Policy shifts are always the outcome of a struggle between those who want to uphold the status quo and those who seek change. Given the access to financial, coercive and ideological means of the status quo coalition, shifting the development path is nothing less than a herculean task. In order to succeed, progressive actors need to be able to mobilize mass support. In other words for the progressive side the challenge lies in scaling. While it may be possible to rally support from a small group of followers, building broad societal change coalitions is hampered by conflicting interests.
In order to scale up support, millions of individuals with diverging interests need to be mobilized to join a common struggle. Hence, the dilemma for every campaign is to build a platform broad enough to mobilize a majority, yet at the same time be clear enough to energize supporters. This challenge can be met by building discourse coalitions between different life worlds.
A life world (aka discourse community) consists of a group of people who share a set of ideals, values, attitudes, myths, and narratives; in short, a sub-culture. Such life worlds can grow around religious or professional communities, inside institutions or corporations or in ethnically or culturally distinct regions. Even though members have diverging socio-economic statuses or interests, they perceive each other as part of a community. By rallying around a common cause, a discourse community can become a collective actor. However, what mobilizes one life world may alienate another. Hence, the main scaling challenge is to get beyond the support of one community and invite a broad spectrum of life worlds to join a broad societal coalition for change.
In the old “tribal” phase of democratic politics, broad platforms were built by political party machines and patronage networks in which political entrepreneurs negotiated the price for the support of “their” communities. With the increasing complexity of identities and plurality of lifestyles, these “deals” are getting harder to pull together and sometimes don’t add up anymore. In postmodern politics, the ability to mobilize support will increasingly depend on the capability to form discourse coalitions.
Discourses not only format the way we think, speak and act by setting defaults and shaping our imaginary horizon. Words, narratives, myths and images are also rallying cries for some, while alienating others. In order to construct a platform for a broad societal alliance a narrative is needed which appeals to members of different life worlds at the same time. Successful political projects have mastered this challenge by building discursive bridges between different life worlds. Hegemonic political projects managed to tap into the narratives, imaginaries, terminologies and utopias of diverse discourse communities, strengthen narrative links and highlight compatibilities. By re-framing issues, spinning messages and merging narratives, neighbouring discourse communities can be co-opted into the (hegemonic) alliance.
Why has neoliberal discourse been so successfull?
How this works in practice can be observed best by studying how the current neoliberal project co-opted discourse communities into its hegemonic alliance. Unsurprisingly, the neoliberal project managed to form the core of its coalition by bringing together liberals and conservatives on a common platform of economic dynamism. More interesting lessons, however, can be drawn from the remarkable enlisting of scientific and even progressive discourse communities. A few examples may be helpful to understand how neoliberals managed to turn scientific narratives into justifications for their policies and even co-opt progressive actors into their coalition.
Arguably, neoliberal hegemony was secured by the co-optation of social democracy. Influenced by the “The End of History” discourse after the collapse of the socialist alternative, “The Third Way” pragmatic “policy management beyond Left or Right” narrative built a bridge into the social democratic discourse community. Giving up on its aim to change primary distribution, “Third Way” social democracy lost sight of political economy and became an ally in the liberalization project of deregulation and privatization.
The neoliberal project also managed to build several discursive bridges into the (green) sustainability discourse community. In the sustainable development discourse, “The Tragedy of the Commons” concept is often used to describe problems of atmosphere, soil degradation, livestock depletion or carbon emissions. In the original economic theory, the “tragedy of the commons” conceptualizes the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group’s long-term best interests. Drawing on this mistrust against collective rationality, the neoliberal discourse used the “tragedy of the commons” to justify the privatization of public property. In a similar fashion, concerns over long-term sustainability of short-sighted interest-driven behaviour were adopted to describe concerns over budget deficits and mounting sovereign debt. With “fiscal sustainability”, a powerful term was coined to legitimize austerity and internal devaluation measures (cuts in wages, public goods and state administration).
Nancy Fraser pointed out how feminism got enlisted to the neoliberal cause. Three discursive bridges allowed the co-optation of feminists. First, neoliberalism capitalised on the feminist critique of the “male breadwinner-female homemaker family”. The female empowerment discourse was turned into support for the “two-earner family” based on low wages for both sexes:
Invoking the feminist critique of the family wage to justify exploitation, it harnesses the dream of women’s emancipation to the engine of capital accumulation (Fraser).
Second, by rejecting “economism” and politicizing “the personal”, feminists broadened the political agenda to challenge status hierarchies premised on cultural constructions of gender difference. This played right into the hand of neoliberals who wanted to turn attention away from social issues rooted in the political economy. Third, the feminist critique of the welfare state’s paternalist structure was turned into a powerful weapon in the neoliberal assault on social security systems and the state in general.
In a similar vein, neoliberalism enlisted the multiculturalism discourse. Epitomized by MTV (“Free Your Mind”), “United Colors of Benetton” and Nike (“Just do it”) commercials, racial, religious, ethnic and other boundaries were glossed over to form one cosmopolitan community of consumers.
“Moral capitalism”, a concept designed to contain markets by self-restraint, paradoxically allows tapping into the discourse community of ethics and to make capitalism compatible with Buddhist and Confucian traditions. Under the label of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), individual corporations now vow to eradicate poverty, provide health care or support a variety of social causes. Through public-private partnerships, these initiatives are discursively linked to UN Millennium Goals or the civil society driven “Make poverty history” campaign. By putting humanity’s hopes on the diffusion of modern technology and economic growth, a powerful case for global economic liberalization is constructed. The alleviation of hundreds of millions out of poverty in emerging markets is linked to their access to the global and domestic market.
The Economist, the High Council of Liberalization, recently even made the survival of soon-to-be-extinct species dependent on greater human prosperity. In this logic, greater biodiversity is promoted by the “more fertilizer, pesticide, and genetically modified seeds”.
In Europe, the powerful narrative of European integration as a peace project is used to immunize EU policies against national criticisms. The European Union, arguably the main engine of liberalization, is portrayed as a non-political project without alternative. By claiming the moral high ground, critics can be portrayed as nationalist populists playing with the fire of returning to Europe’s violent past.
These examples show how scientific theories and progressive narratives were re-framed into justification for neoliberal policies. Discursive bridges allowed the neoliberal project to enlist neighbouring discourse communities into its hegemonic alliance. Discursive alliances allowed the neoliberal project to form a broad societal coalition well beyond its traditional social class and economic interest based constituency. This task was made easier by the strategic positioning at the very center of the discourse landscape. This not only made it possible to frame radical policies as common sense without alternative, but also allowed a vast spectrum of stakeholders to “buy into” the neoliberal project to (seemingly) advance their own causes.
The progressive camp also had some successes in building discursive alliances. The “Green New Deal” or “Third Industrial Revolution” narratives allow environmentalists and labour unions to leave behind their often conflicting interests and join together on a platform of “green jobs”. Environmentalists and industry, for decades locked in a battle over the costs of pollution and emissions, can both agree on a “green growth” agenda. And even advocates of a small state would concede a role for industrial policy in laying the infrastructure for the “Third Industrial Revolution”.
Successes like this are encouraging, but many more discursive bridges must be built in order to rebuild a broad coalition for change. Learning from the neoliberals may be helpful to achieve this objective.