Freedom vs. Free Markets, Part 3
Note: This is the third article in a three-part series that appeared this week. Part 1 analyzed the ongoing protests in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt. Part 2 looked at neoliberalism’s impact on people of color, particularly in the United States.
By NAVID FARNIA
In the past few decades, terms like “free market” and “free trade” have become normalized and portrayed as value-neutral. Embedded in the language is the belief that capital has human agency and should be free. But despite this commonly held notion, “free market” and “free trade” are not just terms with textbook definitions. They are in actuality, ideologically loaded concepts.
At its core, capital is wealth. Thus, we can explain how capital is given moral value by examining how self-interested powers breed ideology. Anthony Bogues’ lecture series entitled Empire of Liberty: Power, Desire, and Freedom, which was later turned into a book, outlines how laissez-faire capitalism only recently became associated with freedom. He explains:
In the late 1970s and ‘80s the political axis of the West shifted with the electoral victories of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl. The emergence of these three figures at the same moment signaled a decisive shift in electoral political terms and in ideological framing ones. These political figures set out to change the terms of contemporary political discourse and for a time successfully defined those terms. At the heart of this change was the elevation of the market into an ethic. As an ethic the market became, in Antonio Gramsci’s phrase, “common sense.”…However, for this common sense to consolidate itself, a language had to be found that could stabilize the primacy of the market ethic for at least some time. The organizing language for this new ethic was a conception of “freedom.” Thus, as neoliberalism became the dominant ideology of imperial power, it worked through an ideological space in which “freedom” became the “common sense.” It was a remarkable deployment of a term invested with a particular conception of freedom, which could conjure up the deepest feelings that organize our lives.
“Free market” and “free trade” consequently emerged as terms and would eventually dominate our way of knowing capitalism. Employing language of freedom functions to protect capitalism’s perpetual expansion. People generally defend freedom because we see it as a right, particularly a human right. Thus, if unfettered capitalism is part of freedom’s promise, the dominant ideology will be to safeguard its practice as a fundamental right.
In truth, any positive association between freedom and capitalism is a myth. So-called free markets and free trade agreements lead to heightened labor exploitation. The worldwide implementation of neoliberal policies and recent demonstrations against them illustrate an ideological battle between freedom and free trade that has very practical repercussions. Third World governments are adopting Western neoliberal ideals. But perhaps the most overlooked issue is how neoliberalism is deracialized, making white supremacy invisible in the economic globalization process.
Enter the protests in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt. While race is mostly unmentioned in the demonstrations (especially in Turkey and Egypt), Third World sensibilities against Western economic infiltrations are certainly growing.
Meanwhile in the U.S., the wealth gap between whites and people of color is alarmingly widening, undoubtedly a consequence of free trade and privatization working together with incessant racial discrimination. Capitalism’s expansion is facilitated by deregulation policies that further allow big business to exploit the most susceptible workers, people of color.
But how do processes that specifically target people of color in the U.S. directly relate to Third World demonstrations? The U.S.’s dominance in the global landscape is about more than military might and economic power. American hegemony also manifests in the mapping of its state ideological apparatus – white supremacy – on the rest of the world and feeding this process through neoliberal policies; this is neocolonialism. In other words, the same processes (racial violence, criminalization, economic superexploitation, settler colonialism and so forth) that result from structural racism in the U.S. are increasingly reflected worldwide as a result of capitalism’s globalization.
Neoliberal policies stand in for what really are neocolonial projects, both in the Third World and the West (where we have internal colonialism). In the U.S. specifically, a wealthy capitalist class comprised of only a few people of color has developed without regard for the remaining racialized masses. Similarly, that Third World countries are now nationally independent, having their own leaders and small affluent capitalist classes, does not diminish poverty’s relationship with capitalism’s expansion.
Poverty is a global epidemic. The growth of poverty – a harsh reality in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt – is an underreported impact of neoliberalism and perhaps the main impetus for the protests. Unfortunately, since neoliberalism is deracialized, critical analysis that broadly contextualizes the dissent as opposing neocolonialism is absent.
On the other hand, governments are doing everything in their power to protect neoliberal policies. This has produced authoritarian neoliberalism, where states are implementing strong security apparatuses while concurrently downsizing their economic roles by deregulating and privatizing industries.
This is best evidenced in Brazil and Turkey. Defending her government’s economic policies, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff dismissed criticism of Brazil’s economy as “terrorism.” In Turkey, anti-terror laws and the overall criminalization of dissent are at an all time high. In her important two part article, “Brand Turkey and the Gezi Protests: Authoritarianism, Law, and Neoliberalism,” Asli Iğsiz eloquently contextualizes the protests:
Overall, these protests offer a valuable opportunity to consider how high-security, neoliberal nation states operate in general, with Turkey as a particular instance. In this context, surveillance and anti-terror laws give the impression of a state of exception, which suspend the rights of citizens, whereby state officials appear to transcend law for the “public good.” As such, law appears to be deployed to concentrate power and to promote neoliberal institutionalization, whereas those who are unhappy with these policies are criminalized. This was exemplified in the Gezi protests.
Iğsiz later continues, “Criminalization of the right to expression and assembly on the one hand, and passing laws to concentrate powers to further capitalist construction interests on the other, operate together in neoliberal institutionalization.” Given this analysis, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s allusions to Gezi protesters as “terrorists” – like Rousseff’s proclamation against Brazilians – are somewhat predictable. Despite what governments might have us believe, growing the security state does not equate to freedom.
Although neoliberalism’s expansion is a global development, the project is not yet complete even in the West. Free trade, economic deregulation and privatization escalate racial exploitation in the U.S. Neoliberal policies correspond with perpetual inflation. But while costs are rising, wages have minimally increased during the same period, decimating the working class and furthering racial superexploitation. As a result, the gap between the wealthy and the working class continues to swell.
The Global Risks Report 2013 corroborates the severity of this issue; the report highlights vast wealth disparities as the most prevalent global risk. Addressing neoliberalism’s global expansion, Mandeep Tiwana writes:
During a global and economic downturn, political leaders and captains of industry have together managed to subject ordinary people to double jeopardy: having to pay taxes to the state and then having to fork out profit-adjusted higher costs for privatized health, education, public transport, telecommunications, road works, electricity, water supply and so on. These services are indeed governments’ responsibility to provide as part of the social contract between citizens and the state.
In reality, governments are washing their hands of these responsibilities and disregarding public interests. At the same time, because people of color are particularly reliant on subsidized public services, privatization is denying their access to quality health care, education and other institutions. This process has similarly expanded to the Third World, where the working poor also depend on publicly funded services.
By privatizing their economies and opening markets to foreign investment, governments like Turkey, Brazil and Egypt’s endeavor to draw an influx of capital. However, when countries become concentrated locations of capital, workers are marginalized due to increased competition and are also more vulnerable to exploitation.
Brazil is now experiencing a burgeoning immigrant population as laborers from economically devastated Third World nations come looking for jobs. This creates a problem where working class Brazilians and newly arrived immigrants must compete for positions. Hence, in addition to already prevalent inflation and poor services, competition for jobs inevitably leads to increased unemployment and poverty.
Governments in Brazil, Turkey, Egypt and other countries institute neoliberal policies to escape the Third World moniker, but what happens in reality is the retrenchment of foreign domination in domestic markets, further entrapping exploited workers – both domestic and migrant – in impoverished conditions. Neoliberal practices represent a desire to emulate Western models of capitalism. But given the U.S. and Western Europe’s convoluted historical relationship with the Third World, free market capitalism in these countries is more akin to neocolonialism.
This is not simply our classic conception of colonialism, but a more covert and insidious project enabled by neoliberalism. Thus, Turkish, Brazilian and Egyptian protesters are contesting the free market’s growth to essentially protect their economic freedoms. While the demonstrations center on widespread inflation, unemployment and poverty, protesters clearly identify private interests as a direct threat to their livelihoods.
These freedoms are also under attack for people of color in the West. Unemployment is at an all time high in France. Other European countries also have widely documented economic issues and are implementing austerity programs. Meanwhile in the U.S., austerity policies targeting food stamp assistance and unemployment benefits (which are either being slashed or eliminated altogether) are just two examples. Free trade agreements like NAFTA (and likely TTIP and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) result in job exportations, which exacerbates the unemployment issue. Simultaneously, federal, state and local governments constantly expand the security state, which among other outcomes profits the surveillance and prison industries and perpetuates mass incarceration. This is only a small sample of political and economic policies that undermine poor communities and in particular, communities of color.
Throughout Europe, protesters are already agitating against austerity measures. And with the U.S.’s current policy direction, mass demonstrations will inevitably spread here as well, joining the Third World.
Nawal El Sadaawi, the legendary Egyptian feminist writer perhaps describes the free market best. “The free market is not free, it is only free for the powerful to exploit the weak,” she says. For people of color, the free market’s shackles are even tighter due to white supremacy’s national and global presence. Neoliberal policies strengthen already persistent racial disparities. In a world where economic exploitation is constantly increasing, people of color experience superexploitation, which is undeniably a central factor in capitalism’s expansion. Thus, while demonstrators expose and debunk false notions of the market as an ethic, they simultaneously realize white supremacy’s role in “free” markets.
Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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