Neoliberalism and White Supremacy in the Academy: Double Threat in the Time of Trump

The Right’s targeting of intellectuals has increased while public attention to it has declined. It has become something like the new normal. In addition, the nature of Trump’s regime has become increasingly clear: He emboldens the Right here and around the world. Economic crises and popular movements of resistance have brought fascist and proto-fascist regimes into power in several nations.

Fascism is a particular kind of authoritarianism that deploys appeals to nation, unity, patriotism and purity against racial contamination in the defense of capitalism. Its first motivation is to crush the Left. Its racist, populist appeals and actions at the level of the state and the streets parallel the neoliberal tendency toward globalization. In transnational capitalism, labor flows across national borders, and a ruthless non-partisan imposition of austerity and privation targets public and private sectors, including universities.

White supremacism and neoliberalism may seem at cross purposes at first glance. However, they are both useful to an international ruling class; each attempts to stabilize capitalist society such that international capital benefits from the Right’s pitting of racial and other groups against each other and developing a discourse of white male and middle class victimage.

Interestingly, this alignment is not new. Duke historian Nancy MacLean has documented how from the civil rights era forward, proponents of neoliberal capitalism have aligned with white supremacists in campaigns against desegregation. She observes how University of Virginia president Colgate Whitehead Darden Jr., embraced an economic model of economist James McGill Buchanan–one aligned with the philosophies of the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman. Darden found that relief from the national movement toward desegregation could come from an alliance with an economic movement against federal regulation and government imposition on private life. Thus, the bedfellows of white supremacy and neoliberalism each came together for different reasons against federal authority, and both would benefit from Right-wing vigilantism down the line.

MacLean explains that the combined pushback against civil rights became “a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of mid-century Virginia, minus the segregation” (xvii).

After several decades, the consequences of this strange union revealed themselves as generative of the austerity and privatization programs against universities and all of the resources of the public sector, including those of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker in 2011 (and North Carolina, Louisiana, Mississipi, and Iowa). And again, a Right-wing movement against the representation and rights of minorities and the poor escalated against both insurgent progressive movements and the presidency of Barack Obama.

The Right-wing organization American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) circulated model anti-abortion, anti-civil-rights, anti-union and anti-regulation legislation. At the same time, the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch funded racist campaigns against Obama alongside the push for deregulation, much of which funded by “dark money” or politically untraceable spending.

MacLean argues that the combination of white supremacism and libertarian economics that was spawned by Buchanan’s school at the University of Viginia carries forward to this day; evidence for this collaboration comes from letters between Buchanan and the Kochs. The Kochs would lead and fund a battle of ideas on and off campuses via think tanks like the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, the State Policy Network, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Tax Foundation, the Reason Foundation, the Leadership Institute, and more (xxi).

The “stealth campaign” led by the Kochs and others has as its core goal the end to any semblance of democratic rule in favor of private property rights insulated from government authority. It trained and deployed a cadre of intellectuals who used as their base members of the conservative grassroots–including evangelicals, white supremacists (and their opposition to public schooling), once again (140). These forces have mounted a “hostile takeover” of politics, culture, and the economy in what MacLean describes as a return to oligarchy (although many of us may doubt that it ever left).

On their argument, “government” should protect private property over all other civil rights. And that goal continues to tie together white supremacy and neoliberal, libertarian politics and economics on both opportunistic and ideological ground. One core strategy of this alliance is the production of a conservative “counter-intelligentsia” to secure and occupy the curriculum and public spaces of American universities with intellectuals with capitalist entrepreneurial spirit and anti-Marxism (anti-Keynesianism) with a healthy dose of bigotry spewed as a critique of university “identity politics.”

Going after social security, welfare, and voting rights clearly aligned itself with racism and the vilification of the poor–along with the denial of global warming. MacLean claims that the Koch network’s funding explains why the public can doubt the evidence of science in this regard (217).

Today, academic programming tied to the Koch network is appearing at universities across the country, alongside a weakening of the ideals of tenure, academic freedom, and regulation on the raising and using of corporate funding for faculty research, which results in undue influence on research and teaching. The resource UnKoch My Campus is leading efforts to push back against this influence.

I believe that their mission should be closely tied to movements against the political incursions onto campus of the white-supremacist Right, because of the clear historical and ideological ties between the libertarian and fascist or proto-fascist movement and of their combined efforts to undermine the critical functioning of universities as one of the last bastions of society’s public sphere.

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