U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Neoliberalism and the Spirit of the 60s

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, today’s post is on the relationship between neoliberalism, defined as unfettered capitalism with a smiley face, and the spirit of the sixties, understood as public tolerance of things that were once intolerable, such as racial and sexual difference. I first wrote about this relationship here nearly two years ago, when I summarized a compelling Nancy Fraser essay on “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History.” Putting what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call “the new spirit of capitalism” to work, Fraser argued that “the cultural changes jump-started by… second wave [feminism], salutary in themselves, have served to legitimate a structural transformation of capitalist society that runs directly counter to feminist visions of a just society.” At that time, I wrote: “Second-wave feminism acted as an unintentional ideological softener for neoliberalism as women poured into the labor market in numbers never before seen.”

In retrospect, I think “unintentional” is the wrong word to describe the relationship between neoliberalism and the spirit of the 60s.

In an interview with the editors of a new and what looks to be fun little magazine, Jacobin, Walter Benn Michaels, who has argued “against diversity,” against the racial and ethnic “diversity” on campuses that merely helps to legitimate a university system that keeps poor people out, makes the case that corporate culture is just as invested in the spirit of the 60s as is academic culture: “There isn’t a single US corporation that doesn’t have an HR office committed to respecting the differences between cultures, to making sure that your culture is respected whether or not your standard of living is.” Why is this? He continues:

…multiculturalism and diversity more generally are even more effective as a legitimizing tool, because they suggest that the ultimate goal of social justice in a neoliberal economy is not that there should be less difference between the rich and the poor—indeed the rule in neoliberal economies is that the difference between the rich and the poor gets wider rather than shrinks—but that no culture should be treated invidiously and that it’s basically OK if economic differences widen as long as the increasingly successful elites come to look like the increasingly unsuccessful non-elites. So the model of social justice is not that the rich don’t make as much and the poor make more, the model of social justice is that the rich make whatever they make, but an appropriate percentage of them are minorities or women. That’s a long answer to your question, but it is a serious question and the essence of the answer is precisely that internationalization, the new mobility of both capital and labor, has produced a contemporary anti-racism that functions as a legitimization of capital rather than as resistance or even critique.

But there’s more to the relationship between our contemporary corporate culture and the spirit of the 60s than just multiculturalism. The anti-authoritarianism of the 60s, which sprung from the alienation felt by the white, middle-class college students being trained for the positions in the soulless white-collar world, was also sopped up by the neoliberal order. David Steigerwald smartly makes this connection in his essay, “Where Have You Gone, Holden Caulfield? Why We Aren’t ‘Alienated’ Anymore,” which Ray already cited in a post earlier this week. Steigerwald writes: “the structures of power that made the early postwar a period of alienation were reoriented after 1970, partly in response to the political sensibilities that erupted in the Sixties and partly in response to the shape of the post-industrial economy.” He continues:

American life is as bureaucratized as ever, but Wal-Mart-like, private corporations and public institutions have put on a smiley face. The cloddish corporation of mid-century was “re-invented” into the nimble “new corporation” that practices “total quality management” or any of a thousand other business school schemes designed to convince workers that they are a “team” rather than isolated individuals. The stone-faced automaker has given way to Apple, which flirts with revolution.

So the cunning of history is as such: neoliberalism—capitalism on steroids—thrives off of the spirit of a movement that many thought was formed as resistance to capitalism, or at least, as resistance to the symptoms of capitalism: imperialism, racism, sexism, etc. It turns out, expressions of tolerance and rebellion are quite profitable. This theoretical depth serves as a critique of recent historical defenses of corporate America, such as Jennifer Delton’s Racial Integration and Corporate America, 1940-1990.

But the story does not end there. Slavoj Žižek has long given the treatment to multiculturalism, terming it the “cultural logic of multinational capitalism.” Recently, he extends this to a critique of liberal tolerance. But his argument has evolved. It is not just that tolerance of racial and other differences allows for tolerance of economic inequality. Žižek argues that tolerance is not just the new form of class exploitation. It is also the new form of racism, or cultural intolerance. He writes:

Why are today so many problems perceived as problems of intolerance, not as problems of inequality, exploitation, injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, not emancipation, political struggle, even armed struggle? The immediate answer is the liberal multiculturalist’s basic ideological operation: the “culturalization of politics”—political differences, differences conditioned by political inequality, economic exploitation, etc., are naturalized/neutralized into “cultural” differences, different “ways of life,” which are something given, something that cannot be overcome, but merely “tolerated.”

In other words, the growing class chasm is naturalized as a cultural chasm, or as a gap between races, ethnicities, religions, etc. In the U.S., the discourse about the so-called “underclass” nicely fits this schema. And rather than fight to obliterate this chasm, we tolerate it. And the politics of tolerance are actually the politics of anti-politics celebrated by neoliberalism. Zizek quotes Wendy Brown on this:

The retreat from more substantive visions of justice heralded by the promulgation of tolerance today is part of a more general depoliticization of citizenship and power and retreat from political life itself. The cultivation of tolerance as a political end implicitly constitutes a rejection of politics as a domain in which conflict can be productively articulated and addressed, a domain in which citizens can be transformed by their participation. (Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire, p. 89.)

In the Jacobin interview, Walter Benn Michaels contends that the Tea Party is the only known resistance to neoliberalism in the U.S. He makes this case based on their aversion to illegal immigration, which so nicely serves the interests of the neoliberal race to the bottom of the wage scale. He is not arguing that Tea Party activists are theoretically aware as such, made clear by their antipathy to the welfare state. But perhaps Michaels is onto something. Perhaps the Tea Party is a rejection of the neoliberal politics of anti-politics, the politics of tolerance? Or am I crazy?

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hey Andrew,

    Great post. I saw Walter Benn Michaels speak on this topic at NYU a while back. He’s compelling if a bit over the top.

    I think there’s a lot bad about neoliberalism and capitalism more broadly. But I don’t understand why people on the left are afraid to acknowledge liberating, anti-racist, anti-sexist potential that capitalism can have, both theoretically and in practice. In its ideal form, at least, the logic of the market should not discriminate. The best person gets hired. Obviously it doesn’t work this way entirely in practice, but certainly there’s a sense in which some elements of the corporate world discriminate far less than the state, for example. This is especially true I think towards gays and lesbians.

    I’m not sure if this is your view or a view you’re attributing to others, but it seems inaccurate to me to label “imperialism, racism, sexism” as “symptoms of capitalism.” It strikes me that these things were around before modern capitalism, and also affect (infect?) socialism, fascism, and many other ideologies, left and right.

    I think there’s a lot to WBM’s argument, but I also think he downplays the importance of culture (ethnic, religious, etc) in people’s lives, regardless of their class background.

    Dave Weinfeld (aka Weiner)

  2. the horse is definitely not yet dead.

    this is all very interesting, and reminds me that I’ve wanted to sit down and read both WBM and Wendy Brown, for different reasons, for some time.

    To me, the really important part of the WBM citation you give, “a contemporary anti-racism that functions as a legitimization of capital rather than as resistance or even critique” is “functions as.” i basically agree with his position, but would like to hear a more nuanced answer about why it is that anti-racism at the present moment in the US does function like this. my own sense is that it has less to do with the content of, say, affirmative action or anti-racisms imagined as tolerance, than with the hegemonic force exerted by neo-liberal ideology. but, then, i haven’t read Wendy Brown yet…

    also, Dave, I would strongly defend Andrew’s claim that “imperialism, racism, sexism” are symptoms of capitalism. these are all modern phenomena, and although it is important the recognize that people were terrible to one another long before there was anything like capitalism, modernity does have its specificity.

  3. Capitalism uses imperialism, racism and sexism as a control mechanism for the efficient organization of the market. Those things are not new but how they are used is a particular modern practice. The feminism of the 1960s appears to be timed with the need for more labor.

  4. Dave: I think my post implicitly acknowledges the good that has happened within the corporate capitalist system, i.e., there is less racism, sexism, and homophobia, though certainly not less imperialism! Whether this is because of the system or because the system has responded to movements that challenged it is another matter, and probably depends on whether one is apt to celebrate or lament that the corporate capitalist system. On this subjective divide, I recommend that you read my review of James Livingston’s latest book, and his really smart reply, here at this blog:



    Eric: I think anti-racism legitimizes capital because capital hates boundaries, and racism is a pretty large boundary in a world where the vast majority of people–workers, consumers–are people of color. But, like I tried to point out in my post, racism takes on new and strange forms, including as tolerance.

    Ben: people are always discussing Zizek on the internets!

  5. Beyond critiquing liberalism or even de facto capitalism, I think our obligation lies in critiquing finance capital and corporatism. The problem isn’t really directly ideological (although there are obstacles of ideology that cloud our thinking about things). The problem lies in the means by which finance capital and large multi-nationals have seized power over the welfare state. Perhaps this is a symptom of capitalism, but the disease can’t really be called capitalist anymore. I think we are more apt to named our global economy what Citigroup dubbed in its internal memos a ‘plutonomy machine’ and in which, in their words, “economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few, and the rest a world in which the wealthy class exploits.” They admit that they key to success is manipulating capitalist-friendly governments for access to markets and resources and use their financial leverage to gain further political momentum to maximize profits. After all, “The earth is being held up by the muscular arms of its entrepreneur-plutocrats, like it, or not.”

    The amount of income disparity we’re seeing nowadays can’t really exist without states legitimizing the power of Big Capital (who say no to unions, no to raises, no to benefits, etc.), which in turn works to legitimize the political power of capital-friendly governments via campaign finance (so they won’t have to pay taxes and fund the welfare state).

    Obviously, people have been liberated under capitalism as social movements have pressured society to respect identity politics, but that’s more a success of social movements than of liberal capitalism itself, imo. They have co-opted the popular beliefs in racial, gender, religious freedoms in their marketing so as to expand their markets. Now, there are legitimately liberal and egalitarian-minded people have exploited the machine to become highly successful CEOs and not every company is purely evil and exploitative, but neoliberal marketing doesn’t necessarily care about principles, merely profit. In fact, I would say that in general, Big Capital despises granting real economic freedoms (like paying a living wage, paying for healthcare whether it be via paying taxes or by providing insurance, or employing more workers instead of paying more to shareholders). I think they want people to focus on individual identity politics and emphasize individual consumer choices before they start to analyze systemic, societal problems. Thus, the liberal struggles for universal individual freedom, egalitarian global market economies, etc., aren’t merely tolerated by capital, but inoculated with Capital’s own desires. Thus, I think they have the tendency to reduce narratives of universal human struggles into individualist consumer choices and to declare that the battles waged in the 60s and 70s have already been won, for we’re all free to consume what we want. Thus, there are no more political gains to be made. Sure, there are elements of economic inequality, but we are led to believe the market will sort this all out. Hence, the de-politicization of our struggles.

  6. I think the struggle for the left right now is to re-politicize itself with demands that can combat the economic structures that powerfully favor the hegemony of global finance capital. Leftist movements have been suckered into merely (but mercilessly) focusing on curtailing austerity measures and ending pointless wars while we lack any feasible alternatives to plutocratic capitalism. We’re taking two giant leaps backward for every little step forward. We need a global class struggle fighting for the interest of labor and sustainable economic growth. We need capital controls to curtail exploitative, unsustainable financial market behavior. I see plenty of resistance, but none that pose real alternatives, just mere resistance.

    My favorite Indian economist, Prabhat Patnaik, wrote an article a bit over a month ago about this dilemma. All the major players are caught up in this system of globalized trade and financial flows. No one national government really has the political leverage to stand up the global financial power. It’s going to take a real international movement with transitional demands that retrieve power back from high finance and into the hands of labor movements. Check out that Patnaik article at: http://www.flonnet.com/fl2723/stories/20101119272302200.htm

  7. Kyle, Where can one find those citigroup memos you’re citing?

    Andrew, It’s true that racism takes many forms, sometimes ‘tolerant’ ones. I guess i’m not sure that capitalism really hates boundaries of all kinds. large corporations are perfectly happy to exploit national boundaries when it suits them. capital likes for labor to be mobile, but not so mobile as capital–so that scabs can easily be found for the coal mine, but wages remain radically unequal in different parts of the world. it is certainly true that ‘contemporary capitalism’ likes for difference to proliferate, and that this is a kind of toleration, but it isn’t the same as anti-racism.

    maybe this has been said elsewhere, but i would object fundamentally to WBM’s implied claim that today we have class rather than racial differentiation, that we are at least tending in this direction. i’m not a sociologist, but i feel like i’m on pretty firm ground asserting that race and class correlate strongly in the US today, that our various accepted racial or ethnic categories by no means share equally in wealth or poverty–nor is it particularly in the interests of corporations that they be, in fact, i would argue, precisely this kind of strong quasi-cultural *boundary* is productive, is a source of profit.

    It seems to me that a vigorous anti-racism in America is by necessity also going to make economic claims of a kind extremely upsetting to the established order (MLKjr by the end of his like, for instance, or in a different directly, Malcolm X). strongly redistributive social-justice politics, a kind of politics that makes claims on the power of the state to intervene economically in the name of what is essentially an historically constituted group–this is going to be difficult.

    So, again, while I agree that in many cases *contemporary* anti-racism ends up serving capital (or, less polemically state), doesn’t ruffle the economic order-or-profit particularly), I do not believe that this has anything to do with anti-racism as such, but rather perhaps with the distorting intellectual power of neo-liberal assumptions. but i’m uncomfortable with this very line of argument because ‘neo-liberal ideology’ is too easy of an answer.

    I haven’t read the WBM interview carefully–I bet he talks more about ‘diversity’ as a positive value than anti-racism as negative one?

  8. Sorry the above is a bit garbled and not too well organized. I’m not totally clear on what I think the important distinctions to make here are—it seems strongly to me that a couple of different issues are mixed up here, and I’m not quite yet sure how to bring clarity to it.

    also: I mentioned King and Malcolm X. I think it’s not completely crazy to suggest that the kind of economically aware anti-racism that they represented was silenced in the US by violence, state violence, even. I’m not a US historian, though, so doubtless I’ve got a distorted view of the 1970s–but I don’t want to underestimate the repressive force brought to bear by the US state especially on african american activism, which is really the relevant group here.

  9. For the citigroup memos:
    -Part 1:
    -Part 2:

    You know, I think they were actually mentioned in Capitalism: A Love Story but everyone always forgets about them. It’s a shame because these memos really show you a lot about the tone of high finance during the oughts, really vividly exhibits the psychology of 21st century capitalism. I know it’s crass, but I don’t think I’d be wrong to say that finance capital is basically like, “Well, most of the world is fucked and it would be collectively rational to be jumping ship right now but we’re gonna stick to driving this ship into the bottom of the ocean at full throttle so long as we’re guaranteed to get rich as fuck and the rest of the world has to deal with the messy aftermath.”

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