Senator Marco Rubio’s new book takes leaders of both parties to task for selling out American workers.
Decades of Decadence: How Our Spoiled Elites Blew America’s Inheritance of Liberty, Security, and Prosperity, Marco Rubio, Broadside Books, 212 pages.
In practice, the neoliberal order is alive and kicking: If you’re a wage-earner, your employer can minutely surveil your activities and subject you to coercion in a thousand unjust ways, and your job, wages, and benefits might all spell precarity. If you are the owner of a brick-and-mortar store on Main Street, your business is ever menaced by Amazon’s monopolistic tendencies. The social media company you use to access information and voice your views, meanwhile, wields an enormous amount of power over you, an unaccountable power you can’t challenge in court or at the ballot box. And the real-world downtown you grew up in may well be strewn with needles and lost to the blessings of free trade.
All this and more are the baleful effects of the neoliberal era that displaced the New Deal order beginning in the 1970s, and we are still a long, long way from a real turnaround. But at least in the realm of ideas, it is safe to say that neoliberal ideology is under severe pressure from left and right. Free-trade skepticism, once confined to the anti-globalization left and the paleocon right, is now the conventional wisdom on the editorial pages of the Financial Times. Many in the international shipping business believe that they will never get to restore the capillary supply chains that spanned the pre-Covid world. CEOs whine about the “end of globalization.” And no less important a figure than National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan proclaims that the Washington Consensus has failed at home and abroad.
The latest and most impressive sign comes courtesy of Marco Rubio, via his stunningly forthright new book, Decades of Decadence, in which the Florida senator takes on neoliberal elites of both parties, but especially his own, for pursuing the doctrine heedless of “the consequences that their actions might have.” The book reaffirms Rubio’s status as one of the brightest stars of the right’s new political-economy constellation, and a worthy champion of a latter-day American System for promoting a production-oriented economy that works for workers.
What struck me most reading Decades of Decadence was the author’s willingness to call out Republicans, and especially the Republican donor class, for their role in bringing about an economy in which it takes the median male worker “sixty-two weeks in a fifty-two-week year” to earn enough to pay for basic necessities, compared with 40 weeks in 1985; an American economy that had become so dependent on Chinese industry, it couldn’t produce masks and many medicine ingredients at the height of the pandemic; an economy in which the bottom half of the labor market hasn’t enjoyed any growth in real wages for the better part of two generations.
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Rubio lays plenty of blame at the feet of neoliberal Democrats from the 1990s for all this, but he doesn’t spare Republicans. The reason the Republican Party has abandoned the working class, he argues, isn’t all that complicated. It is because of the GOP “donor class” and the way their beliefs are “treated as gospel” by most Republican lawmakers, even though those beliefs are “so often wrong for the country.” Attending donor meetings, he recalls, “one thing I rarely heard was that this Fortune 500 company CEO is really interested in moving supply chains back to America. Or that Wall Street guy is very concerned about China’s exploitation of our capital markets.” After all, “for these people, the economy is working just fine.”
Likewise, Rubio has no patience for conservative ideologues who preach virtue and self-improvement but pay no mind to how the material order removes these things from the reach of ordinary workers. “Cultural decline,” he writes, “isn’t an issue that is isolated from economic decline. Dignity comes from a job, and so a difficult economy is a drag on the dignity of workers in that economy. For a long time it has been impossible to acknowledge this inside America’s conservative movement.”
Another sign of the times: In addition to allies like the brilliant Oren Cass, Rubio approvingly cites the progressive Economic Policy Institute (which indeed does excellent work on issues like arbitration abuse in the workplace, unions and de-unionization, free speech in employment, and much more). And he heaps praise on Sen. Bernie Sanders and several other left-of-center figures for presciently warning about the consequences of neoliberal ideology years and sometimes decades earlier. These are all optimistic indicators that a post-neoliberal consensus may truly be around the corner. And it suggests that such a consensus can and must be forged in the middle, between left and right.