A little over 500 years ago, Europeans, driven by a lust for riches and enabled by new technologies, colonized the Americas and set about making them productive in an entirely new way. The reasonably self-sustaining economies of the indigenous peoples were swept away and the organic and mineral resources of their lands were incorporated into systems of production that generated surplus wealth, by serving newly established markets in the Americas and around the world. Thus, was the New World enfolded into the then emerging system of capitalism.
In the early 1980’s, Margaret Thatcher was fond, in defending her policies, of stating emphatically that, ‘There Is No Alternative.’ Establishing this kind of rhetorical endgame became her way of cutting off debate and signaling an iron-willed determination to pursue her chosen plan of action. For almost forty years, the neoliberal states of the world, including those in Western Europe, the Americas and parts of Asia, have lived by her credo and refused to countenance any alternative to the privatization of social services; the globalization of trade, tourism and culture; and the financialization of everything. Now enabled by technologies unimaginable in the fifteenth century, these arrangements of our social, political and economic life encourage rapacious production by corporations serving ever-increasing popular consumption. The corporations, in turn, richly reward their executives while, for the most part, paying poverty wages to their employees.
This is the system which Mark Fisher describes in Capitalist Realism (2009) in which capital is exposed as it really is, “…rapacious, indifferent, inhuman.” Harking back to the 1980’s, as neoliberalism was being established in Britain, Fisher writes, “Margaret Thatcher’s doctrine that, ‘There Is No Alternative’ – as succinct a slogan of capitalist realism as you could hope for – became a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Following the financial crash of 2008, there were hopes that the system might be undermined, but the massive scale of the bank bailouts reaffirmed its inevitable survival and were a resounding vindication of her dictum.
Between the global shutdown in response to the COVID pandemic and some imagined future when communities around the world are all fully reopened, there is the opportunity to review the narratives that underpin neoliberalism – the ideology that supports current, post-industrial, capitalism. In the United States, this time of sheltering from the ravening appetite of the virus has been replete with street violence, urban occupation, sloganeering, wheat-pasting, spray painted graffiti, and the physical destruction of public monuments.
This broadly based unrest recapitulates the historical record of protest since the 1960’s. Racial injustice, economic injustice, police brutality and degradation of the environment remain at the forefront of the protesters’, and the wider public’s, concerns. But something new has arisen. The public iconography of racism and oppression which reflects the progress of Western civilization through the New World, is being dismantled. The monuments that often memorialize those responsible for the most egregious acts of commercial exploitation and extraction, or the military practice of genocide, or the defense of enslavement, are being excised from the public square. This editing of the nation’s historical narrative, as it has come to be expressed in bronze and stone, echoes revisions that have already have begun to be made within academia, but is now being undertaken by those whose lives remain constrained and exploited by the oppressive power of the class, race, sex, and economic prejudices contained within it.
As the statues have tumbled across the land, there is an understanding that we will emerge from what might be called the COVID-Interregnum as a much-altered nation – our histories reimagined, and our values reconfigured. A significant driver of this change is the perception that it is people from communities of color, immigrants, the poor and the marginalized – the very people who have been largely discounted in the nation’s history – that now constitute the majority of the nation’s critical workers. It is they, during this pandemic, who keep the country running and provide the essential services we all rely on. Their service to this country has become apparent while many of their communities are the most severely impacted by the virus – both because of their inhabitants’ exposure in the workplace and because those communities are often ‘underserved’ and already suffering gross racial, economic and environmental inequities.
It is a truism to suggest that the public has now been replaced by the consumer; that the public good has been replaced by individual desire; that public space has been reduced to the private visions of the individual; that democracy has been sacrificed on the altar of economics. As Wendy Brown writes, in, Undoing the Demos, 2012, “Neoliberal reason, ubiquitous today in statecraft and the workplace, in jurisprudence, education, culture, and a vast range of quotidian activity, is converting the distinctly political character, meaning, and operation of democracy’s constituent elements into economic ones.”. Thus, the Left’s traditional urge to build a bureaucracy that restrains predatory commerce in the interest of the public good is subverted by the growth of a corporate state designed to suppress its vestigial caring dimension.
This neoliberal attribute fatally weakens the viability of the obvious ‘Alternative’ to which Thatcher was so averse, that of democratic socialism, which thrived in post-war Western Europe as it emerged from the worldwide crisis. Those governments were driven by a mission: to embrace responsibility for the health of all of their citizens – rather than let it be controlled by black marketeers or corporate looters; to ensure that elder care, youth services and childcare be freely available – not powered by profit; to provide good, free education to all – not restricted by its expense to the privileged few; to declare that housing and adequate nutrition are a human right – not resources to be leveraged by the financially strong; to assert that homelessness has no place in an enlightened state – not accepted as a necessary alternative to the supposed evils of welfare; to declare that the mentally ill, together with the anxious and alienated, find a haven in adequate social services – not left to swell the ranks of mendicant street people; and to ensure that public order is maintained without a militarized police force supporting the criminalization of poverty, the presumption of Black and minority criminality and the thuggish treatment of those it arrests. All these beneficent outcomes must now be sought elsewhere. As Bruno Latour points out in his recent essay, ‘Are you ready to extract yourself from the Economy?’, “After a hundred years devoted to socialism limited just to the redistribution of the benefits of the economy, it might now be more a matter of inventing a socialism that contests production itself”.
Latour makes the point that in the miraculous COVID-inspired halting of production, travel and pollution, the world discovered a hitherto unsuspected superpower – the power of interruption. We have the ability, collectively, it now seems, to become globalization interrupters, neoliberalism interrupters and interrupters of all those modes of production that are destroying the habitability of the earth for humans and our neighboring species. He suggests we have an opportunity of, “Getting away from production as the overriding principle of our relationship to the world.” This constitutes a retreat from the very principle that informed the colonization of the Americas and continues to inform its despoliation.
In the City of Ventura, along California’s central coast some twenty miles from where I live, a large bronze statue of Junipero Serra has been officially removed from outside of City Hall, signaling an understanding that the Spanish colonial project, the Catholic Church, the Franciscan Order, and Serra, as founder of the Mission system, bear responsibility for the almost total destruction of the native Chumash people who had peopled the area for some fifteen thousand years prior to the Spanish invasion of California in 1769. The City has also promised to remove the image of Serra from its official seal.
The City has interrupted what once was cast in bronze, set in stone, and typeset in Grade Four histories – a veneration not for the people who had a complex and symbiotic relationship with the world but for the exploiters, the desecrators and the mercenary agents of their destruction, who for so long have been the heroes of Californian and American history. The Franciscan Order and the Government of Spain under Charles III planned to generate great agricultural wealth in California by using a feudal system in which the native peoples worked as serfs building infrastructure and tending irrigated crops, whilst at the same time undergoing a conversion to Christianity. One of Spain’s goals in building the Mission system, of sending vast remittances back to the home country failed utterly, but not before their efforts resulted in the effective genocide of the local Chumash peoples.
On the coastal plains of Ventura, in the Central Valley and elsewhere in California, industrial agriculture now generates wealth beyond the imagining of the Franciscans and their military detail, but its production still comes at vast human and environmental costs. The predominantly Latinx field workers have suffered withering rates of COVID infection, and their communities’ health resources have been correspondingly stressed. As essential workers, they continue to toil in the sun – growing fruits and vegetables sold across the country in an industry dedicated to generating a surplus rather than a sufficiency; to growing food as a product rather than as a staple source of nutrition.
The removal of Serra from California’s pantheon of those who have historically privileged the value of production over humanity (an essential quality of capitalist realism) is a valuable symbolic gesture. Its real power, however, can only be unleashed if it also signals an interruption of those values of exploitation and extraction which he embodied, and which remain embedded in the economy of the state. As with the toppling of other contested historical statues across the country, such protests will mean little if they do not result in the broader interruption of the ideologies these erstwhile exalted figures represent.
Perhaps the COVID-interregnum has indeed halted the inevitability of the neoliberal continuum. The door has been opened to an ‘Alternative’, but It requires that we push on it, as Latour advises, by considering an exit from the economy rather than helping in the warp-speed recovery most heartily wished for by the guardians of neoliberalism. Our economization, our existence as droids devoted to consumption in support of the G.D.P., has given us the power to change our world. In applauding the destruction of the iconography of our past do we now have the courage to change the future?