Student perspective: Neo-liberalism — how one wonky economic term just won’t leave me alone
on March 3, 2010
Down, down WTO! cry some 3,000 protesters, most of them Asian, as middle-aged farmers dance wildly, trampling an American flag with skulls instead of stars on it, while Korean drums thunder down the massive, empty streets beyond the barricades. A few hundred yards away, riot police watch us with expressions both aggressive and nervous, cracking their nightsticks threateningly against the metal gates. Above us looms an overhead walkway where the press snaps photos and curious Hong Kong residents gawk. Later, I would learn that they stood blocks away from where the World Trade Organization held their final night of negotiations during the 2005 summit. Upon hearing that the protesters were so near, security guards locked the entrances, and a few delegates, panicked, fled by boat.
Some of the farmers from Korea told an observer that they had mortgaged their land in order to buy their plane tickets in order to stand outside the summit, trying to make their case to the public that the WTO talks should be derailed and the current global financial system dismantled. “Either we go to Hong Kong and stop neo-liberalism, or we will lose our livelihoods and homes anyway,” a 55-year-old rice farmer told a friend of mine.
I am not, nor have I ever been, a farmer, and none of the fine print in the World Trade Organization’s agreements has ever seemed to directly threaten my livelihood. At the time of the Hong Kong protests I was 25 years old, and I held a US passport. I was an aspiring journalist who wanted to tell this story that was so familiar to others I’ve heard from protesters in my travels to places as distant from each other as the Pacific Northwest US, Southeastern Mexico, and China.
There were stark differences in the details, of course, but there was an astonishing sense of common loss: All of these groups complained of having their livelihoods, cultures and even governments threatened by US corporate expansion and trade liberalization. These disparate groups of people used one word to explain that what was happening to them was no accident. It was a wonky word with an unattractive “ism” at the end, and it showed up in muffled bullhorn speeches and on cardboard posters signs – unexpected English letters jumping out from hand-painted text like invading bold font.
So, what is neo-liberalism? It’s not liberal in the way people talk about “liberal” in US politics. The term comes from the British use of “liberal” to indicate free market economics, low taxes and “small government.” In the so-called First World, “neo-liberalism” is often used to describe privatization – which, simply put, is what happens when a government which takes money from a given resident population abandons and sells off programs and services that have historically been understood to be public goods in many countries: education, water, roads, broadcast airwaves and social welfare programs. Those programs and services are sold to private investors or corporations and run as for-profit businesses. Whatever does not make a profit gets slashed.
Neo-liberalism isn’t a word that people use much in the US, but as I hear people talking about the privatization of the UC system, where I go to school, it has been coming to mind lately, a lot. Here at UC, so far, “privatization” doesn’t mean outright selling of parts of the school to corporations, so far. It looks more like shifting the burden of paying for of the costs of education from the state, to the students themselves. In the halls of Sacramento, legislators now routinely talk of higher ed as a product, as something that should be sold, not given back to the public with their tax dollars. It sounds familiar, and I wondered: Does the concept of “neo-liberalism” help to connect seemingly different struggles fought around the world against a common economic system that slashes taxes for the rich while de-funding public services that poor and middle-class people depend on?
I first encountered the term in pamphlets and zines passed out during a different World Trade Organization protest in Seattle in 1999. I saw fifty-year-old steelworkers weeping and shouting in the streets, mourning the loss not of mere jobs but of a way of life. The entire rural Pacific Northwest was losing its longtime base of industries that had defined the very towns that sprung up around them. I learned that neo-liberalism meant that the economy was not something that ordinary people got to decide – but they have much to suffer by how it changes.
In Hong Kong, the farmers and fisherpeople I met told me of a slightly different version of “neo-liberalism.” In their countries, they said, neo-liberalism often meant market deregulation – what happens when a country’s borders are forced open to let in US corporations and products, and a sovereign government is no longer able to defend the social welfare of its populace against the rights of foreign corporations.
“With the coming of the imported goods, small farmers collapse. We cannot compete. We demand subsidies from the government, protection of the agricultural sector,” a chain-smoking Indonesian farmer had told me at that blaring rally in Hong Kong.
What do US foreign policies, tariffs, trade barriers and price controls have to do with my own small life? I’ve puzzled over the question during the last decade, on my unlikely, bumbling path – a working-class Chinese-American New Yorker zigzagging haphazardly around the world, chasing big ideas and fierce dreamers from the rural US to Latin America and East Asia. I was looking for big-picture answers to how so many people in the world, separated by oceans and continents, can be so connected yet so unequal in the global economy. I was looking for what makes us similar as people, and what makes our lives so different. I knew the answer was crucial and complicated, and that “neo-liberalism”— which I was still trying to understand — had a big part in it.
Last November, four years after the Hong Kong WTO and ten years after the Battle of Seattle, to my surprise, I found myself remembering the farmers in Hong Kong, the steel workers in Seattle, and the word “neo-liberalism.” I was behind barricades again, that word ringing in the air – this time at the University of California in Berkeley.
Whose university? OUR university! echoed across the campus as students fought university police who kept mobs from flooding the Chancellor’s office. Students, with some faulty and union support, occupied buildings to shut down campus and demand an end to lay-offs, fee hikes, and mandatory furloughs. “No to privatization” signs draped windows across campus.
I came to Berkeley as a journalism grad student. During my first semester, labor unions and students organized two huge strikes to protest state budget cuts to education as well as the UC Board of Regents’ approval to raise student fees (the equivalent of tuition) by 32 percent.
The question hangs over the university like a guillotine blade: Will the UC system be privatized? But we may be asking the question rather late in the game; already it seems to have started. The cost of education has been incrementally shifting from the state to the students for the past 19 years, and it has tripled since then, according to the 2010-2011 budget report presented to the UC Board of Regents. “Fees paid by students have risen as funding from the State has declined,” the report states.
Many opposed to privatization blame Proposition 13, an infamous law passed in 1978 that opponents say led to nearly irreversible tax breaks granted to homeowners and corporations passed by politicians. That year, economist Jean Ross from California Budget Watch said you could hear a “big sucking sound” in the state budget.
Others say that corporations have been untaxed for too long. A red-and-black stenciled banner held by demonstrators outside Sproul Hall last September read, “Tax oil, not students” – a reference to Assembly Bill 656, which would tax oil companies 9.9 percent to provide funding for higher education. The bill has now passed the State Assembly – but it has been modified so that oil companies only have to report what they would have paid in taxes if the 9.9 percent severance tax had been applied. They would not have to pay a dime. California is the only state that does not tax oil.
As the next strike on March 4th approaches and students and union members prepare to storm the capitol as well as shut down the schools, I imagine what the Korean farmers I met in Hong Kong would do. They were clear that the problem they faced wasn’t just that for the first time in centuries, suddenly tens of thousands of people couldn’t make a living being rice farmers anymore. They didn’t accept the idea that it was time for a mass career change. They knew that what they were doing had inherent value – both culturally and materially. They saw the real problem as being neo-liberalism – a system that took away from them a way of life, land and values that is rightfully theirs, and that they intend to keep. Here at Berkeley and throughout the state, UC students say they intend to keep the state from ending a half a century of subsidizing affordable higher education.
Neo-liberalism has found me again – and this time, not as an outside observer, reporting on its effects, or an activist acting in solidarity with others. This time, neo-liberalism holds my future at ransom.
Puck Lo took part in a student occupation of a UC Berkeley building last November while on strike from school and her duties as a reporter for the journalism school’s site, Oakland North. On March 4, she will be on strike once again.
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