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Understanding Neoliberalism Is Key to Building a Global Struggle for Economic Justice

The debate between Cornel West and Ta-Nehesi Coates revealed a larger need for clarity in media and political movements about what neoliberalism is, and how it manifests.

When Cornel West called out Ta-Nehisi Coates for representing the “neoliberal wing” of the black freedom struggle “that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fightback invisible” in The Guardian at the end of 2017, his essay received a fair amount of backlash. While some called his actions divisive, still others claimed the crux of his argument—that Coates “narrow racial tribalism and myopic political neoliberalism has no place for keeping track of Wall street greed, US imperial crimes or black elite indifference to poverty” —was flat-out wrong. West claims that Coates benefited from “a black neoliberal president” whose black respectability “‘opened a market’ for a new wave of black pundits, intellectuals, writers and journalists.”

A Washington Post column by Walter Hatch accused West of sloppiness, arguing that he was irresponsibly conflating the political philosophy of American liberalism with the economic one of neoliberalism. The entire episode revealed a larger need for clarity in media and political movements about what neoliberalism is, and how it manifests.

While confusingly close to the term liberalism—which has meant drastically different things throughout history, but currently refers to a left-of-center political philosophy often associated in the U.S. with the Democratic party—neoliberalism is an economic philosophy. It appears in theory, policy, and political rhetoric, with most tracing its emergence back to economists at the University of Chicago in the 1970s and 80s. What makes neoliberalism distinct is its literal interpretation of laissez faire economics—seeking to liberate markets from any and all forms of government regulation.

Neoliberalism is a radical approach to free market capitalism which imagines that every human interaction should be dictated by its profitability. It is marked by a massive divestment from social welfare—ensuring that programs like public education, healthcare, public housing, and others are either privatized for profit, or abandoned altogether. It also looks like an intense commitment to deregulation—lifting any restrictions on the flow of capital, to the point that the government serves no longer as a support system for its people, but instead as a shelter for the free market and its benefactors.

In his article for the Post, Hatch claims West was wrong for calling Obama a neoliberal—citing some of Obama’s well-known liberal policies, like modestly raising taxes on the rich, and using public funds to subsidize health care within the marketplace. He omits that Obama also executed the largest act of corporate welfare in U.S. history, bailing out the “Too-Big-to-Fail” banks that caused the housing market crash—in which Black families in the US lost half of their wealth. Instead of using government funds to protect the cheated poor, Obama used them to insure the market, generating historic bonuses for the CEOs of the very institutions responsible for the recession.

Hatch also calls West’s linking of militarism with neoliberalism inaccurate, zeroing in on his reference to Palestine:

…[West] suggested that neoliberals condone the “Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.” They don’t. Neoliberals focus on economic policy, and—if they were to wander into a security debate over checkpoints—would be expected to oppose restrictions on the free movement of people, just as they would oppose restrictions on the free movement of capital.

Here, Hatch misunderstands a core component of West’s original critique: that militarism has long been the primary mechanism for enforcing the free market.

In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey uses the current militarization of the Mexico-U.S. border as a case study in how protection of the free market dictates militarization. The border between Mexico and the U.S., he notes, had been a lax boundary at other moments in time. It was in the wake of a series of neoliberal reforms, culminating in the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993, that the border became hyper-militarized, and a renewed preoccupation with “illegal immigration” mushroomed into mainstream discourse.

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In order for NAFTA to be profitable, cheap labor had to be contained within Mexico, away from the consumer market in the U.S. That is, in order for free trade to benefit the plutocrats, workers and consumers had to be isolated—through military force—in their various nation states. The deportation machine created by the Obama administration—which removed a record-shattering 2.4 million undocumented people from the US during his eight year tenure—is a direct descendent of this same set of practices.

Neoliberalism is not concerned with the free movement of people, but of profit. It’s greatest irony is that it often requires the extreme restricting of government, of workers, and of oppressed people, in order to ensure that the market is the only thing experiencing liberation. This reality lives in the deportation of African refugees in occupied Palestine, the Mexican government’s own criminalizing of migrants from central America, and the strategic displacement of indigenous people within the U.S. West was right to name these shifts as international, implicating the U.S. in their ubiquity.

Resisting the pull of the free market, militarism, and U.S. empire 

The exchange between Coates and West spurred Opal Tometi and Naomi Klein to coauthor their own brilliant piece reminding us all that, personal beefs aside, our collective focus as members of grassroots movements must be to resist the reach of U.S. empire on all fronts. While pointing out that “West’s piece was flawed” accusing Coates “of silence on some subjects where he has, in fact, been vocal (like the financial sector’s role in entrenching Black poverty)” their primary assertion, expanding off West’s original critique, is that any challenge to neoliberalism and the sanctity of the free market must be international in scope, naming the interlinking structures that drive oppression on a global scale.

Militarization is a key facet of free market capitalism, and of neoliberalism specifically. To imagine neoliberals as unconcerned with police, prisons, borders, and checkpoints—even as the neoliberal machine invests trillions into the security required to protect its own amassing of wealth—is to misconstrue the goal of militarism entirely, and the ways police, prisons, and the military work together to shield the property and ensure the power of the global elite.

Margaret Thatcher—former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and one of neoliberalism’s primary architects—famously said of the philosophy she sought to impose on her nation: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and their families.” She meant to dismantle the notion of a social structure responsible for the welfare of the many, and to replace it with a constellation of individuals who work, live, and compete with one another in isolation—freeing up the government to oversee the market, rather than being obligated to care for its people.

How do we—taking a cue from West, Klein, and Tometi—resist the enterprise of neoliberalism as a part of the global fight against empire? Challenging some of the most basic assumptions and guiding principles of our social structures—and understanding their impacts across nations and borders—is a place to start:

Full support for social services:  We must resist the slashing and privatizing of social programs, and demand not only that there be support for the public sector, but that its expanse be unprecedented. Guaranteed minimum income, free healthcare—including mental healthcare, housing for all, free and equitably-funded public education from preschool to grad school, are all examples of programs that have never existed on a large scale in the U.S., but which are the basic building blocks of a healthy democracy.

Defunding militarization:  It is no coincidence that the very officials, agencies, and political parties who claim they have no funds to support social welfare are always funding new prisons and detention centers, and can always find money for deportation and military intervention. Police, prisons, and the military are tools for enforcing current power structures, protecting the interests and property of the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Where will the resources to support a robust public sector come from? In part through the defunding and dismantling of the militarized bodies that serve solely to harm the oppressed, relying on violence across the planet to ensure the free flow of capital.

Reimagining the collective good:  Instead of imagining our society as a constellation of individuals who either sink or swim under the free market, we must re-envision ourselves as part of an interconnected collective, in which we all benefit when everyone gets the things they need. This notion of collectivism must necessarily extend beyond national borders, seeing all people on our planet as deserving of the resources they require to thrive. We must learn to go with less if it can guarantee more for our neighbors, understanding that safety comes when everyone is fed, clothed, and housed, and we are no longer forced to compete with one another for basic resources. This simple notion flies in the face of almost every principle of the free market, and demands a mass redistribution of resources across our society–and our world–one that is only possible when we believe that all benefit from the sharing of profit and power.

West’s call out initiated a rare discussion of neoliberalism and U.S. imperialism in mainstream discourse. Klein and Tometi’s engagement with it reminded us not to defame individuals, but commit to resisting empire–requiring internationalist perspective and strategy. The ball is in our court to forge global struggles that connect the dots between militarization, economic disparity, and free market capitalism.

Our aim must finally be to build movements that cross borders, bridge communities, and fight for a mass redistribution of resources–reshaping the very world in which we live.

Benji Hart is a Black, queer, femme artist and educator currently living in Chicago. They are the writer behind the blog Radical Faggot.