In the United States, and in particular for people who were raised on neoliberalism (roughly, those who became aware of the world during or after the Reagan administration), a commitment to colorblindness and individual achievement make cultural sense. If we are to undermine neoliberalism’s dominance, then, we must start by troubling the assumptions that make it possible.
Beginning with the idealization of colorblindness, Jodi Melamed helpfully explains in her 2006 piece “The Spirit of Neoliberalism: From Racial Liberalism to Neoliberal Multiculturalism” (tragically, Duke UP won’t even allow open access to the abstract) how it is that race becomes invisible under neoliberalism. As “new categories of privilege and stigma overlay older, conventional racial categories, so that traditionally recognized racial identities—black, Asian, white, or Arab/Muslim—can now occupy both sides of the privilege/stigma opposition,” being less privileged (and, indeed, stigmatized as nonnormative) no longer aligns precisely with race, and it becomes even easier to attribute lesser success to individual factors rather than structures such as racism (pp. 2-3).
This move, then, “made it possible to ascribe stigma to segments of African American society without the act of ascription appearing to be an act of racial power,” such that one can differentiate “between ‘healthy’ African American cultural formations (those aligned with idealized American cultural norms and nationalist sentiment) and ‘pathological’ ones” (Melamed, p. 8).
In this way, because some African Americans “get it right,” the status of African Americans as a group is no longer of issue; instead, as Lisa Duggan explains in The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (2004), individuals are imagined to “choose” to succeed or fail: “inequalities are routinely assigned to ‘private’ life, understood as ‘natural,’ and bracketed away from the consideration in the ‘public’ life of the state” ( p. 5). In this way, neoliberalism can both express a concern for racial inequality and perpetuate it.
Alternately, even if one values only neoliberalism’s economic tenets, it is still based on false premises and fails on its own terms (which, according to Hegelian dialectic, is what brings down each social structure anyway).
Neoliberalism works through an “equation of economic activity with voluntary, uncoerced, private freedom,” such that, if we can show that people are not actually “free” in this sense we can undermine the practice of treating them as if they are (Duggan, p. 13).
This is to call attention to the structural determinants of decisions—workers don’t really freely choose their working conditions, so the simple supply-and-demand model that says they can just leave if they aren’t getting paid enough doesn’t really match up to reality, and this lack of freedom gets multiplied for criminalized populations such as men of color and welfare recipients.
Moreover, the “free” market isn’t so free either, such that neoliberalism fails at its own premises. As Duggan points out, “inefficient, unprofitable ‘private’ industries routinely request and receive government support, even direct subsidies” (p. 13), a point that has become crystal clear since the start of the recent economic meltdown.
Individuals can’t “compete” fairly, and corporations don’t; in this way the premises upon which neoliberalism makes sense prove to be illusory.