A few years ago a colleague of mine was flummoxed by a situation he didn’t understand. He wondered why some of this colleagues, who had declared they were committed to a new approach in the field, were implementing it in a way that seemed awfully familiar to the established way.
Could this be an example of what Thomas Kuhn wrote about decades ago in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”? Paradigms don’t transition or die easily, Kuhn wrote.
Yes, I told my colleague. Another colleague and I decided to give it a name, paradigmatic straddle. Straddle is to be expected, we wrote, especially during times of paradigmatic transition. People are likely to plant one foot here, another foot there. It often takes time for some folks to let go of older ideas and practices, to feel comfortable and confident enough to plant both feet in the new paradigm.
But paradigmatic straddle has a shadow side, too. It’s pernicious in nature when ideas are drawn from one perspective for the explicit purpose of making another perspective appear more attractive, more relevant, more (you-fill-in-the-blank)—even when it’s not.
That form of straddle is a ruse, a rip-off. Enter Progressive Neoliberalism.
Progressive Neoliberalism blends two seemingly incompatible perspectives, Progressive and Neoliberal. It does so by fusing “the spirit and assumptions of the progressive and social justice tradition, write Randall Lahann and Emilie Mitescu Reagan, “with business-infused managerial strategies.”
While that linkage may seem harmless, perhaps even constructive, it’s not. Nancy Fraser offers a reason: ”The former (Progressive) lends charisma to the latter (Neoliberal).” That means “ideals like diversity and empowerment, which could in principle serve different ends, now gloss policies that have devastated…lives.”
In Progressive Neoliberalism the modifier, Progressive, has utilitarian value—to refresh Neoliberalism, thereby elongating and deepening its existence.
The fundamental problem is that Progressive ideas ARE NOT embraced whole cloth. Instead they are borrowed selectively and then inserted strategically in Neoliberal platforms, often by Neoliberal regimes. That happens, for instance, when executives adopt corporate sustainability exclusively because “it’s good for business.” Sustainability then transitions from an ecologically-grounded world view with associated practices (what Charlies Eisenstein calls “real sustainability”) to an instrument for achieving Neoliberal ends.
It’s co-optation at best, a rip-off at worst, and a big problem for Progressives. That’s because Neoliberalism is seen by many Progressives as a root cause of social and economic injustice.
How so? Neoliberalism is “an economic doctrine that sanctifies money and the market system,” writes Wendy Brown in Undoing the Demos. “Human beings become market actors and nothing but,” she adds. Social life—for individuals and institutions—becomes primarily dedicated to making money and achieving market success. It’s all about “getting ahead.”
I’ve seen this happen over and over again, increasingly so in the public and non-profit sectors. I attribute the practice to the infiltration of Neoliberal types in those sectors—as elected officials, executives, board (governance) members, and donors. They bring a Neoliberal mind-set with corresponding preferences and expectations. Many of these Neoliberals have no prior experience in either sector, but have strong beliefs and preferences about how those sectors should be led and managed. They often use position and/or wealth to entice or compel compliance, that is, to get their way.
When that happens “higher order values of democracy and the public good are pushed out,” writes Ruben Martinez, “replaced by a system…that promotes private interests, consumerism, and compliance with the exigencies of a capitalist economy.” In turn, Brown believes ”market actors—from individuals to firms, universities to states, restaurants to magazines—are concerned with their speculatively determined value.”
Neoliberalism is bad enough, but Progressive Neoliberalism can be worse. Consider the case of VW and “Green Diesel.”
VW promoted its diesel engine as the engine of choice for car buyers who sought to blend environmental conscientious (lower emissions) with higher fuel mileage. But VW execs knew it was a charade. For sure, the company did re-engineer its diesel engine—to fool government inspectors during lab-based tests. Road performance was an entirely different story. Over a 6-year period about 500,000 unwitting VW owners nationwide—many of whom bought VWs because of the company’s “Green Diesel” claim—produced an estimated 14-60 million tons of nitrogen oxide over the legal limit. “Green” suddenly became brown.
Progressive Neoliberalism is an incursion on Progressive philosophy and practice. But confronting it is no easy matter. I offer three responses drawn from personal experience.
Many organizations/initiatives that appear to be Progressive either aren’t or (at best) are “Progressive light.” Worse yet, some organizations and initiatives that had been Progressive have transitioned to Progressive Neoliberalism. While disaffiliating is the option of choice, taking that action is often more easily said than done because of personal relationships and long-term affiliations. But staying carries a steep price—paradigmatic straddle.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. uttered “…the pathetic words, “Too late,” in his famous speech, “Beyond Viet Nam,” at Riverside Church. But intervening earlier is more easily accomplished when the people and institutions you confront are distant from your identity. That’s just not the case when you confront those who are familiar, especially if it’s your employer. Progressives need to cross-boundaries and offer assistance to those who are at risk. Offer cover. Advise on strategy. Take the lead. Do those and other things to support culpable colleagues who work for the public good.
Combatting Progressive Neoliberalism is like playing Whack-A-Mole at Chuck E. Cheese. The target keeps popping up over and over again. Specializing in an area of concern makes more sense than trying to cover the waterfront. Because I’ve spent my career at what I call “Big U” (the large university sector) I know that sector well and have experienced its drift to Progressive Neoliberalism. I’ve structured my approach by speaking to the transition writ large and, then, by focusing on two areas of concern—deceptive uses of branding and the insidious nature of big-time, revenue-generating athletics.
The most important thing to remember about Progressive Neoliberalism was well expressed, I believe, by the Rev. William J. Barber II in a sermon he delivered last Sunday in New York City. Entitled “When Silence Is Not An Option” his sermon commemorated the speech Dr. King gave at Riverside Church 50 years ago this month. (View Barber’s sermon here.)