The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and Pandemic is available from Verso.
In his 1962 work Capitalism and Freedom, the neoliberal economist and pioneer of monetarism Milton Friedman surveyed the current and historical relationships between the individual and the state, and between liberalism and conservatism:
“Yet even in political matters, there is a notable difference. Jealous of liberty, and hence fearful of centralized power, whether in governmental or private hands, the nineteenth-century liberal favored political decentralization. Committed to action and confident of the beneficence of power so long as it is in the hands of a government ostensibly controlled by the electorate, the twentieth-century liberal favors centralized government. He will resolve any doubt about where power should be located in favor of the state instead of the city, of the federal government instead of the state, and of a world organization instead of a national government. Because of the corruption of the term liberalism, the views that formerly went under that name are now often labeled conservatism.”
From the perspective of the 1960s, deep in the era of European social democracy and an American social liberalism pioneered by FDR, Friedman could write convincingly that the two poles of mainstream politics—liberalism and conservatism, and their relationship to the state—had switched sides. Friedman argued that mid-20th-century liberalism had adopted 19th-century conservative paternalist characteristics through its promotion of welfare and economic intervention, and that it was those on the emergent New Right that had taken up the mantle of the classical liberal traditions of free trade, low taxation, and individual autonomy.
It is ironic that, fifty years later, these elements of Friedman’s critique seem to have reversed. Capitalism and Freedom’s position that the liberal mainstream should pursue policies aimed at revivifying 19th-century laissez-faire traditions has come to pass. It is now the case, in much of the Western world, that the radical left and right pursue protectionism, state intervention, and the building of welfare systems. Meanwhile, the neoliberal center clings to a model of political economy that advocates for extreme openness to flows of capital, technology, and the power of the individual and corporations over the collective state. It is interesting to note that the return to 19th-century labels that Friedman advocated has not caught up with older generations — as evidenced by numerous geriatric American institutions accusing those who advocate for welfare spending, nationalization, or debt relief of being “liberals.” The fact that they are actually protectionist statists (both left and right) is consistently overlooked by those still wedded to the dynamics of the 20th century.
The return of the state to mainstream politics will continue to confuse those conditioned to believe by Friedman and his ilk that the state’s presence is a necessary but negative dynamic underpinning human freedom. The fact that some have construed the state’s return to the pre-neoliberal level of power formerly held during WWII as an Orwellian nightmare indicates the extent to which support for a minimal state has been normalized among older generations. For the young, however, who are consistently asked to individually carry the economic burden of services such as housing and education that were formerly state-provided, the return of government capacity is not a totalitarian threat but an essential lifeline.
A novel post-pandemic politics concerned with place, societal harmony, and individual connection to collective effort seem to hark back to an early 19th-century universalist constitutionalism that imagined the individual operating within a collective state as the supreme rational end point of history that would allow for human flourishing. Two centuries before, during the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan (1651), which understood the state as a pragmatic neutral limit on humanity’s destructive potential to “become enemies; and in the way to their end, endeavour to destroy or subdue one another.”
Later, in G.W.F Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right (1820), the state represents the ultimate expression of the individual’s ethical commitments to one another in friendship, the family, work, unions, civil society, and politics. To Hegel, the state, built on mutual recognition and collective life, was a spiritual expression of human potential, rather than its suggested Hobbesian limit. Consequently, for some, the state replaced God as the rational superstructure guiding human activity.
We can see examples of this imperative in collective efforts during the pandemic: from displays of pan banging in support of national health services to inner-city resistance to evictions and refugee deportations. While those objecting to evictions and deportations may conceive of themselves as acting against an oppressive state apparatus in the form of the police, their protest also gestures toward hopes for a more ethical collective civil society—mutual recognition of “man as the highest essence for man,” an essential element of the state for both Hegel and Marx.
Paolo Gerbaudo, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London, has addressed this shift from neoliberalism to neo-statism and what it could mean for the future of politics in his new book The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and Pandemic. Gerbaudo defines the “Great Recoil” in grand historicist terms: as “a period when the coordinates of history seem to have been reversed. Things that have been taken for granted for a generation—globalisation; freedom of movement; economic growth; the clear demarcation of geopolitical friends, rivals and enemies—all seem to have been thrown into question, creating much disorientation and consternation in polities around the world.”
Gerbaudo uses the parabolic image of the pangolin and the lobster to signify the shift from neoliberalism to neo-statism. The lobster (a symbol famously deployed by the conservative “intellectual” Jordan Peterson) represents outward competition, while the pangolin, which curls up into a spiked ball when attacked, is representative of rational self-defense and the “protective state.” The latter is defined as an approach to modernization embedded “in social institutions and accompanied by protective mechanisms that can make societies capable of absorbing change.”
The Great Recoil makes clear that this reaction to disorder finds a place on both the left and right: “protective statism is not a partisan ideology advocated by only one political camp, but more like a meta-ideological horizon, which, like neoliberalism at its zenith, infuses the entire political space.” Gerbaudo interprets the left and right-wing populisms that emerged after 2008 as transitional ideologies between neoliberalism and neo-statism: “The Great Recoil is the moment when neoliberal thesis and populist antithesis engenders a statist synthesis.” Instead, Gerbaudo argues, the left will morph into an inclusive “social protectivism” concerned with social security and the environment, while the right will transform into an exclusive “proprietarian protectionism” geared towards securing private property within local spheres. Both factions will withdraw from a globalized and integrated world market.
For Gerbaudo, forces external to the state—capital, technological acceleration, multinational corporations, integrated global supply chains, and supranational organizations—seem to represent, for those not amongst the economic elite, chaos rather than stability. This has led to “[a] time when society returns to itself, when the shock vis-a-vis the negativity of the world leads to a desperate yearning for interiority and autonomy, and we have to collectively address foundational questions concerning society’s basic conditions of existence.”
The “great recoil” against current forms of globalization has been made manifest in the reaction to COVID. We can see people and governments assessing the possibility of more novel zoonotic diseases infecting humans from the wild edges of civilization by emphasizing locality over the expansion of markets that have entered zones of infection usually contained by geographic isolation. Across the political spectrum, there has been criticism of neoliberal administrations for outsourcing vital medical manufacturing through complex and vulnerable supply chains to locations where it is more cost-efficient and less secure.
But this moment of recoil, or “sublation—an overcoming of the present order of things,” as Gerbaudo also calls it, has longer and less immediate causes in the successive phases and crises of capitalism: from the mercantilism of the 18th century, the free trade of the mid-19th century, the high-tariff protectionism of the 1890s, the speculative finance-driven capitalism of the 1920s, and the social democracy of the postwar era to the currently dominant neoliberal globalization. Taking influence from the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff, Gerbaudo states: “Like the economy, ideology is defined by long waves lasting for around forty to fifty years, with periods of rising hegemony succeeded by phases of decline. After the early twentieth-century crisis of liberalism and the crisis of social democracy in the 1970s and 1980s, we seem to be witnessing a new moment of ideological transition.”
Gerbaudo proposes his own canon of statist thinkers to counter the dominance of neoliberal saints like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Karl Popper, and the Mont Pelerin Society, whose ideologies were influential in the administrations of Reagan, Thatcher, Pinochet, and Helmut Kohl. In the book, Gerbaudo looks to Plato and Hobbes, Machiavelli and Antonio Gramsci, the Nazi legal scholar Carl Schmitt, the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, and the Austro-Hungarian economist and historian Karl Polanyi, asserting that these are the thinkers we should look to when interpreting the new post-COVID world.
After WWII, many of these individuals, especially Plato, Hobbes, Machiavelli and Schmitt, were understandably associated with the horrific violence unleashed by the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin due their advocacy of political forms outside the minimal liberal democratic state. Thinkers as diverse as the liberal Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and the Marxist Theodor Adorno in Dialectic of the Enlightenment (1944) attempted to trace totalitarianism back to the rationalist and idealist systems of Plato and the Enlightenment. However, Gerbaudo claims that: “While originating in the tragic history of the twentieth century, the equation of political control with totalitarianism has ended up legitimising familiar neoliberal nostrums. The anti-authoritarian criticism of power, strongly informed by the new social movements of the 1970s and 1980s, has ultimately proved to be a moralistic dead end.”
Gerbaudo, a committed socialist, rejects the anti-authoritarianism of the 20th-century’s New Left and Right as forces unable to deal with the pressing issues of economic collapse, climate change, and massive wealth inequality. For The Great Recoil, “there is no way to address present challenges without a recovery and democratisation of top-down control.” Gerbaudo suggests that the neo-statist left avoid the bureaucratic pitfalls of former models of state socialism such as the USSR by constructing a “democratic authority in the framework of a ‘social republic’—an authority whose top-down control would be checked by bottom-up control exerted by the citizenry and workers.”
While Gerbaudo offers a convincing picture of a renewed commitment to the state, he does not elaborate whether neo-statism is a stable long-term ideology or merely a short-term reaction within a longer capitalist evolution. The Great Recoil employs a Hegelian dialectic: competing historical forces contradict each other, then form syntheses before being overcome by further contradictions. However, Gerbaudo spends little time exploring the potential contradictions and weaknesses within 21st-century neo-statism. Indeed, we are presented with a binary of either left-wing “social protectivism” or right-wing “proprietarian protectionism” that will replace globalized neoliberalism. There is less consideration of the possibility that divergent globalizations might emerge in reaction to neo-statism. For instance, prior to global neoliberalism, there was communist internationalism. In 1999 an “alter-globalization” movement emerged during the Seattle WTO protest. And currently, China is pursuing an alternative model of third-world developmental globalization, driven by debt financing and infrastructure investment through the Belt and Road Initiative.
A generous reading of The Great Recoil will accept that Gerbaudo is pragmatically limiting his analysis to a contemporary phenomenon that is only just being explored. A more critical interpretation might venture that neo-statism is being proposed as a nostalgic and escapist panacea for an inescapable modernity. Indeed, one could critique The Great Recoil’s neo-statist argument as negative. What are the limits of a society shaped around the mitigation and avoidance of chaos? How is neo-statism different from other failed attempts to insulate ways of life from crises and the forces of modernity? An opponent on the left might argue that all successful revolutions, and indeed reforms, have harnessed the power of modernity to their cause. One could compare the failures of the Russian Narodnik primitivist back-to-the-land ‘Going To The People’ movement of 1874 or hippy communalism with the longer-lived modernist projects found in the French and Russian Revolutions or European social democracy.
Gerbaudo understands that this is a possible criticism of his work and argues that the violent forces of environmental destruction, technological acceleration, and economic inequality are more stark than those faced by our revolutionary antecedents. The result is that neo-statism is actually more pragmatic than escapist:
“…various voices on the left have argued that the dizzying pace of technological innovation may hasten the end of capitalism and the beginning of a more just order. This is the position associated with the proponents of the post-capitalist ‘accelerationism’ articulated by authors such as Nick Srnicek, Paul Mason and Aaron Bastani. The return to an emphasis on the development of productive forces found in Marx and Lenin, where technical progress was seen as a precondition of communist revolution, betrays a Promethean optimism at odds with the current historical predicament. If accelerationism in the mid-2010s represented a welcome antidote to the failure of imagination of the left… today it risks having little to offer those who find themselves displaced by technology or environmental crisis.”
The Great Recoil accepts that there are conceivable left-wing versions of globalization represented by movements such as left accelerationism that could counter the localism of a proposed “social protectivism.” However, Gerbaudo sees present trends as pointing towards a state socialism arising from capitalism’s stagnation, rather than its acceleration: “Socialist possibilities have emerged precisely in conditions of capitalist crisis and depression, in moments of inertia, and of rebellion against forced modernisation. Revolutions are not necessarily products of the acceleration of capitalism’s productive forces.”
Whether Gerbaudo is right or wrong about the coming of the protective state, he has clearly captured the present mood and produced a timely analysis of potential vectors of political conflict. We are at an inflection point. In both the U.S. and U.K., the growth of the state during COVID is already being rolled back by neoliberal actors. In the U.K., Rishi Sunak’s treasury is cutting Universal Credit, raising national insurance (a tax that hits the lowest earners) to pay for millionaire pensioners’ social care, axing job support schemes, lowering repayment thresholds for university tuition, and minimally intervening in a collapsing gas and power market that has been racked by supply chain problems. In the U.S., Biden’s, delayed and possibly shrunk, $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill, a comparatively tiny amount, is threatened in the senate by both the GOP and rebellious “moderates” Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema. Consequently, government shutdown is now a possibility.
The excuse used to justify this retraction of the state is that the emergency is over—despite continually resurgent pandemic infection rates. The Great Recoil claims, rather, that a broader state of emergency has only just begun. We will have to wait to see if Gerbaudo’s prophecy about the long-term trajectory of politics towards a protective state is correct. Regardless, The Great Recoil has described something immediate, and will remain a useful guide for conceptualizing politics post-pandemic, through the era of climate change, and into the crises of the future.♦
Samuel McIlhagga is a freelance journalist, book reviewer and writer based in the U.K.