The Death of Neoliberal Realism?

Zachariah William Wheeler


Post-punk theorist Mark Fisher (d. 2017) shows how neoliberalism relies on a “reflexive impudence” imposed on politics and culture by the necessity of “realism.” Neoliberalism puts fixed limits on how we can imagine the future, and what degree of deviation can be expected from participating in the political process.

This paper takes seriously Fisher's perspective, analyzing recent political events in the U.S. as they relate to the use of neoliberalism as a deflationary political tactic. My analysis expands on how two different figures, Trump and Sanders, politicize discourse and develop consciousness outside of this pre-approved realism enforced by neoliberalism. Figures like Trump and Sanders represent, not a new kind of politics, but a willingness to be political—that is, they reintroduce contestability to a political discourse of disciplined rationality that prefigures policy according to a continuation of neoliberalism. This practice of "being political" is integral to a conceptually informed and critical understanding of neoliberalism—it is not only a political-economic project, but also an ideological and sociocultural apparatus, that relies on the dissolution of certain forms of consciousness, and the abolition of transformative thought. Foregrounding this apparatus, and its relevance to the 2016 election, can help clarify the abnormalities that have shaped political events since then.

My analysis observes that the seemingly improbable political world in which we find ourselves is the result of neoliberalism’s decline (and perhaps, even dissolution) as an authoritative force for defining a clear and rational center to politics. ‘Capitalist realism’, as Fisher characterized it, is dissipating. Furthermore, I explore the great peril and promise of this moment, asserting that political actors must acknowledge these conditions and recognize that the future will ultimately be shaped by whichever forces—from the left or right—are able to take advantage of this aporia. This analysis foregrounds Trump’s victory in 2016 to show how effectively a far-right project can flourish under these conditions, especially if the opposition refuses to recognize the failures of neoliberalism and the subsequent character of our political moment.


Neoliberalism; Donald Trump; 2016; Realism

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