An anthropologist explains the causes of liberalism’s death

Summary: Part two of anthropologist Maximilian Forte’s brilliant and provocative essay announcing the death of liberalism. Here he explores aspects often discussed — America’s rising inequality and slowing economic growth — and some that are important but seldom mentioned. I inserted some comments in brackets. See part three tomorrow.

Image from Necromancer.
Image from Necromancer.

The Dying Days of Liberalism” — Part two of three.

By Maximilian C. Forte from Zero Anthropology, 18 January 2017.
Reposted with his generous permission.

How Orthodoxy, Professionalism, and Unresponsive Politics
Finally Doomed a 19th-century Project.

Hollywood and PR

This grand failure to convince manifested in other critical ways as well. Hollywood was involved in at least three rounds of celebrity video compilations, where often in the most urgent and heartfelt tones that professional, paid fakers can muster, viewers were instructed on the correct moral choice: the person who demonized millions of voters as deplorables, as basement dwellers, and as super-predators, the same person responsible for pushing the destruction of the Libyan state with all of the aftermath of terrorism across North Africa, a refugee outflow, and civil war that has lasted years. A proven track record of creating danger. Hectoring by Hollywood actors, and even worse their junior counterparts on MTV, failed miserably.

Not only did Hollywood fail, but so did most of the mainstream media, which themselves faced plunging levels of public trust. Not just the media, but an array of polling firms, public relations agencies, professional advertisers, and strategic communications consultants all failed as badly, and this in the very society that invented PR. Hillary Clinton fashioned herself as a leader in “soft power,” and here was the entire architecture of soft power foundering, not (just) abroad, but at home of all places.

The New York Times recently reported that a conference of the International Association of Political Consultants, “felt like a therapy session for a business in psychological free fall”. One of the conclusions was that, “Mrs. Clinton’s battalion of advisers was defeated by a wild, seemingly unchoreographed candidate who, according to the most recent data, spent more money on shirts, hats, signs and similar items than on field consulting, voter lists and data”.

As for “sex sells,” this election defeated even that truism. Every day, for weeks on end, and to almost the total exclusion of any other story (including the WikiLeaks email releases), the majority of mainstream media hammered away at Trump with ever more lurid tales of sexual groping and his sexist commentary. When confronted by Trump on stage for the first time, Clinton immediately resorted to some overblown, one-sided, and farcical account by a former Miss Venezuela. Social media was far more sordid, spreading rumours of incest too gross to even paraphrase here. To what effect?

For those dedicated to the study of media, public relations, propaganda, and cultural imperialism, the results of this election will have a lasting significance, especially as they jeopardize much that has been taken for granted.

Money world

Corporate Donors, International Support

Much was debated during the election about the role of “big money” in US electoral politics. Hillary Clinton certainly had the lion’s share of funding on her side, and outspent the Trump campaign by twice as much, with nearly three times as much spent on television advertising. The long-held “truth” that money guarantees political outcomes has been rubbished. That does not mean that money does not matter at all, but it does mean that having a lot more money guarantees no certain outcome. Clinton also had the backing of a majority of Fortune 500 CEOs, some of whom, like the CEO of HP, went as far as giving news conferences denouncing Trump as a “fascist” by comparing him to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

We already know that tens of millions of dollars poured into the Clinton Foundation from foreign governments and transnational corporations. Even with Clinton engaged in manic fund raising down to the final days of the campaign, none of this made a difference. Also lacking sufficient impact was a myriad of subtle, indirect, and sometimes explicit endorsements from foreign leaders, and heads of international agencies from the Council of the European Union to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to NATO. Words of “caution,” with obvious implications, from the heads of the main multilateral financial institutions, also largely failed to sway matters in Clinton’s favour.

"Stronger Together" by Hillary Rodham Clinton
Available at Amazon.

Book Sales

Hillary Clinton’s failure to sell her message was also evident in the very failure of her book to sell, at the height of the election campaign no less, when interest should have been at its peak. Clinton’s ally, The New York Times, reported that her newest book, Stronger Together: A Blueprint for America’s Future, “sold just 2,912 copies in its first week on sale,” when first-week sales typically account for a third of the total number of copies sold, and concluded: “the sales figure …firmly makes the book what the publishing industry would consider a flop”.

Did Clinton pause to reflect on this as a sign, given her diminishing returns over the years? Stronger Together sold less than Hard Choices, which also fell below expectations, which itself sold far less than Living History. Every book she published produced lower and lower sales. Do graphs in the offices of Democrats only have bright red lines going upward?

Hillary goods for sale at a discount

Academia, Anthropology, and the Invention of the “Anti-Knowledge” Public

Many academics have written long, increasingly bitter and resentful complaints against the public — that is, the source of their clientele and funding. A so-called “anti-knowledge mood” is the convenient invention used to explain why a large portion of the public (a majority in the case of Brexit and the Italian referendum) refused to heed their dire warnings about the inevitable miseries of national solutions in a world of “irreversible” and “inevitable” globalization.

This is the classic case of experts, members of the professional quasi-class, claiming a special monopoly not just on knowledge but on the truth. That they have tried to monopolize knowledge by creating various barriers of access to higher education, with many disincentives to joining erected along the way, is already a fact. But here they are claiming not just to know more, but to know better. The current system, the status quo which they were defending, was somehow good for most people — even though most people had access to information, and personal experience, that made fools of academic cheerleaders. Worse than making fools of them, the division clearly marked on which side academics stood: anti-knowledge is an elitist slogan that is anti-public.

Economists, as usual, would know better what was good for people and attempt to instruct them that their lived reality was to be discounted. Like the caricatured Stalinists, neoliberal economists work on a simple assumption: the theory is always right, it’s the people who are wrong. How would these mandarins explain the “goodness” of a neoliberal project under Obama, that produced the following results as recorded mostly by the US Federal Reserve? This is Obama’s domestic socio-economic “legacy,” summarized as follows. Obama took office on 20 January 2009.

(1) A decline in family incomes (real median family income).

{Editor’s note: it peaked in 2007 and hit bottom in 2012.}

Real median family income

(2) Lower civilian labour force participation rates.

{Editor’s note: peaked in April 2000. It might have troughed in September 2015.}

Labor Force Participation Rate

(3) Lower home ownership rates.

{Editor’s note: peaked in Q2 of 2004. No trough yet.}

Homeownership rate

(4) Rising numbers of people on food stamps (SNAP).

SNAP Participants

(5) Rising student debt.

{Editor’s note: Conservatives often point to skyrocketing student loans by the Federal government since 2010. They seldom mention the 2009 Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which put most student loans on the government’s books — instead of banks’. Since then the growth of student loans has slowed remarkably, as shown by this graph.}

Growth in outstanding student loans

(6) Rising income inequality for African-Americans.

Income Gini index for African-Americans

(7) A massive rise in the public debt.

{Editor’s note: net public debt of 100%+ is usually considered the point at which risk increases.  Federal debt held by the public is an approximation of net debt of the US.}

Federal debt held by the public as percent of GDP

(9) Increased health premiums.

{During the 2008 campaign Obama said his plan would cut health care costs by $2,500. That assume Congress would approve something resembling his plan. Substantial compromises were necessary to get the 219-212 House vote on March 2010. The resulting hodgepodge barely works. Kaiser’s 2016 report discusses the cost increase: “The average family premium rose 3% over the 2015 average premium while the increase in the premium for single coverage was not statistically significant.”  The rate of premium increases under ObamaCare has been slower than in the years before. The below graph was in Investors Business Daily, 23 Sept 2015.}

Growth in health care costs

Thus while those in the news media were inventing the frightening specter of “fake news” — and produced fake news themselves to combat the dangerous threat to their profit margins posed by growing public distrust — in academia the parallel concept was “anti-knowledge”. The main vehicles for these views in US and UK academia have been The Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and The Conversation (the latter funded by an array of banks and foundations).

Anthropology in the United States

Anthropology in the United States continues to offer testaments to the failure to convince. In this regard, the mainstream of US anthropology, given its alignment with the Democratic Party, has something quite significant in common with the US Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS), which leaders of the US discipline condemned. {For more about HTS see these posts.}

The first hint to military leaders of the unviable nature of HTS as a tool of counterinsurgency and pacification, should have been the failure of HTS to even convince its own — by “its own,” I mean colleagues in academia, from which they sought recruits. If you cannot even pacify fellow academics, whose language, customs, and practices are familiar to you, how can you pretend to defeat the Taliban?

Likewise, if US anthropologists understand so little about their own society that Trump’s election caught them by surprise, how can they pretend to teach us about other societies? Instead, in disregard for the mass of working class voters, US anthropologists have, with renewed vigor, rededicated themselves to the politics of class-concealment. Thus an “anthropology read-in,” focused partly on questions of racism, is being proposed to mark Trump’s inauguration, as a protest.

Another example of a failure to convince their own comes from a vote among members of the American Anthropological Association, in favour of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. After early optimism, the vote failed to win the support of members. Those involved with pushing the motion then turned to blaming “external meddling” (sound familiar?). Not once did they ask themselves if there was a problem with their message and the context in which it was being promoted. Instead, we are now to believe that distant Israeli operatives had more success in convincing US anthropologists, than US anthropologists themselves. If true, that’s quite an indictment, but not of Israelis. As for “external meddling,” the charge was a bit rich considering that is precisely what US anthropologists were doing regarding Israel.

US anthropologists’ attachment to Obama and Clinton, seemingly regardless of the impact of their actual record of heightened inequality and increased war, followed the same lines of official class-concealment. One engaged in romantic praise of “the coalition of the diverse,” implying beauty and higher value attached to the “racially mixed” rather than those dreadful white workers (and predicted a victory for Clinton). Another US anthropologist, at the University of Chicago, produced a long, exoticist screed extolling the virtues of a browning society, preferring imported peoples over the natives, and in effect declaring the majority of the working class to be inconsequential, contemptible, and replaceable. That the article appeared in a publication funded mostly by George Soros’ Open Society Institute, should come as no surprise.

Academics who had little, or nothing, to say about neoliberalism are now coming out of hiding — and writing their critiques solely focused on Trump. Now they have discovered “the corporatist state”. Those protesting Trump’s inauguration, never protested Obama’s inauguration, for all of their supposed critical theoretical awareness. Bruno Latour, guru to American anthropologists (after being laughed at in Europe), corrected his absent input in discussions concerning the US election: he waited for it to pass so that he could try to sound wise with minimal effort, keep his American clientele happy, sustain book sales, and insure continued speaking engagements. The Los Angeles Review of Books promptly published Latour’s itsy-bitsy “contribution”.

With regard to the failing of the academic establishment, Diana Johnstone had wise observations to offer {in CounterPoint, December 2016}, worth quoting at length:

“The sad image today of Americans as bad losers, unable to face reality, must be attributed in part to the ethical failure of the so-called 1968 generation of intellectuals. In a democratic society, the first duty of men and women with the time, inclination and capacity to study reality seriously is to share their knowledge and understanding with people who lack those privileges. The generation of academics whose political consciousness was temporarily raised by the tragedy of the Vietnam war should have realized that their duty was to use their position to educate the American people, notably about the world that Washington proposed to redesign and its history.

“However, the new phase of hedonistic capitalism offered the greatest opportunities for intellectuals in manipulating the masses rather than educating them. The consumer society marketing even invented a new phase of identity politics, with the youth market, the gay market, and so on. In the universities, a critical mass of ‘progressive’ academics retreated into the abstract world of post-modernism, and have ended up focusing the attention of youth on how to react to other people’s sex lives or ‘gender identification’. Such esoteric stuff feeds the publish or perish syndrome and prevents academics in the humanities from having to teach anything that might be deemed critical of U.S. military spending or its failing efforts to assert its eternal domination of the globalized world. The worst controversy coming out of academia concerns who should use which toilet.

“If the intellectual snobs on the coasts can sneer with such self-satisfaction at the poor ‘deplorables’ in flyover land, it is because they themselves have ignored their primary social duty of seeking truth and sharing it. Scolding people for their ‘wrong’ attitudes while setting the social example of unrestrained personal promotion can only produce the anti-elite reaction called ‘populism’. Trump is the revenge of people who feel manipulated, forgotten and despised.”

This takes us to the demise of the professionals.

The three chapters of this essay.

  1. An anthropologist announces the death of liberalism.
  2. An anthropologist explains the causes of liberalism’s death.
  3. An anthropologist announces the fall of the liberal professional class.


Maximilian Forte

About the author

Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013). See his publications here; read his bio here.

He writes at the Zero Anthropology website (many of his articles are posted at the FM website. it is one of the of the few with an About page well worth reading — excerpt…

Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.

Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about liberalism, about inequality, about secular stagnation, about economic growth, and especially these…

  1. Why America’s growth is slowing, and a solution — Imagine bringing June Cleaver from her 1957 home to today’s equivalent; she’d be astonished at our lack of progress. Look at how we’ve underperformed futurist Herman Kahn’s 1967 expectations for the year 2000.
  2. Larry Summers gives us the bad news. Worse, the only solution is more of the same.
  3. Do we face secular stagnation or a new industrial revolution?
  4. The IMF warns us of economic stagnation & suggests fixes. We should listen.
  5. Ben Bernanke sees the great slowdown in technological progress.
  6. The Fed sees years of slowing growth. Prepare for years of political turmoil.
  7. Trump & Clinton ignore America’s too-slow economic growth. We can change that!

Two books by Maximilian Forte

Slouching Towards Sirte
Available at Amazon.
Who is an Indian?: Race, Place, and the Politics of Indigeneity in the Americas
Available at Amazon.

8 thoughts on “An anthropologist explains the causes of liberalism’s death”

  1. Through my eyes, which do not always see clearly, Classical Liberalism was mortally wounded by FDR and died during the Cold War once the CIA deep state emerged. Today’s Liberalism is a form of technocratic progressivism.

    If you believe Howe and Strauss in their Fourth Turning after this “turning” ends we should see a rebirth of something closer to Classical Liberalism emerge from the Authoritarianism that emerges from the end of Progressivism.

  2. Oh I see what we need to do – we need to put Obama on the other side of these graph lines. That’ll fix it. We should have thought of that by ’12, honestly.

    More seriously I’m reminded of your own immediate post-mortem remarks on the election, including the big one that Hillary won the popular vote by quite a margin. (This despite all the nigh-demonic attributes applied to her in his introduction. Not that they are false – but…) It didn’t matter because of the EC, of course, and Hillary and the Dems knew that going in… But it isn’t like Trump crushed the Democrats 59-41 nationwide, as much as he might claim otherwise, once we remove the “illegal” voters.

    America, like Walt Whitman, is huge and contains multitudes. We’ll see how it looks in a few years, hopefully.

    1. Dana,

      “we need to put Obama on the other side of these graph lines.”

      I don’t understand. Please explain that a bit more.

      “including the big one that Hillary won the popular vote by quite a margin.”

      I believe Forte’s point is — or should be –that liberalism’s exhaustion (“death” is dramatic exaggeration) is shown by Hillary winning by only 2% in an election with every advantage (e.g., massive leads in endorsements, money, and organization) against a clown like Trump. That’s like a professional athlete losing in the special olympics.

      She should have crushed Trump. That she failed is the major evidence that the liberal project has run out of gas.

      1. Dana,

        “It felt unnecessary given the obvious year-range.”

        Thanks for the explanation. In 40 years of doing visual presentations of quantitative information, I’ve learned NEVER to assume such things are obvious. Always label.

        Sidenote: This is a subject I know quite well. My current consulting contract is redesign of the displays for a high-end meteorological analysis package.

  3. I have read Forte’s book on Sirte, on your recommendation, and I basically agree with his theory. Some of these graphs are ridiculous though. The home ownership one in particular. The housing bubble caused historical peak in ownership. If you look at longer timescale. Things are not good but not as dramatic as that chart implies.

    Forte has a hate-on for Clinton which she deserves. I think he lets his anger get out control you can practically hear him pounding his fist on the desk while typing. It hurts his message.

    I think Mark Blyth does a much better, calmer, and cutting job of pointing out Clinton’s and Obama’s failures. While covering many of the same points.

    1. Ben,

      I agree on all points. The notes I inserted support your theory.

      His original graph showed student loans by the Federal government skyrocketing — not mentioning that this results from the government taking on those loans after 2009 (the banks were making absurdly large profits from Federally-guarantee loans).

      Worse is his graph from Business Intelligence — right-wing propaganda. Health care costs have slowed under ObamaCare. The comparison of costs under the plan Congress approved (including GOP efforts to destroy it) can’t logically be compared to his 2008 campaign promises (which were based on sound comparisons with health care systems in other major nations).

      His essay included a graph about growth in the money supply, which I omitted — more right-wing propaganda. Changes in the price index measure the adequacy of changes in the money supply (this insight helped Milton Friedman get the Nobel in 1976). The low post-crash rates of inflation show that the rise in the money supply had no ill effects, and was probably beneficial (meeting the demand for high-quality securities).

  4. If Max were here I suspect he would say this Dying is all a process. He links an article that goes back to the 60’s and his profession. That is a long time ago and I was in Anthropology back then. Can one argue with his premise that Liberalism is in serious decline in the minds of the voting public? I don’t think so. The results are in and manifesting weekly in the current political events.
    I’ve read Blyth, read much of Max. And there are others trying to make similar points and some sense of things.
    He makes the point that his profession which is at least by design supposed to have insights and understanding of its native culture and they are lost. Stunned. An indictment that applies to many of the professional class that missed the strength of whatever propelled Mr Trump to the presidency.

    Anecdotally, I’m deeply involved in local metropolitan politics for Civics and business. And in an urban area that went decisively for HRC. The term Liberal Democrat is whispered among politically active people in a derisive, spitting manner and tone. And it’s because of …..these failures of so called Liberal institutions and managers is so obvious and so Neo Liberal that only the tribal members and beneficiaries can ignore.
    Yes, personal engagement!

    We shall see.


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