The term “neoliberalism” has become super popular in the past couple of years, so I suppose a backlash against its heavy use was inevitable. Many months back, Jonathan Chait wrote a piece for NYMag bemoaning its prevalence as the left’s favorite insult. Then, of course, there was Cornel West “calling out” Ta-Nehisi Coates as “representing the neoliberal face of black activism,” which some found problematic and lead Vox (whom I, as a disclaimer, consider to be neoliberal shills) to repost Mike Konczal’s explanation for the term’s importance. Other defenders of the term had snarkier takes, and I would go ahead and include myself in this.
So I guess you can say it’s a term that I like and will continue to use as often as possible, even when 99% of the rest of my ingroup is looking in another direction. Case in point, the recent school shooting in Parkwood, Florida, or spree killings in general for that matter. It’s become an unspoken assumption that when people say we need to “do something” to stop these mass shootings, they mean that what we need to do is ban guns. A few people might chime in about mental health, but mostly it’s about guns, and while I’m all for a ban, the fact of the matter is that almost two dozen school children being massacred at Sandy Hook in 2012 did not move the needle an inch on this. In fact, as the shootings continue and the body count rises, one can even argue that we have regressed with the Republican surge into control of the Senate. That tells me that banning guns is not a useful tactic, at least for now.
So where exactly does that leave us? Like many, I feel pretty helpless when I hear about a horrific mass killing, and like many others I no longer consider that anything can be done to stop them. So when a fellow alumni from my therapeutic boarding high school posed the question on our Facebook group, I felt inspired to tackle the issue seriously. Here is what he wrote:
“I went to four different high schools and had many days when I was pissed off at a teacher or fellow student, but never thought that I was going to come in the next day and shoot everyone. I was in college when Columbine happened and thought this is so tragic, but despite how awful it was, it felt isolated. Are you aware how many school shootings happened in 2017 leading into 2018? Kids shouldn’t be afraid to go to school. Something needs to change.”
Though Columbine might have been a kind of landmark moment for schools specifically, spree killings have been going on for much longer. In the mid-’80s, workplace shootings became incredibly common, and remain so today. One of the most famous of these, the Edmond post office shooting of 1986, was the first of several USPS workplace massacres that inspired the infamous phrase “going postal.” The motives for many of these attacks were chalked up to poor working conditions as a result of then-President Reagan’s reforms to semi-privatize the government department. Since then the incidence of spree killings—at work, school or anywhere else—has risen exponentially. This points to a clear correlation with the rise of both major political parties adapting neoliberalism as their main economic philosophy.
To clarify the term—in case you didn’t read all of my links above, don’t feel like Googling, and pay zero attention to modern day political discourse (lucky you)—when I say “neoliberal,” I am referring to the dogmatic adherence to free markets as a means toward dealing with all of society’s problems. This would mean implementing ideas such as privatization, austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. As a more derogatory synonym, some like to use the term “late capitalism,” seeing that it mostly refers to a period—from the 1970s to the current day—that constitutes the hopeful final stage of our current economic structure. I say hopeful because the results of these policies are seen today in burgeoning economic inequality along with increasing cultural anxiety and hostility. It’s lead us to an environment where mass shootings are common and merely one of the many symptoms of this sick capitalist ideology.
Of course, neoliberalism has been in effect for a long time now (little known fact: it started with Jimmy Carter, not Reagan, who merely accelerated the practice as Republicans tend to do), so why the sudden increase in the number of shootings with high fatalities? It’s kind of cliché, but I would point to the election of Trump. Not that he specifically is the reason, rather, his popularity is a manifestation of cultural anxiety and economic inequality. People see somebody acting in what used to be considered inappropriate and anti-social manners and yet he holds the most distinguished position in the country and possibly the world. They view this as kind of a “permission slip,” perhaps subconsciously, to act out their own angry impulses in the worst possible ways.
What’s ironic about this is that Trump campaigned for president on a message of economic populism: reigning in big banks while pushing protectionism and working class jobs at home. His actual governing policies, though, have been neoliberal accelerationism on steroids. In her book “No Is Not Enough,” Naomi Klein wrote:
“The goal is all-out war on the public sphere and the public interest, whether in the form of anti-pollution regulations or programs for the hungry; substituted in their place will be unfettered power and freedom for corporations.“
Trump’s base doesn’t seem to notice his economic oppression against them, but his divisive rhetoric has stuck. As material conditions get worse for the so called “working class,” more people are left with nothing to lose and thus we can probably expect more and more of these deadly shooting incidents, among other kinds of violence.
How does this relate to schools? Well, the cultural tyranny of the workplace has now trickled down to education. Those well-off enough can ship their kids to private/charter schools and avoid the worst of it, in the process bleeding much needed funds from everybody else. It’s classic privatization and deregulation, which leaves little room for a quality learning environment. You get bigger classes with more overworked teachers getting paid less. These negative working conditions adversely affect how teachers and administrators treat students, which in turn affects how students treat each other. Spoiler: nobody’s treating anybody any better. You wind up with a situation where somebody can make threats, be known to stockpile guns at home, and yet come into a school and kill 17 people because nobody had the time or energy to do something to try and stop it. Call it neoliberalism or late capitalism, what we are seeing here is a sick ideology at its terminal end state.
So, what’s the solution? Ban guns? Sure, though good luck fighting the NRA’s deep pockets and the Republicans who have harnessed the hate energy of single-issue voters to keep AR-15s in wide, readily-available circulation. It’s worth noting that the drive for people to keep themselves armed is a response to the cultural and economic unrest they feel. This keeps large portions of the population very active politically on defending the second amendment. On top of that, deregulation is a feature of neoliberalism rather than a bug. In this pro-business environment, the firearms industry by default has a significant head start on fighting any possible restriction on the availability of their product. All this is to say nothing of crypto-fascist psychopaths like Cody Wilson who wants to make sure any asshole who bought enough bitcoin early enough to cash out and get access to a 3D printer can instantly manufacture their own portable lightweight death machine.
So if we can’t ban guns, how about better mental health coverage? Great! Except the ACA barely suffices for a good number of our most desperate citizens. It doesn’t suffice at all if you fall in the wrong income bracket and/or live in a state with a GOP government that won’t accept the Medicaid expansion. Meanwhile, Trump’s administration is in the process of doing everything it can to sabotage what’s left of Obamacare and defund Medicare. These are systems that serve a limited portion of the population in oftentimes barely adequate ways, and now they are under attack. Yet even somebody who has a good private health plan through their employment doesn’t escape the anxiety of losing mental health care; after all, you can always be fired for any reason as most jobs are at-will in a neoliberal system.
On top of all of this is the stigma of mental health issues, which can prevent one from getting the help they need in the rare case it’s even available. This stigma of course being yet another poisonous symptom of the neoliberal cultural doctrine that demands perfectionism and hyper-competitiveness at all times. Someday, perhaps we will implement a policy of Medicare-for-All that includes comprehensive mental health coverage. People are working on this as we speak, and it’s an important step in addressing the ills that neoliberalism brings us, spree killings just being one. If we are ever truly going to put an end to these horrors, we will need a greater shift to the economic left, and by “greater,” I mean a hard 180 degree turn from what we’ve been doing for the past several decades. We need to cut our losses and admit that free markets are not the answer to filling the vast majority of our basic needs.
If we start by improving the material conditions of working people, we can then hope—pray even—that it bleeds down into the culture and makes us all less anxious, kinder, and more compassionate toward one another. We eschew hyper-competitiveness in favor of cooperation in our daily dealings with the social world. While these are all good ideas in theory and certainly should be pursued, we must realize the task before us is daunting and maybe even impossible. There are formidable obstacles in the path of any significant left wing economic reform, even beyond the deep-pocketed neoliberal establishment machine.
Cultural unrest has given rise to a fascistic and extreme far right in America—most recently having taken the name of the “alt-right”—which insidiously enough has begun to promote left wing economics as a carrot to their traditionalist cultural stick. Their core values of divisive racism, sexism and ethno-nationalism, however, are completely at odds with meaningful leftist economic reform. It should come as no surprise to anybody that as the news trickles out about the Parkland shooter, we discover he had trained with a white supremacist group while also expressing misogynist and antisemitic views. Such hateful ideas are incredibly common in the alt-right, which of course has lead to violence time and time again: Isla Vista, Charlottesville, the Portland MAX stabbings, etc. This “movement” needs to be fought and exterminated before they can grow large enough to worm their way far enough into the popular conscience to the point that they can have influence.
Of course, saying the alt-right is bad and should be fought is not exactly a controversial take, but each group with oppressive or divisive ideas adds up as an additional obstacle. As fringe extremists continue to fester in the culture, you also have the traditional hard right libertarians—the Tea Party, the Kochs, the Mercers, etc.—whose deep pockets ensure they will be a force to be reckoned with, no matter how unappealing their ideas are to the vast majority of American citizens.
Make no mistake: the hard right is a formidable opponent with many layers, against whom we are fighting a battle against each faction as part of a larger war. Not a physical war, of course, and thank god for that: we are outgunned badly and would be slaughtered by the military and/or militia. Rather, we are fighting a war against an idea, in this case, the idea that more free market neoliberalism is what’s best for us all as individuals. Reality doesn’t seem to be working out that way and each mass spree killing is a massive alarm going off, telling us not just that we need to ban guns, but also that we have to fight to dismantle American capitalism as it stands and put something that benefits the vast majority of our citizens’ interests in its place.