Neoliberalism or market fundamentalism as it is called in some quarters and its army of supporters cloak their interests in an appeal to “common sense,” while doing everything possible to deny climate change, massive inequalities, a political system hijacked by big money and corporations, the militarization of everyday life and the corruption of civic culture by a consumerist and celebrity-driven advertising machine. The financial elite, the 1 percent and the hedge fund sharks have become the highest-paid social magicians in America. They perform social magic by making the structures and power relations of racism, inequality, homelessness, poverty and environmental degradation disappear. And in doing so, they employ deception by seizing upon a stripped-down language of choice, freedom, enterprise and self-reliance – all of which works to personalize responsibility, collapse social problems into private troubles and reconfigure the claims for social and economic justice on the part of workers, poor minorities of color, women and young people as a species of individual complaint. But this deceptive strategy does more. It also substitutes shared responsibilities for a culture of diminishment, punishment and cruelty. The social is now a site of combat, infused with a live-for-oneself mentality and a space where a responsibility toward others is now gleefully replaced by an ardent, narrow and inflexible responsibility only for oneself.
When the effects of structural injustice become obscured by a discourse of individual failure, human misery and misfortune, they are no longer the objects of compassion, but of scorn and derision. In recent weeks, we have witnessed Rush Limbaugh call Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute”; US Marines captured on video urinating on the dead bodies of Afghanistan soldiers; and the public revelation by Greg Smith, a Goldman Sachs trader, that the company was so obsessed with making money that it cheated and verbally insulted its own clients, often referring to them as “muppets.”(2) There is also the mass misogyny of right-wing extremists directed against women’s reproductive rights, which Maureen Dowd rightly calls an attempt by “Republican men to wrestle American women back into chastity belts.”(3) These are not unconnected blemishes on the body of neoliberal capitalism. They are symptomatic of an infected political and economic system that has lost touch with any vestige of decency, justice and ethics.