I often feel uncomfortable bringing up Marx when I’m not in an academic setting. Growing up, Marx was presented as the forefather of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, laying the theoretical foundation for purges, censorship, and genocide. It was only when I studied cultural anthropology at the University of Rochester that I was introduced to Marx through an academic lens, in which the strengths of his philosophical arguments were weighed on equal footing with the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel. Even still, I often felt the need to qualify any mention of the philosopher with the statement, “…but I’m not a Marxist.” As I consider an artistic project that is so influenced by Marx’s early writings, I cannot help but consider the irony of my discomfort. In exploring ways that neoliberal cultural texts promote and reify normative assumptions about the value of economic ways of thinking and being, I am concerned that simply writing about Marx will turn certain people away (if you are one of those people, let me assure you, I am not a Marxist).
Coming from a Critical orientation towards research, I am drawn to the early writings of Marx as a crucial component of my theoretical framework. In his reading of Marx’s early philosophical manuscripts, Erik Fromm argues that, for Marx, socialism is not simply about the redistribution of wealth and the means of production. Rather, positioning young Marx as a radical humanist, Fromm (Marx & From, 2014) highlights the ways in which his early philosophical manuscripts argue for socialism as the liberation of the human spirit to fulfill its natural state. Whereas the British political economists of his time argued that industrial capitalism was a reflection toward the human tendency towards competition, the young philosopher suggests that to be human is to be social.
Capitalism manipulates and distorts social relationships so completely as to be contrary to human nature. “A direct consequence of the alienation of man from the product of his labor, form his life activity and from his species life is that man is alienated from other men (p. 84).” Within the context of industrial capitalism, Marx argues that as objectified labor results in the displacement of one’s humanness. One’s social relationships become defined “according to the standards and relationships in which he finds himself placed as a worker (p. 85).” Based on the material conditions of industrial capitalism and substance labor, Marx illuminated the ways in which wage-labor promoted anti-social relationships by reducing people to the value of their labor. The conditions of neoliberal capitalism, however, offer a more myopic scenario with the ascension of consumer identity, and the co-linearization of the neoliberal subject. Through mass media, consumer culture, and fast-everything (i.e. food, fashion, etc.), we have become willing participants in the neoliberal project.
In the last forty years, as neoliberalism has become the preeminent lens through which policy is examined and designed, discursive practices have shifted to reflect the dominant worldview. In the context of Foucault’s concept of discursive power (1972) we can see how the ascension of some discourses positions certain voices above others. The people actively promoting market-based ideologies are often those that benefit most those policies. By defining the world in economic terms, we further limit spectrum of acceptable political thought. Consider that politicians disagree about how healthcare will be funded, but few suggest nationalizing the health care industry. Advertisements will tell you that their product is better, bigger, smaller, organic, recycled, and faster, but would they suggest that you stop buying things? Despite their vitriolic opposition to our 45th president, Democratic mayors all over America are driving gentrification and displacement with “pro-business” and “pro-development” agendas. In a contemporary policy and media landscape, the language of economics dominates the conversations about broad based social and political issues. Consequently, economic arguments are often privileged over other considerations.
For example, the proliferation of charter schools and educational management organizations emerged as market-based solutions to a poorly defined education crisis. Policy wonks use the language of efficiency and standardization to justify the restructuring and dismantling of public education within a broader discourse of scarcity. If one were to raise the fact that we have endless funding for new weapons manufacturing, they would be accused of “kitchen sinking” the argument. Education and arms spending are two totally different policy areas so of course they would have different funding structures. However, that distinction only further reifies the self-evidence of our economic system. By creating a policy discourse in which each function of government is seen as its own self-contained economic entity, one may more easily write off certain policy initiatives as inefficient or economically unsustainable. Since economics is not an accurate predictive science and relies on reductive modeling (i.e. externalities), economic arguments are far from objective, often reflecting the interests of those that benefit from said argument. The over-reliance on economic discourse magnifies polarized power relationships because it reorients social issues as economic ones.
Consider, also, the corporate response to a recent piece of legislation in Texas that would require that students use the bathroom that matches their assigned gender at birth (Toor, 2017). In response, the CEO’s of Amazon, Facebook, IBM, Google, and many other major corporations penned a letter to the Governor of Texas citing many reasons why they oppose the bill. The letter does mention that “discrimination is wrong” (Wilke et. al, 2017), only after making a series of economic arguments about the bill. "Our ability to attract, recruit and retain top talent, encourage new business relocations, expansions and investment, and maintain our economic competitiveness would all be negatively affected” (ibid.). This example highlights the ways in which even liberals and social progressives are just as entrenched in this type of language. The neoliberal condition transcends traditional notions of liberal and conservative and affects us all.
In arguing that neoliberalism language and logic positions us first as economic beings, I do not claim that we lose the other aspects of our identity. As Goffman (1956) posits, identity is performed, with actors taking on different roles in different social contexts. In fact, I would suggest that the neoliberal subject has at their fingertips an increasing number of roles they can play, as consumer capitalism has created a multitude of new spaces in which people interact. However, in the context of neoliberalism, our roles are increasingly mediated by consumption and economic notions of the self (i.e. human capital, personal branding, networking). Whereas, Marx was concerned with the ways in which industrial wage labor was anti-social, and thus, against human nature, I am concerned that the ascension of the neoliberal worldview comes at the expense of our social selves.
If language is a window into the stories we tell about ourselves (Gee, 2011), then media and policy offer a fertile point of reflection about neoliberal cultural narratives. In employing a critical lens to my research, I hope to explore the ways in which media and policy discourse function to reframe social issues as economic ones, weaken notions about the public and citizenship, and ultimately reproduce polarized power relationships. While I am rooted in a tradition of critical research that focuses on the realities of injustice and oppression, my methods reflect a post-modern orientation and interpretive process.