Omer Aziz is the author of Brown Boy: A Memoir, a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University, and a former policy adviser to former minister of foreign affairs Chrystia Freeland.
The lights of New York sparkle on spring nights, and on this particular Thursday in April, the stars were shining inside, too.
I had received an invitation in my inbox just a few nights before, a kind of summons: Canada’s consul-general in New York was asking for my attendance at a reception at his Manhattan home in honour of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who would be in town to promote the Western alliance. When I arrived at the Park Avenue residence, I gave my name and rode up a private elevator with a red carpet. I walked right into a home with Viennese couches and French chandeliers, seeing faces who reminded me of other faces: a gathering of people sometimes scornfully referred to as “the elite.”
I saw someone I thought I recognized. Was that Mike Myers in the corner? How about the consul-general himself, former broadcaster Tom Clark? Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, was in good form.
“Hi,” a man said, as a hand reached toward me. He introduced himself as Steve Schwarzman. Mr. Schwarzman is the chairman and chief executive of the Blackstone Group, the largest private equity firm in the world, which manages nearly US$1-trillion in total assets.
Truth be told, I had been a little nervous about going to the party. I had just published my book, and in it, I was critical of the discrimination I saw as a foreign policy adviser in the Canadian government, and in Canada’s elite institutions writ large. Dissent these days was not exactly welcome on the left or the right, but I felt that the architecture of democracy was fracturing, and honest conversations – even disagreements – were needed.
What I didn’t know going in to the party was that everyone else would be a little nervous, too. Earlier that same day, Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan delivered a major speech calling for a new economic order. He did not mince his words: In the name of market efficiency, he said, whole supply chains and jobs – including in strategically important sectors – had moved overseas. It was time for a new industrial and innovation strategy that is grounded in domestic sources of production. Mr. Trudeau, who was set to speak at the Council on Foreign Relations the next day, would be expected to chime in.
In that ritzy apartment, the very people who had upheld and relied upon the way things worked – the comfortable system often referred to as the liberal international order – were now having doubts. There was assorted chatter around me: worries expressed about American politics and the global uncertainty. Whenever the conversation veered into the substantive, I sensed a disquiet about the future. They seemed to understand that populists were on the rise everywhere; Ukraine was being attacked; the spirit of rebellion was spreading; young people were losing hope. Animosity toward the elites – toward the people in the room – was reaching pitchfork-raising levels. The neoliberal ideology that had pushed apart the haves from the have-nots over the past four decades had been exposed as a fraud. Leaders had taken notice, and now they found themselves on the line.
On that spring Thursday, I thought I was just going to a party to see the Prime Minister. Instead, I ended up bearing witness to a moment of transition: an evening where many elite liberals began coming to terms with the death of their project, and pondering aloud what might come after it.
Rising in the 1980s at a time of ideological competition between the West and the Soviet Union, neoliberalism was rooted in the belief that free trade, unrestricted markets, mass deregulation and reducing the role of the government could unlock unlimited social benefits. Leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney took this extreme free-market ideology and exported it worldwide, bringing this capitalist crusade to the project of globalism. They were guided by the virtuous belief that countries that develop an independent middle class would naturally become democracies. What they really achieved, though, was the opening-up of markets from Latin America to Asia, giving corporations coveted access to seemingly endless cheap labour in those countries. Those decades were a capitalist’s dream, summed up by the famous line from the 1987 film Wall Street: “Greed is good.”
Neoliberalism even shifted political alignments, transforming even liberals and progressives into market fundamentalists. In 1992, Bill Clinton, a Democrat, expressed reservations about the proposed North American free-trade agreement, as did Jean Chrétien, then the leader of Canada’s Liberal Party. Once in power, though, both signed NAFTA; Mr. Clinton even predicted it would create a million new jobs in its first five years. Neoliberalism became the only game in town – and why not, since it promised free trade, free jobs and even ways for countries to make organic transitions toward democracy?
For decades, the neoliberal project’s highest ambition was to take root in China. The People’s Republic had a potentially massive customer base, millions of low-paid workers, and non-existent human rights and labour standards; its integration into the global economic system became seen as an unmissable financial opportunity. Its 2001 admission into the World Trade Organization was greeted with cheers from the business community, but they weren’t satisfied. Elites continued to press the case for ever more integration with Beijing, and over the years, foreign policy began to suffer from an elite-capture problem, where the interests of ordinary citizens were distorted in favour of the narrow interests of corporations.
To be fair, neoliberalism and globalization did help lift millions out of poverty around the world; free trade between two developed and interlinked nations such as Canada and the U.S. also makes economic sense. But capitalism by itself is an amoral system that requires rules, and neoliberalism dismantled the guardrails that keep capitalism from turning into a casino. Protections for workers, for the environment, for Indigenous lands – these were all gutted in the name of profit, typically for corporate leaders and wealthy investors in the West. Multinational companies that could rely on special arbitration courts outside of any country’s legal jurisdiction also profited.
In richer countries, the elites got paid and politicians got made – all while workers and their families got stiffed. The U.S. Labour Department has said that more than 950,000 specific U.S. jobs were lost after NAFTA due to outsourcing; Americans left unemployed were given little by way of assistance. According to another study, 1.5 million manufacturing jobs, concentrated in small- and medium-sized U.S. towns, were lost to China between 1990 and 2007. In Canada, an estimated 170,000 manufacturing jobs were outsourced in two decades. Each job loss is a statistic, but with each factory closing and each loss of income, families and entire communities were hollowed out. People lost trust in the governments that launched or upheld this ideological project, and it felt like no political leaders were looking out for their interests. Meanwhile, China, that once unmissable financial opportunity, has invalidated neoliberalism’s core thesis, showing the world that a state could become more authoritarian even as its citizens got richer.
Now, democracy itself finds itself in jeopardy, as the bills for neoliberalism’s excesses come due. The 2008 recession and financial crisis, which featured the largest bank failures in U.S. history, wiped out trillions of dollars of wealth. The U.S. now has the highest income inequality of any Group of Seven country. And disproportionately, the immense and grotesque gains of wealth in the past three decades have gone to the superrich; today, just 2,750 billionaires own more wealth than half the planet. A working person can be forgiven for thinking that somewhere along the way, the economy became a giant pyramid scheme.
The eventual wrecking ball to this charade was not a rebellion in the Third World, but one Donald J. Trump. Opposed to free trade and touting nationalism as a solution, Mr. Trump promised to return manufacturing jobs back to America’s heartland. He channelled the rage of people who had seen their communities decimated by unfettered global capitalism. Their fury against the elites who they believe abandoned them started to feel righteous.
“It was an age of miracles,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the 1920s. “It was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.” Neoliberalism appears to be crumbling, and it feels as if the rumblings of our own roaring 20s – and sombre 30s – have just begun.
That end of neoliberalism – and the subsequent decay of democracy – were on my mind as Justin Trudeau entered the room at the consul-general’s soirée.
The Prime Minister looked tired from what was surely a long day of meetings, but when he entered the Manhattan home, he did what he does so well, clasping palms and chatting with each guest. Diplomats, socialites and multimillionaires hovered around him. One could see how Mr. Trudeau’s celebrity still held sway in New York.
But even as this party was just beginning, everyone seemed to understand that the way things had been done for so long – that party was over.
The outlines of the new order that Mr. Biden’s national security adviser sketched out earlier that afternoon have since come into focus: protections for sensitive industries; de-risking from China; building up domestic capabilities. We need a new industrial strategy for the next century, Washington has made clear – one that recognized that a society was more than its economy, that workers were the lifeblood of democracy, and that foreign policy must ultimately improve the lives of ordinary citizens at home.
In his remarks that evening, Mr. Trudeau uttered a line that appeared in his Council on Foreign Relations speech the next day: He described the “failings of the promise of progress” and how this could erode democracy. He’d repeat that line in the months that followed – this twinning of progress with promises made but not kept.
Later, I managed to speak with Mr. Trudeau; I gave him a copy of my book, in which he is featured. I also asked him: What could we thinkers and intellectuals do to reinforce democratic principles from outside the system?
Mr. Trudeau stepped back. I saw his eyes darting as he thought of how to respond. It was an honest question, asked in good faith.
Finally, he leaned in and said: “I think you shouldn’t be so cynical about people working on the inside.” Before I could reply, Mr. Trudeau glided away to another group of people.
All my life, I have repudiated cynicism: I had seen elite systems from within, and witnessed the kind of liberal-elite behaviour that had given people so much reason for pessimism. Yet I still retained my ability to hope. I did not think there was anything cynical about expecting leaders to live up to their own stated principles, or about acknowledging the reasons that others – including many young people – were becoming despondent about the state of the world. Indeed, it would be up to citizens on the inside and outside of government to ensure democracy was upheld and progress was shared. If the Prime Minister really thought my question was cynical, in this pivotal moment of transition – these dying days of neoliberalism – I am deeply worried about what comes next.
As the party wound down, I said a couple goodbyes and made my exit. There was another party somewhere, even though it was getting late. The sun was setting on a global economic empire, but the parties would go on. This was, after all, New York.