Neoliberalism’s War Against the Radical Imagination

Democracy is on life support in the United States. Throughout the social order, the forces of predatory capitalism are on the march. Their ideological and material traces are visible everywhere—in the dismantling of the welfare state, the increasing role of corporate money in politics, the assault on unions, the expansion of the corporate-surveillance-military state, widening inequalities in wealth and income, the defunding of higher education, the privatization of public education, and the war on women’s reproductive rights.

Students Hold Up a Sign that Says "Free Education."

How can we resist the neoliberal pressure to reorient our colleges and universities toward market-driven values rather than public values? Here, students at Cooper Union in New York City protest the imposition of student fees for the first time in the free school’s history. Credit: Creative Commons/Michael Fleshman.

As Marxist geographer David Harvey, political theorist Wendy Brown, and others have observed, neoliberalism’s permeation is achieved through various guises that collectively function to undercut public faith in the defining institutions of democracy.

As market mentalities and moralities tighten their grip on all aspects of society, public institutions and public spheres are first downsized, then eradicated. When these important sites of democratic expression—from public universities to community health care centers—vanish, what follows is a serious erosion of the discourses of justice, equality, public values, and the common good. Moreover, as literary critic Stefan Collini has argued, under the regime of neoliberalism, the “social self” has been transformed into the “disembedded individual,” just as the notion of the university as a public good is now repudiated by the privatizing and atomistic values at the heart of a hyper-market-driven society.

We live in a society that appears to embrace the vocabulary of “choice,” which is ultimately rooted in a denial of reality. In fact, most people experience daily an increasing limitation of choices, as they bear the heavy burden of massive inequality, social disparities, the irresponsible concentration of power in relatively few hands, a racist justice and penal system, the conversion of schools into detention centers, and a pervasive culture of violence and cruelty—all of which portends a growing machinery of social death, especially for those disadvantaged by a ruthless capitalist economy. Renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz is one of many public intellectuals who have repeatedly alerted Americans to the impending costs of gross social inequality.

Demonstrator Holds Sign: "Education NOT Incarceration."

As neoliberalism has taken hold, our society has become increasingly structured around the state-sanctioned violence of mass incarceration. Here, a demonstrator in Chicago protests youth incarceration and the high rates of sexual violence against youth in prison. Credit: Sarah Rhee (

Inequality is not simply about disproportionate amounts of wealth and income in fewer hands, it is also about the monopolization of power by the financial and corporate elite.

As power becomes global and is removed from local and nation-based politics, what is even more alarming is the sheer number of individuals and groups who are being defined by the free-floating class of ultra-rich and corporate powerbrokers as disposable, redundant, or a threat to the forces of concentrated power. Power, particularly the power of the largest corporations, has become less accountable, and the elusiveness of illegitimate power makes it difficult to recognize. Disposability has become the new measure of a neoliberal society in which the only value that matters is exchange value. Compassion, social responsibility, and justice are relegated to the dustbin of an older modernity that now is viewed as either quaint or a grim reminder of a socialist past.

The Institutionalization of Injustice

A regime of repression, corruption, and dispossession has become the organizing principle of society in which an ironic doubling takes place. Corporate bankers and powerbrokers trade with terrorists, bankrupt the economy, and commit all manner of crimes that affect millions, yet they go free. Meanwhile, across the United States, citizens are being criminalized for all sorts of behaviors ranging from dress code infractions in public schools to peaceful demonstrations in public parks. As Michelle Alexander has thoroughly documented in her book The New Jim Crow, young men and women of color are being jailed in record numbers for nonviolent offenses, underscoring how justice is on the side of the rich, wealthy, and powerful.

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