I am not sure I made a good impression on Ben McKean the first time I met him. It was my frosh year of college, I was experiencing racism from my roommates, and I was highly suspicious of Harvard as an institution and an environment. I showed up at my first Harvard Living Wage Campaign meeting, and I think I immediately started telling them what they were doing wrong. Luckily, if Ben remembers any of that, 24 years later, he doesn’t seem to hold it against me. About two years after I started pestering them about a sit-in, the Living Wage Campaign undertook one: occupying the President’s office for three weeks and making the national news on what seemed like a daily basis. Ben was on the front lines of the preparation, the occupation, and the eventual punishment, which quite memorably was meant to scare us into never doing anything to challenge a giant like Harvard again.
Today, Dr. Benjamin McKean is an Associate Professor of Political Science at The Ohio State University, where he teaches political theory that challenges us to upend the global economic status quo. Before pursuing a PhD, he spent years as an organizer for United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), a grassroots, student-led organization that played a key role in the anticorporate globalization movement and connected youth to labor unions.
When I first sat down to read Disorienting Neoliberalism, I was struck by two things. The first was how much the book clearly reflected values that Ben first honed in his work as a Harvard USAS chapter leader and as part of the Living Wage Campaign. The second was how much the influences paralleled the ones that appear in my own book, The Disordered Cosmos, which came out at nearly the same time. These two books are what happens when two student organizers from the 1999 Battle of Seattle and 9/11 era take the political lessons they learned and bring them into conversation with their intellectual interests and political anxieties for the future. I decided it was important to mark this moment with a conversation where also I, a physicist, could ask Ben all of the silly questions that a physicist might have for a political theorist.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation, which was recorded in January 2023.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (CPW): Your book is called Disorienting Neoliberalism. What do you mean when you say the word neoliberalism?
Benjamin McKean (BM): When I’m talking about neoliberalism, I’m talking about two different, related things. One is a theory, the political theory of neoliberalism: a way of looking at the world that says efficient markets are the best way to promote human well-being and offers a theory of state legitimacy as a part of that. It says that basically whatever states do in the service of creating and maintaining efficient markets is a legitimate state function, and everything else is not.
Now the real world doesn’t always match the ideology. This is the second thing. There’s obviously then a whole set of practices that we also call neoliberal—like financialization and austerity, global supply chains—that aren’t exactly the same as the political theory. They are often justified by the political theory but the way that they actually work is a little bit different. And so the book asks what is the gap between neoliberal theory and neoliberal practice? And how can we use that gap or exploit that gap to change our way of seeing?
Ultimately, the book’s answer is that freedom is tied to solidarity. We can’t really conceive of any robust form of freedom without being disposed to be in solidarity with each other. And that’s quite different than the neoliberal view of freedom, which individualizes us and sees freedom not in taking action together, but in making choices apart.
CPW: Thinking about the subtitle, “Global Justice and the Outer Limit of Freedom,” I’ll be honest and say that since I’m a physicist, I thought, This is clearly a reference to The Outer Limits show. And I learned while reading the book that this was absolutely not the case.
So, tell me in lay terms, how you would think about the outer limit of freedom?
BM: As you pointed out this, this phrase, “the outer limit of freedom,” is not a very common one. It comes from the work of the egalitarian liberal political philosopher John Rawls; this is drawn from an obscure remark he makes, about why his view of freedom isn’t a standard liberal view of freedom.
We live in a world set up with institutions that make the standard view of freedom, the neoliberal view, make sense. More than that, we live in a world where people have been politically disempowered. So, it makes sense to think, Oh yes, freedom is like what happens when I go to the supermarket and I get to pick the flavor of soda I buy or whatever. That’s freedom. Standard, liberal views of freedom don’t really contrast clearly from the specific view of freedom available today. Without that contrast, such a view isn’t right as a basis for reorientation.
So Rawls’s “outer limit of freedom” suggests two things. One is that our freedom is connected to others, rather than separated from them. That’s tricky. That’s contrary to a lot of the ways in which people are habituated to think of themselves. Even so, I use the phrase to argue that the most freedom we can experience is to recognize the way in which our freedom is tied to the freedom of others.
Two, to understand that phrase requires really a transformation of these standard accounts of freedom. We need to account for how we’ve been habituated to injustice, how freedom has been racialized, how freedom has been marked by gender identity and sexual identity. For all of these, the standard liberal views just aren’t good at articulating or grappling with.
Freedom and choice aren’t the same thing. There is an important freedom that comes from having been shaped by influences that you learn to accept; that’s a freedom that most of us are denied, because of how we’re habituated to injustice. And so that’s another sense in which it’s an outer limit of freedom for people: because it involves our attitude toward some things we can’t change.
CPW: I would argue that the book lands in favor of an anarchist perspective. In the conclusion you write, “Organizing is, in essence, a form of governmentality available to individuals in their relations with each other.” This had Peter Kropotkin written all over it, it sounds very much like mutual aid.
And yet, despite these roots in anarchism, you employ the egalitarian liberal rights framework as the basis for the book’s ideas. That really stuck out to me because I’ve known you for over twenty years, and I don’t think of you as a liberal.
I’m curious about why you chose that tradition to grapple with, instead of something more radical.
BM: Reorienting people toward something new requires starting with experiences they’ve already had. It’s different from a revelation. A revelation could be something entirely new; but a reorientation says, Here’s this thing you’ve experienced, but here’s a different way of looking at it. And that requires addressing people from where they start and then moving them in a different direction.
So, there’s several reasons that I wanted the book to reorient a reader starting from liberalism. First, the predominant global literature on global justice within political theory takes that egalitarian liberalism as a starting point. I want to address that audience, and say, Your values can only be realized if you change the way you think in various kinds of ways. So, if you value freedom and equality and justice, they can’t be realized by continuing to beat your head against the wall in the same way. There needs to be a different way of looking at things. If you want to realize these values both your theoretical methodology and your ways of looking at the world need to change.
But the second reason to start from liberalism is so that the book can address a larger audience, one beyond that narrow political theory audience. To them, the book says, What is the political coalition on the left in the US—but, also, beyond the US—that can come together to resist neoliberalism and to promote fuller forms of freedom and equality?
The political bet of the book is that such a coalition is possible, and that it includes egalitarian liberals, who are people who want to see their values realized. That means they’re worth addressing, both as citizens and as potential partners in solidarity.
Now, maybe that’s a bad bet, maybe you make that offer and it doesn’t get taken up. And that’s a risk in that sense that the book takes.
But this is a moment of rising authoritarianism, where even very traditional liberal values are under threat. And so, it does seem to me that there are political coalitions there to be had.
CPW: Yes. So, what I’m hearing from you is that part of the work of the book and the action of the book is orienting people and producing an effective orientation for people or providing one direction.
BM: It’s partly a question of what’s the point of doing political theory at all. Sometimes people feel like if political theory can’t tell me what to do, then it’s not saying anything.
Political theory doesn’t replace our judgment about how to act. But it can give us a sense of the context in which we act and what kinds of actions could be meaningful in that context.
So, when it comes to this book, the central material example is the global supply chain. How can we be oriented to it in a way that better promotes solidarity?
For those of us who are on the consuming side of most of these supply chains, the dominant orientation screens out the workers from our experiences, so that we can experience the convenience. We really only feel connected to these chains at the moment we make a purchase; we don’t realize how much the chains are structured by surveilling us as consumers, by trying to train us as consumers in various ways, and by keeping information that the companies have away from us.
We can reorient ourselves to these supply chains. We can see them not as these convenient moments of consumption. Instead, we can see this larger way in which we are also subjected to these economic structures. In so doing, we can facilitate solidarity with people who are also subjected to them, although often subjected to them in different ways.
Do I want to risk getting arrested because the institution that I’m a part of is doing the wrong thing? No, I don’t want to do that. But that’s what you do for people and places you care about.
CPW: You and I met in the fall of 1999, right around the time that the Battle of Seattle happened, the protests against the World Trade Organization. How much do you see coming of age in this particular time period as orienting you politically?
BM: That really is key to the book’s backstory. This moment of anticorporate globalization activism in the late ’90s was an important moment of resistance to neoliberalism, which then gets completely cut short—by the need to redirect left energies to antiwar protesting—in the wake of 9/11.
CPW: Which we experienced ourselves. We reoriented in that moment.
BM: Yes. It couldn’t have been more direct. We were planning the launch of a national campus living wage campaign with support from like Ted Kennedy’s office. There was going to be action around the IMF World Bank protests in the fall of 2001. All this stuff, it’s over. It just gets cut short.
And it for obvious reasons, then, it takes a while to come back. And, in fact, it doesn’t really come back until 10 years later with Occupy, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Of course, that is another similar moment of resistance and radicalization for a whole cohort of folks.
As the book notes, we are oriented by the institutions that we live in. And so, when we grow up under neoliberal institutions, we all are oriented to neoliberalism by those institutions basically from birth.
We shouldn’t underestimate the popularity of those ways of seeing. There’s something very powerful about the neoliberal story that lets you be the protagonist.
Meanwhile, here’s something that can be very unappealing about stories of structural inequality and structural injustice that say you’re powerless. People don’t want to be powerless. They don’t want to be victims. They want to feel like they have agency over their own lives. And there are ways where neoliberal discourses can give that to them.
Now, I don’t think that it really gives them agency. But it does become a story, a way of narrating things that makes sense of the world.
But that is one of the reasons why things like student debt cancellation have emerged as such potent political issues: because when your education is tied to loans like that, it becomes impossible not to think about yourself as a form of human capital. You have to think about education as an investment. You do get oriented to neoliberalism in that way. And so it becomes, for that reason, a really powerful form of resistance, and a really potent and symbolic one, too. That’s true today with unionization obviously—Starbucks, for example—that realization that neoliberal institutions aren’t working even on the terms and need to be understood and resisted using another orientation.
CPW: Yes. It’s an interesting point that you make about 9/11 because … I don’t think you and I have ever talked about this before. But there was the Harvard Living Wage sit-in of 2001, where you were inside the building, and I was outside the building.
This protest had so consumed me academically, I was really at a disadvantage because I was a physics concentrator. Even the cadence of when my homework load happened was very different from people who had like final papers only at the end of term—I had a problem set every week. I was taking quantum mechanics, and my professor passed me as a favor that spring, because I really did not stick the landing in that first semester. And so, that fall I thought, All right, this is going to be the year that I actually focus on being a student. And then 9/11 happens. And I don’t know if you remember this, but on September 12th, I sent you an email and said, We need to start organizing against the war because the war is coming.
Speaking of making personal choices: neoliberalism teaches us that this is all a set of choices. But that didn’t feel like a choice at all.
BM: The invasion of Iraq, and the George W. Bush administration as a whole, were such a disaster that the intense political pressure to support those things at the time has been totally memory-holed. For obvious reasons the Republican party now doesn’t want to go anywhere near there.
CPW: That was a moment where a lot of us got reoriented, and maybe in directions that were not particularly predictable.
You and I, we were in the Progressive Student Labor Movement, a group which housed the Harvard Living Wage Campaign and the Harvard chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops. After graduation you went on to be staff at United Students Against Sweatshops. But at the time that we were doing the USAS work as students, I knew that I thought sweatshops were bad and the labor conditions were bad—but I don’t know I would have connected it to “supply chains.” Was it your time as staff at USAS that you started to formulate these thoughts about the role that the supply chain plays in this global economic structure?
BM: Absolutely. You’re right, at the time supply chain discourse probably would’ve been more limited to the business school than to activist circles. But nonetheless, it is very visceral; we are walking around with these very direct, very physically embodied connections to workers from around the world on our bodies.
CPW: You write that resisting injustice within supply chains is “one of the best available ways to meet the demands of justice” and express freedom amid injustice.
Is the goal here to create just supply chains?
BM: I don’t think that’s exactly the goal, because under current conditions, something like just supply chains aren’t possible. It’s simply incompatible with the larger structures of capital accumulation. You can’t at an individual workplace raise a demand for higher wages that is going to have really lasting effects in this world of capital mobility. So, even on that there’s a need for broader transformations.
But take the idea that we could have a world of just supply chains: that is a vision that is clearly not a nationalist one. The book is very much in favor of transnational interdependence and so, in that sense, there’s certainly possible futures with just supply chains.
Still, part of the book’s bet—and I do think this comes from some of the background in USAS—is a bet on a making demands that can do a couple things. One is transforming the individuals who make them.
People who participate in these campaigns don’t just learn about the particular demands that they’re making; just from being involved, they can experience a different kind of freedom.
But, of course, you can win concrete demands, but you also need to build institutions. It’s not just about self-transformation. To actually build solidarity between workplaces, between consumers and workers, creates connections and institutions and alliances that can then go on to do other things that are meaningful.
Moreover, making these kinds of intermediate demands can lead to further demands. It might turn out that some of these demands for just supply chains can only be met with further changes, further democratization of institutional forms, more radical changes. If so, making those intermediate demands creates meaningful progress; not necessarily because the demands are met, but because it illuminates what other demands we might need to make that we can’t see from where we are.
CPW: The supply chains that you focus on in the book are primarily in places that we would now call the Global South. And I tend to have a pretty expansive definition—for me, the Global South includes the American South just because of how it’s been politically defined, where the global color line is.
Supply chains logic is everywhere and seems almost inextricable from neoliberal logic in the end. Your book got me thinking a lot about the work that I’m doing in the physics community, and the tensions we have around, for example, promoting and encouraging Black people to be in science, while also wanting to say, Yes, but that doesn’t mean you should build weapons that kill people, for example, in Iraq and Afghanistan or that build weapons for Raytheon that are used against, for example, Black Lives Matter protestors on the streets in the United States.
This argument, that we need more minorities in science because of workforce issues, is that a supply chain argument?
BM: The connection between supply chain forms and neoliberalism is that it just makes labor into one other input into the chain. It treats a diverse workforce as a branding value rather than as a question of fairness or justice, by treating all these kinds of inputs as interchangeable.
But the other point you’re making, and that the book makes too, is that the world is unjust in a way that makes every option available to us bad. Every possible action we can do is going to involve reproducing some injustice. As we’re pushing for racial justice in certain institutions, one of the things that risks is legitimating institutions in ways that further some of their evil functions.
But that doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and say, Oh, I guess those evil functions are okay because I care about diversity or, Well I guess that means we shouldn’t push for racial justice because it might risk this because there isn’t any riskless action.
Everything we do is going to be flawed. We’re just too tied to injustice to think that there’s any way of taking political action with clean hands. But that doesn’t mean that it’s okay to have dirty hands. It means that we’re all going to make mistakes and need to keep working and need to have people call us off them and to be aware of the injustices that even our well-intentioned actions produce. And then take responsibility for dealing with that.
CPW: This definitely calls to mind feminist philosopher Alexis Shotwell’s Against Purity, which argues that the puritanical impulse that Americans are socialized into, along with neoliberalism, actually gets in the way of us doing productive change work.
BM: That’s part of what makes solidarity so important. Solidarity, if it’s functioning well, is not a place for people to be puritans. It’s a place where something like a call out, or a moment of accountability, is done out of partnership; it’s not done in this neoliberal branding way, I’m distinguishing myself from you by calling you out because I can be pure and you’re not. The solidaristic way of approaching this is very different from those other ways of approaching it, those puritanical ways that are also often incentivized both by neoliberal branding and reinforced by social media dynamics.
CPW: Let’s talk about solidarity. People who are younger than us have not been raised with the same robust labor movement that we grew up with; even though, even as we were coming of age, that movement was being significantly weakened by changes in the supply chain, basically like where manufacturing was happening. And so people’s understanding of the word “solidarity” faces challenges. So, for example, some people conflate charity and solidarity. And you really argue strongly against this in the book. Your definition of solidarity seems more invested in the idea of mutual need and mutual support and mutual aid really.
How should we think about solidarity? What is solidarity supposed to do for people on both sides of the equation? Or is an equation even the wrong way to think about it?
BM: I wouldn’t want to tell you an equation’s the wrong way. But I do think that the idea of solidarity is connected to that idea of mutual aid, because solidarity is something that we have an interest in: that the world we live in has injustices that no individual can eradicate, and that they affect all of us and they violate the freedom of all of us in different ways and to different degrees. But people would benefit from living in a more just world. And the only way we can get there is to be in solidarity with each other. We all have an interest in doing that.
Sometimes people may interpret it as charity, as in, it’s something they have no interest in themselves. But that doesn’t seem like solidarity, because it doesn’t seem like a recipe for anything like reciprocity. There’s no potential for a give and take there.
CPW: In the book, you make a point of saying that, for example, it will be difficult for supply chain managers in particular. They’re like, I don’t know if there’s an outer limit of freedom. This is like the outer limit of solidarity in some sense.
BM: Yes. Some people have a conception of solidarity that’s universal and says everyone in the whole world has an interest in injustice or that everybody in the whole world should be in solidarity. But no, some people are really invested in the status quo. Some people benefit way too much from injustice for it to make sense to expect or ask for solidarity from them.
Supply chain managers are people like that. Their jobs only exist because of the way in which they’re hierarchically structured to exploit workers. It wouldn’t make sense to say a person like that should be in solidarity with workers. There’s various things they should do, including not help exploit workers and take a different job. But given the extent of their complicity in an unjust status quo and the amount that they benefit from it, asking them to be in solidarity with people would just be a mockery of solidarity. For people like that to pose as being in solidarity with workers is an insult to what real solidarity would be.
CPW: So, I want to bring up an example that is not present in the book for most readers, but definitely for me: you were inside the building for the 2001 Harvard Living Wage Campaign sit-in. Actually, one of my most visceral memories from college was I was one of the stakeouts at one of the other potential sites, but I got a call with you shouting into the phone, We’re in, we’re in.
And you were brought up on charges of misconduct eventually because of your participation in this sit-in. You were held up as an example, because you were a very visible leader from the institutional perspective, and in practice in a lot of ways as well. For me at least, you actually provided this example of putting yourself on the line: being brought up on misconduct, facing coercive punishment from the richest university in the world.
How did that inform the way that you thought about solidarity in the aftermath? Of course, maybe relative to other students in the population, maybe this was an easier risk for you to take than it might have been for say, some of the full–financial aid Black students on campus. This question of whether you were harmed by this process, did you come through that with an understanding of the sacrifice? Was it even a sacrifice?
BM: It didn’t feel like a choice. Part of it was, however, and this reflects the character of solidarity. We’d been working with the dining hall workers and the janitors for years at that point. Part of why I got involved in the campaign in the first place was just getting to this insanely rich university and talking to the janitor, cleaning the bathroom, and wondering, What are we doing here? Why is this person earning the minimum wage? This is making my education possible and this person’s not getting what they deserve. How would you feel getting these great benefits knowing that they came along with other people being treated like shit?
Obviously, that doesn’t move everybody. But to me it just seemed like, how could you not do something about that? Compared to that, what’s a mark on the transcript? What’s the real cost?
On the global level, it’s the same deal. It’s different obviously in that one of the things that we need is institutions that make connections to people, so that it isn’t simply an abstract worker that you think about when you think about who makes the clothes. But there are other ways of making this vivid—you probably aren’t ever going to know the person who makes your clothes in this supply chain world that we live in but there are other people who can hold you to account who are partners in the movement or are being exploited in similar ways, closer to home.
The language of sacrifice might not be the right language; instead, you might think, Do I want to drive my mom to the airport? No, but it’s a thing that you do for people you care about. Solidarity, when it works, is the same thing. Do I want to risk getting arrested because the institution that I’m a part of is doing the wrong thing? No, I don’t want to do that. But that’s what you do for people you care about and for places you care about.
CPW: So, we happen to be doing this interview during the week when we got video affirmation of LAPD’s murder of Keenan Anderson, who literally said, “They’re trying to George Floyd me,” and then they proceeded to kill him.
What are the ways in which the ideas that you discuss in the book connect with the movement against police violence? Are there ways in which we should be drawing connections between these neoliberal logics and the production of racist police violence? Is there a connection there?
BM: A lot of people, when they hear about neoliberalism, they think it means laissez-faire government, or they think that these forms of state violence are somehow in contradiction to neoliberalism. One way of resisting then is to point out these apparent tensions between the neoliberal skepticism of government and police violence; but properly understood neoliberalism authorizes all kinds of state violence. One of the primal scenes of neoliberalism is the violence of the coup against Allende and the installation of Pinochet.
And so, there’s always been neoliberal comfort with violence that contributes to the creation of markets. Think also about the rise of the private prison industry, and other ways that state violence is used to both enforce laws and also to break worker power and to control surplus populations, so that they can be more economically useful. Police violence and violent white supremacy, these are entangled with neoliberalism.
Look, you and I both grew up in LA. We grew up with Rodney King, and there’s a sickening déjà vu of all of it which his They’re trying to George Floyd me! cry drives home. My first reaction to all of it is just in a certain way put the theoretical apparatus aside and just feel very viscerally the importance of solidarity with the victims of violence and with the survivors and with the family.
But, to circle back, the orientation to neoliberalism is that neoliberalism really does in a lot of ways reduce the function of the state to coercion, to violence.
CPW: While denying it.
BM: Yes, because it represents state violence as being a special violence that creates efficiency and prevents other violence. Insofar as the book engages with questions about police brutality, it’s when it comes up at the end of the chapter on ways of thinking about the state and ways of thinking about why sovereignty isn’t an effective way to resist neoliberalism. Because if you say we want to strengthen the state in this undifferentiated way, what you’re doing in practice is you’re further empowering the agents of state violence and you’re not really effectively resisting neoliberalism at all.
For a lot of people who are maybe left populists, they think, Oh popular sovereignty means collective decision-making and we get to be the people, but for people who are victims of white supremacy, when they think about popular sovereignty, what they see is people doing violence to them in the name of the people.
And that’s a really important caution as we think about ways of resisting neoliberalism. Think about ways in which our concepts and our forms of resistance don’t empower institutions that are doing violence to others, just in the hope that they’ll serve us better.
CPW: One of my personal frustrations at the time of the sit-in was around race. Many of the workers that we were standing up for, particularly among the janitors, but not only, were Black and many of them were immigrants. Speaking of self-interest, I looked at them and I saw my family. I saw my great-grandmother who was a domestic and factory worker and who was an immigrant. During the time that I was heavily involved in the campaign, I was the only Black person who was regularly and consistently involved. And I found myself frustrated on both sides, which is that I felt like the Progressive Student Labor Movement (the home of the Living Wage and Students Against Sweatshops campaigns) was a very white space, but I also felt like the Black student groups at the time weren’t particularly oriented toward these questions of social justice. They were more oriented toward these questions of advancement and personal brand and surviving the neoliberal system.
And so, having done the work that you did then and having had the 20 years to think about it, what are some of the pieces of advice you might give to white activists in particular and white thinkers in particular who are grappling with the tensions that arise there? Which is that Black people are trying to survive and make an array of choices in that context? But then also if you’re organizing spaces are very white, that maybe should trouble you a little bit.
BM: One piece of advice in that sense is that you’re making a lot of really important decisions when you start, and if you start with, like, a predominantly white space, it’s going to be very, very difficult to change that.
But there are also, of course, particular challenges to doing that that you were highlighting in college. Colleges are spaces where a lot of people are in a particular moment. And for some people that means, oh, this is the first time I can really think about being engaged in political action. I’m not at home. I have time. But other people have very different experiences. Other people are working full time while they’re going to school, and there’s other kinds of pressing concerns to just make it through. But there are lots of different ways of being in solidarity, and part of it is you just have to understand where people are coming from and what challenges they’re facing, but aren’t your own.
This country remains very deeply socially and residentially segregated. And challenging that is one of the most important things that we can do. You continue to see a lot of left activist spaces are still predominantly white. And that remains a real issue, because the left isn’t going to win if it’s predominantly white. And the activists aren’t going to win unless the coalition includes people of color, especially in leadership roles.
Today, people are able to talk about these issues better. But it hasn’t always actually improved white people’s behaviors, because they just have better languages for justifying what they were going to do anyway.
Ultimately the thing about solidarity and the thing about freedom is that it takes time. Neoliberalism has trained us to think that we can get everything we want really quickly. And for good or ill, freedom and solidarity and social justice are not things we can get quickly. And accepting that goes along with rejecting purity mindset.
None of us are going to get there, well, probably ever. But it’s certainly not very soon. If we can change in that sense, the timelines that we’re thinking on, we might be able to act more effectively in the present.