Neoliberalism, the Fiscal Cliff, and the Fate of Black People

As was the case in 2008, when I voted for Barack Obama for president in 2012, I did not embrace the fantasy (perhaps, it should be referred to as "the delusion") that many of my liberal and progressive friends had that Obama was secretly a "lefty" and shared our values and that his "middle of the road approach" on the campaign trail was a ruse, a stratagem, subterfuge, a cleaver maneuver on his part designed to hoodwink white people hesitant to support a black man for president.

Once in office, some black people I know invoking a righteously indignant tone preached to me, the president would be the progressive we had all been hoping and praying for after 8 years of George W. Bush.

Reality has set in for most people on the left. The president is not a "lefty." Although I believe he is slightly left of center, he does not share our core leftist values or our leftist economic and political agenda.

But I voted for him two times. Explain yourself, you might ask. To be honest, and hopefully in my defense, I didn't vote "for" Obama as much as I voted "against" John McCain and Mitt Romney and the neoliberal agenda they represented.

The central guiding force behind both McCain and Romney presidential bids was neoliberalism. According to David Harvey in his excellent book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism:

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional frame appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary…

The neoliberal demonian regularly demand deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision. Since the 1970s, there has been a dramatic turn toward neoliberalism in political and economic practices. "Neoliberalism has," asserts Harvey, "in short, become hegemonic as a mode of discourse."

Neoliberal ideology has become deeply rooted in the way many Americans think. Its influence is so pervasive, it has been "incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world."

Deeply embedded in common sense, the neoliberal frame (for example, austerity, privatization, cuts to the social safety net, and attacks on unions and collective bargaining) is taken for granted by average Americans, the media, and political and economic elites and not subject to much questioning and criticism.

However, the ultimate goal of neoliberalism is not to raise the living standards of all Americans as is often claimed by its adherents. The ultimate goal is capital accumulation and most importantly class power for economic (and a few political) elites. According to Harvey, "The theoretical neoliberal argument has,… primarily worked as a system of justification and legitimation for whatever needed to be done to achieve this goal."

To be sure, the so-called "fiscal cliff" is the latest stratagem being used by corporate and political elites in an effort to steer the nation toward the type of austerity and privatization measures favored by neo-liberals in their decades long effort to revitalize (and stabilize) global capital and restore (and in some instances create) the power of economic elites.

For those of us in the black community, the ongoing negotiations around the so-called fiscal cliff should be a clarion call about this president's so-called lefty credentials, whether they are real or imagined, and the dangers of neoliberal ideology.

What the president does or does not concede to Republicans in these budget and tax negotiations will have potentially grave consequences for communities of color and black people in particular.

The next time you're tempted to join the neoliberal bandwagon and attack public sector workers and the size of "big government," keep in mind: according to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, "Today, almost 45 percent of all Black women who are employed work in a public-sector job, and more than half of all African Americans professionals are employed by some sector of the state." Her larger point is that, "The bipartisan campaign against "privileged" public-sector workers threatens to erode some of the gains of the civil rights and Black Power movements."

And, according to the report "Austerity for Whom," released by United for a Fair Economy last year: "Blacks are 30 percent more likely than the overall workforce to work in public sector jobs as teachers, social workers, bus drivers, public health inspectors and other valuable roles, and they are 70 percent as likely to work for the federal government. Public-sector jobs have also provided Black and Latino workers better opportunities for professional advancement."

Moreover, blacks depend disproportionately on social safety net programs due to the lingering effects of historical racism and the contemporary impact of structural racism. We black folks better remind the president as he negotiates the "best" austerity strategy (not what we really need, which is an alternative to austerity) with Republicans about all our elderly parents and other relatives that depend solely on Social Security checks and food stamps to keep food on the table, Medicare and Medicaid to keep them alive, and Section 8 to keep a roof over their heads.

Neoliberalism's talk about the need for greater privatization and ending so-called "Big Government" is a direct attack on lower-and middle-class black people's social and economic well-being.


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