Linking (Neo)Liberalism, Identity Politics and Bureaucracy

Both David Harvey and Noam Chomsky have done a lot to analyze and explain the rise of neoliberalism. Both have pointed out that it should primarily be understood as a political project aimed at discouraging and disenfranchising 'ordinary' people, which gained steam shortly after the ‘social unrest’ of the 1960s. David Harvey has frequently pointed out that the neoliberal counterrevolution was kicked off by the publication of the conservative 'Powell Memo', while Noam Chomsky’s emphasized that elite liberals were equally outraged by what they termed "an excess of democracy". Pointing to the Trilateral Commission's The Crisis of Democracy, he notes the following:

This is a consensus view of the liberal internationalists in the three industrial democracies. They—in their consensus—concluded that a major problem is what they called “the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young.” The schools, the universities, churches, they’re not doing their job. They’re not indoctrinating the young properly. The young have to be returned to passivity and obedience, and then democracy will be fine. That’s the left end.

Both of these publications date to the early 1970s. Considering the state of most western societies today, it seems fair to say that their efforts have been quite successful, given how overworked people are, how expensive life is, how apolitical most people are, how little they still seem to expect from and demand of politicians and parties, and how alike political parties are when it comes to questions of economic policy and taxation, given that nearly all favor regressive taxation, low corporate taxes, and low maximum wealth and income tax rates.

The questions I want to explore in this piece are, first, how this contemporary disinterest in politics -- especially of the educated and (semi-)affluent -- was brought about, focusing particularly on the US case. And second, how this ties in with the rise of so-called identity politics, and the bureaucratization of society. Although I obviously can't possibly discuss the reasons for this in detail, I hope that it will nevertheless be useful to summarize the main trends and drivers of this process as I see it.

Identity politicking by business and political elites

One of the more notable societal developments of the past decades has been the rise of 'identity politics'. While this term means rather different things to different people, what I mean by it are the trends to organize people and think about issues primarily along lines of specific identities on the one hand, and to narrow 'politics' to fights over social and cultural issues, while ignoring, and often actively refusing to fight for broader democratic and economic issues, and against institutionalized oppression on the other.

Consider the so-called Women's March. To start, note how the mainstream commentary about the protests never really acknowledged that Trump's behavior is still quite commonplace, especially in the workplace, where most (women) workers have very little choice but to accept abuse by their bosses, coworkers and customers. Second, even though this was called the ‘women’s march’, there was barely any discussion of the other problems women are commonly faced with, particularly those related to their institutionalized oppression and economic inequality. To list a few of them that aren't the 'usual' ones related to reproductive rights and sexual violence: wage drops in professions women enter, lack of jobs, job insecurity, living paycheck to paycheck, having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. But also the lack of affordable daycare, safehouses for women (and children) fleeing abusive spouses and parents, and the general lack of a societal safety net; all of which negatively affect women’s independence. 

What all of these issues point to is the lack of power of workers generally, and of women in particular. And the fact that none of them has become a mainstream issue since, and that everyone accepts that the protests aren't about 'such issues', seems to me part of the same problem. Because if the aim is empowering women, it makes very little sense for movements to restrict their definition of 'women's rights worth fighting for' in these ways, and to exclusively focus on 'civil rights' without pointing out how these forms of injustice relate to others.

Luckily, this kind of disinterest in institutionalized forms of oppression and economic violence does not come naturally. It takes a lot of propaganda, socialization and disciplining (by the media, school system, politicians, clergymen, and other institutions), coupled with a constant stream of state and corporate institutional violence (e.g. anti-union legislation, plant closures, strike breaking, imperialism, gating access to services behind pay), aimed both at oppressing specific groups or people, and generally repressing, sowing division and distrust among those forced to work for their living. Let me explain how this works by giving a few US and European examples that point to the general issue.

The most infamous historical example of all is to declare black and brown people property, as this made it much easier to rationalize violence, to trade human beings, to keep workers from banding together to end this arrangement, and to spot dissenters and rebels. A related one is creating propaganda to demonize people of color by saying they are 'out to rape our women' (which doubled as a justification for the oppression of women and children). Another way US capitalists went about preventing shop-floor organizing is by selecting people with a different racial or ethnic background to serve as their shop overseers or managers, or as cops (Irish immigrants trying to prove themselves), as money-lenders and bankers (a profession Jews were pushed into by medieval elites), and so on. But also by having porous borders coupled with restrictive migration rules, because this leads to migration by people who then cannot apply for legal protection against exploitation by their bosses (because by objecting to mistreatment or wage theft etc., they risk extradition). All of these are ways in which ethnic and linguistic differences are weaponized to favor certain groups, especially the capitalist class, but sometimes also others.

Nevertheless, after centuries of racial slavery and other attempts at division, and even though corporations, the rich and the state did their utmost to undermine worker organization, by the early 1930s the organized left had managed to unite a significant fraction of US workers to fight against their bosses, politicians, fascist and criminal organizations and the state, and gained democratic rights, better pay, living and working conditions. This even though many 'worker class' organizers were locked up, attacked and killed. The left was simply too well-organized, even though they started to attack their own before the end of world war 2.

At the same time, it's important to realize that the vaunted post-war Western 'golden age of organized labor' was made possible largely by unequal development and exclusion: by the existence of the USSR on the one hand, and the infrastructural destruction of most of the Western world thanks to the second World War and nationalism, by the draft and the GI Bill shrinking the labor force, by women not being permitted to work once they married or had a child, and by colonialism and the maldevelopment and exploitation of the rest of the world, which lowered resource prices. Nevertheless, even while they had the upper hand, American unions were still convinced to evict 'overly radical' (and successful) organizers and unions starting pretty much as soon as the war was over, while they also generally refused to make common cause with 'unskilled' -- often people of color and 'white trash' -- labor.

Consequently, as soon as the social and racial justice movements of the 1960s had been sufficiently undermined by state and private violence (including but not limited to firing, imprisoning and/or ostracizing anyone deemed 'a communist'), elites could launch the next phase of their political and cultural offensive, receiving little by way of push-back from the organized left. So, with women demanding the right to work (and emancipation from their husbands, if not from bosses), and with Western Europe and Japan rebuilt, containerization invented, and East Asia starting to develop, elites could launch Prohibition 2.0: the War on Drugs.

The "Drug War" was the first of a three-pronged attack on the population, intended to sow division and fear, and to further marginalize the "unskilled" (largely colored) bottom 40% of the population, who would increasingly be terrorized, oppressed and criminalized, through policing, prosecution, killing and imprisonment for what is at bottom a public health and poverty/inequality issue (as the very different and much more humane response to the 'opioid crisis' -- fueled by big pharma and doctors -- illustrates -- even there too, the media stay silent about its socioeconomic drivers). It also communicated, indirectly, the power of the state vis-a-vis its citizens.

At the same time, the "oil crisis" gave them a means to inflate away worker purchasing power, while it also allowed them to start deregulating, privatizing and allowing and encouraging the offshoring of production, "necessitated" by "high labor costs". And from the late 1970s on, starting with the deregulation of banking, the start of a now 40-year public-private effort to deregulate the economy, to impoverish and disempower ordinary people and employees, to eviscerate the welfare state, while subsidizing corporate America. This started under Carter, took huge flight under Reagan, and would be escalated even further after the fall and dissolution of the Soviet Union. The second prong mainly involved tax cuts and subsidies for (high tech and military) corporations and the rich, tax subsidies for off-shoring, sale of public assets, defunding regulatory agencies like OSHA and the EPA, deliberate non-prosecution of strike-breakers, unending tuition hikes, permitting companies to buy up the competition while refusing to enforce extant antitrust laws. These developments greatly empowered big business and the affluent. The third prong involves offshoring, mergers and plant closures (or threats thereof), mass firings, forcing employees to work (unpaid) overtime, the rise of managerialism and the deliberate fostering of fear cultures at work, implementing more regressive taxation (incl. VAT), and social spending cuts -- which would undermine and impoverish the rest of society. Taken together, I'd call this a campaign of state and economic terrorism by another name.

Given that political, media and business elites tried to undermine grassroots organizing efforts in all of these ways, it seems fair to say that the rise of identity politics is in substantial part a consequence of this decades-long (neoliberal) effort to sow division,** to extract wealth by increasing people's cost of living, and to "depoliticize" economic policy-making by turning over lots of state functions to technocratic bodies, while privatizing others, and saying that these things should be left to "experts" or "the market" because efficiency concerns supposedly outweigh public control and robustness.

Now, the fact that elites would strive towards such goals shouldn't come as much of a surprise. What should come as a surprise is how well they succeeded, especially in light of the fact that more people have college degrees today than at any point in history. Why have most of them come to accept these developments, especially given that pretty much none of these statements withstand scrutiny, when education is what supposedly hones people's critical reading and thinking skills? (Especially people who self-identify as progressives?)

Part of the answer is the institutional violence of the kinds I've discussed above, which discourages organizing, fostered hopelessness, and forces people to work ever more hours to get by. Another that was certainly important, but which is difficult to quantify, is the domestication and/or destruction of grassroots movements and organizations, churches, unions, alternative news sources, labor presses, and so on. Another, indirect contributor I would mention is the role of the entertainment media, analyzed so aptly by Michael Parenti, which creates a constant stream of shows showing either people leading middle class lives, with no money worries, or about police or other government agencies solving (street) crimes.

On the indoctrination of the young and solidarity

The aspect I want to focus on here, however, is one that has received very little attention, especially in this context. Namely, the role of the expansion and democratization of tertiary education, and of the school system generally. This has had two main effects.

The first is that since World War 2, a much larger percentage of the population would be spending their formative years in institutions that would teach us "economic truths" like how "we shouldn't live beyond our means", "the state is like a household" [and shouldn't borrow even to invest in its future], "The Market Knows Best" / "Government Interference in The Market is Bad".

More generally, the vast majority of textbooks and papers included in the school curriculum are written by people who buy into Lockean liberalism, which can be summarized as a combination of property rights being coequal with freedom of speech and 'liberty' (except when property isn't 'sufficiently exploited', or when the current owners aren't rich and/or white), plus various anti-egalitarian/meritocratic beliefs about the superiority of white, male, educated Europeans who subscribe to the protestant work ethic. (I appreciate that this may sound like a weird complaint, and that especially the first point sounds as natural as breathing air is to us. I won't go into this here, but I will come back to this elsewhere, or in the comments.)

The second, and more insidious demographic effect was that a much larger part of the population would spend a far greater part of their formative years inside bureaucratic institutions that strongly encourage students to obey respect the authority and expertise of those with credentials and institutional power over you (i.e., teachers and textbook authors). As a result, anyone with a college or university degree would have spent at least two decades doing tasks regardless of whether they seem particularly useful to them, studying subjects and learning skills they may or may not enjoy, and didn't get to pick. And all that time, the main focus wouldn't be on learning and enjoying developing new skills that fit your interests, and learning to cooperate. Instead, it would be divided between proving yourself to others, listening and obeying, competing with fellow students, free-riding, and earning rewards (including class and grade progression), while the structure inculcates the notion that what one (individually) earns is what one deserves.

In such a system, the focus is constantly on individual performance, and measurement of "merit" as determined by others. In this way, it implicitly undermines the notion of solidarity, it privileges extrinsic over intrinsic motivation, it teaches you to let your choices depend on others' values and to foster interests that you know will earn you 'points', and it discourages independent thought. It is telling, then, that many more people would come to embrace the formula of "fiscally conservative, socially liberal" as a desirable political stance (which in practice always leads to privileging "fiscal soundness" and low taxation over social policies). Of course, it didn't hurt that this also favored them and their class mates financially.

As a consequence, a far greater percentage of people would come to look at the world through this same lens, while considering themselves part of the 'educated' class, with 'more sophisticated' and 'cerebral' hobbies, interests and habits than the much rowdier, and more manually and bodily focused people whose idea of productive and fun work doesn't involve desks, offices, and so on. And this meant that politicians and parties could increasingly differentiate and profile themselves purely on the basis of social values (abortion, gun control, civil rights issues), identities (roles, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, skin color, gender, etc.) and personality (affability, erudition, religiosity, etc.). And conversely, ever quieter on economic and institutional issues, while pushing the reforms and treaties I discussed above. And in these ways, this new 'progressive' professional class has greatly contributed to the anger, hopelessness and despair in which the violence and radicalization we are now seeing could take root, with dire consequences for both minorities, the less credentialed and 'unskilled', and the poor. Which is the neoliberalization of politics.

On meritocracy and bureaucracy

This leads me to the question of how the rise of neoliberalism and the bureaucratic mindset relate. As we're probably all aware, meritocracy is the preferred organizing principle of the educated -- and especially of the elite liberals and social democrats. Yet as I've talked about elsewhere, metrics of what makes someone "better" (or "worse") are extremely subjective, and people are capable of coming up with the most banal of "reasons" (including skin and hair color) as to why some people are worth more than others. Equally important is the question which consequences we attach to these decisions about who merits what, and what kind of "floor" we maintain with respect to quality of life, and who gets a say in setting that level.

The most widespread moral hierarchy ties superiority to sex and gender difference. Others, equally problematic, revolve around skin color, educational attainment, religious affiliation, wealth/ownership, nationality/group membership, ethnicity, and so on. Now, you can certainly try to make these 'metrics of merit' more action-focused, and plenty of institutions try to do so (with varying amounts of success). However, because of the close correlation between high status, institutional power and wealth, I don't see anything changing until we get away from this way of thinking.

This practice of valuing people differently, and acknowledging and ignoring people's contributions or needs depending on whether they have or lack certain characteristics, is called moral essentialism. Obviously, it's mostly used by the powerful to justify the silencing of so-called "minorities" and "one's lessers". But nowadays, we're starting to see people who belong to groups who are (or were previously) marginalized successfully employing these methods, to create space and platforms for themselves and their perspectives, and to silence those who would otherwise silence them. This is often decried as undesirable behavior when minorities engage in it, because when they do, it tends to rankle people that "they" -- i.e., an essentialized other -- are using the master's tools. As such, I agree wholeheartedly with bell hooks when she notes (in Teaching to Transgress) that the fact that such tactics and reasoning are being employed should first and foremost be understood as an indictment of the status quo.

Of course, we'll want to get away from these unhealthy 'power over' dynamics, which reaffirm the notions that we have to fight each other for the right to speak and be heard, and that one may only speak if one possesses the right credentials (whether we're talking a diploma, a character trait, or group membership). Which is to say that essentialism is just the bureaucratic logic applied to humans and human interaction. And a large part of why it works is because we have been taught to accept the notion that others' having or lacking certain characteristics "matters" -- so much so, in fact, that the value assigned to their needs or contributions depends on how we value them; as may the answer to the question what kind of life they deserve. And the more normal that notion seems to us, and the stronger we believe that what someone deserves depends on how we value their contributions, the more likely we are to experience anger or disgust while thinking about equal treatment; which in turn increases the likelihood we'll feel free to use violence, oppress and exclude in order to bring about a society in which deserving people ensure that (only) deserving people enjoy material prosperity.

On earning a living.

Promotion on the basis of "merit" is at the root of every bureaucratic institution -- from the army to schools to the civil bureaucracy to the corporation. And a large part of what any bureaucracy does, is coming up with procedures and tests to determine whether people "qualify" for something or other (whether jobs, promotions, raises, subsidies, insurance payouts, or warranty claims). Now to be clear, I do believe that we must evaluate people's behavior, and that there is a place for bureaucratic organizational forms. But I also think it is extremely unwise -- and antidemocratic -- to organize society in such a way that those who end up on top get to decide who receives what, who (else) gets to climb the "ladder", and what anyone who wants to advance must do. Because even if individuals and small groups don't start out being preferentially concerned with their own and their friends' material interests, nobody can handle that kind of responsibility long-term. And this is doubly true when the possible rewards are as great as they are today, and when everyone is raised to believe that those who end up at the top are "better", and that they "matter more" than those who don't make it there. (Of course, everyone is free to argue that they should get more resources for doing what they do. But the only way you should be able to get them is by convincing your colleagues and peers.)

Another, related development that really picked up steam during the Reagan and Thatcher years, and which has (also) received far less exposure than it should, is the rise of what's been called managerialism, which has contributed strongly negatively to the treatment of people inside the public and private tyrannies in which we all have to work to earn our living, no matter whether we are comfortable doing the kinds of things our employers ask us to do in exchange for a salary, job security, and so on. For instance, while we work, we are expected to take on a completely procedural attitude towards questions of correct behavior (e.g. allotting 6 minutes per "client" no matter what they need; tricking elderly people into subscribing to expensive services they'll never use because this gets you commission or bonuses; or treating our own health as secondary to achieving performance targets so we don’t get fired). All of these expectations follow from and reinforce the false notion that moral questions shouldn't be asked while working, and that 'right behavior' is a function of following procedure (and your superior’s orders). Over time, this dulls our sense of right and wrong, because while most people will initially object to this, most of the time they don’t successfully organize to change them (back). Over time such pragmatic acceptance leads either to rationalization and denial of the moral aspects and consequences of those actions ("it's legal" / "it's the rules" / "superior's orders"), or people become depressed or resign, to be replaced by people who never knew the old rules, or who are willing to live by the new ones. Which sums up a large part of what's been going on the past few decades.

And when you apply this same "rules are the rules" and "agreed is agreed" mentality to politics and economic policy, while also having been taught nonsense like how "you're always supposed to pay your debts" (and you're never supposed to "live beyond your means"), many people will in fact engage in victim-blaming*** (including of themselves), rather than asking why the system was set up in such a way, and what we can do to change this.

So how to escape this way of thinking, and stop treating people differently based on our judgment of their value? On the personal level, that question's relatively easy. Or well, not so easy, because relearning takes time, and if it was easy, I wouldn't need to write about it. But at least there is a way out, and our behavior is under our control. As to institutional and political change -- for that I'd refer you to my other essays, especially the ones on money and careerism, and those on marxism, especially these two books.

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** And by pushing individualism, and so on, in university and through the entertainment media.

*** And note that victim-blaming is yet another example of bureaucratic reasoning -- not caring that people are suffering by telling yourself they earned it by (not) doing whatever it was they did that you think they shouldn't have.


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