On 27 April, White House adviser Jake Sullivan announced on behalf of President Biden the inauguration of what he called ‘the New Washington Consensus’, a repudiation of a three-decades-long orientation to globalisation and its ostensible commitment to universal free trade and indifference to the capacity for self-reliance in production by any country, including the United States.
But the New Washington Consensus is more than a shift in attitudes towards free trade and global markets; it is backed by an all-embracing security imperative, largely driven by America’s unwillingness to share superpower status with China. The consensus aims to recharge the US economy and reshape it overwhelmingly to security needs; and that same supercharging of the economy will rebuild its declining industrial base and divided society—a lift-us-up prewar national reconstruction. There may be no express statement about containing China and even less about going to war in other recent speeches from the White House, but in our own region it is especially clear that this is what is being prepared for; it is what AUKUS points to and commits us to.
Biden’s expansive and upbeat plan for America comes as if in response to a revelation: that thirty years of late capitalist globalisation and the neoliberal management of it have had some problems. It was a mistake, we are now told, to believe that open markets are always the answer; that growth, any growth, is good; that wealth would simply trickle down. The two major events apparently revealing the need for this new regime are the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the COVID pandemic. The former delivered a massive financial shock and ongoing economic crises that have been largely ungovernable and have left a trail of social destruction. The latter revealed the vulnerability of a globalised economy to supply-chain disruption. A more effective response to COVID may have been possible, but the key insight now is the vulnerability off-shored industry brings to ‘national security’.
In this context, globalisation will have to be curtailed. Domestic economy and key industries, especially those related to security, as exemplified in Biden’s CHIPs Act which fast-tracks US superconductor production away from Taiwanese dominance will be favoured. Jobs will be restored through more targeted policy and investment, and the middle class, especially emphasised, will grow again. We are told that there will be more fairness in the system generally. Indeed, those signs of social decay that the new consensus seems now to recognise—glaringly brought to light by Trump’s connection with ‘the deplorables’ and impressed on the American imagination by the events of 6 January—are understood in these speeches as being connected to democratic decline, another explicit target of the new consensus.
In Biden’s holistic, if mechanistic, plan, jobs and growth, and prosperity accordingly, will not only build the economy but set the ship of state and polity aright again. Sullivan calls it a thoroughly ‘modern American industrial strategy’. One can read this as the renewed promise of an older social democratic ordering of society: work equals a share of the cake and redistribution, to some degree; in turn, sufficient prosperity produced together as a nation makes for a commitment to the system that delivers prosperity to you, which in turn prompts civic participation and rational behaviour. Domestic industrial policy will provide the answer; jobs are the bedrock of stable society and commitment of a population to liberal-democratic ends.
In the United States, while a new industriousness and the uplift of common goals and activities are promised, what does fortress America promise, domestically and across the world? This is not, after all, the United States retreating from dominance through globalisation back to within its borders, as it claimed to do in the ‘isolationist’ period of the 1920s and 30s. It is a re-extension of the United States, still claiming the right to global omnipresence and now intent on greater economic self-sufficiency and the building of blocs. This will inevitably result in rival military escalations and unpredictable economic flashpoints and crises. Global inflation and interest rate disorders are already indicators of this.
Yet these are not the basic problem in repairing social life and democratic commitment, or joining a nation in common purpose.
If the purpose of a new approach is, as claimed, not merely economic consolidation but restoration of the torn social and cultural fabric of a nation, these speeches are intriguing for their unwillingness to make a deep and searching assessment as to why the old Washington consensus was the all-embracing outlook of US Democrats for decades.The new consensus is solely forward-looking and resolutely positive: that globalisation and neoliberal governance upended ways of life for great swathes of the American population, as it did elsewhere, does not need to be examined in any greater sense because the answer is already to hand. Jobs and economy. Capitalism is a given; so too are the techno-scientific means that have delivered globalisation in our age. There is no examination of the structures of life and living that neoliberal globalisation has carried and generalised in contemporary culture, and that remain untouched in the Biden plan.
This raises the question of just what the leaders of globalisation in our time actually think globalisation and neoliberalism have been, and what comprises ‘the social’ today, after thirty or more years of a profound reshaping of all levels of social life and culture. Again, in the speech by Sullivan, the American contribution to the world economy is depicted as a seamless (heroic) development from the end of the Second World War to the present, the problem being that it lost its way, in certain respects, in recent times. It appears to have been a merely strategic development within taken-for-granted capitalism, and now we are about to take another such strategic turn. It seems the economy is, after all, merely one set of levers or another.
In other words, this kind of outlook cannot see or explain how other dimensions and registers of life have changed categorically—that capitalism itself has undergone a fundamental shift in the period of late capitalist globalisation, with deep-going world- and lifeworld-changing consequences. The inability to see this is registered in the Biden plan’s own naturalising rhetoric about ‘leading-edge techno-industrial’ development as the way forward, and in its specifying the centrality of the sciences in the warfare, biotech and communications industries that will lead the United States back to full world dominance, and simultaneously to domestic social cohesion.
Globalisation has typically been seen in this strategic way. Its instigators certainly understood that the new regime would require the building of such institutions as the World Trade Organisation and World Bank to facilitate free trade. At the level of the nation and of society, the program was one of disestablishment of the institutions, and specifically the social institutions built over the period of modern capitalism, both to facilitate the economy and as protection from its worst aspects. As with Margaret Thatcher’s ‘there is no such thing as society’, the model was one of a direct, contractual relationship between individuals (and families) in their economic life, ruled by very small government. Of course, the assumptions about social life implicit in this picture spilled over into a reconstruction of the social. This was foreseen, but only in terms of the benefits that market life would bring, and these only in a very mechanical way. Neoliberalism would facilitate material wealth and freedom of choice, usually conceived of as the freedom to marketise and to purchase, and rational self-dependence would be generated as a result. (Where this failed, and social disturbance was in fact the result, new disciplinary means would be ruthlessly employed.) Within this approach lies a deeper assumption again: that no distinction is to be made between abstracted and attenuated forms of high-tech connection and abiding face-to-face relations, whose viability is essential to human flourishing. Embracing forms of life, held in place geographically and culturally, and present to us in face-to-face and more condensed forms of interaction would be directly undermined by the tendencies of globalised techno-capitalism to undermine the integrity of the local and valorise the fleeting.
In somewhat broader accounts of the period of contemporary globalisation, its economic agenda would be complemented with ‘cultural globalisation’. As far as this was seen or appreciated by neoliberals, it was understood in terms of a positive breaking-down of cultural impediments on the one hand, and the chance to marketise culture on the other, which, whatever processes of cultural exchange it may have facilitated, has also created the vast transnational media and entertainment production conglomerates which have largely substituted themselves for culture. Of course none of this supercharging of the American economy is in question in the New Washington Consensus. It may not be the domestic focus of the moment, but it remains core to broader globalisation strategies, not to mention America’s global ‘empire’ of liberal-democratic hearts and minds. That this may also have something to do with the cultural contradictions today that point to an attenuation of relationships in families and communities, and with nature, and thus make for brittle social conditions, is nowhere entertained.
Yet any account of globalisation or the retreat from it which simply stops at the naming and critique of ‘neoliberalism’ will miss the more comprehensive process underway, and the deeper contradictions therein. This includes many contemporary left accounts, which are taken to be cutting-edge but which cannot fully assess the transformative character of the technological revolution without which neoliberal globalisation would not have been possible, and which define life more broadly than anything associated simply with profit-making, or with production for national security. Although capital, via Silicon Valley investing, is the agent for the rapid spread of such technologies, from the internet to effective AI, it is technology’s capacity to rapidly remake social relations and cultural meaning far beyond any capacity capital has previously exhibited that makes it a transformative, autonomous force that neither the enthusiasts nor the critics of neoliberalism can adequately grasp.
Driving this process through the various nationalist, bloc-based, planned processes of the New Washington Consensus may repair gaps in national security. But it will also further undermine the ability of the United States to make the acts of social reconstitution that are necessary to arrest its decline towards a situation in which internal conflict is unavoidable. The restoration of a true reciprocal local community as the building block of national life cannot occur until such deeper processes are made visible, and prompt critical policy responses. In the absence of such, Americans, now the most disrupted of people, will seek ground in increasingly compressed myths of persecution, conspiracy and enemies within. Any approach which sees these forces as simply the ideological product of capitalism itself will fundamentally miss the challenges we all face.
The United States will still be a civilisation in decline—except for the massive power of its capacity for surveillance, war and social terror, which may hold it together before e unum pluribus. The Albanese government has signed us up to a new consensus that many of us do not agree with. This has been done through AUKUS, to which we have devoted a special section in this issue—a scheme that draws on old notions of ‘alliance’ to lace us into new forms of post-sovereign domination, justified by a high-tech determinism. It is clear that the underlying processes that made globalisation a material reality are more than alive and well.