It’s easy to forget in the fog of Trumpism that mass privatization, the dismantling of this country’s social safety net, escalating corporate welfare and the mass expansion of prisons are all bipartisan projects. Kelly Hayes talks about the neoliberal policies we can expect from the Biden administration and how we can fight them.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: We’re back after a two-week break and a lot has happened, in the last few days alone. Biden officially won the Electoral College vote on Monday, doses of the Pfizer vaccine are being administered to health care workers, and there has been a frenzy of controversy about Biden’s cabinet picks. The centrist position on Biden’s cabinet has been that because Trump was a fascist nightmare, we should completely submit to the whims of the new administration — even though Trump’s disastrous actions mean we have more at stake than ever. We are experiencing an era of collapse. That means struggle and reorganization are inevitable. The question is, who decides what that reorganization looks like, and who benefits?
Under Trumpism, we were faced with the threat of total domination. Our ability to affect policy was being seized by force.
Under Biden, we are expected to surrender our political will to the establishment out of sheer gratitude.
Now that the Electoral College has affirmed that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States, people are counting the days until we escape from Trump. And while I, too, cannot wait to be free of that man, I also understand what awaits us.
As we have seen under presidents like Clinton and Obama, neoliberalism consolidates resources through privatization, and touts “free market” solutions to social and economic problems. Impoverished people are ground under to ensure the maintenance of profit. Liberal ideas and concerns are touted while government resources that could address those concerns are eliminated, in favor of private contracts.
As Tyler Walicek wrote in Truthout this week:
Biden’s appointments have so far demonstrated their formidable prowess in expertly facilitating drone killings (Avril Haines and Michael Morrell), skillfully turning the screws of the deportation machine (Cecilia Muñoz) and promulgating investor-friendly non-solutions to climate change (John Kerry) with consummate professionalism. (Less professional, perhaps, is austerity advocate and faux-progressive think-tank head Neera Tanden.)
Neoliberals preach about the free market, but as Quinn Slobodian wrote in Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, “free” is a poor descriptor in this case, because neoliberalism actually seeks to “encase” economic structures and mechanisms, to make them dominant and nonnegotiable. These objectives create a damning bipartisan overlap between neoliberalism and some of the most odious financial objectives of the right-wing.
So we know that both parties serve the rich and have wrought horrible violence through acts of war, austerity, and the prison industrial complex on many fronts. So many people seem to have taken the position that we should simply enjoy the relief of the transition, and wait until our disenchantment catches up with us. This is a dangerous perspective because we are living in catastrophic times. COVID-19 is now killing one person in the United States per minute and the death toll has topped 300,000. Next year, 30 to 40 million people will be vulnerable to eviction. In a normal year, about 3.6 million eviction cases are filed. We have so much at stake, and everything about the history of this government, including the Obama administration, tells us that we are going to have to fight for meaningful relief.
I voted for Biden because I believe we have more of a fighting chance under neoliberalism than we did under fascism, but we are no longer faced with a choice between fascism and neoliberalism. The whole, “if you criticize Biden you are helping Trump” bit has been disingenuous for weeks, but it officially died on Monday. Some may say it’s not over until Biden is sworn in, but no one really believes that criticizing Biden now could help Trump stay in the White House anymore than they’ve believed it these last few weeks. Those arguments are about silencing Biden’s critics, and they will not go away. Next we will hear that it’s too soon in his presidency to complain. Then, we will be told that we are jeopardizing the midterms with critique, and on and on.
As we have seen in the past, there will never be an acceptable time to, as people say, “hold Biden accountable.” Until now, we have been scolded and told that we are helping Trump any time we point out Biden’s terrible and alarming record — or any time we criticize how weak and useless specific initiatives sound. On COVID-19, Biden recently announced that in his first 100 days, everyone would be wearing masks, children would be back in schools and 100 million vaccinations would be distributed. Those vaccines had already been ordered under the Trump administration, Trump himself has been pushing to reopen schools for months, and masks are already universally recommended. But those of us who complained that Biden, who could take comprehensive action to stop the spread, is offering us so little, were scolded yet again.
Members of the establishment will continue to portray anything but total submission as ingratitude. They will hold Biden up as a savior worthy of exaltation. They will continue to depict all dissent as betrayal, and to demand thank yous from the very people who will suffer under Biden’s austerity. But the establishment did not deliver us from Trumpism. Voters did that. Many of us even showed up at the polls in-person, risking our lives to cast a ballot against Trump, despite loathing Biden. To declare we must surrender our political will now, or simply make polite, easy-to-ignore demands, of people who have publicly emphasized that they will ignore us, is just another brand of domination. But that is the governance we can expect under Biden.
Fans of the establishment, and people who are simply swept up in relief, have defended Biden’s corporate-heavy cabinet appointments as pro-business. They vaguely dismiss concerns about the military industrial complex, and in the case of Rahm Emanuel, the cover-up of an anti-Black police murder.
While it appears outcry may have nixed an Emanuel appointment — affirming the power of leftist dissent — the fact that his appointment was ever on the table underlines what we should expect from this administration. Some Biden supporters have claimed Emanuel was never really being considered, and that stories about him potentially being appointed were leaked by Emanuel’s own people. There is no evidence to support that claim, but it is demonstrative of the climate we are in: people will twist themselves in knots, or ignore whatever they have to, in order to avoid criticizing Joe Biden.
Many people, however, are quite accustomed to finding fault with Rahm Emanuel, who closed 50 public schools in Chicago and shuttered half of our city’s publicly funded mental health clinics. The practice of “disappearing arrestees” into the Chicago Police Department’s infamous Homan Square facility also increased under Emanuel. After his role in the coverup of Laquan McDonald’s murder at the hands of Chicago police was revealed, there were daily protests calling for Emanuel’s resignation. And speaking of protesters, Emanuel actually pioneered the use of drones to surveil protesters in Chicago.
Chicago teachers were also forced to launch a historic strike under Emanuel to beat back his austerity agenda.
This man was Obama’s chief of staff. His character is the character of neoliberalism, and that is all that we can realistically expect from Biden. Emanuel’s slogan that you “never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” will be the tone of the new administration. The fact that Emanuel was even considered as an appointee should have those words ringing in everyone’s ears.
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
But if, as appears to be the case, Emanuel will not sit on Biden’s cabinet, Biden’s victory still managed to elevate Rahm Emanuel’s brother, Ezekiel Emanuel, whose politics also reflect a neoliberal disregard for other human beings. Ezekiel Emanuel, who has written publicly that 75 is “a good age to stop” trying to prolong people’s lives, is on Biden’s coronavirus task force. The vast majority of people dying of COVID-19 in the United States — about 70 percent — are over 70. To save those people, Biden has brought in a doctor who thinks their lives are not worth saving. This is what you can expect from neoliberalism, every step of the way.
We know what to expect from this administration on the basis of Biden’s history. We know what to expect on the basis of who he is appointing, and who he has considered. We also know what to expect because there are existing neoliberal playbooks out there — and I mean literally, they have playbooks, like the Broad Foundation’s “School Closure Guidebook.” I watched in my own city as those techniques were exercised and Rahm Emanuel gutted our schools.
Neoliberal politicians have best practices for turning us against each other as we grovel over crumbs. In Chicago, during the school closures, parents were pitted against each other, with hearings that invited people to rally around their own schools, siloing defensive efforts. It’s easy to forget in the fog of Trumpism that mass privatization, the dismantling of this country’s social safety net, escalating corporate welfare and the mass expansion of prisons are all bipartisan projects. People like Joe Biden have perpetrated that violence alongside Republicans for decades.
They gut funding for public services, creating staff shortages, infrastructure problems, and disorganization — then they claim those problems can only be overcome through privatization.
Democrats also have models to work from while presiding over mass displacement, and if anyone believes the Biden administration will resolve the coming housing crisis in a way that serves tenants, I question either their knowledge of history or their willingness to remember it. Nothing about what we know of Biden or those he runs with suggests we will get bailed out out of this mess without a fight. As we chanted during the Occupy movement, under the Obama administration, “Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!”
Mass displacement begets various forms of mass disposal, including mass criminalization, the increased institutionalization of disabled people and the continued expansion of e-carceration, which outsources incarceration into our own homes. We have every reason to expect these carceral policies because they have bipartisan support. There’s a reason for that. Many in our government know there are dark times ahead, and they want control of the populace, by whatever means are ultimately necessary.
This is a time to study previous instances of mass displacement in the United States, like the dismantling of the Chicago Housing Projects in Chicago. You will see histories of struggle and crisis leveraged by the powerful to enact policies that left people worse off. They will claim to be rescuing us, while they leave us with even less than we had before, as they line the pockets of the rich. It is incumbent upon us to review and acknowledge these histories. It is essential that we evaluate the time tested strategies of our enemies, what they have won, and how people have fought. We are moving into a new and uncertain era. We do not fully know what to expect, but we do know that there has not been a moment in our lifetimes when it made sense to consign our fates to the whims of this government.
Some people say that the Democrats would rather lose to a Republican than a leftist candidate. While that is not an absolute truth, it is worth naming that in the current shape of things, the establishment’s relevance is guaranteed. So long as they maintain the current binary of power, between themselves and the Republicans, they will remain relevant. Whereas losing to a leftist agenda could lead to a new dynamic, where they would be less able to serve their corporate funders, and thus, disempowered. The left is an existential threat to the establishment because it offers to do what the establishment cannot: prioritize the well-being of its base.
So it’s no surprise that establishment Democrats hold the left in contempt at all times. Biden’s comments about Trump’s attempted coup are laid-back in comparison to the wailing of failed Democratic incumbents who insist it was the words “defund the police,” rather than their Republican opponents, that defeated them.
The truth is, the establishment has been perfecting the art of losing for quite some time. This year, Trump’s disastrous tenure put establishment Democrats back in the White House, but not even the nightmare of Trumpism could give Democrats the down-ticket momentum they had hoped for. So they needed a villain. Someone to blame. So, as usual, they blamed the left.
The reason is simple: they are afraid of us. Our agenda threatens the bottom line of the people who author their politics for them. Since the primary function of authority is to maintain itself, the center has no choice but to attack those who advocate against austerity policies that harm the public. They have to try to stop us, because their keepers do not want to fund our survival. Their model of governance condemns a great many of us to death. Fewer people may feel threatened by that than did by Trumpism, but feeling less afraid is not an excuse to sacrifice others to neoliberalism. We cannot declare that this is the best we could do, because elections alone are never the best we can do.
In time, some of the people telling you to be quiet will change their tune. Because right now, they are overwhelmed with relief and hope, but within some months, those feelings will be replaced by fear, anxiety and betrayal, because while this administration may not be as hyped to annihilate people, it is poised to let a whole lot of people die. I know this for the same reasons I knew what to expect from Trump: an analysis of relevant histories and present actions, and a review of the man’s own words. By those measures, we know Biden will leave many, many people behind — and that nothing will fundamentally change. We don’t get to set the bar that low.
So don’t quiet down, ever. Don’t let anyone tell you to be grateful. When people swoon over Biden executing some formality of the presidency correctly, don’t join in. It may be tempting, because the feelings at work will be positive ones, and we have grown accustomed to a lot of hurt. But romanticizing institutions, fetishizing the rule of law and glorifying Biden because he understands the formalities of the executive branch, will only give cover to austerity and state violence. That veneer must be scraped off at every turn. We have had time to feel our relief. Now, we must prepare to fight.
One of the primary issues Trump’s critics have emphasized over the last four years has been immigration. Biden has deprioritized immigration reform, on the basis of immigration activists being too adversarial. If someone thinks that Biden should not be pushed on immigration right now, I think they should have to account for that — to themselves, to the people around them, and to the people trapped in detention centers right now. Those facilities are currently being ravaged by COVID-19. Where are Biden’s supporters’ demands to free them? Why are people consigning their fates to Biden, who is deprioritizing immigration reform, and who ran on having served in the Obama administration, which had a reprehensible record on immigration?
The story of the United States, prior to Trumpism is a story of rapidly consolidating wealth. It is a story of increasingly militarized police and borders. It is the story of ever-expanding criminalization, mass surveillance and a race to strip mine the world for resources. It is not a story that should be merrily resumed.
So how do we fight?
The ultimate weakness of neoliberalism is that it only appeals to people when things are going well, or when they are trying to escape something worse. When conditions deteriorate, democracy becomes a potential threat to capitalism, as do leftist ideas — and conditions will deteriorate, and we know this, because both history and the conditions of the present tell us as much. In times of strife, there is nothing inspiring about the continued consolidation of wealth or the glorification of corporate competence. As Slobodian put it, “no one is willing to die” for the World Trade Organization.
Right now, Democrats are trying to shore up their position with a savior narrative. They hope that narrative will keep the public loyal in catastrophic times. But this is not a time for renewed patriotism. It’s time to tell a better story — and in that we have the advantage, because the establishment’s story falls apart in the face of mass suffering. They have already failed us. Some people have forgotten. But they will remember, and we will fight for the future.
I want to thank our listers for joining us today. If you want to read up on some of the histories and ideas I’ve mentioned today, you can find some great resources in the show notes of this episode on our website. I know these are dark times, but it is truer today than it’s ever been that our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Exposing the Plague of Neoliberalism by Henry Giroux
U.S. Capitalism Is in Total Meltdown by Sarah Jaffe
A History of Neoliberalism with Quinn Slobodian by Daniel Denvir
For your research:
Just a reminder that if you are experiencing grief during the pandemic and need free counseling or other grief-related services, the Mutual Aid Mourning and Healing Project may be able to help. Please take care of yourselves during these times.