(What I Mean When I Say) Neoliberalism



Remember Blackplanet? Remember how you wanted to add swag to your page by animations and images, changing the background from the standard selections to personalized HTML possibilities? Remember the animated dollar signs that some users would place on their pages, animated dollar signs that would be placed at varied intervals?Those dollar signs were supposed to show us that, yes, this person indeed cared about gettin that coin, about saving, about wealth. But if you ever tried to grasp it, you’d see that you’d just be putting fingerprints on a screen. To grasp at a dollar sign as a form of something you can own, can hold in hand, while the material of it withers away? There is no content of the HTLM code, no content that is itself the creation or sustenance of wealth. It is just the appearance of a sign that is supposed to mean, supposed to register, a range of ideas. And neoliberalism is all about the appearance of signs without the change to structures and institutions of inequity.

I use the terms neoliberalism and neoliberal pretty frequently and felt it necessary to explicate the concept, or at least how I think the terms. What do I mean when I talk about neoliberalism? When I discuss it, I am primarily talking about the structure of the economy through policy measures that include making private public goods and opening up such goods to the private sector, austerity measures, the reduction of regulation practices that allowed for unfettered economic exploitation, openings to international markets that produce economic crises abroad while limiting job opportunities domestically, the reduction in the spending of governments. When I use it, I hone in on the making private of public goods and services by subjecting such goods and services subject to market forces and trends, allowing such goods and services to be subject to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Such measures produce the occasion where profit on what should be things available to all for free like healthcare, education, housing is made. Importantly, reductions in government spending do not occur in uniform fashion, it is not applied to all sectors equally. For example, in military operations there is not a decrease but an increase in governmental expenditures; monies that could be used for the greater good, to create equity are siphoned off for measures — a mix of government and private sector spending — that further destabilizes the world, creates more violence and produces the occasion for ongoing "intervention" and the monies such so-called interventions require.

Along with such inequitable spending, with the making private public goods and services subjecting them to market forces and trends, is the degradation of and moralizing against those who then cannot afford what were or should be readily available to all without controversy. The degradation of and moralizing against persons that cannot afford now profitable goods and services is about transforming inherent inequity into a seeming moral failure for groups negatively impacted, about making them responsible for their purported personal, private behaviors that are supposedly the reasons obstructing their clear path to success. It is an economic system that requires an internalization of fear and shame, though such is an affect of inequity masquerading as its cause.  And this because neoliberalism is grounded in hiding in plain sight the perniciousness of its enactment.

What are examples of neoliberalism?Neoliberal policy doesn't simply appear with measures that many would, or could, immediately dismiss as bad. Prisons that are run by private corporations are one, though minuscule — though certainly problematic and in need of remediation — example. That prisons can be produced through the logic of profit, for many, makes absolutely no sense because such corporations would need to guarantee that each “bed” is “occupied,” which runs counter to the very idea of rehabilitation that prison, many presume, is supposed to produce. And that incarcerated persons' labors can be exploited in both publicly and privately held prisons, that they can work for so many hours for so little pay, is in need of interrogation. And many were rightfully angry at the exorbitant, rapid increase in cost — 5000% increase — for medicine for people living with HIV. Yet this is the end result of making goods and services that should be available to all subject to market forces. Should incarceration allow for profitability? Should quality healthcare only be available to those that can afford expensive hospital bills? Should healthcare lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal debt and bankruptcy? These policies — prison and healthcare — many readily understand as problematic. But there are others that almost feel too good and warm hearts that are equally in need of interrogation and that because the logics of economic inequity are what ground the very forces that produce these things.


Yet, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, state colleges and universities and even the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative all follow the same patterns of neoliberalism: each promote privatization of public goods and services, goods and services that should be available collectively. NCLB and RTTT each pressured local government, through the promise of federal funding, to privatize public schools. This happened, for example, by offering incentives for chartering parts (to varying degrees) of local public school districts. These charters would allow for public funding to be used in private organizations, making of public schooling a private market. And in the case of RTTT, school districts were quite literally subject to competition, following the logics of capitalist economics, that competition creates opportunity. Schools, in other words, are offered up to the logic of business administration and education is no longer primarily about the possibility of liberation. Instead, a problem of resource allocation because of competition is the result. But these educational institutions are also decidedly against teacher unions. Teacher unions are the organization of collectivities in the service of bargaining for better pay and work conditions, for better healthcare and training. To the degree that teacher unions are the targets for elimination of school privatization proponents is the degree to which collectivity, as a concept itself, is targeted by neoliberalism itself.Colleges and universities are especially guilty of neoliberalism with their transformation from spaces of education, questions, learning into spaces of private wealth management and real estate investment as the chief concerns. Colleges and universities have colluded with local municipalities in "redevelopment" efforts that have been nothing short of the displacement of communities, particularly low income, people of color, women. The lofts and condos and reclaimed wood, the coffee shops and walkable neighborhoods, are all good for individuals but have negative impacts on communities that are displaced.

Questions, no doubt, linger: What about the increase in people that are able to get medical care through the Affordable Care Act? Aren't prisons about protecting communities? Aren't charter schools giving parents in under resourced areas urgently needed options?  Certainly, more people accessing doctors is a net good and protecting communities from violence and harm — when it does happen (and too much research demonstrates that the opposite is, in fact, the case, with regard to incarceration) — and certainly, kids learning at schools are commendable. But there remains the question of structural inequity that neoliberalism discards and, thus, leaves materially intact. What these various measures do, to varying degrees, is demonstrate the limits of the current political economy itself, the limits of the structural forces of capitalism to produce something along the line of justice. And in each case, these measures make citizenship an explicit case of indebtedness to the nation through financialization, through putting at remove the case and cause of justice by focusing on the so-thought urgency of now. So I think about the debt that college students are supposed to accrue in order to attain educations. But the debt accrued makes them — us — indebted financially, making our relation to the nation one of financial obligation to pay back. So our work, our labor, our practice, is in the service of us paying back to the nation the very possibility of being educated. It is a pernicious cycle.

Neoliberalism, for me, is a structural relation grounded in a presumption of individualism, of property as conferring worth and value, and a necessary degradation of publicly available, collectively held, socially sustained ways of providing care, for collectively held, socially sustained modes of relationality. Just like the degradation of collective organizing and bargaining of teacher unions, neoliberalism itself requires of us to be individuals against collectivities. This works itself out as caring about me and mine, of course, at the expense — unhappily, even — of others. Neoliberalism is a metaphysical relationship between the capacity to own private property and to be a private citizen, all effects of John Locke's possessive individualism. Neoliberalization is about possessive possibility, about making goods and services subject to being owned and, thus, sold and exchanged for profit. Neoliberalism is a labor issue, an exploitation of labor and collectivity. Those of us doing its work, those of us producing its patterns without resistance have our labor exploited in ways that are structurally similar to — even if the material results and conditions of our lives differ  — those that actively resist.—The point is not simply to name the relation but to change it, to imagine otherwise possibilities, to consider alternative modes of organizing. The point is not to individualize and internalize the critique of the political economy, it is not to individualize and internalize the critique of neoliberal policy. Such individualizing and internalizing produces the occasion for thinking that our personal, private work is important — and no doubt it is — but trades the personal as a disruption to the systemic and institutional. And that is the flaw. Surely, people have, do and will continue to produce work from within the zones of inequity, myself inclusive (since I work for a university). The point is to think about the forces that structure the political economy and find ways to collectively resist these forces, to work against them.