In the moving celebrations that came in the wake of the SCOTUS decision legalizing gay marriage in America last week, the White House and Empire State Building were both bathed in a commemorative rainbow light and the Washington D.C. Gay Men’s Chorus sang a stirring rendition of the national anthem. Social media, of course, had its role to play, as over 26 million people washed their Facebook profile pictures with a foregrounded rainbow flag. It felt like America had coalesced around the celebration of real social progress.
For the most part, that is. Of course those unhappy cranks on the left and right fringes struck their usual contrarian poses, but when reactionary radio host Bryan Fischer compared the ruling to a “moral 9/11,” it landed with all the grace of a pathetic heckle from a team that had already lost the game. These people didn’t have the power anymore. And criticism from the other end of the political spectrum—that marriage is an antiquated and fundamentally arcane social institution that doesn’t need the support of the state—was met with the patronizing silence that popular opinion has always saved for radical party poopers. Those people never had the power to begin with.
Equal marriage rights for gay couples is, of course, progress, a tangible example of the arc of moral universe bending toward hard-won justice. But, not to tire the metaphor, is the timeline of progress so uncomplicated that it bends purely towards justice of every sort, in every way?
Overshadowed by the news of gay marriage last week was the congressional fast-tracking of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. The TPP is a monument to neoliberal trade fantasies in all their unaccountable, undemocratic glory. The malevolent scope of its ambition—nothing less than the eradication of a nation’s ability to impose cultural and legal restrictions on trade—is unprecedented.
Besides providing “legal rights to corporations and investors that it does not extend to unions, public interest groups and individuals,” the TPP also strengthens the hand of the secret courts that adjudicate international disputes. These rulings, presided over by unelected judges who continuously rotate between advocacy and the bench, are binding and can’t be challenged in any national court. Senator Elizabeth Warren explained in a Washington Post op-ed that since the court is private, only private investors would get to use it. In other words: “If a Vietnamese company with U.S. operations wanted to challenge an increase in U.S. minimum wage, it could use [TPP arbitration]. But if an American labor union believed that Vietnam was allowing Vietnamese companies to pay slave wages in violation of trade commitments, the union would have to make its case in the Vietnamese courts.” It’s been predicted that an industry most likely to take advantage of TPP arbitration is Big Tobacco, which is expected to sue the Australian government for having the temerity to package cigarettes in such a way that actually discourages smoking. According to the logic of the TPP, this is a violation of fair trade.
Not many on either the left or the right would consider the TPP a moral victory (the left because the treaty puts corporate interests above democracy, and the right because Obama supports it), and yet the Trans-Pacific Partnership is also a coordinate on the same historical arc as gay marriage. The relationship between the two isn’t simple, direct, or causal—they exist as separate shrines within the common landscape of our neoliberal political reality. But, as in navigating by compass, maybe we can use them to triangulate our current position and predict which direction we’re going in.
Neoliberalism has its own orthodoxy of beliefs, fashioned in a sort of inverse of Darth Vader’s “if you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy” adage: what doesn’t oppose market capitalism eventually becomes market capitalism. Capitalism, like a Sith, deals in absolutes. (Even so, opposition can easily be co-opted. You can, after all, purchase The Dils’ “Class War” on iTunes.) Diversity—at least as far as gender, sexual orientation, and race go—gets a thumbs up as it isn’t oppositional to sacrosanct forces. Markets can rise and flourish catering to niche identities, expanding to magnanimously to include every lifestyle and orientation. In an interview with Jacobin titled “Let Them Eat Diversity,” writer Walter Benn Michaels explains, “The model of social justice is not that the rich don’t make as much and the poor make more, the model of social justice is that the rich make whatever they make, but an appropriate percentage of them are minorities or women.”
David Harvey, an accomplished explicator of neoliberalism, traces the historical roots of this pro-market, pro-diversity ideology back to the Baby Boomers, the flimsy rebellions of 1968, and the transition from an industrial to a market economy. A lot of money was made on the individual liberation, pleasure seeking, and self-expression of the Baby Boomers. Records were sold. Bell-bottoms were produced en masse. The market had no problem absorbing the sexual revolution.
The Yippies were always Yuppies in larval form, and after Reagan and Thatcher put the nail in the coffin of the welfare state, market capitalism emerged victorious. Any debate over collective property already had a desiccated odor about it. As Harvey writes, “The result was that identity politics not only were seen as legitimate but were in a very real sense the only sort of politics seen as entirely legitimate.” Neoliberalism had given social rights with one hand and taken away economic agency with the other. Inside the horizon of market logic—ecological devastation, loss of local control of markets, and the cleaving of commerce from indigenous culture—the breach between economic justice and identity politics had become a chasm. Cut off from radical ideology, identity politics were transformed into bland multiculturalism. Apple’s multi-racial emojis are a good example of the banality of neoliberal social progress.
Everyone’s rights, regardless of their sexual orientation, are circumscribed and dictated by the prevailing libertarian endgame of neoliberalism. We’re right to celebrate the good, but maybe our focus on one aspect of historical change over another is determined by the fact its much more possible to celebrate the emotional victory of an individual than to oppose the abstract functioning of an economic system. Opposition to the TPP isn’t exactly catching fire. Maybe it would be easier if there were a Facebook filter.