A great many pieces have been written by a great many great writers about how neoliberalism is the biggest thorn in the side of the left, but there has been a comparative dearth of discussion about how to address this sinister entity. Luckily for these myriad authors, they are already solving the problem just by identifying it.
For those unfamiliar with neoliberalism or how the left embracing it is the equivalent of human beings playing with nuclear waste, we should be certain that words do not get conflated or confused in identifying this problem. First, what is the left, exactly? For that, I am comfortable turning to the first two sentences in the Wikipedia entry for left-wing politics:
Left-wing politics supports social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition to social hierarchy and social inequality. It typically involves a concern for those in society whom its adherents perceive as disadvantaged relative to others (prioritarianism), as well as a belief that there are unjustified inequalities that need to be reduced or abolished (by advocating for social justice).
This definition works well enough as a consensus conception of what the political left represents. It can, in a sense, be boiled down to one word: empathy. We on the left are concerned for the well-being of others. We believe in justice for everyone. We stand against bigotry and structural flaws in social institutions that inhibit egalitarianism by way of privileging certain groups over others and, in doing so, we recognize what intersectionality means, and how all struggles against injustice are intersectional struggles.
Next, we must establish a conception of neoliberalism such that the aims of neoliberalism can be compared and contrasted with those of the left. We turn again to Wikipedia:
Neoliberalism (neo-liberalism) refers primarily to the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism. These include extensive economic liberalization policies such as privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. These market-based ideas and the policies they inspired constitute a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus which lasted from 1945 to 1980.
We see immediately that neoliberalism has nothing to say about concepts such as justice or egalitarianism. It takes no notice of privilege and pays no mind to structural defects and, by way of deregulation, takes the position of allowing structural problems to grow and advance, unchecked, except perhaps by the hand of God and/or the invisible hand of the market (same thing). Perhaps the most iconic moment of American neoliberalism was the elimination of Glass-Steagall under Bill Clinton, and then the subsequent realization of how that decision contributed to the Great Recession.
Neoliberalism flourished under the “success” of the Clinton administration and continued its run under Obama, and throughout nearly every facet of the Democratic Party. Through neoliberalism, the Democrats were able to tap into the vast cash stores of corporations, most significantly, the finance industry, and these same corporations were able to pass their legislation through Democratic politicians, giving them a voice on both sides of the aisle.
At the same time this corporate voice grew, the diverse voices of the left drowned out. The same corporations who donated to Democratic candidates shifted the discussion from policy to the size of candidates’ bankrolls. Elections became about who could amass the most money. This culminated in the storied 2008 Obama presidential campaign, about which Wikipedia says the following:
The Obama campaign’s fundraising broke previous records for presidential primary and general campaigns, and has changed expectations for future presidential elections. The campaign avoided using public campaign funds, raising all of its money privately from individual donors. By the general election the campaign committee raised more than $650 million for itself, and coordinated with both the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and at least 18 state-level Democratic committees to create a joint-fundraising committee to raise and split tens of millions of dollars more.
Truly a massive amount of hope and change. But, how did this happen? How did neoliberalism become the new normal? How did labor get forgotten? Why was everyone on TV talking about a candidate’s “war chests” and not the issues? The answer lies in the Overton window, and how it had been moved for decades until it centered precisely over corporate interests.
The Overton Window
The Overton window, according to Wikipedia:
The Overton window, also known as the window of discourse, is the range of ideas the public will accept. It is used by media pundits. The term is derived from its originator, Joseph P. Overton (1960–2003), a former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, who in his description of his window claimed that an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within the window, rather than on politicians’ individual preferences. According to Overton’s description, his window includes a range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.
The most overt example of an entity expending vast resources to move the Overton window is, of course, Fox News, which has been doing just that since its inception in 1996. Fox News, and sister movements fueled by the likes of the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson, represent massive efforts at pushing American politics rightward by making topics of conversation that were previously deemed ridiculous seem acceptable. And, how did they achieve this? By talking about them on TV for millions of people to see, loudly and without shame.
Thanks to billions of dollars of propaganda from these groups, it is now perfectly acceptable to deny science. It is perfectly acceptable to say that scientists are all lefties and every scientific conclusion is just part of some left-wing conspiracy. Never mind that science has been producing results for centuries, and that science itself is a logical methodology based on rational inquiry, because it conflicts with powerful interests on the right, it must be discredited. Big Oil need not subject their ideas to scientific rigor to claim they are safe. Evangelicals need not subject their beliefs to scientific rationalism to claim they are right. All they need to do is demonize science.
Climate change is the poster child for this shift in the Overton window. In fact, the very name “climate change” was a replacement of “global warming,” because the latter seemed too loaded to Big Oil (Koch) interests. It was in their interests to remove “warming” from the name altogether, and they paid plenty of money to disseminate plenty of propaganda to do just that. They were also able to invoke the perceived complexities of climate science to blur out the truth, to make truth seem inaccessible and unknowable. It’s a lot easier to conceive of “global warming” than “climate change.” The former just means the globe is getting warmer. The latter’s meaning is nebulous and defies intuitive understanding.
The Overton window and the vast resources expended to move it are precisely why we’re even debating climate change in 2017, or why the most regressive element of modern American society (the evangelical right) gets to have a disproportionate say on gay marriage or abortions, or why anyone has any opinion at all about transgendered bathroom issues or Muslim immigrants. These are deemed acceptable topics of conversation, because people in the media keep having these conversations, because people funding the media want them to. Were the Overton window not where it is, it is likely Muslims would immigrate to America and nobody except fringe radicals like the KKK would care, just like it had been for decades.
At this point, you may be wondering what this has to do with neoliberalism. Fox News, the Kochs, and being opposed to gay marriage are clearly the realm of neoconservatives, not neoliberals. That is correct, but there is an Overton window within the left, too, and the neoliberals have shifted that, and are still trying to shift it to this day. And, by doing so, they simultaneously nudge the greater Overton window of American discourse a little more to the right, or at least shrink it down to encapsulate less of the left.
The Democrats used to represent labor. Now they get the vast majority of their funding from finance and business. The Democrats used to represent social justice. Now they, just like their Republican brethren, receive funds from the private prison industry, banks, oil, and the military industrial complex. Are private prisons and the United States military agents of global justice? If you believe the neoconservatives, they are. If you ask me, no, they are not.
I believe the left agrees with me, yet, because of neoliberalism’s acceptance of funds from these entities, the tacit endorsement that implies, and the legislative endorsement it buys, it further behooves the neoliberal media (aka the mainstream media, routinely decried as the liberal media by Fox — the CNNs, MSNBCs, and New York Timeses, and Washington Posts of the world) to engage in flag-waving, pandering, scapegoating, and shoulder-shrugging when talking about their neoliberal champions or when their own conflicts of interest are laid bare. This reached its culmination when Hillary Clinton declared in the 2016 presidential campaign that “America is already great.” Indeed, America was already great for the neoliberal elite, but this showed how fundamentally disconnected neoliberalism is from the average American, how devoid of empathy it is, and how it ultimately preaches complacency, inaction, and fear of worse evils than itself.
Thus, while the far-right noisily blustered full-on racism and idiocy, and ham-fistedly moved the Overton window rightward, the neoliberals quietly complied. It was totally fine for a culture of insiderism to develop between the “liberal media” and the Democratic Party. It was totally fine for politicians and generals and corporate elites to receive kid glove treatment from the Blitzers, Maddows, Williamses, and Matthews of the world. Even the Stewarts, Colberts, and Olivers got in line to not question the suspect dealings and swelling corruption in the Democratic ranks, choosing time and again to pluck the low-hanging fruit presented by the Ben Carson and Sarah Palin trainwreck side-shows and the endless circus of easy comedy the GOP kept gift-wrapping for them. As insiders, they even made sure to get a few cheap shots at third-party outsiders.
Where has this gotten us? Donald Trump is the president. Unprecedented corruption and abandonment of principle are the new normal. Fake news is ubiquitous, whether delivered overtly from a yelling Alex Jones or subtly from a smug Don Lemon. And, here I am, writing this piece about a bunch of stuff that should have been relegated to history by now. We should not be debating abortion anymore. We should not be contesting gay marriage anymore. We should not have to be championing science anymore. We should not have to debate whether fracking is dangerous or whether there might be some problem with having corporations around with a financial incentive to incarcerate people. We should not have to be reminded that Black Lives Matter.
Fortunately, the Overton window isn’t just a tool of the rich and powerful anymore. I am writing this on Medium, for free, for anyone who wants to read it. Hundreds of pieces have been written in independent media sources that talk about issues that the left wants to talk about. Hundreds of pieces have been written shedding light on the disingenuousness of neoliberal rhetoric. Oligarchs control the mainstream media, but we live in the Information Age. We can choose to turn off the TV and tune into a radical’s Twitter account. We can abandon our worthless New York Times subscriptions and scour Medium for objectivity. We can find independent media all over YouTube. We can tell our parents and friends that “The Truth Is Out There,” but they won’t find it on CNN or in the Washington Post.
All of that is good but, more importantly, we can create the world we want by talking about the world we want. We can trample these bad ideas that lie within the Overton window’s gaze and make them obsolete. Every piece on the left that gets written by every unheralded internet writer or independent media journalist moves the window a hair’s breadth. When millions are involved, no amount of corporate money funneled into the coffers of corrupt politicians or complicit media conglomerates can move it back, so be sure to express yourself. We cannot rely on our failed institutions to change the conversation, but we can rely on ourselves.
If you want to see what I am talking about, check out my list of recommendations here at Medium. There are a lot of writers moving the discussion leftward, and you can help shift the Overton window by giving your time to them instead of corporate media outlets who only want to keep you complacent.