Of Thomas Jefferson and Neoliberalism

When Duke University removed a statue of Robert E. Lee outside of its chapel, they decided not to replace it. Reverend Luke Powery, dean of Duke Chapel, said it represented “a hole that is in the heart of the United States of America, and perhaps in our own human hearts — that hole that is from the sin of racism and hatred of any kind.”

Of any kind is interesting since next to Lee’s spot is Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, and Sidney Lanier, a Confederate veteran who was a poet and musician. Both men could easily come down as well, and likely will because of two forces constantly driving us towards divisiveness. One is neoliberalism, the basic economic system of the west and Anglosphere in particular since 1979. The other is the persistence of inequality and the progressive drive to flatten it while still working within a Neoliberal system.

Neoliberal economics is about unregulated markets, reduced worker’s rights, and a general adherence to cultural and social progress. Adherents are not total in their support; many on the right are opposed to social progress. However, it is telling that the elements of the Democratic and Republican Parties that most closely adhered to Neoliberalism had success. Democrats who wanted regulated banks failed just as the Republican moral majority was routed after the 1990s.

By not addressing economic inequality, social and cultural progress is undermined. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said in his last weeks “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” Neoliberalism has no answer for this.

As inequality becomes worse, a new answer must be found that does not question the economic power structure. One way is representation, such as if we have more black people in politics things will get better for black people. In New Orleans, most mayors since the late 1970s have been black. However, while crime is lower that the 1990s high and education has seen marginal improvements, the situation is dismal, particularly in terms of employment and neighborhood cohrence. Representation in politics is not the answer. So the next step is to change symbols of “oppression.” This view is epitomized in an essay by Kevin Levin, a historian who has made a career attacking the reunion narrative of the Civil War, casting the conflict in Manichean terms. When New Orleans moved to bring down its statues he had this to say:

“Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, in a city where fewer than half of the city’s working-age African American men are employed and over 50 percent of African Americans live in poverty, there is an opportunity for a new reconstruction. Perhaps the public spaces opened up can be used to connect its residents to a past that more accurately reflects the city’s shared values and points to a more promising future.”

To be blunt, for anyone who was born and raised in New Orleans, the above is would make Pollyanna look like George Carlin. Mitch Landrieu is a neoliberal to his core. Under him, rent skyrocketed while he made no effort to improve black employment, but instead cheered the gentrification, that is the whitening, of New Orleans. No politician in Louisiana, regardless of party, is ready to address economic inequality. The ongoing failure of New Orleans to “progress” can no longer be blamed on a statue of P.G.T. Beauregard, just as it can no longer be blamed on schools. They were renamed in mass in the 1990s, with men such as George Washington and Jefferson Davis being switched out for men such as Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall. The school name changes were cosmetic. The schools were still failing, and before Katrina, were scandalized by embezzlement. The removal of Confederate statues will not stop the evisceration of the neighborhoods that fostered Jazz. The Marigny is already a vast Airbnb. Freret is gone. In five years, Treme will succumb as well. Central City will hold out longer because it is still a very dangerous place, but the first signs are there as well. In twenty years, if the Gulf of Mexico is not on our shore, there won’t be many black people left in the city itself.

The misdirection towards symbols has the pernicious effect of embittering those for and against. It is one thing to remove a statue of Beauregard, but another to toss it in scrap yard and completely deny that there was ever a good reason to honor him. It is telling that many cannot ascribe any good motives to their opponents, and while I am generally opposed to statue removal, I can concede the other side has their points. The removal people, in my experience, cannot for they have subscribed to a Manchian interpretation of American history. The result is a constant cleave among those of the same economic class in a fashion that is actually conservative. The European right rallied the poor and middle class by defending religion and culture in the face of radicals. Republican strategists have long used culture to bring poor people to the right. Now both parties use the tactic to divide. The left advances, the right reacts, and the process continues. I do not see the left moving towards economics. Many among the left identitarians, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates see it as misdirection, and on the whole the animating and organizing energy on the left is in identity politics. Those with a strong economic message, as Thomas Frank and Chris Hedges, are pushed to the side while Coates is lavished with praise. The coalescing is so complete that getting a peer-reviewed paper squashed for suggesting possible uncomfortable truths about the sexes is itself equated with Confederate statues in Kentucky (For more read this: https://quillette.com/2018/09/07/academic-activists-send-a-published-paper-down-the-memory-hole/)

On a philosophical level, inequality can never be wholly erased. On that level, progressive values, if not checked by reality can run amuck. We have seen some of that today, where “oppression” is defined as “implicit racism” in a society where the explicit markers of racism have mostly evaporated. Yet, blacks in New Orleans and elsewhere have not progressed. They suffer still from poverty, poor education, higher crime rates, broken families, and a score of social ills. Pure equality is impossible, but it can be mitigated and the goal is itself worthy; societies prefaced on inequality as natural tend to be rather miserable. However, if you want true equality, then the enforcement of it will be violent and counterproductive. That is the legacy of communism that the left has yet to integrate, likely because it was never tried in a western European or Anglosphere nation. Voices from Russia and Cambodia are still part of the “other” and are ignored at our peril.

Social progress in Neoliberalism is always limited, and since a full throated and honest reappraisal of Neoliberalism has yet to materialize, the politics of frustrated dreams will continue to drive America. If you cannot have decent wages, you may at least feel good about removing symbols of “white supremacy.” Yet, the source of discontent remains and eats away at the soul, and can only be satiated with a new round of purges. For in the future, when progress is still-born, what will Coates and Levin call for? For economic solidarity, or for a new round of cleansing? Already battlefield monuments are defaced, cemeteries are vandalized, and people who do not adhere to the Just Cause orthodoxy of the Civil War are blasted as Neo-Confederate racists or at best enablers.

Jefferson and Lanier are on borrowed time.


Jefferson and Lanier in 2018





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