The Fallacies of Neoliberal Protest

This post is an amended version of remarks read at a rally organized by Cornell University’s Black Students United (BSU) on September 23, 2016. Students gathered to protest the recent police shootings of Tyree King, Terence Crutcher, and Keith Lamont Scott.


Participants Marching for Black Lives at Cornell University, September 23, 2016 (Credit: Julia Cole Photography)
Participants marching in Black Lives Matter Rally at Cornell University, September 23, 2016 (Credit: Julia Cole Photography)

Sisters and brothers:

I’m delighted that you are mobilizing. Your demonstration reflects your recognition that the escalating crisis of racial terrorism requires a firm and uncompromising response.

Your protest in the face of daily atrocities is a sign of your humanity and your determination to live in peace, freedom, and dignity.

But as we demonstrate, we must take pains to avoid certain tactical and programmatic errors that often plague progressive protest in a neoliberal age.

What is neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism is a vicious but cunning form of capitalism. And like all varieties of capitalism, it rests on a foundation of white supremacy.

Neoliberalism’s goals are not merely privatization and the decimation of unions and the social safety net. It also seeks to manage the social order and ensure the continued political dominance of the ruling class by absorbing social threats.

Cornell BSU lead Black Lives Matter Rally, September 23, 2016 (Credit Julia Cole Photography)
Cornell BSU and the Black Lives Matter Rally, September 23, 2016 (Credit: Julia Cole Photography)

Sisters and brothers, YOUR opposition to racist state terror is a major threat to the normal functioning (and thus the hegemony) of the neoliberal regime. To neutralize this threat and destabilize the most rebellious segments of the population, the corporate power structure aggressively propagates certain false assumptions among the public.

Let’s examine these fallacies:

Fallacy Number One: Dialogue and Awareness

The managers of the status quo hate resistance. So they try to guide any dissent that arises into “safe” channels. You will notice a proliferation of forums, discussions, and meetings organized by system administrators and devoted to “dialogue” and “awareness.” The premise of such efforts is that the problem of racial unrest stems from misunderstandings among rational and well-meaning parties. Thus communication and moral suasion—rather than pressure politics—is the answer.

Fallacy Number Two: The Appeal to Authority

In our technocratic society, we are conditioned to believe that experts and officeholders hold the answers to social problems. Supposedly these professionals are able to mediate between contending groups and interests. We are taught to endlessly petition established authorities for relief, never realizing that such gatekeepers are themselves instruments of the status quo.

Fallacy Number Three: The Myth of the Disembodied Voice

Part of capitalism’s response to grassroots opposition is to assure the distressed that their “voice” is heard. That the authorities who “hear” you also enable your brutalization is immaterial. The point is to convince you of your continued stake in the system. It is to guide you toward the politics of representation and away from the politics of resistance.

Of course, there are other fallacies employed by the oppressor to confuse the oppressed. The fallacy of inclusion v. transformation, for example. Or the fallacy of “diversity” v. genuine antiracism. We are taught to be patriotic, to be patient, to strive to embody the very values of peace and goodwill that this society defiles.

These and other myths only perpetuate the system. They leave intact our society’s basic power relations. And they cause us to police ourselves and to seek interpersonal reconciliation rather than confront structural racism and oppression.

One of the organizers for Cornell BSU's Black Lives Matter Rally, September 23, 2016 (Credit Julia Cole Photography)
One of the organizers of Cornell BSU’s Black Lives Matter Rally, September 23, 2016 (Credit: Julia Cole Photography)

Truth is, we don’t need “diversity” training. We don’t need focus groups. We don’t need consultants and experts. We don’t need the apparatus of our oppression—racial capitalism itself—to rationalize and regulate our dissent. The logic and techniques of the corporate world won’t end the slaughter of black people, or the dispossession and degradation of indigenous people, or the transformation of the entire Global South into a charred landscape of corpses and refugees.

We need an uncompromising, multiracial, grassroots movement against white supremacy, endless war, and vicious corporate capitalism. We need to build solidarity with the resistance in Charlotte, Standing Rock, and Puerto Rico. We need to join the rebellions of workers and the colonized all over the world.

This is a human rights struggle. And it will be waged in the streets, not in boardrooms, the halls of Congress, or other strongholds of global capital.


Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.


Russell Rickford

Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.

Comments on “The Fallacies of Neoliberal Protest

  • It does my heart good to see black and white students rally together. Multi-racial unity with students and workers fighting against capitalism!!!

  • The pejorative use of the term “Neoliberalism,” as if it were synonymous with the mechanisms of colored oppression, doesn’t make much sense to me. I think its inappropriate because: one, it misappropriates and misrepresents the precise theories of the economic school of thought, and two it imprecisely directs the focus of the movement against inanimate structural frameworks instead of the social biases which are the active root of the economic stratification. . . . But then again I’m stuck with some degree of heuristic bias from being white, strait and comfortable–so what the hell do I really know?

    • Neoliberalism is simply a particular phase of monopoly capitalism that has been ascendant since the 1970s. Its rise corresponded with the crushing–or the dissolution–of “socialist” projects and states all over the world. Each phase of capitalism has generated its own “racial domain”–its own pattern of social arrangements for reproducing white supremacy. Thus neoliberalism–the wholesale assault on the basic structures of the welfare states established throughout the industrialized world in the early 20th century–is also the principle underlying the contemporary edifice of white supremacy, from racialized mass imprisonment to urban gentrification. Look at the most advanced anti-imperialist and anti-racist struggles of the 1970s. They were clear that their primary enemy was global finance capital.

    • If your comfort rests on the fact that you are white and cys, you should critically analyze those two conditions until they are no longer comfortable. Then you should find new ways of being comfortable based on who you really are as a person rather than your inclusion in a political project of domination. It’s hard, but I promise you it’s worth it.

      • Brilliant

  • Could you explain how neoliberalism “rests on a foundation of white supremacy” as well as what I can do to help fight it? I would like to contribute to the breaking down of such a regime and would like to learn more about it, especially how white supremacy is the root cause of neoliberalism. Thank you.

    • What happened to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina is a good example of the racial mechanisms of neoliberalism. The wholesale privatization of the school system, the highly coordinated effort to remake the city as whiter and wealthier, etc. See Cedric Johnson, ed., The Neoliberal Deluge.

  • It’s really nice to see the rally and I support what the protesters are advocating, but, honestly, I think this piece is very poorly written and is rather nonsensical. I just mean as a written work. I would give it a C-minus.

    • What does this mean? The guy has tenure at Cornell. He writes good enough. He is not in a creative writing contest; he is making an argument. You seem to have missed his point, which actually makes his point. You think it is nice that multi-colored protests are being allowed, but don’t agree with the cynical analysis, so you say the baby is ugly. Let’s mourn the passing of discourse.

      • Good point.Funny ,the last thing to challenge me re:this post was to critique the writing style.I,as a 65 year white male have been watching hearing the same arguments and postponements for years!I found myself comparing,denying,identifying…but mostly thinking about the content and concepts of the article.And for that I am thankful.Enough committee,panels dialogue ..a large % of America is race biased,not just white folks either.But the ruling class are certainly white male and very unyielding and it is going to require a concerted and determined effort,by all of us to change the stranglehold they presently have on social mores and social change!

    • It appears your comment was busy analyzing the composition of the ink, and missed the message of the constant victim of gross injustice and cruelty, the Black Lives. Avoidance, an example of your “neoliberalism”

      • Its a argument strategy used mostly by white people that obfuscates the intent of the argument. It always goes into asking questions of the writer or speaker not for clarity but to challenge that persons authority. Its really an attempt to reestablish their intellectual supriority and cause others to join in on questioning his/her authority. Also, although Black people have been taught to think like white people, which compartmentalizes ideas and breaks them into parts of its whole when the whole causes them distress. They also communicate wholistically and cyclically/historically, which goes against Americas ahistorical ways of educating. They are always trying to make their past sins benign, because truth causes them distress. They do not know who they are as “white” people and what it means. They have been seen as representatives of all humanity – neutral, colorblind, “just human.” Now they find themselves not making any constructive sense.

  • And what of such “managers of status quo” in higher education? Can your authority be trusted as you hurl directives from the ivory towers of academia? Sorry, but associate professors at Ivy League schools criticizing the “establishment” should really quit their day jobs as camp counselors for wealthy youth. You want to talk about absorption? You are merely serving up another flavor of what feels good as a fact substitute. This article is a garbage opinion piece. If you can’t be bothered to communicate in a language of facts, I can equally assume that you are also manipulating people for your own “agenda” and are just another player in the live action role playing game I consider to be modern day activism.

    • Dude, the position you’re taking is totally unhelpful. I speak as someone (white as snow, btw) who quit his PhD because he could no longer bear the harsh and grim reality that is grad school in America these days, and doesn’t have many good things to say about academia in general, when I say that accusing a black professor of hypocrisy because he does not give up on his hard-earned position, which he has achieved against inconceivable odds, is plain stupid, or ignorant, or simply in bad faith.

      Do you know what Prof. Russell has been through? What he has done throughout his life? Throughout his tenure at Cornell? I, for example, have no idea, because this is the first time that I’ve read anything he has written. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that you don’t either.

      By the way, this is not an “article,” it was a speech at a demonstration. Speeches at demonstrations don’t “communicate in a language of facts.” This is in fact one of the main point of this speech. Maybe you should go back and reread it, and if you don’t understand why it, then maybe you should attend a demonstration or two here and there.

      • Blah. Meant to write: “… if you still don’t understand this etc.”

      • I did re-read it. I wholeheartedly agree with his closing statement “We need an uncompromising, multiracial, grassroots movement against white supremacy, endless war, and vicious corporate capitalism.” which is why I’m speaking out against him. I think he’s suggestions on how to do that are dead wrong. It presupposes a theoretical model that any healthily skeptical mind should question in the absence of evidence.

        You are correct, I don’t know who this guy is, except based on the information I have, which is that he is an associate professor at an Ivy league School and an author and teacher. The only thing I know about him is that he stands to profit just as much as anyone by maintaining the status quo. And he’s giving advice that I sincerely believe is, either intentionally or unwittingly, designed to, at best, keep any movement spinning its wheels, or at worst replace one kind of myopic fundamentalism with another.

        Using the logic he is advocating, I could assert this message board is clearly a tactic being used to “guide any dissent that arises into “safe” channels.” I could blame your defense of him on the assertion that “In our technocratic society, we are conditioned to believe that experts and officeholders hold the answers to social problems.” Finally, I could defend my position by saying “We don’t need consultants and experts.” like him to tell us what to feel or think. We will have these arguments endlessly and get nothing accomplished because he’s not expressing anything than a sentiment of mistrust based on a theoretical model that, arguably, feels extremely good to his supporters. But it’s a shame that even academics perpetuate the sophistical methods of control by appealing to what feels good more than the correctness of truth and verifiable information, what I understand he cryptically refers to as “The logic and techniques of the corporate world”.

        When it comes to organizations that systematically indenture people and misdirect agents of change into lukewarm baths of complacency, I personally believe college campuses are right up there. Or perhaps I’m ignorant to the last time a protest at a university created lasting change in the fabric of society.

      • and to be fair, you were right in correcting me that this isn’t an article per se, though it came to me in that form. My understanding is that he is trying to help these people avoid the pitfalls of several theoretical “fallacies” by deploying circular reasoning, which is certainly a fallacy.

  • Nice piece. What we’re seeing today is a generation or two of activists raised in the identity politics culture of the academy with no experience organize to make change and precious little study of how those who came before us succeeded and failed when they tried.

    Like so many of the freshly radicalized, this generation thinks that it is all one big misunderstanding and that power would simply change its ways once informed of its error by having the truth spoken to it. Speaking the truth to power tells power nothing that it already does not know because power makes the truth that we live amidst.

    Power will not change until it has no choice but to change. And power will only change as little as possible to get over the next hump. The goal for us is to not change power and leave it otherwise intact, rather to usurp this kind of authoritarian power at the root.

    Identity politics has contributed to a turning inward and a siloing of radical energies away from any class challenge. Power cannot digest a direct class challenge so it decomposes class into that which it can digest, “free speech,” race, gender, queer, the identity politics where silos inhibit the making of connections.

    While we (I am queer) are oppressed based on our group membership, gender, ethnicity or queer, there is very little to unite each identity in seeking affirmative aspiration. We are all over the place once we get out from under oppressive structures. And emancipation of any given silo by design is insulated from the other silos. Queer’s rapid gains over the past two decades did not lift up women and people of color.

    So identity can only get us so far and class is the force that breaks down political silos. The Civil Rights Movement asked white people to be freedom riders. The African National Congress asked white folks in South Africa and the US to join their party and the international solidarity movement respectively. There are plenty of cases where white folks have been asked to assist in campaigns and we have. Queers did not rely solely on outrage. We took the risks to come out to family, friends, community coworkers over a period of decades. We enlisted the entire community in our emancipation because our numbers are small. And the community rose to the occasion and came to our assistance. Is there still work to do, of course.

    But assistance has to be more than just kissing the ass of any given activist or clique. And for there to be ‘allies,’ of black people, for instance, there has to be organizations that represent black people, that have demonstrated tractions within the community. The SCLC, NAACP and SNCC in the 1950s and 60s had that. Today, unfortunately, BLM does not seem to have that traction. That does not mean that police brutality is okay. It means that the organizing has yet to gain the legitimacy of broad based community support.

    Until then, we white folks must be race traitors, to clean up our own mess, to demolish the structures of white supremacy and to help fellow white people to understand how we are situated, what crimes then enables, and to do what we can, to take risks, to remove ourselves as parties to these crimes while dismantling the structures that empower white people to consider themselves supreme and act that way.

    Past performance is no guarantee of future returns as they say. But studying up how those who came before us failed and succeeded is critical in charting our mutual path forward towards emancipation. If you’re not taking risks, you’re not making change. If power ignores you, then you are not presenting a challenge. The mark of a potentially successful campaign is a response by power commensurate to your threat. If people living with HIV could march from death’s doorstep into lines of cops during the ACTUP days to demand their humanity be valued, then there is no excuse for the rest of us.

    • Thank you. There is wisdom in using ACT UP as case (the fiery crucible where context and content converse, agitate and spill into action). This how to organize by resourcing our own pain, rage and creativity is to do so by demanding and enacting change. Where people gather the field of that particular cultural moment activates new levels of compassionate intelligence. Our temporary containers of protext and protextion (physical and symbolic, inclusive of the confluence of identity politics -all of us checking out our next outfitting) offers rhizomic, decentralized, queeresque performative pop up spaces (Parties with Purpose) that can be dismantled and reconstructed in ways that reclaim imagination, build skills and strategies. By re-sensitizing ourselves collectively from ‘normalizing’ neolib violences we recognize the impossibility of going it alone, either through education, therapy or any solo-addictive paths. When, where, how we play, from sharing recipes to agitating for renewable creative curiosities, as Councils of Peers (CoPs), together we strengthen our collective psychic-social immune systems when we fever-up against the virus of pre-assumed violences. From the role relief of our shared resonance (angry voices rising up together, to dancing and sweating it out in the streets in the face of despair) fresh ideas, new visions and inspired actions sweep us into this era of global collective healing and creativity, one that the future will look back on and point to these generations, and in particular from colourful Panthers, to ACT UP to today’s BLM and Indigenous up risings, as the lubricants to radical eco-social change. What a ride! And we’re the ones here to co-self-generate and refine ourstorycells into embodied resonance-networks. Sipping on the love-potency of community is a radical spell for multidimensional transformation. Once a target we become mercurial citizen-artist-scientists in a giant game of frozen tag, helping each other thaw out from the chilling colonizing powers of the straight and harrowed Mr. White.

  • Social structures are mechanisms of social interaction. Therefore communication between people in relation to their actions is central to social transformation. The three things you call “fallacies” (while portraying Ing their misuse) are ways of communicating, and are valid strategies to bring actual people together. I mean except the people that are already sure they know everything.

    • Perfectly sound reasoning, except it doesn’t really correspond to reality in any meaningful way. Those who have power don’t relinquish it when you calmly explain to them the injustices they’re oblivious to. Often they’re not oblivious to them at all, they just don’t care, or don’t care *enough*. Was South African apartheid dismantled by rational communication? Was European colonialism anywhere in Africa or Asia ended by gently and politely asking the colonizers to please go away? c’mon.

  • excellent. I’m an old white radical anarchist….and this makes my day. I will not ‘lead’ young people. I will only other solidarity and mutual aid. And stand with them. Race is first, Class is second. I understand that…….but lets get that class shit going too…

  • Your article is erudite. You correctly identify many racial struggles as systemic, and statist. Capitalism is the opposite of central control. Capitalism is a service and barter system based on options and qualities, and you know this. The central, statist devil seems to cause the most troubles, where Democratic policies have become entrenched- Chicago, Baltimore, Ferguson, etc. Your bastardization of the term Capitalism as white supremacy is a purposeful miseducation of the people you are claiming to help. Are you an anarchist? Anarchy will only favor those with the biggest weapons–the State. Capitalism allows options to arm yourselves equal to the oppressors. The cop in Tulsa is going on trial. The cops ib Baltimore were brought to trial. Body cameras are working…for both sides.

  • The discussion here in the comments section is in some ways more stimulating than the article itself. Respectful disagreement and argument is a vital part of the process of collaborative intellectual work, by which we come to clarity of goals, and purpose. You are creating a movement of thought. Please keep at it.

  • I think neoliberalism is a declining system, and one not much related to racism. There was racism before neoliberalism, and before capitalism, and there will be after.

    And just look at the news. The Trump campaign is clearly a sign of the failure of neoliberalism. His supporters all say the economy is failing them, and needs to be replaced with a new system that is more racist and more inhumane. We saw the same thing in the vote for Brexit: they didn’t know much about the EU, but it was neoliberal and that’s what they hated about it.

  • I have never met anyone talking about “neoliberalism” who has any idea what they are talking about and this post is no exception. Capitalism is the private ownership of the means of production. People being free to own property is necessary to living in a free society. People being free to own property and voluntarily exchange with others is what has brought global poverty levels to all time lows. Every socialist system ever tried has ended in mass amounts of poverty, complete economic collapse, and widespread starvation. If you’re against capitalism you’re against human beings living in anything that resembles a free society.

    • Not true. Neoliberalism is pushing the concept of private ownership of productive property to an extreme, including shrinking the power of government to alleviate poverty, protect the environment, and provide resources such as free or cheap health care and higher education. The “liberalism” part is laissez-faire capitalism, the kind that reigned in the 1800’s.

      Neo-Liberalism also puts a huge burden of debt on many countries, where the elite in the government enrich themselves by borrowing excessively from private banks and the World Bank and the IMF. This eventually forces the sale of a country’s assets very cheap to a fe dominant global corporations and billionaires. This is not a formula for lifting people out of poverty over the long term.

      It is deliberately deceptive to contrast socialism and capitalism without paying any attention to the success of Social Democracy in the Scandinavian countries. That success is possibly threatened by the huge influx of immigrants pushed into Europe by the US military interference in the Middle East. exaggerated military dominance by the United States being a necessary aspect of neo-lberalsim. The pursuit of neoliberal capitalism require that the US use its military to “fight of democracy” and “protect our freedom” when in actuality what is being fought for is the consolidation of productive ownership into a narrower and narrower elite. Perhaps this elite will decide to govern for the benefit all. I doubt it. In the US the active agents of Neo-Liberalism and US military intervention worldwide also intend to eliminate Social security, affordable health care, environmental protections, and affordable higher education. The brilliant minds f privatization forced a dictatorship on a democratic Chile and the privatization of Chile’s pension system which has resulted in paltry pensions and huge enrichment for the private managers of this pensions. installing Pinochet was totally unnecessary inc the votes were there in the Chilean Congress to remove Allende from office. But the neo-liberlas wanted Chile as a laboratory for their extremist economic doctrines,

      I suggest you read “The Family” by Jeff Sharrett.

  • What role does the obsession with attending an Ivy League university play?

  • You can’t work on dismantling institutional racism through a political system that is owned by the white 1%! Read George Lakey’s Viking Economics (just published) to see how socialism and capitalism can co-exist successfully. But he points out it evolved through massive public protests – not through the existing political systems. Whites who want to fight racism now need to turn to traditionally oppressed people, join them, as in So. Dakota, Cornell, No. Carolina, Ferguson – BLM chapters, all over! and support them. Spread their outrage, point to the injustices they wake us up to. Sometimes fighting for our climate and fighting racism can be combined – as the Earth Quaker Action Team is doing in Philadephia. They are pressuring, through some non-violent disobedience along with other measures, the local utility company, PECO, to put solar panels on inner city (mostly minority) buildings. They will see that the solar panels are installed by locally trained workers – thus giving them jobs and a skill. Check it out at EQAT – Ignite the Light. This isn’t just ‘talk’ – the same group pressured PNC Bank to stop funding mountain top removal in West VA. They will keep at PECO until it does what is right. The same kind of continued pressure is needed on all the institutions that ignore morality and the rights of all people – like housing, and education (stop charter schools) and mass incarceration. But we need leaders! And college can help create them – which is what this prof is doing! Mandela went to a missionary school in So. Africa – but he didn’t let them tell him what to do with his education!

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