Maybe I’ve heard the word before, but if so, it didn’t make much of an impression the first time around. Happily for me, Dean Spade’s first chapter in Normal Life changed this for good: now I will forever after have a reaction- and a strong one!- to this word and the phenomenon it describes. Not that I haven’t previously been made acquainted with the phenomenon; I’m sure each and every one of us in this generation has encountered the hallmarks of neoliberalism in some capacity what with the persistent myth of American meritocracy and post-9/11 governmental xenophobia in our lifetimes. I must say that I am thankful to a have a word with which to articulate the incredibly complex and slippery socio-political climate I observe around me. Conceiving of this climate as “a range of interlocking trends in domestic and international politics” (49) makes this slippery complexity significantly more intelligible, making neoliberalism an important analytic lense.
I am thankful for Spade’s explication of “neoliberalism” because, while reading, I found myself stumbling across very logical and intelligent explanations for the persistence of oppressions post-Civil Rights Era, for the apparent impotence of social reforms and programs, and for the public’s unproblematic acceptance of political victim-blaming. As a self-proclaimed feminist and a gender studies major (who unfortunately bartends at a country club), I often find that I am expected to come up with some theory about why feminism is still necessary or how racism could possibly exist after Blacks won the right to vote. Resisting the impulse to take the persons who pose these questions by both shoulders and shake the silliness (read: privilege) out of them, I usually try to keep my cool and reasonably explain the ways that women or Blacks or people of low-socioeconomic class get disenfranchised by our society. This is nearly ALWAYS a highly frustrating activity. I cite the persistent sexual wage gap or the disproportionately low population of Black students in higher education; they blame women’s avoidance of math and the lack of academic ambitions among African Americans. While these arguments hopefully seem laughable to you and I, unfortunately laughter is not a legitimate response to the available statistics on career choices made by young women primarily outside of mathematical fields (http://www.aacu.org/ocww/volume39_1/feature.cfm?section=1) or the severe underrepresentation of African Americans in higher education (only 18.4% of the total African American population in 2013 had a bachelor’s degree or higher http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/cb13-ff02.html). Of course, I have previously sought recourse to arguments of gendered or racial socialization to account for social influences on “free” will, but unless I peddle back far enough to take my audience through the boys-in-blue/girls-in-pink narrative, I usually end up getting treated like a victim of paranoid delusions. I’m not sure I will ever completely ensure my protection against this kind of treatment, but at least neoliberalism has given me a context for understanding why it’s so gorshdarn hard to explain the workings of oppression in our current climate!
As Spade writes, “Systemic inequality has become increasingly unspeakable and the long-term myth of meritocracy in the United States, coupled with the renewed rhetoric of ‘personal responsibility,’ suggests that those benefiting from the upward distribution are doing so because of their moral fitness, and, respectively, that those on the losing end are blameworthy, lazy, and, of course, s dangerous.” (58). I conclude, neoliberalism creates a space in which institutionalized inequalities are denied and then argued out of existence by programs which claim to have already remedied them, despite the persistence of these inequalities in the lives of individuals. Then, individuals who are privileged enough to know nothing first-hand about the lived experiences of disenfranchised peoples deny the reality or the severity of “so-called oppressions,” in society and instead blame the choices of individuals for the condition of marginalized communities. Neoliberal politics are of the sneakiest variety, but once their structural patterns have been identified, as they have been by Spade, it is more possible to recognize and thwart their reiteration of oppressions.
By Rosalind Rini