BY RAINER SHEA
Neoliberalism emerged like a spectre; billed as an unavoidable step in the development of history, selling its policies as the routes towards growth and prosperity. But it survives by way of a destruction of all socially cohesive forces.
When you compare socialist countries like China, Cuba, Vietnam, and the DPRK with those of neoliberal countries like the United States and Britain, a particular factor stands out in how their developments have differed: the socialist countries have vastly more social cohesion than their counterparts do. By this, I mean they have a lack of serious political polarization and a relatively small amount of ethnic or class divides. In these countries, most people think favorably of the governing parties, racial and religious violence aren’t sanctioned by the state, and strong social safety nets and firm checks on private business keep inequality from becoming too pronounced. These places aren’t perfect, but they lack the deep rottenness that pervades neoliberal societies.
The goal of neoliberalism is to ensure that property is protected over all other facets of society. The ability to make profits is streamlined under neoliberalism, with social safety nets, democratic rights, and humanitarian or environmental concerns being disregarded if they stand in the way of the ultimate priority. The neoliberal philosophers who supported Pinochet clarified that they didn’t believe mass executions and torture delegitimize a regime that fulfills the goals of the market.
When the importance of profit usurps the importance of liberty, popular consensus, and social justice, most of society comes to live in alienation from their corporate-controlled government. A unified nation ceases to exist, with most people being either politically apathetic or entrenched in deep political and cultural divides. There’s a widespread sense of disconnect from the major institutions. Political literacy and material satisfaction become relegated to those within the higher classes, with the workers and the unemployed growing detached from the centers of power.
This deterioration of the popular intellect happens both because the system benefits from having a proletariat which is too overworked to engage in politics, and because media and education under neoliberalism naturally discourage class conscious thought. When you’re constantly working and struggling to keep your livelihood afloat, you have little time and energy to pay attention to politics. And what you’ll get from the most accessible media sources reinforces the ruling class worldview that’s promoted by bourgeois academia.
This dynamic of the exploited class being deprived of the education they need to overthrow their exploiters is of course nothing new. But neoliberalism is so uniquely good at making those in the exploited class fragmented, isolated, and divorced from class consciousness that during its almost half-century of global dominance, it’s managed to continuously increase wealth inequality without provoking revolt or meaningful opposition in most places.
Instead, neoliberalism has made itself appear to many like an unavoidable step in the development of history, selling its policies as the routes towards growth and prosperity. The intelligentsia of both the mainstream right and “left” have embraced this paradigm of privatization, austerity, and expanded corporate monopolies. The bipartisan love for neoliberalism is best reflected in the fact that liberals and conservatives have consistently shared the desire to impose a corporatist system onto regime change target countries like Venezuela and Bolivia, the latter of which is currently being turned into a new version of the Pinochet regime through the machinations of U.S./NATO imperialism.
Even in the United States in 2020, where half the country can be considered poor and household debt is at a record high, the vast majority of people aren’t doing anything to defy the system. And the constricting nature of neoliberalism explains why so few of them are joining socialist groups, carrying out civil disobedience, or working to educate themselves about proletarian revolutionary theory. It’s not just that their country’s traditional anti-capitalist organizing engines have been devastated, though the decline of America’s unions and the marginalization of its communists have contributed greatly to the American people’s apathy. It’s that in a neoliberal society, all the facets of everyday life make it convenient not to seek out developing revolutionary consciousness.
When average worker productivity in the U.S. has increased by over 70% since 1970 while average wages have effectively dropped throughout this time, most people naturally put work and financial management over politics. When these efforts to maintain access to basic living arrangements have driven most Americans into thousands of dollars of credit card debt, the more money a working class person tries to save the worse their situation tends to get. If you fall too far behind, you’re not just penalized by exponential debt. You also experience the criminalization of poverty, where something like a broken taillight or a miscarriage of justice by a classist court system can get you fined or incarcerated.
The shrinking of much of the proletarian consciousness to apolitical survival mode is one part of how neoliberalism’s architects have socially engineered the populace. It’s intertwined with another social behavior that’s been instilled by neoliberalism, which is a mentality of intense competition. In his article “What Kind Of Thing Is ‘Neoliberalism’?” Jeremy Gilbert observes that “neoliberalism, from the moment of its inception, advocates a programme of deliberate intervention by government in order to encourage particular types of entrepreneurial, competitive and commercial behaviour in its citizens.”
Amid this environment that encourages people to trample on those who lose out under capitalism, it’s no wonder why large numbers of Americans-including ones in the lower classes-tend to express in surveys that they feel the poor are to blame for their poverty. There’s a cultural obsession with success that can cause one to resent those not perceived to be contributing enough wealth, a resentment that one is especially susceptible to if they’re experiencing scarcity themselves and want to blame those who supposedly aren’t doing their share of the work.
So suspicion, hostility, and fear are the main attitudes that the different facets of society express towards each other under neoliberalism, with community and solidarity not being nurtured by the centers of culture. Alienation, both in terms of people’s labor and in terms of people’s social relations, is what prevails.
Of course, at a certain point people start to act against the system. Many millions throughout France, Chile, Ecuador, Iraq, Lebanon, Haiti, Honduras, and Hong Kong have protested in the last year because they’re angry at how bad social inequality has gotten under neoliberalism. (Note: I mention Hong Kong’s protests not because I support the fascist movement they represent, but because neoliberalism helped provoke them.) In January, a similar outbreak of class anger happened in the U.S., where over a thousand poor and working class New Yorkers stormed the subway to demand free public transit and an end to the abusive presence of subway police.
However, without the right guidance, these kinds of movements can become co-opted by the ruling class or be ineffective at achieving their goals. U.S. imperialist interests have turned the Lebanon protests into a weapon against Hezbollah and turned the Hong Kong protests into a weapon against the Communist Party of China. And without an analysis about imperialism or a consensus around the goal of socialist revolution, populist protest movements don’t have the tools to upturn the power structure. They lack a coherent plan for the future, mainly serving to be reactive. This is what happened to Occupy Wall Street.
And in any case, bourgeois propagandists will try to undermine class struggles by appealing to reactionary sentiments and sowing further division among the people. The white supremacist Tomi Lahren said on Fox News in response to the recent subway protest: “Last Friday night, a group who calls themselves ‘Decolonize This Place’ called on New York City area communities to join them as they fucked shit up. So what are they so enraged about? They don’t think they should have to pay the fare—of get this—$2.75 cents. And they don’t want 500 new officers hired to police their indecent and unlawful behavior on and around the city transit system.” By portraying the city government’s daily tax on the poor as trivial and portraying the protesters as unreasonable, Lahren was trying to keep her audience alienated from people whose class grievances they could potentially sympathize with. It was also important for her to encourage solidarity with police officers.
We can’t make such propaganda effective by failing to follow up events like the subway protest with a larger organizational effort.
The steps towards creating a new society run through the methods that were used by Lenin, Mao, and the other architects of cohesive socialist societies. These methods are build the revolutionary vanguard, defeat the bourgeois power structure, and construct a proletarian-run democracy that makes social equality its focus.