Finding Our Way Forward – Past Neoliberalism, Austerity, Fascism, and the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC)
By Woods Ervin
The attack on the US Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021 shocked many in the US, mobilizing a call to eject Trump immediately and hold those who stormed the building ac- countable. It is easy to be tempted into thinking that this was an anomaly and that as the Trump presidency ends, the US can return to business as usual. In reality, a fascistic movement has been brewing for quite some time.
There’s a historical relationship between the instability of capitalism and the emergence of a particularly violent white supremacy. Even though we’re now in a specific formation of capitalism — neoliberalism — the pattern still applies. The repeating story is: Capitalism is in crisis, and a current of militant, often white supremacist authoritarianism emerges in an effort to secure racial capitalism. This tendency is global in vision; it currently has emerged in Brazil, Hungary, India, and the Philippines. How- ever, its Trumpist form is particularly American in character, rooted in the settler colonial racist and anti-immigrant US project.
The movement that attacked the capitol on January 6 is anchored in the US tendency toward militarism and white supremacy, as well as our current economic conditions and posture as developed by a long-standing neoliberal terrain. The movement is also animated by the US’ sweeping use of imprisonment and policing in daily life as a response to social, economic, and political problems. By investigating the connections between fascism and neoliberalism, organizers on the left and prison industrial complex (PIC) abolitionists can assess the shifting conditions we must navigate in order to achieve liberation.
As seen in Critical Resistance’s definitions on page 4 of this issue, neoliberalism has been the primary orientation of the US economy since the economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s. Many corporations shrank and relocated manufactur- ing jobs in response to the demands of organized labor, leaving large parts of the population un- employed or at risk of unemployment, forced to engage in survival by any means possible. Neo-
liberals have simultaneously used an austerity approach and gutted the welfare state—defunding public housing, parks, schools, social pro- grams, and deregulating those sec- tors to allow for private corporations to contract with the government. Ad- ditional actions include putting pub- lic tax dollars toward public/private partnerships, tax cuts for the wealthy, and bailouts for big corporations when the economy crashes.
Neoliberalism is a non-partisan political ideology; Republicans and Democrats alike have fine-tuned its execution. In making his case for neoliberal economics, Ronald Reagan insisted “government is the problem” and worked to remove government restrictions to make way for the “invisible hand” of the “free” market to generate and then “trickle down” wealth from the rich to the poor. Fast forward
to the Bush era, where we saw some of the chickens come home to roost. The dot-com bubble burst, meaning the US’ imagined economic growth coming out of the global expansion in the 1990s started to wind down. Many of us are familiar with the Obama era recession of 2009: The sweeping, large-scale loss of jobs and funds resulted in deep emigration of the general population, forcing people into even more pre- carious work.
As the Biden administration enters into office, Biden’s neoliberal allegiance is crystal clear, with his proposed COVID-19 debt relief pack- age already cutting from the initial promised amount. And though we can make a little bit go a long way, even the promised one-time payment of $1,400 isn’t much. Without strong organiz- ing, the US government’s primary position on austerity over the next four years looks to re- main the same.
In order to understand the connection between neoliberalism and fascism, we must consider the violent character of neoliberalism and its support of authoritarianism, both in the US and abroad. As neoliberalism emerged, so did a grow- ing resentment across the political spectrum. In the absence of a more liberatory program, it further ripened conditions for authoritarianism to fester. In other words, neoliberalism creates conditions where a cycle of state and extra-legal violence can thrive. The slashing of the social welfare net, as well as the rise in unemployment of the working class and the shrinking of the middle class, creates the conditions of powerlessness and inequality. This then produces desperation, division, and increased violence— by the state and within our communities. The state’s disavowal to take responsibility for the needs of the people feeds into the people’s disillusionment with government, creating a perfect storm for a populist, fascist leader, party, or forces to make things “great again,” to restore glory, and so on. Neoliberalism has created conditions of despair and disillusion. Through “organized abandonment,” as coined by Ruthie Gilmore, in this way, neoliberalism facilitated Trumpism and its fascistic tendencies to rise with political efficacy in the 21st century.
Once more, it is a mistake to fall into any mis- conception that neoliberalism and authoritarianism are at odds with one another, as suggest- ed by this moment’s two-party rivalry in the US. The quite direct connection between neoliberalism and authoritarianism is historically clear: As neoliberalism emerged, global social- ism was underway, at which point the CIA oust- ed the first democratically elected Marxist pres- ident in the world—Salvador Allende in Chile. The US-backed military coup replaced Allende with Augusto Pinochet and delivered University of Chicago economist and neoliberal extremist Milton Friedman as Pinochet’s consultant. One month later, Pinochet’s regime announced a national economic plan based on the neoliberal principles of market freedom, privatization, deregulation, and individualism. Chile was subjected to the first round of Friedman’s neoliberal “shock therapy” policies while the regime tortured more than 40,000 people, executed more than 2,000, exiled more than 200,000, and disappeared countless leftists. Turning to Critical Resistance’s definitions of both neoliberalism and fascism, we see the overlap in the use of military dictatorship and coups as both a fascist characteristic and a tactic used in maintaining neoliberalism to secure imperial dominance and eliminate dissent.
White Supremacy & Fascism
As Trump’s presidency came to an end, for the first time in the US history, the Confederate battle flag was flown in the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Even though the Confederacy hasn’t existed for more than 150 years, the fact that Trump can summon and deploy a mob of his supporters to break into the White House, waving flags that lift up the iconography of former slave states and white supremacy parties, such as the Nazi Party, is chilling. The history of the Confederacy and Reconstruction after the Civil War may seem like a bygone era, but those of us familiar with the South know that the concessions made to the plantation class echo through our power structure into the present. Organizers on the left understand this, which is why a feature of last summer’s protests included toppling Confederate statues across the country.
When running for president, Donald Trump shocked the progressive US with his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan, while simultaneously galvanizing white nationalists. The threat that the US would return to a glorified era of enslavement and genocide struck fear in communities of color and the left but empowered the middle-class right wing, who are in turn organizing the white working class. Trump’s appeal had particular resonance with white communities who felt screwed over by deindustrialization and neoliberalism, particularly communities who have suffered from more and more manufacturing jobs being shipped to the US South & Global South (where there are fewer worker-organized limitations). This again was a decision made by both Republican and Democrat administrations since the 1970s. Trump made a smart move in his campaigning, and throughout his administration, to appeal to the angered masses of white America (though not one that he invented by any means). This resentment of the white working and rural middle classes has been used deliberately by Trump and far-right capitalists to garner popular support. And yet, as many political critics have pointed out, Trump has done very little to economically improve life for the white work- ing class or middle America.
We can see these echoes of Confederacy in the very structures of American democracy. The way that the country is governed, including the limits put on the democratic participation of the people in order to vote, can be traced to Reconstruction Era agreements made by states in the South in order to rejoin the Union. The democratic advancements made by formerly enslaved Black people were undercut, even after they’d fought valiantly to liberate themselves and this country from the system of slavery. Jim Crow—the racial terror project that shrank the political and economic power as well as the livelihoods of Black people in America—actually informed the roots of what we now think of as traditional fascism. It is telling that some of the mechanisms used to repress Black and Indigenous people in the US made their way to Nazi Germany in the 1940s, as Hitler and other Nazi Party leaders intently studied both white supremacist attempts of oppressing Black people and the genocide of Indigenous peoples in the US as models for effective ethno-nationalism and state-making. It is even more telling that this remains a lesser-known part of US history and collusion with Nazi Germany.
Post-World War I fascism was rooted in a system of white supremacy, populist ethnic nationalism, economic instability, and (re)colonization as the colonial powers of the world were in flux. It also depended on a strong, resourced, repressive policing system rooted in hyper-militarism, and expectations of popular surveillance across communities to maintain power. The US committed to a narrative of its aims for fighting fascism, and that continues through the present. However, the posture of white supremacist war-making as the US became a global political/economic super- power in the 1950s tells a different story.
How did we get to the US’ fascist present? The endless racist wars launched by the US, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, required a culture of consistent white supremacist nationalism that became the cauldron that brought us to the current period. The emergence of the Tea Party in response to the neoliberal economic policies of the 1980s and 1990s, the white supremacist bloc forged by Ronald Regan in collaboration with England’s Margaret Thatcher, and backlash to the election of the first Black president are the roots of what became the Trumpist hard-right faction of the Grand Old Party (GOP). While there were localized efforts to fight against these ground forces early on, the lack of coordinated organizing from the left and the centrist demonization of Antifa, or anti- fascism, allowed these factions to go relatively unchecked while the crumbling GOP revitalized itself with a Trump Presidency.
Given too many parallels to 1930s Germany, we would do well to not breathe a sigh of relief as Biden enters office. It is important to remember that the Nazi Party initially attempted to take Germany a decade prior to actually succeeding. We must organize swiftly and decisively to stop the Trumpist reorganization if we’re serious about getting free. While authoritarianism and neoliberalism both present many grave dangers for our movement for liberation, one primary way they mobilize violence against our communities is through the PIC.
The PIC & Abolition and what comes next
As I am writing this, deeper and deeper investi- gation surfaces as to the extent to which the mob
that attacked the Capitol was colluding with and made up of cops and former military personnel. There was also coordination, both politically and logistically, with Republican members in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Given the economic and social conditions of the US, it follows that this is how the Trumpists and aligned Republican party would organize themselves to secure power. The US is increasing in immigrant population while it heads toward an- other recession, and neoliberalism only knows to address these conditions with more austerity. Austerity requires heavy police force, as large segments of the public no longer consent to the drastic inequality thrust upon them and the abandonment by their representatives in office.
This is also out of history’s playbook: Policing and imprisonment are rooted in slavery. During the Jim Crow era, members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) were often police and sheriffs, and other police departments regularly fed the home addresses of civil rights activists and socialist and communist organizers to local KKK chapters. Liberation and decolonial struggle emerged around the globe in the 1950s-1970s, as federal policing and intelligence agencies repressed those fighting for liberation. Once the dust settled, in order to resolve the economic crisis of the time and to keep Black and Brown communities in check, the PIC emerged as the go-to solution. As abolitionists often say: “The project of emancipation is not fully done.”
While it is significant that Trump has been re- moved from office, a Biden presidency in itself offers little relief. Both President Biden’s and Vice President Harris’ long history with law- and-order policing and imprisonment should make us wary of any calls to let up on our organizing. Biden is circulating rhetoric to move for- ward on “domestic terrorism” legislation. Anarchists and socialist-leaning organizers were immediately interrogated by police and the FBI about the January 6 action at the capitol, even though the left was in no way involved. More policing and austerity, while yielding to white supremacists, will set up even riper conditions for the return of Trumpists with a vengeance.
Thankfully, there is work that can be done. The work to abolish imprisonment and policing led to the biggest protest movement in history this past summer in response to the murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. Abolitionists are fighting policing tooth-and-nail and making gains across the country, arguing that public funds must be spent on the people and not on more police. By highlighting how imprisoned people have been treated during COVID-19, organizers are demonstrating the viciousness of how we treat our citizens as well as the need for immediate mass release. Organizers, not the state, worked to make sure that prisoners received the stimulus relief – doing more than the government did to ensure the care of the people.
Looking forward, we must continue the diligent work of rooting out neoliberalism, white supremacy, militarism, and the PIC from our communities, and we must seriously contest their legitimacy and remove them from positions of power. We need to find places of weakness within our enemies and win over those who can be won, de-platform those who must be de-platformed, and eradicate the structures of policing, imprisonment, and militarism that threaten our future. The work of building true safety, peace, and liberation through abolition remains an ever-present need for us to take on with rigor and seriousness. Onwards. ♦
Author Bio: Woods Ervin (they/them) is a Black, transgender organizer originally from Memphis, Tennessee. Woods has been a member of Critical Resistance, both through the Oakland Chapter and at-large, for nearly a decade. In the fall of 2020, Woods was hired by Critical Resistance and is now the organization’s Media and Communications Director.