The Big Picture: Defending Society

This is the second installment of The Big Picture, a public symposium on what’s at stake in Trump’s America, co-organized by Public Books and NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge. Read IPK Director Eric Klinenberg’s introduction here.
Why, today, are many of the most antidemocratic voices in the United States not merely protected by Constitutional freedoms but draping themselves in them? Neoliberal political culture, now almost 40 ...

Why, today, are many of the most antidemocratic voices in the United States not merely protected by Constitutional freedoms but draping themselves in them? Neoliberal political culture, now almost 40 years in the making, did not create neofascists, but it did create the conditions in which they represent themselves as freedom fighters, liberating individuals and the nation alike from suffocating laws, policies, and cultural norms imposed by liberals and the left. Neoliberalism fostered this development through a starkly market-libertarian meaning of freedom, crucially combined with a relentless attack on “the social” and all that it comprises—social powers, social justice, the very idea of a society tended in common. Let us consider the problem of freedom and the attack on the social sequentially before considering the novel antidemocratic form made by their alchemy.

Freedom has many possible permutations. Its neoliberal variant reduces to the absence of coercion, especially by the state but also by anyone or anything with the power to enforce its rules or norms. For Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and other postwar neoliberal intellectuals, uncoerced action is freedom’s only meaning. All other meanings—freedom as emancipation from powers of domination, freedom as capacity, and freedom as participation in popular sovereignty—are simply nonsense from their point of view.

The neoliberal prizing of freedom as noncoercion also goes quite far, challenging a plethora of restrictions on individual or corporate will, including state regulations, taxation, public monopolies, and policies that aim at distributive or social justice. Thus has “freedom” in recent decades become the animating language of tax revolts, challenges to affirmative action, promotion of voucher systems to replace public school funding, privatization of public goods, and, of course, a series of Supreme Court decisions enhancing the economic and political power of corporations.

A Supreme Court majority schooled in neoliberal jurisprudence and eager to empower conservative and business interests has been especially important to securing this meaning and practice of freedom. As corporations began to rebel against the regulatory and tax state in the late 1970s, they soon found support in a Court quite willing to use the First Amendment as a deregulatory tool on their behalf. Conservative and Christian political movements have also benefited from the Court’s willingness to turn the First Amendment into a challenge to equality and antidiscrimination law.

The left must reckon with the fact that not just the meaning of liberty but its context is protean.

Thus, recent decades have featured a cascade of Court decisions overturning, in the name of freedom, regulations and mandates aimed at securing democracy or social welfare. These decisions have unleashed corporate money in politics (to protect “political speech”); dismantled restrictions on corporate advertising (to protect “commercial speech”); subverted corporate compliance with the contraceptive coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act (to protect corporate “freedom of conscience”); and permitted escape from antidiscrimination clauses concerning LGBT customers (to protect “religious freedom” and, possibly, in a case yet to be decided, “artistic speech”).

As it granted American businesses new powers as “persons” with unqualified First Amendment freedoms, the Court was also busy dismantling worker and consumer solidarities in the name of freedom, upholding “right-to-work” attacks on unions and corporate challenges to class action law. However, it is not only conflicts between capital and labor, or between capital and consumers, that are tilted heavily in capital’s favor by the anti-egalitarian thrust of neoliberal freedom. Equality statutes, health and environmental regulations, gun control, and public goods of every kind have been challenged and overturned by the assertion of rights to be unrestricted by the federal government or social norms.

The power of this stark new form of liberty to dismantle equality and other justice claims was intensified by another plank of the neoliberal revolution, namely its attack on “the social.” Famously captured by Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 declaration that “there is no such thing as society,” only “individual men and women and … families,” this principle, drawn directly from Hayek, is easily recognized as a challenge to public provisioning and an encomium to individual responsibility. Its meaning and effect went much further, however, and also deeper into the culture, to reject every kind of justice except that delivered by the market.

“The social,” Hayek insisted, has no meaning and no place in capitalist orders. For one thing, it was a specious concept, making society into a thing that it wasn’t. For another, it was the poison plant from which totalitarianism grew. Social planning, social welfare, social democracy, and of course socialism—all were thrones for coercive state power. All interfered with the productive inequalities of free markets. All replaced the spontaneous order generated by free individuals with dictatorial notions of The Good. Social justice, Hayek claimed, was a “mirage” and worse, inevitably inverted into its opposite, a totalitarian order dominated by a state unlimited in its juridical and administrative reach.


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If Hayek’s critique of social justice was iconoclastic in the postwar decades when he was developing it, it has become the common sense of a robust neoliberal conservatism today. In this common sense, the social is the enemy of freedom, and “social justice warriors” (as today’s alt-right calls them) are the enemies of a free people. As neoliberalism became ascendant, this attack on the social—on its very existence and appropriateness as a province of justice—was as consequential as the nakedly libertarian meaning of freedom for building corporate power, legitimating inequality, and unleashing a novel, disinhibited radical-right attack on the most vulnerable members of society.

On the one hand, dismantling the social, and with it concerns with equality apart from formal legal equality and concerns with power apart from explicit coercion, provided this new meaning and practice of freedom with the exclusive mantle of justice. Freedom doesn’t simply trump other political principles, it is all there is. On the other, freedom is not just an unlimited right, but one exercised without any concern for social context or consequences, without restraint, civility, or care for society as a whole or individuals within it.

Outside of a neoliberal frame, of course, the social is where inequalities are manifest; where subjections, abjections, and exclusions at the site of class, race, and gender are lived, identified, protested, and potentially rectified. As every serious student of inequality knows, the social is a vital domain of justice because it is where the potted histories and hierarchies of a nation are reproduced.

Appreciation of social powers is the only way to understand “taking a knee” or the claim that black lives matter; it is all that explains women’s status as working more for less, or the high suicide rates among queer teens. Moreover, the social is what binds us in ways that exceed personal ties, market exchange, or abstract citizenship. It is where we, as individuals or a nation, practice or fail to practice justice, decency, civility, and care beyond the codes of market instrumentalism and familialism. And it is where political equality, so essential to democracy, is made or unmade.

Thus the claim that “there is no such thing as society” does far more than challenge social democracy or welfare states as market interference, or as creating “dependency” and “entitlement.” It does more than propagate the notion that taxes are theft, not the stuff of which civilization is built. It does more than blame the poor for their condition, or the “nature” of blacks, Latinos, and women of all races for their small numbers in elite professions and positions.

Neoliberal political culture created the conditions in which neofascists represent themselves as freedom fighters.

Rather, when the claim “society does not exist” becomes common sense, it renders invisible the inequality and social norms generated by legacies of slavery or patriarchy. It permits the effective political disenfranchisement (and not only the suffering) produced by homelessness, lack of education, and health care. Freedom without society destroys the lexicon by which freedom is made democratic, paired with social consciousness, and nested in political equality. It makes liberty a pure instrument of power, shorn of concern for others, the world, or the future.

Reducing freedom to unregulated personal license in the context of disavowing the social and dismantling society achieves something else important. It anoints as free expression every historically and politically generated feeling of (lost) entitlement based in whiteness, maleness, or nativism, and releases it from any connection to social conscience, compromise, or consequence. Lost entitlement to the privileges of whiteness, maleness, and nativism is then easily converted into righteous rage against social inclusion of the historically excluded. This rage in turn becomes the consummate expression of freedom and Americanness. With equality and social solidarity discredited, and the existence of powers reproducing historical inequalities, abjections, and exclusions denied, white male supremacist politics gain a novel voice and legitimacy in the 21st century.

Now we are in a position to grasp how Nazis, Klansmen, and other white nationalists can publically gather in “free speech rallies,” why the authoritarian white male supremacist in the White House is identified with freedom by his supporters through his “political incorrectness,” and how decades of policies and principles of social inclusion, antidiscrimination, and racial, sexual, and gender equality come to be tarred as tyrannical norms and rules imposed by “social justice warriors.”

What happens when freedom is reduced to naked assertions of power and entitlement, while the very idea of society is disavowed, equality is disparaged, and democracy is thinned to market meanings? Social justice is demeaned, and crude and provocative expressions of supremacism become expressions of liberty that the First Amendment was ostensibly written to protect. Except it wasn’t. It was a promise to democratic citizens to be unmolested by the state in their individual conscience, voice, and faith. It was not a promise to protect vicious attacks on other human beings or groups, any more than it was a promise to submit the nation to a corporatocracy. Alas, a neoliberal culture of unsocial liberty paves the way for both.

What is to be done?

More than ever before, the left must reckon with the fact that not just the meaning of liberty but its context is protean. Liberty can be detached from democracy and conjoined with other political modalities, including white nationalism, authoritarianism, or plutocracy, which is exactly what is happening today. To ignore this reality, to treat freedom as an unvarying and absolute principle, is to disregard how it can be so severely unmoored from equality that it can turn into open season on the vulnerable.


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In this context, we may still want to extend to all the right to speak and assemble. Or we may want to consider that the West’s first known democracy, in ancient Athens, did not feature free speech but isegoria, equal speech, the right of every citizen to be heard in assemblies concerning public policy. It did not feature freedom from state interference but isonomia, equality before the laws of the state. It did not feature managed and bought elections, but isopoliteia, equally weighted votes and equal access to political office. Democracy in its cradle was not rooted in individual license but in freedom resting on three pillars of political equality.

If we cannot afford stupidity about how profoundly neoliberalism has stripped freedom of the context and culture that make it an element of justice and popular sovereignty, we also cannot cede freedom to the right, to neoliberalism, and to the white nationalism daily attracting new recruits in the Euro-Atlantic world. Plutocrats, nativists, and fascists have grabbed freedom’s mantle to attack democracy, but we cannot fall into the trap of opposing it in the name of other values—security, safety, inclusion, or fairness. Rather, our task is to challenge the neoliberal and right-wing discourse of libertarian and market freedom with a discourse that relinks freedom with emancipation (and thus with social justice) and with democracy (and thus with political equality).

Finally, we must recover a language and a practice of the social for political life and also in our own political work. Left-wing retorts to right-wing speech and policy today too often take the form of demands for protection against personal experiences of injury, fear, or violated rights, which do not repair a lost language of the social but consecrate that loss. A robust language of social power is all that can provide a deep account of the devastating inequalities and the unfreedom generated by capitalism along with the legacies of racial and gender subordination. In turn, a language of society is all that can make addressing these inequalities and unfreedoms into a demand on us all, rather than the plaint of interests. A language and practice of society is also essential for binding freedom to equality and to cultivating our world in common. icon

Featured image: Detail from a poster for Maggie’s End (2009), Shaw Theatre, Euston Road, London. Photograph by Chris Beckett