Joseph Schumpeter thought, with some justification, that he was not like other intellectuals. For one thing, they were poor—“psychically unemployable in manual occupations.” The typical intellectual also struggled to find work in the white-collar professions, Schumpeter wrote in his 1942 chef d’oeuvre, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. The problem was the “vigorous expansion of the education apparatus” witnessed in “the later stages of capitalist civilization,” which doomed most graduates to fungibility. Schumpeter himself, however, was able to rise above the herd and seize a lucrative economics professorship at Harvard in the early 1930s. His good fortune, he felt, gave him a firsthand acquaintance with the virtues of the capitalist class, but the also-rans were condemned to watch from the outside with mounting resentment. Hence the “critical attitude” and “thoroughly discontented frame of mind” that characterized most intellectuals. They had no sympathy for the social traditions that conservatives like Schumpeter held dear. They scorned the bourgeois family and experimented with alternative gender relations. They “invaded labor politics” and poisoned the minds of workers with their own antagonisms. They concocted newfangled theories like Marxism, through which would-be planners sought to substitute their own intellectual prowess for the spontaneous order of the market. In short, the “freedom of public discussion” they sought to encourage was really just the “freedom to nibble at the foundations of capitalist society.”
If Schumpeter’s analysis of the intelligentsia was histrionic and conspiracy-theoretical in tone, its substance was actually pretty banal. Ever since the Dreyfus affair of Third Republic France, when intelligentsia entered everyday usage, the intellectual per se was understood to carry an element of the subversive; to possess loyalties that were cosmopolitan and principled rather than pragmatic and rooted in the soil; to prefer thinking to working and therefore to have a hard time behaving like a team player in modern capitalist societies. In his 1929 book Ideology and Utopia, arguably the world’s first treatise on the sociology of intellectual life, the Hungarian social theorist Karl Mannheim extolled the ability of the “free-floating intelligentsia” to transcend the determination of thought by social location—to enter the perspective of other classes and envision utopian alternatives to the present order.
Schumpeter and Mannheim, despite their divergent sympathies, both picked up on the important role of intellectuals in the left wing antifascist movements of the late 1920s and ’30s, the heyday of what Michael Denning has called the Cultural Front. In a brief for the 1932 USA Communist Party presidential ticket, the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford issued the era’s most emphatic statement on the conflict between authentic intellectualism and the capitalist status quo. “It is our business to think and we shall not permit business men to teach us our business,” the pamphlet insisted. “No genuine culture can thrive in a society in which malnutrition is a natural cause of death, the exploitation of man by man the natural cause of wealth, and foreign war and domestic terror the natural means of retaining political power.” The cause of revolution—even the proletarian revolution imagined by the CPUSA—was the cause of cultural and intellectual renewal, and vice versa.
By the late 20th century, many of these fears, hopes, and prophecies had come to seem faintly ridiculous, or even incomprehensible. The problem was that in the 1960s, the long-anticipated mass movement of anticapitalist intellectuals finally materialized. In the United States and throughout Western Europe, there erupted a New Left, as it came to be known. The term originated to describe British Communist Party defectors and dissidents such as E. P. Thompson, Stuart Hall, and Perry Anderson, who blended an antiauthoritarian socialist political strategy with a commitment to critical engagement with heterodox Marxist theorists from the continent, including Herbert Marcuse and his Frankfurt School colleagues, Antonio Gramsci, and Louis Althusser (Anderson’s lodestar, Thompson’s nemesis). Soon the term broadened to include student movements in the US and West Germany that focused their ire on the pathologies of university bureaucracy and the Vietnam War. The social basis for these movements was the postwar higher education boom, which dramatically expanded the availability of a “free-floating” intellectual identity in both quantitative and qualitative terms.
In the late 1960s, the movement seemed to reach its apex in a transnational eruption of labor militancy shaped in part by the activity of radical intellectuals. Amid the Parisian general strike of May 1968, posters appeared that read “Universités, Usines, Union” (Universities, Factories, Union). The aspirations of the circle of radical autoworker-intellectuals that formed around C. L. R. James in Detroit in the 1950s finally materialized in a series of Black-led wildcat strikes throughout area plants, culminating in the 1969 formation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. The multiracial ringleaders of the wave of rank-and-file labor insurgency that besieged GM’s state-of-the-art Lordstown, Ohio, plant in the early 1970s captivated journalists with their youth and long hair. Here it was, it appeared, at last: a coalition of antiauthoritarian campus denizens, professional agitators, and outcast rebels—in alliance, at its moments of greatest power, with the younger and more radical segments of the industrial working class—was challenging the militarism, bureaucracy, alienation, and (at least rhetorically) racism and patriarchy endemic to contemporary capitalist societies. But it failed.
Or so it would seem. The New Left did not manage to seize political power in any straightforward sense. There is still a rather significant quotient of militarism, bureaucracy, alienation, racism, and patriarchy kicking around in capitalist societies. Some issues that New Leftists broached in a comparatively speculative register—the risk of ecological catastrophe chief among them—now seem all too inescapable.
It is simply not the case that when Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer knelt in the Capitol wearing kente stoles, they were consummating some chain of events set in motion long ago by Michel Foucault.Tweet
But since the movement’s waning days, some critics have charged that the New Left’s apparent failure served to disguise a more insidious form of success. In this account, New Leftists unwittingly helped to usher in neoliberalism by shattering a midcentury social-democratic consensus that was more fragile than they realized. The values they rallied behind ended up forming the moral vocabulary of a new era of hyper-capitalism—a “New Spirit of Capitalism,” as the French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello put it, looking back from the 1990s on the legacy of the soixante-huitards. Freedom and individuality became the rhetorical cornerstones of Reaganism and Thatcherism; the critique of technocratic management spilled over into a post-truth war on science; rejection of the work ethic metastasized into a narcissistic consumer culture; faith in the emancipatory power of intellectualism gave cover to the left’s alleged abandonment of the working class and anticipated patterns of educational polarization in our politics today. As Alasdair MacIntyre summarized in a 1969 critique of Herbert Marcuse, “To be in conflict with the established order is not necessarily to be an agent of liberation.”
This story, tracing the roots of neoliberalism back to the mistakes of the New Left, has resurfaced in recent years as questions about how we got into our current mess and what role the left should play in charting a path out of it have taken on a new urgency. Failing to appreciate the full implications of their rejection of the inheritance of the Old Left, the radicals of the 1960s apparently unleashed, Sorcerer’s Apprentice–like, a wave of negation that they could not curb before it devoured the accomplishments of the midcentury welfare state. Now even the journals of the renascent socialist movement denounce the “rejection of norms” supposedly espoused by earlier radicals—lest we forget, as the historian Anton Jäger put it in an interview, “the recuperation of this new left sensibility by neoliberalism.”
It’s simple, these critics say: Stop rejecting norms and focus on defending the right ones. Don’t try to tear down the system; identify the parts of the system that are working already and build on them. Leave the realm of personal life alone, shut up about your new ideas about how people ought to live their lives, and emphasize the bread-and-butter issues that matter to normal people. The New Left tried intellectualism, and it failed. Joseph Schumpeter would have been relieved to learn that he had nothing to worry about after all.
Herbert Marcuse used to be the intellectual mascot for the unintended consequences of the New Left. Today it’s Michel Foucault. His chief prosecutor is the Belgian sociologist Daniel Zamora, whose first volley came in a volume coedited with Michael Behrent, published in English in 2016 as Foucault and Neoliberalism. The campaign has since continued in a variety of periodicals and culminated this year in a new monograph with Mitchell Dean, The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution.
One objective of all this work is spelled out in the original French title of Foucault and Neoliberalism: Critiquer Foucault (“Criticizing Foucault”). Zamora seems to significantly overestimate the transgressive character of this project. “Can We Criticize Foucault?” read the title of a 2014 interview with him in Jacobin. The answer, of course, is yes, which explains why Foucault has been criticized extensively since the ink dried on his first writings. Leftists as well as conservatives have gotten in on the fun: Jean-Paul Sartre, a New Left intellectual if there ever was one, called Foucault “the last barricade of the bourgeoisie” in 1966; Nancy Fraser weighed Foucault’s mixture of “empirical insights and normative confusions” in a famous paper in 1981, the same year that the Frankfurt School luminary Jürgen Habermas witheringly referred to him as a “young conservative.” It’s hard to know who Dean and Zamora are imagining will clutch their pearls at the climactic announcement of their new book: “When we use Foucault today, we can no longer imagine that we have entered a safe haven or that his name invokes an intellectual insurance policy against analytical missteps or political enthusiasms.”
Perhaps this is why editors at the Guardian teased readers with intimations of a more ambitious argument in their headline for a précis of Dean and Zamora’s book: “Today, the self is the battlefield of politics. Blame Michel Foucault.” Now that really would be a remarkable discovery, since Foucault is hardly the first thinker to come to mind when casting about for a plausible intellectual source behind our present calamity. Unfortunately, it appears that Dean and Zamora don’t really have their hearts in this particular claim, probably because it is impossible to defend for very long with a straight face. It is simply not the case that when Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer knelt in the Capitol wearing kente stoles amid last summer’s uprising, they were consummating some chain of events set in motion long ago by Michel Foucault. I refuse to believe that anyone seriously thinks this.
The good news is that, lacking the evidence to frame Foucault as the long-neglected éminence grise (chauve?) of neoliberalism, Dean and Zamora instead devote the bulk of The Last Man Takes LSD to a rigorous and occasionally sympathetic intellectual biography of Foucault in the 1970s and ’80s. They have given us the most detailed and sophisticated account to date of the shifting problematics of Foucault’s thought in his late period, and a compelling explanation of why Foucault did in fact become interested enough in neoliberalism to analyze it at length in the 1978–1979 Collège de France lecture series published as The Birth of Biopolitics.
Dean and Zamora show how Foucault left behind the crypto-structuralism of his early work, with its prediction that the humanist subject would soon disappear like a face drawn in sand on the beach, and embraced a new interest in subjective experience and the liberatory potential of new modes of individuality (encapsulated for Dean and Zamora by the titular acid trip Foucault undertook in Death Valley in 1975). And they connect his enthusiasm for the proliferation of nonnormative forms of selfhood to his increasingly vocal criticism of the French welfare state and the institutions of the postwar left. When Foucault began reading the work of neoliberals like the Chicago economist Gary Becker, it was in search of a new governmentality for the left—by which Foucault meant an art or technique of governing, as opposed to a set of normative objectives for governance. Foucault came to believe that a proper governmentality was just what the left was missing: contemporary socialism was undone by its dependence on a state-centric governmentality it had inherited unthinkingly from its ideological predecessors. But the neoliberals, in Foucault’s understanding, claimed to have invented a new governmentality that, unlike its competitors, did not require the use of disciplinary institutions to produce subjects who conformed to a particular way of life. In the abstraction of the neoliberals’ market logic (as Foucault read it), invidious distinctions between normal and perverse, criminal and law-abiding, and productive and lazy all dissolved into matters of individual choice. For someone who desperately sought the end of that sort of distinction-making, and who despaired at its persistence in the discourse of the contemporary left, the neoliberals’ efforts were worthy of serious consideration.
There is much that we might learn from this narrative. Dean and Zamora’s exegesis and contextualization of some of Foucault’s most arcane theoretical texts help return the birth of French theory, practically a shorthand for ivory-tower obscurity, to the tumultuous political history from which it emerged. Their sketch of Foucault’s pathway to a sympathetic interest in neoliberalism illuminates the inadequacies of the postwar French welfare state—so often romanticized in today’s nostalgia for Les Trente Glorieuses—that drove Foucault and many of his contemporaries on the French left away from the statism of the French Communist Party (PCF). Even Foucault’s friend and teacher Louis Althusser, who remained within the PCF fold, excoriated its evolution into a government party and encouraged it to pivot to action outside of the state. In the 1960s and ’70s, the PCF and the social-democratic Socialist Party seemed incapable of pushing the French state past its commitment to militarism and imperialism, a reactionary politics of gender and sexuality, and an economic managerialism that counterbalanced the rule of the market with the rule of technical experts rather than the self-activity of workers. No wonder the ears of some French leftists perked up when neoliberals started talking about the need to contain the excesses of the state, or about the joys of entrepreneurship, as an alternative to the drudgery of corporate hierarchy.
But Dean and Zamora hardly succeed in presenting proof that there’s some fundamental neoliberal contaminant lurking at the heart of Foucault’s thought. “While neoliberalism is often imagined as an ideology imposed by the Right,” Dean and Zamora claim, “its most effective agents have often been precisely those intellectual elements and parties of the Left that managed to articulate the desire for autonomy against the disciplinary forces of the welfare state with the new forms of regulation rooted in a market rationality.” Why Foucault’s interest in the writings of the Chicago School—made understandable by Dean and Zamora’s own deft work of contextualization—made him a more effective “agent” for neoliberalism than the Chicago School itself (much less the IMF, or the CIA, or Ronald Reagan, or NAFTA, or Walmart . . .) is left as an exercise for the reader.
The Last Man Takes LSD is peppered with quotations from Foucault that are supposed to self-evidently illustrate his deep neoliberal proclivities. Some of these remarks are condemnable but don’t have any obvious relationship to neoliberalism, like his delusionally optimistic expectations for the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran or his participation in the then-fashionable critique of French age-of-consent laws. Many others are perfectly reasonable. Foucault expresses excitement about the idea of a universal basic income, because “it is up to people to work if they want or not work if they don’t.” The horror. His rather trivial remark that in “relations of power, there is inevitably a possibility of resistance” somehow gets made to express the Orwellian sentiment that “there is nevertheless freedom at the heart of power relations.” At one point Foucault poses an apparently incriminating series of rhetorical questions: “Why alienate intellectuals? What is the benefit of a society that would hunt homosexuals? The birth rate?” Why Foucault’s dismay at intellectual alienation, homosexual-hunting, and fertility politics betrays his neoliberal affinities remains unclear.
If nothing else, it is good to remember that J. Edgar Hoover and Charles de Gaulle certainly did not regard the New Left as tame neoliberals-in-waiting.Tweet
The frequency with which Dean and Zamora highlight aspects of Foucault’s approach to sexuality as evidence of his sympathy for neoliberalism becomes troubling as the book progresses. We hear that Foucault abandoned the PCF in part because of its “long history of homophobia,” which is a useful enough act of historicization until you remember that the purpose of all this historicization is to make us regard Foucault as an agent of neoliberalism. Then we find out that there was a mysterious affinity among Foucault’s enthusiasms in the 1970s, “from the ‘political spirituality’ of the Iranian revolution, to the ‘gay lifestyle’ invented in California, to the rise of a neoliberal governmentality.” It turns out that “the ‘gay culture’ that seemed to fascinate him” was the proving ground of Foucault’s putatively neoliberal belief that “the self was now the crucial place where we could produce . . . new ways of living in the world.” A particularly bizarre passage analogizes the “economic tests of neoliberalism” to the “S&M practices” that Foucault undertook “in the legendary clubs of the ‘leather scene,’” which Dean and Zamora describe with all the lurid detail of a Rod Dreher blog post: “These ‘member only’ clubs offered jail cells, dungeons, and various fantasy environments in which to explore more extreme pleasures.”
It’s difficult to know exactly what Dean and Zamora are trying to say in passages like these because they are surprisingly reticent about their own positive political vision. It is clear only that they are against “antistatism” and in favor of “policies that curtail the growth of inequality.” After they give Foucault so much grief for his critiques of Marxism and communism, you’d be forgiven for finding this sort of pronouncement a little anticlimactic. Ironically, their conflation of neoliberalism with antistatism recapitulates Foucault’s own pivotal mistake in his assessment of neoliberalism. Foucault thought that the left might learn something from neoliberal governmentality precisely because he hearkened to the antistatist and antinormative rhetorical flourishes of certain key intellectuals while neglecting the enduring, even intensifying reliance of other neoliberal theorists and practitioners on precisely the same disciplinary institutions that Foucault despised—including the state. The wreckage of the neoliberal revolution would be littered with prisons and detention centers, black sites and body armor, workfare and means-testing, health insurance claims agents and heteropatriarchal public health agencies. Neoliberalism has been an era of family values and antidemocratic projects for global governance. Perhaps above all else it has been an era of wars: wars on crime, on drugs, on terror; forever wars.
But if Foucault failed to anticipate the contours of actually existing neoliberalism, its full fury is oddly absent from the pages of Dean and Zamora’s critique. “Neoliberalism has become a series of rogue affects,” they write, lapsing into the same dematerialized culture-critique they find objectionable in Foucault. It is an array of “tribal identifications formed through the ordeals and tests that mark, tattoo, mould, and dress bodies in the pleasures of the enterprise, paraded in its different paradigms by a series of families that cross political divides: the Trumps, the Clintons, the Obamas, the Macrons, the Kardashians.” This sort of aesthetic sneer is hardly more faithful to the state-smashing revolutionary legacy of Marx and Lenin than Foucault’s late work.
The historian Paul Sabin is more interested in deregulation than he is in the Kardashians. His new book, Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism, provides a revelatory account of the contribution of public-interest advocacy groups in the 1960s and ’70s to the unmaking of the postwar American regulatory state. The ambiguous antihero of the book is Ralph Nader, consumer advocate, attorney, author, nonprofit executive, gadfly, and, in Sabin’s telling, a single-minded crusader with little appreciation of the Pyrrhic quality of his victories against government and corporate bureaucrats.
Sabin doesn’t fault Nader and his public-interest comrades for concluding that there was something deeply broken about the relationship between business and government in the postwar decades, the appearance of social-democratic advance notwithstanding. Big business proved willing to tolerate new government regulatory agencies in large part because they knew their guys could always get their foot in the door when it really mattered. Corporations with monopolistic aspirations, most glaringly in the airline industry, realized they could actually benefit from regulations that imposed costs they could pay easily but that were fatally burdensome for smaller competitors. Private business—dam-builders like Kaiser and Bechtel, the real-life Montgomery Burnses in the atomic energy industry—profited handsomely, through opaque cronyistic mechanisms, from midcentury public works programs, which occasionally had devastating ecological consequences to boot. Power was wielded in back rooms choked with cigar smoke and inaccessible to ordinary citizens. The economy grew, the soil was poisoned, thalidomide babies made headlines, poverty persisted, and people stopped believing that conventional politics could help them. American political culture, the sociologist David Riesman argued in his 1950 best seller The Lonely Crowd, was increasingly characterized by “the indifference of people who know enough about politics to reject it.”
Into this conjuncture, Sabin argues, Nader and contemporaries like Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs arrived like Old Testament prophets, raising awareness of the hidden costs of the affluent society and galvanizing new forms of activism that sought to hold both business and government accountable. Carson and Jacobs, it should be said, don’t get much airtime in the book despite their appearance in the dust jacket blurb—perhaps because Carson died in 1964 and Jacobs left the United States in 1968. In any event, it was Nader’s 1965 automobile safety crusade that provided the main template for the public-interest movement, Sabin’s central subject. The public-interest concept was capacious enough to encompass Nader-style consumer protection campaigns, as well as issues in environmental and urban politics of the sort that Carson and Jacobs focused on. With the backing of liberal philanthropists, independent law firms dedicated to corporate oversight and environmental defense proliferated in the 1960s and ’70s alongside nonprofit groups of researcher-advocates who helped organize campaigns around particular high-profile issues. The result, initially, was a flurry of new federal regulatory activity in the late ’60s and early ’70s, dovetailing with a swell of public enthusiasm for consumer and environmental protection. Nader and his groups scored wins in quick succession on automobile safety, meat safety, natural gas pipeline safety, and radiation safety. To placate the growing environmental movement, Nixon created a new regulator, the EPA, and signed the 1970 amendments to the Clean Air Act, arguably the most significant piece of environmental legislation ever enacted up to that point.
As the ’70s wore on, however, a different side of the public interest movement came into view. Composed almost exclusively of college graduates, often from elite universities and with advanced degrees, the public interest rank-and-file frequently looked down on alternative approaches to political change-making that had a distastefully plebeian air—whether “lobby, ballot box, or protest,” as the Environmental Defense Fund put it in 1970. The movement’s aspirations to professionalization also resulted in a grueling work environment redolent of the corporate pit. Nader himself was a particularly tyrannical boss: when asked by an interviewer how many hours each week he expected his staffers to work, he quipped, “the ideal is 100.”
The distance between the public interest movement and the organizations of the working class was encapsulated in Nader’s frequent equation of the public with consumers. If unions spoke for the workers, lobbyists spoke for the businessmen, the government spoke for the politicians, and the Lorax spoke for the trees, Ralph Nader would speak for the consumers. In the 1960s, this task entailed the creation of new regulations, but by the late ’70s it increasingly meant their elimination, in the name of lowering prices. Nader enthusiastically backed the trucking and airline deregulation legislation signed by Carter on the doorstep of the Reagan revolution. Perhaps most significantly—although not emphasized by Sabin—Nader became a vocal inflation hawk. “To the many business and governmental managers, ‘inflation’ is seen as a value-free word, much like the word ‘gravity,’” Nader asserted, ludicrously, in 1979. “To consumers, however, inflation . . . is, as any proverbial cabdriver can tell you, getting less for your money.” To this day, Nader continues to extoll the legacy of Paul Volcker, the Carter-appointed Fed chairman who sought to suppress the inflation of the ’70s by triggering a wave of recession and unemployment that eviscerated the remnants of the industrial labor movement.
By chronicling Nader’s surprising ideological peregrination, Sabin provides a useful counterweight to narratives of the rise of neoliberalism that emphasize the cabal-like activity of a small right-wing vanguard. Unfortunately, Sabin maps the narrative of his book onto the hackneyed unintended-consequences-of-the-New-Left grid. This entirely unnecessary argument only serves to flatten the complexity of the story he’s actually told, and it obscures our understanding of why Nader and his allies fought on the same side as Volcker and the Carter-era deregulators when plenty of their contemporaries among the activist movements of the ’60s did not.
Sabin insists that Nader’s later adventures in deregulation were the straightforward outcome of an unremittingly antigovernment attitude allegedly endemic to the New Left. The public interest movement’s “attacks on government policies,” Sabin writes, reveal “how the left grew suspicious of the grand projects, social engineering, and progrowth policies of the postwar period.” The problem, of course, is that the most immediate impact of Nader’s activism was an unprecedented expansion of the scope of government regulation. Which is not surprising. It is possible—easy, even—to criticize the government without criticizing the concept of government as such. Sabin concedes that the early ’70s environmental regulation spree “represented an expansion in federal regulatory power,” but he insists that it “also has to be seen in another light—as a legal attack, led by liberals, on the post–World War II administrative state.” Yes: Liberals critiqued the postwar administrative state for not regulating corporations enough. How is that supposed to explain why some of them ended up making common cause with business conservatives who thought corporations were being regulated too much? It is true that capitalism has never met a utopia it couldn’t market.
It is true that capitalism has never met a utopia it couldn’t market.Tweet
There is an answer hidden here, but it is not one that Sabin draws out in Public Citizens. It is contained in the word liberal. Throughout the book, Sabin uses the word interchangeably with leftist. And liberalism certainly loomed large in the American movements of the ’60s and ’70s—to a greater degree than in any other nation that experienced a New Left—because the institutions of the revolutionary left, like the Communist Party, were demolished during the early Cold War period. The United States, unlike the European welfare states, lacked even a formal labor party. But liberalism did not exhaust the range of possibilities on the left even in the US; it represented its centermost pole. The problem was not that Nader and his contemporaries accidentally ventured too far left for their own good, but that their faction of liberalism eventually monopolized the supply of resources and attention on the left. The political soil of the United States was fatally inhospitable to the growth of any leftist competitors less tethered to the ideological world of midcentury liberalism.
In their attempt to break with an imagined postwar consensus, Nader and his allies doubled down on a particular strand of already existing liberalism that had fallen on hard times during the 1940s and ’50s but had by no means disappeared. This was the style of New Deal liberalism embodied by the Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis—the strand of the New Deal that took up the antimonopoly tradition in American political thought. Brandeisian liberalism shared what Sabin aptly calls Nader’s “small-business mentality” and his “suspicion of centralized big government and big business.” Power ought to be dispersed as much as possible. Government was a powerful tool for the public good, but only if it was accountable to the people. Markets and private property were not ills in themselves, but vigilance was necessary to prevent their corruption by corporate power and greed. This was the impulse that animated New Deal initiatives like the Glass–Steagall Act, which Brandeis greatly admired, but it was in tension with the alphabet soup regulatory bureaucracy of the early New Deal, which Brandeis helped to strike down from the bench.
Brandeisian liberalism was largely sidelined in the ’40s and ’50s in favor of a more modernist liberalism that emphasized growth, centralization, and the technical advantages of bigness. Nevertheless, it persisted, laying a foundation on which activists of the ’60s could construct a critique of the more hegemonic liberal style. But it was because they were rooted in Brandeisian liberalism that figures like Nader had an easy time finding a rapprochement with the deregulators and inflation hawks—that is to say, slipping over time into a new (neo!) liberalism. Nader’s self-conception as an enlightened, professionalized, individualistic reformer, for instance, was thoroughly continuous with the middle-class reformist culture of Brandeisian progressivism. As the historian Amy C. Offner has recently observed, the phrase social entrepreneur, the template for Nader’s concept of the citizen entrepreneur, was coined by the Tennessee Valley Authority executive David Lilienthal (who in Sabin’s telling represented the polar opposite of Nader’s worldview).
Similarly, Nader’s fixation on the supposedly forgotten American consumer (and his preference for the language of the public) was in some ways just a riff on a central theme of midcentury liberalism. Postwar American society was a veritable consumer’s republic, as the historian Lizabeth Cohen has argued. Promising to fight for consumers was how postwar politicians positioned themselves as transcending the menacingly European capital-versus-labor political dynamic that briefly erupted in the US during the Great Depression. While Nader, unlike most influential postwar liberals, insisted that regulatory policy, not Keynesian growth-boosting, was the best avenue to promote consumer welfare, the animating logic of his consumerist political commitments was hardly as novel as he might have believed, or hoped.
The liberal tradition also tethered the so-called counterculture of the ’60s to early-20th-century middle-class Progressivism. The idea that cultural uplift rather than political revolution was the path to true social change—as expressed in Charles A. Reich’s schematic of levels of consciousness in The Greening of America, or in some of John Lennon’s late Beatles anthems—would hardly have been out of place in the pages of a liberal magazine like the Nation around the turn of the 20th century. Even the psychedelic idiom in which this theme was so often articulated by the counterculture had squarer antecedents: in the late 1950s, prominent apostles of psychedelics included the JPMorgan vice president R. Gordon Wasson and the Republican congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce. Liberal genealogy also reared its head in the counterculture’s frequent professions to have transcended the binary of left and right. When the Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand extolled Ayn Rand’s novels and the treatises of the conservative Catholic technology theorist Marshall McLuhan, it was not because he was an ideologically sloppy leftist, but because he was simply not a leftist—and never thought of himself that way. Like the Progressives, many counterculturalists instead embraced a middle-class concept of reform that rejected oligarchic authority and proletarian revolution alike.
The extent to which the iconic movements of the ’60s United States fed on existing liberalism and fed into neoliberalism is, however, all the more reason not to isolate the New Left as a singular cataclysm that destabilized the New Deal order. Far from a gently humming machine that could have kept operating indefinitely were it not for the intervention of a new generation of radicals, the United States’ simulacrum of social democracy was a fragile assemblage of competing intellectual tendencies and political coalition partners that was always threatening to fall apart.
Nor is there reason to overlook—much less condemn—those intellectuals, activists, and organizations that did manage to formulate a political outlook in the ’60s that was genuinely New and Left, as those critics of the New Left who dismiss the whole movement as proto-neoliberalism would have us do. Ralph Nader, John Lennon, and some of the key players in the early Students for a Democratic Society may have been liberals, but the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Black Panther Party were not. Nor were the SDS members who split into two factions at the organization’s widely mocked 1969 convention, one chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!” and the other chanting “Mao, Mao, Mao Zedong!” These revolutionary New Leftists obviously had their own limitations and, needless to say, did not accomplish their goals. But that is a far cry from triggering neoliberalism, or failing to deserve our interest and sympathy today. A glance at the list of names on the cover of SDS’s 1969 New Left Reader, despite its fair share of incoherence and a characteristic exclusion of women, suggests the contours of a road not taken: Fidel Castro, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Rudi Dutschke, Frantz Fanon, Leszek Kolakowski, Huey P. Newton, Herbert Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, Malcolm X. That influential ’60s activists like Nader skirted this road in favor of a homegrown liberalism was their mistake. It doesn’t have to be ours.
If this vision of the left looks New standing next to midcentury liberalism, it is less clearly novel in juxtaposition with the Old Communist and revolutionary socialist left of the early 20th century. Castro and Lenin, Newton and Du Bois, Marcuse and Lukács: these names don’t signify opposite polarities but rather different moments in the same tradition, separated by time and defeat but connected by a broad set of shared commitments. This intuition is at the core of the historian and critical theorist Terence Renaud’s insightful, timely book New Lefts: The Making of a Radical Tradition. The book’s title hints at its core argument, which Renaud develops in the context of Western Europe and Germany in particular. The Old Left of the 1960s, he shows, was once a New Left in its own right in the 1920s and ’30s. When this Old-New Left eventually made its peace with the bourgeois state and with bureaucratic organizational forms, it was not an expression of some innate pragmatic wisdom that was forgotten by subsequent radicals, but a gesture of frustration and even fear. Fear that the revolutionary promise of an earlier moment was slipping away; fear of fascism and the continuation of political repression by ostensibly democratic postwar regimes; fear of the apparent complacency (or worse) of the working class; fear that new ways of living and relating and making art and culture were doomed to dissolve in the absence of steady economic growth.
In Europe at the dawn of the 20th century, there was no consensus about what socialism would or should look like. Marx himself had been notoriously vague on the subject. Like many of his contemporaries, Marx instead focused his political energies on arguing with his fellow leftists—principally Mikhail Bakunin and other anarchists—about what form revolution should take, since it seemed that in any event a revolution would be necessary to end capitalism, and that was a tough enough nut to crack for the time being. Should the revolution seize state power, smash the state and then build a new one, or abolish the state altogether? Would hard-core activists have to wait for a revolutionary spirit to seize the working masses more or less spontaneously, or could they spark a revolution deliberately, and if so, how? These questions generated extensive debate, much of it of enduring interest, but they receded into the background when a strange thing began to happen in Germany in the late 19th century: the Social Democratic Party (SPD) started to win parliamentary elections.
This turn of events kicked off an embrace of electoral politics on the left that has never gone away. But if left electoralism was born out of a certain sort of optimism, from another perspective it represented the consolidation of the most pessimistic possible answer to the question of revolution, and the abandonment of the animating hope of Marx and his generation of leftists. It was, despite its victories, a bit of a bummer, which is why a small group of German leftists were swift to reembrace the revolutionary project after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and the collapse of the German monarchy after World War I. But that moment of possibility dissipated as well. Communist revolutionaries were thwarted or murdered and a bourgeois republic was created at Weimar, with the SPD a faithful participant in its parliamentary operations. Before long, the great model of revolution in Russia had degenerated into an internal tyranny that, to add insult to injury, instructed its loyalists abroad to run for office in parliamentary elections as Communist Party members. By the 1930s, prospects for revolution looked more promising on the fascist right than on the left.
This was the impetus for the creation of the German activist group New Beginning, which Renaud takes as emblematic of interwar “neoleftism”—the New Left before the New Left. In some ways New Beginning (initially just called the Org) was an extension of the Leninist model of revolution, acting as a tightly disciplined vanguard of professional revolutionaries who would attempt to rekindle the embers of revolution among the working class and the parties of the parliamentary left (the SPD and the Communist Party). But New Beginning went beyond Leninism in its insistence on revolutionizing the lives of its members as well as the broader society. Fascism drew its strength from an authoritarian culture that extended far beyond the Nazi party: a culture of patriarchal gender relations, sexual repression, racism, imperialism, anti-intellectualism, and conformism. Part of the revolutionary task of the leftist organization, then, would be to prove that a different way of living was possible. Like certain revolutionary collectives since the Fourierists of the 19th century, members of New Beginning believed that they needed to embody or “prefigure” the society they wanted to create in the way that they related to one another.
Initial results were mixed. New Beginning, and the broader milieu of radical antifascism, was indeed a hotbed of cultural experimentation that had a transformative effect on the personal lives of many of the individuals involved. But it also developed a tightly hierarchical structure that was at odds with its antiauthoritarian ideology, and despite its rhetoric of gender and sexual nonconformism, men outnumbered women by approximately four to one. Its best efforts were powerless against the fascist onslaught, and Hitler’s seizure of power forced many New Beginning members and leaders into exile.
With a characteristically indefatigable spirit, New Beginning members tried to make the most of their exile, linking up with other neoleftists in their new countries of residence and attempting to coordinate resistance activity with comrades who remained in Germany, at tremendous personal risk. A particularly powerful section of New Lefts highlights the interest of the New Beginning exiles in the 20th century’s most iconic experiment with libertarian socialism, in Catalonia and Aragon during the Spanish Civil War. These Spanish neoleftists succeeded to a greater extent than New Beginning in overturning conventional gender relations and instilling a genuinely egalitarian culture within their ranks. It was not without reason that George Orwell believed that the Spanish leftist militias gave him a “foretaste of Socialism.”
But eventually fascism triumphed in Spain as well. When New Beginning members reentered aboveground German politics after the war, it was often with a new spirit of pessimism, if not quite despair. Renaud demonstrates that New Beginning alums like Richard Löwenthal accepted and even encouraged the SPD’s final, official break from Marxism in the 1950s. They concluded that welfare-state democratic socialism was the best they were likely to ever witness, and argued that the experience of fascism taught them it was worth it to strengthen the institutions of political democracy even if it meant abandoning the fight for economic democracy, at least temporarily. In a move that paralleled the midcentury American liberalism that produced Ralph Nader, the ex-radicals “rewrote the history of capitalism so that the protagonist was no longer workers, but citizen consumers,” Renaud writes. This was what Löwenthal called in 1954 a “Socialism without Utopia.”
The eruption of a New Left in the 1960s, then, was not a rejection of the accomplishments of the Old Left but an attempt to recapture the utopian impulse that many of the Old Left’s denizens had harbored in their youth, before a sustained period of world-historical catastrophe drove it out of them. Not for nothing was the philosopher Ernst Bloch’s tome on The Principle of Hope a key text for German New Left radicals. The New Left was new not only because it came after the Old, but because it was anchored in a hopeful belief in the possibility of radical newness. The famous New Left dictum that the personal is political was not meant to hold up the realm of lifestyle as an alternative to a more all-encompassing vision of revolution, as Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora would have it, but rather to hark back to an earlier moment of possibility when it was believed that there was nothing that revolution would leave untouched. Not gender relations, not ways of making collective decisions, not art or thought—because if any of these realms harbored the authoritarian virus, it was a matter of time before it would replicate and spread and attack whatever had been accomplished in the purely political or economic realm. Society faced a choice not between different ways of managing the economy or appointing leaders, but between different total modes of existence. As the slogan echoed out, linking Rosa Luxemburg to May ’68 across time and space: “Socialism or barbarism!”
The choice, apparently, was barbarism. In explaining the failure of the ’60s New Left, Renaud leans on his concept of the neoleftist dilemma: the fact that it is difficult to “sustain the dynamism of a grassroots social movement without succumbing to hierarchy, centralized leadership, and banal political routine.” Neoleftist dilemma is a valuable addition to the lexicon, naming a challenge that anyone who has been involved in a leftist organization during a period of rapid growth will recognize all too well. But the neoleftists of the 1960s in Western Europe and the United States were not only victims of their own success but victims of state and corporate violence. In the US, the flowering of what Grégoire Chamayou has called “authoritarian liberalism” ran the gamut from FBI infiltration and assassination to rampant state-tolerated union busting in workplaces seized by rank-and-file militancy. In West Germany, state surveillance and persecution of leftist activists was so egregious that the historian and former Free University of West Berlin vice president Uwe Wesel declared in 1974 that such an “extensive practice of political regimentation” had “not been equaled since the time of National Socialism.” While de Gaulle defused the momentum of May ’68 in part by exploiting the radicals’ failure to make inroads in the upper echelons of the labor bureaucracy, the coup de grâce was ultimately delivered by the police, in the Sorbonne and in the factories. Perhaps a movement that had navigated the neoleftist dilemma more skillfully—and had overcome severe deficits in numerical strength and organizational aptitude—could have surmounted the onslaught. But it is worth dwelling on this spate of repression nevertheless. If nothing else, it is good to remember that J. Edgar Hoover and Charles de Gaulle certainly did not regard the New Left as tame neoliberals-in-waiting.
It is true that capitalism has never met a utopia it couldn’t market. There is no reason to deny that the utopian horizon of the ’60s New Left turned, at various moments, into grist for the ideology mill. Radicals critiqued the tyranny of the work ethic; scam artists gave us one weird trick to get a four-hour workweek. Radicals excoriated bureaucracy; consultants concocted scheme upon scheme to flatten corporate hierarchy, streamline operations, and enhance flexibility in the workplace. Radicals envisioned a world without patriarchy and white supremacy; Sheryl Sandberg and Robin DiAngelo gave us Lean In and White Fragility. Radicals called for participatory democracy; we got Ask Me Anythings with the boss. Radicals called on people to defy the establishment; clever ad agencies presented us with jeans and sodas that could help us do just that.
But if we’re going to give up on the vision of utopian radicals because it was leeched by advertisers, we might as well give up on having sex or laughing with friends while we’re at it. We don’t need to constrict our vision of what’s possible, hoping, like our distorted memory of the Old Left, to reap some hypothesized political or economic payoff in the bargain. What we need more than ever is to remember just how much our vision has already been constricted. The point is not to reclaim the bureaucratic, but to insist that there are better alternatives to bureaucracy than the cheap thrills of entrepreneurialism; not to play footsie with regressive ideologies on race and gender, but to state forcefully that corporate diversity trainings are not all that feminism and antiracism could mean in our time; not to reject hopes for less work and more meaningful work, but to recognize that those aspirations cannot be actualized through success-hacking or working a hundred hours per week for a nonprofit boss.
What we need, in short, is a practice of negation and imagination that, if you squint, looks a lot like the sort of intellectualism that terrified Joseph Schumpeter. It doesn’t look anything like credentials or educational attainment or academic employment, but intellectualism rarely meant those things before the Cold War. In seeking to build a working-class movement for social transformation, we don’t need to repudiate the alleged intellectual excesses of the New Left, but to recultivate a tradition of working-class intellectualism that thrived when the Old Left parents of the radicals of the ’60s were themselves a New Left. To beat back the suspicion that leftism is an abstract scheme that could never work in our fallen world, we need to show that the revolution it names can be glimpsed already in the lives of ordinary people who are determined to live together extraordinarily.