In neoliberal discourse, married women are assumed to be responsible for children and dependent on wage-earning husbands, and are often advised to stay at home during their children’s early years to build self-esteem and independence in the young. They are also encouraged to volunteer, as the bulwarks of civil society and « faith-based » social service provisions, with their unpaid labor underpinning the privatized social safety net. Single, divorced, and widowed women may « choose » to work in a gender and race-segmented labor market without affordable childcare or public assistance in order to build their self-esteem and independence—or, some welfare reformers suggest, they may « choose » to put their children up for adoption by married couples, or house them in orphanages. Lesbian and gay, bisexual or transgendered parents may choose only to take their chances amid the patchwork legal minefield of inadequate to hostile partnership provisions, custody rulings, adoptions laws, social services, employment and health insurance practices, and educational (in)visibility.
For men, neoliberal policy wonks and politicians have advocated « law and order » programs, including the « war on crime » and the « war on drugs, » « zero tolerance » policing, « quality of life » crackdowns on crimes against public order, and the mass incarceration of young poor men, especially black men.
Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality : Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy, p. 17-18
This rhetoric promotes the privatization of the costs of social reproduction, along with the care of human dependency needs, through personal responsibility exercised in the family and in civil society—thus shifting costs from state agencies to individuals and households. This process accompanies the call for tax cuts that deplete public coffers, but leave more money in the « private » hands of the wealthy.
The valorized concepts of privatization and personal responsibility travel widely across the rhetorics of contemporary policy debates, joining economic goals with cultural values while obscuring the identity politics and upwardly redistributive impetus of neoliberalism. Two general policy arenas have proved especially productive for these concepts and help to illustrate the relationship between the economic policies and the cultural projects of neoliberalism—welfare « reform » and « law and order » initiatives. In both arenas, neoliberals have promoted « private » competition, self-esteem, and independences the roots of personal responsibility, and excoriated « public » entitlement, dependency, and irresponsibility as the sources of social ills. And in both arenas, state policies reflect and enact identity and cultural politics invested in hierarchies of race, gender, and sexuality as well as class and nationality.
Welfare reform and the law and order politics of the past two decades clearly illustrate the dense interrelations among neoliberalism’s economic vision and its cultural projects. The goal of raising corporate profits has never been pursued separately from the rearticulation of hierarchies of race, gender, and sexuality in the United States and around the globe. Neoliberals, unlike many leftists and progressives, simply don’t assume that there is any important difference between material goals and identity politics. They make use of identity politics to obscure redistributive aims, and they use « neutral » economic policy terms to hide their investments in identity-based hierarchies, but they don’t make the mistake of fundamentally accepting the ruse of liberalism—the assertion of a clear boundary between the politics of identity and class.
Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality : Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy, p. 14-15
The most successful ruse of neoliberal dominance in both global and domestic affairs is the definition of economic policy as primarily a matter of neutral, technical expertise. This expertise is then presented as separate from politics and culture, and not properly subject to specifically political accountability or cultural critique. Opposition to material inequality is maligned as « class warfare, » while race, gender or sexual inequalities are dismissed as merely cultural, private, or triv- ial. This rhetorical separation of the economic from the political and cultural arenas disguises the upwardly redistributing goals of neoliberalism—its concerted efforts to concentrate power and resources in the hands of tiny elites. Once economics is understood as primarily a technical realm, the trickle-upward effects of neoliberal policies can be framed as due to performance rather than design, reflecting the greater merit of those reaping larger rewards.
But, despite their overt rhetoric of separation between economic policy on the one hand, and political and cultural life on the other, neoliberal politicians and policymakers have never actually separated these domains in practice. In the real world, class and racial hierarchies, gender and sexual institutions, religious and ethnic boundaries are the channels through which money, political power, cultural resources, and social organization flow. The economy cannot be transparently abstracted from the state or the family, from practices of racial apartheid, gender segmentation, or sexual regulation. The illusion that such categories of social life can be practically as well as analytically abstracted one from another descends from the conceptual universe of Anglo- European Liberalism, altered and adapted to the U.S. context during the early nineteenth century (see chapter 1). While reasserting this ideology of discrete spheres of social life, in practice contemporary neoliberal policies have been implemented in and through culture and politics, reinforcing or contesting relations of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, or nationality. The specific issues, alliances and policies have shifted over time and across differing locales, but their overall impact has been the upward redistribution of resources and the reproduction of stark patterns of social inequality.
Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality : Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy, p. XIV
Paradoxes of Neoliberalism is a video by the Barnard Center for Research on Women, featuring interviews with Sealing Cheng, Lisa Duggan, Dean Spade, Elizabeth Bernstein, Miranda Joseph, Sandra K. Soto, Teresa Gowan, and Kate Bedford. As Professor Cheng describes in the video’s opening sequence, the economics and politics of neoliberalism are riddled with paradoxes and contradictions. Commentators draw on their research to focus on three central paradoxes of neoliberalism: its combination of emphasis on value-free economics and intensive moral regulation, its uneven distribution of risk and security, and its simultaneous creation of heightened social inequalities and intensified human rights discourses and humanitarian interventions. They trace these contradictions across domains ranging from war and peace to investment and trade to financial markets to prevailing understandings of empowerment and freedom. Recorded Fall 2012.
Paradoxes of Neoliberalism was published in issue 11.1-11.2 of The Scholar & Feminist Online, “Gender, Justice, and Neoliberal Transformations.” See the entire issue at sfonline.barnard.edu/gender-justice-and-neoliberal-transformations for additional resources.