Why the Elizabeth Warren Pipeline Goes Left and Far Right

Why the Elizabeth Warren Pipeline Goes Left and Far Right

There’s this guy, Matt Stoller, who’s managed to make himself kind of policy-famous as a progressive-leaning anti-monopolist. And now he’s blowing minds because of his sudden open flirtations with the far right, which some people didn’t see coming. This is a short story about why it should’ve come as no surprise, and why we need to be worried about national security Keynesianism.

Through most of the 2010s, Stoller came to prominence within the D.C. version of the technocratic left—a network of people who had a vaguely post-Clinton/Obamaite politics and who knew how policies get made, were highly careerist, and relied on their alumni and brunch networks to climb the ladder as much as on actually being competent. He was on the economic/regulatory side of this greater wonk tribe. I didn’t know him, but was on the foreign policy side of it, which is why I know how it works.

From within that technocratic-progressive ecosystem, Stoller was a big booster of Elizabeth Warren. I don’t know if he had ever worked or consulted with her, but I don’t need to—he’s written about her A LOT over the intervening decade. Often favorably. And pretty much always in relation to her anti-monopolist regulatory politics.

You see, monopolism as the enemy of democracy is not just Stoller’s favorite topic; it’s his brand, which he consolidated by writing a gargantuan book that interprets the history of America as basically an endless battle between corporate monopolies and those who oppose them.

As it happens, there’s a cross-section of leftists and progressives who think monopolies suck, something I address as part of just-released research about progressive grand strategies (will write more about it another day). I think monopolies suck. And so does Elizabeth Warren.

Interestingly enough, Stoller’s book got dragged by a lot of people on the socialist left, including Gabriel Winant, who for my money is the best explainer of class politics in my generation. His critical review of Stoller’s book was representative of what socialists and Marxists saw as problematic in trying to do anti-monopolism from within a capitalist economy that was rigged in countless other ways besides corporate concentrations of power. Did alienation from the actually existing left push Stoller right? No idea.

So why the hell am I talking about this dude? I wouldn’t bother, except that he represents an emerging problem in the politics of US foreign policy. His particular view of political economy has led him to embrace what I would describe as national security Keynesianism, and national security Keynesianism has led him to openly align himself with extremely reactionary, militarist preferences regarding China and the US national security state.

I’ve been quietly watching this evolve for some time. But the tweet below is a window into his worldview, and is the tip of a mostly submerged iceberg of technocratic D.C. convergence with a far-right foreign policy agenda.

That’s right—“mobilize for war ASAP.” And the Biden administration’s various moves in favor of economic nationalism—blacklisting Chinese firms, “friend-shoring” supply chains, cutting China out of the semiconductor “race”—is industrial policy aimed at doing that. Stoller subsequently goes on to declare without qualification that Xi Jinping is going to invade Taiwan in short order. If only us experts on China, Asia, and defense strategy had his crystal ball. (insert eye-roll emoji)

But the anti-China alarmism is not even the real story here. The tweet is signal-boosting Bridge Colby, a guy who is not just a political appointee from Trump’s Pentagon who defended Senator Josh Hawley’s solidarity fist-pump on the day of the Capitol Insurrection. He’s also a guy who literally makes a living off of promoting his singular obsession—preparing for and winning a war with China.

The convergence here between the far right and an anti-monopolist with some progressive credentials is illuminating. Hawley and Colby represent a strand of conservative foreign policy I’ve been calling the “nationalist militarists.” They’re not interested in alliances or nation-building or democracy promotion. They’re critical of liberal internationalism and globalization, which have been mutually constitutive the past 40 years.

But crucially, the nationalist militarists are interested in a large national security surveillance state, and are happy to bust some heads in the street if those heads are BLM protestors. They are interested in military primacy, just without the obligations of imperial maintenance. And they are interested in racially tinged clash-of-civilization politics, which puts both Iran and China in their crosshairs while Russia sort of gets a pass.

The talk of economic decoupling from China and reshoring supply chains and such is part of preparing for war with China. The whole point for the Biden administration is to commandeer political economy away from policies of deregulation and privatization to mitigate vulnerabilities China might exploit if we get into a fight. Undoing economic interdependence makes war and war-risking actions more feasible, in the Washington mind anyway.

Even though I find most of this deranged and dangerous, it reflects a post-neoliberal view of political economy that vibes with Warren’s progressive economics. She literally espoused an “economic patriotism” plan on the campaign trail. Many of her policies had a neo-Keynesian flair. And she was all about sticking it to China, largely via economic rather than defense policy.

There were many good things in Warren’s economic agenda, but subordinating economic policy to serve the national security state was the part that made me most uncomfortable. The far right, based on its own conception of what counts as national security, also wants to bend economics to be wielded as a weapon in foreign policy.

But I’m not saying Warren is aligned or allied with the far right. To the contrary, I think they feared her more than anyone. I’m saying that people attracted to her economic policies, and especially her national security Keynesianism, see China rivalry as the basis for securing public goods in the United States. I’m saying that, politically, this is also what the far right seeks to do in foreign policy because it strengthens them politically at home.

And as Tim Barker shrewdly (and sarcastically) observed:

Keep in mind that I’m saying all this as an Elizabeth Warren stan.  If you have a personal politics that cares about the little guy and you know the ins and outs of policy, you can’t not love her. That’s why I was a volunteer foreign policy adviser for her presidential campaign in 2020.

I’m also a Bernie stan, and have been part of the outer rim of his advice-giving orbit since 2020. At the level of policy, I’ve seen almost no difference between Warren and Bernie. What separates them in our imagination is all stylized and aspirational.

Nevertheless, I often wonder whether foreign policy would’ve been much different had she become president. I’d like to think so but I’m not so sure—there was a lot of elite capture going on in foreign policy, technocrats diluting popular anti-militarist sentiments into marginal reform projects. For every person like me at the bottom of the Warren food chain, there was an Ash Carter at the top of it—a nice guy, smart guy, an Obama Secretary of Defense, but a techno-hawk who described China in his memoir as a “communist monolith” bent on world domination.

So what I’m getting at is that Warren’s way of thinking about the economy attracted a motley crew of policy wonks, including me. We were all anti-neoliberal, and had an affinity for some version of the New Deal. As a Bernie-loving social democrat, I’m proof that Warren is a pipeline to the left. But Stoller is proof that Warren is also a pipeline to the far right. And given that the policy world is not just esoteric but elitist and unaccountable, we should be worried about what that reactionary pipeline might lead to.