by Mark Lewis Taylor
The U.S. “Left” often invokes the notion of “neoliberalism” to name the brutal structures of politics and economy that it resists today. It is right to do so, but I think our political movements need to give it more clarity. Movements across Latin America have long taught this “neoliberalismo” in their communities, even using animation and graphic art to clarify what neoliberalism is. (photo at right from teleSUR net)
“Neoliberalism,” what many U.S. Americans often call “the free market” or “globalization” is the newest form (that’s the “neo-“ part) of political and economic rule privileging elites of Europe and the U.S. over the global order and their own poor and middle classes. Reached for comment, Dr. Johanna Fernández a historian of twentieth century U.S. history and African American history (Baruch College CUNY) stresses that neoliberalism “emerged in a new historical context, following the defeat of U.S. empire in Vietnam, anti-colonization wars in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and the freedom movements in the US. In response, the world’s rulers launched an offensive to re-establish their power.” She continued, “Their strategy was driven by austerity measures that eviscerated social safety nets and wages the world over, the expansion of institutions of social control, and the US reliance on authoritarian governments, hired guns, and U.S. covert operation to open-up new markets to capitalism.”
Many of us in the United States do not fear neoliberalism – not just because the word can be ambiguous, but because our lives are so enmeshed in it. It is so close it is hard to see. Too many of us are comfortable in it. Clinton is often taken as the “lesser evil” by those who circulate the fear of Trump today. But Clinton represents the banality of a U.S. imperial evil that needs to be brought into focus. It is the burden of this essay to stoke some healthy fear of the “Clintonian neoliberalism” that is Hillary Clinton’s tradition. When we awake to know and feel deeply the horror neoliberalism works, I do not see how we avoid sleeplessness.
Don’t be fooled by the “liberal” or “liberalism” terms. They cover a brutal political economy with a shiny gloss of references to “progress” or “democracy.” Like Hillary Clinton at her acceptance speech at the 2016 DNC convention, neoliberalism takes the stage of history dressed in white and intoning, over and again, “America is good.”
But neoliberalism is a system of domination so deeply entrenched, so brutal at times – both in the U.S. and abroad – that its maintenance requires enforcement by the U.S. military’s multiple major global command centers (Johnson, 121-122), orchestrating covert wars by Special Operations and enlistment of paramilitaries, as well as by direct military interventions (drones, bombing missions, sometimes troop deployments). Inside the U.S. neoliberal economics finds it necessary to build an expanding mass incarceration system and give wide discretion to police violence for controlling black, brown and poor life deemed “unruly.”
Especially organizers from communities of the poor, whether from radical black, Chicano and Latinx, American Indian, Puerto Rican, Asian and other radical groups, often become special targets of the state. Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier, whose cases for innocence are extremely strong, are just two of the many U.S. political prisoners produced by decades of repression by both Republican and Democrat regimes.
What I have been terming “Clintonian neoliberalism” is this political system as reinforced over the last twenty-five to thirty years, mainly from the period of Bill Clinton’s first presidency. He built upon and made stronger the conservative law- and-order agenda and “war on drugs” policies of Ronald Reagan so well traced in Michelle Alexander’s popular book, The New Jim Crow. As told by sociologist Loïc Wacquant in his book Punishing the Poor, Bill Clinton also more than accommodated Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s destruction of social services under a “Contract with America” agenda that insisted that the poor “shoulder more personal responsibility.”
What the poor got from Clinton’s and the Republicans” 1996 “Welfare reform act” was more dispossession. “Poor children suffering from disabilities . . . were excluded from welfare roles;” some “315,000 of them would lose all benefits in the six years following the passage of the law” (Wacquant, 91). The poor received also from Bill Clinton a crime bill in 1994, The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. It was more onerous than what the Republicans alone could have devised. President Barack Obama has done little or nothing to soften the harsh impact of the Clintonian neoliberalism that allied Democrats and Republicans in draconian policies that bonded this harsh criminal justice regime to an imperial war-making agenda. Obama has out-done George W. Bush in drone warfare and the proliferating of war abroad. He also has expanded and strengthened the U.S. surveillance state (Greenwald, 50). Bill Clinton, with Hillary Clinton’s at least occasional support, touted corporate America’s trail-blazing trade pact NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico), though she herself would take different and often contradictory positions later on the NAFTA agreement. NAFTA has been disastrous in invigorating drug cartel trading and violence in Mexico and in the U.S. (Mercille, 1642, and Paley) NAFTA has also been detrimental to the well being of labor in both countries.
If Hillary Clinton still shows herself negligent to embrace the Palestinian cause, to fight corporations to save the planet from environmental catastrophe, or to roll-back the trade agreements like the TPP that disadvantage labor at home and abroad – well, this is Hillary Clinton today, still representing Clintonian-neoliberalism and its class wars against working peoples and the poor.
The position I am staking out here is not just political advocacy. It is that, but also it is based on substantive analyses that have confirmed the moral and political bankruptcy of the neoliberal project that defines our present economic and political system.
Consider just the economic scholarship. The policies of “liberals” and “neoliberals” to build and reinforce a global order that accumulates by dispossessing the poor of the earth is clearly established by studies like those of economist William Tabb and even by a former World Bank executive Joseph Stiglitz. The global devastation parallels and often drives the impoverization of the U.S. poor, as established by over one-hundred scholars from nearly every background in the U.S who contributed to the 2015 Routledge Handbook of Poverty in the United States. When our U.S. elites lay waste to Baghdad and Central America, they also drive urban North Philly and rural America into poverty and repression. The process often works in reverse too, as James Baldwin (86) reminded when recalling the “grisly pattern,” as he called it: “what America is doing within her borders, she is doing around the world.”
Consider the documentation of neoliberalism’s dependence upon degrading prisons and harsh policing. Especially under Bill Clinton’s regime and his accommodation with Republicans’ law-and-order penchant, his neoliberalism became a more than just a crime policy. It became a form of governance. It became rule by mass incarceration and detention. This record is clearly established by such thinkers as legal scholar Michelle Alexander, social thinker Naomi Murakawa, and literary historian Dennis Childs. On the brutal social consequences of the politics of incarceration, see again Waquant’s study of neoliberalism as a mode of rule that creates social insecurity and punishes the poor.
Or consider neoliberalism’s penchant for war and empire-building. One can hardly do better than consult the work of one of the U.S. military’s own participants and scholars, Chalmers Johnson, in his book Sorrows of Empire. Or for a shorter read, see Tarik Ali’s “Short-Course History of U.S. Imperialism” (Ali, 255-89).
The key dynamic at work throughout this Clintonian neoliberalism is its smooth talk of cultural progress and democracy while sustaining political and economic projects that deepen the plight of the poor at home and abroad, leaving the poor subjugated to neoliberalism’s authoritarianism: mass incarceration, police violence, repression of dissent, its terrors of war and empire building, to the trauma of today’s refugees.
Trump’s appearance now on the U.S. mainland is an example of what Aimé Césaire termed the “terrific boomerang” of powerful nations’ own long practice of authoritarianism. It now blows back into the U.S as historian Chalmers Johnson put it in an earlier book, as winds from the storms of U.S. repression abroad. This authoritarianism at home is what Césaire wrote about in his Discourse on Colonialism (36): “ . . .one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers around the racks invent, refine, discuss.” We have already been awakened to this across the presidential regimes of George W. Bush and Barack Obama and long before, seeing the militarized police now on U.S. city streets that long have been operative in Latin America, South Africa, and in Palestine.
The violent shooting of U.S. police by former U.S. military personnel (the Dallas shooter a former Marine with time spent in Iraq, and the Baton Rouge shooter a member of the U.S. Army Reserve) are all too perfect examples of Césaire’s “boomerang effect.” In electoral politics Trump’s protofascism is a more intense boomerang effect, a specter at home of a structural violence the U.S. has long waged abroad.
This “terrific boomerang” is not so much the outcome of some divine or metaphysical payback (“what goes around comes around”). For Césaire, the society that allows their corporate and military elite to brutalize others in its name also dehumanizes itself. Césaire wrote of this boomeranging violence as the result of colonizers’ habits of brutality. The habits once thought to be limited abroad, or confined to the nation’s past history erupt ever anew with special force from within the colonizer’s own present-day society. He writes, “the colonizer, who in order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal, accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal” (Discourse, 41).
And so the dictatorial demagogues have reigned abroad for the USA with citizen compliance. These include strongmen like Manuel Noriega (in Panama), the Somozas (Nicaragua), the Duvaliers (Haiti), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), others like the Shah of Iran, or today’s ruling elite in Saudi Arabia. These regimes’ strongmen have all been allies of the U.S. corporate state. So too are the U.S. police and prison administrators and guards all deployed for the “strongman” role that leaves so many unsafe. As Dr. Chris Hinson argues in a fine study of today’s form of the police crisis: “Police, not black citizens, have been safest under President Obama’s tenure.”
On the eve of the Republican convention, it is under Obama’s neoliberal governance and ethos that an outrageous petition has this week been sent to the White House calling on it to list the “Black Lives Matter (BLM)” movement as a “terrorist organization.” Obama in the past has spoken approvingly and urged “understanding” of BLM concerns. So far though – and this petition issue is still developing – there has been from Obama’s administration no firm repudiation of so onerous a right-wing assault upon free speech and upon a people’s nonviolent movement that represents the best of the U.S. civil rights and liberation movements. Further, this is a dangerous assault on the kinds of political movements we need to build against neoliberalism, whether defended by Democrats or Republicans. The tragedy here, is that Barak Obama, the first Black president, has strategically deployed the values and language of the civil rights movement in his speeches throughout his presidency, but has refrained from upholding them concretely in ways that matter politically. That is classic “neoliberalism” at work.
Clinton herself also has been an orchestrator of brutal ruling regimes abroad. As U.S. Secretary of State under Obama, Clinton was instrumental in legitimizing the 2009 military coup that overthrew democratically elected Manuel Zelaya of Honduras. She has admitted to her role in her book, Hard Choices, though the story of her work in Honduras was largely edited out for the book’s second 2016 edition. What she helped legitimize for the Obama presidential regime was a military coup of repression in Honduras that has unleashed a tornado of violence there and in Central America today. That violence is now forcing countless new numbers of people into a trans-Mexican migration toward the U.S. The Trump-like roguery she legitimized was of course dressed up in the nice cultural language at which neoliberals are so adept. Her Vice Presidential pick, Tim Kaine, touts his time in violent Honduras as a life changing cultural and spiritual journey. But as NYU historian Greg Grandin emphasizes Kaine glosses the U.S.’s political role in devastating the country at that time in the 1980s (“Eat, Pray, Starve: What Tim Kaine Didn’t Learn During His Time in Honduras”) and is silent on Hillary Clinton’s own recent devastating role. Concerning post-Clinton Honduras today, historian Dana Frank summarizes the ugly truth, as quoted in an essay by Vijay Prashad, “The U.S. bears direct responsibility for the terrifying crisis in Honduras today, in which [President] Juan Orlando Hernandez’s U.S.-supported dictatorship runs roughshod over the rule of law, robs the public coffers blind, and allows security forces and death squads to kill human rights defenders and social justice activists with near-complete impunity.”
Hillary Clinton’s own record shows that Clintonian neoliberalism is partnered often with demagogic authoritarianism and the championing of military and police forces.
So how might we defeat it, and begin doing so now? There are real options for defeating Clintonian neoliberalism, and I explore some here.