Sometimes, Duke feels like paradise.
We’re sheltered by our own private police force. We’re consistently offered to use a host of innovative gadgets courtesy of Duke’s favorite private companies. We’re flooded with so much technology, such elaborate new buildings, and so many private amenities that it almost feels like they’re hiding something.
If there’s so much luxury to choose from the “oasis” Duke built for us, why question it?
For those who traditionally bear the fruits of privatization, the age of neoliberalism might seem like some sort of utopia.
For those of us concerned with protecting the sanctity of fundamental human desires like love, connection to our natural environment, and freedom from becoming cannibalized by an endless profit motive—a religious infatuation with the market threatens what we care about most.
Despite Senior Annie Yang’s incisive portrayal of how neoliberalism manifests at Duke—by taking the money we don’t have to transform us into marketable objects for sale to the highest bidder—we’re left with responses claiming every social ill cannot be explained by a single concept. This confusion is to be expected as it is impossible to demonstrate every way the socio-political system dominating our world makes itself present.
What we can do is isolate aspects of the theory of neoliberalism and highlight the examples of their fruition.
The most pernicious feature of neoliberalism is its steadfast commitment to incorporating our most human capacities into the marketplace. David Harvey explains this underlying logic:
“It holds that the social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions, and it seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market.”
Luckily, we don’t need to imagine what a world, or a Duke, inundated by a dogma of marketization looks like. We’ve had one for 40+ years. We can easily draw connections between neoliberalism’s obsession with the expansion of market activity and the way Duke repackages and emblemates that mania, just on a smaller scale.
Take the environment as a case study. The neoliberal epoch led to trading off state control of natural resources for market oversight, leading to a type of “aggressive capitalism” that prioritized profits in every dimension. Expanding corporate power stifled regulation and burned enough fossil fuels to solicit climate disruption the Earth has never seen before. We live in a world with ever-increasing emissions, seven million premature deaths each year from pollution, and an ever-shrinking window of opportunity to protect our way of life.
Duke’s leadership follows suit. The prioritization of the market in the face of a humanist alternative has been thoroughly documented: it won’t divest from fossil fuels like UMass or Syracuse, it deals intimately with Duke Energy—the country’s second-heaviest polluter, and it defends these positions as good because they’re “profitable.”
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Energy companies have known for decades that their existence is wholly dependent on climate barbarism, Duke recognizes how “borderline uncomfortable” its fossil fuel returns are, but doing harm is good business. They were aware of and weighed the human costs and their checkbooks, and they decided the latter was more important. They have no room to plead ignorance.
Likewise, Duke’s relationship with Durham residents is a microcosm of the way neoliberalism’s market forces displace marginalized people only to subsume them into the money-making machine.
One of the first projects neoliberalism’s enforcers—the IMF, World Bank, and the U.S— took on in this new era was NAFTA: a trade agreement that granted multinational corporations the power to sue local governments over loss of profits, displaced five million Mexican farmers from their land, and kickstarted the influx of immigration that American companies could use for cheap labor.
It is eerily reminiscent of how, as the editorial board highlights, Duke amplified the process of Durham’s gentrification by using millions of feet of city land for private enterprise, spending millions of dollars on projects that indirectly force people from their homes, and capitalizing on that precarity by hiring many of those people for less than a living wage.
But what does NAFTA have to do with Duke and Durham? Let’s follow the patterns:
- Both are reliant upon private, non-elected actors using public land and shaping local policy to enrich themselves.
- Both have the effect of dislocating people from their homes, then hiring them to work for less than they deserve.
- Both defend their work behind the shield of the market, even when public opinion was against them.
The two sets of policies were enacted disparately, in different rooms at different times. Duke, The IMF, and the World Bank didn’t work together, but that’s the point. They didn’t need to coordinate. They were unified by an allegiance to the market’s power, intertwined by a “confluence of interests that create their own motor of self-justification.”
No matter how tight the invisible hand’s grip on our collective conscious may seem, we should never think it to be unbreakable. Instead, our response should be to deconstruct the myths responsible for trapping our relationship with the world inside the market’s bounds.
Even at the highest levels, shown by the 1999 Seattle WTO protests which set off a wave of action against the market’s doctrine, there are avenues to resist: More than 485,000 U.S. workers went on strike for better wages in 2019, the most since 1986. The Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion are rallying thousands in protest for unprecedented climate action. Protesters at the border are taking on powerful retaliation to stand in solidarity with those detained.
Organizing against neoliberalism is possible, and necessary, at Duke too. Duke’s unions recognize the need to tussle against market fanaticism. Student-led groups like the Duke Climate Coalition and research triangle’s Sunrise Movement hub are awakening the salience of our school’s complicity in the climate crisis and the need to do something about it right here on campus. Others are rejecting Duke’s relationship with Palantir, the company most proud of helping detain people at the border.
Just as neoliberalism’s pathologies reappear throughout the hierarchy of power, from the IMF and Mexico to Duke and Durham, its remedies follow. The only problem is that because of the market’s decades-long head start, we have a lot of catching up to do. Discrepancies in what is needed and what is being done should engender urgency, not fatalism. If you’re anxious about the state of the world that means you’re a person with a heart, and that you should find others like you to help fight the roots of that unease.
What a world beyond neoliberalism would look like is not yet clear. However, a known, necessary prerequisite for achieving that world is a broadened framework that includes organization outside of market transactions, between humans with common goals. Not between buyers and sellers, lenders and debtors, or investors and entrepreneurs.
We need to shift away from thinking of ourselves as individual economic actors towards understanding and mobilizing our power, as a collective, to demand that when the choice between people and profits presents itself: we choose people every time.
Christian Sheerer is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “Shadows of Tomorrow,” typically runs on alternate Thursdays.