We must challenge neoliberalism politically and economically

I share many of Mark Jennings’ criticisms of Richard Denniss’ claim that neoliberalism is essentially dead. He points out weaknesses in Denniss’ arguments, particularly about the relationship between state intervention and market forces in neoliberal ideology and practice, and about neoliberalism’s ability to survive despite the serious crisis it is in. 

However, Jennings is wrong about the relationship between economics and politics under neoliberalism. 

It is important to disentangle what neoliberalism desires from what it does. While they contain truth, bold statements that the distinction between politics and economics is no longer real – and that “the political citizen, existing as irreducible to the economic human, is now mostly a historical oddity” – don’t help clarify the contemporary situation. 

Politics increasingly has been subordinated to economics – the independence of treasury departments and central banks, “independent” economic commissions, imposing “apolitical” financial bureaucracies on several European countries and so forth. But these developments have not eliminated the relative autonomy or importance of politics. 

The reaction to the deteriorating situation of working class people has been expressed time and time again in the political sphere: Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and now Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York. 

In a different way, politics can have a life of its own, particularly in periods of crisis, in populist right wing programs not in the interests of the majority of the capitalist class. The bosses in the UK, for instance, could not stop Brexit. And the revolt of Boris Johnson shows they have lost a lot of control over what traditionally has been “their” party. 

This doesn’t mean we should accept the reformist separation of politics and economics and the idea that politics is simply about getting people elected into parliament. That’s a framework used to justify a parliamentary road to socialism, and an acceptance that reforms should be limited to those that can be accommodated within capitalism. 

Underpinning the limitation of using the state to transform society is the control that the capitalist class has over the economy, and that the capitalist state secures that control. 

However, because representative politics acts as a safety valve for social discontent, and because capitalist control over politics requires conscious intervention, the parliament can express the contradictions of capitalist society that the capitalist class can’t control. 

Socialists must fight on the existing political terrain without capitulating to it. How we do so varies from country to country depending on the particular situation. But the goal of socialist must be, as Marx and Engels wrote, “to preserve [our] independence, to count [our] forces, and to bring before the public [our] revolutionary attitude and party standpoint”.

We also have to fight the limitations of capitalist politics and point the way toward breaking with the system. Unless economic control is wrested from the capitalist class, it will be impossible to found a society of genuine equality. The path to that goal is not simply a political one; it will involve countless struggles at the heart of the production process – union organising, sit-ins and strikes –and political action not confined to the halls of political power, such as mass protests.

It will also mean exposing and confronting the capitalist state’s anti-democratic nature and the relative powerlessness of the parliament in the face of the capitalists’ control of the economy. 

Ultimately this will require the dismantling of the capitalist state and creating a new form of organising politics and economics under the democratic control of the working class.

To advocate, as Jennings does, a “return to the idea of what it means to be a politically engaged human in what we once called ‘society’”, is admirable. But it is not enough – it is based on an overly rosy conception of what politics was like before the neoliberal era.

We need a new politics that relates to desires for systemic change, and draws them to their logical conclusion: a revolutionary struggle against the entire capitalist system.