The Violence of Neoliberalism
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The Violence of Neoliberalism

Crime, Harm and Inequality

Victoria E. Collins, Dawn L. Rothe

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eBook - ePub

The Violence of Neoliberalism

Crime, Harm and Inequality

Victoria E. Collins, Dawn L. Rothe

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This book examines the impact of neoliberalism on society, bringing to the forefront a discussion of violence and harm, the inherent inequalities of neoliberalism and the ways in which our everyday lives in the Global North reproduce and facilitate this violence and harm.Drawing on a range of contemporary topics such as state violence, the carceral state, patriarchy, toxic masculinity, death, sports and entertainment, this book unmasks the banal forms of violence and harm that are a routine part of life that usurp, commodify and consume to reify the existing status quo of harm and inequality. It aims to defamiliarize routine forms of violence and inequality, thereby highlighting our own participation in its perpetuation, though consumerism and the consumption of neoliberal dogma.

It is essential reading for students across criminology, sociology and political philosophy, particularly those engaged with crimes of the powerful, state crime and social harm.

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An introduction to the violence of neoliberalism

Crime, harm and inequality

It seems prudent to us to begin this chapter with a brief discussion of neoliberalism while not ignoring the fact that it is embedded within the capitalistic state. In other words, one should be cognizant that neoliberalism is still capitalism, which has always fostered inequality, harms and violence. Often the term neoliberalism, while widely used, is ambiguous or unclear in its usage or it is defined most stringently as an economic theory or economic policy. Another widely utilized definition is that neoliberalism is a policy model “that transfers control of economic factors to the private sector from the public sector” (Kenton, 2018). Or it is believed to be nothing more than laissez-faire economic liberalism and the value of free market competition. David Harvey (2016) suggests that neoliberalism is a political project
carried out by the corporate capitalist class as they felt intensely threatened both politically and economically towards the end of the 1960s into the 1970s. It was an ideological assault but also an economic assault … [and] the corporate capitalist class put it into motion bit by bit.
While we agree that neoliberalism is a political ideology, we do not think it can be attributed solely to the corporate class. Indeed, the process of ‘neoliberalization’ includes the deepening “penetration of capitalism into political and social institutions as well as cultural consciousness itself” (Thompson, 2005, p. 23). Neoliberalism is the “elevation of capitalism, into an ethic, a set of political imperatives, and a cultural logic” (Thompson, 2005, p. 23).
Here we draw heavily from Kotsko’s conceptualization of neoliberalism, where it can be thought of as taking the form of theology. It serves to let us know about our world and how it should be, and we, the believers, accept this as true, obvious and without question. As brilliantly put forth by Kotsko in his 2018 volume titled Neoliberalism’s Demons, “neoliberal ideology [is] a form of theology—it is a discourse that aims to reshape the world” (p. 7). He states that neoliberalism’s “attempt at self-legitimation” is done through the concept of freedom—defined in “deeply individualistic terms that render market competition the highest actualization of human liberty” (p. 10). In this sense, it seems to us to be fruitful to think of neoliberalism as a theology that legitimates itself with the promise of economic freedom. Neoliberalism is politics and economy, it is an ideology, or ‘theology’, that shapes and reshapes our world, including the most banal everyday aspects one can think of. We agree with Kotsko, it is more than merely capitalism or a capitalistic state. Neoliberalism is an impelling force that engulfs all of society, repackaging its subjects to its action through commodification including its harms, violence and inequalities: thus legitimating itself at the same time. Simply, the violence and harms of neoliberalism are reproduced and legitimated through the relationships of everyday life, consumption and commodification. To wit, the system continues in the production and reproduction of itself, its systemic violence and crimes. “Neoliberalism is, in sum, a totalizing world order, an integral self-reinforcing system of political theology” (Kotsko, 2018, p. 95). As such, neoliberalism includes the corrosive consumer culture that we participate in—where people bowed and prayed to the neon gods (neoliberalism and consumption) they made. Before laying out our guiding theme and structure of this book, we first turn our attention to the issues of crime, criminological scholarship and the relational approach of this book.

Crime versus harm?

It can be safely asserted that the term crime has had quite diverse meanings throughout the long history of its use, although some understandings of crime have been dominant and others more marginal. Certainly, there is a long and enduring history of invoking the term ‘crime’ without any attempt to define it. For many people the meaning of the term crime is taken to be obvious, so much so that there is no need to define it. Following this assertion then, United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart’s celebrated observation about pornography (and obscenity)—“I know it when I see it”—also applies to crime (Slade, 2000, p. 4). It also seems reasonable to claim that the term crime is most widely equated with conventional criminal offenses, or violations of the criminal law that are exemplified by the FBI’s ‘index’ crimes: murder; rape; assault; robbery; burglary; auto theft; larceny; and arson. This is surely the type of crime of most concern to the American public, along with drug-related offenses and recent concerns about terrorism, and these offenses account for most of the “mass imprisonment” of the recent era (Abramsky, 2007). The largest proportion of criminological scholarship through the present period encompasses one or more of these types of crime. But it is also indisputably true that there is a long tradition critical of the limitations of a conventional conception of crime. Accordingly, the claim is made that much of the focus of mainstream criminologists is seriously skewed. A recent anthology—Mary Bosworth and Carolyn Hoyle’s (2011) What is Criminology?—recognizes that there are vastly different conceptions of what criminology is and ought to be, and consequently how crime is best defined.
There is a long-standing tradition of critiquing conventional conceptions of crime that have been advanced by self-described radical or critical criminologists. Examples include, but are not limited to, the widely cited “humanistic” definition of crime put forth by Schwendinger and Schwendinger (1970). Stuart Henry and Mark Lanier (2001), in an in-depth consideration of the definition of crime, have advanced a “prism of crime” definition. In addition, the last decade has seen an increasing movement toward the study of social harm as a means of deepening or ‘going beyond’ more traditional understandings of crime. Others have expanded on this definitional approach to argue for a needs-based approach. They suggest this should be done independently of formal social controls (the legal system), and should include harms such as lack of access to food, shelter and clothing, and the denial of the right to realize full human potential—thus challenging traditional conceptualizations of crime. Other notable challenges to the definition of crime, include Hillyard, Pantazis, Tombs and Gordon’s (2004) book, Beyond Criminology: Taking Harm Seriously, which argued for an alternative lens on crime and deviance that abandons criminology in favor of ‘zemiology’—defined as the study of social harm.
However, despite the continued focus of some critical criminologists on broadening the definition of crime, there remains significant neglect within the field more broadly on the topic of social harm. Specifically, there are numerous structural harms that have fallen outside the scope of the field of criminology, such as poverty, contagious diseases, malnutrition, famine and more that should be reincorporated. Pemberton (2007) argues that this results from the limitation of the field to “intentional harm” rather than the broader and more inclusive notion of “preventable harm” (p. 29). In 2015, Pemberton advocated using a language of social harm as the systemic compromising of human flourishing. It is this that we have adopted here in our effort to move beyond ‘intentional’ harms and include the violence and harms, and their reproductions in our everyday life, and the mundane banality of consumption and neoliberalism.
To us, using a social harm frame is potent and transformative, as “some of the most significant problems facing contemporary society not only lie beyond the present scope of legal prohibition but are thoroughly normalized and integral to the functioning of liberal capitalist political economy” (Raymen, 2018, p. 1) including “the corrosive consumer culture that generates significant harm”, crime and violence. After all, the worst of harms are entrenched in our broader sociopolitical and economic systems that structure society. They allow criminologists to move beyond harms, violence and crimes of actual physical violence to include symbolic violence, embodied violence and more banal forms. We believe the social ills of today’s society, and how they are a normalization of and produced through neoliberalism, are indeed social harm and crimes. As such, for us, these terms are interchangeable. In addition, using crime to frame harm and violence has the symbolic effect of calling them what they are—how we suggest they should be seen, interpreted and discussed—as this removes the political sanitization of the harms and violence. In this sense, we do not want to limit ourselves to only the most “visible and obvious forms of social harm” or dismiss “genuine harmful processes and practices as merely mildly injurious, or only discuss them as ethical dilemmas or ‘social harm’ when the harmful processes generate sufficiently extreme and problematic outcomes” (Raymen, 2018, p. 2).

Our guiding theme and structure of the book

Our goal with this volume is to unmask the banal forms of violence and harm that are a routine part of life that usurp, commodify and consume, to reify the existing status quo of harm and inequality. Much of what we draw on may seem ‘obviously so’, though we believe a reminder of what is going on within our everyday choices (though we think we have choices) is necessary given our ‘busyness’. We are hopeful, however, that some readers may see this volume with a shock of recognition of the hidden obviousness of it all. Likewise, we do not want readers to see our efforts here as yet another example of someone throwing the ‘culture of blameworthiness torch’ that already penetrates our hyper-individualized lives under neoliberalism. Nor are we laying out some sort of ‘moral entrapment’ where everything is and continues because of our choices. That would be naïve at best. Rather we, as citizens, perpetuate the inequalities and violence of the system through consumerism and the willing consumption of hegemonic ideology or neoliberal theology as we have no alternative—it is our prison and our forced participation. In this sense, we are active agents in reproducing the hegemonic ideology and system where the violence becomes the abnormal ‘celebrated normality’.
The consistent theoretical frames guiding each chapter are grounded in, but not limited to, Gramsci, Neocleous, Baudrillard, Foucault and Simmel, including their work on hegemony, governmentality, power, consumption and social identity. As such, the subsequent chapters are focused on routine forms of inequality, violence and harm that are celebrated, commoditized and consumed in our everyday lives, including, but not limited to, state violence, patriarchy, hypermasculinity, death, sports, entertainment, nongovernmental and not-for-profit organizations, efforts of resistance and more banal forms of everyday oppression that are masked within the broader neoliberal cultural (re)production. After all, the commodification of violence, inequality and harm are present every day, and have come to be seen as a “fact of life” that “nicely captures the dominant social meaning of banal goods” (Goold, Loader & Thumala, 2013, p. 978). Furthermore, this violence and harm is systemic, inherent in the social conditions of neoliberalism and the symbolic violence embodied in language and its forms, which, in turn, naturalize the systemic violence (Žižek, 2008). We agree with Young (1976) in his Foreword to Frank’s Pearce’s book, Crimes of the Powerful: Marxism, Crime and Deviance, when he argues that it is “the system itself that must be investigated” (p. 11).
Our goal is to provide a radical critique of our own disavowal, knowingly or unwittingly, of our complicity in more banal and normalized forms: consumption and consent through neoliberal commodification. Again, this is not fostering more blameworthiness hegemony. Rather, it is to allow us to reflect on the totality of neoliberalism and our everyday life. In other words, our goal is ‘unveiling the neon god’ and recognizing our role in the perpetuation of the harms, violence and crimes of neoliberalism that prevents us from seeing beyond the box of hegemony and hegemonic discourse that serve to ensure our domination by consent. This violence and harm then becomes banal, disavowed, depoliticized and normalized through cultural hegemony and hegemonic discourse (Neocleous, 2008, pp. 73–74).
We begin with Chapter 2 where we examine the intersection between neoliberalism and capital acquisition as it manifests itself in global markets. We acknowledge that the ‘global’ is touted as being beneficial to the average citizen, especially as it relates to the ease with which they can now access specific services and goods, cross borders and promote economic success through the laissez-faire policies that promote competitiveness, free trade and lower prices for consumers. However, we emphasize what is often ignored and is the focus here, the harms and the violence, or what Renner (2002) has termed the “invisible imprint of violence” (p. 53) that results from a common everyday purchase. The global markets that facilitate the ease in which goods and services are consumed are divorced from the violent oppressions and inequalities that go into their production. This is especially so in Global North countries where materialism and capital acquisition have become part of everyday life, normalized and even celebr...

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