Protest in a neoliberal age

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Participants marching in Black Lives Matter Rally at Cornell University, September 23, 2016 (Credit: Julia Cole Photography)

Today we wanted to share with you a recent essay by Russell Rickford published in the African American Intellectual History Society blog, “The Fallacies of Neoliberal Protest.”

Rickford takes pains to explain the neoliberal context of current protest and social resistance on and off campuses, reminding us that neoliberalism “seeks to manage the social order and ensure the continued political dominance of the ruling class by absorbing social threats.”

He lays out three fallacies by which corporations and institutions in power seek to maintain this order and “neutralize” dissent. For us, this essay hit close to the bone in the way Rickford highlights “dialogue and awareness” as the first fallacy and then, as he sums up his case, states:

Truth is, we don’t need “diversity” training. We don’t need focus groups. We don’t need consultants and experts. We don’t need the apparatus of our oppression—racial capitalism itself—to rationalize and regulate our dissent. The logic and techniques of the corporate world won’t end the slaughter of black people, or the dispossession and degradation of indigenous people, or the transformation of the entire Global South into a charred landscape of corpses and refugees.

We’ve both participated in and led diversity training. We’ve done focus groups. We’ve felt like we’ve needed experts. We’ve been asked to do the expertifying. And it has all felt necessary and important … but this cold splash of water reminds us of the limits of what we do. Maybe more frighteningly, it shows us how the very efforts we are involved in are, by the very virtue of how institutions work, stunted and contained or worse, used to justify the very same inequities we want to change.

Rickford’s conclusion–“This is a human rights struggle. And it will be waged in the streets, not in boardrooms, the halls of Congress, or other strongholds of global capital”–is a necessary reminder for us to be clear about the limits of what we are able to do in our classrooms and institutions and the impetus we feel to be engaged in change work outside of those spaces.

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