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“The Vulnerable Have Entered a More Precarious State Than Ever”: Marc Lamont Hill on Neoliberalism’s “Nobodies“

Marc Lamont Hill discusses neoliberalism, the plea bargain system and the current callous politics of disposability.

(Photo: Whitney Cummings)

When neoliberalism and white supremacy hold sway, those marked as poor, Black, Brown, immigrant, queer and/or trans are easily abandoned or vindictively targeted by the state. They become what Marc Lamont Hill calls Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond. According to Melissa Harris-Perry, “This is the book we needed to understand how we got here and to understand what it means to be here.” Order your copy today by making a donation to Truthout!

Dr. Marc Lamont Hill wears many hats: He’s a television host (for BET News and VH-1 Live), the Steve Charles Professor of Media, Cities and Solutions at Temple University, a regular commentator on CNN and an activist. He’s also an author whose new book, Nobody, is an essential read in explaining the callousness on a massive scale that characterizes modern US political culture and the US’s approach to governance. Rather than falling into the false dichotomies of the “class versus identity politics” debate, in Nobody Hill illustrates how neoliberal capitalism targets specific identities to oppress, exploit and ultimately discard.

In the following interview with Truthout, we discussed the book and its continuing relevance in the Trump era.

Joe Macaré: For those who haven’t yet read the book, can you briefly explain the concept you call “Nobodyness” and how it requires an understanding of race and class, sexism and transphobia, and overt state violence coupled with neoliberal economics?

Marc Lamont Hill: For me, Nobodyness is the product of a politics of disposability that shapes our daily lives. We live in a world where particular populations are denied access to the alleged benefits of democratic citizenship.

In 2017, there is a social demerit assigned to being Black, queer, trans, undocumented or a woman. These social demerits (and categories) are rooted in the various “isms” that we often discuss. But they are also connected to the fact that we live within the context of a class-defending state which, at the current moment, has doubled down on its investment in private capital at the expense of the public good.

As a consequence of this, the vulnerable have entered a more precarious state than ever. The government that is supposed to protect them has been largely outsourced to a private sector that has no interest in anything but accumulating more capital. Any social contradiction, like homelessness or addiction, gets resolved by erasing people through spaces like prison. Hence, “nobodyness.”

In your chapter on Ferguson you spend significant time on St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe apartments. How has urban planning and design in the US contributed historically towards segregation, marginalization and concentrated poverty, despite or because of the “good intentions” of planners?

Indeed, public housing has historically been viewed as a site of technological innovation, but also a site of social improvement. Unfortunately, the realities of white supremacy and anti-Black racism have often undermined any meaningful progress on that front.

For example, Pruitt-Igoe was designed to bring races together, yet the Pruitt and Igoe buildings were separated by race. Also, White residents had no real desire to live near Black residents. This reality was compounded by public policies that incentivized White flight (and capital flight) from urban spaces. With Whites gone, key resources quickly left too. Despite the best intentions of some planners, the end result was, in many instances, a net loss.

Can you talk a little about the connections you make in the chapter “Bargained” between the rise of plea bargaining and the takeover of the public imagination by free-market capitalism? How has the criminal legal system become a form of “doing business”?

The current neoliberal moment — with its focus on privatization, efficiency, austerity and deregulation — encourages us to reduce everything to a transaction. As a result, people become means rather than ends; vital processes become secondary to cost-cutting measures. The plea bargain system is a perfect example of this.

Obviously, plea bargains are necessary at times. We don’t need a full trial for, say, a standard drunk driving case where the facts aren’t in dispute and the punishments are clear. Currently, however, we use the plea bargain for most of our federal and state cases. Why? Because it saves money and moves cases along faster. Efficiency.

Lost in all of this is the citizen’s right to a trial and public’s right to the truths that are revealed when that trial is held. Within this context, defendants who don’t plea bargain are punished more harshly for “wasting” state money. Judges, who were elected by the public, become secondary to the prosecutor, who now gets to determine the nature and legitimacy of the plea deal.

And it’s not just plea deals. The public defender’s office has been de facto privatized in many cities, as private contract attorneys are being used to represent citizens. Of course, these attorneys aren’t paid by the individual case. Instead they are given a flat fee to represent a large group of defendants. As such, they are financially incentivized to move through the cases as quickly as possible. Hiring investigators, spending extra time looking at evidence, and other things that would typically be a component of a zealous defense are now at odds with privatized profit motives. Unfortunately, all of this makes sense within the logic of neoliberal capitalism, where narrow notions of “efficiency” trump more robust and humane conceptions of justice.

One of the most striking moments in the book is the moving eulogy that Sen. Clementa Carlos Pinckney gave for Walter Scott, only for Pinkney to be one of those killed by Dylann Roof a little more than two months later. What is the connection between violence committed by the state, and violence committed by openly white supremacist vigilantes?

Both are undergirded by the same indifference to Black life. Both are shaped by the same unwillingness to address the reality that Black bodies are continually viewed as less valuable than their White counterparts. And both reflect the daily forms of terrorism that Black people have to confront within the United States.

Also, given the fact that the killer of Walter Scott (and Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, etc.) ultimately went unpunished by the court system, the violence of both individual citizens and law enforcement agents feels state sponsored. As a result, it’s often hard to make meaningful distinctions, at the level of everyday life, between the actions of rogue individuals and the collective action of the state. The tragic death of Clementa Pinckney, who not only eulogized Walter Scott but offered a prophetic critique of public indifference (and feigned ignorance) of anti-Black state violence, offers a tragic but apt example of this.

I was glad to read in Nobody a nuanced analysis of Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. The widespread adoption of social media, and the atomization that comes with neoliberalism, seem to prompt some writers to fall into a nostalgia that forgets the inequalities that were actually worse in the public sphere in the past. Can you say more about your analysis of the pros and cons of shifting social behavior here?

From [Jürgen] Habermas to Putnam, many brilliant scholars have reflected upon the shifting nature of the public sphere and the shrinkage of various forms of community. Often, however, these individuals romanticize the days of a warm and democratic public sphere, where problems got solved and communities were galvanized.

I agree that there were social, political and even spiritual benefits to people being in the same physical space for social interaction, leisure and commerce. But such analyses often ignore the various groups that were excluded from such spaces. After all, an openly gay man wasn’t allowed in the Masonic lodge and the lesbian couple couldn’t join the local bowling league; Blacks couldn’t sit in the cafe and weren’t welcomed to the literary salon.

These analyses also tend to frame the current modes of technology as antithetical to community and democracy. While I do agree that some things cannot be done via internet, we also cannot ignore how social media has allowed us to reimagine and reconstitute community, engage in political organizing (e.g. flash mobs, hashtag campaigns) and dismantle anachronistic (and ableist) ideologies about what it means to be socially and politically active. For this reason, we must continue to craft and improve traditional spaces of community, while locating new sites, possibly within the current social and technological moment.

Nobody is a book that, in the age of Trump, almost feels like it could be longer, because the number of kinds of people being treated as disposable is only expanding. How much of the callousness of the new regime is actually new, and how much simply builds on what was already in place?

The Trump era marks the dawn of a new era of neo-fascism, with naked forms of nationalism, xenophobia and unchecked forms of state aggression. Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” reflects the kind of colonial nostalgia and appeals to white anxiety that has shaped the current moment.

Truthout Progressive Pick

Nobody: Casualties of America's War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond

“An essential primer on the relationship between anti-Black racism and State-sanctioned violence.” – Alicia Garza

Click here now to get the book!

At the same time, it’s important to note that this era of neo-fascism emerges at the end of the Obama presidency, which reflected the last stages of the neoliberal era. Under Obama (and Clinton, Bush and Reagan) we witnessed a rise in state surveillance, shrinking resources for the vulnerable, and various forms of structural violence. While it’s seductive to merely view Trump’s current rule as being of an entirely different sort, it is more analytically prudent to view it along a historical continuum.

You do touch in the book on movements that are fighting to ensure “nobodies” are treated as “Somebody.” In the face of the Trump administration, what hope do you see for those movements? Where are they making gains?

Since the death of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, we have seen the rise of resistance efforts all around the world. Groups like Black Lives Matter, The Dream Defenders, BYP100, HandsUp United, Lost Voices, and many others have offered constant and principled resistance to state violence. We are seeing increasingly diverse leadership models, richer intersectional analyses, and the formation of transnational solidarities, all of which have complicated and strengthened our resistance efforts.

Rather than turning to collective despair after the election of Donald Trump, we are witnessing an even greater resistance effort by activist groups and everyday citizens. While we cannot romanticize this historical moment — there are real structural and ideological forces that continue to undermine our struggle — we must take pride in our current efforts. Despite the darkness of the current moment, I have never been more confident that we will win.

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