Has Post-Neoliberal Order Already Arrived? A Conversation With Quinn Slobodian
S: When Globalists was published it seemed like the neoliberal order was still unshakable. Even after such a significant challenge as the Global Financial Crisis and persistent criticism from both left and right, it looked very resilient; like it could sustain these challenges. However, now this status quo seems to be coming to an end. Governments are putting more and more emphasis on delinking and generally take a more proactive approach toward markets. In your view, does this signify the end of the neoliberal era? And if so, what will come after it?
QS: Globalists came out in 2018, but I had mostly completed it in early 2016, even before the Brexit vote and Trump's election. My son was born around that time so my life was put on hold for a year and the book ended up being published a little later. But what you're saying is even truer than it might’ve been by the publication date. The neoliberal global consensus was very much intact when I finished writing the book and it didn't look like there were any strong challenges to it. The EU was on board with the idea of building ever stronger supranational organizations that locked in a particular economic future and made others impossible. In the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton looked like an even more conservative candidate than Obama had been. So, as I finished, I thought I was writing a history of the present. But then, in between finishing and the book being published, three ruptures in the political climate happened — with Brexit, with Trump, and Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly strong challenge in the Democratic Party. It turned out that I had actually written the history of the near past.
The question of whether that meant that neoliberalism was dead or not is one that I've been asked many times over the last few years and my answer has changed over time. We can see two phases. The first one was the phase of Trump and Brexit. We can think of this as a pseudo-rupture. Certain issues around shared continental governance — in the case of the UK--and free trade--in the case of the US--were turned upside down but the mainstream logic of economic organization remained pretty continuous. Trump himself was more of a continuity figure than a figure of rupture in that the main engine of financial capitalism was not just left undisturbed, but given more freedom. The only real legislative success Trump had was the big tax cut package, which had been a very standard Republican free market demand for decades. So when people asked me whether neoliberalism was dead in 2017 and 2018 I tended to say 'no'. There were some surface changes, especially on immigration. But the rhetoric often was louder than the real difference between the Obama years and Trump years. It seemed there had been a break in the language people use to talk about political economy, but nothing substantial in practice yet. But when Biden was elected in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic something very unexpected happened: he did not restore the status quo ante from before Trump when it came to economic organization. Instead, there was an acceleration of the trade war and an embrace of economic nationalism that would have been unthinkable for a Democrat five years earlier. The combination of Trump’s rhetorical opening with the practical rupture of fighting the pandemic made possible what I think can fairly be labeled a post-neoliberal paradigm. I don't think it was inevitable — it happened because there were smart well-organized policy people who managed to get close to Biden early and hand him large legislative packages like Build Back Better. The original legislative proposal was three or four times larger than what eventually made it through in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act, but these policy people were self-consciously deploying the playbook of the neoliberals: in a time of crisis, you need to have a plan ready to hand to the people in power because they don't know what to do. And there were post-neoliberal left liberals — in the American sense — who were in the position to do so. And now the EU is playing catch-up with the US, while China, which had set the pace in terms of state intervention is now figuring out how to negotiate the new arrangement. Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and Singapore were also places that showed that a strong guiding hand of the state in the economy can be effective. The emergence of sovereign wealth funds in the last 25 years--which happened alongside the rise of what Benjamin Braun and Brett Christophers have called asset manager capitalism in the West-- has changed the mind of elites in the US. We've moved into an era where nobody automatically gives lip service to the idea that economic globalization is a natural force and policymakers have no choice but to adapt to it. It's almost the opposite: the new go-to language is ‘We don't believe in the free market as an autonomous principle, we do our best for our people, for our nations, and so on’.
This new paradigm comes with significant dangers. People like myself who have been critical of neoliberalism for years might have been unprepared for the hazards of what could follow. The geopolitical risks created now, especially between the US and China, are frightening. It is possible that right-wing actors in the United States will use the end of the neoliberal consensus to drive through war-mongering aggressive policies that could be worse for everyone. Of course, I don't need to tell you that Putin's behavior and the invasion of Ukraine have already deepened the sense of a fractured world economy where states are not cooperating in some version of a game with agreed-upon rules but are in more ruthless zero-sum conflict with one another.
S: Your assessment is interesting, it reminds me of Putin framing it like a ‘broken promise’ given to him and to Russia in general. In several of his recent speeches, he said that Russia’s leadership was under the impression that they were now of the same breed as other capitalist countries, playing by their rules. But then they saw developed capitalist countries abandoning these very rules. And Russia’s current actions are ‘just’ a counter-move to that.
QS: He is not totally wrong in that case. There's a very good book that came out recently called The Triumph of Broken Promises about the neoliberal era. One of the things that the author, historian Fritz Bartel, is saying is that from Thatcher to Solidarity in Poland there had been a range of politicians saying ‘You can't expect things to be as good as they used to be, things are going to get worse’. The way that Washington and Wall Street acted in the Soviet transition was very destructive. It helped to set the stage for the rhetoric that Putin uses now. But interestingly, the invasion has also given a kind of stress test to the idea of global economic interdependence. If you go back and read the headlines when the war broke out and there was the declaration of unilateral sanctions, the assumption was that Russia would immediately fall into shambles. Its economy would collapse within months if not weeks, we were told. Yet that didn't happen--partially because the rest of the world beyond the United States bloc isn't that invested in the conflict. They don't really care enough to stop trading with Russia. But it also revealed that America was not as powerful as it was thought to be. It turned out that the power of the dollar and the power of American infrastructure go a long way, but can't determine everything that happens in the world economy. This was a wake-up call for people who still believed that we lived in a totally interdependent and interconnected clockwork-style global economy where removing one cog would make everything collapse. It turns out that it actually is possible to realign supply chains and the markets they're tapping into even when the US wields the extreme economic weapon of sanctions.
S: Using the metaphor you yourself used, it’s like a network, right? It's not only connected through one center but there are myriad connections through multiple junctions. So it turned out that everything was even more interconnected than expected and this is why the Russian state at least for now is able to sustain the sanctions pressure.
QS: It's one of the unexamined fallacies of the recent post-neoliberal talk about resilience as something that you get if you decrease global connections. The idea is that if you want to have more supply chain resilience, you take production back from other countries into your own country. But globalization champions would say the opposite. They would use examples like the one you just used and argue that, in fact, you're more resilient if you draw on multiple markets. If one gets chopped off you shift to the other one. You actually become less resilient if you try to shrink down to one national economy. So there's some mythmaking happening now which may reveal itself to be wrong. It’s important for critics not to allow lazy thinking to substitute for bad thinking.
S: In other interviews, you said that Crack-up Capitalism is sort of a sequel to Globalists. But what is the relationship between those two worlds, of neoliberals from Globalists and of libertarians from Crack-Up Capitalism? Do the zones that the latter are creating exist inside this global neoliberal world or is the libertarian zone a successor to the neoliberal order?
QS: It’s a great question. What I was trying to say is that inside the neoliberal intellectual movement itself, there was a desire to focus on scaling up. From the era of the League of Nations to the 1970s or even the 1990s, there was a belief that the best solution to the problems of global capitalism was to encase independent nation-states inside the institutions capable of ensuring that there'd be free trade and free capital mobility. But from the 1970s doubts began spreading amongst neoliberal intellectuals about whether this was going to work. There were several reasons for that. First, there was the fear that socialists were using supranational institutions as a Trojan horse and were intent on seizing the UN, the EU, and even the WTO to direct them to their own ends. The feeling among neoliberals was something like ‘We don't really trust nation-states because they always tend towards democracy and socialism and we don't trust international organizations because they tend to be captured by those same nations that are themselves captured by electorates; so we need to figure out ways to do economic activity adjacent to and outside of either of those.’ What I describe in the new book is the sequence in which zones became of interest as a solution to this conundrum. Hong Kong acted as a paradigm case. Its status as a colony meant it didn't have democracy and it had the ability to operate more like a company offshore than a nation-state. This became a way of scaling down rather than up.
The other way of answering the question is that for those zones to work you still need a larger supranational framework to ensure free movement over borders, the ability to do things like sue companies if they fail to comply, and countries if they fail to live up to their promises. A good example of that is Honduras which I talk about in the book. They created this small zone, almost extra-territorial, off the coast of the north side of the country. It looks like a classic case of opting out altogether of the world map. But when the laws changed and there was a threat of being booted out, they immediately filed a huge claim with the Central America Free Trade Agreement through third-party arbitration. And now they are suddenly going from being secessionists to arch-globalists again, appealing to the top level of international economic law. So the dynamic I track is less about shifting from the supra-national to a sub-national. Rather, these are two ways of avoiding the nation. You are tactically moving between scales that are either above or below, and there's a symbiosis between spaces that opt out of nations or act outside of nations and the stratum that is above or beyond the reach of national governments.
S: Another thing that I think is quite similar in Globalists and Crack-up Capitalism is that they paint marginal and defensive movements, at least this is what they initially are or how they present themselves. But then they end up on the offensive and transform the world in a major way. It's almost a classic underdog story. What made them so successful? Why were they able to move the goalposts so effectively?
QS: Mainly because the people that they were catering to were the people with the most wealth and the most influence. If you try to produce a global galaxy of real underdogs and the wretched of the earth and the people who have ideas that run counter to the ideas of the commodification of life, you will most likely just end up with a bunch of people in prison. There are famous examples of this starting from the Paris Commune as a vision of self-organized worker-run cities across Europe that could be connected to each other inside of larger territories. There's plenty of talk about autonomous zones from parts of rural France and rural England to Chiapas in the 1990s — left-anarchist attempts to opt out and secede. People have written well about those. But the people I write about are the ones who have the money and the resources and they're looking for ways to evade projects of redistribution mostly managed through the tax-collecting fiscal state. The tax haven is the ultimate example of just booking your profits offshore but there are also special economic zones or export processing zones. Countries are blackmailed into producing spaces where they have fewer laws and less taxation to bring in foreign investment for building factories and doing projects of extraction or manufacturing. One of the interesting things that I try to track in my book is how this very strange idea of declaring part of state territory extraterritorial becomes the only way you get investment from abroad. If you are Rwanda or Ghana or even Nigeria and you expect to get foreign investors without producing a special economic zone — forget it. Now it's the nonnegotiable price of admission.
S: While we are on this subject, what are the broader implications of this libertarian secession project for national liberation and anti-colonial struggles? It seems like, taken together, Globalists and Crack-up Capitalism paint a pretty grim picture — these forming nation-states are always between the Scylla of neoliberal international institutions forcing austerity on them and Charybdis of carving their country up into a myriad of special economic zones to attract investment — with no clear way out.
QS: One is almost tempted to say Cuba figured it out. In some ways, you can declare it a success story despite them having a very low standard of living with a lot of basic amenities hard to come by. But they have managed to produce a level of self-sufficiency inside of an interdependent world economy that avoids giving away too much of their sovereignty in the ways that other countries have. Another example is Jamaica which specifically chose not to be a tax haven. They could have and they decided not to despite all kinds of pressure they continue to live under due to capitalist investment, specifically in manufacturing and small-level agricultural production. Another example is Barbados which not only has recently left the Commonwealth but their leader Mia Mottley has become a spokesperson for the leading role of small island nations in climate change as moral leaders, but also the ones producing small-scale welfare states and doing redistribution.
An optimist could say that in the idea of common ownership and different forms of accountability, there is a space to appeal right now to economic global elites' sense of justice. And sometimes — if they can see profitability in it — they will opt for socially just forms of investment over just the bottom line. But it's still the old problem of how you use moral persuasion on people who are generally not open to being morally persuaded. So I'm not that optimistic especially because the drying up of global investment and global credit is hitting these nations the hardest. I think there's no option except to hope that regional and domestic left-wing waves like the recent quasi-pink tide in Latin America can produce new settlements where, for example, indigenous peoples’ land rights get written into national projects.
S: What do you think about the Ukraine case? There is a great amount of help they receive and some of it even comes as grants but most of it brings more debt and unfavorable conditions imposed by supranational institutions. Of course, it helps, for now, to fight against the Russian invasion, but the question is what comes next. It seems like the political climate that exists now leaves very little space for the imagination of alternative options for building back from all the catastrophes that were imposed on Ukraine by Russia.
QS: If you look at historical examples, I've just read a very interesting dissertation, where the Jubilee movement around the early 2000s is analyzed. The idea of the movement was to forgive the debt of the poorest nations. The author has a very interesting observation about it being a huge victory, on the one hand, because that had never happened before. Creditors had never just forgiven the debt, they'd always got it through the IMF or whatever. On the other hand, the price of the jubilee was that the countries then had to be exposed to much more structural adjustment and oversight. Indeed, it came with even more intervention: countries had to balance their budgets, had to cut social programs, and so on. This two-sidedness is unfortunately the best-case scenario. Because the worst-case scenario of the post-war recovery would be Ukraine returning to the economic model they had before the war. The one that was largely based on kleptocracy and bending over backward to foreign investment. I can see how the cutthroat investors would want all these privileges that special economic zones provide.
What would be good is to follow the lead of wartime Europe in the 1940s, which means that the time to plan for the post-war is now, not just in the sense of military strategy, but also the vision of the good life that should follow the conflict. It’s really interesting that things like the Beveridge plan and the British welfare state or the Bretton Woods system were conceived of during the war, not after it. So if the post-neoliberal turn is for real then it will be interesting to see post-neoliberal visions for post-war Ukraine. But it's not much of a conversation, at least in the Western media. I can't really remember reading much about the blueprint for a more socially just and democratically accountable Ukraine.
S: Right, it seems like the turn away from neoliberalism that we are speaking about is now mostly happening in the developed economies. Maybe the likes of Mexico or Brazil are also starting to do this, but for the countries that are — just like Ukraine — really dependent on other nations’ involvement in their economy this new approach is not really in the cards yet. Maybe it will come to them later but for now, it seems, they are still forced to stay in the old paradigm and play by the old rules.
QS: Potentially it’s even worse than that. There are left-governed countries, but the frame now for Ukraine, for example when it comes to EU membership, it's being discussed in the West Balkans-style. That's one of the ways in which the EU is an iron cage for political and economic imagination. Because if you set up a vision of the future that way — ‘Will you be allowed in the European club?’ — you trigger the stereotypical imaginations of everyone who lives in Northern Europe; the likes of Holland and Germany immediately begin to worry about the costs and transfers and the problems of securing the outer border. It stalls out the utopian thinking that is actually necessary, turning the best possible future into a budget line for the European Central Bank or for Brussels. Maybe the real constraint right now in conversations and in the press in Germany or the US is that every time the vision of Ukraine after the war comes up, all people see are financial burdens rather than something that could be dynamic and even inspiring.
S: The overwhelming majority of contemporary left-wing economists and historians who are trying to engage with global history or global economics (with some notable exceptions like Simon Clarke) often treat post-Soviet countries and maybe even the whole former Eastern Bloc region like a black hole which everyone tries to step and speak around. Why is that so, in your opinion? Even if we take Crack-up Capitalism, these countries are mentioned alongside the main examples but never are at the center of attention.
QS: It's a good question. Partly, when people are writing the history of neoliberalism sometimes they're trying to create a timeline that is not the same as the geopolitical timeline of the Cold War. So there's an attempt to create a different series of important events: Pinochet becomes important, Thatcher becomes important rather than just Great Power conflict and standoff. So maybe there's an overcompensation for that sometimes, and then the countries that had been central in the Cold War become irrelevant somehow. In my book, for example, there was indeed an attempt to put developments in East Asia more centrally. But this comes out of a reaction to the very West-centric narrative in public schools, universities, and popular memory in the United States, where if you write about the 20th century, you talk about the Second World War, the Cold War, globalization, and then 2016. The fact that there were Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and then China steadily rising is almost never mentioned. China’s rise to dominance has caught Americans by such surprise partially because they weren't told about this in their textbooks.
At the same time, I think the lack of attention to the Soviet bloc and Eastern Europe is a shame because even if you're just interested in the history of neoliberalism, post-Soviet space is a great place to look: there's a really good book, for example, by Hilary Appel and Mitchell Orenstein From Triumph to Crisis: Neoliberal Economic Reform in Postcommunist Countries. It’s about what they call avant-garde neoliberalism. Especially in the Baltic states; the things those countries were doing were beyond what the EU or the IMF recommended — flat tax, all kinds of extreme pro-market libertarian measures that were considered a bad idea even by hardcore neoliberals. There's no good reason why that shouldn't be part of a general narration. Probably the more cynical answer would be that we write histories to explain the present and to explain the success stories of the present. And this is why Eastern Europe and Central Europe became irrelevant to the American imagination and arguably even to the European imagination at some point. Especially for Germans, it was almost a return to the 19th-century relationship where this part of the world was just an economic hinterland. As long as everyone stays relatively peaceable, keeps sending their workforce, and allows us to build the back end of our supply chain out there, then why would you think about it unless there are too many people coming as unwanted migrants? So it continues to exist in a blind spot. One thing that Putin has done, sadly, is forcing the US and Western Europe to think about that part of the world again--although many Americans are already forgetting about the war.
S: Speaking of which, it seems that Putin — or at least people who are in charge of the economic policies in Russia — wouldn't be out of place in your book. Because, among other things — and I think it's not completely coincidental — he is the creator of the largest special economic zone to date, which occupies the entirety of the Russian Arctic. His power is incredibly centralized but also increasingly fragmented through different private enterprises — like state-run companies and private military contractors. Do you think he can be a ‘model’ leader for the fragmented yet interconnected post-neoliberal world that is taking shape now?
QS: There are members of the right-wing libertarian world who do see Russia as one of the most economically free places in the world because of its low tax rates. In a way, this is the most important story for neoliberals and libertarians, everything is secondary to that. But as far as the direct involvement of the state in the economy goes, I think most of the doctrinaire neoliberal types would see a problem. They usually don't think what is called ‘state capitalism’ is a particularly good thing. That's why they like Hong Kong. Because there was not such a high level of state ownership but also a decreased amount of political freedom that made things run more efficiently. But practically speaking, it’s important to observe that the world is turning more in the direction of places like Russia, Saudi Arabia, or China than towards Hong Kong, Liechtenstein, or the Metaverse.
In that sense, what you're describing is a more accurate view of the world and it explains why there's almost a tragic end to Crack-Up Capitalism. In the 1990s and early 2000s, these free-market radicals thought things were going their way. They thought that we were heading towards a Neal Stephenson-like virtuous competition between endless fragmentary micro-polities. But that's not what's happening. There is zonification and there is the multiplication of the zones but there is also a twist ending. The zones they cherished were not sites of economic freedom, experimentation, and self-government. They were contained within the large authoritarian framework of China for the most part, Russia, and a number of other less democratic states. So the zone which was supposed to be the vessel for escaping from the nation-state has just become another tool in the repertoire of nation-states. The state capitalism you describe in your question is more like the horizon of the future, while the hypermobile escapism of the market radicals is going to be subjugated to that state power.
S: Since you’ve mentioned Neal Stephenson. The libertarians we meet on the pages of Crack-up Capitalism have a shared affection for his fiction — The Diamond Age and Bantustans, the whole Metaverse idea... What attracts them to it?
QS: Certain people are just lightning rods for the zeitgeist who are able to capture the mood perfectly. And this is what Stephenson did. I think Snow Crash and Diamond Age are incredible books. Very poorly written, but at a world-building level, they're great. The interesting thing about these libertarians is that they're big science fiction readers, so there's a feedback loop. Someone like Stephenson writes a beautiful description of the state of global capitalism and then people like Peter Thiel or Jeff Bezos pick up on it. Bezos has been the employer of Neal Stephenson for years now. Stephenson works for Blue Origin, his space company, doing who knows what. But there's a way in which those speculative worlds become blueprints for the things that these billionaires see themselves striving towards. It’s obvious that the Metaverse itself is from Snow Crash. It’s almost heavy-handed at this point, the way they try to recycle or launder their profit-making enterprises through these fantasy concepts from sci-fi.
In the same way that the Globalists book captured the era of high neoliberalism right before the global financial crisis, Crack-Up Capitalism is trying to write the intellectual history of a slightly overlapping timeline starting from the early 1990s, which took off with the tech boom and Web 2.0 and hit a wall with the inflation and the loss of endless pool of liquidity that was keeping all kinds of crazy ideas flowing. For years, you could get money for just reading a chapter from Snow Crash, and some venture capitalist would be like ‘Here's your first line of credit, let's go’. But that true bullshit era of Metaverse visions has come to an end. I think there will be a soft version of the state subjugating the market, ideally towards positive ends. But no more dreams of escape, no more dreams of fragmentation for the time being.
S: In some of your interviews, you mention that anger and futility around the efforts at international solidarity during the US-led invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s served as an inspiration for your dissertation on West German students' encounter with Third World politics. What do you make of the world’s reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
QS: In some ways, it's the exact opposite. The solidarity with the Ukrainian people was very strong and very immediate at least in superficial ways — the hanging of the flags and the attempt to help people who were fleeing from the war. There was a capacity for personalizing and humanizing the victims of the conflict which simply didn't exist at all in the case of Iraq — partially because it was further away, but partially because of cultural, racial, and religious differences. There is a sense of a gap between the aggressor nation and the victim nation, especially if you're in Europe — after all, Ukraine is just a train drive away.
But you're still left with the problem of solidarity. This is where it actually does go back to things I wrote about in my first book. In particular, I wrote about this interesting distinction the New Left made in Germany between the solidarity of sentiment and the solidarity of interests. There was this argument, in which Herbert Marcuse intervened in part. It goes like this: ‘As a young West German, what connection do you have to a Vietnamese peasant? Yes, you're both human. But what is it that you consume that is reliant on the labor of that person on the other side of the world? How can you construct a chain of causation that leads from your lifestyle to theirs?’
This was a big project for the New Left: to show the reliance between these distant populations and to try to construct the solidarity of interests. So when you fight for the Vietnamese peasant you're not just fighting on their behalf or in a humanitarian gesture, but you're also fighting for your own struggle domestically. That conversation hasn't happened very much. Instead, we've had more of the solidarity of sentiment, which Marcuse actually advocated for. He said, ‘You don't need to create this elaborate Rube Goldberg machine of connections between the Vietnamese peasant and yourself, you can just say that you're moved by their struggle, you care for that and you'll bleed for them because they're humans too’. And you can make this leap of identification and in that leap, you will find new revolutionary politics. At the time, the horizon of politics was the revolution, overthrowing the government, and you could arguably have this shared vision. But what we have now is a solidarity of sentiment without the dream of revolution. So if you just have the humanitarian belief of caring for the suffering of others, but no political project attached to that then it has nowhere to go. The energy exhausts itself in the gesture and exhausts itself in the flag. Eventually, the pleasure you get from it fades and the attention fades as well.
I'm sure it's stuff that you spend half your life discussing: how to politicize these cross-border solidarity movements. I encourage my own demographic of leftist academics and intellectuals in the US and Canada to think more about it than they have so far. There has been a strong initial reaction and very weak follow-up, very little political strategy is attached to the war in my circles. Most of the energy in the US is going into Bidenomics and climate transition but the geopolitical situation is removed to the background.
S: This distinction between the solidarity of sentiments and solidarity of interests got me thinking about this part of Black Jacobins where C.L.R. James writes how during the French Revolution, both revolutionaries and ordinary people not only detested ‘the aristocracy of the skin’ vividly but also were so moved by the sufferings of the slaves that they had stopped drinking coffee altogether because for them it was ‘drenched with the blood and sweat of men turned into brutes’. I think it’s a good example of how concrete this connection between the struggles in different parts of the world can be when there is actually a horizon of radical change to look forward to.
QS: Yes, there are all kinds of ways I think the global interconnection that exists now doesn't just have to work in favor of the wealthy. It can also be flipped and turned into a tissue of connection. People I really like are working on what they call supply chain justice. So, instead of just saying ‘We're moving to electric vehicles in the United States, let’s get everyone a Tesla’ you question where the lithium is coming from, and what's happening to the communities in the highlands of Chile where the lithium pools are located. Politics isn't just ensuring mass consumption domestically, it's about making sure that all that is happening in a way doesn’t produce new forms of domination and suffering.
S: My last question to sum up our conversation would be about the neoliberal project and libertarian secession as an attempt to defend the profits and property from popular demands and democracy as a way of bringing these demands to life. What is so dangerous in democracy for the ruling classes and capitalism in general? Is there a way to turn the tables for the democratic forces?
QS: That is something I wanted to go more into in Crack-Up Capitalism, but certain things didn't make it into the book. There is an interesting reversal in neoliberal intellectual history. At the beginning of the 20th century, the assumption was that democracies would always tend towards socialism: if you give people the vote, they will use it to ask for something. And eventually, there'll be nothing left to give them.
What some interesting thinkers like Murray Rothbard started to figure out by the 1980s is that in places like the United States, the average person is not a socialist waiting to happen but extremely selfish, property-obsessed, and very unwilling to give anything of their own to anyone else. And if you can make them realize that you want to keep the government as far away from their property as possible then you can use them as shock troops for encasing the economy from democratic institutions. So, if you can recognize the basic anti-democratic impulses of the people themselves they could be a useful resource. The campaigns for Pat Buchanan in the 1990s and then for Trump in the 2010s used that insight. You can mobilize people democratically towards a goal of reducing the level of redistribution and reducing the level of state ownership, you can use people to mobilize in the name of a government that would self-destruct its own power.
That was a very powerful insight of the neoliberals, which isn’t only about tying the hands of democratic leaders and the demos itself but using the population to reduce the capacity of the government to act. In Germany, you have the debt brake, in other countries, you have flat taxes in the constitution. When you do enough of those things you don't have to worry about democracy anymore because democracy works within such a narrow space that it can't actually change very much economically or in terms of people's lives. This is how neoliberals stopped worrying and learned to love democracy. If you build this structure in such a way that it's impervious to most of the changes, you will always be able to achieve your own goals in the end.