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How Neoliberalism is Normalising Hostility

From working conditions to welfare policies, from immigration to the internet – this zero-sum game of winners and losers benefits only the far right.

The hostile environment is not just about the Windrush generation in the UK, or the harassment of migrants at the Mexican border in the USA, or the unwelcoming treatment of refugees trying to reach Europe. It has become ubiquitous and widespread. We encounter it in many aspects of daily life. In worsening conditions at work such as zero-hour ‘contracts’. In obstacles to accessing social and health services due to cutbacks, making people’s lives more precarious. Online threats and trolling are other signs of this normalisation of hostility.

The normalisation of hostile environments signals a worrying and global shift in values of tolerance, empathy, compassion, hospitality and responsibility for the vulnerable. It’s a normalisation that was criticised recently in the UK by UN Poverty Rapporteur Philip Alston, who described how “punitive, mean-spirited, often callous” government welfare policies were contributing to an “increasingly hostile and unwelcoming society”.

There’s a pattern to hostile environments that harks back to the 1930s and 40s. As we know, at the time, those targeted were considered as the enemy within, to be subject to expulsion, exclusion and indeed, genocide, as happened to Jews and other so-called ‘inferior races’. In more recent time, the iterations of this discourse of the alien other who must be expelled or eliminated to save the ‘pure’ or ‘good race’ or ethnicity and reconstitute the broken community have found traction in Europe, the USA, Rwanda, India, parts of the Middle East. In its wake, refugees have become asylum seekers, migrants are labelled illegal or criminal, cultural differences become alien cultures, non-binary women and men are misgendered, and at the extreme, those targeted for violence become vermin. It marks a shift in political culture that inscribes elements of fascism.

Why has this atmosphere of hostility become the default position in politics? What have been the triggers and what are the stakes in this great moving rightwards shift? One may be tempted to identify the change in mood and attitudes with recent events like the election of Trump in the USA. But the far right has been on the rise in Europe, the UK and the US for some years, as seen in movements like the Tea Party, UKIP, or the National Front in FranceThey have been given a boost by the flood of refugees generated by wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan, parts of Africa, as well as by the spread of fundamentalist religious creeds that have an affinity with forms of fascism.

Why? Two related sets of developments from the 1970s have gradually altered the political terrain. Economically, globalisation emerged as an integral part of a transnational corporate strategy aimed at securing advantageous conditions for the consolidation of global capital at a time of risky structural changes in the global economy. And politically, neoliberalism took hold when the crises of the 1970s started to undermine the postwar consensus in the Keynesian mixed economy and the role of the welfare state.

Globalisation saw the systematic deployment of outsourcing production in countries offering cheap labour, minimised corporate tax burdens and other incentives for transnational corporations, and the invention of the trade in derivatives (financial mechanisms intended to leverage the value of assets and repackaged debts). They contributed to the 2008 crash. The general public was made to bail out the banks through increased taxation and the establishment of policies across social services that produce hostile environments for claimants seeking support.

Couze Venn is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Theory in the Media & Communications Department at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Associate Research Fellow at Johannesburg University. His recent book is After Capital, Sage, 2018.

(This article was originally published on Open Democracy and has been republished under the Creative Commons license.)

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