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Work, politics, nature, and health in the contemporary United States

Life in America has been transformed over the past thirty-five years. Using a historical materialist framework, the authors argue that what appear today as fragmented social, economic, environmental, and political problems are all manifestations of neoliberalism – a class-based political project to position capital more favourably in its struggle to preserve the conditions for accumulation. This project reaches deeply into the weave of biological, ecological, and social life. It involves both the increasing role of money and markets in the determination of life chances, and the systematic push of corporations into previously protected spheres of life.

Emphasizing Martha Nussbaum’s question “What does a life worthy of human dignity require?”, each chapter of this book (covering work, the environment, health, education, and politics) analyses a cornerstone of human development that had previously been, to varying degrees, protected from the logic of the capitalist market. This book examines how US business successfully increased control over, privatized, or commodified each of these areas, amounting to a neoliberal transformation of lived experience. Neoliberalism has far-reaching and troubling consequences for the potential of people in the US to live a full and flourishing life. The final chapter provides an evaluation of the claim that the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency represents a rupture in neoliberal politics.

Robert Chernomas, Ian Hudson, and Mark Hudson

This introduction proposes the argument that what appear today as fragmented social, economic, environmental, and political problems are actually manifestations of the structurally conditioned logic or “reason,” of capitalism. The argument builds on previous scholarship that understands neoliberalism not as a narrow economic triumph of “free markets,” nor as a meaningless “conceptual trash heap” in which anything might be thrown. Rather, it presents neoliberalism as a class-based political project undertaken in the context of downward pressures on the profit rate to position capital more favourably in its struggle to preserve the conditions for accumulation – a project that reaches deeply into the weave of biological, ecological, and social life. It involves both the increasing role of money and markets in the determination of life chances, and the systematic push of corporations – as bearers of neoliberal reason and as beneficiaries of neoliberal transformations – into previously protected spheres of life. The introduction elaborates on this argument, provides the theoretical framework for the book, and introduces the topics covered in the subsequent chapters.

in Neoliberal lives
Robert Chernomas, Ian Hudson, and Mark Hudson

In capitalism, the nature of waged work largely determines quality of life. Workers in the US have stagnant wages, the longest workweek in the industrialized world and unprecedented household debt. This chapter explores the mechanisms responsible for this, as well as its results both for workers and for the US economy. The chapter argues that the labour market in the US has turned against workers because many of the social protections that US workers won in the postwar period have been clawed back as a result of business dominance in the policy arena during the neoliberal era. Taken in combination, these changes represent a transformation in the labour market from an institutional regime that removed some elements of provisioning from the realm of the market and included structures that increased workers’ bargaining power, to one in which labour market institutions and policy are increasingly designed to remove the protection for workers in an overall context of increasing competition between workers nationally and globally.

in Neoliberal lives
Neoliberalism’s “nature”
Robert Chernomas, Ian Hudson, and Mark Hudson

This chapter examines how neoliberal capitalism is reshaping relations between humans and nature – a second sphere crucial to the prospects for human development. In the neoliberal era, “nature” is no longer understood as encompassing limits to the never-ending accumulation of capital, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Rather, nature has been recast as capital itself, or as a set of new frontiers of profitability. This chapter will address the means through which, rather than adapting our economic priorities and relations to the socio-natural limits of the planet, neoliberal capitalism is attempting to transcend those limits by re-conceptualizing and reorganizing life, landscapes, and ecosystems in its own image. As all of nature is targeted for privatization, commodification, and reconfiguration as an assemblage of value-creating “ecosystem services,” new regimes of property, and new relations between people and their environments are emerging with considerable effects on the distribution of assets and life chances, as well as on the way we conceive of nature and our place within it.

in Neoliberal lives
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US exceptionalism
Robert Chernomas, Ian Hudson, and Mark Hudson

This chapter examines the impacts of neoliberalism on our third foundation for human development: health. It explains why Americans pay so much more for health care and do so poorly on measures of health outcomes, compared not only to rich countries but often to countries with a fraction of US per capita GDP. In contrast to explanations focusing on germs, genes, and lifestyle choices, this chapter argues that poor health today has increased as an outcome of neoliberal policy. While previous generations had successfully removed some elements of health care from the private, for-profit realm, the US still relies more on for-profit private health care delivery than any other country in the industrialized world, creating a Medical-Industrial-Complex that has successfully resisted the passage of legislation that would remove or constrain the role of profits in health care. Indeed, the role of the for-profit sector in the delivery of health care has expanded during the neoliberal period as health care delivery has increasingly been transferred to business. The chapter argues that health and illness – even intergenerationally – are distributed largely according to the profit imperative.

in Neoliberal lives
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Public good or finishing school?
Robert Chernomas, Ian Hudson, and Mark Hudson

This chapter looks at how education – once understood as a “great leveller,” a pillar of broad democratic participation, and a means of self-development - has been transformed under neoliberalism into a means for maintaining and sharpening existing distributions wealth and power. Beginning with a brief history of education as a key plank of liberal democratic reform, the chapter moves first to examine the radically eroded potential of K-12 education as a means for improving “equality of opportunity.” It then proceeds to describe and evaluate the means and the effects of the neoliberalisation of universities. For both K-12 and universities, the chapter looks at trends in the scale and source of funding, in the privatization of education, and in the influence of neoliberal doctrines of competition and individual choice as guides for education policy and practice.

in Neoliberal lives
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A threadbare democracy
Robert Chernomas, Ian Hudson, and Mark Hudson

Politics – the collective struggles in which we engage to define, shape, challenge, and reproduce our social reality – is an essential aspect of living a full, flourishing life. This chapter chronicles the ways in which the political life of people living under neoliberalism has been diminished, arguing that the US political system has increasingly incorporated a threadbare neoliberal understanding of democracy at the expense of the democratic equality of citizens. The chapter first looks at the many and various ways in which the business class have worked to firewall politics off from the electoral process. The vote, the chapter argues, has become ever more distant from democratic power, weakened through financing, the power of lobbies, the privatization and fragmentation of media, disenfranchisement, and the redefinition of political subjectivity and the legitimate functions of the state. However, the chapter also moves on to explain the implications of neoliberalism for working-class politics, advancing an account of why neoliberal policies, which seem to harm the working class, resonate strongly with some workers.

in Neoliberal lives
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The end of neoliberalism?
Robert Chernomas, Ian Hudson, and Mark Hudson

The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency was heralded in some circles as a working-class rejection of neoliberalism, in favour of a more authoritarian populism. This chapter evaluates the Trump presidency in the comparative light of what came before him, looking at the extent to which it continues, accentuates, or challenges neoliberal orthodoxy and the political-economic power of the business class. The chapter looks at President Trump’s cabinet appointments, to evaluate the extent to which his Executive branch represents a new political bloc, and at the effects of the administration’s tax, trade, environmental, natural resource, health, education, and electoral policies. The chapter argues that, with the exception of trade policy, Trump, whatever his motivations and despite elites’ condemnation of his vulgarity, is a product and continuation of the politics that precede him.

in Neoliberal lives
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Robert Chernomas, Ian Hudson, and Mark Hudson
in Neoliberal lives