One of the more prominent explanations of Donald J. Trump’s election to the US Presidency is that it illustrates the triumph of a “post-factual” form of communication in media. There is something remarkable about the heightened, unabashed use of easily-invalidated claims which take hold because they validate powerful sentiments and affections. Yet this is not so new. Nor is it restricted to Trump and his enthusiastic supporters. More importantly, not every falsehood takes flight or takes hold. There is a patterning, or a qualified consistency, within the noise and flow of feelings, discernible in widely-shared assumptions that are repeated in prevailing stories about how the world works and should.
Indeed, when I think of “post-factual,” I think of the use of the term “neoliberalism.” With very rare exceptions, those who use this term have engaged a rigorously selective reading of both its proponents and the world around them so as to claim that neoliberalism involves the extensive rule of free markets, deregulation, open borders, and the pursuit of private self-interest. It was not true of the Chicago School Economist and, according to many, the twentieth-century’s most vocal proponent of free markets, Milton Friedman, whose laboratory was the authoritarian reign of Pinochet’s Chile. It was not true of Friedman’s philosophical predecessor, Friedrich Hayek, whose work launched the assault on the post-Second World War Keynesianism in Europe and the US in the name of “free markets.” Pointedly, Hayek’s omission of the “traditional family” from the otherwise-hyped principle of “contract freedom” was hardly trivial but, on the contrary, the very basis upon which he made a case against state planning as a distortion of the impulses and “spontaneous orders” that sprung from purportedly natural passions. Nor was it true of Hayek’s teacher, Ludwig von Mises, who arguably shaped the economic views of US libertarianism and the Tea Party more than any other figure, and who did so by constructing a concept of “liberty” on the naturalized foundation of “the social order of the family.” It is simply not true, in other words, because the calculus of self-interest involved here took as its model the property-owning master of the household estate, within which there are those whose value is reckoned as property, to this day, and from which the contemporary idea of corporate personhood is derived—as with, for instance, Trump’s family brand-named corporation.
Given all of this, the intellectual effort—renewed in the immediate wake of Trump’s election—to distinguish the dynamics of class or capitalism from those of race, gender, and sexuality indicate a reluctance to confront the significance of the latter in the contemporary organization of capitalism and, at the same time, a willingness to downplay, if not tacitly accept, the liberal and, more so, neoliberal obsession with “law and order,” border controls, criminalization, the regulation of sexuality and reproduction. There is a refusal to admit that these have never been some occasional anomaly or authoritarian paradox that periodically emerges in the practices of an otherwise ideal adherence to liberty and free markets. On the contrary, they are functionally presupposed by an understanding of the economy as a natural order, as an oikonomia. This is why the euphemistically-described “alt-Right” alignments of white supremacists and white nationalists around Trump like to accuse their (male) opponents of being “cucks” (or “cuckolded”), because it raises anxiety about patriarchal rights and paternity. It is also why Jo Cox’s murderer regarded her support for asylum seekers as tantamount to being a “race traitor.” From an oikonomic view, the regulation of sexuality and gender ensures the legitimate rights over and reproduction of “household property,” whether that household is envisaged as the private household of familial affection or the family company or the enthno-nation. And whiteness is a property, as Cheryl Harris carefully explained long ago. Liberal concepts of “self-regulation” still turn on someone or something ensuring—whether through personalized authority, or abstractly encoded in private or public law—conformity to the rules of heritable and transmissible property rights. The state can narrow down to guaranteeing just this, through force of law and administration, and it will not be “small government” but instead a massive, authoritarian and intrusive project. And this is, precisely, the terms on which race, gender, and sexuality emerge as objects of regulation, criminalization, and control. It is, of course, far easier to buy into the myth that “neoliberalism means deregulation or free markets” when one exists on the naturalized because normative side of those demarcations.
In other words, there has been no shift to the kind of world which critics of neoliberalism describe—what has occurred is a shift in the manner and objects of regulation, a decades-long turn to stricter (and in many cases ferocious) border controls, the transfer of welfare from individuals to normative households (“white working families”) and corporations, and private interest has been defined as the investment in household, heritable wealth and human capital which, in practice, has amplified the racial-gendered dimensions of economics and the demarcations of legal personhood. It is not, for instance, trivial that Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s terms in office—routinely cited as the advent of neoliberalism—were marked by “law and order” campaigns, the “War on Drugs,” denunciations of promiscuity, and calls for a return to “traditional morality.” What is remarkable is that, like the person who brushes off racist or sexist insults because they do not negatively affect them, so many theorists and commentators propagate the idea that the proliferation of unfreedoms and deep conservatism was not integral to neoliberalism—indeed, the necessary corollary of the pivotal transfer of risk to private households and familial trusts through financial instruments—and therefore not subject to critique so much as available to be more or less explicitly and self-evidently embraced. This is how the global, political diagram of ethno-nationalism emerged, pressed forward by assumptions shared by both the advocates of neoliberalism and its superficial critics.
In 1939, the Danish philosopher Svend Ranulf published “Scholarly Forerunners of Fascism.” In that essay he argued that late nineteenth-century sociologists such as Auguste Comte, Émile Durkheim, and Ferdinand Tönnies—“for the most part unintentionally and unconsciously—served to prepare the soil for fascism.” On the face of it, these names represent quite different strands within the discipline. Comte and Durkheim saw in statistical methods a means of validating moral norms while diagnosing the frequency of deviance. Tönnies lamented the destruction of the unique essence preserved in a “community [Gemeinschaft] of blood.” Yet what they nevertheless agreed upon was that society was “headed for disaster because of its individualism and liberalism and that a new social solidarity was needed.” From the 1920s, fascist movements would describe much the same historical course as “degeneracy,” and pose their own brutal but, by their view, necessary and eventually final “solutions” involving the elimination of deviants, the restoration of ostensibly proper forms of economic generation, and the return to a true and natural social order.
Contemporary intellectual sources may not be Comte, Durkheim, and Tönnies. They are Karl Polanyi and Ulrich Beck, both of whom viewed contemporary capitalism through the lens of a decline in “social solidarity” set against a romantic, indeed mythic, view of pre-modern society. Polanyi pilfered Marx’s theory of the double-movement and rewrote it as a story drawn from Catholic theology concerning the transgression of Natural Law, according to which fascism is seen as the regrettable but understandable consequence of the destruction of the communal bonds of family and nation. By that view, capitalism is the Fall, fascism the divine punishment, and community, as it happens, is a euphemism for the natural bonds of family, race, and nation. Beck’s theory of risk is similarly a theory of divine retribution for the transgression of a transcendent moral law. Like Tönnies, Beck and Polanyi drew heavily on Catholic theology, and for that reason related a very accessible story for anyone already familiar with biblical narrative. Both placed an emphasis on the deleterious effects of traversing national borders. Both were heavily invested in their preservation as that which bounds the euphemistically-described and endangered “society.” To read these narratives as something other than literary expressions of conservative impulses and anxieties about the erosion of “traditional” authority and norms—in other words, expressions of the private self-interest of the managerial heads of white, normative households and other corporations—requires a remarkably selective reading, if not outright acceptance, of their implications and “solutions.”
In the late 1930s, Ranulf posed a blunt question of the sociologists around him: “Is not the rise of fascism an event which, in due logic, Durkheim ought to have welcomed as that salvation from individualism for which he had been trying rather gropingly to prepare the way?” If we pose this question once again, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the US Presidency, the answer, it seems, is in the ambivalent affirmative. With few exceptions, everyone other than those who voted for Trump has been blamed for the result of the election. Social democrats and left liberals have rushed headlong toward celebrating an ethno-nationalist politics and paradigm. Naomi Klein weighed in to blame neoliberalism, offering a theory of “global finance” that barely rises above Whig history when it does not simply repeat the conspiratorial fantasies nurtured by the far Right, illustrating a determination to diminish the importance of the racism that is encoded into the Electoral College, voter suppression laws, and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and thereby of the importance of challenging any of these things, a refusal to admit that the overt stake in Trump’s election was the restoration of white power and white (household) property and, as consequence, a tacit acceptance of the same narrow political calculus: “that white working class people voted for Trump and therefore that they had legitimate reasons for doing so.” Mark Lilla wrote of liberalism and identity politics in such a way that restored whiteness to its default setting and universal status. Bernie Sanders reached out to President-elect Trump with a suggestion that while he may oppose him on issues of sexism, racism, and homophobia, he would be willing to work with him on “the big economic issues,” illustrating a convenient ignorance of the ways the former are economic issues. As with Sanders’ insistence that open borders are a capitalist plot and attack on “working families,” in the UK, Jeremy Corbin and the Labour Party have recently resorted to the fiction that immigrants drive down wages—as if they are not aware that it is UK and US law’s deliberate stratification of wages through visas and passport systems that accomplishes this and not some inherent quality that migrants carry with them over the border. In response to these efforts, many such as Farai Chideya have written about a “call to whiteness,” and it most definitely hinges on an economics or, more precisely, oikonomic investments and calculations, one that is being re-imagined in some quarters as the only course available for progressive and radical politics.
Narrowed to its electoral calculus, the recent rush to embrace economic nationalism is being constructed on the basis of a lie that “white working class people” voted for Trump and a corollary refusal to address the racism that is encoded in voting laws and procedures, not to mention the nexus of race and sex that forms households and gives material weight to its affections. To be clear, again: white people overwhelmingly voted for Trump, the larger proportion of whom were in middle- to upper-income brackets. The most significant variables were white, evangelical voters in rural areas and cities under one million people—in other words, those for whom family values is also an economic theology, or more precisely, an oikonomics. And so while much has been made of white women not voting for Clinton, the truth I expect has much to do with the “choice” between the specter of “Mexican rapists” and the mundane experience of rich, white men such as Trump treating women as their property and, in the end, fears of miscegenation and white affection were overwhelming and decisive in a context where spousal rape laws post-date most marriages.
The point, then, is not that neoliberalism, or liberalism and individualism, are above critique. It means, instead, that liberalism runs deeper than anyone imagines because, contrary to a philosophical liberalism, we are not talking about freely-floating ideas but material investments in whiteness as the property and value of masterful oikonomic management. Liberalism will not furnish a critique of itself. At best, it may edge the definition of personhood beyond Locke’s master of the plantation through the expansion of civil rights. At worst, it offers excuses for already-entitled self-interest or its mourning in the guise of a disinterested and reclaimed universality. While it has become a commonplace of social democrats and socialists to denounce liberalism, that this has never extended to calls to abolish wage contracts where those contracts involve predominantly white men is indicative of the material and pronounced limits of this denunciation. We forget, at our peril, that American liberalism’s prototypical individual is the master of the plantation household, and that complaints about “too much liberalism” began at that precise moment when those who were reckoned as its property planned their escape routes through versions of personhood that could barely carry them to any kind of freedom. This is the moment when votes were magically converted into a fraction of their value and tied to geography, the moment when there were prohibitions enacted against, as it were, both poor and rich sleeping under bridges, and the moment when it became crucial to ask whose individuality was being preserved and protected and whose was being denied. Fascists have no problem with the individuality of the Fuhrer; it is the singularity around which the unique attributes of “the people” are figured. Racists will always look to purify democracy by redrawing and fortifying its borders against those deemed foreign to “the people.” The choice is not between individuality and community, but what both of those terms mean in their materiality. In the US, this has entailed a shifting line of rights that is in practice a shifting demarcation between those who have a right to property, those who are property, and those who are deemed as neither but whose very existence impedes the conveyance of those rights. This is the ongoing legacy of slavery and colonization, but whose fragility precipitated the overt effort to restore white power and its value as a property during the Presidential election, and they are also, very precisely, the field of maneuver of movements of campaigns to raise the minimum wage above below-subsistence levels (such as FightFor15), Black Lives Matter, the largest prison strike in US history against forced labor that raged during the final month of the election, and the current Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (NoDAPL). The problem is not a lack of class politics but a method of classification that partakes in but does not see neoliberalism’s assumptions.