State of un­rest Nikhil Pal Singh de­con­structs Amer­ica

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - Amer­ica’s Long War, The In­ter­cept Race and Dirty

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.

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