Monday, February 7, 2011

Significant Differences in Class and Race

Immigrant status, gender, and national origin make the development of a single "Latino" agenda extremely unlikely. That is to say, the particular interests and needs of Latinos, as with other groups, differ according to their location along these lines. Yet, despite these differences, there are structural processes, policies, and practices that do affect the opportunities, trajectories of economic and social mobility, and life conditions of large numbers of Latinos. The literature on neoliberalism provides a way to identify and understand some of the key domestic structural phenomena and conditions within which Latino politics now takes place.

Neoliberalism has been used to describe the linkage between, on the one hand, the changes in the structure of economic processes and relations that were promoted beginning in the late 1970s in response to the ineffectiveness of postwar Keynesian policies, and on the other hand, the institutional and ideological practices and political policies of governance that were developed to address the inability of state structures to address these problems.1 These new policies not only guided the extensive and long-term restructuring processes adopted within both the economic and state spheres, but also coincided with the period of dramatic and rapid growth in the U.S. Latino population.

The key characteristics of neoliberalism are well-known and have been documented in numerous studies. This does not imply, however, that there is a consensus on the meaning of the term, the interpretation of its characteristics, or the particular significance of its various components. The extensive literature on neoliberalism reflects a broad range of frameworks and an emphasis on different dimensions involved in these processes. Some studies focus on a set of economic policies, others use neoliberalism to define a particular historical period, and still others study it as an ideological phenomenon. In the context of Latino politics, it is useful to focus on how neoliberal economic policies and their consequences have severely limited the possibility that political action channeled through the electoral process alone can seriously address the marginalized conditions that most Latinos face.

Neoliberalism is based on the assumption that an unregulated, free market is the most effective mechanism not only for economic and societal development but also for promoting democracy and freedom. All of the other defining characteristics of neoliberalism flow from these basic assumptions. Deregulating industry and commerce in general, limiting the role of government in economic affairs, privatization, reducing governmental responsibility for social services and community welfare - all of these are policies intended to achieve the ideal of a free market as the foundation for economic prosperity and democratization.

Yet, despite the fact that this view has been the guiding framework for the structure of governance since the Reagan era, neoliberalism has functioned more as Utopian ideology than grounded public policy, as David Harvey suggests.3 The spectacular failure of this ideology that led to the economic crisis beginning in 2008 clearly demonstrated that neoliberalism does not reject government intervention in economic affairs, but rather government intervention on behalf of the working class and minorities. The role of government under this neoliberal regime has been to promote, enhance, and facilitate the growth of corporate and financial sectors, while limiting support for social services, education, health and welfare. The societal effects of this have led some to call neoliberalism "predatory capitalism." The redistribution of wealth upward and the growing level of inequality in the United States has been so dramatic that even conservative thinkers like Kevin Phillips, in his Wealth and Democracy, have warned of the dire consequences.

One of the major effects of neoliberalism has been the redefinition of the purpose of governance that emerged from the period of the Depression and lasted through the early 1970s. During the former period, policies were aimed at putting people back to work, addressing the issue of poverty, increasing the standard of living, establishing strict regulatory regimes (reflected in legislation like the Glass-Steagall Act) to prevent another economic collapse, strengthening the rights of labor, establishing a system of social security to ensure a minimum of economic well-being, dismantling of legal structures of racial discrimination and support for the expansion of civil rights, and establishing a health care system intended to make sure that the elderly and poor would receive care.

This contrasts markedly with the policies advanced not only by Republicans but also by Democrats like President Clinton, who pushed through NAFTA primarily to open capital markets across borders, relied heavily on tax credits for the wealthy as a basis for influencing economic development, advanced legislation to dismantle the welfare system, and embraced deregulation - supporting the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which many commentators blame for the unleashing of die very kind of market behavior that led to the near collapse of the entire financial system. Today, this has not changed much - the policies of the Obama administration are designed and promoted by advisers who come from the very same companies and sectors who orchestrated that near collapse. Thus, the conception of governance as the guarantor of the corporate class remains largely unchanged.

There is little to indicate that either of the two major parties is likely embrace anything other than the neoliberal repertoire of policies. Although Latino voters helped stave off Republican victories in the midterm elections, the ideological parameters within which the dominant public discourse and public policy options are advanced was hardly challenged. This is not to suggest that voting and electoral behavior are unimportant - quite the contrary. Electoral victories have been an important vehicle for promoting progressive legislation in the past, legislation that has promoted greater levels of Latino incorporation. But in the last 30 years, there have been few instances when either party seriously challenged the fundamental premises of neoliberalism. For this reason, Latino poitical efforts need to focus on supporting the kinds of changes that would make an alternative possible. This cannot be achieved by Latinos acting alone. But the mobilization of millions of people who came together to support the vision and hope that they believed Obama represented makes it clear that a politics based on providing an alternative to neoliberalism is indeed possible.

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