Geopolitical Economy is Brutalist Neoliberalism: Part I
The "New Washington Consensus" is Not as Post-Neoliberal as You Think
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan gave what might become an epoch-defining speech at the Brookings Institution the other day, and I promised I’d say more about it once I was able to read it closely.
The speech attempted to give voice to what Sullivan dubbed, the “New Washington Consensus.” It was an artful attack against neoliberalism (love to see it). Sympathetic twitter-pundits say it laid out a positive economic vision, but I must’ve read a different speech because I saw only a rhetorical wisp of that in there.
The speech also hit the public in a strange way. It got little attention, except among “supply-side progressives,” who went crazy for it. This is ironic because the speech did not lay out a single new initiative, and the points it hit were all points that supply-side progressives have been tracking very closely. So the people that cheered most strongly were also most likely to find nothing new in it.
Why, then, was the speech possibly epoch-defining? Because it was weighing in at a narrative level, consecrating what had been said and done repeatedly over the past three years. It was trying to give a coherent shape to a lot of policy interventions in the economy that are easily read in isolation, thereby missing the forest for the trees. And it didn’t get a whole lot of push back; true, it also didn’t get a whole lot of eyeballs on it, but you might’ve said the same thing about a speech about neoliberalism in the ‘90s.
In what follows below, I’m going to break down what I think is important here and why, what the speech gets right, and where it goes very wrong. I’m going to have to break it into two posts because, well, it was a long speech and there was a lot to cover. But four main points to break down.
1. Neoliberal policies are politically unpopular and leftist critiques of capitalism are being selectively wielded by the Biden administration.
2. There is no consensus on political economy moving forward.
3. The Biden administration is quite explicitly subordinating the economy to great-power war preparations.
4. By instrumentalizing the economy for military purposes, the Biden administration is not transcending what neoliberalism wrought but rather re-introducing a brutalist form of capitalism that promises to have neoliberalism-like consequences. You could variously call this geopolitical economy, national security Keynesianism, or military capitalism.
We’re on the midnight train to hell. Let me explain why.