Paradoxes of Neoliberalism


I think to understand neoliberalism,
we need to think of it as a set of paradoxes and I think there are
three major paradoxes to look at. The first one is really how neoliberalism likes
to position itself as an amoral orientation that is not about morality,
is about market principles, is about rational calculation, and yet, if you look
at how it’s contextualized on the ground, you see that it ushers in a lot of conservative moral
agendas about family, about gender, about sexuality.
So that’s the first set of paradoxes. The second set of paradoxes that
I think we can identify is the depoliticizing, the depoliticization of
social risks and the hyper-politicization
of national security. So on one hand, you’re supposed to be responsible for your own risks, you’re
encouraged to take risks and then take responsibility
for those risks, and it’s not about the society,
it’s not about institutions, it’s not about unequal distribution
of resources, it’s about yourself. On the other hand, there is this regime of fear about how the country’s being
invaded by immigrants, by foreign culture
of political influences so we need to strengthen
our borders, we need more resources [and]
international security. So the third set of paradoxes, I think, is on one hand, there is a continuous ravaging of vulnerable populations. On the other hand, there’s the celebration of humanitarian or human rights intervention. So because neoliberalism
really polarizes distribution of wealth and resources and yet, at the same time, there is this
expansion of humanitarianism globally. And so the two seem to be, rather than a set of
solutions for a set of problems, they grow symbiotically
together. So I think that we need to pay attention
to these three sets of paradoxes in order to
understand the complex operation of neoliberalism
and how it affects What is the function of these
wars that are being fought? And you would think trying to cut
government spending and lower deficits, why are these wars fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and Lord
knows where next? There’s no explanatory framework for that within the genealogy of
neoliberalism that’s really combined to what has happened in
the Global North. In order to understand that, to see how those – what those wars are about, and why it’s okay – why the same people who
advocate cutting spending for every kind of social service will
advocate military spending over the roof, not just
for the companies that make profit on producing goods for the military, but on what is the
point of fighting these wars, right,
in the first place when they look on the surface to
be utterly irrational from the point of view of
neoliberal policy alone, that there’s a broader context of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism and of post-colonialism – they’re various shifting frames you can think of that expand that framework enough
so that you can start talking about the connections between, you know, the ways that military
spending fits with slicing a social safety net and why – how it is racialization works within policies on neoliberalism. Part of what it has meant to
me in activism is a few things: a way of talking about what Lisa Duggan has called a set of conditions that have
produced an upward distribution of wealth, that’s a really key baseline
for thinking about it, like what is this range of things that have happened. And when we’re looking at that
domestically, we see things like growing wealth divides, stagnating
wages, attacks on labor, attacks on welfare, and
the dismantling of the minimal poverty alleviation
programs the US has. So sort of like worsening conditions, rich getting richer, poor getting
poorer, and this drastic development of what I call apparatuses of racialized violence: major expansion of criminalization,
major expansion of immigration enforcement, militarized
borders, more people locked in cages than ever anywhere on Earth right here
in the United States right now. So those two things happening are really
big, and then a third piece of it is – it may be particularly
interesting to me as a legal scholar and and legal activist – is the ways that those things that happened
during a period when supposedly, we’ve all become declared equal under
the law, right? During this period of the last 40, 50
years, supposedly, racism, sexism, ableism became illegal United States and we have
anti-discrimination laws and hate crimes laws and there’s been
this sort of purported legal resolution of these
long-term tensions, problems, violences. Yet on the material level, those things have worsened and deepened
with this growing poverty and growing criminalization and
immigration enforcement. Some theorists have talked
about the ways in which freedom is understood as consumer
freedom for the middle classes, right? And then for less privileged people freedom, ironically, can become, in
some instances, literally equated with incarceration, so which brings up an interesting question:
what could be meant by freedom in this context? Let me just tell you a
little bit about my own work because I work with sex workers who’ve been declared or understood
to be trafficking victims by secular and evangelical
Christian activists who don’t see this as
paradoxical or oxymoronic, so in their view, through the prison, sex workers can be rehabilitated so that
they can have freedom in a meaningful sense. So sex workers as well as the people who are understood to
exploit them. And what’s interesting about this and makes you think, what could
this possibly mean, is that in their view freedom is not
just doing anything at all, but freedom can only take place
under conditions of constraint, so the, the space of prison actually becomes
a space of possibility where people can learn the necessary constraints so
that they can exercise meaningful freedoms. The same thing, the same dynamics
are also operative in the incarceration of people who are
arrested for drug crimes, as other scholars have noted, a similar kind process here. In many ways I think she is the
perfect neoliberal subject, right? You are self-managing, your
are self-responsible, and you are seeking for
self-advancement, but because she is a sex worker, so she immediately is targeted and
regulated and policed as trafficking victim, well, or, a prostitute, depending on
what agenda do you have in encountering with her. So that is the one thing –
that’s why I think that victims of sex trafficking are very often the marks of the limits of neoliberalism, or the sexual limits of
neoliberalism. So in this seemingly amoral system, there is a strong moral agenda, especially a sexual agenda, and it is about a middle-class, domestic, sexual relationship, and supposedly egalitarian partnership, and selling sex just violates that, and we need to domesticate sex. Individuals, through changes in the structure of retirement
and social security processes, have been called upon to do their own work, take care of themselves financially and into the future, to think
about the future. You don’t count on a pension, you actually have to figure out how you’re
going to have enough money to live when you’re old. And then of course there’s an enormous
commodification of financial services and financial tools, you know, all those calculators
and systems for keeping your accounts online and technologies for for managing, even if you have very
little money you know, you’re still supposed to
manage it and budget it and figure it out and it’s very, I mean, it is highly class differentiated so payday loans on the one hand, and then all sort of elaborate
individual retirement accounts and financial services for people who are wealthier, but we’re all supposed
to be engaged in these processes. It’s actually highly gendered: women have been told, for the
last couple decades at least, that they’re bad at it, that
they’re particularly bad at it. We have had recently this whole
narrative of women being irresponsible, specifically irresponsible
about money, either shopaholics, either not able to
manage money in that way, or passive and paralyzed, just afraid of dealing with the whole problem of
investments. And in between that, the sort of appropriately healthy, probably male, rational money manager. So there’s
the sort of mobilizing of traditional, of gender stereotypes to promote the called-for personal financial self-management. That’s flipped a
little bit since the financial crisis. All of a sudden now,
women’s risk aversion, what used look like anxious
passivity, is all of a sudden a smart risk aversion
and where men are now – it’s now the fault of
testosterone that we had the financial crisis, right, so men are being made crazy by their
hormones and women are the rational ones whereas it was presumably women’s
hormones that were the problem before. So we’ve had a little reversal in the
evaluation, but the gender stereotypes are actually the same. So in terms of personal
finance, we’ve really seen gender stereotypes
mobilized in support of particular norms of personal
financial self-management. It’s very difficult starting
with your sort of average audience in the United States to
explain what the problem with free trade is, right? What could be wrong
with free trade? And in order to explain what’s
wrong with free trade, you do need a longer history of colonialism in order to explain how
it is that stronger economies extract resources from
weaker economies and how freedom of trade can
actually exacerbate inequality. You really need to understand
the history of empire in order to understand how
that works, like the way that labor, land, and raw materials
have circulated, have been grabbed by, or circulated to richer economies and been
sucked out of poorer ones. You have to understand that
in order to get how a policy like free trade could be extracting resources, rather
than existing in a fair balance trading field, which
is the imaginary free trade, right? Free trade: oh, that means everybody just
gets to buy and sell what they want to and nobody is going to try
to put a stop to it. But what that has meant
historically is that stronger economies move in and put local economies out of
business and take resources and profits out of those
countries and end up dominating economies in poorer countries
in a way that makes it difficult for those economies to develop in ways that actually support
the local populations because so many resources are being sent out by the, via policies of so-called – free trade
means unregulated, so that the the poorer economy, then, is not allowed to protect its own industries
so they can grow or to prevent foreign interests
from coming in and taking profits right out of the country. With SB 1070, the anti-immigration law, what is important for people to
understand about that piece of legislation is that although the
architects of that law argue that the law is merely mirroring federal immigration law, it
actually is doing something other than what federal
immigration law does. Namely it’s criminalizing immigrants who are undocumented in new ways, in ways
that they weren’t criminalized by federal law. So in the very act of criminalizing, neoliberalism becomes an
important tool there for the law, SB 1070, right?
So we have a new law, SB 1070, which uses the implicit key terms of neoliberalism to help itself congeal into this law.
So the key terms being things like personal responsibility,
law abiding citizen, strong family values – all of those things are mobilized by the law in order to criminalize a certain
segment of the population: immigrants who are undocumented. For people who are caught up in
these, in these disciplinary projects like, say, people in mandatory drug
treatment, people in the in the prison system,
they’re being told that the way to become good Americans is to, you know,
adopt a good work ethic, become good mothers and fathers, and often good Christians as well. I think it’s very important for
those who are working on social justice issues to recognize, recognize how strong
these normative projects are and recognize how how powerfully successful they are in terms of resetting the moral compass
for a lot of people. And that, in some ways, poverty has become reinterpreted
as moral failings. There’s a queue to get into a charitable bingo hall
in Canada, for example, there are lots of organizations
who are seeking slots to get access to raise money, and I find it interesting to look at what
they’re using that money for. Often they’re using that money to fund what one analyst Colin Campbell has called “nice to have
services” for middle-class youth, so: better equipment your hockey team, for example, or new uniforms for some other sports team.
And this money is coming from older working class women, who are the majority of players in bingo halls. So I think that’s a really interesting example of how charity is being mobilized in different
understandings of political economy, that gambling can be depoliticized or it becomes acceptable because we’re raising
money for good causes through the gambling, but what’s happening
there is a transfer of political and economic resources –
economic resources most obviously – a transfer of economic resources
from older working-class women to nice-to-have services
for middle-class kids. And that definition of charity
is one that I think is helpful to critically
interrogate and that tells me a lot about
the increasingly central role of charities to
neoliberal management of poverty and the way that sometimes
that strategy of managing poverty transfers resources to
already-privileged people away from older working-class women, for example, as in this example, so that’s one way.
Another way is the resurgence in voluntarism that’s associated with
neoliberalism. So as neoliberalism as a strategy of accumulating capital reaches its inevitable limits – that it’s not socially sustainable, that it will
generate crisis and it will generate indigence and dreadful levels of
poverty. As it reaches its limits of social sustainability, one of the suggested solutions
is a resurgence in voluntarism, that people should give back
to the community, that they should become more involved
in voluntary work, that they can help solve this structural problem by volunteering their labor
to good causes. Withholding access to
subjugated knowledge, more specifically to ethnic studies,
I would say that that is a form of neoliberalism because one of
the things that neoliberalism does is it encourages people, all sorts of people, to
think of themselves as individual units, to think of, first and foremost, of the self and the care of the self
and personal responsibility as the way that we live our lives. And so when ethnic studies is suggesting that that’s not enough, when ethnic studies is
suggesting that we need to think about histories of peoples and systemic relations,
or rather systemic forms of exploitation, then that is very directly challenging the me-me-me-ness of neoliberal discourse. This kind of framework around choice
and around freedom and around individuality, that’s
basically just a cover for reorganizing, slightly, things to
keep them as much the same as possible and also enhancing those sorts of violence.

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