Guest professor lectures on changing American landscape

GVL / Hannah Zajac
Social Landscape lecture on Friday March 23, 2018.

GVL / Hannah Zajac Social Landscape lecture on Friday March 23, 2018.

Ita Tsai

Grand Valley State University was host to the lecture “The Changing American Social Order: ‘From Social Democracy to Neoliberalism'” given by Rubén Martinez, professor of sociology and director of the Julian Samora Research Institute at Michigan State University. The event took place on Friday, March 23, on the Allendale Campus.

Around 50 students and faculty members attended the meeting in the Kirkhof Center to hear about the historical change that has taken place throughout the last 40 years, transitioning from an era of social democracy to a predominantly neoliberal U.S. 

Martinez started off the lecture by introducing the attendees to the basics of social democracy and neoliberalism. His main argument evolved around the ideas of radical individualism, the anti-tax movement, and the plutocracy, which he explained to be “a collection of wealthy individuals who run the country and make policies for their own benefit, using propaganda to drag you along and make you support their beliefs.” 

Martinez urged students to understand the key role that citizens play in contemporary politics. 

“It’s important to understand how critical it is to be an informed citizen to participate in a democratic society, so that you can fully be part of it,” he said. “You’ve got to wake up and realize that the order we’re living in is different now, and it’s moving, in my opinion, towards a negative future.”

As of now, the political climate has three predominant sentiments that were evoked with the neoliberal revolution: racism, anti-government, and libertarian views of freedom. This revolution arose with the use of propaganda and political discourse. 

This has subsequently brought about a feeling of nativism, or the fear by native U.S. citizens who believe that all the immigrants are reshaping the cultures and values and taking over jobs. They claim that they want their country back, and this sentiment leads to anti-immigration.

“Social democracy emphasizes individual freedom, but not an extreme version of it,” Martinez said. “It has values of equality, social justice and solidarity. It recognizes that we define ourselves in relation to social community, because we are social beings. Communities don’t follow solitary confinement; we weren’t made to be isolated from others.”

Martinez also explained that the neoliberal revolution advocates for limited government involvement in the economy, except when it aids capitalism and the ruling class. Based off “free market fundamentalism” one should take care of things independently and not depend on the government, thus promoting radical individualism. 

“It’s basically saying, ‘I have my bread, get your own. If you don’t have something to eat it’s your fault,’” he said.  

Neoliberalism also pushes for limited government involvement through privatization, because they claim it’s more efficient. Martinez criticized privatization is his lecture, too.

“For example we have privatized the army; they leave the country and commit horrendous murders,” he said. “Privatized jails, they try to keep inmates for longer than they should. Privatization takes the citizens’ funds to fund mediocre organizations that don’t help the community as a whole. You can often see cases of corruption, because there are no mechanisms to monitor them.”

The lecturer also mentioned how neoliberalism is searching for flexible labor, where firms have complete control over terminating employment. 

“The anti-tenure movement results in more part-time teachers than long-term professors,” Martinez said. “This affects the educational system because the professors won’t be doing lectures like the one I’m doing today as they are considered to be flexible labor.

“Neoliberalism peddles for the deregulation of the economy. It limits the support for public good and leaves individuals to fend for themselves. It promotes class wars between the middle and working classes, and it intensifies racial dynamics. These sentiments motivate society to keep us divided.”

Martinez explained that neoliberalism has been fairly successful in modern day politics. However, it has eliminated the “safety net,” which was the threshold that limited government cut before people reached a point where they weren’t able to survive. The revenue stream to government has been diminished to limit spending on social programs, including education. 

Martinez also explained to students what attitudes they should have in order to promote societal democracy. 

“Keep alive the idea of human progress,” he said. “You should understand the historical moment in which you live. Work to alleviate and improve the human condition. … Educate others on the neoliberal movement, its tactics, and the hidden agenda behind the divisive social issues. 

“Promote that government is good. Government is not the problem, the governmental regimes are the problem. … Remember the future of the nation is bound up with the informed citizens. It is up to you to stay informed and secure the future of this country. Democracy doesn’t belong to one group, it is a political idea that belongs to us all.” 

GVSU students who attended the lecture were able to leave with a new perspective on social politics.

“I found the lecture Interesting,” said freshman Madison Zeleny. “I learned a lot about how people don’t know anything. I’m more aware of what’s going on now.”