Brexit, Trumpism, Sanders, and the Decrepit State of Capitalism: Against Political Determinism

by Michael Rectenwald

Published simultaneously in With Sober Senses and CLG News.


There’s a basic article of faith in leftist thought, held especially dearly by most among the U.S. left. It is so entrenched and so seldom challenged that it has attained the status of myth, an unquestioned origin story on par with the Book of Genesis, as the latter must have been regarded within Christendom during the Middle Ages.

The myth goes like this: During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, two arch right-wing and highly potent politicians, rose to power in their respective nations, the U.S. and the U.K. They thereafter began to institute what was for the vast majority a vile and destructive political and economic scheme: “neoliberalism.” Previous to the instalment of this neoliberal scheme, the working class had experienced relative economic improvement, and capitalists seemed happy too (as if we care). But suddenly, and seemingly without cause (although the failure of Keynesianism was apparent in the unprecedented stagflation of the 1970s), these evil political twins, prompted by wizards who formalized the approach, introduced the nefarious ideology of neoliberalism to the world. As cruel and heartless representatives of the capitalist class (which, indeed, they were), they and their supporters caused the Fall from the supposed Paradise of Keynesian reformism that had preceded them. In this mythological version of reality, neoliberalism is understood merely as a set of essentially unwarranted and unusually brutal policies, an ideological and political formation that was hatched in the brains of evil masterminds conspiring in right-wing think tanks, concocted to dupe and punish the vast majority for the benefit of the rich and powerful.

This narrative sounds cartoonish or religious in character, but only because it is – not because I have made it so. It is a typical leftist personification of world-historical forces in lieu of an actual analysis within political economy. It amounts to what I have elsewhere called “political reductionism,” which is similar to what Andrew Kliman has referred to as “political determinism.” Kliman describes political determinism as such: “They [Keynesians and social democrats] think that the capitalists [and/or their political representatives] control capitalism––not the other way around––so that the system can become something it’s not once different people with different priorities assume control of it.” Thus, if only such people as Reagan and Thatcher had never been elected, or better yet, had never been born …

The mythological version of neoliberalism is invoked daily, and most recently in response to such events and political developments as Brexit, Trumpism, and the unprecedented political (albeit thwarted) success of the “socialist” Bernie Sanders. According to journalist Glenn Greenwald, the “leave” outcome of the Brexit referendum registers what should be an expected response to decades of neoliberal policies foisted on the masses by the EU and the British political elite. Along the same lines, Michael Hudson argues, “the whole withdrawal from Europe means withdrawing from austerity… The rejection of eurozone austerity is, essentially, a rejection of the neoliberal plan that the TTIP is supposed to be the capstone of.” Similarly, in the U.S., the appeal of Donald Trump is due at least partially to his feigned and misleading championing of U.S. working-class interests, a working class which, Trump suggests, has been made redundant by lopsided and globalist trade deals and outsourcing/off-shoring, and reduced to the precarity of part-time and/or Uberized piece-meal work or permanent unemployment. As Trump, Sanders, and the left blogosphere see it, these dire consequences are all due to the choices of neoliberal politicos, especially Reagan, the Bushes, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Bernie Sanders’s entire presidential campaign can be summed up simply as: “just say no to neoliberalism.” The “political revolution” that he heralds effectively amounts to a reversal of neoliberal policies and their replacement by progressive ones. According to Sanders, the entire economic fiasco that we have been enduring has been the result of a series of political and policy decisions that have been disastrous for working Americans.

What’s the problem with this narrative, you ask? After all, didn’t Reagan actually begin the defeat of unionism with the breaking of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization’s strike on August 5, 1981, thereby effectively inaugurating the long period of neoliberalism that we have been enduring ever since? Didn’t Bill Clinton, the arch neoliberal Democrat, sign NAFTA into law in 1993, a trade agreement that eviscerated labor and environmental protections, while costing millions their jobs? Didn’t Clinton also repeal the Glass–Steagall Act in 1999, thereby supposedly eventuating the massive financial crisis of 2008, the effects of which we are still reeling from to this day? In short, didn’t political agents actually institute neoliberal policies, policies that continue to disenfranchise and oppress us? And shouldn’t we elect as President someone like Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, or another leftist, who would reverse these policies? Finally (this part of the story is optional in some circles), hasn’t the capitalist class made a killing over the past forty-plus years, while they simply ignored (or some may say, enjoyed) the stagnant wages of the vast majority, the widening gap in income, and the rising tide of poverty? Isn’t there a huge and growing pie from which the majority simply have been excluded to a greater and greater extent? In the short term, don’t we simply need to get a bigger slice and then (perhaps) talk about the whole pie later on?

The problem with this story is that while grossly exaggerating the impact of policies and trade agreements, it excludes a key underlying and primary causative factor of the current instability and malaise. This key factor is necessary not only for diagnosing but also for addressing the conditions that we face today. Keynesian reformers and social democrats, including Bernie Sanders, are either utterly unaware of, attempt to blithely ignore, or otherwise contest this factor. But its existence and effects are undeniable and its implications are enormous. That is, excluded from the standard leftist narrative of neoliberalism is the following: the underlying, decrepit state of capitalism over the past forty-plus years, and the unlikely prospects for a return to robust economic growth in the foreseeable future.

Few thinkers, even among Marxists, seem willing to tell the working class this fundamental fact, and it surely is not going to be acknowledged by major political office holders or campaigners, whose careers depend upon the belief that their particular nostrums or plans will remedy the crisis. Yet neither Trump with his protectionism nor Sanders with his so-called socialism can restore the economy (in the U.S. or beyond) to post-war levels of growth, the kind of growth upon which their promises depend. Likewise, their policies and plans would not ameliorate the conditions of the vast majority. As long as the economic system is capitalism, profit will be the driving factor, and the predicament of capitalism has precisely to do with a loss of confidence in the profitability of investment.

In 1973, an already sluggish world economy bore the immediate effects of the oil-price hike. Although the rate of profit temporarily rose as a result of the inflation brought about by the rise in the price of oil, it resumed its longer-term downward trend after a few years. That trend has continued, with spikes and dips in the interim, to this day. Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall had always been in effect since the inception of industrial capitalism, but since this point in history, insufficient countervailing factors have been available to offset the tendency. Because profit is the driving force of capitalist production, the only incentive for undertaking it and the only long-term source of funds for productive investment, we face unstable and grim economic conditions and prospects. Given the low yields in profit, an effective productive investment boycott has ensued, and since the mid-70s, the worldwide rate of growth has been approximately halved. While there have been relative booms and busts in the interim, these have been due largely to short-term, financially-driven bubbles, and perhaps the introduction of new markets and newly super-exploited labor forces. Nevertheless, the economy has never returned to post-war boom levels.


Rectenwald article graph, rvsd, 7.4.16


The decades after World War II and those after 1975 reveal strikingly different situations for the world economy, and thus utterly different prospects for Keynesian or social-democratic interventions. Since the mid-70s, as Kliman notes, “the rate of investment (capital accumulation) has fallen and never recovered, debt burdens have increased markedly relative to income, growth of GDP, industrial production, employees’ compensation, and public infrastructure investment were all much slower than during the postwar boom, the average duration of unemployment was higher and the problem of workers dropping out of the labor market was more serious, and there were many, many more burst bubbles and banking, debt, and currency crises.”

Ignoring or blithely unaware of this economic reality, leftists mistakenly imagine that “neoliberalism” has merely been the desideratum of wicked politicians, who under the influence of their Wall Street and corporate donors, have maliciously manufactured current economic conditions. But the reverse is actually the case; neoliberalism is a set of policies and an ideology that the ruling class and their political proxies developed in response to the underlying and enduring economic malaise of capitalism. That is, underlying economic conditions have been the driving force of neoliberalism, not politics and ideology. And neoliberalism has not solved the problems that it inherited from Keynesianism. Indeed, history has illustrated time and time again that the various rightist and leftist reformist political or policy programs formulated to resolve the problems produced by capitalism are inadequate to the task.

Unfortunately, for sundry reasons, what has happened in the ideological ambit of left politics amounts to a divorce, a divorce of the “political” from the “economy” in the field of political economy. Rather than the so-called “vulgar Marxist” economic determinism of yore, what we have today has been aptly termed political determinism. Political determinism is the belief that the economy is driven by politics and ideology, rather than the other way around. As long as political determinism prevails on the left, the left’s vision will be myopic and its recommendations will be utterly flawed and useless. Isn’t it about time to tell the working class the truth?


Michael Rectenwald is a professor in Global Liberal Studies at New York University. He is the author of Nineteenth-Century British Secularism: Science, Religion and Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), primary editor of Global Secularisms in a Post-Secular Age (De Gruyter, 2015), and primary author of Academic Writing, Real World Topics (Broadview Press, 2015). His essays have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies, including the British Journal for the History of Science, Endevour, and George Eliot in Context (Cambridge University Press, 2013).


6 Comments on "Brexit, Trumpism, Sanders, and the Decrepit State of Capitalism: Against Political Determinism"

  1. Barry York on Tue, 5th Jul 2016 3:26 pm 

    I make no claim to be on top of economic theory but the article hits the right note for me. It’s somehting that needs to be said and the author says it concisely and with intellectual force.

    An article such as this is perfect as the basis for discussion and debate.

    May I have permission to run this piece at my blog, ‘C21st Left’? I’ll credit the website as you require.

  2. sankar sarkar on Wed, 6th Jul 2016 2:02 am 

    After searching the facts it was found that there was a change in production system before the emergence of so called socialism – combination of production within national boundary. The fact is from Lenin’s book – ” a very important feature of capitalism in its highest stage of development is so-called combination of production, that is to say, the grouping in a single enterprise of different branches of industry, which either represent the consecutive stages in the processing of raw materials (for example, the smelting of iron ore into pig-iron, the conversion of pig-iron into steel, and then, perhaps, the manufacture of steel goods)—or are auxiliary to one another (for example, the utilisation of scrap, or of by-products, the manufacture of packing materials, etc.).
    “Combination,” writes Hilferding, “levels out the fluctuations of trade and therefore assures to the combined enterprises a more stable rate of profit. Secondly, combination has the effect of eliminating trade.”(Imperialism- highest stage of capitalism)
    Again before the fall of ‘ socialism’ there was a change in production – fragmentation of production in international plane. This fact is not from Lenin – “A major trend in the post-war development of the auto-industry has been its gradual integration in two related but distinct senses.First is the integration of production,as auto-manufacturers standardige model lines and components across geographical borders.By vertically integrating across borders,multinational firms can create operations which have little purpose outside the network as a whole,and are less vulnerable to nationalization.As Forbes commented in 1972: ‘No single unit of Ford of Europe is really self-sustaining,so that if any government should attempt to take one over,it would get a business dependent on Ford subsidiaries in other countries –for components,for markets and for management.The new automatic transmission plant Ford is building at Bordeaux,for example,will supply Ford’s US and European operations.If the French should ever decide to take it over,unless they develop alternative markets for their output,they would very probably get something of very little long term value.Ford would unquestionably be hurt ,but its loss might not constitute any appreciable gain for anyone else.A transmission plant in this respect is not like a copper mine or an oil well’(Forbes 1st July1972).
    This shows precisely the value of integration as a strategy for multinational firms.More over,sub-processes can be spleit up in ways that minimize costs,lessen vulnerability to nationalization(as above),or reduce the chance that a strike in one country will paralyse production in other parts of a company’s network. ”.(capital beyond borders:states and firms in the auto industry1960 – 94 Kenneth P.Thomas)
    This process of fragmentation was developing and that was proved by the fact given below – “A firm persuing complex integrated strategies needs to be seen,therefore,as consisting of an integrated set of corporate functions,each with(potentially)varied geography.In this strategy,intra-firm transactions of goods and services play,by necessity,an important role.Furthermore,because each element of production chain is highly dependent upon all other elements within the system,information and coordination requirements are high.In this respect,advances in information technology have played a pivotal role in turning the potential for operating and effectively coordinating spatially dispersed function into a reality for many TNCs.The resulting product is a complex bundle of inputs,produced in variety of locations,assembled in host or home countries for sale in those countries or anywhere of the world.To identify such a product with a single country becomes,therefore,less and less meaningful – a fact that may make it increasingly meaningless to identify a product as ‘Made in(name of the country)’ but rather requires an identification as ‘Made by(name of the firm)’.In a sense,TNCs seem to be in the process of replicating at the international level the degree of integration of production achieved at the national level ,especially in their home countries.”
    So the combination of production was the immediate material basis of ‘ socialism’ and fragmentation of production was the material basis of the fall of ‘socialism’ and privatisation.
    It was proved by the facts that ‘ materialist conception of history’ is true. Marx’s scientific law of motion of society – ” With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.” – is validated by the above facts.
    Sankar Sarkar’s photo.

  3. Matt Culbert on Wed, 6th Jul 2016 9:02 am 

    Capitalism can not be reformed and has to be replaced by the post-capitalist, commonly owned, production for use, free access, society socialism/communism was understood to be, before Leftist statist distortions and reformist management, delusions masqueraded as socialism.
    We have a post-capitalist world to win.

    ” The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves. We cannot, therefore, co-operate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic big bourgeois and petty bourgeois.’ (1879 Marx and Engels )

    “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”

  4. Tom Griffiths on Wed, 6th Jul 2016 8:31 pm 

    Similarly to Barry this piece strikes the right note for me. Ever since my involvement with the revolutionary left (however one defines this) I have seen a consistent retreat from a recognition that capitalism is holding up development (economic, social, personal), being a damp rag, being a system we needed to move on from, to one that effectively advocates sidestepping or even retreating from it. Accompanying this, necessarily I suppose, is a slide into onesidedness – the political determinism identified above or a drab economic determinism on the other. Plekhanov was right to suggest that contradictions lead forward. Synthesis, the resolution of contradiction and the transformation that results from it, cannot occur by sidestepping, by being drawn into and setting up ones political home in onesidedness. When this happens we become wet rags too; that is, not merely conservative, but reactionary. I think Berman made a similar point in one of the essays in Adventures in Marxism, that capitalism is now holding the dynamism inherent in modernity back. Matt’s view that capitalism cannot be reformed )in any transformative sense, I presume) is correct. The trouble is the left – the term pseudo left strikes me asmore accurate – is now standing in the way.

  5. Lenny Weber on Tue, 19th Jul 2016 6:08 am 

    I think it’s worth pointing out that this anti-political party has been informing workers of the same since 1904.

  6. Stephen Gwynne on Sun, 31st Jul 2016 5:19 am 

    I would tend to disagree. The post war consensus in Europe at least was replaced by a more libertarian version of liberalism as an alternative to centrist commununitarian economic policy whereas the alternative could have been a further shift to the left with greater economic democracy and greater community drmocracy. In this respect the neoliberal turn was politically motivated and was inacted in order to begin capturing assets globally as opposed to just purely nationally.

    Further to this is the role of the Establishment which this article seems to ignore. In this regard, the role of the Establishment whether we like it or not is to be managers of social, economic, ecological and political national infrastructure. In the last 35 years this managerial role has increasingly been done from an ethical framework of liberalism which has led the country to a point of excessive liberalism. In this respect the Brexit vote was a revolt against both the Establishment and an ideology.

    Previous to this liberal turn in the Establishment’s managerialism, we had the post-war consensus which was built on a managerial ethic of communitarianism. However for the Establishment this communitarian ethic was going too far as the next obvious step for the nation was towards community democracy as trade unions and civic society felt more and more empowered. The liberal turn was a reaction against the consolidating forces being amassed through communitarianism since when communities form strong cultures then those cultures provide a strong sense of a shared and empowered identity from which to mobilise political power.

    Liberalism as an Establishment social and economic management technique purposely activates economic change through the four economic freedoms which in turn drives social change which is then supported by policies of a social liberal nature. This social change disconnects individuals in order to thwart the formation of strong cultures.

    The eu referendum brought together the people of Brexit, whatever their political allegiances from left to right to green or whatever their identity perspective from localist to nationalist to globalist in order to form a communitarian resistance to the managerial policy of liberalism. In this respect, the eu referendum brought together people to form a strong communitarian culture.

    Both establishment and progressive (eu apologist) Liberals reacted against this strong Brexit communitarian culture in the same way liberalism was used to destroy the strong post war communitarian culture – a reaction which continues to this day. Thus the 1% is infact the 48% and the 99% is in the 52%.

    Whether this Brexit communitarian culture can continue to be politically mobilised is another question but we have now all seen the potential. Perhaps Theresa May will change the managerial strategy of the Establishment from excessive liberalism to a more balanced communitarian/liberal approach as reflected by the eu referendum result, maybe not. Maybe the Establishment will trust communities to take more control over their lives by enabling greater degrees of community democracy, maybe not.

    But what the Brexit communitarian culture does symbolise is economic well-being over economic growth and social well-being over social growth. What we want is to regain our sense of community and the power we derive from being part of a strong community culture. Communitarianism means more community democracy to decide for ourselves our own development needs and Communitarianism means more community resilience so we can feel that our communities can support our needs within a whole range of unpredictable circumstances that excessive liberalism is unleashing globally, nationally and locally.

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