What do you get when a climate-change denying president appoints a climate-change denier as director of the Office of Management and Budget?
You get a climate-change denying budget.
The Trump administration’s “Taxpayer First” (FY 2018) is the epitome of climate-change denial. Not only does it propose draconian cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, eviscerate federal climate change-related programs in all federal agencies, reduce federal spending on science research, and cut all funding of international climate change programs; but it also shreds the social safety net, severely reduces infrastructure spending, and guts foreign aid that has helped (however problematically) lift people out of severe poverty.
In other words, it is a budget that guarantees the federal government – at a moment when we actually need to take collective, radical climate action – will function neither as a force that can galvanize us all to meet effectively the climate crisis, nor as the people’s protection against climate-change related catastrophes of our own making.
Taxpayer First instead reaffirms the “three policy pillars of the neoliberal age – privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and the lowering of income and corporate taxes, paid for with cuts to public spending” – all of which, as Naomi Klein writes in This Changes Everything, are “incompatible with many of the actions we must take to bring our emissions to safe levels,” and in an equitable and socially just manner. These actions include wartime-level public spending on infrastructure repair; massive investment in wind, water and solar energy; the transformation of our mega-agricultural systems that are major sources of emissions; and, the reordering of our emissions-intensive system of trade. They are actions that must of necessity be taken hand-in-hand with the expansion of the social safety net, for the economic consequences of our need to reduce drastically emissions (8-10 percent a year) over a relatively short period of time are far-reaching.
The denial in Taxpayer First goes even deeper, however, for this indecent document makes clear that the cuts proposed actually constitute the framework by which the denialist Trump administration (with a little help from congressional and corporate fellow travelers) hopes to make climate-change denial itself not only structural — a process helped already with the appointment of deniers like Jeff Sessions, Ben Carson, Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry, as federal agency directors — but also the logic upon which the federal government operates. Indeed, the administration seeks to free up the government so that it can perform – and encourage us to perform – as if there is no climate change cliff that we are dangerously approaching.
But that is not all. Through this cruel budget the deniers in charge are effectively asserting that a robust, people-centered and climate-responsible government is itself a climate change hoax that must be thoroughly exposed, debunked and abandoned. In its place must stand the “truth,” i.e., a government that gives free reign to corporations, rewards the wealthy with significant tax cuts, makes citizens responsible for their own welfare, and considers environmental regulations wholly unnecessary. In its place, in other words, must stand a government that is the triumph of truth over climate change fiction, the heroic unmasking of a grand and expensive lie perpetrated by the left (and colluding scientists) that, in the end, has wasted everyone’s money (to paraphrase OMB Director Mick Mulvaney).
Of course, such a government cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, honor the Paris Accord (given the denial in which the budget is steeped, it should not have surprised anyone that Trump pulled out of the agreement).
The cynicism of Taxpayer First cannot be overstated. It is, quite simply, a declaration of war on all life, waged by people for whom climate-change related catastrophes (like the floods in Sri Lanka) and even human extinction are acceptable risks in the quest for profit and power. It is further proof that deniers would rather see a scorched earth than admit the failures and destructiveness of their neoliberal gospel of wealth, consumption and trade – that they would rather, in fact, destroy everything than see a world organized around the redistribution of wealth and the protection of our only home.
And it is further evidence, finally, that we will have to be the radical climate action we have been waiting for.
We should dispense once and for all with the term “climate-change deniers.”
Because “climate-change deniers” keeps us from calling out these women and men – and most especially those who occupy the White House, Congress, and state houses – for performing disbelief about something that, more likely than not, many of them actually accept as true: our climate is changing radically due to human activities.
Most of them, I would wager, believe the science and need us to believe that they don’t. And they need us to believe them, or at least to take seriously the possibility that they honestly disbelieve, not only because they derive benefits from pretending and sowing doubt; but also because the last thing they want is for us to fashion a politics that contends with the frightening truth that even though they know, They Don’t Care.
They don’t care that our glaciers are melting.
They don’t care that sea levels are rising.
They don’t care that the permafrost is thawing and will likely release unsustainable amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere.
They don’t care that our oceans are acidifying.
They don’t care that our water tables are decreasing.
They don’t care that “extreme weather” is becoming the new normal, that resource conflicts due to climate change are turning children, women and men into climate refugees, that species are dying off at an alarming rate.
They don’t care.
And they don’t care that we can actually save ourselves, as well as other beings with whom our lives are inescapably intertwined, from the catastrophes climate change will produce.
This includes the unthinkable catastrophe of human extinction.
They don’t care because caring does not serve their interests.
H.R.673 – To prohibit United States contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Green Climate Fund.
115th Congress (2017-2018)
On January 24, 2017, Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer [R-MO-3] – who has argued that “for far too long, American tax dollars have been sent to the United Nations to produce controversial science and feel-good conferences” – introduced H.R. 673 to the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill expressly forbids “any Federal department or agency” from making contributions to, or for, “the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the Green Climate Fund.”
Not only would this legislation undercut both international efforts to assess “the science related to climate change” (IPCC) and the legal framework within which the international community is addressing the climate crisis (UNFCCC); the bill would also significantly weaken efforts both “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries” and “to help adapt vulnerable societies to the unavoidable impacts of climate change” (GCF).
To introduce such a bill goes beyond disbelief in climate science, for its purpose is to make impossible our capacity both to reach a level of certainty about climate change and its impacts, and to act upon what we discover. It is to silence.
But even more to the point: to introduce such a bill – and to then sign on and make it the law of the land (which this Congress will probably do) – is exactly what you do when you believe in the science and you don’t want the people to know the truth.
Representative Luetkemeyer is a true believer who simply does not care.
Neither do the co-sponsors of his bill. Representative Sam Graves of Missouri, for example, is himself the sponsor of the Stop the EPA Act. Both Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Paul A. Gosar of Arizona have regularly questioned the science of climate change. The other co-sponsors – representatives Louis Gohmert (R-TX), Walter Jones (R-NC), Ann Wagner (R-MO), Ralph Abraham (R-LA) and Robert Latta (R-OH) – are equally as problematic. None of them score more than 7% on the League of Conservations Voters’ National Environmental Scorecard.
And all of them are recipients of energy sector dollars, the very fact of which should cause us to question their doubts and disbelief – especially since these can be so easily purchased by petro and other energy interests.
If these “climate-change deniers” who populate the halls of government are actually true believers of climate-change science, then we should be clear that the policies they produce and enact in such areas as, for example, health care, civil rights, immigration, labor, international relations, education, and taxes necessarily bear (and will bear) the weight of their nihilistic disregard. After all, men and women who do not care about the looming catastrophes of climate change knowing full well that they are looming, are by and large unlikely to propose health care legislation that is good for us or craft fair labor policies or offer legislation that recognizes the humanity of immigrants. And certainly they will fall short in proposing anything that protects our rights as a free people.
In other words, these faux climate-change deniers can be counted on to pass legislation that expresses their disregard for the vast majority of us.
And even if we take them at their word and suppose that they are true nonbelievers, their inaction concerning (if not indifference to) such phenomenon as sea level rise and melting permafrost suggests a profound lack of concern on their part for what is happening now, before their very eyes. It’s not as if these self-identified nonbelievers are championing mitigation plans or are trying to figure out how to support people increasingly displaced by drought and floods and extreme weather events. If anything, they’re trying to clear the way for more fossil fuel extraction and dependence. This is how nonbelievers operate.
Whether they are believers or nonbelievers is thus really of no matter. In either case, they do not care.
So let’s dispense with the “climate-change deniers” nomenclature. We are up against men and women in power – from corporate board rooms to the White House – who are willing, and happily so, to drive us over the cliff of climate catastrophe. They know that that is where they are driving us while believing, all along the way, in the science that is warning us that we are steadily and dangerously approaching that cliff.
They could really care less.
Climate activism, then – hell, all of our activism – must change accordingly.
UPDATE: Representatives Glen Grothman (R-WI), David Rouzer (R-NC), and Brian Babin (R-TX) have added their names to the list of co-sponsors.
These are photos from the 2003 world-wide marches and protests that occurred as the Bush Administration –operating on the lie that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction – moved inexorably towards its war on Iraq:
On March 20, 2003, the United States started bombing Baghdad.
We marched a little more.
But our government did not stop and has not stopped bombing Iraq (which we do now for different reasons that trace back to the original lie). We will probably continue to bomb Iraq over the next four years.
Like those anti-war marches, our marches yesterday were powerful. We pledged our resistance to Donald Trump, the GOP, the administration that is shaping up, and the policies that they hope to inflict upon us.
Trump and the GOP, however, don’t give a damn about our marches. Like Bush, they intend to bomb anyway – bomb health care, bomb social security, bomb civil liberties, bomb the Treasury, bomb reproductive rights, bomb the poor, bomb immigrants….
In addition to Iraq, they intend to bomb some other country, most likely Middle Eastern.
The only question, then, is what resistance will we offer that will not prove as impotent as our resistance during the Bush years? Will we walk away from these marches, giddy with the delusion that they are the only work that we need to do?
Or have we learned the lesson of Iraq (I have great hopes that we have), which is that the world pays a huge price for – that children, women and men suffer and die because of – our political quietism and submission to those in power, of which our anti-whatever marches have too often been the first phase?
I stopped being afraid once I came out of the closet.
I didn’t stop being afraid the first time that I said, out loud, repeating the words of Audre Lorde: “I am a black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?” No, the end of fear was a long process, not an instant.
And I didn’t stop having moments of fear or panic. Those come, sometimes with great force, and often early in the morning, in the darkness, in the silence.
What I mean, though, is that once I was willing to step out of the closet and be completely vulnerable – to expose myself knowing that I could very well become (even more) an object of hate and of violence from people who looked like me and from those who didn’t– once I allowed myself to be that raw, I became absolutely and devastatingly powerful.
For make no mistake about it, that kind of vulnerability announces, in no uncertain terms: no matter what you say or do to me, I will not back down. I will not cower. I will not be silent. I will not hate you –but hear me clearly: I mean to be free.
This is yet another terrible, frightening moment in our nation – in the world, really, where children are bombed and washed up on distant shores and shot in neighborhood parks and told that they will be chased out of their homes and across borders into countries that do not know them.
We live in dangerous times, where men and women in power feel no allegiance to their neighbors — men and women who peddle fear and hopelessness in nihilistic pursuit of profit. Men and women who are not in their right mind, really, because they would rather destroy everything — all of us — than share anything.
To their insanity we are – no question about it – completely vulnerable.
But it would be a terrible mistake to construe that vulnerability as helplessness and weakness instead of as our power and strength.
That rawness you feel? That’s your spirit calling you to stand tall and be free, because something in you knows already that to those who would oppress us, nothing is more frightening and dangerous than a woman (or a man) who has much to lose and yet steps out anyway in the midst of madness to insist on her rights, to claim her freedom, to protect her brothers and sisters, to love as a radical answer to hate, and thus to convey that, come what may, she shall not be moved. Not one inch.
Be dangerously vulnerable.
I do not like this man.
Every day, if you walk by my office, you just might hear me mutter the words “motherfucker” or “racist asshole” or “stupid fucking man” or something like that, because as is often the case, I listen to the news while I work. And since Donald Trump is the news, then when you hear these words coming out of my mouth, it is likely that you’re hearing me disparage the GOP candidate. Or his surrogates. Or his apologists. Or some man or woman who intends to vote for him. Or some reporter who has failed, yet once again, to ask follow-up questions about Trump that are not only (in my mind, anyway) obvious questions to ask, but that are also absolutely important if we are ever to get out of the bind in which the GOP has put us.
More than once I have scanned the Internet for that t-shirt worn by the character in the movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – the t-shirt that reads “Fuck you you fucking fuck.” Ever since Donald Trump became the GOP nominee, I’ve thought: that shirt is a perfect expression of my (and others’) perfectly reasonable outrage not only at all of the deplorable things the GOP candidate has said and continues to say, but also at the racist, sexist, xenophobic, white nationalist fascist free-for-all Trump’s candidacy has inspired, and nurtured, and thrived on.
I’ve even imagined myself wearing that t-shirt at a Trump rally, daring some fucking fuck to say some fucked up thing to me so that I could…
“Oh, yeah?” I shouted while watching Trump recently on CNN. “You say you want to send your goons to ‘some other place’ on November 8 so that they can ‘make sure’ that the election is ‘on the up-and-up’ in those ‘other communities’? Bring it on, then! Motherfucker, bring it on!” After saying that I reflected fondly on a day back in the 1980s when the Ku Klux Klan – all twelve of them (was it even that much?) – came to March on what was then a much more chocolate Washington, DC. Thousands of outraged citizens, some of whom (not me) were armed with pipes and sticks and god knows what else, showed up to welcome the Klansmen, who got off their bus in an undisclosed location, said a few words, and then quickly – wisely – got the hell out of Dodge.
Those of us who were outraged, on the other hand, occupied the streets long after the Klan escaped, wreaking havoc until the police launched their tear gas canisters.
I say all of this to confess that I have been spending too much of my daily life going “low”– indulging in precisely the kind of nastiness that Michelle Obama implicitly counseled all of us against this past summer when she spoke at the Democratic National Convention about the ways her family has coped and continues to cope with the hatred directed its way. “I will never forget,” Michelle recalled,
“that winter morning as I watched our girls, just seven and ten years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns. And I saw their little faces pressed up against the window, and the only thing I could think was, ‘What have we done?’ See, because at that moment, I realized that our time in the White House would form the foundation for who they would become, and how well we managed this experience could truly make or break them.
That is what Barack and I think about every day as we try to guide and protect our girls through the challenges of this unusual life in the spotlight — how we urge them to ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith. How we insist that the hateful language they hear from public figures on TV does not represent the true spirit of this country. How we explain that when someone is cruel, or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level -– no, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”
Since the DNC, I’ve often used Obama’s counsel to “go high” as a check on my frequent forays in the muck. But I have to admit that I have been content to stay mostly in shallow waters, where going high merely means that I should refrain from acting “like a bully” and from using “hateful language” to denigrate others – where going high means claiming the moral high ground not on the basis of any humble spiritual practice, but instead on the basis of my sense of superiority to those [deplorable] people. For me (and for others, I suspect), going high became a practice of smug self-satisfaction and condescension – spoken in polite terms, of course.
I am certain that Michelle Obama did not mean for me – for us – to be so shallow. And I know this because of the ground in which her counsel is rooted.
“If I respond to hate with reciprocal hate,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Montgomery Bus Boycott memoir Stride Toward Freedom (1958),
“I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love. If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community. Booker T. Washington was right: ‘Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.’ When he pulls you that low he brings you to the point of defying creation, and thereby becoming depersonalized.
In the final analysis…all life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers. To the degree that I harm my brother, no matter what he is doing to me, to that extent I am harming myself.”
As King’s critique makes clear, to go high is actually a profound spiritual practice of “nonviolence to everything,” a practice that should – if it is authentic – shatter you to slivers. The slivers are the pieces of yourself that keep you from calling your so-called enemy your sister, that deny just how bounded is your humanity even to those who hate you, that widen and deepen the gap in our broken community, that make you feel high and mighty in relation to women and men willing to live and act and think in deplorable ways, that make you blind to your own deplorable everyday ways of being.
And the slivers, too, are the pieces of yourself that see an orange Cheeto instead of a broken man who honestly believes his brokenness is the mark of his power and greatness.
In truth, to go high is to go vulnerable, to be willing to love – to radically love – in the midst of your outrage and your fear.
“I’m happy that [Jesus] didn’t say, ‘Like your enemies,’” King preached on Christmas Eve in 1967 – just months before he was assassinated – “because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. I can’t like them. I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out. But Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men.”
To go high is to have the kind of compassion that comes from recognizing in one who hates your own hungry ghosts – your willingness to hold a grudge, to belittle, to deflect criticism, to name-call, to be utterly selfish, to offer only grudging apologies, to retaliate, to be absolutely unwilling to see in the smallness, in the pettiness of others a frightening vulnerability and astonishing lack of self-love, respect, and care. To go high is to cultivate the kind of compassion that completely unsettles who you are, that disturbs and disrupts the narratives you tell yourself so you don’t have to face or question your own inner Trump.
And get this: to go high is to have the humility to see in the one who hates his essential Buddha self, the Christ she is capable of being. In other words, to go high is really fucking hard spiritual labor, a practice in danger of being cheapened by campaign politics. It is work crucial to our quest to make a world great with justice and peace. It is absolutely required in order for us to meet, with great dignity, the most pressing crisis our species has ever known (climate change). Without question, it is work that is easier not to do because it is so damn fun, so wildly entertaining, to call Donald Trump an orange Cheeto motherfucker.
Sitting on my living room mantel piece is a small statute of a black Buddha that I greet every day before my morning meditation. It is the last thing that I see when I close the front door to go to work. It’s the first thing I notice when I open the door, home at last, after a stressful day of buses and BART and a tired, cranky three year-old and a growling, howling empty stomach and a series of my own raging riffs about Trump campaign drama.
This Buddha used to sit on my mother’s nightstand during the final year of her life. I imagine that, along with her Bible (like Thich Nhat Hanh, my mother found deep affinity between the teachings of Christ and the Buddha), this statue gave her great comfort after her cancer treatments. I imagine that it reminded her during the course of the 2012 election cycle (which she followed closely) to be outraged, absolutely – but to be so without hate. I imagine that it inspired her to continue to speak of justice in terms that excluded no one. And I imagine that this Buddha gave her further motivation to say – as she and my father often did when they discussed a politician or pundit who peddles hate – “Bless his heart.”
When I went to her room after she died, I noticed that next to her Buddha my mother had placed – carefully and intentionally, I am sure – a 2012 campaign button of Michelle Obama’s face.
Onto that Buddha now clings (heaven help me) a photograph of Donald Trump’s face. Around its neck is a gold necklace to which I attached a locket that contains a lock of my mother’s hair.
May I shatter into a million pieces.
May we all — including Donald Trump as well as the men and women who support him – shatter into pieces too numerous to count.
And may we all, finally, be free from suffering.
When pressed to explain why they are backing their candidate, some of Donald Trump’s white supporters often answer with a critique – one that Trump himself articulates – in which they couple America’s multiculturalism and growing multicultural population with, for example, trade agreements like NAFTA, corporate relocation of American manufacturing jobs overseas, and business reliance on cheap immigrant labor. Not surprisingly, this coupling has been routinely analyzed and condemned as racist scapegoating of people of color – primarily African Americans and Hispanics – for economic problems not of their own making.
Yet the fact that these Trump supporters interweave neoliberal policies and practices into their frequent invectives against multiculturalism indicates that something else is at work. Indeed, it suggests that what we might be witnessing is blow back from what Jodi Melamed (“The Spirit of Neoliberalism”) calls neoliberal multiculturalism – the “incorporation of U.S. multiculturalism into the legitimating and operating procedures of neoliberalism” – and thus blow back from neoliberal proponents’ evocation of multiculturalism to champion their economic policies and practices as the embodiment of our national ethos; from the framing of “neoliberal policy as the key to a postracist” and multicultural “world of freedom and opportunity”; from the fact that multiculturalism functions now as our nation’s “official antiracism,” through which neoliberalism – and thus our economic dominance – is cast as “in harmony with some version of antiracist goals”; from the ways multiculturalism serves as the expression and face – both politically and aesthetically – of U.S. global military and economic power; and, from capital’s cosmetic readjustments to our rapidly growing multicultural society – its commercials of interracial couples, biracial children, and bilingual voice-overs.
Most especially, however, Trump’s support appears to be blow back from the fact that neoliberalism has innovated, through its incorporation of multiculturalism, “new” means of “fixing human capacities to naturalize inequality,” and in ways that do not exclude – on the basis of race – folks like Trump’s supporters from its discipline and punishment.
In essence, the Trump campaign appears to be driven in part by a revolt against the “new racism” that neoliberalism has produced.
Within the framework of neoliberalism, Melamed tells us, multiculturalism “codes the wealth, mobility, and political power of neoliberalism’s beneficiaries to be the just deserts of ‘multicultural world citizens.’” At the same time, it represents those whom “neoliberalism dispossesses” as “handicapped by their own ‘monoculturalism.’” Neoliberal multiculturalism thus innovates “a new racism,” one that “rewards or punishes people for being or not being ‘multicultural Americans,’ an ideological figure that arises out of neoliberal frameworks.” In fact, it “extends racializing practices and discipline beyond the color line” – beyond, that is, the white supremacist logic of race as phenotype. As a consequence, “new categories of privilege and stigma determined by ideological, economic, and cultural criteria overlay older, conventional racial categories” – meaning, that “traditionally recognized racial identities” (like white identity, for example) “can now occupy both sides of the privilege/stigma opposition.”
This is all bad news for those Trump supporters who not only desperately cling to monoculturalism (as expressed, for example, by their desire to “Make America Great [white] Again”), but who also live and work in a hypersegregated white world. As economist/researcher Jonathan Rothwell found, the women and men “who view Trump favorably are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones. Holding other factors constant, support for Trump is highly elevated in areas with few college graduates, far from the Mexican border, and in neighborhoods that stand out within the commuting zone for being white, segregated enclaves, with little exposure to blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.”
Within the framework of neoliberalism, to be so damn white is to be, or to risk being cast as, just another Other.
This might help to explain in part why Trump supporters at times speak of themselves in terms of racial marginalization, terms they conflate with their lost (or perceived lost) fortunes under a neoliberal economic order that they understand to be at odds with their particular identity politics because it is aligned with the multiculturalism they loathe. To them, nothing signifies this alignment more clearly and demonstrably than the triumph of Barack Obama, who for eight years has stood at the helm of the neoliberal global order and who Trump supporters blame for policies (like NAFTA, for example) enacted prior to his administration.
Of course, it goes without saying that neoliberal policies have absolutely created great suffering for many whites who support Trump – especially those who are poor – and have opened a space for neoliberal policymakers and cheer leaders to explicitly and unashamedly frame these whites as undeserving, shiftless and lazy (monocultural) Others. “The truth about these [white] dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die,” wrote Kevin Williamson of the National Review. “Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible…The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.”
White suffering, however, goes hand-in-hand with the fact that whiteness remains privileged within our economic and political order, and in spite of the new racism that neoliberalism has produced. We still operate, as Melamed explains, under “a racial-economic schema” that “continues to associate white bodies and national populations with wealth and nonwhite bodies and national populations with want.” Thus, whites who do fall on the side of stigma are nevertheless privileged Others, a people excluded from the kinds of brutal racial procedures that neoliberalism “adapts,” for example, to “innovate new forms of racialized wage slavery such as one finds in the free trade zones of the global South.” Nor are these white Others subject, to any comparable degree, to the kind of discipline and punishment meted out (for instance) to poor, hypersegregated/monocultural African Americans, discards of our racial capitalist regime.
None of this should be surprising, of course. After all, capital and state power remain firmly in the hands of primarily white elites – like Trump – for whom multiculturalism is a means to expand their wealth and power because it facilitates the opening of markets abroad. Within neoliberal frameworks, in fact, white men in particular are the consummate neoliberal subjects, against which most of us are measured and frequently found wanting.
The willingness of Trump’s supporters to not see in neoliberalism white elite power is itself a testimony to their deep investment in the “old” racism of white supremacy, long ago rejected (Melamed tells us) as the official racism of the state in the service of global economic expansion. That investment compels Trump’s supporters to speak in the very terms that mark them as Other (as we saw recently, for example, in the New York Times video of whites at Trump rallies. While that video exposed the raw racism of the candidate’s supporters, it simultaneously framed them – and invited us to see them – as Other). Ironically enough, the more they vocalize their racism, the more they announce themselves as men and women who are unable and/or unwilling to reconstitute themselves as proper neoliberal subjects, i.e., as neoliberal multiculturalists.
Lest we be tempted to say, “so what?”, we would do well to consider this: the very framework that marks Trump’s racist supporters as Other is also a framework that denies – and renders unspeakable – the existence of racism altogether.
Neoliberal multiculturalism articulates our nation, and the neoliberal project that our government serves, as nonracial (or, as Melamed writes, neoliberalism has effectively incorporated “U.S. multiculturalism in a manner that makes neoliberalism appear just,” while it obscures “the racial antagonisms and inequalities on which the neoliberal project depends”). It condemns as “divisive” antiracist critiques of neoliberalism and U.S. racial politics – condemns them as that which actually creates racial division, discord, and inequality. Moreover, it invites punishment and disapprobation upon those who both challenge racist practices and expose neoliberalism as being the racist plunder that it is.
Thus, it should come as no surprise, for instance, that those who organize under the banner of Black Lives Matter are frequently attacked for defending, against neoliberal policing, those presumed to be undeserving of our regard – the black/monocultural children, women and men who are marginalized not because of any political and economic policies (we are told), but because they have failed to refashion themselves as proper American neoliberal subjects, i.e., as disciplined and efficient rugged individualists, self-styled entrepreneurs and competitors in our free market society. Indeed, BLM defense of the undeserving marks BLM itself as the ultimate Other, to which state surveillance and violence, along with “All Lives Matter!” (an incantation of neoliberal multiculturalism if ever there was one), are appropriate, disciplinary responses.
So what seems to be unfolding before us, then, is a racist revolt against a racist paradigm – a revolt that speaks not so much to a desire on the part of Trump’s supporters to upend neoliberalism per se, as it perhaps speaks to an unspoken desire to reconstitute it as an explicit articulation of white power. And why would they want to upend neoliberalism, after all? Contrary to the myth that they’re all poor whites who are beset by low wage employment, addiction, and so-called broken homes, many of Trump’s supporters, as Rothwell discovered, are not particularly distressed. They haven’t been “disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration.” On average, they don’t “have lower incomes than other Americans.” And they are not “more likely to be unemployed” than the rest of their countrymen and women. To the contrary, they have done relatively well for themselves, even if the communities in which they live have taken a downturn.
But as monoculturalists, they are entirely vulnerable to neoliberal multiculturalism’s racializing discipline.
Trump, then, is not only the promise of an end to that vulnerability; he is also a beginning, the promise of a new new racism, one that resembles – and honors – the racism of old. Or as one supporter put it: “He’s the last chance we have to…preserve the culture I grew up in” – the last chance, that is, to preserve a culture of white economic, social, and political privileges that can be passed on, ad infinitum, to future generations of white monocultural Americans.
Originally published at CounterPunch.
“It is critically important to recognize and start working through how the moment of violence and the moment of neoliberalism coalesce.” – Simon Springer
If we examine through the prism of neoliberalism the killing of Philando Castile – that is, if we think of the killing as a moment when violence and neoliberalism coalesced – then we are immediately confronted with the fact that, to a great extent, the current problem of policing is a problem of neoliberal policing. It is a problem of the production of police as officers whose enforcement of the law is guided by neoliberal policies and procedures, the violence of which no amount of body cameras or use of force training or diversity training can adequately address. Indeed, the fact of neoliberal policing requires from all of us a radically different response to policing and police killings, a response by which we directly confront policing, and our governments’ constitution of law enforcement, as neoliberal practice.
So let’s talk about this moment when neoliberalism and violence converged:
Over the course of fourteen years, Minnesota police initiated at least 52 encounters (a staggering number) with Philando Castile, citing him for minor offenses like driving without wearing a seat belt, speeding, and driving without a muffler. These encounters resulted in Philando being assessed a total of $6,588 in fines and fees.
Given these circumstances, let’s assume (indeed, it is probably safe to assume) that St. Anthony Police Department – the police department that employs Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who killed Philando – operates under a scheme similar to the one that was in place in Ferguson, Missouri when Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown.
Under that scheme (as the U.S. Department of Justice found), City of Ferguson officials “routinely” urged its Chief of Police “to generate more revenue” for the City “through enforcement” and to meet specific revenue goals. In response, the Chief pressured his officers and created a culture in which officers competed with one another in generating revenue; created opportunities to issue citations in order to meet revenue goals; engaged primarily African American citizens as objects from which they could profit as well as subjected them to the department’s and City’s market discipline; and, measured their own value and success as police officers in market terms (the department looked favorably upon and rewarded officers who met their revenue demands).
Through this scheme, the City in essence transformed the police into neoliberal police officers, into men and women who would enforce the law in ways that folded penal discipline into the “market-driven disciplinary logic” of neoliberalism, and whose policing became the expression of what Simon Springer calls neoliberalism’s “fundamental virtues”: “individualism, competitiveness and economic self-sufficiency.”
As they sought out opportunities to generate revenue, officers also engaged in the kind of ‘Othering’ upon which neoliberalism depends. As Springer writes, neoliberalism not only “treats as enemies” those “who don’t fit the mold of a proper neoliberal subject” (e.g., possessive individualism, economic self-sufficiency); it also “actively facilitates the abandonment of ‘Others’ who fall outside of ‘neoliberal normativity’, a conceptual category that cuts across multiple categories of discrimination including class, race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexuality, age and ability.”
Ferguson’s neoliberal police officers (and city officials) regarded African Americans and poor people as those who don’t fit the mold. The latter were not the victims of neoliberal policies that had been embraced on a local, national and global scale. Instead, they were failures, people who were unwilling to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and remake themselves in the ways that the market demanded. Consequently, it was right to treat both as objects by which to profit and “as enemies” who needed to be disciplined and controlled.
That the City’s scheme and the neoliberal logic behind it would create the circumstances that led to Michael Brown’s death is clear. Indeed, through that scheme Ferguson officials and the police department produced a “‘state of exception,’ wherein…exceptional violence” – i.e.., violence that shocks, that “elicits a deep emotional response” – was “transformed into exemplary violence,” into violence that “forms the rule,” and particularly for those excluded and abandoned. Without social media, Brown’s death would have merely been a part of the everyday violence that police directed at Ferguson’s African American community and poor people generally, violence made increasingly likely by the market driven imperative of the Ferguson police force. And of course Brown’s death took place against the backdrop of the invisible violence of the City’s neoliberal policies (creation of unequal and increasingly privatized schools, attraction of business that paid little taxes and employed workers at low wages, privatization of public services, etc.).
If Officer Yanez worked under a governmental scheme similar to the one in Ferguson, then in that moment when he pulled the trigger (four or five times) he embodied, expressed and enacted the neoliberal principles and logic by which his department and his city operate.
But let’s suppose that the St. Anthony Police Department is not a business enterprise disguised as a police department, made so at the behest of city officials. Does that change the conclusion?
We live in the context of a global neoliberal order. And to a frightening degree, “we have become entrepreneurs of our lives,” as Johanna Oksala writes, “competing in the free market called society.” Indeed, we “compete in an ever-expanding range of fields, and invest in ourselves by enhancing our abilities and appearance, by improving our strategies of life coaching and time management. Our life has become an enterprise that we must lead to success.”
In other words, we are all neoliberals now, and as Springer argues, all of us are “implicated in the perpetuation of neoliberalised violence.”
A few months ago, I complained to my partner that the preschool our three-year old attends had not yet taught her the alphabet and numbers – at least not in any way that in my mind reflected academic rigor. “How is she going to succeed?” I asked. “When she gets to kindergarten, all the other kids will be way ahead.” I was ready to pull her out and send her to a school with a more disciplined, focused program, one that would lead to her academic success and, eventually, her career success. Lurking in the back of my mind was the fate of black girls, who have very little the market recognizes as valuable.
Let me repeat: my daughter is three. She attends a school in which learning happens outdoors – in a forest – where the kids discover things like rabbits and tadpoles and swarms of ladybugs and dead birds and, from those things, learn about habitats and camouflage and metamorphosis and death.
Against a neoliberal, market-driven idea of education – one that permeates the public sphere and that has redefined the purpose of school and education – I measured this wide-open, wonderful way of learning and found it wanting. Without even thinking about it, I was ready to subject my three-year old to the disciplinary logic of a neoliberal education and thus to perform an act, the violence of which (to creativity, to learning) I could not see.
Even if Officer Yanez had not performed his duty in accordance with the kind of policies that guided Ferguson’s police department, he nevertheless killed Philando within the context of a broader neoliberal framework that marked men like Philando as always already outside of neoliberal normativity (black male + broke ass car = enemy) and denied them any claim to the neoliberal virtues of economic self-sufficiency and possessive individualism. As to the latter, black people throughout United States history have been cast as anything but a collection of individuals. Instead, we are a monolith that can be used and disposed of at will (hence, Dallas police killer Micah Xavier Johnson is not Micah Xavier Johnson as such; instead, he is Black Lives Matter).
Moreover, that broader neoliberal framework, which defines (in the words of Lester Spence) “freedom in market terms rather than political terms,” is a racial capitalist framework that defines African Americans as unfree Others in order to naturalize class hierarchies. Thus, when Officer Yanez encountered Philando, he encountered an unfree Other who – in spite of that mark – had the audacity to claim the status of a free person by openly carrying a gun. Officer Yanez encountered the enemy.
My point in all of this is that Officer Yanez – like all of us, like me – was (is) immersed in neoliberalism and inevitably internalized as well as reproduced it in his employment life (and probably in his personal life as well). He was armed with it, so to speak, when he encountered and then killed Philando Castile, and I suspect this was true as well for Officer Darren Wilson of Ferguson, Missouri.
Finally, even if St. Anthony’s had not been blatantly transformed into a business enterprise, it nevertheless operates within a national and global paradigm of policing that aligns police with the interests of capital. As Oksala notes, governments throughout the world have adopted policies and practices designed to “intervene in the very being of society in order to make competition the dominant principle for guiding human behavior,” and to “give competition between enterprises and entrepreneurial conduct maximum range.” These policies and practices proceed from the understanding that maintaining these conditions for capital requires “objective, extensive and efficient state-violence,” i.e., “effective practices of policing.” They proceed from the understanding, in other words, that such violence is and must be “inherent to neoliberal governmentality.” When Officer Yanez approached and killed Philando, then, the police department for which he worked was hardly operating outside of this paradigm.
If what we are witnessing in these violent encounters with police is neoliberalism in action, then we have to come up with an entirely different set of solutions to change policing. This is not to dismiss body cameras and training, which will no doubt save some lives. But they are technical fixes that do not address at all the neoliberal character of our police departments, the transformation of peace officers into neoliberal police, the policies that align policing with corporate power, and the violence that neoliberalism produces.
In fact, these fixes amount to our use of the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. After all, through neoliberal policies governments regularly take “outside of the realm of the political” the myriad problems that communities face and then render these problems “technical and actionable,” as Lester Spence has observed. So when we offer solutions like body cameras, we make fixing the police a technical matter rather than a political matter, and in so doing we legitimize and further entrench neoliberal policies and practices that enact invisible, spectacular, and ultimately normalized violence on those who don’t fit the mold. The consequence is that we’ll continue to receive tweets and Facebook feeds of police killings.
But we’ll also see more retaliatory killings of police officers – like the killings that occurred recently in Dallas and Baton Rouge – as more people realize that neoliberal policing, and the violence it enacts, is exactly the kind of policing our governments intend. Such counter-violence, however, is extraordinarily ironic, for individuals who engage in retaliatory killings – individuals who are, and will likely continue to be, primarily men – ultimately express just how deeply they have internalized the ideals and attributes that constitute the Virtuous Neoliberal Citizen: self-reliance or rugged individualism, personal responsibility, distrust of government, efficiency, cruelty. With an Izhmash-Saiga 5.45 mm rifle or some other AK-style weapon in tow, they alone will fix the problem of police violence, and in so doing, they will precisely, and finally, fit the neoliberal mold.
Repairing the police and our system of policing, then, clearly demands that we end not only neoliberal policing, but also the transformation of men and women into neoliberal police. To do this, we must relentlessly break down these moments of violence between officers and the community in order to unearth the neoliberal politics they express and enact, and that our government officials (local, state, national) continue to impose upon us at our expense (and for the benefit of the wealthy), but most especially at the expense of our abandoned, disposed children, women and men.
It is through this kind of work, in fact, that we can begin to upend an order that neoliberal proponents present as the only alternative and that appears all-powerful and all-encompassing. By doing this work, we’ll discover just how much neoliberalism and the violence it produces is, as Oksala makes clear, a “specific, rationally reflected and coordinated way of governing” – including the hiring, training, management and oversight of police – that we absolutely have the power to change.
This article also appears in CounterPunch.