justice and leaves the more historically liberal, and now Neo Liberal, social and political issues as secondary issues. How do we pay for it? By curtailing the insane military budget that doesn’t do anything for the American people and is simply a privatized corporate army at this point.

    Simple enough? ,

  10. Pacific Loon March 26, 2019 at 9:29 pm | #

    Nuclear power doesn’t look like such a good option when you have corporate profit driven entities like Pacific Gas & Electric involved …

    • Chris Morlock March 26, 2019 at 11:58 pm | #

      I agree, the biggest hit on Nuclear for me is that so much of it, in fact 90% of it worldwide, falls into private ownership. No reason it couldn’t be government owned, however.

      • Pacific Loon March 31, 2019 at 7:58 pm | #

        Yes, but least we forget, the government approved the building of a nuclear power plant on an earthquake fault line. I am not entirely certain that removing the obvious profit motive could prevent that level of astounding incompetence.

  11. Dean March 26, 2019 at 9:39 pm | #

    I keep reading and re-reading the preamble to the Constitution.

  12. Ed Dupree March 27, 2019 at 10:08 am | #

    Neoliberal catastrophism: for me Corey’s phrase neatly sums up the contemporary billionaire’s (perhaps unconscious) ethos. There’s no future, so get it while you can and work on your New Zealand bunker.

    About nuclear power: how do we babysit these 450 or so plants, and their waste pools, for the next couple hundred thousand years (about as long as _Homo sapiens_ has been around), whether they’re privately owned or not? If industrial society goes down via climate change & the resulting famines, as seems likely, each plant becomes a Fukushima.

    I think we make a mistake when we refuse to imagine the worst. —That it’s too late, collapse is baked in, and the billionaire in his bunker will outlive the rest of us by just a year or two. This seems to me not merely a catastrophist fantasy but an increasing probability. Please convince me I’m wrong.

    • good2go March 27, 2019 at 1:01 pm | #

      Agree 100%. When Corey writes about “…the end of any viable socialist alternative” the first thing that sprang to mind was “MONEY.”

    • Chris Morlock March 28, 2019 at 1:48 pm | #

      The negative environmental effects of our most common energy sources far outweigh any potential nuclear source. Combining the environmental rhetoric with a clean, advanced breeder reactor program that focuses on a public funded and owned system would be a real solution.

      Environmentalism is nothing more than controlled opposition unless it offers a real solution. Take a look at the current state of renewable energy and ask yourself if what environmentalism is means anything other than politics.

      • Ed Dupree March 28, 2019 at 3:38 pm | #

        How clean can an advanced breeder reactor be? Does it answer my worry about future (and far future) dangers? —I actually don’t know, so I’m not just asking rhetorically. Can you point me to some information?

        Anyway, if locked-in global warming has made the collapse of industrial society inevitable, as seems likely to me, how is switching energy systems a solution? Complex societies are still based on growing vast amounts of grain, as they’ve always been, and grains just won’t grow when it’s too hot and dry. The warming we’re seeing now is the delayed effect of CO2 emitted ten years ago, and emissions have only increased in that time. So warming looks set to accelerate, exponentially instead of in a linear fashion, due to feedback mechanisms like the release of methane from the melting arctic. If we ceased all emissions today, it wouldn’t change this.

        What I’m proposing is that it’s probably too late. No solutions. We’re fucked. I don’t like saying it, but there it is.

        • Chris Morlock March 29, 2019 at 9:47 pm | #

          Ed, that’s sounds like what Corey is talking about. Human beings need a certain amount of energy availability to live their lives in a decent manner. If the world is overpopulated, soylent green is around the corner, and we are all doomed then what does anything matter? That also feeds into the right wing argument that feeds unbridled greed.

          Clean energy, 100% clean, does not exist. I follow in great detail fusion, photo-voltaic, and all form of it very closely. Even spent a few years of my professional career invested in alternative battery technology. It’s all fantastic, it’s all evolving, and it’s all X years away. Combined all green energies in the world provide less than 5% of humanities needs.

          If we do take some of the new AOC like rhetoric seriously, and obviously some of your views, it’s either just about too late or too late. Doesn’t that mean we need a solution now? Even if it is “too late”:, don’t we get a significant benefit from going to another energy model? Even it only bought us 50 years of life wouldn’t that be worth it?

  13. mark March 27, 2019 at 11:05 am | #

    Constipating declinism?

  14. Richard Girard March 27, 2019 at 4:39 pm | #

    Americans have for the most part, forgotten what it means to have nothing. We are being utterly destroyed by politicians unwilling to take bold steps, and who live by Speaker Sam Rayburn’s old mantra, “Go along to get along.” This is the way of stagnation and national destruction. Only through bold actions can we solve the problems of climate change, failing economic and social infrastructure, and income inequality. The reason that anyone voted for Trump over Clinton is that they wanted change, they simply didn’t realize that as a billionaire, Trump’s change would be reactionary, trying to drag us back into a past that never existed, rather than progressive change, offering a new and better future.

  15. Billikin March 29, 2019 at 4:21 am | #

    Catastrophic neoliberalism?

  16. Roquentin March 31, 2019 at 7:33 pm | #

    I’ve long thought that most people simply don’t want to admit that the party is over. We’re living not just under a decaying and moribund political regime, but a method or organizing the economy and the culture associated with it….an entire way of life. There has been such strong effort of the past several decades in the US to demonize any serious alternative to capitalism that most people simply aren’t equipped to think outside of this system. As much as I am loathe to admit it, there’s a certain logic to these appeals to centrism. The bitter truth is many voters simply haven’t accepted that it’s over either, so we may as well pander to their illusions. Long term damage for short term gains, the United States in a nutshell.

    If the Yellow Vests in France taught me anything, it’s that one of the key political battles in the coming years will be who feels the pain of climate change, to what extent, and how. I imagine it will be dealt with like most things in the US are, the poorest and most vulnerable citizens getting the worst of it, a powerful elite largely insulated from most negative effects, and a whole lot of others desperately scrambling to get out of the way. The left has for too long, in a manner which is shockingly naive, thought that global warming was going to be a boon for it politically. That it would somehow ensure they would rise to power. Why should anyone think this? It’s foolhardy to think that people wouldn’t keep on doing business as usual, right until the bitter end when they couldn’t anymore, and there’s no guarantee they’d abandon capitalism after that. If neoliberalism isn’t capable of managing the ecological crisis we are just starting to walk into, there’s no guarantee something better would emerge from it.

  17. Lichanos April 23, 2019 at 9:48 am | #

    …”Trump is fascism on the ascendant march! Global warming will destroy us in the next x years! (I’m not making any judgments here about the truth of these claims, though for the record, I believe the second but not the first).”

    Why on earth do you support the idea that “global warming” will destroy us? Do you actually believe that warming will render extinct homo sapiens? The species that survived the Ice Age? Why do radicals and liberals who rightly criticize and analyze everything the troglodyte Right says just switch off their thinking when the Climate Apocalypse is mentioned? I suspect it is because reading through scientific papers and thinking about statistics is just too boring to capture their attention, so instead, you swallow whatever sensational junk is written by journalists – as long as they have a liberal slant.

    The validity of projections about Earth’s climate is a scientific question first and foremost. Politics comes once the facts are known. If you believe that “97% of scientists agree…” (on what, I wonder) you haven’t been doing your homework. Try reading the IPCC reports for a starter.

    • Geoff April 27, 2019 at 8:45 pm | #

      Yes, IPCC reports have – every single time – underplayed what has actually happened. The way you get 97% of scientists to agree on a report is by being conservative in your estimates. The report describes changes that will *undeniably happen*, supported by every single climate model. It also relies on technology (carbon sequestration) that is more or less a myth on the necessary scales, and completely ignores the contribution from the methane in the permafrost (which that technology does not even account for).

      • Lichanos April 30, 2019 at 9:18 am | #

        “…The report describes changes that will *undeniably happen*, supported by every single climate model.”

        There is a range of outputs for each carbon consumption scenario.

  18. Fearful... April 23, 2019 at 11:46 am | #

    “Do you actually believe that warming will render extinct homo sapiens? The species that survived the Ice Age?”

    No, but just imagine the collapse of agriculture and the war and famine which would ensue…

  19. Lichanos April 24, 2019 at 3:48 pm | #

    Well, if the dire scenarios were to come to pass – and that’s a big “IF” – there would be disruption, and people don’t handle that too well. But would it be any worse than the havoc wrought by WWI, WWII, and all the subsequent burning and killing? I rather doubt it.

    As for famine, the work of geographers and historians shows that weather, i.e. drought, has relatively little to do with the occurrence of famines. At most, it is a spark that ignites a dangerously inflammable situation.

    • Geoff April 27, 2019 at 8:40 pm | #

      Really? Runaway (exponentially increasing) CO2 output will continue until our society *stops using combustion*, and then we always have about a degree of warming locked in whenever we stop based on contributions that haven’t affected warming yet, not to mention the many dangerous feedback loops. The desertification of entire continents is, yes, worse than the two world wars.

      The only big if is whether we see the kind of mobilization necessary to even keep modern human society running before it all comes crashing down.

  20. Lichanos April 30, 2019 at 9:15 am | #

    You need to look at the data.

    De-carbonization of society is happening, and will continue, slowly for now, faster if we fund research better, but it will take a lot of time. CO2 discharge is NOT increasing exponentially, and the impacts of human industrial combustion are not as tremendous as you assert, although they do exist.

    Human impacts on the climate need to be assessed scientifically, not on the basis of journalistic pieces written by people who have no interest in scientific analysis. And don’t tell me that “99% of scientists agree…” because I have read those surveys, and they simply indicate, if you accept their shoddy methodology, that scientists agree that climate changes, and that humans are part of the reason.

    Try reading the IPCC statements for policymakers, for a start. If you find it confusing, that’s because there is so little certainty on what is actually happening.

  21. Edward May 2, 2019 at 3:54 pm | #

    I think this is a scam where the Dems spend a lot of hot air denouncing “X” which is hated by the left but then do “Y” which the corporations want. This happened over and over again with Obama but did not start with him. Until recently the left– at least those still in the Democratic party, were not hard-headed enough to pay attention to what was actually being done. Or at least they could not break through the media propaganda hiding what the Democrats were doing. Another example is the last Democratic party convention where politicians like Sen. Warren denounced corporate misbehavior. Much of the deregulation responsible for the white collar crime wave was done by Democrats, but that truth could not be spoken at the convention.

    There has been a fair amount of friction between the Democratic party and the left. At their conventions, at least in the past, protestors were abused by police and kenneled in “free speech zones”. The press played their role in keeping silent about the repression. The left seems to be ascendant these days, however.

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