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Monday, 8 February 2016

Neoliberalism, Social Justice and Barbie's New Hair

Edit - A shortened version of this post appears on IBTimes

Last week social justice had a victory and it had a loss. In Oxford, it was announced that Rhodes would not fall. In the States, Barbie got a feminist makeover, meaning that she gets fat and dyes her hair blue.


Obviously I don’t think all feminists look like this, but Mattel do.

Both these are relatively unimportant issues, but why did one succeed when the other fail? The most obvious difference is that the former was working against neoliberalism, while the latter worked with it. Rich donors wanted to keep the Rhodes statue, so it stayed. Barbie being a feminist means a huge number of different dolls for kids to buy, or, maybe more likely, for their right on parents to buy for them, and plenty of money for Mattel. Social justice causes are far more likely to succeed when allied with capitalism, and fail when opposed to it.

This may sound counterintuitive, since those agitating for social justice ostensibly rail against the evils of neoliberalism every day. The link between the two, however, was first pointed out to me by Ben Southwood, who has now decided that it will be called the Southwood Thesis. (You only really get to name one eponymous thing, Ben went for his pretty early in life.) While some social justice causes may ostensibly work against capitalism, these tend to fail, and the successful ones usually push society in a marketised direction.

There may be many different mechanisms through which the link works, and for the sake of exploration I’ve tried to list them here. I’m not confident in them all being real, whether they are all appropriate to include under this label, or whether they are all separate phenomena, but have tended towards including as much as possible. Equally, I’m taking rather generous definitions of both social justice and neoliberalism. Like porn, you know them when you see them. Neoliberalism is seen as the dominant ideology of the modern west, predominantly market based but with space for some government involvement in the economy, technocratic and sceptical of any overt ideological statements.. By social justice I don’t just mean tumblr ‘SJW’ stuff, but generally the post ‘68 consensus and rejection of faith, flag and family traditions in favour of self expression values. 

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1. Social Justice as Distraction From Economic Justice 

This is a point that has often been made by the old left. Essentially, post the collapse of the soviet union, radicals lost all faith in socialism, and instead pivoted onto identity politics, which is substantially less challenging to the economic system. This requires us to assume that campaigning on social issues replaces campaigning on economic issues, but I think this is reasonably likely, you can only go on so many marches, and donations to some political organisations will divert funds from others. While the left are distracted by gay marriage and language policing each other, the corporatist government can get on with privatisation and cutting taxes. Anecdotally, this may even be tacitly encouraged, with big business giving money to activists to keep them safely occupied with unimportant problems. 

For a good statement of this position, see everything Fredrik DeBoer has ever written.
 
2. Social Justice as Cover for Neoliberalism 

People with a neoliberal agenda, economists, businessmen etc, may use liberal social values in order to cover their left flank when among their liberal gentry class friends.


People may only tolerate a certain number of deviations from their own views before they start casting them out of polite society. This is known in social psychology as idiosyncracy credits. Holding liberal social views, therefore, may provide licence for right wing economic views. While they may look like naughty right wingers on some issues, they’re not that sort of right winger, and can still get invited to the best dinner parties.



 3. Left-Fusionism

Fusionism was a right wing tactic that began to take shape in the 1950s, and finally reached its peak with Reagan. The idea was that right wingers who favoured a small state, generally not a popular idea with the general public, should make common cause with social conservatives in order to piggyback on the popularity of their ideas. It may be that many fusionists never really had any passion for social issues at all, but merely saw them as a useful means to gain power. As the electorate becomes more liberal, however, we may see the opposite.

The current mainstream of the democratic party in the states may be an example of this. Hillary Clinton clearly doesn’t care much about social justice issues, having been anti gay marriage only a couple of years ago. She is, however, focusing a large amount of campaigning energy on it, and sticking rainbows on anything that moves. This may be seen as a way of gaining popularity among the left wing base for her fundamentally neoliberal economic agenda. This has become very noticeable over the course of the Democrat presidential race. Many supporters of Bernie Sanders have made these exact criticisms of Clinton, and been on the receiving end of a large backlash from media elites, leading to a fun mini war over the existence of probably fictional ‘Berniebros’, young male socialist trolls insufficiently interested in social justice. If you don’t support capitalism, you’re a misogynist!

With right fusionists fighting left fusionists, the whole system is neoliberal, social issues are merely a false war to distract people from this. No matter who wins, the market wins! This is very similar to point one, with the distinction being that there social justice issues unconsciously distract people who who are sincerely left wing, whereas here they are used consciously by those who aren’t. It is distinct from point two in that it is used as an explicit means to win power, rather than just to placate friends. 

4. Social Justice as Marketing Strategy 

This is probably the most noticeable process. Corporations want to attract the key 18-40 demographic, with disposable time and income. Socially liberal ideas are most popular among the young and wealthy. The combination is natural. It was perhaps most notable during Obergefell v. Hodges, when almost every company going had a rainbow profile picture. Even more radically, we see Beyonce performing a black panther inspired routine, in order to sell her new range of merchandise and records.

This can sometimes go the other way. Social conservatives flocked to Chick-fil-A after their CEO backed traditional marriage, but most companies don’t much care about the demographic who support this, and it’s possible these people are less vulnerable to gauche political posturing as a marketing tactic. Social justice advertising is mostly propagated through social media, where the audience is younger and more liberal, so this may just be targeted marketing rather than a more general strategy. More interestingly, companies may use social activism and boycotts against their rivals as an addition to more usual price and quality based competition.

The trend has also been noticed by the left, with more radical campaigners criticising it as pinkwashing. This doesn’t necessarily reflect a fundamental compatibility between social justice and neoliberalism. It is simply a tendency for companies to back winners, and at the moment liberals are on the ascendency. If their advertising has any impact on the public’s political views, corporations likely just speed any existing bandwagon they can find. 

5. Markets Don’t Like Discrimination 

In a market economy, it will rarely pay to discriminate. Minority groups are a large market, so refusing to sell to them will result in lower profits. If an employer pays black workers less than equally productive white workers, it would make sense for a competitor to poach them. Any company with incentives other than maximising its profit will in the long run lose out to those who do. This was laid out by the uber-neoliberal Gary Becker. Equally, many of the strategies of activists working towards social justice ends takes the form of boycotts against companies they dislike, a fundamentally market based method of effecting change, and maybe one of the most effective. Even in the recent fights over free speech and abuse online, we see a similar thing, as activists use the corporate control of public fora to argue that restrictions on expression aren’t impingements on people’s rights. The people who run corporations are far more open to liberal arguments than the general voter, and so this may be an easier target for social change than via the ballot box. 

6. Labour Force Size and Mobility 

The adoption of liberal government policy and social norms is often good for big business. This is an argument that has been made by some conservatives in the past, but few still exist, with the vast majority of supposed conservatives being fully signed up to a neolibral agenda. The most obvious of these is probably immigration. The left promote immigration partly because it can lead to big increases in welfare for some of the world’s poorest people, and partly because they want to rub those racist pleb's noses in a bit of diversity. Both noble goals. The right, meanwhile, support it because it brings in a ready supply of low cost labour, bidding down wages at the bottom of society, and also increasing economic growth. This, however, may erode the social trust upon which traditional, non market, institutions depended. In addition, an increasingly diverse society may reduce support for redistributive government policies. People might be willing to pay for a large welfare state if it is supporting people similar to them, but less keen if it's for a 'bunch of migrants' with whom they have less in common, both culturally and genetically. 

Equally, women entering the workplace is a noble liberal cause, promoting independence and freedom, as well as leading to large increases in the size of the workforce and so helping boost economic growth. It also led to the end of the single earner nuclear family unit that was dominant throughout most of the latter part of the last millennium. As people strive to compete in the economic sphere, through longer working hours, this home life is eroded, and as workers move more in search of jobs and opportunities, the local institutions based on shared history and ties to the area break down. People are less likely to be involved in a local community when they’re only there for a year until they next move jons. A socially liberal society may simply be much more amenable to capitalism. 

7. Social Justice Opening New Markets 

Liberal social norms in many areas take what are traditionally informal, private realms, and bring them into the public sphere. As more women enter the workforce, childcare can be increasingly marketised, it becomes a job, rather than part of home life. Though no extra work is being done, this can show up in those sweet sweet GDP figures. Likewise, a big recent social justice cause has been sex work, where again private interactions between people become market based interactions between a buyer and seller. We are constantly told by progressive that we need to talk more about sex. Again, the borders of the home and bedroom, previously sacred, private and hidden from the tentacles of public discourse and the market, are broken down, allowing us all to buy lots of sex toys.

Perhaps less obviously, sexual liberation as well as the breakdown of traditional social institutions like the church, have led to a far more open, competitive and liquid dating market. Business have been able to step into this niche, and therefore profit off social interactions that were previously closed off to that, through online dating sites and apps such as tinder. If, as looks likely, polyamoury, becomes the next frontier, I'm sure there'll be an app for that too.

8. Social Justice Values as Market Values

In the past, status in society was gained through ones family, and wealth was mostly inherited land for the aristocracy. Society valued stability, hierarchy and self discipline. Capitalism does not value these things. Success is based on creative destruction, novelty, and self expression. The people we idolise are self made millionaires, successful musicians and actors. We compete to keep up with the Jones' on the things we wear, the things we eat, even the opinions we hold, always looking for an edge in the marketplace of cool, and there's always someone to sell you the latest cool hot takes.

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This is all no coincidence, modern social justice and economic liberalism are phylogenetically linked, stemming from puritanical protestantism and opposed to traditionalist catholicism. They've both come a long way, but share a common individualism and commitment to progress and change.

It seems possible to me that the 21st century could see a political realignment along these lines, but currently the parties are split right down the middle. The 'metropolitan liberals', (Miliband, Umunna, Thornberry) are facing off against its more conservative working class base, some of who now seem to be defecting to Ukip. Corbyn is almost totally irrelevant to this fight, being unnacceptable to much of both factions, and tries desperately to hold things together. Equally, the Conservatives seem split between a relatively liberal leadership, and a conservative base. The EU referendum will serve as a proxy war for this fight within all parties.

In America, similarly, both parties are split down the middle. The left sees the Queen of social justice/neoliberal fusionism facing off against Bernie Sanders slightly crustier politics. Likewise, Donald Trump represents this same division. While on social issues, he is determinedly unprogressive, on economic ones, he looks far more of a poujadist than a business conservative. On the other hand, while more mainstream candidates like Marco Rubio may take many socially conservative positions, in a similar way to Clinton, they represent the triumph of the market state over the nation state, and the Cloud over the Land.

There are plenty of ways you might react to this fundamental compatibility between free markets and social justice. A modern liberaltarian may revel in it, a traditional conservative sees the unmasked face of cthulhu and everything he fears. A left winger sees that their whole life's work may have been in vain. I marvel at it. A memeplex so versatile and pervasive it governs our every social interaction, twists all opposition to it into support. Neoliberalism is pretty great, and it will succeed no matter what you do, so stop complaining and enjoy the ride.

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