Lisa Duggan: How Neoliberalism Has Helped Undermine the New Deal and the Great Society

Roundup: Historians' Take

An interview on NPR with historian Lisa Duggan, author of the new book, The Twilight of Equality: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Dec. 8, 2003):

TAVIS SMILEY: Let me start by asking you what you mean by neoliberalism?

Prof. DUGGAN: When I talk about neoliberalism, it's actually a term that's very well recognized in Europe and Latin America and some other parts of the world. In the United States it's less often immediately understood as a set of pro-corporate, pro-business policies that were put in place by a pro-corporate social movement that really got its legs in the 1970s. And by the 1980s, had in place a series of economic policies that affected the entire globe and were centered in global institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization. And also with really strong ties to the US government through the US Treasury Department.

So these were a set of policies that sort of masqueraded as purely managerial or technical, economic policies that were going to help enhance democracy and expand wealth. But, in fact, the effect that they've had over the past 30 years is to redistribute resources, all kinds of resources, economic resources, political resources, cultural resources to redistribute them upward so that now we're living in a globe that has the highest concentration of wealth in the history of the planet. And this is partly a result of neoliberal policies that have been forwarded in the United States by both the Democratic and the Republican Party.

SMILEY: Let's get more specific here and talk about how these policies have affected social, political and economic issues in this country. Let me start with the welfare state. How does neoliberalism affect or how has it affected this country's notion of the welfare state?

Prof. DUGGAN: Well, one of the key words for neoliberalism is the term 'privatization.' You hear it a lot coming from both Democratic and Republican candidates. The call is to take institutions and practices and services that had been in the hands of the state, that there was a strong push during the New Deal and the--to put in the hands of the state a lot of care for dependent citizens and for people who are unemployed. But during the 1970s and later, the push has been to take all kinds of welfare and so-called entitlement programs, as well as things like prisons and garbage collection and schools, and to put them in the hands, instead, of private corporations, private profit-making corporations. The impact on this has been to remove a lot of the social safety net that was put in place during the New Deal, the limited welfare state put in place during the New Deal has really been stripped down and is continuing to be.

SMILEY: Lisa, I can make an educated guess here, I won't, and I'll let you respond more directly. But I'm listening to you explain this concept of neoliberalism and I hear pretty clearly who the losers are. But who are the winners? Who's benefiting from neoliberalism?

Prof. DUGGAN: Well, in the first instance, neoliberalism was a set of policies that were put together by corporations based in the United States and Europe at a time when global competition was driving profit rates up. So since neoliberal policies have been dominant around the globe for the past 20 years or so, corporate profit rates have risen dramatically in response to those policies. So the immediate winners are the profit holders in global corporations. But also various political elites around the world have also profited from a concentration of political power and the managers who run and supervise international financial institutions are also the winners in a sense.

But there's also a kind of strange shift that's happened about over the past 10 years. In the United States specifically, neoliberals initially made alliances with conservatives--moral conservatives, religious conservatives. They made electoral alliances through the Reagan administration and in company with, you know, corporate allies. And then with racial nationalists and anti-feminists and anti-gay forces within the moral conservative ranks in order to shore up the winners in a set of other sets of inequalities--racial inequalities, gender inequalities and sexual inequalities.

But over about the past 10 years, there's been a slight shift away from that set of alliances and towards forwarding a kind of phony, multicultural, egalitarianism that promotes a very narrow form of equality politics that offers a limited kind of inclusion but that doesn't do any kind of redistribution.

SMILEY: Finally, because there was a time in this country when social movements did, in fact, allow for optimism to--just how to simplify it--what can and what should inspire change now in the political direction of our government?

Prof. DUGGAN: Well, I'm hoping that this is actually a time of opportunity for progressives in this country and around the world. Actually, neoliberal policies in Latin America are taking a pretty big beating right now and there are lots of protests around the world against the anti-democratic and inaccessible global financial institutions. I think finally the Bush administration is being exposed for the kind of lying that it's been doing for the cutback on all kinds of civil liberties for those sort of coming out into the open of a kind of unilateral violent US imperialism. I think it's a moment, as bleak as things are, to actually start to expose and see and look at these policies and say, 'Hey, you know, these are not neutral economic policies. These are not about wealth expansion and the spread of democracy. These are a bunch of policies that are just making inequalities worse and restricting public life, debasing public life in a very serious way.'

So if we can all see--all of us who advocate downward distributions of all kinds, those of us who are looking for lesbian and gay equality, for women's equality, for racial equality, I'm hoping that we can see that we actually belong in alliance with each other and not dismiss each other like make--the way that some people in economic justice movements will roll their eyes and be dismissive about so-called identity politics or so-called cultural politics. Or the way in which some equality lobbies might not pay enough attention to questions of political economy, I'm hoping that we can see that we have so much more in common than what divides us and that is what we have in common is a wish for the downward redistribution, for a more egalitarian kind of spread of every kind of resource, political, cultural and material.

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