A White Story

A White Story

In the standard narrative of neoliberalism’s rise, the demise of the white social contract gets cast as universal.

In the standard narrative of neoliberalism's rise, the demise of the white social contract gets cast as universal (Photo: R. Barraez D’Lucca)

This article is part of forum discussion on the uses and abuses of “neoliberalism,” responding to Daniel Rodgers’s essay in our Winter 2018 issue. Read the other responses—by Julia Ott, Mike Konczal, and Timothy Shenk—here.

As a term, “neoliberalism” has caused a great deal of mischief. The historian Daniel Rodgers highlights no less than four different uses: neoliberalism as a historical stage of capitalism, as an intellectual project, as policy, and as a cultural regime. Rodgers points to neoliberalism “spilling” here and “swallowing” there; it’s an “omnivore” and a “whirlwind.” Rodgers points, too, to the explosion of neoliberalism’s usage as a broad term of analysis following 2008–9, presumably the result of the financial crisis of that year. He then closes with a warning that “neoliberalism,” in the face of the “unvarnished,” “verbal realism” of Donald J. Trump, may have outlived much of its usefulness, at least politically.

I appreciate Rodgers’s characteristically systematic accounting. Frankly, though, I think he underestimates our trouble. Among the various processes and political conditions “neoliberalism” seems to connote and describe, we must consider the term’s discursive power as (1) a theory of history, (2) a political rallying cry, and (3) an accusation cast about within nominally progressive circles writhing under capitalism. In light of all the interpretive and political slipperiness Rodgers highlights, we should ask why neoliberalism remains “still largely a word of the academic and intellectual left.” To answer this, we must first acknowledge that academics and progressives do not stand outside of history and culture; that their vocabulary, in spite of how they might view themselves, does not serve as some “objective” description of reality. They, as humans, tell stories. And as part of a story—a theory of history—“neoliberalism” exercises considerable interpretive and political power—indeed, at times, its greatest suppressive force.

As a theory of history, neoliberalism boasts a faux precision—an almost taxonomic authority. In a supposedly clean chronology moving from laissez-faire capitalism to New Deal and Keynesian liberalism, we use “neoliberalism” to close out capitalism’s biography. It’s a term meant to mark the arrival of financialization in the 1970s and ’80s, and the start of an epoch when governments that once protected citizens took to defending corporations, at times even mimicking their structure. (Consider, for instance, the emergency manager in charge of Flint, Michigan’s municipal government.) The political theorist Wendy Brown described neoliberalism as the “‘economization’ of political life and of other . . . noneconomic spheres and activities.” The cultural theorist Stuart Hall marks neoliberalism by the elevation of the taxpayer and the consumer over the citizen. The old relationships of citizen/state or worker/capitalist, Hall explains, give way to “the market” as the new, more individualized arbiter.

It’s a good story, one Rodgers does well to outline. It is, indeed, in the classical sense of culture, a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. It’s also at least half wrong.

More specifically, it’s a white story, structurally. Even the way Stuart Hall, a foundational critical race theorist, tells it, the revision of the white social contract gets cast as universal. The seeming arrival of economization in the ’70s and ’80s—of taxpayer and consumer populism as one’s source of rights—misses the fact that these market-based identities stood at the heart of subaltern rights claims at least a hundred years earlier. In the absence of voting rights in European colonies and in the United States, the strongest claims subaltern people could hope for, much of the time, were their rights as respectable bourgeois subjects, as taxpayers, and as consumers—in other words, market rights. Citizenship could not be linked to voting, for such rights were not guaranteed by either the U.S. Constitution or by European imperialists in their colonies. Workers’ movements, including anti-imperial ones, existed, to be sure. But many of those movements, particularly in settler colonies like the United States, depended on whether white workers let racial minorities into their unions.

Thus, concurrent with any demand for citizenship for its own sake, black people within white-controlled political and economic regimes fought on the civic terrain available to them. In the United States, specifically, they bought guns and land. Black British subjects, whether facing down foreign officials or their own colonial government, routinely flashed their bonds to and fealty for empire in any number of claims for rights and status. And both African Americans and West Indians projected their success under capitalism, in part, by demonstrating that one had paid actual capital into state and local governments’ operating budgets. In a post-Reconstruction liberalism built on black exclusion, for instance, black people across the South wielded physical property tax receipts, again and again, just to get their “colored only” world built at all.

White citizenship, by contrast, was presumed, and quite often conferred to immigrants who, by turns, cast themselves as standing outside “the Negro problem.” Their rights came, above all, from Jim Crow’s regulations, and the government protection of white people as a group. In other words, even for blue-collar workers, to be white meant possessing a legally aggregated—if, at times, politically fractured—corporate power. As the legal scholar Cheryl Harris explained a quarter-century ago, to be white was to own property—stock—in whiteness. And when the government stopped uniquely honoring white people’s racial stock, it damaged the credibility of liberalism itself and elicited what became bipartisan calls to “downsize” or privatize the government altogether. Hither and yon in the United States, the history of black taxpaying as a claim for improved government responsiveness got supplanted by recurrent, white tax revolts. And what we should tell as a story about backlash and the panic-selling of state functions—literal “white flight” from liberalism—has become a much more anodyne and sterile story about the arrival of an abstraction: “neoliberalism.”

We are now in some kind of historical and political mess. Any effort to mark neoliberalism by financialization must forget, among many other things, that planters’ banks sold slave-bundled mortgage-backed securities as early as the 1830s. It must overlook when the white managers of the Freedman’s Savings Bank immorally—but legally—rewrote the bank’s charter in the 1870s, converting a savings bank into an investment bank and blowing 60 percent of all black wealth in the United States on junk railroad stock. Similar amnesia must accompany attempts to highlight as neoliberalism’s defining trait some novel “economization” of otherwise “noneconomic spheres.” One must ignore, for instance, that the long civil rights movement was—indeed had to be—a deregulatory movement driven as much by visions of a “free market” as anything else. At lunch counters, on buses, and in neighborhoods, much of the black freedom struggle’s chief purpose, for better and sometimes worse, included helping people move as easily as the money in their pocket.

And neoliberalism’s potential as a movement rallying cry? As Stuart Hall maintained, in 2011, “naming neoliberalism is politically necessary to give resistance content, focus and a cutting edge” (emphasis in the original). What we’ve gotten, however, is exactly the opposite: stultifying abstraction, vagueness, and blunt weaponry. In fact, on the left, one often finds, with “neoliberalism,” radicals cudgeling each other with what amounts to the historical equivalent of witchcraft accusations.

Whether one considers, say, early modern Europe or postcolonial Africa, one finds moral panics about gender, wealth, and reproduction creating climates of occult accusation. Women suffered the bulk of such charges, to be sure. But, as the historian Ralph Austen explains, in the context of a witch-hunt, “ascendant individuals” of either gender “are perceived to be witches.” Economic structures and zero-sum political conflicts give charges of witchcraft their seeming rationality. Such charges also reflect the fractured intimacy, personal rivalry, or perceptions of loss of individual status that can occur when social disruptions beset the supposedly natural order of things. In moments of perceived scarcity, to again quote Austen, witches seem to tap a “distant ‘second universe,’” a place where the source of their unnaturally growing influence remains beyond sight. Within the moral economy of witchcraft, good fortune sparks suspicion. It is evidence of a deal with the Devil.

So it is with “neoliberals.” If you want to explain the proliferation of “neoliberalism” in our work or “neoliberals” walking among us since 2008, consider the moral panics that currently beset the left. Look as much to the crash of ’08 as to the long, lost promise of racial integration; the continued elusiveness of worker power; and, perhaps principally, the frustrations on the left with President Barack Obama. As with reports of witches elsewhere, the conditions in our context are real, just as the charges, relative to the extant vocabulary, are rational. The left has suffered continued difficulty in influencing the Democratic Party, in shaping civic debate, and in reinvigorating (again, largely among white Americans) a mid-twentieth-century faith in the public sector.

Yet, these accusations are interpersonal, too. Given our collective predicament, the contemporary moral economy of the left demands, in its understandable angst, the occasional public trails of those who seem to enjoy resources of an unknown amount or who, in some zero-sum universe, hoard information and connections of an unknown quality. The too-rapidly ascendant, appearing free of “the community” and its “traditions,” in the eyes of some, must be, well, neoliberals.

In a recent, vivid example, the prominent intellectual Cornel West branded the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, “the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle.” In multiple interviews, tweets, and a widely circulated article in the Guardian, West charged Coates with trafficking in stultifying, “neoliberal” identity politics and fetishizing white supremacy at the expense of a more probing class analysis. The claim echoed earlier charges from Adolph Reed and other commentators on the left who considered Coates dangerously apolitical, especially for the lofty platform he seemed to occupy. West, then, took the charge further, depicting Coates at once as overly enamored with President Barack Obama and as a purveyor of the kind of pessimism that fails to advance the black radical tradition, presumably black America’s dominant tradition. Not reproducing what the elders want—and profiting from this defiance in the meantime—has long been one of the surest ways to be branded a witch.

It took no small amount of interpretive magic to cast Coates as both pessimistic and in the pocket of “hope’s” Peddler-in-Chief. It seemed strange, too, for West to post his criticisms amid multiple Twitter links for buying his own book, Race Matters, which just entered a fresh printing to mark its twenty-fifth anniversary.

Regardless of the intellectual merits of West’s charges in his Guardian piece, its release prompted a wave of responses. Academics and progressive authors, by turns, took to Twitter to hawk their own books, articles, and expertise on neoliberalism, with several observers expressing added exasperation over what seemed like another case of serial bickering among black men. Allies and acolytes of West and Coates challenged each other to lexical contests over neoliberalism’s definition, occasionally offering, as evidence, chapter-and-verse recitations of the authors in conflict.

Vagueness masked as clarity, accusation replaced mobilization. “If you are a prominent political commentator and you seriously don’t know what a neoliberal is at the ass-end of 2017,” Naomi Klein proclaimed during the dust-up, “then chances are, you are one.” Before the day was out, white supremacist Richard Spencer chimed in, affirming West’s charges against Coates: “He’s not wrong.” By dinner time, Coates cited the strange confluence of self-identified racists, antiracists, and feminists, and summarily deleted his Twitter account. The moral economy of the left (with a little push from the “alt-right”) stood preserved.

The principal value of the term “neoliberalism” lies neither in its precision—which it doesn’t have—nor in its ability to galvanize political struggle—which it doesn’t do. Rather, the term derives power as a theory of history, as part of a bundle of reputable abstractions, and as currency in contests over leftist political authenticity, especially among progressives in the United States. “So-called neoliberals,” Rodgers reminds us, “almost never use [“neoliberalism”] to describe their projects or themselves.” Rather, the term serves, at best, as an artifact of racially segregated social science. At worst, it’s a weapon of the “woke,” the left be doomed and general electorate be damned.

As epithet, “neoliberal” possesses an erasing, authorizing, and condemning power among those who purport to challenge capitalism and its attendant inequalities. As a theory of history, “neoliberalism” serves to frame and punctuate a partially false story of how we got here. Both uses, by implication and innuendo, sing of a once-responsive liberal state, of an always-insurgent working class, and of a majoritarian black radical tradition.

These aren’t fables as much as half-truths. Citizenship, unions, and, yes, even radical traditions exist, but these are what they always were—as imperfect and uneven as the people and relationships constituting them. Reducing some of “neoliberalism’s” suppressive power will, at minimum, require telling new stories. Getting free will demand a whole lot more.


N. D. B. Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University, and co-host of the American history podcast BackStory.

Read other responses in this forum—by Julia Ott, Mike Konczal, and Timothy Shenk—here.

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