Neoliberalism is a System of Violence

The elections of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 can be viewed as inaugurating the formal period of neoliberal economic policy dominance at the state level. A financial elite set in motion a process to reinvent government and have the market to serve as a model for structuring all social relations. Neoliberalism creates inequality in wealth and income and puts political power in the hands of ruling financial elites. Now 400 families control half of America`s wealth. A neoliberal ideology today defines the social relationships of poor people and the attitude towards them that supports an economic system that creates inequality. Key parts of neoliberal economic policy have increased inequality and risk stunting economic growth across the globe, economists at the International Monetary Fund have warned. Inequality is not only the natural state of market economics from a neoliberal perspective, but it is actually one of its strongest motor forces for progress. Neoliberals claim the concentration of income and wealth since the 1990s produces a more efficient and vibrant capitalism.

Neoliberals insist that they are agents of change. They aim to reform society by subordinating it to the market. Their goal is essentially to erase any distinctions among the state, society and the market. A major challenge of the neoliberals is how to maintain their pretence of freedom as non-coercion when, in practice, it seems unlikely that most people would freely choose the neoliberal version of the state. Their answer is to treat politics as if it were a market, and promote an economic theory of democracy while redefining the shape and functions of the state. In this manner, pretend one can replace ‘citizen’ with ‘customer’ and create a system based on market logic. In this system there is no special status of human labour. The human being is reduced to a bundle of investments and skill sets involved in an entrepreneurial strategic pursuit of advantage. The individual no longer has a special status; classes disappear as every individual is both employer and worker simultaneously. This vocabulary disarms discourse around such issues as social justice.

Neoliberalism directed its criticism against what was seen as an overextended role of the state in the economy and focused its discourse on defining the role of government in governance of society. The main thrust is to ensure the state provides the appropriate environment for the market to operate optimally. However, neoliberalism has negatively affected large numbers of people through retrenchments, degradation of work, misuse of the environment and increased poverty. It has been documented (in the UK) that social inequality is directly linked to public support for increasingly harsh criminal justice policy. It appears that over-representation of low status individuals might actually be perceived as justified because of stereotypes linking low economic status to perceived spiteful and insensitive disposition. Unsurprisingly, then, unemployment, inequality, and poverty have become increasingly blamed on the individual rather than on structural constraints. Many believe the simultaneous demise of the welfare state and the growth of the penal system are not a coincidence but rather a development designed to control marginalized populations.1

As austerity measures intensify in the wake of the most recent global financial crisis; it is becoming ever more clear that neoliberalism exhibits a distinct relational connection with violence. Following 2013 acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer and the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 Black Lives Matter (BLM) became a rallying cry for a new chapter in the long black freedom struggle. BLM is doing more than linking racism not only to police violence but also to poverty and economic violence, and the need for deep political and economic structural changes. Specifically BLM targets a failing system of public education which is virtual school to prison pipeline for many black youth. In addition BLM wants the government to dismantle the prison industrial complex, to address safe and affordable housing, food security, and address health issues such as the reproductive justice challenges affecting poor women of color. The BLM message is black lives tend to be undervalued and more likely ended by police. The movement is about ending the fear that many black Americans feel when it comes to interacting with law enforcement.

Poor people can spend over 30% of their disposable income on housing. Providing supportive housing for individuals and families and making rent affordable for households at risk of homelessness would address this. Single mothers represent a disproportion of those living in poverty. Providing access to subsidized childcare for poor families would allow women to further their education and/or make it feasible for them to work. The economic and social conditions under which people live, rather than the biomedical risk conditions and lifestyles choices are the factors determining whether one develops chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, which develop primarily from material depravation (of poverty), excessive psychological stress and the adoption of unhealthy coping behaviors. The link from family household income and poorer social and health outcomes is well documented – the growing income inequality in Canada and the US associated with globalization poses a significant threat to the health of many.

Conditions for the neoliberal vision of a good society were constructed – “disorder” was defined in a manner conducive to private business and development. For the most part there was no meaningful community input to policing rather a full embrace of private business and financial section input. The result was the criminalization of “disorder.” Suddenly police became more concerned about panhandling, public singing and dancing, loitering, public drinking, bicycle riders, boom boxes, prostitutes, graffiti and street vending than they were about serious criminal harms. Criminalizing previously noncriminal acts resulted in a strategy of order-maintenance policing that was both punitive and judgmental in vilifying those who might be marginally annoying but in no way dangerous. This was pandering to corporate interests while waging a war on the poor. In concert with the severe cuts to social service programs and the new definition of “crime” as disorder, policing became a major policy initiative in dealing with structural poverty.2 Today it is an unmitigated failure, which has backfired. Now in many places police are afraid to get out of their cars.

Luhmann’s theory of communication – a system is defined by a boundary between itself and the environment, dividing it from an infinity complex, chaotic exterior. Social systems consist of communications. Only social systems communicate not humans. When a social system communicates there is boundary between itself and the environment, a zone of reduced complexity. This leads to differentiated communication defined as the permissible communication one is limited to in dealing with complex elements within a system. Differentiated communication is found in politics, economy and religion. It has a binary code: profit / no profit, for / against – creating a dogmatic verdict. The rebuttal to ‘black lives matter ‘ which is about erasing the vulnerability and dehumanization of black people has been ‘all lives matter’ pretending the choice is binary and act as the other side framed it that way – a handy dodge, but dishonest, if one group you are talking about is subject to particular peril.

Neoliberal ideology claims the market ensures everyone gets what they deserve. In the era of neoliberalism, human beings are made accountable for their challenges or conditions according to the workings of the market as opposed to finding faults in larger structural and institutional forces like racism and economic inequality. The market exchange is an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all of human action. In our neo-liberal societies, each person is their own undertaking as a self-entrepreneur, existing in a series of contractualised relationships that are governed by the logic of self-improvement. It is up to us to make ourselves better, we are told, and the system simply supplies us with the appropriate tools to use – tasks to undertake and ladders to climb so that we may realize our potential. All lives matter – appeared in response to BLM. On CBS’s Face the Nation, Rudi Giuliani observed: “Black lives matter. White lives matter. Asian lives matter. Hispanic lives matter,” the idea being that all lives matter just the same. To Giuliani who sees ‘black lives matters’ as “inherently racist” and “Anti-American” is part of the neoliberal script no laws should be written that take particular care of one group but not another. Giuliani is on message with neoliberal thinking that no one has special status.3 This makes it possible to ignore the fact racial bias exists even when it is no longer conscious.

The Great Recession was the wake-up call: neoliberal fundamental economics was an ideology that was never supported by economic theory nor supported by historical experience (based on the 2008 debacle). It is a consequence of restructuring of class power in favour of the elite. The rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the US is a flag of the white middle class anger of those left behind by the economic inequality in the present economic system. The BLM movement is about interpersonal violence within the US increasing as neoliberalism expands. Neoliberalism has no vision of the good society or the public good and it has no mechanism for addressing society`s major economic, political and social problems. Economic conditions (i.e. inequality) are both the causes and the effects of violence with those on the poorer end of the spectrum experiencing the most violence.4 The restructuring of class power in favour of the economic elite sets up aggression, frustration and ultimately violence – confirming neoliberalism is a system of violence. As a result, neoliberal capitalism has nothing to do with democracy as justice is now linked to a market logic that divorces itself from social cost. What the movement is trying to address is state violence in all its manifestations – healthcare, the education system, in addition to police – to ensure racial equality.

1 How rising social inequality may be fueling public demands for increasingly harsh criminal justice policies.

2 Police Violence, Capital and Neoliberalism (15 Jan 2015)

3 Kluger, Jeffry. Enough Already With ‘All Lives Matter’

4 Smith, Candace. (6 Nov 2012) Neoliberalism and Inequality: A Recipe for Interpersonal Violence?

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