State of unrest Nikhil Pal Singh deconstructs America
the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, Nikhil Pal Singh wrote an essay about what the United States’ embrace of torture during the Iraq War meant for the country. It became the third chapter — “The Afterlife of Capitalism” — in
which Singh wrote over a 10-year period; the book was published in 2017 by University of California Press. It is a densely academic book, containing a wealth of ideas that are vitally important to understanding the current sociopolitical moment.
“Are we a country that has gotten beyond the worst aspects of our past, our histories of racial violence and state racism? Some people likened those torture photographs taken at Abu Ghraib to lynching photographs. They talked about the ways in which the United States has historically used state violence against people who have been marked-out as Others,” Singh said. “There are examples of that going back to the history of slavery and frontier settlement, and carrying forward through time.”
Singh, an associate professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University, and a founding faculty member of the NYU Prison Education Program, appears with journalist and author Jeremy Scahill as part of the Lannan Foundation Readings & Conversations series on Wednesday, Sept. 26, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. Scahill is a founding editor of and producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary I Dirty Wars, based on his bestselling 2013 book, Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.
Singh recently engaged in a broad dialogue that included talk of Marxism, Trumpism, and why the term “neoliberal” has become an insult. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Pasatiempo: There is so much political discussion these days. It seems as though people — especially on social media — might be using terminology that they don’t thoroughly understand. Can you provide some accurate working definitions? For starters, what is the difference between liberalism and neoliberalism?
Nikhil Pal Singh: Basically, the United States has been defined by a commitment to ‘large-L liberalism’ as the ideology that’s tied to the development of capitalism — preservation of private property rights; limitations on government in relation to defense of private property rights; primacy of individual freedom and the notion of the individual. In the United States, we now tie ‘liberal’ to an emphasis on producing more social equality, and ‘conservative’ to property rights and hierarchies that defend them. In some ways, in the United States, both liberals and conservatives are all ‘large-L liberals.’
It would take a long time to discuss what neoliberalism is, but neoliberal isn’t a position; it’s a description of a set of social and political transformations to liberalism during the last 30 or 40 years. It has become an epithet, though I don’t think I use it that way in my book. Under Bill Clinton, the Democratic party embraced a rightward turn on questions of distribution and equality — Clinton’s signature thing was ending welfare as we know it — and that ties him to a much more conservative agenda. But Clinton tied that rightward fiscal agenda to a nominally more socially progressive approach to talking about inclusion and what kind of country we are.
Neoliberalism is progressive in certain symbolic ways, but when the rubber meets the road, its policies are pretty antithetical to the effort to produce a more equal and fair society. I think that’s where people get really mad and say you are a neoliberal — i.e., you’re a hypocrite. But nobody runs around calling themselves neoliberals.