Opinion | Neoliberalism is a disease

Every September 11, the United States’ selective memorialization rolls around. There are clear flaws with the commemoration of the 9/11 attacks, the most obvious being the commitment to ignoring the approximately 4.7 million civilians that died due to American “vengeance.” 

Much of this country is steadfastly apathetic when it comes to the casualties of their government’s warmongering. It comes as no surprise that the U.S.-backed d’état that put Augusto Pinochet in power in Chile on Sept. 11, 1973, has become something of a 9/11-adjacent “fun fact.”

Under Pinochet, approximately 40,000 Chileans were tortured, more than 3,000 were killed and an estimated thousand more “disappeared.” Some members of the University of Chicago’s School of Economics are responsible for those experiences. The “Chicago Boys” had one goal in mind — to stop the spread of democratically elected socialism and, as such, prevent the socialization of industries at all costs. 

They feared that other countries in Latin America would follow Cuba and resist the U.S.’s attempts to keep them entirely reliant on import and export venues sustained on the horrific exploitation of the locals. With the help of the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. installed a dictator who treated communism, indigeneity and resistance as justification for executions, all in the name of preventing the “evils” of communism through neoliberalism.

The IMF and the World Bank have never been held accountable for the destruction and suffering they have inflicted on the world for nearly 80 years. Those responsible for the tortures, deaths and disappearances in Latin America will never have to admit their guilt. Additionally, the countries ravaged by neoliberalism have suffered wounds so incisive and so structurally devastating that recovery seems near-impossible. And that process of healing, despite being thwarted and interrupted at nearly every step, will be held as “proof” that socialism and communism are unsustainable. 

This is what the IMF and the World Bank do, with the help of the U.S., the U.K. and the U.N. They destabilize a country’s economy through coups d’état, through embargos and through sanctions. They spend decades normalizing and amassing debt that cannot be repaid. Then, they publicize the “unlivable conditions” — at no time mentioning that they are responsible for such conditions — and they show up, with cameras and colorful brochures in hand, ready to help.

What does this “help” look like? Food-for-work programs, where locals perform unpaid labor for hours, in order to “earn” their food. Conditional cash transfer programs, where locals must comply with the specific regulations of the program, often involving bigoted “education” courses. International “aid” where volunteers or employees who are often sadistic and brutal are able to operate with impunity. That sort of aid killed nearly 10,000 from Cholera in Haiti. 

This sort of debt and “support” has cemented hugely exploitative informal “tourist” economies in the Caribbean, where sexual tourism exists as the largest market — frequented by these “aid” workers. Or their bosses. Or simply other “first-worlders” who know that because of neoliberalism’s vise grip, there are corners of the world where exploiting the marginalized members of society has no consequence. Because it is invisible. Because it is the “aid” worker, the tourist, the diplomat’s right to reap the benefits of their efforts — is it not? 

Many of us have given up on hoping that most Americans we encounter will be able to see beyond the propaganda they cling to. I have similarly low expectations for those working in the fields of “international aid” or “diplomacy.” If someone earnestly feels that there is something inherently evil about workers wanting to own their means of production, to earn fair wages and not have governments from across the world control and receive the majority of the profit yielded, all because the word “communism” shocks them, then there is no reason to try and sway what little cognitive function they are employing. 

I can’t quite decide if the muddled, theatrical attempts at “discourse” with the limited scope so typical of the collegiate context are more infuriating or heartbreaking. An understanding of the ideologies and the strategies currently at work is crucial, and sorely lacking. Despite their constant mention in conversation, many young Americans seem to be unable to define liberalism or fascism, often pitting them as polar opposites, rendering their critiques useless, if not counterproductive.

It is precisely these intellectual conditions that allow for neoliberalism to thrive. The conflation of “liberalism” with “progressivism” has done so much damage to the understanding of the terms. It’s difficult to find people willing to acknowledge, let alone criticize, the damage this country has done to others through these economic tactics. Presenting liberalism as a sort of devastating rival of fascism is almost laughably delusional. Liberalism and fascism both work towards the same goal — huge financial success for a tiny group as a result of the labor of the majority. The only real difference is that fascism wants this success to stem from and remain within those who agree with their specific banal nationalism while liberalism is loyal to the more far-reaching nation of wealth, and little else.

I think part of the misconceptions stem from people hearing fragments they like — “liberal” and the “free” in “free market” — and the barrage of vitriolic ignorance from the far-right that often refers to anyone not under the spell of their prejudice as “liberal.” Some assume that whatever ideology the conservatives are publicly against is the one that corresponds to them, and I would urge those in that position to consider that the “freedom” referred to here is that of the extremely wealthy to increase their wealth — and, as result, the rest of us find ourselves under the yoke of capitalism with the “freedom” to remain there — and that a conservative’s definition of anything at all, really, should be treated as functionally useless. 

I hesitate to engage with the “never forget” rhetoric this time of year brings because an act of brutality at this level cannot be forgotten by those who witnessed it and those growing up in its shadow. The only ones who have “forgotten” the consequences of neoliberalism are those who live off its profits, sated by their peaceful ignorance, their willful misuse of political terminology and their abstract desire to one day “go over there and help.” 

I’m writing this on the 50-year anniversary of the execution of Chilean communist folk singer Victor Jara. The truth of his music and the sincerity of the movement he fought for cannot be erased — not through military intervention, dictatorial rule or 50 years of lies. The U.S., the World Bank and the IMF used Chile as a test subject for their ruthless strategy to tighten their grip on the economies of Latin America, a crime which will remain baseless, and unjustifiable, but hopefully not unpunished forever.

In the spirit of Jara, the tortured, the dead and the disappeared, we cannot resign ourselves to stay as a generation where ideologies are purely theatrical, where we are “anti-capitalists” until we are asked to give up internships at the World Bank. There is another future, where forgetting the victims and allowing the recreation of these conditions is unthinkable, where the imperial core will not dictate countless lives. Perhaps even one where communism is less of an adolescent rebellion or a haphazardly-understood performance, but a chance to regain and establish the power and the dignity of all workers, everywhere. 


Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger writes about politics and international and domestic social movements. Write to her at sou5@pitt.edu. 


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