John Whitlow –
In 1989, in the midst of the collapse of the Soviet Union and just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama argued, famously, that we had reached “the End of History.’ Echoing Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no alternative’ to neoliberal capitalism, Fukuyama averred that the triad of free markets, liberal democracy, and consumerist culture had become universal, enveloping the planet so thoroughly as to flatten historical time. There would be no more revolutionary upheaval, no more transformative social change. An ever-expanding capitalism, governed by some variant of representative democracy, was the only game in town, and it was here to stay.
I was fifteen when Fukuyama penned “The End of History,” and – as much as I am loathe to admit it – I am a child of neoliberalism. I was born at the end of 1974, just as New York City entered its fateful descent into fiscal crisis. I grew up in Baltimore during the Reagan years, a witness to the ways in which racial capitalism eviscerated the city’s black and white working class, leaving many of my friends and their families adrift in an economy and a place that had been structurally abandoned. All the while, I was indoctrinated into a public policy common sense of austerity, privatization, and an expanding carceral state; as well as a hollowed-out notion of citizenship in which our subjectivities are constructed primarily through individual-entrepreneurial, rather than solidaristic-democratic, terms.
Looking back, I am struck by how much of this I’ve imbibed, how much it has ordered what I’ve regarded as accepted knowledge, even as I’ve attempted to resist it. For most of my adult life, I’ve been a poverty lawyer/movement lawyer/community lawyer (the terminological distinctions matter, but not so much for the purposes of this essay), and, at times (especially recently) I have found myself questioning how I’ve gone about my work. Of course I knew that the pronouncements of Fukuyama and Thatcher were bankrupt – that they were the product of a politicized theology – but to what extent have my own political, intellectual, and professional horizons been limited by an unwitting, silent acceptance of that same theology?
Despite wanting to believe that a transformative alternative to the status quo was possible, in practice I have hedged my bets. This has taken different forms, and, to be clear, it has been guided by good intentions – the desire to be strategic and goal-oriented, to avoid lawyer domination, to support leadership development and the building of power among subaltern groups. But it has also come at a cost, as it has evaded a critical examination of the content of the social movements and organizing efforts I was supporting and participating in. Regrettably, it also stands as confirmation that Fukuyama was, to some degree, correct – i.e. that even in many progressive political spaces, the limits of the possible were constrained by the organizing logic of neoliberalism.
The argument that I now wish to make is not that I or any of the efforts I have affiliated myself with were mistaken, but rather that we find ourselves on the brink of a new moment, with its own developing – and highly contested – common sense. At the core of this shift is a battle over the relationship between the market economy and society. For the past four decades – in a process that calls to mind the theoretical intervention of economic historian Karl Polanyi – the dictates of the former have cannibalized the institutions of the latter. In Polanyi’s formulation, the market economy’s tendency to commodify areas of life (land, labor, money) that are more properly social than economic leads to social disintegration and catastrophe. The application of the logic of the self-regulating market to matters of basic human sustenance results in the destruction of both society and the natural environment.
Eventually – and inevitably – society fights back against this process of marketization, as countermovements of impacted people mobilize for social protection against austerity, unemployment, displacement, etc. Both sides of what Polanyi called the double movement – capital’s overreach, on the one hand, and social mobilizations against it, on the other – are constituted through the law. In the sphere of housing, where I have worked for many years, for example, a vast legal infrastructure – from the affirmative elimination of municipal sovereignty to laws that shield the identities of corporate principals – has been erected to insulate property from democratic and redistributivist intervention. Countermovements for housing justice, meanwhile, have mobilized around legal and policy initiatives – rent regulation, for-cause eviction, protections against predatory equity – that privilege housing’s use value as home over its exchange value as real estate.
Polanyi’s depiction of the relation of the market economy to society invokes a vastly different concept of historical time than Fukuyama’s bromide. In the latter, as we have seen, history came to an end with the triumph of capitalism, in so far as no further social transformation – and no counter-hegemonic political mobilization – was seen as plausible or necessary. In Polanyi’s depiction, the nightmarish consequences of marketization produce a social reaction that can lead either to the re-embedding of the economy in society (democratic socialism) or to fascism. In this sense, historical time moves like a pendulum – between periods characterized by market excess and periods of proliferating countermovements for social protection.
The weight of current events supports the proposition that we are in the midst of a dramatic pendulum swing. The election of Trump signifies many things, but there can be no doubt that it struck a major blow to the governing neoliberal consensus, stoking the nativist right and leaving the centrist Democratic Party establishment in a shakier position than at any time since Bill Clinton’s electoral victory in 1992. There is an upsurge of labor unrest and left social movements which are making important gains and shifting our collective common sense around economic, racial, and environmental justice. Recently, in a kind of flashpoint moment, labor, housing, and immigrant rights activists came together in New York City to turn away Amazon, which had received a sweetheart deal from the state that included $3 billion in tax subsidies (and a publicly-funded helipad for CEO and reigning wealthiest-human-in-the-world Jeff Bezos). The defeat of Amazon can be read as a gauntlet thrown down in a burgeoning countermovement against the market takeover of our society and politics, in the place where some commentators have argued that the neoliberal project was inaugurated.
In moments of profound flux, the conditions of possibility of both knowledge and practice change. Limits that were only recently taken for granted become unstable and stretched. Ways of talking about the present and the future become expansive. Another way of putting this is that, in the midst of a societal pendulum swing, we become increasingly aware that historical time is open and contingent, rather than flattened and fixed: there is an alternative to the status quo, and it is acceptable, in fact necessary, to talk about it openly. This means acknowledging – and explicitly foregrounding – the ways in which the market economy has ravaged society, and focusing our political energies on the formation of a countermovement for redistributive equality and social justice.
Ironically, in moments like the one we are living through – moments that are bursting with possibility and uncertainty – it makes sense to draw inspiration from the past, from a time before history was said to have ended. It is here that, according to historian Enzo Traverso, we can recover utopian hopes turned into something that no longer exists, so as to construct the kind of future society we desire. These past utopias, or realms of memory, serve as a potent reminder that people have imagined – and worked collectively toward the realization of – another world.
Last July, my second child was born; my first child just turned five years-old. They will grow up in a world with different political possibilities than the ones I inherited. The invisible neoliberal logic that has been inculcated in me will hopefully be replaced by a logic that is based in principles of solidarity and economic democracy. To get from where we are now to that future place requires a radical overhaul of the market economy’s relation to society, with the former subjected, democratically, to the latter. This project will draw from a deep historical well of collective mobilizations and countermovements that have been animated by a desire to move beyond the limits of the given. In the clear-eyed words of martyred Black Panther Fred Hampton, “we don’t think you fight fire with fire …; we think you fight fire with water.”
John Whitlow (@zhionny74) is an Associate Professor at the CUNY School of Law.