On Fridays, we are posing questions to Dr. Bruce Rogers-Vaughn (right), an ordained Baptist minister, pastoral psychotherapist and Associate Professor of the Practice of Pastoral Theology and Counseling at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and the author of Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age (Palgrave, 2019).
Tommy Airey: Last week, you described neoliberalism as a “neo-coloniality”—that it is about class, but about race and gender too. In your book, you write that “progressive narratives concerning inclusivity and diversity that separate gender and race from class are vulnerable to being co-opted by neoliberal agendas.” Please explain!
BRV: First, I must give credit where it is due. The close ties between coloniality and capitalism have been observed and written about for decades—long before the current neoliberal phase. The colonization of the world by European powers began prior to the rise of capitalism. That said, capitalism pushed Western imperialism to extremes the world had never seen. Long before the 19th century, colonization became a thoroughly capitalist project. This is perhaps best seen through the lens of what Cedric J. Robinson, in his historical reinterpretation provided in Black Marxism (1983), calls the “Black Radical Tradition.” Representatives of this tradition include activist scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Richard Wright. Although diverse in their origins and views, what they shared was a painstaking analysis and critique of what Robinson called “racial capitalism.” What emerged as modern capitalism, in the words of Robin D. G. Kelley, was a world system “dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide.” Members of this broad movement did not so much discard Marx’s analysis of class conflict, as they amended and transformed it to show that capitalism and class struggle had always been deeply entangled with racism. This tradition deeply influenced the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the 1960s, including Martin Luther King, Jr., the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and Black Feminists such as Angela Y. Davis and members of the Combahee River Collective (CRC). Malcolm X summed it up when he flatly declared: “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”
Speaking of Angela Davis and the CRC, what I have appraised here regarding capitalism and racism also goes for capitalism and sexism. I do not have enough space here for a decent review, but this has been examined in a number of writings, such as the essays contributed to a volume titled Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (1979), edited by Zillah Eisenstein. Capitalism is not only a white supremacist project; it is also a patriarchal endeavor. This is why bell hooks persists, despite criticism, in using the phrase “transnational white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (always without commas) to denote this global system.
Now, how does neoliberalism alter this picture? As the historian Quinn Slobodian has persuasively argued in his monumental work, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (2018), the ideas of neoliberalism initially arose as a reaction to threats against the colonial order. He concludes: “Decolonization, I argue, was central to the emergence of the neoliberal model of world governance.” How so? Pressures against the old colonial order that emerged during the late 19th and early 20th century were a crisis for global economic elites. These elites attempted to find a way to bring a world brimming with the liberation of colonized masses back under their control, so that the accumulation of wealth and power to themselves would not be disturbed. In the new order, it was clear, this would have to be accomplished without actually annexing territories. Led by the theorists of the Geneva School—all European white men—neoliberalism arose specifically to accomplish this goal. Military conquest and occupation, they reasoned, was too expensive and inefficient anyway, and it created a public relations problem. Their genius idea? Using a global banking and finance system to subjugate and exploit people would be much more effective. This is what the economist Michael Hudson calls “finance as warfare.” It has worked. And, once again, the Global South, people of color, and women are suffering disproportionally. It is the new version of what Robinson called “racial capitalism,” and it is today’s form of colonialism. Neoliberalism is just as white supremacist and patriarchal as previous versions of capitalism. It is simply cleverer at hiding it.
I have said before that neoliberalism is not just an economic and political project, but a cultural one, a hegemony. So, what has changed culturally? I said in my book that neoliberalism has “muted and mutated” the sufferings we call racism and sexism, such that they now are entangled with what I call “third order suffering.” The neoliberal hegemony has stripped away the narratives we need to see them clearly, much less understand precisely how they do their dirty work. And, in this case, its genius is that it has managed to do this while appearing “progressive.” During the 1980s and 1990s, as neoliberalism was becoming the new normal, the academy embraced theories of postmodernity, critical race theories, gender and feminist studies, and postcolonial literature. These new intellectual movements analyzed and decried racism, sexism, heterosexism, and Western imperialism, and yet did so virtually without any reference to capitalism or class. (Class was occasionally cited, but rarely theorized.) Ironically, the mention of class or capitalism is now imagined to be a distinguishing marker of a brand called “old Marxist white men.” Those within the Black Radical Tradition would be absolutely stunned.
This is the situation I referred to before as “progressive neoliberalism.” As described by Nancy Fraser in her new book The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born (2019), this is today’s dominant hegemony, and it is a powerful alliance between social movements advocating diversity, multiculturalism, antiracism, environmentalism, and so on; and the financial and “symbolic” sectors of the U.S. economy (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood). Generally, this alliance sees oppression (racism, sexism, etc.) as originating “inside the heads” of individuals (personal attitudes, unconscious bias, etc.). These no doubt exist, and require thoughtful reflection and spiritual discernment on the part of every individual. However, in agreement with Ibram X. Kendi, I understand racism (and other such -isms) as originating in established economic practices, public policies, and legal institutions. It is these that produce and maintain individual prejudice, not the other way around. This calls upon us to bring capitalism (and thus class) back into focus as the context for reproducing racism and similar social ills. Until we do this, we can continue to participate in diversity training, or even march in the streets, but we will make precious little headway against these injustices. What we need is a revolution, not just individual conversions.
So, today I would revise what I said in the book. Progressive narratives that separate gender and race from class are not simply “vulnerable to being co-opted by neoliberal agendas,” they are in themselves neoliberal stories.
I do see reason for hope. A younger generation of activists and scholars—such as Kendi and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor—are now picking up the mantle of the Black Radical Tradition. In his new book How to Be an Antiracist (2019), Kendi says it better than I have: “Capitalism is essentially racist; racism is essentially capitalist. They are birthed together from the same unnatural causes, and they shall one day die together from unnatural causes. Or racial capitalism will live into another epoch of theft and rapacious inequity, especially if activists naïvely fight the conjoined twins independently, as if they are not the same.”