Issue 10.1-10.2 | Fall 2011/Spring 2012 / Guest edited by Joseph N. DeFilippis, Lisa Duggan, Kenyon Farrow, and Richard Kim

After Neoliberalism? From Crisis to Organizing for Queer Economic Justice

As the global economy of neoliberal capitalism has emerged, grown, and ricocheted from boom to crisis over the past four decades, its logics have acquired the status of mainstream common sense and inevitability, as asserted by the slogan, “there is no alternative.” But resistance has nonetheless flourished, from the rain forests and nations of South America to the anticorporate globalization movement to the uprisings of the Arab Spring. In the United States beginning in 2011, the Occupy movement has spread from Wall Street to cities in the United States and around the globe, drawing from and merging with existing global protests. All of this resistance has opened significant ground for questioning politics and economics as usual. For those of us on the broadly defined political left, this is our time, our chance. During the next decade or two, we may be able to end the brutal reign of neoliberalism, and expand alternative forms of social, cultural, political, and economic life.

As queer leftists look toward our participation in building possible new futures, we need to attend to the most important thing: our constituencies need to become fully literate in economic policy. During the past two decades, mainstream lesbian and gay organizations have increasingly supported rather than opposed neoliberal modes of governance. But how can we provide an effective critique when many of us, in the United States in particular, don’t understand what neoliberalism is? We need to understand what the Federal Reserve is doing, how Wall Street works, how interest rates affect employment rates, how different health care systems really work, and so much more. Economic policy and basic vocabulary have been mystified—we aren’t supposed to understand it. We’re supposed to think that economics is a highly complex problem of technical management. It isn’t. The economy as such does not even exist as a fully concrete and discrete object of analysis. It is a historical invention, falsely abstracted from the operations of culture and politics more broadly. Under neoliberal dominance, more and more of the functions of collective life have been assigned or transferred to private corporate control, removed from the democratic accountability of the public sphere of our common life. As public life in the United States has been increasingly, deliberately impoverished by the underfunding of government agencies, we’ve been encouraged to believe that the private economy is more efficient and reliable than public action. We have seen the result of those policies, from Katrina to the 2008 collapse of the minimally (and badly) regulated financial industry. In the global South, Western support for neoliberal dictators from Pinochet to Mubarak has worked to identify the state with the racial imperialism of the West. But this support has also generated significant and increasingly widespread resistance. The legacy of empire has generated highly class-stratified, gendered, and racialized societies. Neoliberalism has extended that legacy to leave us with minimal social service and high national security states in much of the world, combined with low-wage and low-benefit economies. These legacies are increasingly being exposed. It is time for regime changes and for major transformations of our networked communities.

So what might we on the queer left do to participate in, shape, and create the new worlds that appear increasingly possible? Here are some suggestions:

  • Work to organize LGBT constituencies, by creating networks to link the grassroots organizations that are already doing astonishingly creative and productive work. Existing queer-of-color organizations, and those involved with poverty issues, are models for expansion and networking. Groups in New York City, including Queers for Economic Justice, The Audre Lorde Project, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and FIERCE, are expanding their communications and connections. The more these connections expand nationally and transnationally, through newly established networks, and via the Occupy movement and the World or US Social Forum and other sites, the more effective queer progressive voices can be. We need sites to circulate new ideas and to plan actions.

  • Underwrite research into and analysis of the needs and dreams of the LGBT/queer population, not only within the United States but also across borders. LGBT movement leaders and organizations have too often collaborated in some of the mistakes of the nonprofit world in general—emphasizing the practical skills needed to forward an already set agenda, while deploying an anti-intellectual discourse, denigrating the analytic and imaginative labor required to create and transform one. Right now, we need all of our sharp minds in full gear analyzing abstract concepts and vocabularies as they come at us, as well as our practical strategic and tactical sense. We need as much knowledge as we can collect, and we need to understand everything that’s being said and done in our name. Some data on the LGB population of California, collected and analyzed by Gary J. Gates and Christopher Ramos of the Williams Institute at UCLA (2008), is highly instructive.[1] The researchers creatively combined results from the 2005/2006 American Community Survey compiled by the US Census Bureau with data from the 2003 and 2005 California Health Survey to create a very useful and illuminating picture of the LGB demographic in California (they had no existing data on the transgender or intersex population). Though the data is interpreted to support the campaign for marriage equality, the numbers actually show that the majority of LGB individuals in California are not coupled, and that white and highly educated gay men and lesbians are the most likely to be partnered. If we take their data at face value, and derive a set of truly democratic policy priorities from them, we would come up with a very different vision for LGB and transgender, intersex, and other queer action—child care, health care, progressive immigration reform, more egalitarian and democratic employment practices, affordable housing, and social support provisions, for instance, would come out ranked highly. Creating and proposing forms of relationship and household recognition designed for diverse living arrangements (including nonconjugal households) might replace “marriage only” as a policy priority. Thinking of alternatives to neoliberal capitalist economic organization might even come up quite clearly on our to-do list.

  • Continue to generate and press forward with a friendly critique of the agenda of the mainstream LGBT organizations. The emphasis on the 3M’s—inclusion in the major neoliberal institutions of marriage, the military, and the market—reflects the priorities of a neoliberal era. During the 1990s, this agenda developed in direct relation to the rhetorical requirements of recognition in an economically conservative era. After neoliberalism, we need to emphasize transforming these institutions in ways that meet the needs of more of us, rather than simply plead or settle for inclusion in the status quo.

Our time is now. Let’s not waste it.

  1. The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, Gary J. Gates and Christopher Ramos, Census Snapshots: California Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Population, October 2008 (PDF). Accessed November 13, 2011. [Return to text]