The Four Centrisms

by Benjamin Studebaker

Back in 2016, I argued that the centrist consensus of the 90s was breaking down, and that instead there was a wider menu, with three meaningfully distinct choices:

  • Left Egalitarianism, which critiqued the consensus on the grounds that it enabled capitalists to exploit workers
  • Neoliberalism, which defended the consensus through the traditional center-right and center-left parties
  • Right Nationalism, which critiqued the consensus on the grounds that it enabled foreigners to exploit citizens

I no longer believe that this menu exists, and it may never have existed. Instead, I think there are four different types of centrist position. These types of centrism are aesthetically different but substantively nearly identical. By differentiating aesthetically, the 90s consensus is able to accommodate a higher level of cultural polarisation while protecting the core commitments of the 90s consensus.

First, what is the 90s consensus? The 90s consensus is neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is broadly a commitment to four things:

  • Marketization–a preference for market systems over public goods, wherever it is politically possible to impose them.
  • Globalization–a desire to export the market system to every part of the world, whenever it is politically possible to export it.
  • Responsibilization–a tendency to blame individuals for social problems to prevent those problems from becoming political questions. This makes it the individual’s job to deal with the consequences of globalized markets and prevents the individual from holding states and the international system to account.
  • Culture War–a tendency to use group antagonism to distract from the problems created by globalized markets. This means that the conversation is always shifted to race, gender, sexuality, religion, and other cultural touchstones. Culture War combines with responsibilization to produce a cancel culture in which individuals face social and political sanction if they refuse to fight the Culture War, fight for the wrong side, or fight with insufficient vigour.

Marketization and globalization are the offensive functions of neoliberalism. The positive objective of neoliberalism is to spread markets everywhere, both within the societies where they already prevail and to the societies which resist them.

Responsibilization and Culture War are the defensive functions of neoliberalism. They protect neoliberalism by redirecting critical energy away from the state and the international system toward individuals and social groups. In this way, Responsibilization and Culture War divide us up and prevent us from meaningfully resisting marketization and globalization.

Neoliberalism is divided into two aesthetically different but substantively similar variants–technocratic neoliberalism and populist neoliberalism. Technocratic neoliberalism emphasises neoliberalism’s offensive functions. It openly asserts the value of markets and globalization and attempts to win public support on this basis. Technocratic neoliberalism is honest about its intentions.

Populist neoliberalism, by contrast, emphasises neoliberalism’s defensive functions. It distracts from the problems with technocratic neoliberalism by attempting to get citizens to blame themselves or to blame other groups for those problems. Populist neoliberalism often includes a performance of opposition to neoliberalism. Donald Trump is a great example–he acts like he opposes globalization while continuing to quietly support the global trade system. He is sometimes interested in changing which countries America trades with (favoring Vietnam over China, for instance), but he is committed to the idea that America should continue to import vast quantities of goods produced in low-wage countries with weak tax and regulatory environments. Many of his policies are similar to those which might have been enacted by Mitt Romney. His tax plan and his pledge to repeal Obamacare both mirror Romney’s own rhetoric in 2012.

Within the technocratic and populist camps there are also ostensible “left” and “right” varieties. These stem from which of the two functions is the dominant, or preferred function.

So within “left” technocratic neoliberalism, the dominant function is globalization rather than marketization. Left technocratic neoliberals are more cautious about expanding markets domestically, but more confident about exporting markets internationally. Think Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment. They will do both, but they are more forthright about globalization.

Within “right” technocratic neoliberalism, the dominant function is marketization rather than globalization. Right technocratic neoliberals are more cautious about intervening abroad, but more confident about expanding markets internally. Think Mitt Romney and the “Never Trump” Republicans. They will do both, but they are more forthright about marketization.

Both types of technocrat are more confident about both marketization and globalization than their populist counterparts. Within populism, we have “left” populist neoliberalism, which prefers responsibilization to culture war, preferring to target individuals rather than groups. Think Alexandria Ocascio-Cortez and “cancel culture”. They will do both, but they are more forthright about responsibilization.

Then there is “right” populist neoliberalism, which prefers culture war to responsibilization, preferring to target groups rather than individuals. Think Donald Trump and the “alt-right”. They will do both, but are more forthright about culture war.

Again, both types of populism will prefer both defensive functions to the two offensive functions. In this way, we can make a “function stack” for each of the four types of neoliberalism, placing the defensive and offensive functions in the order that is preferred:

“Left” Technocratic Neoliberalism:

  1. Globalization
  2. Marketization
  3. Responsibilization
  4. Culture War

“Right” Technocratic Neoliberalism:

  1. Marketization
  2. Globalization
  3. Culture War
  4. Responsibilization

“Left” Populist Neoliberalism:

  1. Responsibilization
  2. Culture War
  3. Globalization
  4. Marketization

“Right” Populist Neoliberalism:

  1. Culture War
  2. Responsibilization
  3. Marketization
  4. Globalization

In the populist cases, the bottom function is the function that is performatively rejected but quietly embraced. The “left” populist neoliberal pretends to reject marketization while quietly advancing it, for instance by supporting the abolition of the police but in practice privatising the police. The “right” populist neoliberal pretends to reject globalization while quietly advancing it, for instance by making a bunch of noise about reducing trade with China but mainly for the purpose of shifting that trade down the coast to Vietnam.

In contrast, the populist will still argue openly for the third function, though it won’t be put at the center of their rhetoric. “Left” populist neoliberals still argue for globalization through “open borders”. “Right” populist neoliberals still argue for marketization through “repeal and replace”. But the populists prefer negative rhetoric to positive rhetoric, because substantively their are still committed to the same system as their technocratic opponents.

The technocratic types don’t have a repressed function–they will indulge both defensive functions when in a bind, though in both cases they prefer the offensive.

I put scare quotes around both “left” and “right” because there is nothing meaningfully left-wing or right-wing about any of these movements–they are all ways of advancing and defending the centrist consensus around neoliberalism.

Here’s a chart to help you see how they all relate: