The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and Pandemic by Paolo Gerbaudo. Verso, 288 pages.
After four decades of neoliberalism, the grim effects of diminished state capacity are now upon us. The preventable mass death wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic has discredited the technocrats who prescribed austerity and free markets while revealing that pervasive libertarian beliefs are a threat to public health. At the same time, many people are discovering government can be a positive buffer against precarity and disorder. This is especially true of younger people who once put faith in meritocracy and individualism but now realize these are illusions propagated by elites that distract from systemic injustice and the myriad crises posed by climate change. In light of the recovery measures the Biden administration is pursuing, policymakers and regular people alike are retrieving old, discarded responsibilities of government and envisioning new objectives for it. For the first time since the long unraveling of the Keynesian-social democratic model over the 1970s and early 1980s, a generation is demanding that government redefine the social contract.
Demands for an activist government oriented toward public investment and welfare reflect the egalitarian side of what the Italian sociologist Paolo Gerbaudo identifies in his new book, The Great Recoil, as “neo-statism.” “The key notions emerging in this neo-statist discourse—sovereignty, protection, control, and security—adumbrate a radically different agenda from what was hegemonic in the 1990s and 2000s,” writes Gerbaudo. He argues that while these concepts once evoked anachronistic nation-states, the pandemic has accelerated a dramatic discursive shift that began with the Great Recession, when the socialist left and nationalist right reemerged with competing visions to revive state power. This contest will have lasting ramifications for domestic politics as well as international coordination over climate change. The imperative for the left is to shape how democratic governments wield their new mandates. As Gerbaudo writes, the left must seize every opportunity to pressure government to act in the interests of society, not oligarchs, and advance political leaders who can establish new programs that outlast emergency measures.
To trace the statist revival, The Great Recoil’s opening chapters survey how neoliberal governance has both exacerbated inequality and reconfigured some of the social blocs traditionally associated with the left and right. This is a familiar panorama that concerns the emergence of so-called post-material values, such as environmentalism and feminism; an increasingly diverse but less unionized working class divided between cosmopolitan cities and more homogenous hinterlands; the deterioration of the postwar welfare state; and a historic switch of college-educated voters from leaning right to leaning left. Throughout, Gerbaudo avoids a simplistic account of neoliberalism. He distinguishes the erosion of state capacities that provide public services from a reorientation of state power—whether through jurisprudence, “depoliticized” central banks, or supranational institutions—to insulate capital from democratic oversight.
The left must seize every opportunity to pressure government to act in the interests of society, not oligarchs, and advance political leaders who can establish new programs that outlast emergency measures.
Until the pandemic, these developments had disproportionately advantaged enterprising forces on the right, Gerbaudo explains. As similarly observed by economist Thomas Piketty and sociologists Wolfgang Streeck and Stephanie Mudge, Gerbaudo underscores how the conversion of social democratic parties to pro-market platforms—and, in particular, the ensuing restriction of debate over fiscal, monetary, and industrial policies—created a significant opening for far-right politicians to rebrand as “populists” who would protect both workers and smaller producers thrashed by globalization. Gerbaudo’s most significant contribution here is to more fully bridge scholarship on right-wing populism with leftist critiques of political economy. Indeed, these are two areas of study that should not be siloed given the overtures the far-right has made to segments of the working class—even if these overtures are almost invariably hollow, as Gerbaudo emphasizes.
Regarding the contest to reclaim state power, Gerbaudo’s prognosis is sober. Before the pandemic, media-savvy forces on the far right had been on a successful offensive, manipulating much of mainstream reporting into normalizing their xenophobia and racism. Gerbaudo summarizes well how figures like Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orbán, and Donald Trump exploited the sense of anomie experienced by people in less prosperous or cosmopolitan regions of their respective countries. They emphasized a loss of sovereignty and control—identifying migrants, “globalist” finance, European Union bureaucrats (or the “administrative state”) and rising powers like China as threats to tradition and nationhood. While always sidestepping the inequities underlying capitalism, these figures adroitly wove attacks on cultural and economic decline. Thus, they assailed both the immigrant poor and “unpatriotic” urban professionals, who are ostensibly indifferent to the plight of regions suffering from deindustrialization.
Beyond militarized borders to sharply curtail cultural and ethnic heterogeneity, the far-right’s main solution to perceived foreign threats, Gerbaudo writes, is a “proprietarian protectionism” that restores the prerogatives of local and national enterprise through policies like new trade barriers and higher tariffs (and, in Europe, through occasional threats to abandon the Euro and European Union treaties). Economic sovereignty, therefore, is about legitimating a neo-mercantilist agenda that more closely knits the interests of critical business sectors and the state, instead of shielding workers from turbulence in the world economy. There’s a reason that appeals to the native working class are much more likely to emphasize welfare chauvinism—denying social programs for immigrants and asylum for refugees—than promise new benefits for “deserving” citizens.
It is a source of measured relief, then, that right-wing populists have had a disorganized response to the pandemic and not expanded their protectionist framework. In the United States, politicians who emulate Trump have stoked a defiant egoism among a major segment of the population, going so far as to ban businesses and schools from enacting mask and vaccination mandates. This morbid development indicates a peculiar and darkly ironic rejection of business freedom in Republican politics—in this case the freedom to protect their operations from customers or employees who are disregarding the pandemic—but it was not inevitable. To Gerbaudo’s point, the scramble to contain the virus initially transcended a neat typology of left, right, and centrist responses. Mass shutdowns, the shocks unleashed on critical supply chains, and the collapse of consumer demand necessitated a change in the relationship between government and the private sector across several developed countries, regardless of which type of political party was in power. It is not difficult to imagine that a more disciplined authoritarian in place of Trump might have pursued a course closer to the conservative governments in the UK and Australia while seizing new emergency powers.
Biden’s economic agenda, as it happens, provides a foil to the right’s fragmentary and stunted neo-statism. By combining industrial policy, public investment, and families-first welfarism—an agenda that is almost assuredly intended to dampen the spread of right-wing reaction by giving more people a direct stake in social welfare—the Biden administration has the potential to lay the foundation for what Gerbaudo calls “social protectivism.” In other words, an economy that expands support for historically ill-compensated care work, updates Keynesian tools to stabilize demand and induce full employment, and at least tacitly endorses “indicative planning” to rehabilitate domestic production and avert ecological breakdown. Though Biden’s staggered and wavering approach has at times threatened to squander the opportunity presented by the neo-statist moment, his administration’s new vaccine and testing mandates for businesses with over one hundred employees arguably mark an assertion of state authority over economic life not seen in decades—a realization, perhaps, that it cannot proceed with its most ambitious proposals if it loses control of the pandemic.
While moderate elites like Biden may now grasp that neoliberalism has failed to deliver shared prosperity, Gerbaudo argues that true economic transformation across the world’s democracies will require expanding the geographic basis of progressive coalitions. His warnings ring familiar: a left-leaning electorate concentrated in urban centers weakens progressives’ chances at winning national elections; limits opportunities for serious reformers to obtain real power; and subordinates working-class citizens and immigrants to political elites who are reluctant to seek modest redistribution, let alone bold policies in energy, housing, transit, and employment. Without posing facile solutions, Gerbaudo argues democratic socialism must be alternately pragmatic and radical if it is to wield broad influence. Elements of today’s American left recognize as much, as evidenced by important local and congressional victories and the elevation of valuable policy allies within the Biden administration.
The connection between left-wing strategy and the principal ideas of neo-statism is where The Great Recoil most reveals Gerbaudo’s capacious thinking about the relationships between markets and society and the individual and the state. In tracing the evolution of sovereign governments and citizenship throughout history, he reminds us that polities are no less defined by the infrastructural reach of the state—and thus the scale and evenness of development in relation to land, population distribution, and other resources—than the political ideas, norms, and customs by which they abide. While alert to the arbitrariness of borders, particularly in the Global South, Gerbaudo maintains that social trust and a common understanding of what democratic citizenship entails continue to reflect the structure of economic relations within a delimited territory. Because globalization has attenuated or eliminated the links between rural, peri-urban, and metropolitan areas that used to underpin national economies, regional polarization in political attitudes and social outcomes has intensified. The consequences for democracy are evidently dangerous, given that rust belts across the United States and Europe have swung toward the far-right.
Gerbaudo is therefore adamant that building practical alliances with people who populate peri-urban and rural manufacturing and agricultural regions is critical to ensuring the neo-statist moment augurs a new horizon for social justice and equality. He recommends that activists and progressive policymakers do whatever possible to expand the social rights that democratic citizenship should confer while developing the type of climate-sensitive policies that can re-integrate rural and urban economies. From Bernie Sanders to the political theorist Chantal Mouffe, this is a sentiment informed by historical precedents like the New Deal and the rise of social democracy in Scandinavia. However, as a theory of durable political realignment in the twenty-first century it has yet to be affirmed. In this respect, Gerbaudo’s analysis is constrained by the kind of progressive state activism that has been merely glimpsed so far: an American president unexpectedly pursuing a course that resembles social democracy, but only in part—and hardly with the energy of a popular front that left populists dream of.
In addition, despite Gerbaudo’s otherwise careful dissection of far-right discourse and strategy, he omits consideration of scenarios that combine more fairness in advanced economies with the kind of barriers and controls sought by the far-right. Some analysts, for instance, have warned of “avocado politics,” in which novel coalitions effectively sanction ecofascism through ramped up security organizations like Frontex (the European Union’s border and coast guard agency) and other policies that abandon the Global South to climate catastrophe. There is also the more immediate anomaly posed by the Law and Justice (PiS) government in Poland, which combines natalist welfarism with anti-“gender ideology” and blatant xenophobia. Odious as PiS is, key officials have made their conception of social justice central to the party’s support and shrewdly referred to Piketty’s critique of inequality. Other examples that would speak to internationalists’ unease with neo-statism include Denmark’s social democratic government, which has embraced hardline immigration restrictions, and the 2018–2019 coalition government in Italy of the right-wing Lega Nord and quasi-welfarist yet ideologically amorphous Five Star Movement, which Gerbaudo addresses only in passing. Given his ability to cogently tie together the various political phenomena that constitute the “recoil” from boundless globalization, more discussion of these hypothetical and actual cases would have been welcome.
Social democracy in one country—or across a confederal sliver of the world’s polities—is at once unethical and impossible in the face of the mass migrations humanity will witness this century.
In his penultimate chapter, Gerbaudo’s explains his concept of “democratic patriotism,” writing that “the solution to the false opposition between nationalism and globalism should be a democratic patriotism that articulates democratic and socialist goals in accordance with the culture, practices and customs of specific polities, with their established common sense traditions and values.” As much as it accords with how leaders like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez communicate ideas of solidarity and social rights, there is a fundamental tension in left-wing politics when the horizon is narrowed to “reclaiming” the state and romanticizing democracy as beheld by localities that may in fact have selfish or exclusionary motives. Consider, for instance, separatist movements by wealthier regions within Western European countries that are resentful towards national redistribution, as well as California’s referenda against tax increases and immigrants in the late twentieth century.
In some ways, it is tempting to envisage, particularly in this moment of potential “deglobalization,” that social democracy can be renewed through a kind of regional autarky in which smaller advanced economies reinstate capital controls while establishing trade agreements based on strong environmental and labor standards. But social democracy in one country—or across a confederal sliver of the world’s polities—is at once unethical and impossible in the face of the mass migrations humanity will witness this century. Thus, what makes “democratic patriotism” fully discrete from the perilous “left nationalism” Wolfgang Streeck has signaled support for remains ambiguous, despite Gerbaudo’s best intentions.
None of this is to imply he lacks concern for global justice or is not fully aware that many countries in the Global South do not have recourse to neo-statism in the way highly developed countries do. Gerbaudo is an astute and rigorous analyst, and the The Great Recoil is perhaps the most thorough yet compact synthesis of the crises and challenges that have reset the parameters for state action in the twenty-first century. If one accepts that neo-statism defines the ongoing transition away from neoliberal governance and what Gerbaudo calls “possessive individualism,” then leftists have a historic opportunity to reconstruct ideas of citizenship, society, and protection in a manner that ultimately facilitates a new internationalism: one based on global stewardship and redistributive justice, rather than a cordon sanitaire between wealthy and under-developed countries.
In effect, then, an unspoken premise of The Great Recoil shared by many Western leftists is that conditions for all of humanity can eventually be improved by first realigning domestic politics in Europe and the United States. There’s no denying this is an unnerving proposition, not least because it threatens to reinforce existing inequalities between the Global North and Global South. But given that rich countries have the latent authority to steer investment and even discipline capital, rather than the other way around, this may be the most plausible way for the left to really shape the future and prevent an ecologically driven global apartheid. Social protectivism, if linked to de-carbonization, green technology transfers, and a broader humanitarian vision, can build political capital for the kind of international solidarity that Western governments have manifestly failed to demonstrate in the past.
If this is the most realistic path toward global justice—the alternative being a descent into enervated governance and state capture by the most dangerous reactionaries—then the left will have to become fearless about governing. That will require eschewing the ambivalence toward the state that hobbled the left in a post-Soviet, neoliberalized world, but also vigilance, for the compromises that come with power must not undermine the larger goal of transforming global political economy itself.