The App and the Operating System: Neoliberalism and “Social Reproduction”

Angela Harris 

In the LPE community, issues of race, class, sexuality, and environment are sometimes referred to collectively as “social and ecological reproduction.” In this post and others to follow, I want to think about the place of the social and the ecological in “law and political economy.”

As others have written on this blog, one of LPE’s central commitments is the idea that economic and political governance are both constituted through legal rules, reasoning, and institutions. A second commitment is that in a democratically constituted society, economic governance ought not to be treated like a fully autonomous machine, but rather as bound to some extent by political norms. These ideas, of course, are not new (even to legal scholarship, which tends to be a late adopter of new ideas). But they have new force today. As the late Erik Olin Wright observed in a paper on “strategic logics of anti-capitalism,” in the early decades following World War II (the “Golden Age of Capitalism”), federal government policy worked to ameliorate the most damaging effects of capitalism in at least three ways: reducing the exposure of households to catastrophic risk through social insurance; heavily subsidizing public goods such as libraries, education, transportation, parks, and basic science research and development; and creating a regulatory regime to address some of the most devastating “negative externalities” caused by corporate capital, including environmental degradation, predatory market behavior, and workplace exploitation. The reversal of all of these policies, here in the United States and elsewhere in the world, goes under the name “neoliberalism.” And “law and political economy” is critical legal scholarship reinvented for the age of neoliberalism.

What, though, does LPE want? Would rolling back neoliberalism lead us to pack away our laptops and go home? Take, for example, some infamous features of the “Golden Age:” the omission of agricultural and domestic workers from the Fair Labor Standards Act, the endorsement of “redlining” by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, the embrace of gendered labor markets, and the failure of the federal government to provide free child care (let alone abortion and contraception). Stirring as FDR’s “four freedoms” speech continues to be, I wouldn’t want to live in 1941. We need to do more than un-install the neoliberalism app; we need to change out the operating system, and that operating system runs on caste.

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