US: Why do neoliberal politicians hate poor people?
By Ryan Lamothe
April 7, 2017
I suspect that when human beings started gathering in larger groups, creating more complex societies, those who were deemed to be poorer residents became objects of derision and disgust. Perhaps this is because impoverished persons remind those who are better off of vulnerability and human dependency. In our own society, Nancy Isenberg (2016) documents how the poor are negatively represented and treated throughout U.S. history, which seems to confirm the idea that as long as the poor are among us there will be people who abhor them. While the people who are poor may be despised by other members of society, I contend that neoliberal politicians (and their adherents) are more susceptible to class animus than politicians who hold more humanist and socialist views. This is evident today with Republicans in charge of the government, though let me be clear that Republicans are not the only neoliberals in the government and, therefore, not the only ones who display a willed indifference to persons lacing in economic resources.
To clarify further, when I use the term “neoliberal” in the title I am pointing to the soil from which the seeds of hatred are cultivated. This is not to say that neoliberalism causes hatred, but rather provides an epistemic framework for social division based on unstated beliefs in superiority and inferiority—beliefs that lend themselves to despising and dismissing the poor individuals and families. I will say more about this below, but there is also the added problem of denial. Politicians, if asked, would be surprised, if not downright angry, that anyone would dare suggest they hate people who are poor. Denial of hating poor persons is analogous to the current “fact” that in a post-racial America there are no racists. Few people, let alone politicians, will admit publicly that they bear any hatred toward black people, Hispanics, Asians, etc. Even avowed white supremacists today will, in calm seemingly reasoned tones, deny their hatred.
They insist that all they want is to embrace their own white culture (whatever that is), while living apart from people of color. Yet, the prevalence of racist ideology, which is rooted and flourishes in enmity, is apparent to even the most casual observers. Politicians have long denied racial hatred, while enacting Jim Crow and post-Jim Crow voter suppression laws, draconian laws creating a carceral state, and laws restricting travel (Anderson, 2016). So what are we to make of neoliberal politicians who would almost certainly deny their hatred of people deemed poor? They may either be lying—and I am willing to concede that most are not—or their denials are signifiers of the unconscious enmity toward poor people. Hatred, like other feelings, does not have to be conscious, does not have to be acknowledged to be present.
Since we cannot rely on the responses of neoliberal politicians to confirm the hypothesis, we must turn to the present signifiers of hatred, which are persons’ behaviors (including indifference) toward poor persons and their attending negative consequences. These behaviors can be seen in the legislation enacted to address the “problem of the poor.” While behavior confirms underlying animosity, we are left with the unfortunate fact that unacknowledged hatred means persons never face it, never take accountability for it, and thus nothing changes. As James Baldwin (2010) notes, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” (p.34).
To contend that neoliberalism is the soil that nurtures hatred toward poor persons requires first a brief depiction of this term. The central beliefs of liberalism are individual freedom, rational self-interests, moral autonomy, equal rights, secularism, and the rule of law. These beliefs, initially, were primarily understood in relation to the state, the exercise of political power and authority, and citizenship, though the issues of property and exchange were also key features, especially for Locke.
The rise of neoliberalism in the 20th century emerged in relation to powerful totalitarian regimes and, in particular, the presence of socialism as an economic system, resulted in significant alterations with regard to the central beliefs of liberalism. Jodi Dean (2009) remarks that “neoliberalism is a philosophy viewing market exchange as a guide to all human action” (p.51). Similarly, Wendy Brown (2015) argues that neoliberalism involves “a peculiar form of reason that configures all aspects of existence in economic terms” (p.17). Freedom, rational self-interests, moral autonomy, and the rule of law are conceptualized and lived out in terms of the market.
Before explaining why neoliberalism is a milieu that, while not causing hatred, provides the psychosocial fuel for its emergence, I briefly need to identify the behaviors that point to class animus. Sociologist Loïc Wacquant (2009) researched government neoliberal policies over the last four decades, arguing that they are not only deeply racialized, but also aimed at punishing poor persons (carceral state and decline of the welfare state), in part, because they are not entrepreneurial subjects. Along similar lines, sociologists Soss, Fording, and Schram (2011) “demonstrate how old tools of labor regulation—barriers to welfare participation, low levels of aid, stigmatizing rituals, and so on—continue to be used as strategies for shoring up work effort among the poor” (p.7). Instead of focusing strictly on punishment, they argue that neoliberal governing policies and attending institutions are aimed at disciplining poor people—trying to incentivize impoverished people to become entrepreneurial subjects. Though, it is clear that the incentives are less carrot and more stick.
A common focus in both books is the rise of neoliberalism and how it has shaped poverty governance—policies and programs which entail beliefs about, attitudes towards, and behaviors toward poor persons. Whether we call it discipline or punishment, these neoliberal policies and programs negatively impact poor people. Put differently, while there are different statistics regarding poverty, we can say that there is no evidence that neoliberal policies of governing poor citizens have led to any reductions in the poverty rate.
If anything, we see increased food insecurity, inadequate and substandard housing, depression, and illness among poorer residents of this country. All of this suggests that poverty governance is ruled by an ideology (neoliberalism) that politicians cling to, ignoring facts about the programs and their negative effects on poor persons. Neoliberal ideology is more like a secular idolatrous faith in that it rejects any facts that are deemed to threaten or undermine cherished, dogmatic neoliberal beliefs. Not surprisingly, neoliberal ideologue politicians are motivated to cling to these beliefs because they economic-political system benefits them and their corporate sponsors.
The ongoing failed neoliberal governing policies vis-à-vis poor citizens represent evidence for the hypothesis that neoliberal politicians despise poor people—a hatred screened by denial. One might counter this claim and say that neoliberal politicians are well-intentioned, adhering to their beliefs that their policies are what is best for the country and its poorer residents. Yet, by any measure, poor people have not been helped by these policies. Worse, their ranks have increased during the last ten years. If neoliberal politicians genuinely cared about poor people they would first accept the research that demonstrates that their policies and programs have failed. A parallel is the Jim Crow legislation that punished and disciplined African Americans. I am sure “reasonable” politicians did not say they were enacting these laws because they despised African Americans—laws that did nothing to help African Americans.
Yet, the cruelty behind these laws and the governing policies over poor people reveal an animus, despite attempts to deny it. I add here that neoliberal politicians who are indifferent about poor citizens and who have nothing to do with creating legislation aimed at poorer classes of individuals are no less hiding their hatred. Willed indifference to the plight of so many Americans (and others throughout the world) reveals a deep seated disgust. Indeed, indifference is a strategy like denial in that it keeps one from acknowledging one’s hatred, acting as if poor persons do not really matter. Behavior that stems from indifference or behavior that leads to the construction of neoliberal policies and programs that negatively impact the poor reveal the hidden, unacknowledged hatred of the poor among neoliberal politicians.
Someone might raise the point of view that it is not hatred, but rather the belief that government simply cannot alleviate the conditions of poverty. Moreover, the government should not interfere with the invisible hand of the market, though it can provide a basic safety net for society’s most impoverished citizens. This kind of neoliberal reasoning overlooks a number of facts. First, in neoliberal capitalism the government is very much involved in slashing protections, increasing economic exchanges, and privatizing the public sphere. Neoliberal politicians are very active in creating the conditions for enhancing wealth for corporations and the 1%, though some of that may trickle down. At the same time, neoliberal politicians abhor any talk of a welfare state, Keynesian economics, or the Great Society, because these are viewed as creating conditions that limit economic growth.
There is also deep disgust toward any idea of redistribution, conveniently neglecting the fact that there is redistribution in neoliberal capitalism—redistribution of wealth to the top economic elite. More starkly stated, the government is very much involved in creating the conditions for poverty. Second and relatedly, the putative hidden hand of the market is guided by the marriage of government and corporations, forming a powerful hidden fist in relation to lower economic classes. Third, the lack or absence of policies and programs for poor citizens is a policy of willed neglect. Finally, where and when are poor persons (and communities) ever consulted in the construction of legislation that directly impacts them? We know that corporations have their voices heard (and obeyed) in the construction of legislation that impacts their bottom line. Alex Honneth’s (2016) view that “The more those who are affected by a problem are involved in the search for solutions to that problem, the more such historical experiments will lead to better more stable solutions” (p.62), is rejected when it comes to devising legislation governing poor citizens.
If we consider politicians enacting policies and programs toward poor persons and see their negative consequences, then there is ample evidence for neoliberal politicians animus toward poor people, despite what I expect would be their protestations. But another step is needed if we are to understand the role of neoliberalism in this animus. We must chart the cognitive map associated with neoliberalism. Neoliberal politicians positively value economic freedom/success, self-reliance/independence, and individual rational self-interest—ingredients or “virtues” for a market society. These values exist in relation to their opposites or what retains a negative valence, namely economic freedom/success screens the “vice” of economic bondage/failure. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Mitt Romney are positive examples of economic success and freedom, while a person on welfare is a failed entrepreneurial subject who has very limited economic (and political) freedom. Self-reliance/independence’s shadow-side is dependence.
People who need help from the government are dependent and deemed to be takers, while entrepreneurs are creators. Individual rational self-interest is negatively paired with the irrational, as well as the humanist concern about the needs and interests of others. Congressman Chaffetz’s comment about poor people having to give up their cell phones if they want healthcare illustrates how poor residents are seen to make “irrational” decisions. Poor people are deemed to lack rational self-interests because they do not eat healthy foods or exercise? Also, persons who care about the needs and experiences of impoverished persons have heard the disparaging terms of do-gooders or bleeding heart liberals. These seemingly disparaging attributions emerge over and against the neoliberal virtue of pursuing one’s self-interest. As Gordon Gekko said, greed is good, by which any neoliberal will understand as rational, even though there is a streak of insanity at its core.
The negative side of this cognitive map is only part of the soil that gives rise to hatred. It is common enough in human life for individuals, who possess some social, political, and economic power and success, to believe their success is derived from their possession of prized traits, beliefs, values, etc. This is especially true in a neoliberal society where individualism is a central belief. “I am a self-made man/woman.” “I started with almost nothing, just few dollars in my pockets.” What often accompanies these beliefs is the illusion of superiority, which is followed by the illusion in the inferiority of others who are not successful—those who do not possess the beliefs and values “I”, the successful person, hold. Poor persons may be tolerated, but they are tolerated as inferior human beings. Poor people, in other words, are deemed to be inferior because they cannot or will not become entrepreneurial subjects. They are losers who take from the winners.
What I contend here is that a key feature of the neoliberal cognitive map is the belief in the superiority of neoliberal beliefs and entrepreneurial subjects. Other belief systems (e.g., socialism) are inferior and those who have a bare life at the bottom of the market society are inferior and despised. One might wonder why someone who believes him/herself to be superior would hate the inferior other. We have ample evidence of the tendency for “superior” persons to despise their “inferiors” when we note the history of white supremacy and the deep hatred whites had (and have) toward African Americans.
Why not just enjoy your superior status? Why feel threatened by those who are thought to be inferior? In terms of neoliberal hatred toward the believed to be inferior poor, I would argue that it is because the inferiority of poor persons secures and gives evidence for the superiority of the wealthy. The inferior black Other, confirms the superiority of the white individual. The inferior Jew confirms the superiority of the Nazi. I must stress here that these beliefs are not privately held. They are embedded in and supported by the various disciplinary regimes of the society, as noted in Jim Crow laws. So, the institutions, policies, and programs for governing (as well as the media) poor persons serve as disciplinary regimes for confirming their “inferiority.” This explains the putative inferior status of poor persons, but not hatred.
To complete the puzzle regarding hatred of poor citizens by neoliberal politicians I turn to the unconscious dependence the well-off on poor citizens—a dependence any neoliberal abhors. Dependence is particularly onerous when it comes to the neoliberal value of independence and self-reliance. Neoliberals want their superiority to show their independence and self-reliance, yet all forms of human superiority depend on the inferiority of the other. To be superior the inferior other must continually be created, revealing inherent existential dependence. Instead of facing this dependence and disgust, both are projected onto poor residents.
I also believe that at an unconscious level neoliberal politicians realize that their belief in self-superiority is an existential lie that must be continually upheld and proven by the existence of poor people. So, perhaps part of retaining policies that don’t work is to keep the numbers of poor persons high enough so that neoliberals can continue to assure themselves of their superiority, all the while hating their poorer neighbors. Is this not what white politicians did during Jim Crow—enact laws that keep blacks oppressed, thus confirming the belief in and experience of white superiority?
Many of those who voted for Trump indicated they liked Trump’s “honesty.” He is unashamedly politically incorrect. He says what’s on his mind. I doubt honesty would extend to neoliberal politicians, like Paul Ryan, admitting they despise poor persons, as they make up their budgets and policies that undermine the well-being of poor people. It is ironic that it is impolitic to admit hating poor individuals (or other “citizens”), but politic to discipline and punish them. To echo Baldwin, if hatred is not faced, neoliberal politicians and their adherents will not change.
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Baldwin, J. (2010).The cross of redemption. New York: Pantheon.
Brown, W. (2015). Undoing the demos. New York: Zone Books.
Dean, J. (2009). Democracy and other neoliberal fantasies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Isenberg, N. (2016). White trash. New York: Viking Press.
Soss, J. Fording, R. & Sanford, S. (2011). Disciplining the poor: Neoliberal paternalism and the persistent power of race. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wacquant, L. (2009). Punishing the poor: The neoliberal government of social insecurity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.