Breaking Down Neoliberalism’s Cultural Fallout and the Right’s Cultural Revolution

New Roosevelt Institute report explores the cultural wreckage of neoliberalism, cultural counterreactions to the ideology, the post-neoliberal Right’s success in harnessing widespread dissatisfaction, and potential pathways forward for progressives

April 18, 2024
Anthony Thomas
(212) 444-9130

New York, NY — Mounting critiques from both sides of the political aisle are challenging the viability of neoliberalism, the prevailing world order since the 1970s. Critics highlight not only its economic shortcomings but also its failure to fulfill crucial cultural promises, leaving individuals longing for community and belonging, agency, control, safety, stability, clear explanations and understanding, and, perhaps above all, for feeling good under a system that makes millions feel bad. These failures of neoliberalism underscore the urgent need for alternative frameworks that address fundamental human needs, sparking pivotal discourse on the future of post-neoliberal progressive movements.

The Cultural Contradictions of Neoliberalism: The Longing for an Alternative Order and the Future of Multiracial Democracy in an Age of Authoritarianism,” a new Roosevelt Institute report, argues that neoliberalism’s failures have resulted in a “cultural wreckage,” fueling a set of cultural responses to the ideology that purport to offer strategies to cope with a range of social, economic, and psychological issues. Authored by Shahrzad Shams, senior program manager for Roosevelt’s Race and Democracy program, Deepak Bhargava, longtime progressive movement leader and former senior fellow at Roosevelt, and Harry W. Hanbury, documentary filmmaker and activist, the report examines how the post-neoliberal Right has successfully taken advantage of the moment by weaponizing these responses. Shams, Bhargava, and Hanbury make five connected arguments:

  1. Neoliberalism must be understood not only as a policy project but also—equally—as a cultural project.
  2. We live today in a landscape of cultural wreckage brought about by neoliberal policies and ideology. 
  3. Neoliberalism as a cultural project is increasingly unpersuasive and unsatisfying to many people.
  4. Compared to the Left, the Right has been far more strategic and successful in engaging with the cultural responses to neoliberalism.
  5. Progressives must meet the widespread longing for alternatives to the neoliberal order on the terrain of culture if they are to compete successfully against the post-neoliberal Right. 

Insight from the Authors:

“The longing for alternatives to everyday life under neoliberalism is driven by deeply human desires. Many of us would call these desires spiritual. Progressives in recent years have been strong on analyzing structures and interests, but weak on culture and spirit. The Right, by contrast, has taken a ‘culture-first’ approach, leveraging our society’s reactions to the dysfunctions of neoliberalism for nefarious political ends. This is far from inevitable, and there is no reason why the Left cannot also engage in the cultural terrain, but with just, inclusive, and egalitarian ends in mind,” said Bhargava. 

“So far, conservatives have outmaneuvered progressives in this cultural landscape and are mobilizing this deep longing for alternatives for political purposes; their ‘culture-first’ approach to politics and policy has created a strange new landscape, including the rise of misogynistic propaganda from far-right commentators like Andrew Tate, who provide men with a sense of community and direction, or QAnon, which borders on organized religion. Progressives must seek to meet the present longing for a cultural alternative, rather than simply providing policy prescriptions, to ensure success in a post-neoliberal future,” said Shams. 

“To succeed in the face of a post-neoliberal Right that is mobilizing emotions and surfing the cultural currents of neoliberalism, the Left will need to engage in mass culture, build mass organizations, and expand the policy repertoire to address issues that speak directly to the deeper longings driving our politics. Progressives can harness the rebellious strands of our culture to build alternative political and cultural homes that meet needs in the here and now, build power, and demonstrate that another world is actually possible,” said Hanbury.