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Book: New Landscapes of Inequality

Academics from across the country have collaborated on a new book that disputes neoliberalism's promise that "a rising tide will lift all boats."

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November 18, 2008 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Americans are left dumbfounded as the stock market continues to get hammered during its unprecedented roller coaster ride in the last few months. It's not clear whether another long-standing financial institution will crumble next, and foreclosures continue to threaten homeowners across the country.

What is clear, according to a book titled "New Landscapes of Inequality: Neoliberalism and the Erosion of Democracy in America" (SAR Press, April 2008), is deregulation and privatization have not worked as Reagan-era advocates predicted.

Academics from across the country, including three Northwestern University professors, collaborated on the book with critiques that dispute neoliberalism's promise that "a rising tide will lift all boats." The book is geared toward the general reader, with perspectives that explain how neoliberalism and its trickle-down promises were supposed to work and how they've failed.

Neoliberalism is the idea that market deregulation, or "liberalization," will lead to growth and prosperity that will affect all of society. Neoliberal policies have fundamentally transformed American society since the Reagan era. Neoliberal reformers asserted that the new economic regime would get government off our backs, liberate creativity, stimulate innovation and foster economic growth.

"Instead of the age of Aquarius, history delivered a New Gilded Age," the book's preface asserts. Wages have declined relative to profits, and economic inequalities have progressively widened.

Even in countries in which neoliberal policies stimulate economic growth, they always do so at the cost of increasing inequality and poverty, said Micaela di Leonardo, professor of anthropology at Northwestern and one of the book's editors, in the book's introduction, "New Global and American Landscapes of Inequality."

"Contributors to this book may have been surprised at the depth and details of the financial crisis," said di Leonardo. "But we did see this coming and are saying 'I told you so.' The unregulated excesses of Wall Street that led to the bailout and caused the devastating effects on Main Street offer dramatic proof that neoliberal theory is inaccurate."

The book's contributors examine neoliberalism with a focus on race and gender.

"Through each case study, we show what this political theory looks like on the ground. From poor single mothers forced into dangerous and degrading jobs to citizens crippled by debt from predatory lending institutions, race and gender are innately part of neoliberal processes," said di Leonardo.

Di Leonardo, a cultural anthropologist with broad interests in social and economic inequality across race, class and gender in the United States, is the author of the book's dual case study chapter, "The Neoliberalization of Minds, Space and Bodies." In the piece, she makes use of material from her two ongoing projects, on political economy and public culture in New Haven, Conn., and on black American media. She focuses on the changing lives of residents of New Haven over the last two decades of economic bust and boom to understand how perceptions of urban space and urban selves have altered with neoliberal shifts. To demonstrate how political dissent can be "hidden in plain sight," she also examines the popular black radio program The Tom Joyner Morning Show. She looks at the show's national commercial success, its critical progressive politics and its virtual invisibility in the larger American sphere.

Nancy MacLean, professor of history at Northwestern, is author of the chapter "Southern Dominance in Borrowed Language: The Regional Origins of American Neoliberalism. MacLean said that she argues in the chapter that "neoliberalism was advanced most aggressively by Southern conservatives, whose regional traditions had long combined reverence for untrammeled property rights with repressive governance." She outlines how "the national conservative movement built in the mid-1950s embraced Southern free-market segregationists as leaders and held up the Jim Crow South as a model of the good society and traditional values." MacLean's most recent book, "Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace," won multiple awards including best book in labor history, legal history, labor economics, and southern studies.

Dorothy Roberts, Kirkland and Ellis Professor, Northwestern University School of Law and faculty fellow, Institute for Policy Research, wrote a chapter of the book titled "The Racial Geography of State Child Protection." She said the chapter focuses on concentrated child welfare agency involvement in black neighborhoods "to illustrate the role institutional racism plays in neoliberal governance." She examines poor black women's efforts to use Department of Children and Family Services to help their families in relation to the demise of Aid to Families with Dependent Children and other government programs. She questions "the child welfare system's preference for paying foster parents to care for poor children rather than providing adequate support directly to poor mothers." The chapter is an extension of Roberts' book "Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare," which addresses the detrimental effects of the child welfare system on black families.

"New Landscapes of Inequality" examines three broad social trends and the connections among them: the "real workings" of neoliberal economics; "punitive governance" in a "culture of fear"; and the transformation of ideas about citizenship with policies that erode workers' rights, civil rights, environmental protections, etc.

Successive revisions of the criminal code have mandated longer periods of incarceration for ever lesser offenses, and the United States now ranks first in the world both in the rate of imprisonment and in the absolute number of people imprisoned, according to the book. A majority of the internees are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

"Today little remains of progressive legacies of the 1960s and 1970s," di Leonardo said.

The gap between rich and poor had progressively narrowed over the mid-20th century, and by the 1960s the legitimacy of democratic governments everywhere depended on their ability to foster social equality, the book argues.

"But from the early 1980s, neoliberal and neoconservative policies increasingly have left us with a pessimistic vision of government's ability to lessen human suffering and foster prosperity and justice," said di Leonardo.

To see a change on Main Street and streets that are much worse off, President-elect Barack Obama must take on the formidable task of challenging neoliberal policies that have become so widely accepted today, according to di Leonardo.

"This book clearly describes how neoliberalism has contributed to this crippling financial crisis and such glaring inequality," she said. Moving away from neoliberal governance is not only possible but necessary to once again move closer to the true realization of the American dream."

(Andrea Albers, newsroom assistant, media relations, contributed to this article.)