Neoliberalism has made the wholesale destruction of higher education seem normal and natural, as if the university has buckled under its own weight rather than caved to systematic corporate restructuring that emphasizes profits over students. The crippling student debt that we all carry in exchange for precarious jobs that don't pay us anywhere near our value effectively stifles our criticism of some of the most pressing issues we face today.
Hey, remember when I said that I wanted to try writing some new stuff? Although I like my writing process posts and they've been important, they started feeling stale to me. In the aftermath of the U.S. election, I started writing this post and felt more inspired to write than I have in the last six months. And really, if you can't write an opinion piece on your own blog, where can you? Sometimes I think writing new stuff shakes something loose and gets us reinspired. Anyways, I've never written a political post (I'm a historian, not a journalist fer cryin' out loud), so it's a bit of an experiment on my part. It's far from a perfect piece of writing, but it is at least up to the "I'd post that on my blog." standard.
Without further ado.
TL;DR: Neoliberalism with populist characteristics is still neoliberalism and won't be fixed with the application of yet more neoliberalism.
On Tuesday night, November 8, I watched the election returns along with millions of Americans. When the New York Times began to predict a Trump victory, I shook my head in disbelief. It was early, I reasoned. Surely the large western states would carry the day. I continued to watch, staring with equal parts horror and fascination. Like an onlooker at a train wreck, I couldn’t look away. When I woke up the next morning, I discovered that Donald Trump had won the election.
In the days that followed, we looked for someone to blame for the catastrophe. People blamed themselves, their friends, their families, their neighbors, “those people,” Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, white men, white women, non-voters, third party voters, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Tea Party, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders, the working class, rich people, the middle class, the radical Left, the alt-Right, libtards, repubtards, racism, hatred, immigrants, Mexicans, Fake Facebook news, the FBI, voter disenfranchisement, voter fraud, vote miscounts, the electoral college, Florida, minorities, economic anxiety, and Putin. Clearly, we had no idea what the fuck had just happened.
The U.S. press has said almost nothing about what this election means for the future of neoliberalism. Although news pundits have read the election as a desperate thirst for “change,” they don’t know if it will change our established economic faith in the power of the free market. Reeling from the Brexit referendum, the U.K. media has interpreted the U.S. vote as a rejection of neoliberalism. Many U.K. news outlets, most notably the Guardian, argue that the U.S. vote means “death knell of neoliberalism,” and see Trump as the politician who “brought neoliberalism to its knees.” Nevertheless, the question remains: was Trump’s election a symbol of rejection of the neoliberal status quo?
Despite how the UK press has interpreted the vote, the populist rhetoric about making America great again and bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States does not signal the end of neoliberalism. I argue that although many Americans voted to reject neoliberalism, Trump represents a continuation, rather than a break, with the standard economic policy of the past forty years. Behind the populist rhetoric of “making America great again,” a solid neoliberal agenda lurks underneath the catchy slogan on the red ball caps.
No one wants to talk about neoliberalism. It surrounds us like the air we breathe, so natural that we don’t even think about it. When I taught students about neoliberalism, they were confused because they didn’t know that any other alternative was even possible. Students often used the terms globalization and neoliberalism as synonyms. They expressed outrage over changes wrought by globalization but often tacitly accepted neoliberalism. The media also regularly confuses the terms, crafting bizarre arguments that globalization, not neoliberalism, threatens democracy and creates authoritarian strongmen. The difference between the two matters. History tells us that globalization, the interconnectedness of people, cultures, religions, and trade routes has been in process since the early centuries of the common era and possibly even earlier. People have always searched for new ways to increase interconnections; people have not always been practicing neoliberal economic policy.
We were doomed to neoliberalism regardless of whether Trump or Clinton prevailed. Neoliberalism, much like the Matrix, has become a system from which we can’t escape; it is not right or left position. It is, as David Harvey argues in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, a blatant restoration of elite social class power. Neoliberalism shifts wealth to a tiny elite minority, while shielding it against popular dissent and true democracy.
To recap for the uninitiated, neoliberalism emerged in the 1970s. A group of University of Chicago economists (”The Chicago Boys”) believed that their ideas, collectively termed neoliberalism, would remedy the prevailing economic malaise. They sought to fix stagnant wages, runaway inflation, and the ongoing oil crises. They viewed government as the major obstacle to creating truly free markets. Drawing on Friedrich Hayek’s ideas, neoliberal economists proposed throwing off the oppressive yoke of government regulation. They envisioned that free markets would unleash true human potential. In contrast to the classical liberalism and political philosophy of Adam Smith that emphasized personal liberty and free markets, neoliberalism went one step further, espousing the radical ideas of total economic freedom as the maximum expression of human liberty. Seizing on Reagan’s successful neoliberal policies, later presidents ,both Democratic and Republican, deployed classic neoliberal strategies to solve economic and social problems.
Neoliberalism is an economic ideology structured around four ideas to construct a completely free market economy:
Privatization of public sector
Reducing the overall size of the public sector
Promoting free trade
Many voters viewed Hillary Clinton as the ultimate neoliberal candidate. For many, she represented an updated version of the neoliberal policies former president Bill Clinton enacted during his presidency. Bill Clinton passed two important pieces of neoliberal legislation: welfare reform and NAFTA. Welfare reform threw lots of people off of the rolls and redirected wealth upwards. NAFTA, in addition to opening borders, privatized public and collective resources, most notably in Chiapas. Hillary Clinton failed to distance herself from the fallout of these policies. Her close relations with Wall Street tagged her as another career politician fixing things in favor of corporations, rather than people. Many working class voters understood too well that the neoliberal economic policies of the past forty years had slashed wages, broken unions, and outsourced their jobs to places like China and Mexico. Regardless of her progressive stance on social problems, people viewed Clinton’s ideas as a continuation, rather than a break, with the past.
Trump’s populism drew crowds as he vowed to “make American great again.” His macho brand of jingoism and contempt for the political status quo aligned with growing political discontent and social conflict. On one side, he connected with the bubbling wellspring of anger of the working class people disenfranchised by neoliberalism. He insisted that Clinton’s neoliberal policies had wronged the average working class American; he voiced their pain. His supporters characterized his rhetoric as “straight talk” and loved how he sounded like an upstart sticking it to out-of-touch elite government bureaucrats. He promised to bring manufacturing jobs back to the Rust Belt. People voted for him because they wanted to feel like the American dream were possible for them again. Many supporters feltheard and understood for the first time in decades. On the other side, people from the middle and upper classes backed him because he promised to reverse the gains of people and ideas they felt threated the established social order. He disparaged and made vulgar racial and gendered comments about anyone who disagreed or questioned him. He characterized Mexicans as rapists and blamed them for the theft of American jobs. The crowds roared. Many of his supporters secretly agreed that women and people of color had made a little too much progress. They longed for simpler and easier times when they’d never had to share the American dream with those who they felt didn’t deserve it. Trump’s genius was to mix a romantic nostalgia for an imaginary past with latent ethnic nationalism.
And people voted accordingly.
Nevertheless, as neoliberalism aims to restore elite class power, it seems unlikely that Trump will choose to imperil an economic structure that benefits him and his ilk. Trump talks a good game when he promises to reverse selective parts of the neoliberal agenda, notably those which resonate with working class voters. His stunt with the Carrier plant in Indiana and the narrative of “saving” 1,000 American jobs from being outsourced to Mexico is a good bit of political theater. But underneath the token populist gestures, Trump remains wedded to neoliberal principles. He has stocked his cabinet with millionaire and billionaire elites heavily invested in the success and continuation of our neoliberal project. Although it is too early too know with certainty (and difficult to predict, given his erratic nature), early signs point to a solidly neoliberal administration. I predict further displays of anti-intellectualism. Regressive tax cuts for wealthy people. Deregulation of anything not already deregulated. Continued dismantling the welfare state and entitlements for poor people (but not corporations). Attempts to privatize public entitlements, such as Medicare and Social Security. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Thought his economic policies are nothing new, Trumpism represents a new kind of threat to democracy. With his election, the nation stepped closer to authoritarian rule and away from democracy. Rather than an anomaly, authoritarianism is the logical end result of neoliberal economic policy. Completely free markets, the type neoliberal economists and politicians advocate, achieve their optimal efficiency under conditions of political stability. Political stability, in turn, requires social stability at any cost. As an ideology, neoliberalism does and will apply violence to achieve that stability when necessary. We often link free markets with democracy, but in reality, free markets and democracy don’t actually work very well together. Thanks to the work of historians, we know that neoliberal capitalism flourishes under dictatorship. It can grow even without the presence of free wage labor, such as in conditions of slavery. Because neoliberalism cannot withstand any kind of dissent that would disrupt markets, neoliberalism often produces authoritarian governments that violate basic human rights in the pursuit of profits.
Neoliberalism compromises democracy. And diversity. It wants and needs cultural and social conformity. People cease to become people, but rather commodities and capital. The state does get smaller, but it also gets more powerful and more violent. It erodes the power of every day people and obstructs possibilities for change. We no longer have rights, but rather consumer goods that we purchase. Neoliberalism reduces individual freedom to the concept of the “absence of coercion.” Efficiency, market-based solutions, and technocratic solutions become the norm. In its purest form, neoliberalism requires the absolute freedom to create the most efficient economic system possible. The casualties of this system include political freedoms and human rights. The unbridled freedom to accumulate extreme wealth cannot be bothered to take human rights into account. Because it creates extreme inequality in its goal of the restoration of elite social class power, it generates the kind of social instability that it cannot tolerate. In turn, neoliberalism turns to increasingly violent solutions in its efforts to ensure that free markets continue uninterrupted.
Neoliberalism’s emphasis on free enterprise above all also has compromised other kinds of freedoms. The freedom to create and exchange ideas, a vital part of democracy, has been one of the greatest casualties of our long standing love affair with neoliberalism. Undercurrents of anti-intellectualism often accompany neoliberalism. In its relentless march towards global dominance, neoliberalism has placed intellectuals and informed public discourse squarely in its cross-hairs. Neoliberalism, in its efforts to transform everything into a market based system, systematically steamrolls ideas that threaten it. It transforms the very concept of very limited neoliberal freedom into the only acceptable form of public discourse. Anyone who threatens it becomes an enemy of the state. We’ve been seeing this for a long time with the Walmartization of higher education and the corporatization of public universities, which have weakened public discourse and the production of ideas. Intellectual freedom can’t thrive in a precarious labor market where unpopular ideas may lead to someone getting fired. It thrives on the repression of free speech and the exclusion of ideas that do not support it. This is evident in the quantification and dismantling of the humanities and antipathy towards an “elite intellectual” class. And now we’ve seen the movement towards authoritarian anti-intellectualism evident in the recent creation of the Professor Watchlist.
Above all, neoliberalism works best when we don’t talk about it.
So what now?
Neoliberalism, an ideology bent on restoring elite social class power and the transfer of wealth from bottom to top, is not going to change itself. If we’re going to change our reality and escape the Matrix, we’re going to have to start at the bottom. Uprooting neoliberalism would require reversing its agenda. It would halt and reverse the restoration of social class power that we’ve seen over the past forty years. Seen in reverse, dismantling neoliberalism would look like this:
Regulation of financial markets and resources
Public ownership of utilities
Protecting local and national industries
Using the public sector to achieve public good, rather than relying on NGOs and the private sector
What would this even look like? It might look like a return to classical liberalism or (heavens!) socialism or economic nationalism.
Dismantling neoliberalism from the bottom up would start with collaborating with native peoples, who also often find themselves targets of neoliberalism. We’ve seen this with the massive amount of violence directed at the DAPL protesters. When native people refuse to participate in neoliberal systems, they meet with all of the violence that neoliberalism can muster. The situation in North Dakota reminds me of the violence of the 1980s directed at Native people in Guatemala. They refused to submit to a new neoliberal capitalist order. In response, they faced extreme violence and in many cases, outright extermination and suffered acts of genocide. Many years later, native people around the world are still resisting being forcibly inserted into an economic order that disempowers them. If we were serious about overturning neoliberalism, we’d be protecting the environmental rights and sovereignty of native peoples wherever they struggle for rights and sovereignty. We would insist on the sanctity of indigenous land rights. The DAPL fight is about so much more than just a pipeline. It is, in fact, a fight over the future for all of us. [Update: news tonight reports that the pipeline is being rerouted. This, more than Trumpism, signals some of the first chinks in the neoliberal ideology.]
Dismantling neoliberalism would also mean placing power in the hands of people. In practice this would mean giving unions back their bargaining power an supporting collective bargaining rights. We’d stop treating universities like corporate entities, beholden only to the bottom line.nd staffing them with the lowest paid temporary employees. We’d have strong tenure practices. The government would create direct policies to stop climate change, rather than relying on ineffective neoliberal market solutions to solve scientific problems. We’d see more environmental regulation and fewer pipelines. We’d stop outsourcing everything from health care to environmental defense to NGOs. Natural disasters and war would cease profits for defense contractors. We’d stop relying on private prisons to solve socio-inequality and structural problems of race and class. Reversing neoliberalism would mean advocating for racial justice and making structural changes to politically and economically enfranchise more people. We’d be redistributing wealth downwards, instead of concentrating it at the top. We’d be practicing more demand side economics and fewer supply side economics. We’d be focusing on people, rather than profits.
Thinking about abandoning neoliberalism reminds me why history matters. Despite romantic rhetoric about the past, we need to remember that it was never a great utopia for everyone. History is messy because it is made by people. History is nuanced and complex. Historians, and really, anyone interested in the past, has a great responsibility right now to remind people that things have not always been this way. Alternatives are possible, but likely won’t come without a fight. One of the most important things that we can do is ensure that we make noise, appreciate the messiness of democracy, and reject cultural uniformity. Talk about neoliberalism. Question it. Get loud. Get noisy. Refuse to go along with the program. Do not get comfortable. Do not get complacent.
A final thought. If neoliberalism cannot abide social upheaval or dissent, it seems to me that we should get as loud as possible.
Let’s make some fucking noise.