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.
That was four decades ago. 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 little contemporary political parties disagree on what politics 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.
Identity politics as it is played by business and political elites
One of the most visible political and social developments of the past decades is the rise of 'identity politics', which tends to undermine solidarity. 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 lines of identity, or to narrow politics to fights over social and cultural issues, while ignoring, and often actively refusing to strive for economic justice, and combat institutionalized oppression (such as the "drug war", or Taft-Hartley). A recent example of this is the so-called Women's March, which was organized after remarks Donald Trump had made in 2005 received broad media coverage. Leaving aside questions like why the media and pundits chose to focus attention on this issue, 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 (though 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. To name a few: 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 for humanity, this kind of disinterest in or silence on economic and institutional aspects and drivers of social justice issues isn't normal, and it requires a lot of propaganda, socialization and disciplining. Bluntly put: on top of media and political support, it requires a fairly constant stream of violence, carrots and sticks, attempts to sow division and distrust, and so on, no matter how long the history of pervasive racism and lower-class oppression. To provide two regular examples: picking people with a different racial or ethnic background from the line workers to function as overseers or managers, and launching advertising campaigns to demonize people of color, and feed fear. Yet even in the far more racist and violent context of the early 20th century, by the mid-1930s, grassroots and union organizers still managed to forge a number of important cross-racial alliances in fights for improved living standards and working conditions prior to the enactment of the New Deal, which cemented their gains.
Business and political elites are of course always concerned by such developments (hence the later Powell Memo, and the Crisis of Democracy), and at the time, too, they put a great deal of effort into creating wedges, and undermining worker organization in any way they could, including lots of red-baiting, and punishing and firing whoever they could. But given their lack of alternatives, they were relatively constrained in what they could do.
That said, it's worth emphasizing that this vaunted post-war 'golden age' was largely made possible by unequal development and exclusion: by nationalism and the infrastructural destruction of most of the Western world, by women not being permitted to work once they married or became pregnant, and by colonialism and the maldevelopment and exploitation of the rest of the world. Moreover, even when they had the upper hand, pretty much as soon as the war was over, American unions would start evicting "overly radical" (and successful) organizers and unions, while refusing to make common cause with "unskilled" labor, and against bosses. As a result, as soon as the social and racial justice movements of the 1960s had been sufficiently undermined or destroyed by state (largely via COINTELPRO) and private-societal violence, elites could launch the next phase of their offensive, without much in the way of push-back from their citizens and from unions, who were unprepared for it. So, with women demanding that they be allowed to work as well as men, with Western Europe and Japan rebuilt, containerization having been invented, and East Asia starting to develop, elites could launch Prohibition 2.0: the War on Drugs.
The "Drug War" was the first of a three-pronged attack on the population, intended to sow division and fear, and to further marginalize the "unskilled" (largely colored) bottom 40% of the population, who would increasingly be terrorized, oppressed and criminalized, through policing, prosecution, killing and imprisonment for what is at bottom a public health and poverty/inequality issue (as the very different and much more humane response to the 'opioid crisis' -- fueled by big pharma and doctors -- illustrates -- even there too, the media stay silent about its socioeconomic drivers). It also communicated, indirectly, the power of the state vis-a-vis its citizens.
At the same time, the "oil crisis" gave them a means to inflate away worker purchasing power, while it also allowed them to start deregulating, privatizing and allowing and encouraging the offshoring of production, "necessitated" by "high labor costs". And from the late 1970s on, starting with the deregulation of banking, the start of a now 40-year public-private effort to deregulate the economy, to impoverish and disempower ordinary people and employees, to eviscerate the welfare state, while subsidizing corporate America. This started under Carter, took huge flight under Reagan, and would be escalated even further after the fall and dissolution of the Soviet Union. The second prong mainly involved tax cuts and subsidies for (high tech and military) corporations and the rich, tax subsidies for off-shoring, sale of public assets, defunding regulatory agencies like OSHA and the EPA, deliberate non-prosecution of strike-breakers, unending tuition hikes, permitting companies to buy up the competition while refusing to enforce extant antitrust laws. These developments greatly empowered big business and the affluent. The third prong involves offshoring, mergers and plant closures (or threats thereof), mass firings, forcing employees to work (unpaid) overtime, the rise of managerialism and the deliberate fostering of fear cultures at work, implementing more regressive taxation (incl. VAT), and social spending cuts -- which would undermine and impoverish the rest of society. Taken together, I'd call this a campaign of state and economic terrorism by another name.
Given that political, media and business elites tried to undermine grassroots organizing efforts in all of these ways, it seems fair to say that the rise of identity politics is in substantial part a consequence of this decades-long (neoliberal) effort to sow division,** to extract wealth by increasing people's cost of living, and to "depoliticize" economic policy-making by turning over lots of state functions to technocratic bodies, while privatizing others, and saying that these things should be left to "experts" or "the market" because efficiency concerns supposedly outweigh public control and robustness.
Now, the fact that elites would strive towards such goals shouldn't come as much of a surprise. What should come as a surprise is how well they succeeded, especially in light of the fact that more people have college degrees today than at any point in history. Why have most of them come to accept these developments, especially given that pretty much none of these statements withstand scrutiny, when education is what supposedly hones people's critical reading and thinking skills? (Especially people who self-identify as progressives?)
Part of the answer is the institutional violence of the kinds I've discussed above, which discourages organizing, fostered hopelessness, and forces people to work ever more hours to get by. Another that was certainly important, but which is difficult to quantify, is the domestication and/or destruction of grassroots movements and organizations, churches, unions, alternative news sources, labor presses, and so on. Another, indirect contributor I would mention is the role of the entertainment media, analyzed so aptly by Michael Parenti, which creates a constant stream of shows showing either people leading middle class lives, with no money worries, or about police or other government agencies solving (street) crimes.
On the indoctrination of the young and solidarity
The aspect I want to focus on here, however, is one that has received very little attention, especially in this context. Namely, the role of the expansion and democratization of tertiary education, and of the school system generally. This has had two main effects.
The first is that since World War 2, a much larger percentage of the population would be spending their formative years in institutions that would teach us "economic truths" 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 this is propaganda, because while it may be true of individual households that borrowing is usually bad, certain investments (mortgage, student loans) may still be worth it. Similarly, "government" should mean "publicly owned and controlled institutions", about which one can rightly ask why it is inherently problematic. Yet these pieces of received wisdom are deeply ingrained, and constantly repeated. (Very much including the people who end up having institutional power, in both private and public bureaucracies, and "intellectuals" and opinion makers.)
More generally, the vast majority of textbooks and papers included in the school curriculum are written by people who buy into Lockean liberalism, which can be summarized as a combination of property rights being coequal with freedom of speech and 'liberty' (except when property isn't 'sufficiently exploited', or when the current owners aren't rich and/or white), plus various anti-egalitarian/meritocratic beliefs about the superiority of white, male, 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, and more insidious demographic effect was that a much larger part of the population would spend a far greater part of their formative years inside bureaucratic institutions that strongly encourage students to
obey respect the authority and expertise of those with credentials and institutional power over you (i.e., teachers and textbook authors). As a result, anyone with a college or university degree would have spent at least two decades doing tasks regardless of whether they seem particularly useful to them, studying subjects and learning skills they may or may not enjoy, and didn't get to pick. And all that time, the main focus wouldn't be on learning and enjoying developing new skills that fit your interests, and learning to cooperate. Instead, it would be divided between proving yourself to others, listening and obeying, competing with fellow students, free-riding, and earning rewards (including class and grade progression), while the structure inculcates the notion that what one (individually) earns is what one deserves.
In such a system, the focus is constantly on individual performance, and measurement of "merit" as determined by others. In this way, it implicitly undermines the notion of solidarity, it privileges extrinsic over intrinsic motivation, it teaches you to let your choices depend on others' values and to foster interests that you know will earn you 'points', and it discourages independent thought. It is telling, then, that many more people would come to embrace the formula of "fiscally conservative, socially liberal" as a desirable political stance (which in practice always leads to privileging "fiscal soundness" and low taxation over social policies). Of course, it didn't hurt that this also favored them and their class mates financially.
As a consequence, a far greater percentage of people would come to look at the world through this same lens, while considering themselves part of the 'educated' class, with 'more sophisticated' and 'cerebral' hobbies, interests and habits than the much rowdier, and more manually and bodily focused people whose idea of productive and fun work doesn't involve desks, offices, and so on. And this meant that 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 personality (affability, erudition, religiosity, etc.). And conversely, ever quieter on economic and institutional issues, while pushing the reforms and treaties I discussed above. And in these ways, this new 'progressive' professional class has greatly contributed to the anger, hopelessness and despair in which the violence and radicalization we are now seeing could take root, with dire consequences for both minorities, the less credentialed and 'unskilled', and the poor. Which is the neoliberalization of politics.
On meritocracy and bureaucracy
This leads me to the question of how the rise of neoliberalism and the bureaucratic mindset relate. As we're probably all aware, meritocracy is the preferred organizing principle of the educated -- and especially of the elite liberals and social democrats. Yet as I've talked about elsewhere, metrics of what makes someone "better" (or "worse") are extremely subjective, and people are capable of coming up with the most banal of "reasons" (including skin and hair color) as to why some people are worth more than others. Equally important is the question which consequences we attach to these decisions about who merits what, and what kind of "floor" we maintain with respect to quality of life, and who gets a say in setting that level.
The most widespread moral hierarchy ties superiority to sex and gender difference. Others, equally problematic, revolve around skin color, educational attainment, religious affiliation, wealth/ownership, nationality/group membership, ethnicity, and so on. Now, you can certainly try to make these 'metrics of merit' more action-focused, and plenty of institutions try to do so (with varying amounts of success). However, because of the close correlation between high status, institutional power and wealth, I don't see anything changing until we get away from this way of thinking.
This practice of valuing people differently, and acknowledging and ignoring people's contributions or needs depending on whether they have or lack certain characteristics, is called moral essentialism. Obviously, it's mostly used by the powerful to justify the silencing of so-called "minorities" and "one's lessers". But nowadays, we're starting to see people who belong to groups who are (or were previously) marginalized successfully employing these methods, to create space and platforms for themselves and their perspectives, and to silence those who would otherwise silence them. This is often decried as undesirable behavior when minorities engage in it, because when they do, it tends to rankle people that "they" -- i.e., an essentialized other -- are using the master's tools. As such, I agree wholeheartedly with bell hooks when she notes (in Teaching to Transgress) that the fact that such tactics and reasoning are being employed should first and foremost be understood as an indictment of the status quo.
Of course, we'll want to get away from these unhealthy 'power over' dynamics, which reaffirm the notions that we have to fight each other for the right to speak and be heard, and that one may only speak if one possesses the right credentials (whether we're talking a diploma, a character trait, or group membership). Which is to say that essentialism is just the bureaucratic logic applied to humans and human interaction. And a large part of why it works is because we have been taught to accept the notion that others' having or lacking certain characteristics "matters" -- so much so, in fact, that the value assigned to their needs or contributions depends on how we value them; as may the answer to the question what kind of life they deserve. And the more normal that notion seems to us, and the stronger we believe that what someone deserves depends on how we value their contributions, the more likely we are to experience anger or disgust while thinking about equal treatment; which in turn increases the likelihood we'll feel free to use violence, oppress and exclude in order to bring about a society in which deserving people ensure that (only) deserving people enjoy material prosperity.
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 corporation. And a large part of what any bureaucracy does, is coming up with procedures and tests to determine whether people "qualify" for something or other (whether jobs, promotions, raises, subsidies, insurance payouts, or warranty claims). Now to be clear, I do believe that we must evaluate people's behavior, and that there is a place for bureaucratic organizational forms. But I also think it is extremely unwise -- and antidemocratic -- to organize society in such a way that those who end up on top get to decide who receives what, who (else) gets to climb the "ladder", and what anyone who wants to advance must do. Because even if individuals and small groups don't start out being preferentially concerned with their own and their friends' material interests, nobody can handle that kind of responsibility long-term. And this is doubly true when the possible rewards are as great as they are today, and when everyone is raised to believe that those who end up at the top are "better", and that they "matter more" than those who don't make it there. (Of course, everyone is free to argue that they should get more resources for doing what they do. But the only way you should be able to get them is by convincing your 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. These days, there is less room than ever for people for asking critical questions, both of their employers, and of themselves. Questions such as whether we feel comfortable doing the kinds of things our employers are asking us to do in exchange for a salary and job stability, etc.. On top of that, many of us are currently asked 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 some percentage of insurance claims purely because the management has decided on that rule). All of this reinforces the false notion that moral questions shouldn't be asked while working, and that 'right behavior' is a function of following procedure (and law). Over time, this dulls our sense of right and wrong, because while most people will initially object to such rules, 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"), or (if we can't), we resign, to be replaced by people who never knew the old rules, or who are willing to live by the new ones. Which sums up a large part of what's been going on the past few decades.
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*** (including blaming themselves), rather than asking why the system was set up in such a way that the banks freely chose to sell millions of people "liar's loans", without ever asking anyone to prove that they actually made the money they claimed to.
So how to escape this way of thinking, and stop treating people differently based on our judgment of their value? On the personal level, that one's relatively easy. Or well, not so easy, because relearning takes time, and if it was easy, I wouldn't need to write about it. But at least there is a way out, and our behavior is under our control. As to institutional and political change -- for that I'd refer you to my other essays, especially the ones on money and careerism.
* 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.
** And by pushing individualism, and so on, in university and through the entertainment media.
*** And note that victim-blaming is yet another example of bureaucratic reasoning -- not caring that people are suffering by telling yourself they earned it by (not) doing whatever it was they did that you think they shouldn't have.