Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Big Picture on Ferguson and Staten Island: Neoliberalism, Social Control, and Social Change

There is a big picture behind the events in Ferguson and Staten Island, and a big message. It goes something like this.

In the 1980s the United States instituted a new political economic model in response to the economic crisis of the 1970s. It has come to be known as neoliberalism. Some of the leading features are lower taxes on the rich and corporations, deregulation, a weakening of the power of labor, greater capital mobility, and the weakening and elimination of welfare state protections. All of these policies were designed to advance the interests of the capitalist class in relation to workers under the pretense that this would unshackle capital and generate growth that would ultimately benefit the general population (aka “trickle down”).

In the words of David Harvey: ‘neoliberalisation was from the very beginning a project to achieve the restoration of class power,…a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites.’ [A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2005]

There was no doubt that unregulated neoliberal capitalism with weak protections for workers and the poor would increase inequality and leave a significant portion of the population (largely black, brown, and immigrant) marginalized, un- and underemployed, with an increase in the size and permanency of a reserve army of labor (sometimes referred to as the “underclass”).

While capital was being deregulated, this surplus population, which posed a threat to capitalist order, was being hyper-regulated and incarcerated in record numbers. The following graph highlights the dramatic mass incarceration after 1980 placing the U.S. as the leading nation in the world on the measure of imprisoning its own population.

One of the best political economic analyses of this trend is provided by the sociologist Loic Wacquant who captures the shifting terrain in the most vivid and colorful language.

“Comparative analysis of penal trends and discourses in the advanced countries over the past decade reveals a close link between the ascendancy of neoliberalism, as ideological project and governmental practice mandating submission to the “free market” and the celebration of “individual responsibility” in all realms, on the one hand, and the deployment of punitive and proactive law-enforcement policies targeting street delinquency and the categories trapped in the margins and cracks of the new economic and moral order, on the other hand…Indeed, the generalized hardening of police, judicial, and correctional policies that can be observed in most of the countries of the First World over the past two decades partakes of a triple transformation of the state, which it helps simultaneously accelerate and obfuscate, wedding the amputation of its economic arm, the retraction of its social bosom, and the massive expansion of its penal fist.”
[“Ordering Insecurity:Social Polarization and the Punitive Upsurge”. Radical Philosophy Review volume 11, number 1, 2008, 9–27]

Wacquant has exhaustively documented the shifts from welfare to “prisonfare”, and how the safety net has been replaced by the dragnet.

Some communities and populations, those most marginalized, neglected, and abandoned by the new neoliberal order, are those which are subject to the greatest surveillance and punitive actions. These are disproportionately urban communities and non-white populations. “Stop and frisk” racial profiling is just one of the most visible forms of the expanding police state tactics. The purpose is to marginalize, regulate, incarcerate, and if there is resistance, assassinate. This has been the pattern over the past thirty years. It has accelerated with the militarization – both as ideology and weapons arsenal -- of the local police force, as is apropos for a class war. It manifests in police “neutralization” of unarmed delinquents, resisters, and deviants by any means necessary. The incident in Ferguson is just part of the larger pattern both in terms of the shooting of an unarmed black man and the response to the community protests.

The recent blog posting by Ian Welch “In Light of Eric Garner” on the Staten Island case further drives home the objective of socially controlling non-compliant populations. He quotes Garner’s last words:

“Get away [garbled] … for what? Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today. Why would you…? Everyone standing here will tell you I didn’t do nothing. I did not sell nothing. Because every time you see me, you want to harass me. You want to stop me (garbled) Selling cigarettes. I’m minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. please please, don’t touch me. Do not touch me.”

” I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,”

Back to Welch:

What you will hear defenders of the police say is “he was non-compliant.” Non-compliant. If a police officer tells you to do anything, you do it immediately. If you do not, anything that happens to you, up to and including death, is your problem.
The legal system exists, today, to ensure compliance. … Any part of the population which is inclined to resist, must be taught that it cannot resist. Get out millions to demonstrate against the Iraq war: it will not work. Protest against police killings of African Americans, it will not work.

Nothing you do will work. You will comply, and you will learn that resistance is futile.
… Compliance when given specific orders and learned hopelessness about protest or organizing are the aims. Ordinary citizens must understand that they cannot change the system if elites do not agree with the changes they want made. If they try, they will be arrested and receive a criminal sentence, meaning they can never again have a good job.

But no system of social control can rest entirely on the threat of imprisonment, physical violence, and the generation of apathy. The ideology of neoliberalism, with its claim to promote freedom and liberty in the economic sphere while generating growth and jobs for the masses, has been a potent force of cognitive manipulation. But it is growing stale and the cracks are emerging everywhere. This trend is nicely reviewed by Sam Pizzigati at Too Much who notes that “New research and another dose of on-the-ground reality are shredding what little credibility the rationalizers of inequality have left.”

Joining the reignited energies of the Occupy forces on the inequality issue, with those now protesting for a living wage, with those now actively opposing police state tactics makes for a broad based and diverse social movement. These movements can be tightly linked in solidarity as they all are aimed at addressing forms of oppression that have a common source – the neoliberal political economic setup.

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