With Donald Trump meeting Narendra Modi this week, Bernie Sanders leaping out to front-runner status in the US Democratic Primaries, and local movements all across the world taking control away from traditional political leadership, global establishments are under increasing pressure. After decades of building up a neoliberal world order, now that once unquestioned project is crumbling.

The two main structural flaws of neoliberalism are underappreciating the damage that it does to already vulnerable groups in society and distributing most of the substantial wealth gains to those already at the top of the economic ladder.

The first issue led to substantial sections of national populations finding themselves unemployed as free trade had made them redundant. That in itself would still have been manageable if wider society had shown solidarity and invested the necessary resources to compensate those groups for their loss. Instead, it mostly ignored them while generally weakening the all-important counterbalance to capitalism: the welfare state.

The second issue only exacerbated this problem. Neoliberal frameworks have been excellent at growing national GDP by enhanced efficiency and competition. But, fatally, the lion share of those newfound riches is swallowed up by the top 10% of income earners. Those with capital (real estate and shares in multinationals especially) gained substantial wealth while the rest of society’s income stagnated. According to some estimates, middle-class real income in countries such as Japan, the US and Western Europe has not increased at all over the past twenty-five years.

Unless politics mitigated the more extreme effects, these two fatal flaws were always going to undermine the legitimacy of the system. The problem has been exacerbated, however, by a cultural elite engaging in symbolic fights that had no real impact on the daily lives of the populations they represented. Identity politics is a significant part of that.  

“Identity politics” is a complicated term. Racism, sexism, antisemitism, homophobia, islamophobia and other such all-too-common horrors are real threats to any decent society and need be weeded out. They are also, by definition, based on identity and are, obviously, political. That fight has never been the problem; it’s a tough, just and vital struggle.

Unfortunately, neoliberal cultural elites moved beyond what is real and into fake wars against mostly fabricated narratives. The process went roughly like this:

Neoliberal society, by celebrating the individual both in economic and political terms started valuing the right of every individual to define their own identity. Nothing wrong with that. The next step, however, was to dogmatically refuse to address the implications of this and, crucially, the fact that large segments of the population stayed behind in their traditional perspectives. Rather than persuading these groups that individual identity is fluid and complex, the cultural elites turned it into a conflict of “right” and “wrong”, well before the more traditionally minded groups were ready to accept these new social realities.

This then led to a harsh backlash of groups that were now not only pushed into economic hardship because of neoliberalism but also attacked for being culturally backward and ethically reprehensible. The internet and social media are of course a fertile breeding ground for these kinds of culture wars. They are now filled with vicious fights about the meaning of words and symbolism. Rather than fully engaging very complex issues related to identity in the 21st century, it is simplified into good and evil.

In all of this, neoliberal political and intellectual elites attempt to hide their project’s utter failure by virtue signalling that they are on the moral high ground, that they respect the individual and identity fluidity unlike those who oppose the celebration of the individual. The result is further alienation from traditional groups who then turn to the Trumps and Modis of this world.

As a self-described “populist”, does Bernie Sanders also fit into this list? Well, yes and no. He does address the destruction of neoliberalism and claims to provide a better economic alternative. But unlike Trump, for example, he does not engage in the culture war described above. He does not fight the celebration of the individual nor does he go into dog-whistling racist or sexist narratives to appease alienated traditional voters.

After decades of fighting faux wars over symbols, he may have cracked the code. The way out of the current ugliness is an emphasis on policies rather than language, backed up by basic human decency. Basic common decency and constructive policies, now there’s a revolutionary idea.