Blaming the Victim

It is not uncommon to blame victims for whatever problems or difficulties they may encounter. Often enough, it involves people who did not comply with police officers’ commands, never mind that different cops may be shouting out contradictory orders so that the person does not know who to listen to. More recently, Jordan Neely was tragically killed in New York because his strange behavior was threatening to other subway passengers. “Luckily,” someone stepped in to subdue him, and it’s just too bad that he lost his life for it. The person who choked him out cannot be blamed; it was all a bad accident, you know.

But let’s pull back the lens a bit consider victim-blaming in a more general way.

The conversation starts with Achille Mbembe in Necropolitics (2019) when he discusses how capitalism and the economic imperative of profit-making remade the world system via colonialism and slavery. People were forcibly moved or coerced from the places where they once lived and then ended up being sent to places in order to satisfy demands for labor. They didn’t want to move, but were enslaved. They did not want to work in plantation agriculture where monocultures replaced the self-sufficiency of small farmers planting and growing for their family and community, but that was not where the money was. Once moved, those same people are subjected to hatred and racism, as those in new lands argue that “you don’t belong here.” At the same time, no one is allowed to utter the words, “Capitalism brought me here.”

In Cannibal Capitalism (2022), Nancy Fraser goes through a discussion of how social reproduction in capitalism has a chain effect wherein people from peripheral countries are recruited to provide household care in the developed world so that more privileged women can be allowed the freedom to work and to not be bound by their familial duties. But those caregiving tasks must still be fulfilled, and consequently women are recruited from peripheral countries to be those caregivers, in turn allowing them to send remittances back home, and “helping” their families back home. Entire economies like the Philippines are set up on this concept, including the broadened need to provide health care for the aged in wealthier countries where the population is at or below replacement rate. Women—mostly women—get work and are paid, all the while destroying their own family units in order to keep the upper classes of capitalist society intact.

So while caregiving becomes a necessity for women who want to work because they are made to feel independent, there is a parallel resentment of those who migrate and seek refugee status to take up those very roles in the heart of the global economic system. Women try to escape their own worlds of poverty and violence, as is currently the case with refugees coming from Central America to the US, but they are hated and scorned for responding to the very demands that capitalism has created. Again, let’s not say the name of the system causing this predicament. Let’s blame the victims instead.

More broadly than that, we can look at the implications of neoliberalism now spanning 50 years of history. If one were to believe the precepts of Ayn Rand before, Milton Friedman more recently, the effects of capitalism operating under a neoliberal system of accumulation were clear enough. The rich would get immensely richer, there was to be no governmental help for society because capitalism must incentivize individual performance and not compensate those who fail. If people did not survive in this dog-eat-dog environment, they would fail, and they would ultimately die. Their own failures in not being assertive and aggressive enough, made them unsuccessful. They’re toast, and they’re supposed to be.

Back in the 1980s, sociologist Ulrich Beck talked about Risk Society (1986) and how capitalism in its neoliberal iteration now meant that individual achievement alone determined one’s fate. No longer would there be a social safety net to catch those who failed. Presciently, Beck was right. Fortunately, the demise of this safety net has not been as rapid in Europe as it has in other parts of the world, North America included. But the risk is still on us even though the system generates or creates it.

Watching news network a handful of nights ago, there was an extended report about how homelessness had reached epidemic levels, particularly in blue cities where Democratic mayors had not done anything to address the situation. Especially useful in this reporting is that People of Color and/or women are behind the inability to resolve the problem: the mayor of New York is Eric Adams, Brandon Johnson is in Chicago, Los Angeles has Karen Bass, and London Breed is in San Francisco. The implied meaning is clear: “they” get elected because of this mad desire to support inclusiveness, then fail because they don’t know what they’re doing.

What is to be done? In a neoliberal world where any and every action made by government is treated with suspicion, wrath, or both, the answer is, nothing. So in doing nothing, the grand neoliberal vision of a divided world between some winners and many losers is realized. The winners get to celebrate on Mont Pelerin, or maybe it’s in Davos these days, while the rest of society must navigate around tents and people shooting up fentanyl on the sidewalks of San Francisco. For Rand, “Atlas Shrugged” because that’s how it’s supposed to be. If you are wealthy, you deserve everything you have.

There are two victims here. First, the homeless and the unwillingness to do anything about helping them involving outlays of money for housing and for health care (both physical and mental) that most people do not have. When it comes to refugees desperate to leave where they came from due to circumstances beyond their control, those problems lie with the governments and the states that they came from. Their labor is needed, and yet few people are willing to take them in. One can only wonder what will happen when streams of people number in the hundreds of millions once climate change makes certain parts of the planet no longer livable. Do the gates swing open for refugees? Not in a dog-eat-dog world, they don’t. Second, the public officials themselves fall victim to criticism because “they’re not doing anything.” Well, you know what? No one wants them to do anything. That’s neoliberalism for you. But let’s not talk about that.

Edgar Kaskla is a lecturer in Political Science at Cal State Long Beach.