#First100Days #CrashCourse: Week 5

Coinciding with Trump’s first 100 days in Office — a period of time historically used as a benchmark to measure the potential of a new president — PRA will share readings, videos, and tools for organizing to inform our collective resistance based on principles for engaging the regime, defending human rights, and preventing authoritarianism. Daily readings will be posted on our Facebook and Twitter accounts and archived HERE.

Week 5: Neoliberalism and Privatization

Featured Excerpt:From the New Right to Neoliberalism: the Threat to Democracy Has Grown” by Jean Hardisty

Neoliberalism can be a difficult concept for most progressives, who may incorrectly understand it as a watered-down version of New Deal liberalism—in other words, part of the platform of the current Democratic Party. But that is not what neoliberalism is. Because neoliberalism best captures the shift we are seeing in the U.S., it is crucial that we understand its actual meaning.

Neoliberalism is the economic, social, and political analysis that best describes the startlingly unequal distribution of wealth and power in the U.S. today. Neoliberalism, and the policies it undergirds, results from the triumph of capitalism and is sometimes called “late-stage capitalism” or “super-capitalism.”

The roots of neoliberalism lie not primarily with the New Deal but in the years immediately after World War II, when a group of U.S. and European economists met to discuss how to prevent another Holocaust. They concluded that the only protection against dictatorship, fascism, or rule by military junta was individual freedom, which only a weak government and unfettered, free-market capitalism could preserve. As pure theory, this describes “classical liberalism,” best formulated by 17th-century English philosopher John Locke and 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill. But, in practice, neoliberalism takes this theory to extremes. Unlike neoliberalism, classical liberalism neither explicitly opposes democratic principles nor seeks to replace democracy with oligarchy.

A leading U.S. participant in the post-war economic think tank was University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, who received intellectual guidance from group members Friedrich von Hayek, of Germany, and Ludwig von Mises, of Austria. They founded the Mont Pélerin Society, which convened neoliberal leaders to discuss strategy and which continues to meet today. Friedman’s ideas became the guiding principles of U.S. neoconservatives, driving the economic “reforms” of the Reagan administration.2 These morally conservative former Democrats switched parties and embraced a “new” conservatism that sidelined blatant racism and anti-Semitism, and touted free-market capitalism.

Later in the 20th century, leftist scholars from emerging countries (and some wealthy ones) adopted the term “neoliberalism” as a pejorative to capture the policies of exploitation, privatization, and inequality imposed on them by the U.S. and other economic superpowers. This was done through trade agreements, and by the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Leftist U.S. scholars – perhaps most prominently, Noam Chomsky – adapted the term to describe the co-optation of economic and political institutions of developing nations.

Neoliberalism became characterized by the use of international loans and other mechanisms to suppress unions, squelch regulation, elevate corporate privilege, privatize public services, and protect the holdings of the wealthy. As U.S.-backed policies and puppet politicians were labelled “neoliberal” by scholars, the term became widely-recognized shorthand for rule by the rich and the imposition of limits on democracy.3

Neoliberalism has now come home to roost, with the people of the U.S. subject to its policies and goals. Here in the United States, we are increasingly not a democracy but a country ruled by an oligarchy. Neoliberals most often exercise power in the U.S. not by working through the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, or the World Bank, but rather by shifting rule from the people to corporations. Voting rights, reproductive rights, the right to a fair and just legal system, a strong and effective safety net for the poor, and even the right to a secular state are all under attack.

Additional readings:

Engage:

Since 1981, Political Research Associates (PRA) has produced investigative research and analysis on the U.S. Right to support social justice advocates and defend human rights. Well aware that organizers on the ground often encounter threats and intimidation from the Right Wing, we have compiled a variety of resources from our staff researchers and allies HERE.

Lincoln, Slave Narratives, and Hollywood’s Neoliberal Agenda

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Why does Hollywood keep distorting history to portray exceptional individuals rescuing America from collective problems?

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

Editorial note: This essay has been revised and updated from a previous version. 11/5/2014.

Recently, a number of acclaimed films focusing on the life of Abraham Lincoln, slavery, and the Civil War have distorted historical reality to suggest that exceptional individuals– and not social movements–are are responsible for progressive social change. From serious nonfiction dramas based on historical texts (Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, Salvador Litvak’s Saving Lincoln) to fictionalized dramas set in historical times (Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained), to works of fantasy and science fiction (Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Richard Schenkman’s Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies), these films work to further affirm a neoliberal economic and political system.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in the 2012 film Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in the 2012 film “Lincoln”

The only film listed above that manages to offer moments of subversion is 12 Years a Slave. Tellingly, it’s the sole film of the bunch directed by a Black artist. Its screenplay, too, was written by an African-American, and its three leading actors were all born and raised outside of the U.S.  The varied backgrounds of the film’s primary creative forces help explain why the film has a greater sense of ideological complexity.

Yet even 12 Years a Slave is flawed in its refusal to represent slavery as an economic system of extreme labor exploitation, such as when a slave in the film is casually murdered by one of his kidnappers (a ludicrous situation within the economy of slavery, where murdering a strong, able-bodied person was tantamount to setting a small fortune of currency on fire, and which is also inconsistent with Solomon Northup’s memoir upon which the film is based.) This distortion wrongly contextualizes slavery as less an economic system and more a system of psychological cruelty[1].

The screenplay for 12 Years a Slave also erases Northup’s insightful descriptions of how enslaved people were in a constant state of rebellion. Like Tarantino’s Django Unchained, McQueen’s film is obsessively focused on Black passivity. The Black male protagonists in both films are exceptions to the rule of Black abject conformity.

All of these films embrace narratives of exceptionalism. This fixation helps to explain why representations of Abraham Lincoln have become so popular—a trend perhaps best exemplified by the film Lincoln.

In interviews, Tony Kushner (the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright behind Lincoln) has repeatedly said that he wanted to create a narrative that would relate to our time (and specifically to the struggles of the Obama administration). To do this, though, Kushner engages in a conscious act of historical misremembering.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Team of Rivals, upon which Lincoln is based, is conceptually brilliant: rather than a linear history of Lincoln’s presidency, Goodwin offers a parallel biography of Lincoln plus his three primary rivals—William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates—for the Republican presidential nomination of 1860. By placing Lincoln within his broader sociopolitical context, Goodwin highlights what was extraordinary about him.

But Kushner created a largely fictionalized drama that emphasizes the greatness of Lincoln, portraying him as a man who had the good sense to not go too far in terms of granting African-Americans full civil rights and who is applauded for his patience. (Kushner doesn’t seem to consider that it is rather easy to be patient about the human rights of a group to which you yourself do not belong.) The film’s antagonist is not a slavery advocate, but rather the Northern Radical Republican leader and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.

Kushner seems intent on denouncing radicalism as unrealistic, portraying the radical wing of the Republican Party as a bunch of hyper-emotional “wild boys.” With such disregard for facts, could Kushner be using Lincoln to mount a critique of contemporary progressive critics of the Obama administration?

In one disturbing scene in the film, Kushner and Spielberg suggest that the suffering of African-Americans for almost a century under Jim Crow and the continuing legacy of poverty that disproportionately harms the African-American community are worth it because no other historical course toward justice was possible. The forces that sought to maintain class and race privilege are depicted as “reasonable,” whereas people such as Stevens, who demanded full civil rights for all, are depicted as “unreasonable”.

With such shadings, Kushner becomes an apologist for the rampant human and civil rights violations of contemporary Democratic presidents such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Kushner has stated in the press that the election of Barack Obama “changed his politics” and that he now understands one has to “work within the system” if one really wants to help people[2].

In a later scene in Lincoln, Kushner and Spielberg portray Stevens and Lydia Smith, an African-American woman Stevens employed as his housekeeper, in bed together reading the official copy of the 13th Amendment. By framing Stevens’s commitment to Smith as the motivational force for his politics, the film attempts to justify its argument that Lincoln had the more rational political analysis. Kushner manages to slam Stevens in a way that also engenders contemporary audience sympathy for Stevens’ allegedly extreme position. The film is arguing that Lincoln wanted African-American political liberation as profoundly as Stevens did but that Lincoln was the more pragmatic, dispassionate political force.

The evidence suggests that the historical Lincoln was far less focused on achieving justice for people of color. His approach to Native Americans illustrates this. In 1862, Lincoln presided over the largest mass execution in American history, when 38 Dakota men were hanged in Minnesota. While Lincoln did also pardon over 250 men from hanging on that same day (the Army had wanted to execute 303 Dakota men), he pardoned them because of fear of European opinion, rather than a sense of humanitarian intervention[3]. The only opposition in Washington to his plans for increasing the intensity of the genocide of the Native American populations came from radicals like Thaddeus Stevens[4].

12 Years a Slave and Lincoln are not the only Hollywood films guilty of historical revisionism. While Seth Graham Smith’s novel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, includes realistic echoes of Lincoln’s biography (minus the vampires), his screenplay imagines a friendship between Lincoln and an African-American character, William H. Johnson, played by Anthony Mackie[5]. The filmmakers make Johnson into a sidekick who is kidnapped by vampires and has to be saved by Lincoln and two other White male friends. Their friendship allows the filmmakers to suggest that the North was a post-racial wonderland for African-Americans (a quality the film shares with the strange early scenes of 12 Years a Slave).[6]

Why is contemporary Hollywood prone to such acts of distortion? Of course, Hollywood did not become rooted in neoliberal propaganda overnight. Steven Spielberg’s box office hit Jaws (1975) and George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) were reactions against in a Hollywood cinema that had been growing progressively more daring in terms of analysis of race, gender, capitalism and imperialism. The success of these predominantly White, overwhelmingly male-oriented, and ideologically conservative films led the film industry to two conclusions: one, that more money could be made producing films with white male protagonists; and two, that films ought to embrace the idea of the superiority of middle class values and American exceptionalism. While there has been critique of the lack of gender and racial diversity in Hollywood films, media critics pay less attention to the ways Hollywood has increasingly adopted neoliberal positions vis-à-vis global finance capital and U.S. imperialism. Films that are critical of the global economic structure and US military aggression are rarely produced by the current studio system. When they are produced, they tend to be met with hostility or bewilderment.

The success of neoliberal philosophers, historians and cultural critics such as Anthony Giddens, Todd Gitlin, Jim Sleeper and Francis Fukuyama[1] has been a key factor in moving Hollywood away from support for narratives of oppressed communities liberating themselves and toward tales of saviors granting freedom to the downtrodden.

For example, Gitlin’s books, The Sixties: Years of Hope Days of Rage and Letters to a Young Activist have had profound effects on popular culture[2]. In both books, Gitlin argues that the hopeful nature of the 1960s was ruined by leftwing militants. He goes so far in Letters as to argue that ““You either vote Democratic, or submit to the rule of the Republicans.[3]” Gitlin blames anyone that tries to charge the dominant system with the responsibility for placing the oppressor into power. Arguments such as this have influenced Hollywood liberals to believe that the world needs exceptional heroes and elite structures to rescue impoverished and oppressed people. They further believe that people like Thaddeus Stevens or Frederick Douglass did more harm than good because they were “too extreme” in their belief that oppressed communities could empower themselves.

Yet Hollywood neoliberalism is a reflection of our larger neoliberal landscape. Liberal elites embedded in the Democratic Party would prefer to ignore the historical reality that slavery ended primarily because of relentless resistance from within enslaved African-American communities. They discount the radical White men, like Thaddeus Stevens, who worked in solidarity with African-American leadership.

For filmmakers to realistically portray a historical person like Lincoln as a political moderate “forced into glory”[7] by the social forces of his time would help to delegitimize the idea that history is made by a few great (White) men. To realistically portray Black insurgency against slavery as a consistent aspect of the 19th century would suggest that racist violence and a racist legal system—not Black passivity and pathology—have held the African-American community in disproportionate poverty since the end of slavery.

If liberals are consistently pushed by Hollywood to believe that progressives and radicals have been the “problem children” of history, is it any surprise that they shy away from working in coalition with them or even, at times, view them with hostility? Or that they resist critiquing the Obama administration in order to give the President a chance to “save us?”

There is another way. The historical record supports the narrative that President Lincoln became a great President because he had so much pressure from a well-organized and militant left-wing.  We must boldly and vigorously challenge Hollywood’s tendency to distort this history. Only then can we expect to get the kind of films that will support, rather than hinder, the struggle for human liberation.

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[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wg91T83Bwmk

[3] Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian American History of the American West, p. 40, Henry Holt, Owl Book edition (1991, copyright 1970)

[4] Hans L. Trefousse Thaddeus Stevens:Nienteenth-Century Equalitarian p. 193-200, The University of North Carolina Press, (1997)

[5] David Herbert Donald Lincoln p. 20-47, Simon and Schuster (1996)

[6] For viewers familiar with the life of the real William H. Johnson, his representation in the film is problematic. Johnson was Lincoln’s personal valet in Illinois and he was brought with Lincoln to Washington DC upon his election as our 16th President. Johnson accompanied Lincoln to Gettysburg for the famous address. While at Gettysburg, Lincoln contracted smallpox. The president was placed in isolation and was only cared for by Johnson. The president recovered but Johnson contracted the disease and died.

[7] Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream is remarkable alternative study of the Lincoln presidency written by African-American historian Lerone Bennett Jr. in 2000. Bennett’s controversial book suggests that the true “great emancipators” were African-American activists and leaders and their white anti-racist allies.

Neoliberal Language Lessons

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

How right-wing power—along with free-market ideas—shifted from conservative Christians to the Tea Party

In his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, political geographer David Harvey traces the triumph of neoliberalism back to a “revolutionary turning-point” in the late 1970s.[1] Figures across the world, including Deng Xiaoping in China and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, began to implement ideas and policies that favored property rights and market exchanges over public investment and government intervention.

In the United States, Harvey notes, Ronald Reagan participated in this early neoliberal wave when he “brought to life the minority tradition that stretched back within the Republican Party to Barry Goldwater in the early 1960s.”[2] This tradition had emphasized not only libertarian economics but also social traditionalism since at least the post-war period. But over the course of the 1970s, it was transformed into a political alliance between wealthy, neoliberal-friendly elites and a grassroots more interested in curtailing women’s bodily autonomy and promoting “family values”—the so-called Christian Right. Why has this latter group, comprised mostly of evangelical conservatives, acted as regular, if not always docile, allies in the Republican Party’s active role in the neoliberal project?

People wave signs at a "tea party" protest on the grounds of the Colorado state capitol in Denver April 15, 2009. image via Reuters

People wave signs at a “tea party” protest on the grounds of the Colorado state capitol in Denver April 15, 2009. image via Reuters

Political analyst Thomas Frank, famously, thought the answer was clear: they were being hoodwinked.[3] According to Frank, Republicans talk about abortion and other social issues but do not actually provide much policy action. Yet while their supporters are distracted, Republican officials can erode the social safety net and promote unfettered, free-market capitalism. Still, Frank’s analysis has been criticized for suggesting that grassroots Christians are rubes.[4] In fact, social issues are not just distractions, but rather legitimate concerns for evangelical Christians. Liberalism and feminism are indeed threats to their way of life, or at least to the conservative, patriarchal social structures that their political and religious leaders promote as “natural.”

There also are concrete policy actions that Republicans provide to make neoliberalism “real” for evangelicals. Faith-based initiatives are a key feature of the “compassionate conservatism” so favored by George W. Bush.[5] These policies outsource and privatize welfare by providing grants to religious organizations, creating a kind of “market” where churches compete to provide voluntary support for the poor. (Frederick Clarkson covers this phenomenon extensively in his essay for this issue of The Public Eye.)  Churches remain eligible for federal dollars without having to conform to any prohibitions on discrimination or proselytization, while the neoliberal shrinking of the state proceeds. As both economic elites and evangelical leaders promote their alternative to a supposedly pervasive culture of “welfare dependency,” faith-based initiatives help cement Christian Right support for neoliberalism. As geographer Jason Hackworth notes, “The rationality of replacing secular welfare with religiously delivered welfare has helped to bond together elements of the American Right throughout the past thirty-five years.”[6]

Faith-based initiatives also have helped neoliberals by softening the image of their poverty policies; they’re not eliminating aid to poor families and children, but replacing it with a better alternative. (Forget that no evidence exists that these policies produce better results, or that they might actively undermine a democratic civil society.[7])

But Christian conservatives have come to neoliberalism for more than just welfare. Some scholars argue that evangelicals are naturally predisposed toward free markets. Sociologist Max Weber famously tied the rise of capitalism to the Protestant work ethic. More recently, historian Mark A. Noll has argued that the rise of evangelicalism in the early United States likely fostered acceptance of free-market principles among religious believers: having largely rejected regulation and authority in religious life, evangelicals were then ready to accept a similar economic program.[8] Sociologist Fred Block has even suggested that a shared commitment to “market fundamentalism” helps unite business elites and Christian conservatives; this latter group is particularly “reassured by its moral absolutism.”[9]

It may be true that evangelicals have an affinity for free markets, but Christian doctrine has also been aligned with social welfare liberalism, as with Catholics and the Social Gospel, or rights liberalism, as with the Black Church and the Civil Rights Movement. The missing step is politics—a political force that activates Christian conservatives’ affinity for neoliberalism and transforms it into political action. And this is just what some savvy political operatives within Republican networks have done.

Evangelicals did not magically become Republicans in the late 1970s; the marriage required matchmakers. New Right operatives famously invited Christian evangelicals into the GOP, most publicly with the creation of the Moral Majority in 1979.[10] Since then, the wealthy elites who run the GOP have spent years trying to convince the Christian Right to go along with their economic agenda, and have used religious-based discourse and coded language to do it. So the estate tax, for example, became portrayed as a “family” tax that disrupted the bonds of inheritance.[11] Similarly, voucher advocates use the language of “school choice” to enlist religious conservatives in neoliberal privatization efforts.[12]

All of these maneuvers have led to the present moment, when, at the grassroots level, the most active force within the Republican Party is no longer the Christian Right but the Tea Party. As polling by the Pew Research Center confirms, Tea Party activists are also often Christian evangelicals.[13] Tea Partiers may still love Jesus in their hearts, but they are talking and acting like good neoliberals.

Tea Partiers may still love Jesus in their hearts, but they are talking and acting like good neoliberals.

It remains to be seen how much staying power the Tea Party has, and whether its leaders are engaged in a zero-sum game with the Christian Right in national politics. But their success in driving the American political agenda towards issues of deficits and the proper scope of government cannot be denied. On one level, this is a tremendous victory for economic (or corporate) conservatives. On the other hand, grassroots activists are taking neoliberal ideas to their logical conclusion, possibly damaging the GOP’s political prospects by pushing for government shutdowns and challenging incumbent Republican officials who are insufficiently devoted to their principles.

The obvious Frankenstein parallels may not be lost on today’s Republican elites. Still, Republican neoliberals continue to have one thing in common with their evangelical protégés; they are unlikely to waver in their faith.

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[1] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1.

[2] Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 9.

[3] Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), 6.

[4] Larry Bartels, “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?Quarterly Journal of Political Science 1 (2006): 201-226. Frank’s analysis is generally more subtle than his detractors let on; his analysis is less about what voters think than about the kinds of discourses they adopt (referring to an antagonistic “liberal elite,” for example).

[5] Frederick Clarkson, “An Uncharitable Choice: The Faith-Based Takeover of Federal Programs,” The Public Eye, Fall 2014. http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/10/an-uncharitable-choice-the-faith-based-takeover-of-federal-programs/

[6] Jason Hackworth, Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 3.

[7] David Ashley and Ryan Sandefer, “Neoliberalism and the Privatization of Welfare and Religious Organizations in the United States of America,” in Religion in the Neoliberal Age: Political Economy and Modes of Governance, ed. François Gauthier and Tuomas Martikainen (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013).

[8] Mark A. Noll, God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). British historian Boyd Hilton suggests a similar dynamic for the UK in the same period; see Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785-1865 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), viii.

[9] Fred Block, “Reframing the Political Battle: Market Fundamentalism vs. Moral Economy,” Longview Institute, Jan. 30, 2007, http://www.longviewinstitute.org/projects/moral/sorcerersapprentice.

[10] Frances FitzGerald, “A Disciplined, Charging Army,” The New Yorker, May 18, 1981.

[11] See Richard J. Meagher, “Tax Revolt as a Family Value: How the Christian Right Is Becoming A Free Market Champion,” The Public Eye, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter 2006). Also see Richard J. Meagher, “Family Taxes: Conservatives Frame Estate Tax Repeal,” Journal of Policy History, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan. 2014).

[12] “‘School Choice Week’: A Dose Of Facts Debunks Voucher Propaganda,” Americans United for Separation of Church & State, https://au.org/voucherFAIL.

[13] “The Tea Party and Religion,” Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, Feb. 23, 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/2011/02/23/tea-party-and-religion.

Neoliberalism, Higher Education, and the Rise of Contingent Faculty Labor

Higher education is intended to foster critical reflection, personal growth, public discussion, collective inquiry, social and political analysis, and the pursuit of knowledge, truth, and justice.  These values and practices emphasize the generation of knowledge.  Higher education does not simply record what has already been said and done; instead, it reviews the past and present in order to create newer, deeper, and better ideas.  Ideally, those ideas become social goods, improving the lives of everyone—from Albert Einstein’s E = mc2 and Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, to Edward Said’s Orientalism and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Some of these works may be controversial and debatable, but that is also the point—they provoke necessary discussions about the unsavory aspects of worldly affairs.

IMG_00301-e1321400465457

This underscores the politics of knowledge and higher learning.  Which ideas are allowed to speak, and which are censored?  Who gets to speak those ideas, and who is silenced?  What values are attached to those ideas and speakers?  How might issues of power, domination and, hopefully, liberation, factor into these equations?

Such issues cut to the heart of the matter: higher education is under attack by the neoliberal enterprise.  While most colleges and universities are still nonprofit institutions, they have been overtaken by the neoliberal agenda.  I am not suggesting some grand conspiracy between university board members and the corporate elite. That may be true in some cases,[1] and some do argue that collusion has occurred.[2]  Generally speaking, however, the synthesis of higher education and corporate interest is much more supple and unspoken.  Forty years of privatization, stagnant wages, a weak economy, a lack of jobs, and budget cuts have forced college administrators to find alternative forms of funding.  These alternatives have involved everything from licensing agreements with Coca-Cola and Disney and the corporate sponsoring of research to a pedagogical emphasis on job preparation.[3]

This corporatization has also given rise to a contingent faculty labor force.  According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “contingent faculty” include both part-time and full-time non-tenure track faculty.[4]  This includes adjuncts hired on a part-time, semester-by-semester basis; full-time lecturers and instructors granted one-year to multi-year contracts; and special- or visiting-assistant professors whose contracts are similar to those of lecturers or instructors but with slightly more institutional status.  The common characteristic among these positions is a lack of institutional commitment from the university.  A 2011 AAUP report found that contingent faculty of all types, including graduate assistants, account for “76 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education,”[5] a marked increase from 55% in 1975.[6]

Adjunct labor represents the largest segment of this workforce, comprising about 50% of all higher education faculty.  (In 1970, that number was only about 20%.)[7]  The overwhelming majority of adjuncts have post-secondary degrees but earn far less than full-time instructors; receive no health or retirement benefits; teach different classes at different institutions; often pay out of pocket for gas and/or transportation; receive no funding for conference travel or professional development; and are commonly assigned cumbersome teaching schedules, making it difficult to teach consecutive classes across campuses.

Such conditions undoubtedly affect the quality of instruction.  That’s not to say that adjuncts—or contingent faculty, in general—are not excellent teachers.  According to a 2010 survey, about 57 percent of adjuncts “are in their jobs primarily because they like teaching, not primarily for the money.”[8] But the contingency of the modern day professorate places unreasonable demands on pedagogical practice.  Adjuncts are rarely granted their own institutional computers, phones, or offices, and something as simple as photocopying can be difficult when teaching once-per-week night classes.  Consistent office hours, regular communication with students, spontaneous classroom activities, pedagogical discussions with colleagues, and critical, creative, open-ended exams become difficult to sustain.

Contingent faculty are also less likely to serve on committees, advise undergraduate theses, teach graduate classes, oversee student organizations, lead program or curricular changes, participate in institutional governance, or reap the full benefits of a university’s intellectual life.  Campus can quickly become a place to earn a paycheck, period.

The most recent economic crisis may have exacerbated, but does not fully account for, this situation.  Decades of conservative, pro-business, deregulatory policies have restructured the landscape not only of higher education but also the workforce as a whole.  Precarious labor is now a defining characteristic of the contemporary global workforce, affecting everyone from computer programmers and IT call-centers to migrant agricultural workers and Wal-Mart employees.  The era of a secure, long-term, well-paid position with a single institution is over.  Downsizing, outsourcing, temp-jobs, sweatshops, day labor, and company relocations have stripped workers of stability and power.  These practices allow corporations to outmaneuver state and federal taxes, government regulations, workers’ rights, and manufacturing costs. Higher education has followed suit, as universities continue to cut back on the number of faculty, increase class size, issue temporary contracts, and refuse to rehire anyone who speaks out.

These precarious conditions also inhibit open and honest discussion, both in and out of the classroom. Controversial course topics might raise the brow of a department chair. An appearance at a campus protest or a quote in the school newspaper might catch the eye of a dean. A search committee might question candidates with politicized research agendas.  (These are some of the very reasons why tenure was invented.) Tenure and academic freedom are being dissolved by a system driven by corporate logic rather than by the free exchange of ideas.

Luckily, not everyone has been silenced.  The American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of University Professors, and the National Education Association have been vocal in their opposition to these trends; the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has launched “Adjunct Action,” a national campaign to address the needs of adjunct faculty; “New Faculty Majority” was started in 2009 to advocate for the rights of contingent faculty; and there has been a resurgence in graduate student unionizing, with New York University and University of Connecticut recently winning high-profile victories.[9]  Even Congress has begun paying attention to the issue of contingent faculty labor.  A Democratic House Committee released a report in January, 2014 on adjunct labor,[10] and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) has introduced the “Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program” that could potentially reduce student loan debt for adjunct professors.[11]

These are necessary and uplifting efforts that should be supported and applauded.  Yet we also should recognize that victories for some educators are not the same as victories for all workers.  Only by uprooting the system of neoliberalism and corporate domination can we begin to address the wants and needs of all people and reconstruct higher education as an epicenter for knowledge, truth, and justice.  Such a lofty goal necessitates a broad-based, multi-pronged movement capable of speaking to our shared material conditions and our collective hopes for a more just and equitable society.  Examples from Wisconsin, Occupy, and the emerging student loan forgiveness movement suggest the will of the people is there.  Now it’s time to turn that will into a long-term, sustainable reality.

For more, see Neoliberalizing Public Higher Ed: The Threat of Free Market Ideology, and the Fall 2014 special neoliberal edition of The Public Eye magazine.

Jason Del Gandio is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Public Advocacy at Temple University.  He is the author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (2008) and co-editor of Educating for Action: Strategies to Ignite Social Justice (2014).  You can visit his website for more information about his work.

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[1] See, for example, Graham Bowley, “The Academic-Industrial Complex,” New York Times, July 31, 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/business/01prez.html.

[2] See, for example, Claire Goldstene, “The Politics of Contingent Academic Labor,” Thought & Action (Fall 2012), http://www.nea.org/home/53403.htm.

[3] See, for example, Natasha Singer, “On Campus, It’s One Big Commercial,” New York Times, Sept. 10, 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/business/at-colleges-the-marketers-are-everywhere.html; and National Education Association, “Higher Education Privatization,” NEA Higher Education Research Center (10.2, March, 2004: 1-6), http://www.nea.org/home/34258.htm.

[4] American Association of University Professors, “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty,” http://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts.

[5] American Association of University Professors, “Background Facts on Contingent Faculty.”

[6] American Association of University Professors, “Trends in Instructional Staff Employment Status, 1975-2011,” http://www.aaup.org/file/Instructional_Staff_Trends.pdf.

[7] “The Just-In-Time Professor,” Democratic House Committee Report, Jan. 2014, http://mpsanet.org/Portals/0/1.24.14-AdjunctEforumReport.pdf.

[8] American Federation of Teachers, “A National Survey of Part-Time/Adjunct Faculty,” American Academic (March 2010, Vol. 2), https://www.aft.org/pdfs/highered/aa_partimefaculty0310.pdf.

[9] Vimal Patel, “Graduate Students Seek to Build on Momentum for Unions,” Chronicle of Higher Education (May 16, 2014, Vol. 60, Issue 35), http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/jp/uconn-recognizes-new-graduate-assistant-union.

[10] See “The Just-In-Time Professor.”

[11] Tyler Kingkade, “Adjunct Faculty Would Get Student Debt Wiped Away Under New Proposal,” Huffington Post (July 31, 2014), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/31/adjunct-faculty-student-debt-durbin_n_5638881.html.

Friedrich von Hayek, Thomas Piketty, and the Search for Political Economy

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Seventy years after the Right embraced von Hayek’s manifesto, does Piketty’s rock-star reception portend a new revolution?

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

A European economist travels to America to give a few lectures on his new book, recently published by a university press. Although a successful scholar, he is hardly a celebrity, especially in the United States. Yet almost as soon as he arrives, this economist is swept into a book tour exceeding any author’s wildest dreams—crowds of thousands at his public talks, generous offers from wealthy donors to continue and expand the work, and reprints in popular magazines.

The story is drawn from the life of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, who visited the United States in 1945 to publicize his book The Road to Serfdom, considered today as one of the foundational texts of neoliberalism. But it also resonates with the more recent example of Thomas Piketty, the French academic whose 577-page Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 16 weeks (as of this writing) following its publication in April 2014.1 Piketty’s American tour this past spring became a news story as much as his book: he met with Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and the Council of Economic Advisers and appeared on Stephen Colbert, and Business Week ran a cover feature on “Pikettymania.”

At first glance, Hayek and Piketty seem to have nothing in common. Writing in the wake of the Great Depression and in the middle of World War II, Hayek argued that even as the United States, United Kingdom, and the USSR were allies in a fight against Nazi Germany, the real threat to civilization was the move toward economic planning and regulation embodied by the New Deal. “We have progressively abandoned that freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past,” he wrote.2 Piketty’s project is entirely different: it is to document the history of inequality over the course of the 20th century; to show that the gap between rich and poor (and especially between the very rich and the rest of the society) has been widening rapidly, especially in recent years; and to argue that the general tendency of capitalism itself may be to generate ever-higher levels of inequality unless political institutions and taxes exist to counteract this. Hayek hardly saw economic inequality as a problem; for Piketty, it is the primary threat to social cohesion and democracy.

Yet the two actually have more in common than might appear, for both books suggest the deeply political nature of economic life.

Hayek’s American journey followed several years of frustration for the Austrian economist. As chronicled by historian Angus Burgin in his study The Great Persuasion, Hayek found himself outmatched in the early 1930s by John Maynard Keynes (his academic rival), as Hayek’s criticism of government involvement in the economy became increasingly out of place in the context of the Great Depression. He began to search for a way to update the old liberal creed of economic liberalism and opposition to the power of the state. As hard as it may be to believe today (as neoliberalism occupies a dominant place in American policy circles), neoliberal thought was born out of a sense that the earlier wave of economic liberalism had collapsed in the Depression years.

Instead of rigidly insisting on economic individualism, Hayek tried to reframe the issues in terms of the need to protect the fragile, creative spontaneity of the marketplace. The real danger of the welfare state and economic planning, according to Hayek, was that no matter how well-intentioned its advocates (the “totalitarians in our midst,” as he put it) might be, they would lead Britain and the United States down a path ending in political disaster.3

His book had some difficulty finding an American publisher but was eventually taken on by the University of Chicago Press, which planned an initial print run of 2,000 for release in September 1944. Front-page reviews in the New York Times Book Review and other publications boosted interest—and only a few weeks after publication, the Press had to scramble to get out a second, then a third, edition.4

Imagine the shy Austrian’s surprise when he arrived in the United States for a five-week book tour in April, 1945, and was met by a crowd of 3,000 at an early speaking engagement at New York’s Town Hall, also broadcast over the radio.5 Conservative businessmen who had been deeply frustrated by the rise of labor unions and expansion of government regulation during the New Deal had been eager to find what one referred to as a “‘bible’ of free enterprise,” a book that could articulate the underlying principles of capitalism in the rhetoric of freedom, giving them a way of opposing the new order without appearing motivated solely by self-interest.6 Hoping to find ways to limit labor’s reach and undermine the welfare state, these businessmen were thrilled to discover The Road to Serfdom.

The book also owed much of its success to Reader’s Digest, which published a condensed version for its readership of 8 million people; Look magazine printed a handy cartoon version, which was then picked up by General Electric’s in-house magazine.7

Hayek was a little chagrined by this success; he worried that he would no longer be taken seriously by scholars, that his admirers in the business community had discarded the subtlety of his arguments. But he was also happy to accept a position—financed by one of the early conservative foundations—at the Committee of Social Thought at the University of Chicago.8 While a bit wary of his business supporters, he was also aware of the potential for an alliance with them. As he wrote in the preface to The Road to Serfdom, “When a professional student of social affairs writes a political book, his first duty is to say so. This is a political book.”9

At first glance, Hayek and Piketty seem to have nothing in common. However, Piketty’s success, like that of Hayek, comes in part because of his willingness to write about the economy as a political space. As he suggests, economic inequality is a topic far too important to be left to economists. It’s a subject with which everyone is intimately familiar, affecting our most basic choices about work, consumption, family, and identity.

It might have been hard for Hayek, writing in 1944, to imagine the world of 2014 into which Piketty’s book appeared. One of Piketty’s major claims is that the level of inequality in a society is determined by politics and social norms—the deregulation of finance, the political mobilization of the wealthy, and even the dominance of the free-market ideas that Hayek once championed—all of which have given rise to the ascendance of the super-elite.

The differences between the two books are not just about their arguments, or even their politics. They’re also methodological: Piketty is an empiricist, whose major contribution lies in his assembling of massive quantities of statistical information about economic inequality. Like Hayek, he was at odds with the economics profession even before his book was published, alienated even as a young assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by its retreat into mathematics and avoidance of history and politics.

Hayek became a theorist, even a polemicist, eschewing narrow mathematical arguments but also by and large avoiding data altogether. Overlooking any possibility that corporations or inequality might limit freedom, Hayek argued that the heavy hand of the state was all that people had to fear.

Friedrich von Hayek came to the U.S. in 1945; "Pikettymania," by contrast, has been a phenomenon of 2014. Photo courtesy of Sue Gardner.

Friedrich von Hayek came to the U.S. in 1945; “Pikettymania,” by contrast, has been a phenomenon of 2014. Photo courtesy of Sue Gardner.

However, Piketty’s success, like that of Hayek, comes in part because of his willingness to write about the economy as a political space. As he suggests, economic inequality is a topic far too important to be left to economists. It’s a subject with which everyone is intimately familiar, affecting our most basic choices about work, consumption, family, and identity—and the economy is something that “all activists in the unions and in politics of whatever stripe,” as well as journalists, commentators and social scientists need to understand.10

The response to Piketty from liberal audiences, eager to find an analysis deeper than a Paul Krugman column, reflects not only the economic politics of our own time: the stark, growing separation between the very rich and the rest of American society, a division that affects everything from education and health care to the very terms of political participation (and which may even be starting unsettle elites, such as those who have greeted Piketty’s work with enthusiasm). It also indicates a longing, however tentative, to bring these economic questions into political debate in ways that reflect their centrality to our lives—reviving an approach to economic life that sees it shot through with ideas about justice and indeed even freedom.

Kim Phillips-Fein is the author of Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal (W.W. Norton, 2009). She teaches History at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU, and in 2014-15 she is a Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library.

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1. “Best Sellers,” New York Times, accessed Sept. 14, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/best-sellers-books/hardcover-nonfiction/list.html#.
2. Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 1994 ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1944), 16.
3. Hayek, Road to Serfdom, 199.
4. Bruce Caldwell, “Introduction,” in The Road to Serfdom, Text and Documents, ed. Bruce Caldwell (University of Chicago Press, 2007), 18-20.
5. Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 88.
6. Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands (W.W. Norton, 2009), 30.
7. Burgin, Great Persuasion, 89.
8. Burgin, Great Persuasion, 100-1.
9. Hayek, Road to Serfdom, xlv.
10. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press, 2014), 577.

Globalization and NAFTA Caused Migration from Mexico

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

When NAFTA was passed two decades ago, its boosters promised it would bring “First World” status for the Mexican people. Instead, it prompted a great migration north.

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

Rufino Domínguez, the former coordinator of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, who now heads the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants, estimates that there are about 500,000 indigenous people from Oaxaca living in the U.S., 300,000 in California alone.1

In Oaxaca, some towns have become depopulated, or are now made up of only communities of the very old and very young, where most working-age people have left to work in the north. Economic crises provoked by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other economic reforms are now uprooting and displacing these Mexicans in the country’s most remote areas, where people still speak languages (such as Mixteco, Zapoteco and Triqui) that were old when Columbus arrived from Spain.2 “There are no jobs, and NAFTA forced the price of corn so low that it’s not economically possible to plant a crop anymore,” Dominguez says. “We come to the U.S. to work because we can’t get a price for our product at home. There’s no alternative.”

Rosalba Maritero is a Triqui indignous immigrant from Oaxaca and lives in Madera, California.  She and her husband, both farm workers, were strikers at a large berry farm in Washington State last year and helped organize a new union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia/Families United for Justice. Photo by David Bacon.

Rosario Ventura is a Triqui indignous immigrant from Oaxaca and lives in Madera, California. She and her husband, both farm workers, were strikers at a large berry farm in Washington State last year and helped organize a new union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia/Families United for Justice. Photo by David Bacon.

According to Rick Mines, author of the 2010 Indigenous Farm Worker Study, “the total population of California’s indigenous Mexican farm workers is about 120,000 … a total of 165,000 indigenous farm workers and family members in California.”3 Counting the many indigenous people living and working in urban areas, the total is considerably higher. Indigenous people made up 7% of Mexican migrants in 1991-3, the years just before the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In 2006-8, they made up 29%—four times more.4

California has a farm labor force of about 700,000 workers, so the day is not far off when indigenous Oaxacan migrants may make up a majority. They are the workforce that has been produced by NAFTA and the changes in the global economy driven by free-market policies. Further, “the U.S. food system has long been dependent on the influx of an ever-changing, newly-arrived group of workers that sets the wages and working conditions at the entry level in the farm labor market,” Mines says. The rock-bottom wages paid to this most recent wave of migrants—Oaxaca’s indigenous people—set the wage floor for all the other workers in California farm labor, keeping the labor cost of California growers low, and their profits high.

Linking Trade and Immigration

U.S. trade and immigration policy are linked. They are part of a single system, not separate and independent policies. Since NAFTA’s passage in 1993, the U.S. Congress has debated and passed several new trade agreements—with Peru, Jordan, Chile, and the Central American Free Trade Agreement. At the same time, Congress has debated immigration policy as though those trade agreements bore no relationship to the waves of displaced people migrating to the U.S., looking for work. Meanwhile, heightened anti-immigrant hysteria has increasingly demonized those migrants, leading to measures to deny them jobs, rights, or any equality with people living in the communities around them.

To resolve any of these dilemmas, from adopting rational and humane immigration policies to reducing the fear and hostility towards migrants, the starting point must be an examination of the way U.S. policies have produced migration—and criminalized migrants.

Trade negotiations and immigration policy were formally joined together by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. Immigrants’ rights activists campaigned against the law because it contained employer sanctions, prohibiting employers for the first time on a federal level from hiring undocumented workers and effectively criminalizing work for the undocumented. IRCA’s liberal defenders argued its amnesty provision justified sanctions and militarizing the border,5 as well as new guest worker programs. The bill eventually did enable more than 4 million people living in the U.S. without immigration documents to gain permanent residence. Underscoring the broad bipartisan consensus supporting it, the bill was signed into law by Ronald Reagan.

We come to the U.S. to work because we can’t get a price for our product at home. There’s no alternative. — Rufino Dominguez, Director of the Oaxacan Institute for Attention to Migrants

Few noted one other provision of the law. IRCA set up a Commission for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development to study the causes of immigration to the United States. The commission held hearings after the U.S. and Canada signed a bilateral free trade agreement, and made a report to President George H.W. Bush and Congress in 1990. It found that the main motivation for coming to the U.S. was poverty. To slow or halt the flow of migrants, it recommended that “U.S. economic policy should promote a system of open trade … the development of a U.S.-Mexico free trade area and its incorporation with Canada.” But, it warned, “It takes many years—even generations—for sustained growth to achieve the desired effect.”

The negotiations that led to NAFTA started within months. As Congress debated the treaty, then-Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari toured the United States, telling audiences unhappy at high levels of immigration that passing NAFTA would reduce it by providing employment for Mexicans in Mexico. Back home, he made the same argument. NAFTA, he claimed, would set Mexico on a course to become a first-world nation.6   “We did become part of the first world,” says Juan Manuel Sandoval of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. “The back yard.”7

Increasing pressure

NAFTA, however, did not lead to rising incomes and employment in Mexico, and did not decrease the flow of migrants. Instead, it became a source of pressure on Mexicans to migrate. The treaty forced corn grown by Mexican farmers without subsidies to compete in Mexico’s own market with corn from huge U.S. producers, who had been subsidized by the U.S. Agricultural exports to Mexico more than doubled during the NAFTA years, from $4.6 to $9.8 billion annually. Corn imports rose from 2,014,000 to 10,330,000 tons from 1992 to 2008. Mexico imported 30,000 tons of pork in 1995, the year NAFTA took effect. By 2010, pork imports, almost all from the U.S., had grown over 25 times, to 811,000 tons. As a result, pork prices received by Mexican producers dropped 56%.8

According to Alejandro Ramírez, general director of the Confederation of Mexican Pork Producers, “We lost 4,000 pig farms. Each 100 animals produce 5 jobs, so we lost 20,000 farm jobs directly from imports. Counting the 5 indirect jobs dependent on each direct job, we lost over 120,000 jobs in total. This produces migration to the U.S. or to Mexican cities—a big problem for our country.”9 Once Mexican meat and corn producers were driven from the market by imports, the Mexican economy was left vulnerable to price changes dictated by U.S. agribusiness or U.S. policy. “When the U.S. modified its corn policy to encourage ethanol production,” he charges, “corn prices jumped 100% in one year.”10

NAFTA then prohibited price supports, without which hundreds of thousands of small farmers found it impossible to sell corn or other farm products for what it cost to produce them. Mexico couldn’t protect its own agriculture from the fluctuations of the world market. A global coffee glut in the 1990s plunged prices below the cost of production. A less entrapped government might have bought the crops of Veracruz farmers to keep them afloat, or provided subsidies for other crops.

But once free-market structures were in place prohibiting government intervention to help them, those farmers paid the price. Campesinos from Veracruz, as well as Oaxaca and other major corn-producing states, joined the stream of workers headed north.11 There, they became an important part of the workforce in U.S. slaughterhouses and other industries.

U.S. companies were allowed to own land and factories, eventually anywhere in Mexico. U.S.-based Union Pacific, in partnership with the Larrea family, one of Mexico’s wealthiest, became the owner of the country’s main north-south rail line and immediately discontinued virtually all passenger service.12 Mexican rail employment dropped from more than 90,000 to 36,000. Railroad workers mounted a wildcat strike to try to save their jobs, but they lost and their union became a shadow of its former self.

According to Garrett Brown, head of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Network, the average Mexican wage was 23% of the U.S. manufacturing wage in 1975. By 2002, it was less than an eighth. Brown says that after NAFTA, real Mexican wages dropped by 22%, while worker productivity increased 45%.13

Attracting Investors, Repelling Workers

Low wages are the magnet used to attract U.S. and other foreign investors. In mid-June, 2006, Ford Corporation, already one of Mexico’s largest employers, announced it would invest $9 billion more in building new factories.14 Meanwhile, Ford closed 14 U.S. plants, eliminating the jobs of tens of thousands of U.S. workers. Both moves were part of the company’s strategic plan to cut labor costs and move production. When General Motors was bailed out by the U.S. government in 2008, it closed a dozen U.S. plants, while its plans for building new plants in Mexico went forward without hindrance.15 These policies displaced people, who could no longer make a living as they’d done before. The rosy predictions of NAFTA’s boosters that it would raise income and slow migration proved false. The World Bank, in a 2005 study made for the Mexican government, found that the extreme rural poverty rate of around 37% in 1992-4, prior to NAFTA, jumped to about 52% in 1996-8, after NAFTA took effect. This could be explained, the report said, “mainly by the 1995 economic crisis, the sluggish performance of agriculture, stagnant rural wages, and falling real agricultural prices.”16

By 2010, 53 million Mexicans were living in poverty, according to the Monterrey Institute of Technology—half the country’s population.17 The growth of poverty, in turn, fueled migration. In 1990, 4.5 million Mexican-born people lived in the U.S. A decade later, that population more than doubled to 9.75 million, and in 2008 it peaked at 12.67 million. Approximately 9.4% of all Mexicans now live in the U.S., based on numbers from Pew Hispanic. About 5.7 million were able to get some kind of visa; but another 7 million couldn’t, and came nevertheless.18

From 1982 through the NAFTA era, successive economic reforms produced migrants. The displacement had already grown so large by 1986 that the commission established by IRCA was charged with recommending measures to halt or slow it. Its report urged that “migrant-sending countries should encourage technological modernization by strengthening and assuring intellectual property protection and by removing existing impediments to investment” and recommended that “the United States should condition bilateral aid to sending countries on their taking the necessary steps toward structural adjustment.” The IRCA commission report acknowledged the potential for harm, noting (in the mildest, most ineffectual language possible) that “efforts should be made to ease transitional costs in human suffering.”19

In 1994, however, the year the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, U.S. speculators began selling off Mexican government bonds. According to Jeff Faux, founding director the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, DC-based progressive think tank, “NAFTA had created a speculative bubble for Mexican assets that then collapsed when the speculators cashed in.”20 In NAFTA’s first year, 1994, one million Mexicans lost their jobs when the peso was devalued. To avert a flood of capital to the north, then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin engineered a $20 billion loan to Mexico, which was paid to bondholders, mostly U.S. banks. In return, U.S. and British banks gained control of the country’s financial system. Mexico had to pledge its oil revenue to pay off foreign debt, making the country’s primary source of income unavailable for the needs of its people.

As the Mexican economy, especially the border maquiladora industry, became increasingly tied to the U.S. market, tens of thousands of Mexican workers lost jobs when the market shrank during U.S. recessions in 2001 and 2008. “It is the financial crashes and the economic disasters that drive people to work for dollars in the U.S., to replace life savings, or just to earn enough to keep their family at home together,” says Harvard historian John Womack.21

Immigrants, Migrants, or Displaced People?

In the U.S. political debate, Veracruz’ uprooted coffee pickers or unemployed workers from Mexico City are called immigrants, because that debate doesn’t recognize their existence before they leave Mexico. It is more accurate to call them migrants, and the process migration, since that takes into account both people’s communities of origin and those where they travel to find work.

But displacement is an unmentionable word in the Washington discourse. Not one immigration proposal in Congress in the quarter century since IRCA was passed has tried to come to grips with the policies that uprooted miners, teachers, tree planters, and farmers. In fact, while debating bills to criminalize undocumented migrants and set up huge guest worker programs, four new trade agreements were introduced, each of which has caused more displacement and more migration.

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The Art of Activism

Spotlighting the efforts of artists and organizations who are engaged in the struggle for social justice and are helping build the movement through their work.

“En los Campos del Norte (In the Fields of the North)” is an exhibition of photographs of farm workers in the U.S., almost all migrants from Mexico, taken by David Bacon (shown here). The photgraphs are hung on the iron bars of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., in Playas de Tijuana on the Mexican side.

“En los Campos del Norte (In the Fields of the North)” is an exhibition of photographs of farm workers in the U.S., almost all migrants from Mexico, taken by David Bacon (shown here). The photgraphs are hung on the iron bars of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., in Playas de Tijuana on the Mexican side.

For more than 30 years, David Bacon has been writing about and photographing people who are displaced by poverty in Mexico and choose to cross into the United States in search of a better life. David writes:

“For me, photography is a cooperative project. For over a decade, I’ve worked with the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, a Mexican migrant organization, and California Rural Legal Assistance to document this contradiction. The photographs shown on the border wall, ‘En los Campos del Norte (In the Fields of the North),’ are drawn from this long-term project. They show poverty, the lack of housing for many people, and the systematic exploitation of immigrant labor in the fields. But through the photographs and accompanying oral histories, migrants also analyze their situation. They demand respect for their culture, basic rights, and greater social equality. People in Tijuana are pretty familiar with working conditions in California, and most people I met looking at the show had actually been there, many as workers. The images, therefore, underline the need to change reality, and appreciate our mutual humanity and the importance of our labor.

For three decades, I’ve used a method that combines photographs with interviews and personal histories. Part of the purpose is the “reality check”—the documentation of social reality, including poverty, homelessness, migration, and displacement. But this documentation, carried out over a long period of time, also presents some of the political and economic alternatives proposed by people who are often shut out of public debate. It examines their efforts to win the power to put some of these alternatives into practice. I believe documentary photographers stand on the side of social justice—we should be involved in the world and unafraid to try to change it.”


1. Eric Hershberg and Fred Rosen, “Turning the Tide?” in Latin America After Neoliberalism: Turning the Tide in the 21st Century, eds. Eric Hershberg and Fred Rosen (New York: New Press, 2006), 23.
2. John P. Schmal, “Oaxaca: Land of Diversity,” ¡LatinoLA!, Jan. 28, 2007, http://www.latinola.com/story.php?story=3908.
3. Richard Mines, Sandra Nichols, and David Runsten, “California’s Indigenous Farmworkers: Final Report of the Indigenous Farmworker Study (IFS) To the California Endowment,” Jan. 2010, http://www.indigenousfarmworkers.org/IFS%20Full%20Report%20_Jan2010.pdf.
4. Mines, Nichols, and Runsten, “California Indigenous Farmworkers Final Report of the Indigenous Farmworker Study (IFS) To the California Endowment.”
5. Brad Plummer, “Congress Tried to Fix Immigration Back in 1986. Why Did It Fail?” Washington Post, Jan. 30, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/01/30/in-1986-congress-tried-to-solve-immigration-why-didnt-it-work.
6. David Clark Scott, “Salinas Plays It Cool After Big Win on NAFTA,” Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 19, 1993, http://www.csmonitor.com/1993/1119/19014.html.
7. Juan Manuel Sandoval, interview with David Bacon, 2006.
8. David Bacon, The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013).
9. Bacon, The Right to Stay Home.
10. Bacon, The Right to Stay Home.
11. David Bacon, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 63.
12. Bacon, Illegal People, 58.
13. Bacon, Illegal People, 59.
14. Elizabeth Malkin, “Detroit: Far South,” New York Times, Jul. 21, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/21/business/worldbusiness/21auto.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
15. Paul Roderick Gregory, “Outsourcer-In-Chief: Obama Of General Motors,” Forbes, Aug. 12, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2012/08/12/outsourcer-in-chief-obama-of-general-motors.
16. José María Caballero et al. for the World Bank, Mexico: Income Generation and Social Protection for the Poor, Volume IV: A Study of Rural Poverty in Mexico, Aug. 2005, (accessed via https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/8286), 9-11.
17. Richard Wells, “3 Ways To Compete Sustainably: Lessons from Mexico,” GreenBiz.com, Oct. 9, 2013, http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2013/10/09/3-ways-compete-sustainably-lessons-mexico.
18. Bacon, The Right to Stay Home.
19. Bacon, Illegal People, 60-61.
20. Bacon, Illegal People, 61.
21. Bacon, Illegal People, 64.

An Uncharitable Choice: The Faith-Based Takeover of Federal Programs

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Two presidents in a row have increasingly steered federal grants and contracts to conservative Christian groups—including houses of worship.

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

The privatization of public services has long been a feature of neoliberalism. It has also been part of the domestic and global agenda of the Christian Right, and more broadly, of conservative evangelicalism. The free-market agenda of the economic elite and the interests of elite evangelicalism found common cause and a historic opportunity during the Clinton administration. It is a relationship that continues to this day under the rubric of the Faith-Based Initiative.

The forerunner to this groundbreaking notion was injected into policy during the Clinton administration’s efforts to “change welfare as we know it.” Called Charitable Choice, it was the first time Congress gave explicit legislative direction to federal agencies to provide religious institutions with grants and contracts to carry out federal programs on an equal basis with other groups—without requiring that religious groups separate out their religious agendas.1 Critics presciently observed this risked problematic entanglements between church and state. Even President Clinton was concerned enough to issue signing statements as Charitable Choice provisions were added to federal legislation. On one such occasion, he said that his administration would not “permit governmental funding of religious organizations that do not or cannot separate their religious activities from [federally funded program] activities,” because such funding would violate the Constitution.2

Senators John Ashcroft (R-MO) and Dan Coats (R-IN) led the successful effort to insert Charitable Choice into the 1996 welfare reform bill.3 The intentions of backers varied, as they still do, but the effect has been to begin to privatize government-funded services, and in particular to increase the capacity of conservative Christian institutions to provide such services in the U.S. and around the world. But its birth was a relatively quiet moment in American legislative history. As David Kuo, an aide to Sen. Ashcroft and later the Deputy Director of the original White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the Bush administration, recounts, they picked the name “Charitable Choice” because it sounded innocuous. “It didn’t draw attention to anything religious,” he recalled:

Charitable choice was something anyone could support and few people could justify voting against. The name just worked. The bill was drafted within months. Most religious groups loved it. Scarcely a peep came from liberal advocacy groups. The lack of liberal objection likely also came from the perception that it was just a small, relatively insignificant amendment. The greatest pushback came from other compassionate conservatives who wanted the bill to allow for more religious content.4

Once the Charitable Choice precedent was set, follow-up efforts to pass more expansive legislation did not succeed. But President George W. Bush was able to implement a more limited program5 via executive order, which was subsequently continued and expanded under President Obama. This effort created a dozen offices6 within the White House and a number of federal departments—most prominently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but also including the Departments of State and Homeland Security, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for International Development. These programs have taken money out of existing, primarily social service programs and redirected the funds to religious agencies. But since many of the conservative Christian bodies that wanted to receive Faith-Based Initiative funds lacked the institutional capacity and experience to be eligible, there was an early emphasis on training, capacity building, and technical assistance so that groups that wanted to become eligible could be shoehorned in.7

This redirection of resources also tended to politically empower religious organizations and leaders, such as prominent evangelical pastor Rick Warren, whose economic view tends toward laissez-faire neoliberalism.8 Warren’s popularity has helped in recent years to strengthen the political constituency for free-market policies.

None of this was a coincidence, since one of the driving forces behind this reorientation of federal policy was a secretive, business-oriented network of conservative Christianity known as The Family. The group made news during the 2008 election campaign when such major figures as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain were shown to have varying degrees of a relationship with the powerful network. Later, the sex scandal involving Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) was shown to involve a Family-owned condo called the C Street House, which also gained national notoriety.9

The Family

Jeff Sharlet, in his 2008 book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, exposed the historic relationship between elements of conservative Christianity and the anti-labor, anti-government deregulation agenda (and other elements) of the business lobby. Founded as a political network of anti-labor Christian businessmen, the organization has vastly expanded into a quiet, behind-the-scenes “old boys” network of people who use their personal relationship with Jesus to facilitate business and political dealings in the U.S. and many other countries.10

Sharlet explained that “faith-based initiatives are as liberal as they are fundamentalist, their privatization of social services an exercise of the unstated conviction of classical liberalism that the free market is absolute and yet requires a government subsidy. They are to religion,” Sharlet continued, “what Clinton-era ‘free trade’ deals were to labor: a ‘rationalization’ in the name of ‘efficiency.’”11

Indeed, the federal funds redirected to faith-based services have enjoyed a certain de facto exemption from standard levels of accountability and transparency. The notion of exemptions for religious organizations from federal laws and policies has been expanded in the wake of the Hobby Lobby v. Burwell decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Hobby Lobby decision likely portends future efforts to widen the range of exemptions along with the range of organizations qualified to claim them.

Just as neoliberals claim that the free market is more “efficient” than government, there has been a similar claim about faith-based social service delivery.12 But there was little evidence for this. Indeed, John DiIulio Jr, the first director of the faith-based office under President Bush, has said there is no evidence that faith-based agencies perform any better than non-religious providers of social services.13

Similarly, David Kuo revealed that there was no evidence to support another of the claims used to justify Charitable Choice, (later renamed the Faith-Based Initiative)—that there was discrimination against religiously based grant applicants, particularly with regard to hiring practices. In many ways, they were proposing a solution in search of a problem. “Alarmed, we looked under every rock and rule and regulation and report. Finding these examples became a huge priority. Without them, the powerful political rhetoric of government discrimination against faith-based groups of religious hiring would have to disappear … If President Bush was making the world a better place for faith-based groups, we had to show it was a really bad place to begin with. But in fact, it really wasn’t that bad at all.”14

Kuo later became disaffected, and wrote a book about it.15 He had hoped that Bush’s campaign promise of “compassionate conservatism”—providing $8 billion new dollars for fighting poverty in the U.S.—would come true. But he found himself helping direct a vast amount of faith-based patronage money and activities designed to influence electoral outcomes in key states under the direction of the White House political team. Even more galling, there was no real increase in anti-poverty funds for anti-poverty work. Kuo did, however, observe a lot of cronyism and self-dealing leading to a variety of scandals.16

As a presidential candidate, Obama promised to clean up the faith-based program and hold federal grantees accountable. “If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them,” Obama said during a July 2008 campaign speech. But a 2014 investigation by Andy Kopsa in The Nation magazine found that “little has changed.”

Kopsa writes: “An entire federally funded evangelical economy took root during the Bush years, and under Obama it continues to thrive.” Kopsa documented, for example, tens of millions of dollars going to fund ineffective, religiously based abstinence and AIDS education programs in the U.S. and in Africa, as well as millions going to religiously based, anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers in the U.S., also for abstinence education. Millions more have been diverted from Medicaid programs to fund heterosexual marriage promotion via state affiliates of Focus on the Family (FOF) and the Family Research Council (FRC). Kopsa reported, for example, that The Family Leader, a politically important Christian Right organization in Iowa (and the state FOF and FRC affiliate), took $3 million in federal funds to conduct “Healthy Marriage Workshops” while simultaneously waging a campaign to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. “After being outed in the press as an HHS grantee in 2010,” Kopsa reported, “the group denied using federal money inappropriately but requested to opt out of their last year of funding.”17

And all this happened even as the Obama administration strengthened the proscription against federal funding of abortion. The Obama administration, in the course of seeking to pass the Affordable Care Act, declared its intention to make the legislation “abortion neutral.” Yet in a remarkably Orwellian redefinition of “neutral,” it adopted the anti-abortion provisions of the Hyde Amendment, which in the 1970s had proscribed using federal Medicaid funds to provide abortions.18

Transpartisanship

Kuo, like Ashcroft and Coats, was a member of The Family (aka The Fellowship), a semi-secret society of what Sharlet calls “elite fundamentalists.” Since its founding as an anti-labor organization of Christian businessmen in the early 20th century, The Family has grown to become a behind-the-scenes network of power and influence extending across party lines. In many ways, it is as transpartisan as neoliberalism itself and an increasingly important transmitter of neoliberal ideology.

The Family’s most public role is as the host and organizer of the National Prayer Breakfast, at which every president since Eisenhower has been a featured speaker. But The Family mostly functions as a quiet broker of conservative Christian ideas, personnel, and relationships. Sharlet describes the morphing of elite business and Christian fundamentalism this way: “[E]lite fundamentalism, certain in its entitlement, responds in this world with a politics of noblesse oblige, the missionary impulse married to military and economic power. The result is empire. Not the old imperialism … Rather the soft empire of America that across the span of the twentieth century recruited fundamentalism to its cause even as it seduced liberalism to its service… .”19

The use of religious institutions to promote the privatization of a variety of government services has been shrouded in a faith-based fog. As David Kuo observed, it became easier for political appointees to direct federal funds to politically favored groups while resisting press and Congressional scrutiny. And, as Andy Kopsa demonstrated, transparency and accountability are shockingly lacking, even in an administration that has promised both.

It should be a matter for public debate that political appointees in both parties are not only diverting federal funds to pursue political agendas well beyond the intent of Congress but also are deepening the government’s reliance on religious institutions as service providers. These trends do not seem to be aberrations and glitches in a fresh approach to the delivery of government services so much as a transpartisan program of neoliberal transformation of our government’s functions at all levels.

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1. Jeff Sharlet, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 381.
2. William J. Clinton, “Statement on Signing the Consolidated Appropriations Act, FY 2001,” Dec. 21, 2000, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=1073.
3. Jeff Sharlet, The Family.
4. David Kuo, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction (New York: Free Press, 2007), 84-86, Kindle Edition.
5. Bill Berkowitz, “Tilting at Faith-Based Windmills: Over a Year in the Life of President Bush’s Faith-based Initiative,” The Public Eye, Summer 2002, http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v16n2/Berkowitz.html.
6. “Federal Centers for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships,” http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ofbnp/offices/federal.
7. David Kuo, Tempting Faith; see also Ted Slutz, “Congregations and Charitable Choice,” The Polis Center, Religion & Community (vol. 4, #5, 2000).
8. Bill Anderson, “Correction from Pastor Rick Warren,” LewRockwell.com, Feb. 2, 2008, http://www.lewrockwell.com/lrc-blog/correction-from-pastor-rick-warren/.
9. Scott Horton, “Inside C Street: Six Questions for Jeff Sharlet,” Harper’s, Sept. 29, 2010, http://harpers.org/blog/2010/09/inside-c-street-six-questions-for-jeff-sharlet/.
10. Frederick Clarkson, “All in The Family,” The Public Eye, Summer 2008, http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v23n2/book_allin_the_family.html.
11. Sharlet, The Family, 382.
12. Eyal Press, “Lead Us Not into Temptation,” The American Prospect, Dec. 19, 2001, http://prospect.org/article/lead-us-not-temptation.
13. “Testimony of the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Executive Director Americans United For Separation of Church and State,” U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, Nov. 18, 2010. http://judiciary.house.gov/_files/hearings/pdf/Lynn101118.pdf.
14. Kuo, Tempting Faith, 208-209.
15. Kuo, Tempting Faith.
16. Bill Berkowitz, “Faith-Based Initiatives in the Obama Administration?,” Religion Dispatches, June 15, 2009; Rick Cohen,” Fides: Faith and Money in the Bush Administration,” Non-Profit Quarterly, Mar. 21, 2006; Peter Wallsten, Tom Hamburger, and Nicholas Riccardi, “Bush Rewarded by Black Pastors’ Faith: His stands, backed by funding of ministries, redefined the GOP’s image with some clergy,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 18, 2005, http://articles.latimes.com/2005/jan/18/nation/na-faith18.
17. Andy Kopsa, “Obama’s Evangelical Gravy Train,” Nation, July 2014, http://www.thenation.com/article/180435/obamas-evangelical-gravy-train.
18. Frederick Clarkson, “From Right-Wing to Pro-Choice: The Shifting Goalposts of ‘Abortion Neutrality,’” Religion Dispatches, Dec. 9, 2009, http://religiondispatches.org/from-right-wing-to-pro-choice-the-shifting-goalposts-of-abortion-neutrality/; and Frederick Clarkson, “Anti-Abortion Strategy in the Age of Obama,” The Public Eye, Winter 2009, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2009/12/01/anti-abortion-strategy-in-the-age-of-obama-2/; see also Frederick Clarkson, “More Creeping Religious Rightism in the Democratic Party,” Talk to Action, Dec. 12, 2009, http://www.talk2action.org/story/2009/12/12/1666/2372.
19. Sharlet, The Family, 386.

Beyond Prisons, Mental Health Clinics: When Austerity Opens Cages, Where Do the Services Go?

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Neoliberal policies that result in institutional closures carry a cost, too. Could communities seize the moment to redirect resources toward self-determination and liberation?

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

In 2012, in a strange moment of jubilation for anti-prison activists, Illinois governor Pat Quinn proposed the closure of two adult prisons, two juvenile detention centers, and six adult transition centers (ATC).1 Though the decision was met with fierce opposition from labor unions representing prison workers, as well as some surrounding community members, and from the “law enforcement” community, by 2014 Illinois had nevertheless closed seven correctional facilities.2

As part of the Quinn administration’s larger policy aim to balance the budget,3 the state also aimed to close facilities housing people with disabilities and to move people into smaller community-based settings—a process often called deinstitutionalization.4 By 2014 this “re-balancing initiative”5 aimed to close four State Operated Developmental centers (SODCs) serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and two psychiatric hospitals.6

These shifts are partly a result of the cluster of economic and political policy changes—including decentralization, privatization, and free-market reforms— that began in the U.S. in the 1960s and strengthened with the election of Ronald Reagan and are often described as neoliberalism. While these facilities were not closed to advance the people’s well-being, the shuttering of these oppressive structures offers a cause for celebration but also a caution. This is especially true if incarceration is defined more widely to include not only prisons but institutions that house people with disabilities, juvenile detention centers, and more.

While these neoliberal policies may inspire some to celebrate the closure of institutions such as prisons and SODCs, this jubilation is tempered. Prison closure means more resources are needed in public community services. These include: mental health clinics; personal assistance services (for people with disabilities); affordable and accessible housing and meaningful public education as alternative ways of dealing with difference and harm; and increasing the life chances and opportunities of many, particularly the poor, disabled, and/or communities of color. Yet such services are shrinking instead of growing during these times of closure.

Vanishing Services

At the same time as these institutions shut across the state, the city of Chicago, under the watch of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, shut down six of twelve public mental health clinics in 2012.7 Cuts to Chicago’s public housing that began during the mid-1990s ramped up.8 In 2013, Chicago’s unelected school board voted to close fifty public schools, affecting approximately forty thousand students primarily in Black and Brown communities on the west side. Since 2001, more than 150 public schools in low-income Black and Brown communities across Chicago closed or restructured—harming neighborhoods and displacing the “problem” of “low academic achievement” back onto communities and young people.

The shuttering of public institutions that regulate the lives of the most marginalized communities is an uneven, but strong, nationwide trend. A 2012 report by The Sentencing Project states: “In 2012, at least six states have closed 20 prison institutions or are contemplating doing so, potentially reducing prison capacity by over 14,100 beds and resulting in an estimated $337 million in savings.”9 Between 2010-2011, 1,069 public schools closed, primarily in urban communities of color across the nation.10 Public housing vaporized, losing a quarter million housing units over the last decade, according to political scientist Edward G. Goetz, author of New Deal Ruins: Race, Economic Justice, and Public Housing Policy.11

Ending Confinementor Just Cutting Funds?

Through one lens, today’s closures suggest to some observers that the prison nation is retreating—loosening its grip on those it has historically targeted for surveillance, confinement, and punishment. Natasha Frost, Associate Dean at Northeastern University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, even went so far as to state in the New York Times in 2013, “This is the beginning of the end of mass incarceration.”12

Yet if imprisonment is understood to include other sites of enclosure like psychiatric hospitals and large state institutions for people with disabilities,13 then the decline in incarceration began in the 1960s. In 1955, the state mental health population was 559,000, nearly as large (if measured on a per capita basis) as the prison population today. By 2000, it had fallen to below 100,000.14 In addition, by 2011, eleven states had closed all state-operated institutions for people with intellectual/developmental disabilities.15

The earlier exodus of people identified with mental and physical disabilities from state institutions was the result of two things: policy that aimed to cut funding to these public facilities, and massive organizing. Deinstitutionalization of those labeled as mentally ill or intellectually disabled during that era was fueled by grassroots mobilization by those most affected by the problems within institutions, as well as shift in professional opinion, major exposés of abuse, and activism (including in the legal arena) by family members of those with disabilities. For instance, in 1979 self-advocates (people with intellectual disabilities who engage in advocacy) in Nebraska held a press conference stating that all institutions should be closed and that people with disabilities have the right to live freely in communities of their own choosing.16 Although rationalized by the argument that people with disabilities need not be segregated from their peers in order to have access to the supports they need, these earlier waves of de-institutionalization coincided with emergent shifts in governance—notably the privatization of public entities—and provided a prototype for future closures of all kinds of state institutions.

Today, states grapple with decarceration and deinstitutionalization, not necessarily because of an ethical recognition of the continuing harm of confinement and segregation, or because of an understanding of the intertwined histories of capitalism, white supremacy, ableism, and punishment in the United States, but because of a desire to curb public spending on social services. These include the very services that people need as alternatives to more oppressive edifices and as preventive measures to winding up in such places. While public neighborhood urban schools, public housing, and mental health clinics are shuttered, private companies and “not for profit” services partially fill the void.

Photo courtesy of project NIA, which advocates for community-based justice models in Chicago.

Photo courtesy of project NIA, which advocates for community-based justice models in Chicago.

Reagan’s Harsh Legacy

Earlier forms of “downsizing”—deinstitutionalization movements in particular—offer an important window into our current political moment. They also offer a warning about the importance of thinking more critically about human capture and confinement and the use of public dollars. Populations in psychiatric hospitals began to plummet in the 1950s; deinstitutionalization in mental health was in full swing by the 1970s, when Reagan became the Governor of California and decided to close down all the state hospitals.17 Hardly a champion of the oppressed, Reagan referred to institutions housing people with mental disabilities in California as “the biggest hotel chain in the state.” Not only did this characterization neatly obscure the squalid conditions inside public facilities, but “fiscal responsibility” masked the (imagined and real) possibilities for profit through privatization. While there were possible positive outcomes—for instance, the benefits of living in the community with supports and not in large state run institutions—few to none of the local necessary community services were supported, either financially or ideologically.

Earlier waves of deinstitutionalization invoked efficiency and the imperative of shrinking big government—both pillars of neoliberalism—and yet many of these developmental centers and psychiatric hospitals were converted into public prisons shortly afterwards. For example, by 2011, Illinois had closed eight mental health hospitals and institutions for people with intellectual disabilities, two of which became correctional facilities and one a women’s prison.18 Far from shrinking big government, these public facilities were repurposed for other forms of human captivity.

As political actors like Reagan began to champion closing the “hotels” of the state and argued for the end to “big government”—and indeed public resources for housing, healthcare, and social services shrank—support for policing and prisons grew. The era of the “carceral big government” exploded as the welfare state morphed into a more punitive set of institutions.

It is important to note that big government did not decline as Reagan’s “hotels” shut their doors. The shrinkage of the safety net from the Reagan era to the nineties, coupled with an expansion of corrections, created a trade-off between social services and incarceration. In Punishing the Poor, sociologist Loïc Wacquant documents that in 1980 public housing received federal funding of 27.4 billion dollars, while the federal budget for corrections was 6.9 billion (not including spending on police or courts). By 1990, funds for public housing had been reduced to 10.6 billion dollars, while the corrections budget rose to 26.1 billion (and then almost doubled again by 1995).19 In essence, by the nineties, resources for jails and prisons exceeded support for public housing programs in the U.S., at a moment when housing assistance was especially needed because of the reduced economic support for poor families.

A Chance to Reinvest

Today, closures of mental health clinics and schools in Chicago are not necessarily leading to the rise of penal “big government,” as rebalancing also includes cuts in prison spending. As with earlier deinstitutionalization movements, this is an opportunity for jubilation but also a time for analysis and radical activism. While the rhetoric of the earlier era was (and for many still is) that “big government” must be dismantled, in reality the government did not shrink—nor did people necessarily become freer. Today, even as prisons are included in these forms of “downsizing,” without public investment in public services—neighborhood schools, housing, and health services—racialized and ableist forms of capture and confinement continue.

In this current moment of state supported institutional closures, learning from earlier organizers’ engagements with the state’s deinstitutionalization initiatives is crucial. As early as the 1970s, disability advocates recognized that the devil was in the details. The closure of an institution did not mean the budget of that institution was then transferred to community services.

Closures didn’t automatically translate into people’s liberation or the end of confinement. Monies that had been utilized for the care of people with disabilities either disappeared from the budget altogether or remained for the upkeep of institutions, even those with a very small number of residents. Former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services Jerome Miller, who closed down all juvenile detention centers in Massachusetts in the 1970s, observed that when institutions began to close in New York State and Pennsylvania, while thousands of patients were left with little housing or treatment options in the community, the budget for the depopulated hospitals actually increased (at the beginning stages of deinstitutionalization). Miller notes that although most ‘mental patients’ left the institutions in past decades, the staff, resources, and budgets remained tied to the institution and not available for community use.20

As people move between different forms and scales of cages, and as patterns of surveillance and punishment morph, new forms of capture do emerge—yet resistance is also possible.

Alternatives emerge when facilities shut their doors. Closures, as prison justice organizer Angela Davis suggests, provide an opportunity for not only a “radical imagining” of the kind of social landscape desperately needed—but also the moment to build it. As people move between different forms and scales of cages, and as patterns of surveillance and punishment morph, new forms of capture do emerge and yet resistance is also possible. The state often refuses to offer services in place of the ones that were shuttered, leaving the responsibility to the individual (or her family and the market). This is a moment to collectively demand, fund, and build public infrastructure that will move everyone closer towards a world that does not rely on segregation and confinement, or access to private capital, as its mode of dealing with structural inequities.

Erica R. Meiners teaches and organizes in Chicago. A Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Education at Northeastern Illinois University, she is the author of the forthcoming Intimate Labor (University of Minnesota Press), which explores how ideas of children contributed to the build-up of the U.S. prison nation. Liat Ben Moshe is the co-editor of Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada (Palgrave McMillan 2014) and an upcoming issue of Women, Gender, and Families of Color.

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1. The goal was that those housed in ATC would be put on electronic monitoring. See “Fiscal Year 2013 Budget,” Office of Governor Pat Quinn, http://ftpcontent4.worldnow.com/kfvs12/news/FINAL%20Efficiencies%20Fact%20Sheet%20-%20FY2013%20Budget.pdf.
2. “Quinn Gets Go-Ahead to Close Illinois Prisons,” CBS Chicago, Dec. 19, 2012, http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2012/12/19/quinn-gets-go-ahead-to-close-illinois-prisons.
3. “Quinn Confirms Plan to Close 14 IL Facilities,” WISTV, Feb. 23, 2012, http://www.wistv.com/story/16989115/quinn-confirms-plan-to-close-14-il-facilities.
4. “Fiscal Year 2013 Budget.”
5. “Governor Quinn’s Rebalancing Initiative,” Nov. 2011, http://cgfa.ilga.gov/upload/GovernorsDDandMHCRebalancingInitiative.pdf.
6. “Governor Quinn’s Rebalancing Initiative.”
7. Dana Ballout, “Chicago’s Mental Health Clinic’s Closings: 20 Months Later,” Al Jazeera America, Dec. 26, 2013, http://america.aljazeera.com/watch/shows/the-stream/multimedia/chicago-mental-healthclosings20monthsafter.html.
8. Sara Olkon, “Ida B. Wells Complex Set to Close, But Some Residents Aren’t Ready to Leave,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 11, 2008, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2008-08-11/news/0808100304_1_mixed-income-public-housing-ida-b-wells.
9. Nicole D. Porter, On the Chopping Block 2012: State Prison Closings, The Sentencing Project, Dec. 2012, http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/On%20the%20Chopping%20Block%202012.pdf.
10. Emma Brown, “D.C. to Close 15 Underenrolled Schools,” Washington Post, Jan. 17, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/chancellor-kaya-henderson-names-15-dc-schools-on-closure-list/2013/01/17/e04202fa-6023-11e2-9940-6fc488f3fecd_story.html. See also: http://dianeravitch.net/2013/01/13/los-angeles-community-fights-to-block-school-closing/.
11. Edward Goetz, New Deal Ruins: Race, Economic Justice, and Public Housing Policy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).
12. Erica Goode, “U.S. Prison Populations Decline, Reflecting New Approach to Crime,” New York Times, July 25, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/26/us/us-prison-populations-decline-reflecting-new-approach-to-crime.html.
13. Liat Ben-Moshe, Chris Chapman, and Allison C. Carey, eds., Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada (New York: Palgrave McMillan Press, 2014).
14. Bernard E. Harcourt, “Reducing Mass Incarceration: Lessons from the Deinstitutionalization of Mental Hospitals in the 1960s,” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 9:1 (2011): 54.
15. David L. Braddock et al., The State of the States in Developmental Disabilities (Washington, DC.: University of Colorado Department of Psychiatry and Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities, 2011).
16. Allison C. Carey, On the Margins of Citizenship: Intellectual Disability and Civil Rights in Twentieth-Century America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009).
17. Paul L. Ahmed, State Mental Hospitals: What Happens When They Close, eds. Paul L. Ahmed and Stanley C. Plog (New York: Plenum Medical Book Company, 1976); James W. Trent Jr., Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
18. David L. Braddock et al., The State of the States in Developmental Disabilities.
19. Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government and Social Insecurity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).
20. Jerome G. Miller, Last One Over the Wall: The Massachusetts Experiment in Closing Reform Schools (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991).

How Colorblindness Co-Evolved with Free-Market Thinking

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

As White supremacists shifted tactics in response to mass social movements, they needed a mass electoral base. Neoliberals helped build it for them—and colorblindness helped wipe out some inconvenient historical truths.

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

The following is an edited extract from a new essay in the 20th anniversary re-issue of the authors’ book, Racial Formation in the United States, 3rd edition (New York: Routledge, 2014).

The hegemony of neoliberal economics is matched and underwritten by the racial hegemony of colorblindness. In the U.S., neoliberalism is as much a racial project as a class project. Although it was developed by big capital, it owes its ascent to the mass electoral base that only right-wing racial ideology could provide. It is the convergence of neoliberalism with colorblindness—the right-wing racial ideology of the post-civil rights era—that accounts for the success of neoliberalism.

In the United States, neoliberalism is as much a racial project as a class project.

In order to acquire a mass base, neoliberalism had to undo the New Deal coalition, which had held power—under both Democratic and Republican administrations—from the 1930s to the 1970s. The New Deal had been politically and morally complicit with Jim Crow and indeed could not have been implemented without deference to the “solid South.” But in the post-World War II period, and in many ways because of the war itself, that complicity was no longer politically viable. The Black Movement challenged it and ultimately overthrew it, splitting the Democratic Party in the process and transferring the South, as Lyndon Johnson lamented, to the Republican column.

The rise of neoliberalism in the United States depended on the containment of the political challenge of the Black Movement and other social justice movements: other movements of people of color, the Feminist Movement, and eventually the environmental and LGBTQ movements, as well.

Containment meant more than restricting the reach of demands for greater racial equality and for a vastly expanded democracy. It also meant resisting the demands of the 1960s movements for the redistribution of wealth and power. The threat that the Black Movement and its allies posed to the New Deal coalition was quite severe. It involved the prospect of a full-fledged social democratic system in the United States, serious commitments to full employment, substantial curtailment of U.S. imperial adventures, and recognition of race- and gender-based demands for full-scale social equality and inclusion.

Capital, the Republican Party, and the Right Wing of the Democratic Party all united against those demands. Colorblind politics were developed from about 1970 as the post-civil rights racial ideology of this new coalition, this new power-bloc. As colorblindness became hegemonic, this new racial ideology incubated and buttressed neoliberalism, as well.

Genealogy of Colorblind Politics

During the 1970s, neoliberal politics was invented through a series of experiments with racial reaction. These experiments took form as “massive resistance,” the rise of the “New Right,” and neoconservatism.

Nothing in the early phases of racial reaction pointed toward what would become “colorblind” racial ideology. The initial response to civil rights demands had been driven by racist rage and full-throated rejectionism in the form of massive resistance. After segregation was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court, southern states and local governments sought to outflank Brown and the decisions that followed it through a strategy of education privatization. (Incidentally, massive resistance anticipated many of today’s battles over public education, engineering closures of public school systems and establishing private, largely White, schools.)

But the massive resistance approach, for the most part, collapsed quickly. It was opposed by the majority of Americans; private segregationist groups, it turned out, could not afford to dispense with public education; and the federal government acted to undo massive resistance, albeit unevenly. In response to this failure, the organized opposition to civil rights reform had to regroup.

White supremacists had to make strategic concessions to win allies outside the South and to operate effectively within the national party system (both parties). The core task they faced was developing a New Right. This required what we call rearticulation. This concept refers to the ideological appropriation of elements of an opposing position.

In the early post-civil rights years, the New Right learned to make use of the deep-seated racism of the White working and middle classes, without explicitly advocating racial “backlash.” The rise of code word strategies was the first attempt at this. It was an effort to race-bait less explicitly, while making full use of the traditional stereotypes. Code words like “get tough on crime” and “welfare handouts” reasserted racist tropes of Black violence and laziness, often without having to refer to race at all.

But the use of code words was ultimately inadequate. Code words could not mobilize a mass base for racial reaction, especially one that would incorporate not only Whites of the Jim Crow South but also centrist Whites across the nation.

In order to reach out further, the New Right developed the ideologically grounded reverse racism (or reverse discrimination) framework. This took shape over the 1970s. Reverse racism had several advantages over code words. The most important of these was the claim that racially inclusive reform policies—notably affirmative action—were unfair to Whites: they were portrayed as “punishing” Whites who were merely seeking a job, admission to a university, or a federal contract. In seeking to overcome the legacy of past racism, it was charged, ostensibly anti-racist policy and state actions were themselves guilty of racism with Whites as the “new victims.”

Racism was thus recast as something that could affect anyone, something that was practiced as much by Blacks as by Whites. A whole century of White supremacy—with Whites as the subjects of racism, and Blacks and other people of color as the objects—was thus peremptorily dismissed. And that was only taking the post-emancipation period into consideration. When the entire structural legacy of slavery was taken into account—massive theft of life and labor, ongoing denigration and exclusion, not to mention torture and terror past and present—the chutzpah of the “reverse racism” claim mounted to the very heavens.

A racist animus bubbles beneath the hegemonic racial ideology of colorblindness. Photo courtesy of Wissotzky.

A racist animus bubbles beneath the hegemonic racial ideology of colorblindness. Photo courtesy of Wissotzky.

The concept of “reverse racism” was presented to Whites as an effort to protect them from “unfair” claims on the part of Blacks or other people of color. The agenda was to consolidate and expand the New Right’s mass base among Whites without appealing to racist tropes as the code words approach had done. Attacking affirmative action and other civil rights reforms as unfair to Whites (as “racial quotas” and supposedly “preferential treatment” of non-Whites, etc.) worked to defend existing systems of racial inequality and domination much more effectively than use of code words.

Colorblind racial ideology came later still. It represented a step beyond “reverse racism” because it repudiated the concept of race itself. Colorblindness built upon earlier articulations of post-civil rights right-wing ideology. Of course, code words did not disappear. Reverse racism charges did not disappear. Colorblindness simply advanced racist ideology to the next level, one premised on the concept of race “neutrality.”

To dismiss the immense sociohistorical weight of race, to argue that it is somehow possible, indeed imperative, to refuse race consciousness and simply not to take account of it, is by any rational standard a fool’s errand. But because colorblindness more successfully rearticulated Black Movement demands, because it expressed a sort of anti-racism “lite,” an aspirational post-racism, and most of all because it overlapped with the repudiation of the welfare state and was consistent with neoliberal individualism, colorblind racial ideology turned out to have political legs.

Racial Neoliberalism

Colorblindness advanced the neoliberal agenda piece by piece through successive presidential administrations, both Republican and Democratic. Reagan’s efforts were crucial. His iconic comment in his first inaugural address—“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”—distilled a political orientation that was hostile to civil rights, the welfare state, taxation (though Reagan did raise taxes several times), and unions.

George H. W. Bush maintained this approach, balancing the “mainstream” Republicanism of Wall Street with the New Right ferocity of his political gunslinger, Lee Atwater. Atwater became famous for the Willie Horton political ads (on behalf of Bush) and the “White hands” ads (on behalf of reactionary North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms). These attacks on presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and on North Carolina senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt invoked centuries-old racist themes: the criminal Black predator and the unqualified (presumably “lazy” and undeserving) Black worker, respectively. Without explicitly stating it, Republicans were coming out in opposition to civil rights and to racial equality while reframing themselves as the White people’s party.

Bill Clinton brought a more Democratic version of neoliberalism to the political arena. He campaigned for reelection in 1996 on a promise to “end welfare as we know it.” Propelled by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson had expanded the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. Thus the Great Society had partially undone the New Deal’s exclusion of Blacks and Latinos from the welfare system. Commonly known as “welfare,” AFDC was the principal source of federal aid for poor people. It was the only federal program that directly provided cash to Blacks. AFDC had evolved out of the Social Security Act of 1935, slowly developing over the decades into its Great Society version of cash support for the poor and excluded, though still heavily stigmatized. Clinton sought White support by attacking this program.

Neoliberalism gave its adherents permission to ignore the “others”: the darker nations, the poor, both of the United States and the entire planet. It required colorblind racial ideology for this purpose.

Privatizing Welfare

Although it assisted many Whites as well, AFDC was seen as a Black program. It had always been means-tested, unlike Social Security itself and Medicare, which were “entitlements.” It was punitive and was subject to constant right-wing stigma, but it stood in sharp contrast to the 1935 law, which had been crafted by Dixiecrats and western Republicans to exclude Black and Brown recipients, in provisions FDR had never questioned.

Clinton’s proposal substituted for AFDC the much more punitive Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PWORA), which effectively privatized the welfare system. This was neoliberalism with a Democratic face.

George W. Bush implemented a hardcore neoliberal agenda that outdid Reagan on several fronts. He attempted to privatize Social Security. His effort failed, but only because it sought to apply the same rough treatment to an entitlement valued by Whites that Clinton had successfully applied to a program associated with Blacks.

Obama has also been under constant pressure to restrict entitlements, and he has sometimes capitulated to this pressure. Well-aware of the cauldron of racist animus that bubbles beneath the hegemonic racial ideology of colorblindness, Obama has avoided racial politics as far as possible. And like Clinton, he has deployed a more liberal version of neoliberalism, so to speak. We can question his judgment, but like him, we must recognize both the hegemony of colorblindness and the hegemony of neoliberalism—in other words, the combined power of structural racism and capital.

In its abandonment of all egalitarian social policy commitments in favor of a “free market” ideology (which was anything but free in practice), in its repudiation of the welfare state, in its passionate embrace of market fundamentalism, neoliberalism struck at the heart of the Black Movement’s demands for economic redistribution and political inclusion. Adopting the evolving racial “common sense” of colorblindness, neoliberalism was able to build a mass base composed of working- and middle-class Whites who were threatened by racial equality and racial democracy.

These Whites, or their parents and grandparents, had benefited from the welfare state under the New Deal when it was a Whites-only affair (and when it was quite anti-immigrant as well). But when the Black Movement and its allies sought to extend the welfare state to communities of color—when in the mid-1960s they sought to lift New Deal restrictions on social investment in those communities— many Whites got off the freedom train.

Neoliberalism gave its adherents permission to ignore the “others”: the darker nations, the poor, both of the United States and the entire planet. It required colorblind racial ideology for this purpose. The containment of civil rights was not the goal of the neoliberal project. Indeed the neoliberal objective was larger than that. It was to dismantle the welfare state, to limit taxation and other forms of regulation of capital, and to ensure the docility and desperation of the “others”: the poor, the workers who were increasingly people of color but also White people, women, and even the middle classes.

Toward A Market-Based Hegemony

This was the neoliberal agenda. Restricting the welfare state, abandoning and punishing the poor, the neoliberal argument went, was not about race, since we are all colorblind now. These policies were presented as an effort to treat everyone alike, to apply the same market-based rules to all. If you disagreed with this, you were the “real racist.”

Neoliberalism required a racial ideology that repudiated the movement agenda of state-enforced equality and the extension of democratic rights to people of color (women, labor, imperial subjects, LGBTQ people…). The exhortation to be colorblind avoided a regression to overt White supremacy or a reversion to explicit policies of Jim Crow segregation. Repelling, repressing, and rearticulating the Black Movement’s (and allied movements’) agendas would not be enough for this purpose.

In order to achieve hegemony for the neoliberal project of reinforced social inequality in a U.S. rid of its welfare state, with all the redistributive dimensions of social rights finally repudiated, it would be necessary not only to oppose demands for racial justice and racial democracy; it would be necessary to take race off the table. It would be necessary to become “colorblind.”

Michael Omi is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and the Associate Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society (HIFIS) at the University of California, Berkeley. Howard Winant is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is also affiliated with the Black Studies, Chicana/o Studies, and Asian American Studies departments. Winant is the founding director of the University of California Center for New Racial Studies (UCCNRS), and the author of a number of books, including The New Politics of Race: Globalism, Difference, Justice (UMinn Press, 2004).

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From the New Right to Neoliberalism: the Threat to Democracy Has Grown

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

The Gloves Are Off For the Right’s Chamber of Commerce Wing

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

The U.S. is in the grip of an unprecedented dominance of right-wing ideologies and policies. Many progressive commentators see that the same band of New Right actors that have long pushed a conservative agenda are up to their old tricks, trying to block any reformist progress under a Democratic president. But what we are experiencing now is not simply “more of the same.” There has been a political shift in the Right’s reigning ideology. The shift is from the Right’s fixation on capturing and consolidating power to establishing rule by the laws of unfettered capitalism.

Activists gather in Peace Arch Park on the U.S.-Canada border in 2012 for a cross-border action protesting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Photo courtesy of Caelie Frampton.

Activists gather in Peace Arch Park on the U.S.-Canada border in 2012 for a cross-border action protesting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Photo courtesy of Caelie Frampton.

The Right’s current success owes much to its persistent pursuit of a well-established social agenda and its increased emphasis on existing economic goals. To maintain that we are in the “old” struggle alone is to miss the rise of what we might call the Right’s “Chamber of Commerce” wing. This sector has a storied history that many people, aside from economists, often gloss over. Its current manifestation embraces a far-reaching, effective, and increasingly entrenched ideology: “neoliberalism.”

Political Research Associates and many others have documented the Right—from the 1970s and the rise of the New Right, to the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004, to the present moment.1 But it is wrong to think that our current condition is simply the triumph of the New Right coalition. The New Right used democratic processes to promote a reactionary, antidemocratic agenda: for example, use of the referendum, partisan redistricting, voter mobilization, new media outlets, and boycotts of companies that support gay rights or reproductive choice. Neoliberal political theory, in contrast, explicitly opposes democratic goals and principles.

What is neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism can be a difficult concept for most progressives, who may incorrectly understand it as a watered-down version of New Deal liberalism—in other words, part of the platform of the current Democratic Party. But that is not what neoliberalism is. Because neoliberalism best captures the shift we are seeing in the U.S., it is crucial that we understand its actual meaning.

Neoliberalism is the economic, social, and political analysis that best describes the startlingly unequal distribution of wealth and power in the U.S. today. Neoliberalism, and the policies it undergirds, results from the triumph of capitalism and is sometimes called “late-stage capitalism” or “super-capitalism.”

The roots of neoliberalism lie not primarily with the New Deal but in the years immediately after World War II, when a group of U.S. and European economists met to discuss how to prevent another Holocaust. They concluded that the only protection against dictatorship, fascism, or rule by military junta was individual freedom, which only a weak government and unfettered, free-market capitalism could preserve. As pure theory, this describes “classical liberalism,” best formulated by 17th-century English philosopher John Locke and 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill. But, in practice, neoliberalism takes this theory to extremes. Unlike neoliberalism, classical liberalism neither explicitly opposes democratic principles nor seeks to replace democracy with oligarchy.

A leading U.S. participant in the post-war economic think tank was University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, who received intellectual guidance from group members Friedrich von Hayek, of Germany, and Ludwig von Mises, of Austria. They founded the Mont Pélerin Society, which convened neoliberal leaders to discuss strategy and which continues to meet today. Friedman’s ideas became the guiding principles of U.S. neoconservatives, driving the economic “reforms” of the Reagan administration.2 These morally conservative former Democrats switched parties and embraced a “new” conservatism that sidelined blatant racism and anti-Semitism, and touted free-market capitalism.

Later in the 20th century, leftist scholars from emerging countries (and some wealthy ones) adopted the term “neoliberalism” as a pejorative to capture the policies of exploitation, privatization, and inequality imposed on them by the U.S. and other economic superpowers. This was done through trade agreements, and by the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Leftist U.S. scholars – perhaps most prominently, Noam Chomsky – adapted the term to describe the co-optation of economic and political institutions of developing nations.

Neoliberalism became characterized by the use of international loans and other mechanisms to suppress unions, squelch regulation, elevate corporate privilege, privatize public services, and protect the holdings of the wealthy. As U.S.-backed policies and puppet politicians were labelled “neoliberal” by scholars, the term became widely-recognized shorthand for rule by the rich and the imposition of limits on democracy.3

Neoliberalism has now come home to roost, with the people of the U.S. subject to its policies and goals. Here in the United States, we are increasingly not a democracy but a country ruled by an oligarchy. Neoliberals most often exercise power in the U.S. not by working through the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, or the World Bank, but rather by shifting rule from the people to corporations. Voting rights, reproductive rights, the right to a fair and just legal system, a strong and effective safety net for the poor, and even the right to a secular state are all under attack.

Austerity at Home and Abroad

Democratic principles are now under attack. Voting rights (an issue that many thought to be settled through Supreme Court decisions and the remarkable organizing of the Civil Rights Movement) are being limited. A constant drumbeat of the message of scarcity and debt helps “smaller government” neoliberals to justify putting additional budgetary restrictions on government agencies and functions. (A recent example of this was the 2012 “sequestration” passed by Congress, which imposed draconian cuts on federal agencies even as private financial service corporations enjoyed record profits.)

In its Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court made legal the right of an individual or corporation to exercise disproportionate influence in elections. The “established” right of women to have access to safe and legal abortion is increasingly diminished; moreover, our intelligence services can monitor our most personal movements seemingly without limit or public justification. These trends all point to the Right’s attacks on democracy’s very core.

Today, the neoliberal Right has succeeded in making weak and ineffectual the policies that have long kept the forces of capitalism at least somewhat in balance with commitments to human rights.

Three additional examples illustrate how neoliberals have, by seizing the policy-making roles normally held by representative government, weakened democracy. We see growing dominance by the captains of capitalism in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement that elites representing business—including more than 600 from the U.S., and representatives from eleven other “democratic” and “free market” countries— are now negotiating.4 Excluded from this process are any elected representatives. The U.S. representatives, who are negotiating in secret, are primarily corporate lobbyists, whose job is to oppose regulations and protect the aggregation of profit by their companies, and who are, almost by definition, neoliberals. What the rest of us know of the TPP negotiations comes from leaked documents.5

This closed decision-making process, which will affect the people of all twelve countries (the U.S., Brunei, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Vietnam, and Singapore) and more, involves only negotiators who support neoliberal principles. TPP’s proposed trade policies, which feature deregulated markets and bans on organizing and safety programs, reveal just how far neoliberals would go to impoverish workers and sideline efforts to promote the general good.

As currently conceptualized, TPP goes beyond North American Free Trade Agreement’s (NAFTA’s) promotion of prominent neoliberal policies through the export of jobs to low-wage countries and the simultaneous repression of union organizing. TPP would also ease restrictions on food safety, drug prices, and financial regulation, allowing corporations even greater freedom to make decisions that could harm consumers.

It is possible that TPP, which Congress must ratify, will never be approved, despite President Obama’s commitment to “fast track” the agreement. A coalition of environmental and labor groups and 151 Congressional representatives has formed to oppose it.6 However, the media, by failing to cover the story, has left the general public uninformed.

Cloaked in even greater secrecy is the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA). This agreement would set the terms for cross-border “services,” from banking and construction to telecommunications and tourism. It would further deregulate the financial sector and prevent countries from imposing restrictions on foreign financial firms. Even as 50 countries have been in talks about TISA since 2012, all we know of TISA’s draft content is through the material that leaker Julian Assange published via WikiLeaks in June 2014.

A third example of neoliberalism’s opportunistic greed in the private financial sector is the existence of “vulture funds,” which enable a small number of hedge funds to make a profit from the debt defaults of entire nations. Vulture funds purchase the debt of (usually the economically weakest) countries at a reduced rate, then file lawsuits to force the countries to repay the debt at a higher rate. These hedge funds are known as vulture funds because the hedge fund purchased the debt with full knowledge that the selling country could not repay it without implementing debilitating austerity policies. Vulture fund capitalists benefit at the expense of emerging countries’ inability to sustain their debt burden. This example of rapacious capitalism is a dominant characteristic of neoliberalism.7

Challenging Neoliberalism

Some have argued that because “everyone was hurt” by the recent recession, it cannot be true that the current system is rigged to benefit the wealthy. Millionaires lost millions as the stock market crashed, businesses went into survival mode, banks had to be bailed out, and huge corporations nearly went under. But, as economist Philip Mirowski points out, “Unaccountably, the political right emerged from the tumult stronger, unapologetic, and even less restrained in its rapacity and credulity than prior to the crash.”8

Banks, interest groups, corporations, the financial sector, and wealthy Republicans are still able to block attempts to restructure the economic system that brought us the crash. Even the reforms in the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010,9 which were designed to correct the abuses of power that led to the recent recession, have done little to counter mounting inequality and the disproportionate political influence of the wealthy. The affluent in the U.S., as a recent study by political scientist Martin Gilens has demonstrated, dominate political and economic decision-making.10

The U.S. is drifting toward oligarchy, while people living here seem to lack the indignation and power to overthrow neoliberalism. Yet there are opportunities for resistance.

The U.S. is drifting toward oligarchy, while people living here seem to lack the indignation and power to overthrow neoliberalism. Foundations, in many cases the life-blood of progressive non-profit groups, now encourage their grantees to pursue “social entrepreneurship” by developing a money-making arm; such groups are increasingly judged by capitalist standards of efficiency and “results.” Yet, there are opportunities for resistance. The Occupy Movement, though flawed (like all movements), was prophetic in its message that people must call out and overturn a power structure run by banks, corporations, and the rich.

If the Left is to mount a defense of the victims of neoliberalism (in other countries, and now in the U.S.), it must base that defense on an understanding of how and why growing inequality is happening. A good first step is to recognize that there has been a shift in the mechanisms and strategies that elites are using to achieve dominance. Using the moniker of freedom, free-market ideologues (who have only the interest of corporations – not people – at heart) have captured, dismantled, and reconstituted the machinery of governance. As these neoliberals pursue their policies, in the absence of either external controls or organized opposition, we see an increasing and alarming decline in democracy.

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1. See: Stephen Steinberg, Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000); Jean Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999); Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York,: Guilford Press, 2000); Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton University Press, 2007).
2. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005), 19-38.
3. Noam Chomsky, Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999), 19-62.
4. Roger Bybee, “TPP: Trumping Public Priorities,” Dollars and Sense, March/April 2014.
5. Joseph Stiglitz, “On the Wrong Side of Globalization,” The New York Times, Mar. 16, 2014, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/15/on-the-wrong-side-of-globalization/.
6. “DeLauro, Miller Lead 51 House Dems Telling President They Will Not Support Outdated Fast Track for Trans-Pacific Partnership,” accessed Aug. 16, 2014, http://delauro.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content%20&view=article&id=1455.
7. Carey L. Biron, “U.S. A Favourite Roost of Vulture Funds,” Inter Press Service (IPS), Nov. 7, 2013. Also see: Peter Stone, The Vulture-Fund Billionaire is the GOP’s Go-To Guy on Wall Street,” Mother Jones, Oct. 4, 2013, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/07/paul-singer-elliott-republican-fundraiser.
8. Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (London: Verso, 2013), 1-2.
9. The Dodd-Frank Act was designed to rein in the financial sector that has been made dangerously unfettered by the defanging and ultimate abolishment of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999. Lobbyists for the financial industry have largely succeeded in getting Dodd-Frank watered down, especially targeting the powers of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the brainchild of now-Senator Elizabeth Warren. See: Bob Ivry, The Seven Sins of Wall Street: Big Banks, Their Washington Lackeys, and the next Financial Crisis (Washington, DC: Public Affairs, 2014).
10. Martin Gilens, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (Princeton University Press, 2012).