02/22/2016 12:22 pm ET | Updated 5 days ago

Freedom in the Neoliberal Eden


The U.S. Department of Justice's report on the Ferguson Police Department made explicit a novel, if sick, notion of government which a lot of Americans are experiencing, but few probably took explicit notice of, and even fewer learned about in their elementary school history class. Policing in Ferguson had lost any connection to governance. According to the report: "Ferguson's law enforcement practices [were] shaped by the City's focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs." The Ferguson criminal justice system supplemented an inadequate tax system by criminalizing quality of life infractions, over-policing, over-fining, and ultimately incarcerating the poor and overwhelming African-American part of the Ferguson community. The local court system and police department in Ferguson had morphed into extortionists in the service of the State.

This new mode of "governing" is not peculiar to Ferguson. Even in a far more economically vibrant place like New York City, the police slow-down following the protests over the Eric Garner killing didn't result in an uptick in crime, but did cost the City $5 million in fines (including parking and speeding tickets, other moving violations and petty crimes).

How did America's government get this way? Once - and possibly still - the world's model, it has become so predatory that the very meanings of words like "freedom", "responsibility", and "governance" have been perverted to the point that we can hardly speak to one another anymore.

Let's start with freedom. It is central to the way Americans understand themselves, their country, and the form of government they claim willingness to live under. We are taught that things like the first ten constitutional amendments, our system of checks-and-balances, and the preservation of states' rights through federalism ensure freedom for us all. Yet the idea that Constitution was ever much about freedom is pure historical erasure.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution almost all had owned slaves, and the greatest evidence of their brilliance may be that they managed to craft a document so renowned for its treatment of liberty, while in the same stroke preserving slavery as the bedrock institution of the American economy. Even at its inception, the Constitution was probably better understood than it is today as being very much about the protection of private property (including the human form) and maintaining law and order (often linked the suppression of rebellious slaves and poor whites).

All the same, it was to an extent then--and became widely so over time--an epic achievement in the advancement of notions of freedom, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and maybe even life itself.

What exactly "good" notions of freedom and liberty consist in is a conversation unto itself. The spiritually uplifting roots trace back to the Greeks, enlightenment values, and more generally the opportunity for individuals to achieve self-fulfillment and steer clear of rapacious government. How different classes, ethnicities, and generations of Americans experience freedom and liberty no doubt vary, and the essence of these concepts will always remain somewhat intangible. But we should be at least able to say something about what it is not. For example, it would seem it is not the experience of today living in Ferguson or Flint.

Or is it?

Obviously, the notion that the lives of people in Ferguson or Flint might in anyway embody a particular brand of freedom requires some explanation. So let's leave the Midwestern dystopias for a moment to consider the recent history of the idea of freedom. The Cold War was not the first U.S. military conflict justified by claims of freedom. But unlike other Twentieth Century wars, it was a struggle over competing economic systems rather than physical territory and so the U.S. victory provided a rare platform for a re-conception of freedom as highly related to economic dogma.

As we can see from the frenzy on both sides of the political aisle to capture the legacy of Ronald Reagan, the man who supposedly smote the Communists has risen to epic importance in the telling of our national story. He is in a sense now an American hero and law-giver on par with other great war-victors like FDR and Lincoln. Consistent with the underlying theme of the Cold War, Reagan used his victory platform to pronounce that it was, after all, government that was the problem, and that its elimination the lesson to be learned from the just-won battle. His
teachings were soon interpreted and spread by political apostles like Grover Norquist who taught us to drown government in a bathtub rather than overtly destroy it.

Perhaps the most prophetic voice from the dreamy days of imminent Soviet collapse was Maggie Thatcher who announced that "there is no such thing as society" ...and that "there is no alternative" but to embrace "The Market" as our savior. Freedom became synonymous with"free markets and free trade."

As David Harvey has explained, these doctrine function much like occult systems or religious faiths, given that they don't hold-up to much logical or empirical testing. For example, we are taught that properly arranged markets generate beneficent energies like "trickle down" wealth and rising economic tides that lift all boats. These notions, like all good Voodoo or religious principles, are carefully constructed to survive just about any amount of real-life failure. When the forces don't manifest or the messiah never gets here, it is always because there was inadequate practice of the rituals or belief in the dogma. In other words, we always have to make markets more "free", scale-back additional regulation, cut-back further on government services, for the powers to emerge as the economic laws prescribe.

These retold tales of how freedom plays (or should play) out further changes what it means to be "personally responsie," traditionally also an issue of substantial religious concern.

When nothing trickles down, when boats don't rise, here is the explanation that follows: it is not the system that it is at fault, but the character of those people who failed to prosper in it. In this supposedly radically free landscape, you will find yourself entwined in an unsatisfiable obligation. Yes, there is the ever-present Prosperity Gospel stuff we hear from the Christian right, but there is also an even wider-scale acceptance of financial responsibility, credit worthiness, and general economic success - whether earned or not - as equivalent to moral uprightness.

The consequence of not maintaining such standards is naturally a fall from grace, with harsh, but always deserved economic consequences. In other words, when the government acts to establish "free-trade zones", it is just doing what is morally and objectively "right," restoring affected areas (like those covered by NATFA or TPP) to their natural orders, in which peoples' fates are in their own hands, and we are all thus unprecedentedly free. The new vaunted freedoms happen within a restricted landscape - a neoliberal one - in which it is our responsibility to survive, and the State's merely to preserve the merciless, supposedly natural and neutral, rules of the game.

Do you see how this begins leading back to Ferguson/Flint-like hell? These places are far from counter-example to the supposed spread of freedom; they are in fact its proof. Because while freedom is obviously and wildly abundant for the fortunate few, we are supposed to believe it was also metaphysically, if not evidently, there too for the damned. But they forfeited their freedom by dint of their individual or collective lax personal and highly financialized responsibility.

Of course, the rhetoric of "the free market" is a brand of magical thinking. The very concept constitutes a kind of linguistic sleight-of-hand, directing our attention from the myriad ways that governments - local, state, as well as the federal government - intervene on behalf of and in ways that benefit corporate interests. Under Bill Clinton alone, for example, the Omnibus
Crime Bill, NAFTA, welfare reform and deregulation of the media helped underwrite one of the greatest transfers of wealth from the 99% to the 1% that the world has ever seen.

At the same time that this trickle-up phenomenon has been occurring, the market values of entrepreneurial know-how and initiative were applied to everything from healthcare and urban planning to public education and universities. Businessmen style themselves as the best examples of how government should be run and how we should all conduct our lives.

As Michelle Alexander has explained, the claim of neutrality also impacts raced and gendered spheres. The judicial system too claims to be objective and "colorblind," just as it manufactures a four-fold increase in the prison population, largely by jailing Blacks and Latinos.

We are instructed to believe this is just an unfortunate outcome of the race-blind system, a chance indication of where those lacking personal (financialized) responsibility happen to reside, and of course--what they overwhelmingly look like.

It is important to remember too that this ideological revolution was not just achieved through an awakening in response to prophetic leadership, it was backed by a highly successful PR program. In Twilight of Equality, Lisa Duggan provides examples of how corporate hacks and politicians in the pocket of big business organized to manage public opinion and create consensus for government
policies that prioritize austerity measures such as tax-cutting and down-sizing. Duggan quotes a 1998 article by Alisa Solomon in the Village Voice Education Supplement, that points out, "The best way to reduce expenditures of tax-levied to demonize the beneficiaries of that spending." We can see how this practice continues in right-wing assaults on Planned Parenthood, the city of Detroit and teachers' unions around the country.

A truly great religion cannot succeed without heretics and scapegoats (did teachers really cause the 2008 collapse?) so the program made sure to create them. The racialization of the Greeks as a bunch of lazy, welfare queens free-loading on the good, white people of Northern Europe is yet another mobilization of this strategy.

It is not only the insanity of treating places like Flint and Ferguson as compatible with any notion of free society that proves the fallacy and sickness of these ways of thinking. There is the lunacy of treating ethereal entities like "corporations" as people without responsibilities, possessing constitutionally enshrined privileges to inject billions of dollars into elections. And there is the promotion of torture, drone strikes, and leadership-by-billionaire, all of which bring us to the same conclusion from the other side.

Fortunately, there does seem to be a sanity-test of sorts still going on. As noted, it is our very own U.S. Justice Department that found fault with the economized criminal justice system in operation in Ferguson, and some in Congress actually think there may be a national responsibility owed to the children of Flint, rather than just a need to treat them as casualties of their community's self-inflicted moral and financial poverty. The notion that all lives really do matter--and are never, if brutalized and commodified, actually free--has some growing currency. So there is still perhaps time to grasp what it might really be like to be free, and allow that idea to change us.