Truthout - June 9, 2020
As a renewed Black Lives Matter uprising fills the streets following a spate of high-profile police murders, the state-sanctioned murder of Black people continues on other fronts as well, including public health and economic injustice. In addition to protesting the widespread killing of Black people by police, activists have called attention to the systematic abandonment of Black communities as a function of both white supremacy and neoliberal capitalism. While some mainstream voices have focused on condemning the looting happening in the streets, many activists have called attention to the much larger-scale looting perpetrated by neoliberal capitalism against marginalized communities.
In this historical moment, the pandemic of racist violence cannot be separated from the violence imposed by neoliberal capitalism. The walls and cement barriers now surrounding Trump’s White House signify both the infectious ruthlessness that produces police violence at home and abroad and the war waged on those populations viewed as disposable. The paramilitary forces attacking peaceful demonstrators in the streets are inextricably related to those economic forces driving neoliberal capitalism and the politics of racial sorting, spiraling poverty and soaring inequality. These rapacious economic structures extend from a predatory financial sector to big corporations that produce massive misery, engage in unchecked exploitation, plunder the public sector, and concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a ruling elite.
The raging coronavirus pandemic and the pandemic of racist violence have pulled the curtain away from the brutality and horror of neoliberalism’s individualizing of the social, which states that all social and political problems are solely a matter of individual fate and choice. This reduction of politics to personal referents is a duplicitous attempt to hide the systemic nature of massive racial and economic inequities.
The crisis has shattered the myth that each of us is defined exclusively by our self-interest and as individuals are solely responsible for the problems we face. It has also made clear the false assertion that we should look to either neoliberalism or the rich to solve the deeply rooted problems that have become evident in this moment of multiple pandemics.
Such myths have completely collapsed under the Trump regime as it becomes obvious during the pandemic that the shortages in crucial medical equipment, lack of testing, lack of public investments, and failed public health services, are largely due to right-wing neoliberal measures and regressive tax policies that have drained resources from health care systems, public goods, and other vital social institutions. The pandemic has torn away the cover of a neoliberal economic system marked by what Thomas Piketty calls “the violence of social inequality.” Inequality is a toxin that destroys lives, democratic institutions and civic culture and is normalized through a pandemic pedagogy produced by a right-wing media culture that has become a poisonous sounding board for the rich and powerful.
In the midst of Trump’s attempt to politicize the COVID-19 pandemic and militarize the protests against police violence, a new and oppositional vision of the U.S. is developing. In this vision, it has become clear that fascism begins with the language of dehumanization, massive inequities in economic and racial justice, and the proliferation of the accessories of war on the part of the Trump administration to suppress dissent, beat journalists and assault peaceful protesters. What is being opposed in the streets and elsewhere by the current generation of diverse activists is Trump’s architecture of predatory neoliberal capitalism as an updated version of fascist politics.
These oppositional voices emerging in the midst of various pandemics are also calling for a restructuring of all the fundamental systemic structures of society that are rooted in forms of economic, racial and social injustice. In this struggle, the opposition to systemic inequality is both central to the call for racial justice and a crucial element in the larger struggle to build a mass movement necessary to demolish neoliberal capitalism, eradicate police violence, dismantle institutional racism and construct a democratic socialist society. This is not just a struggle for unity, as the mainstream press attempts to suggest with its images of protesters and cops hugging each other or joining arms: It is a fight for justice. Unity doesn’t pay the rent, provide jobs, ensure a universal basic income, or address the soaring economic collapse that will leave millions without health care, food or any vestige of economic security.
Neoliberal pedagogy reproduces the myth that economic prosperity has nothing to do with economic justice, and that increasing levels of inequality and the concentration of wealth in few hands will produce prosperity and increased levels of social mobility. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, this narrative appears not only false, but also shockingly cruel and heartless. As the social is individualized, it becomes more difficult to translate private issues into systemic considerations. One consequence is that inequality becomes normalized and the pandemic crisis is isolated from the political, economic, social and cultural conditions that fuel it. The coronavirus pandemic has made clear the false and dangerous neoliberal notion that all problems are reduced to matters of individual responsibility and that cost-benefit schemes should be prioritized over addressing human needs and saving lives. In this instance, individual responsibility is turned against society, frozen in the mutually informing registers of self-absorption and selfishness. Rather than fulfilling its democratic capacities when combined with feelings of compassion and solidarity, it is marooned in the suffocating logic of self-interest. The underlying cruelty of this ideology plays out in the magnitude of the disparity of effects produced by the pandemic and how they bear down on vulnerable groups. As Judith Butler observes:
For those who are homeless or unemployed, the economic forecast could not look bleaker. Without a working and equitable health care system, the affirmation of health care as a public good and a mandate of government, the unemployed are left to scramble for alternatives to avoid falling ill and dying for lack of care. This is the stunning cruelty of the U.S. that shocks large portions of the world. Many workers are not just temporarily out of work, but are registering the collapse of their work worlds, the prospect of no paycheck, homelessness, a pervasive sense of being abandoned by the society to which they should rightly belong.
Challenging the Language of Neoliberal Fascism
The pedagogical and ethical challenge here is to view inequality as part of a broader and more comprehensive politics that can only be understood both historically and relationally in terms of its connections to the central ethos and dynamics of neoliberal capitalism. This would include connecting inequality to the attack on the welfare state, unions, workers, climate change denial, deregulation, runaway privatization, crass selfishness and the defunding of public goods. It would also point to the rise of right-wing populism and fascist politics as part of the same political process of the working of finance capital and its ongoing machineries of exploitation, exclusion, class divisions, social death and racial cleansing. In the midst of the pandemic crisis, the health of the nation was replaced by a discourse that focused on the health of the economy and the strength of the stock market. Trump attempts to empty politics with this type of discourse, which functions to camouflage and erase his bumbling and incompetent response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Moreover, Trump’s language of political opportunism and militarism, along with his farcical press conferences, are egregious responses to massive protests calling for racial justice. Even worse, his staged photo op in front of St. John’s church holding a Bible aloft echoes a history one associates with the Ku Klux Klan and images right out of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 racist film, The Birth of a Nation.
In an equally menacing register, Trump exhibits with increasing frequency what the legendary veteran journalist Bill Moyers refers to, citing 98-year-old historian Bernie Weisberger, as “pretty undisguised fascism.” In the White House’s militarized world of lawlessness, Trump “has shown a willingness to shut down investigations into his conduct, offer pardons to those whose lawbreaking he approves of, and punish media organizations and social media platforms that are, in his mind, biased against him.” He has politicized the military, suppressed dissent, engaged in widespread corruption, promoted politics as a spectacle and flooded the public with an incessant stream of lies. In this ecosystem of tyranny, issues of rampant police brutality, inequality and heightened racism are viewed as “battle spaces” subject to draconian military operations. In Trump’s militarized politics of exclusion and disposability, violence becomes a weapon of class and racial warfare and the space of politics becomes dysfunctional, emptied of any real progressive substance. As public goods are privatized and corporations deregulated, social bonds and communal cohesion begin to crumble and the energies and passion of fascist politics are mobilized.
Of course, there is more at stake here than Trump’s lack of moral and political leadership. There is also the needless loss of lives due to the dearth of a national policy capable of providing hospital beds, funding health facilities, expanding (rather than disbanding) a pandemic task force, and taking the advice of scientific experts rather than firing those who did not bend to Trump’s disregard for evidence and demand for sycophantic loyalty. What the pandemic reveals in brutally cruel terms is a racially and ageist rationale on the part of the Trump administration for prioritizing untenable levels of inequality while advancing the assumption that lives be measured and valued only in terms of economic output. In this equation and present in the concept of herd immunity, the elderly, immigrants, the poor and people of color, viewed as disposable, are considered unproductive and unworthy of the protections against the virus that the ruling elite have at their disposal. Judith Butler illuminates this point, though more cautiously than I would. She writes: “Because ‘the vulnerable’ are not deemed productive in the new quasi-Aryan community, they are not valued lives, and if they die, that is apparently acceptable, since they are not imagined as productive workers, but ‘drains’ on the economy. Although the herd immunity argument may not make this claim explicitly, it is there.”
Depoliticizing the discourse of economic inequality and its ruthless effects is a central project of neoliberalism — a project bolstered by forms of social and historical amnesia, the collapse of social conscience, and a struggle to narrow and control the stories that define a nation’s past and present. Under the Trump administration, record levels of inequality and rising volumes of poverty, misery and suffering are the price the administration is willing to endure in order to reward the ultra-rich and big corporations. As Liz Theoharis makes clear, that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration took a shockingly bold (yet revealing) step of rewarding the rich, once again, through the CARES Act, which was supposed to benefit those left financially adrift because of the economic fallout from the crisis. Under neoliberalism, an economic and racial crisis becomes a pretext for directing windfalls of money to Wall Street, the police, lobbyists and private insurance companies. As Theoharis observes:
“Since mid-March, the fortunes of the 600-plus billionaires in the United States have jumped by $434 billion, or 15%. In the CARES Act that Congress passed, legislators slipped in a tax break of $135 billion for 43,000 of the country’s wealthiest business owners. (And, of course, you need to add this to the unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the poor to the very rich that happened via the $1.5 trillion Trump tax cut of 2017.)”
In the age of the pandemic crisis, inequality is a plague normalized through the discourses of fear, unchecked individualism, the demonization of others, and the relentless investment in greed and self-interest. The furtherance of social and economic inequality and the expanding discourses of precarity, anxiety and fear have become central organizing principles of governance. This is a model of neoliberal governance that mimics totalitarian regimes of the past and looks to align itself with the leadership and racist and repressive ideologies of a number of currently hardline authoritarian governments that include Brazil, Hungary and Turkey, to more moderate anti-democratic societies such as the United Kingdom under Boris Johnson’s bumbling leadership. ...
Read full report at Truthout