On Personal Responsibility and Careerism
Both David Harvey and Noam Chomsky have already done a lot to analyze and explain the rise of neoliberalism. Both agree that it should primarily be understood as a political project, aimed at discouraging, and keeping 'ordinary' people from participating in politics, after the events of the 1960s.* But where Harvey's account of the start of the counterrevolution only includes the conservative response, Chomsky points out that elite liberals were just as disturbed by what they termed "an excess of democracy". He notes, describing the Trilateral Commission's The Crisis of Democracy:
This is a consensus view of the liberal internationalists and the three industrial democracies. They—in their consensus—they concluded that a major problem is what they called, their words, “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.
We now are well over four decades down the road. And on the whole, this two-pronged attack seems to have been pretty successful, given how overworked people are, how expensive it is to live, how little people still seem to demand of their politicians and parties, and how widely the neoliberal consensus is shared, and how strongly today's political parties agree on what politics is and should be about. As such, I'd here like to explore the question how they did it, and how today's political apathy -- especially of the educated -- fits in. Now, I obviously won't be providing a complete account here, as there are way too many moving parts (including a lot of physical violence and firings). But I do hope that this post will provide food for thought, and suggest a few new avenues to explore.
One of the most visible political and social developments of the past decades is the rise of 'identity politics'. While this term means rather different things to different people, what I mean by it is the trends to either organize and think about issues along identity lines on the one hand, and the narrowing of politics to social and cultural issues while ignoring, and often actively refusing to fight for economic issues and against institutionalized oppression. A recent example of this is the Women's March, which was organized after certain vulgar and sexist remarks Donald Trump made in 2005 received broad US media coverage. Leaving aside questions like why the media and pundits chose to focus their attention on this issue in particular, I'd like to point out two things. Firstly, that the media never really acknowledged that Trump's behavior is still pretty commonplace, especially outside (but also inside) upper-middle-class circles. Second, that hardly any mainstream commentators talked about or focused attention on the other issues (still) facing women today, particularly those related to institutionalized oppression and economic inequality: aside from the racial issues Alexander points to, things like wage drops in professions women enter, lack of jobs, job insecurity, living paycheck to paycheck, having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, and so on. And that none of these issues has become a mainstream priority since.
Luckily, however, ignoring the economic and institutional aspects and drivers of social justice issues is learned behavior, and people have to be actively pitted against one another, incentivized, or taught to think that these issues should not or cannot be addressed politically. So if you look through history, you can find lots of 'hopeful' instances of elites having to do so, even in a country like the US, with its long history of pervasive racism and lower-class oppression. By the mid-1930s, for instance, the CIO had forged cross-racial alliances in a number of key industries, both to push for improvements to living and working conditions, and to prevent employers from pitting workers against each other. They were helped in this by the institution of the wartime command economy, which sharply increased the demand for labor, while the simultaneous mobilization meant fewer people would be available to work in the factories. And of course after the war, demand for labor would pretty remain high for a few decades, partly because the western economies had been demolished by the war, partly because the GI Bill allowed many to go to university after serving abroad in the military in one of the US's many wars, both of which trends shrunk the labor pool. At the same time, entire new industries developed (among them, the suburbanization of America), and East-Asian countries had yet to start industrializing. As a result, more black and brown people than ever finally got a chance at a relatively prosperous life, job security, and decent wages.
Business and political elites of course were quite bothered by these developments, and so they constantly tried to create wedges, and to undermine worker organization in any way they could (including decades of bipartisan red-baiting). But given their lack of alternatives, they were relatively constrained in what they could do at least until the rise of the 'tripolar world', and the invention of containerization. Once Japan and Western Europe had recovered economically, elites could start the War on Drugs, and the still ongoing, now 40-year effort to demolish the welfare state via tax cuts and subsidies for corporations and the rich (with high-tech industry and war always being safe from spending cuts), in combination with off-shoring, privatizations, tax hikes (incl. VAT) and social spending cuts for the rest of society.
Because they did this (and much else besides, such as lots of fear-mongering of the type described here), it seems fair to say that the promotion of identity politics is in substantial part a consequence of a concerted (neoliberal) effort by business, political and media elites to sow division, and to depoliticize economic policy-making by turning over lots of state functions, and privatizing lots of public goods, to private control, and 'expert' policy-making bodies.
Now, the fact that they would strive towards such goals shouldn't come as much of a surprise. What should, is how well they succeeded, given that more people have college degrees today, than at point time in history. Why did most of them come to accept these developments (especially given that pretty much none of these statements withstand close scrutiny).
Part of the answer is violence of various kinds. Think of the Red Scare, and state support for worker repression, such as Reagan's promise not to enforce OSHA (and EPA) standards, and not to prosecute employers for engaging in illegal strike-breaking activities (though efforts to sideline blue-collar unions predate Reagan, and were bipartisan, per Listen, Liberal). Another part of it that was certainly important, but which is difficult to quantify is the destruction and domestication of grassroots movements and organizations, alternative news sources, labor presses, and so on. Yet another, largely unacknowledged driver was the rise of managerial capitalism, following hot on the heels of that wave of college-educated professionals entering the job market, looking for jobs that fit with their business training, and their status as members of the educated class. This led to a much larger group of assertive, politically active folks benefiting from tax cuts for higher income brackets, which made those politically viable, even as the status and income differences undermined solidarity.
On the indoctrination of the young and solidarity
The aspect I want to focus on here, however, is one that to my knowledge has received very little direct attention. Namely, the role of the democratization of tertiary education. This has had two main effects.
The first is that a much larger percentage of the population than (ever) before -- from which would be drawn those who get to wield institutional power, in part thanks to the rise of managerial capitalism -- would be spending years in institutions that taught and teach us things 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" (all of which is propaganda). And more broadly, to provide classes in which the overwhelming majority of textbooks and papers that get included in the curriculum are written by people who buy into the following Lockean liberal premises. 1., that property rights are just as foundational as freedom of speech and 'liberty', and "absolute" (except when property isn't 'sufficiently exploited', or when the current owners aren't rich and/or white, at which point one may claim it by "mixing one's labor with the soil", etc.). 2., various anti-egalitarian/meritocratic beliefs about the superiority of white, 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 demographic effect was that this much larger percentage of the population also spends a huge part of their formative years inside a bureaucratic system that strongly encourages us to
obey respect the authority and expertise of those with credentials and institutional power over you (mainly teachers and textbook authors). This means that anyone with a degree will have spent at least two decades doing lots of tasks regardless of whether they seem useful to them, studying subjects and learning skills they may or may not enjoy, while the main focus isn't on learning, but proving oneself to teachers, and on earning rewards (including class and grade progression), while the structure inculcates the notion that what one (individually) earns is what one deserves.
And this is completely antithetical to solidarity, intrinsic motivation, self-confidence, a focus on one's own values, and independent thought. And it seems telling that since then, many more voters would come to embrace fiscally conservative, economically liberal policy as reasonable and desirable (though it's no accident that doing so has been good for them personally, given that many of these credentialed folks -- who are disproportionately politically active, and who aspire or belong to the same class as the political, media and business elites -- earn well above the median income).
Given that the above developments led to a far larger percentage of the active voting public than ever looking at the world through the same lens, and counting themselves among the 'educated', 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 bedside manner (likability, affability, etc.), while becoming progressively quieter on economic issues, even as the legislation, treaties and privatizations they pushed through, plus the corporate efforts to lower wages and increase work hours and insecurity, both contributed to the deterioration of the quality of life and increasing costs of living of the bottom 80-90%. In this way, the "center-left" bears great responsibility for creating the context of anger, hopelessness and despair in which violence and radicalization continue to fester, with dire consequences for both minorities and the impoverished.
More on "meritocracy" and bureaucracy
As we're probably all aware, meritocracy is the organizing principle of the educated -- and especially elite liberals and social democrats. Yet as I've talked about elsewhere, metrics of what makes someone "better" (and "worse") vary wildly, and people are quite capable of coming up with the most banal of "reasons" as to why some are better than others (including skin and hair color). Historically, the most widespread morally arbitrary metric has been sex. Others, equally problematic, are skin color, educational attainment, religious affiliation, and so on -- the possibilities are endless. (Of course, you can certainly try to make these 'metrics of merit' more robust, and there are lots of institutions that aspire to do just that. But because of the close correlation between institutional power and wealth, this will never have much real-world impact, and I don't see how this can change until we move beyond our uncritical admiration for the principle -- incumbents will always have too much of a stake in maintenance of inequality.)
This practice of valuing people differently, and hearing/ignoring their contributions or needs simply because they have or lack certain characteristics, might be termed moral essentialism. Historically, obviously, it's mostly been used to justify the silencing of so-called "minorities" and "one's lessers". But more recently we've starting seeing people who belong to groups who are (or were previously) marginalized becoming more successful at using the same methods to create space and platforms for themselves and their perspectives, and in silencing people who "aren't/weren't" marginalized (though this is mostly only true in degree, and a lot of this amounts to punching sideways). But rather than to blame them for becoming better at playing the game, I would like to invoke bell hooks, who notes (in Teaching to Transgress) that the fact that essentialist tactics and reasoning are now being employed by those 'who shouldn't' should first and foremost be understood as an indictment of the structures we live in, and as a testament to its continued power over us (in that we're still using, as Audre Lorde put it, the master's tools). So we all need to get away from these unhealthy 'power over' dynamics, which reaffirm the notion that only the credentialed (whether that credential is a diploma, or supposed special insight due to group membership) may speak.
That is, essentialism is just a (hegemonic) form of bureaucratic thinking, which works because we have all learned to accept that others' having or lacking certain characteristics "matters" enough that we may treat others' needs or contributions as having less weight, and to grant or deny them access to goods and services. And the more inured we are to that thought, the more likely it is for us to experience anger or disgust while thinking about equality; which in turn increases the likelihood that people will feel free to use violence, and exclusion, to create a world in which (only) deserving people enjoy material prosperity, and superior access to it.
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 modern corporation --, while a large part of what any bureaucracy does is coming up with procedures and tests to see whether people "qualify" for something or other (whether jobs, promotions, raises, subsidies, insurance payouts, or warranty claims). Now to be clear, I wholly agree that we must evaluate people's behavior, and I in no way believe that we should use lotteries to decide who does which job, and who gets what, etc., and that there is a place for bureaucracies, and bureaucratic thinking. My point is that it is highly problematic to have those at the top of the "ladder" being those to determine who gets what, and who gets to climb the ladder, and under which circumstances -- what hoops you have to jump through to get ahead. Because even when individuals and small groups don't start out being preferentially concerned with their own and their friends' material interests, they simply cannot handle that responsibility long-term. This is doubly true when the possible rewards are so great, and when everyone is raised to believe that those who end up at the top are "better" and "matter more" than those who don't. (Of course, everyone is free to argue that they require more resources than others to be able to exercise their function -- whether on the job or off it. But the only way they should be able to get it is by convincing their colleagues and peers.)
Another, related development that really picked up steam during the Reagan and Thatcher years, which (also) receives far less exposure than it should, is the rise of what's been called managerial capitalism, and the worsening treatment of people inside the public and private tyrannies in which we have to work to earn our living. This, coupled with the loss of employee rights, job security (not least because treaties like NAFTA makes offshoring threats much easier, the on-lining of East-Asia as the world's manufacturing center, the integration of Eastern Europe), the dual income household, student and mortgage debt peonage, has created a society in which more and more people spend increasingly long hours trying to remain employed, and in the good graces of layers of superiors. All of these changes have contributed to a generalized fear culture, in which there is very little room for asking critical questions, both of your employer, and of yourself. Questions such as whether we feel comfortable with the kinds of things our employers are asking us to do in exchange for the salary and employment they give us, etc.. And the system encourages us to take on a procedural attitude to right behavior (e.g. allotting 6 minutes per "client" no matter what they need, signing up the elderly for services they'll never use in exchange for commission/bonuses, or denying 15% of insurance claims purely because the management has decided on that rule). All of this teaches people to ignore morality, and reduce 'right behavior' to questions of procedure (and law). Over time, this dulls our sense of right and wrong, because while most people will initially object to such rule changes, most of the time they'll fail to revert them, which contributes to apathy. Over time this leads either to rationalization and denial of the moral aspects and consequences of our behavior ("it's legal" / "it's the rules" / "superior's orders", so it's okay), or (if we can't), we resign, and are replaced with people who never knew the old rules, or who are willing to live by them. At which point additional reforms can be pushed through, and so on.
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'), lots of people will engage in victim-blaming, rather than asking why the system was set up in such a way that selling enormous amounts of "liar's loans" could happen. (And note that victim-blaming is yet another example of bureaucratic reasoning -- thinking people's issues don't matter simply because they've done something you think they shouldn't have done or 'accepted'.)
So how to get out? Luckily, that one's easy. Or well, not so easy, because unlearning this takes time. But at least there is a way out. Either way, I hope this post was structured well enough to keep readers engaged. :) Thank you for reading, and as always, I appreciate any feedback, thoughts, and questions this raises.
* They've done so in many ways that interlock and -act, including by raising the tuition and related fees, in part through forcing people to work longer days to survive, in part by pushing home-ownership, in part by contributing to the rise of managerial capitalism and Bullshit Jobs.