Issue 11.1-11.2 | Fall 2012/Spring 2013 / Guest edited by Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet R. Jakobsen

Pulled Apart, Pushed Together: Notes on Neoliberalism, Transnationalism, and Justice

On January 1, 1994, the EZLN came out of the mountains above Chiapas, in Southern Mexico, in protest of the official start of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the historical violence, theft, and impoverishment that preceded it. Though ultimately defeated in their armed insurrection against the Mexican state, the Zapatistas inspired a generation of anticapitalist and anti-imperialist activists across the globe. Fighting in the name of autonomy and plurality, local specificity, and global connectedness, the EZLN raised the prospect of a revolutionary project that neither presumed a universal idea of what free people looked like and how they behaved, nor promoted such an idea as its goal. In becoming the first globally celebrated social movement to challenge the multifaceted power of neoliberal “reform,” the Zapatistas contributed to a post-Cold-War shift among radical activists the world over that sought to transcend “statist” models of transformation and narrow conceptions of leadership. Their ideas—which borrowed from feminist, ecological, and indigenous scholars and activists—tried to take seriously the nation-state, even at a moment when the ideological apparatus of neoliberalism was suggesting that the nation-state’s day was done. Simultaneously, in pushing for a politics of autonomy, the Zapatistas argued that the nation-state must not be the container of or the limiting scale for struggles for justice.

Of course, the EZLN were not the first activists to identify neoliberalism as an expanding political-economic form of organization and rule, or the first to challenge its manifestations. In 1992, radical activists across Europe fought the adoption of the Maastricht Agreement, which created the euro and the European Union. That same year, in protest of official celebrations of Columbus’ discovery of the New World, activists across the Americas organized into the “500 Years is Enough” campaign, linking contemporary aspects of neoliberal restructuring to centuries of colonialism and genocide. Drawing on widely differing local circumstances and building from the grassroots, this campaign united behind the crucial demand of eliminating the debt. The “500 Years is Enough” campaign neither reflected the start of neoliberal policies, which have been shaping lives and possibilities across the postcolonial world for decades, nor the struggles against such policies.

Yet I want to suggest that the past 20 years of global struggle and politics reflect important changes in the context in which radical transformation is pursued. Large-scale changes (such as the end of the Cold War system, the “end” of the nuclear family, the crisis of profitability, the massive contradictions and possibilities that global migration represents—to name a few) have shaped this. Within that time frame, the past decade of global antiterrorism certainly complicates and undermines certain celebratory neoliberal claims to be the owners and purveyors of global cosmopolitanism.

Within this set of top-down structures, neoliberalism, as a word in our vocabulary and a concept in our arsenal, has been vital to the articulation and recognition of “new” forms of resistance. Even when asked to explain and account for too much, neoliberalism as a term is irreplaceable (at the moment) for its ability to enable communication across vastly different social and national spaces about the current “norms” of world-capitalist, imperialist, and (post)colonial practices. The very word suggests both the newness and flexibility (neo) and the continuity (liberalism), which have been the ideological and political frameworks in which the crimes of modern empires have been described as development.

It is no surprise that scholarship on transnationalism has emerged as an intellectual current across many disciplines alongside the emergence of both narratives and counter narratives of neoliberal possibility. Just as neoliberal political arguments have their adherents among those who claim to be on the side of progress and justice, so, too, can transnationalism as an idealized concept work to reinforce hierarchies in which power relations remain intact, even if their circumstances are organized by different rules. (Here we can think of everything from the team concept in the workplace to “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in the US military to official calls for “post-race” social policies.)

In a short but provocative American Quarterly article, Laura Briggs, Gladys McCormick, and J.T. Way argue that historians wishing to work with the framework of transnationalism should use it in the same way that Joan Scott suggested, more than twenty years ago, that scholars should use gender: as a useful category of historical analysis. These authors argue “first for a genealogy that centers some meanings of transnational and displaces others,” and, secondly, for a way of conceptualizing the “transnational leaning on an analogy with the intellectual work of feminists in thinking gender.” They “want to suggest that transnationalism can do to the nation what gender did to sexed bodies: provide the conceptual acid that denaturalizes all their deployments, compelling us to acknowledge that the nation, like sex, is a thing contested, interrupted and always shot through with contradictions.”[1]

In arguing that the notion of the transnational enables us to center certain kinds of historical events as “emphatically non-national but indisputably important,” the authors highlight frequently site-specific, yet also dynamic and border-crossing forms of organizing power, labor, reproduction, and economy. While I am in solidarity with their approach, one question that such a deployment of the transnational raises is the degree to which those histories and actors who we name as such tend also to be subnational—groups of socially categorized people or interests, whose actions are propelled in quite direct ways by the imperatives of the national lived as the local or regional. In this sense, the call not to merely decenter the nation-state, but to deconstruct it finds common cause in the scholarly or discursive project named by Briggs et al., and put into practice by the Zapatistas and others.

How might we consider the problems and possibilities of asking of the transnational what feminists and queer scholars have asked of gender and sexuality? Or, paradigmatically, can we even imagine such a possibility? That is—for those struggling for recognition, safety, security, and/or sovereignty, in the realms of law, social existence, and economics—is the socially constructed reality of nation-states as evidently, visibly problematic as naturalized references to sex and gender have come to be? I don’t mean to suggest that there is generalized acceptance or agreement among social justice activists about the significance of sex and gender normativity—but I do think that our work is far more advanced in these realms than it is in any realm having to do with actually denaturalizing deployments of the national.

In my work I try to get at this problem by considering how hierarchies of race in different social contexts in the world—the United States, Brazil, South Africa, and Israel/Palestine—are used to narrate both so-called development and its horrors. The work of activists and scholars in thinking critically about the promise and peril of the many kinds of border transgressions that globalization makes possible has shaped my thinking about an earlier moment of economic globalization and restructuring, after World War I, when the Ford Motor Company became a global economic and cultural force.

In the United States, Ford had helped turn the idea of mass consumption into a right, as opposed to a privilege, that attended to and ameliorated alienating, industrial work. By making it possible for some workers to buy the cars they built, Ford expanded the terrain of what an American citizen could expect to be able to do. Simultaneously, however, the company participated in limiting access to that right in racially and nationally exclusive terms. In order to fully understand the impact of Ford and what we call Fordism, we must treat both of those aspects as equally meaningful. Henry Ford wanted to create a completely interchangeable, rationalized, global workforce, even as he believed that some people were more ready for participation in that world than others.

Popular understandings of the Ford Motor Company celebrate the advent of the auto assembly line, the five-dollar-a-day wage, and the mass consumption that this wage is said to have enabled. The implementation of Ford’s wage scale is treated as the great equalizer—allowing masses of workers to buy what they built for the first time in history. Neglected in the story of freedom through consumption is attention to the always exhausting and often brutal or deadly working conditions that have characterized auto work for people all over the world, many of whom were paid far less than five dollars a day years after that wage was introduced in the United States. Indeed, even in the United States, most Ford workers earned only five dollars day through the 1920s, well over a decade after it was initiated.[2] More importantly still is the overlooked reality that Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company promoted viciously divisive ideas about race, gender, and national and cultural difference, which taught people in the United States to view some people as deserving industrial jobs, access to consumer goods, and the “civilization” those goods represented, and others as being not ready, temporarily or permanently, for such things. Racial hierarchies naturalize and are naturalized by a temporal sensibility.

To borrow another example from the early 1990s, I have been thinking about the 1991 film produced by anti-NAFTA activists, $4 a Day? No Way! Joining Hands Across the Border.[3] In the film, which seeks to draw attention to the horrific living and working conditions on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border, which are intentionally structured by NAFTA’s imperatives, the narrators begin by saying: “For US corporations, crossing the border into Mexico is like going back in time.” This interesting description of relative “development” is strikingly common: the idea that progress is measured in terms of temporality; that some people are living in what might one day become another people’s future, or that places like Mexico represent the past of the United States. For the Ford Motor Company, which started making cars in Mexico in 1925, it is particularly noteworthy, as Ford had been promising to bring civilization and progress to Mexico for nearly eight decades by this time. The filmmakers point to the four-dollar-a-day wages that were paid by transnational companies in 1994 to their workers in Mexico. In a context considering neoliberal political economy and its precursors, it is indeed striking to point out that it was “Fordism” in the United States that, in 1914, brought about the five-dollar-a-day wage.

Looking back on past narratives about development and contemporary struggles for the right to narrate our own histories helps us to better explain this 80-year and dollar-a-day difference. Crossing the national border between the United States and Mexico—today more fortified and violent than ever—underlines the necessity, in the context of such powerfully unequal access to national self-determinations, that we use “trans” in all its forms as our “conceptual acid.”

  1. Briggs, Laura, Gladys McCormick, and J. T. Way, “Transnationalism: A Category of Analysis,” American Quarterly 60.3 (2008): 628. [Return to text]
  2. Stephen Meyer, The Five Dollar Day: Labor, Management and Social Control in the Ford Motor Company, 1914-1921 (Albany: State U of New York P, 1981) and Allan Nevins, Ford: Expansion and Challenge, 1915-1933 (New York: Scribner, 1957). [Return to text]
  3. $4 a Day? No Way! Joining Hands Across the Border, Washington, DC: American Labor Education Center, 1991, 19 min. [Return to text]