Freedom from the Market: Antagonistic Disruptions of Neoliberal Capitalism
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The 2016 U.S. presidential election showcased prominent rejections of the existing political and economic order, as many voters channeled frustrations over rising inequality and instability into support for candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who acknowledged the widespread economic struggles of the market globalization age. This recent electoral example is one of many global rejections of free market expansion, a phenomenon that my dissertation examines. While rhetorical scholars have addressed the growing prominence of the free market and its logics, my project examines how people have resisted what is often called neoliberalism. Taking an approach to rhetoric derived from theories of articulation, in this project, I define neoliberalism as a hegemonic articulation that strings together four governing principles: freedom as primary, economics as natural, the individual as rational actor, and the free market as pure. The project examines three activist discourses that challenged neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s and that continue to resonate today: the 1986 U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Economic Justice for All pastoral letter, the Kathy Lee Gifford sweatshop scandal of 1996, and Seattle’s 1999 World Trade Organization protests. With each case, I demonstrate how neoliberal discourses themselves fostered tensions and how people exploited these tensions to challenge neoliberal hegemony; following theories of articulation, I call these challenges “antagonisms.” This project suggests that we should understand activist moments as “antagonistic disruptions” that that interrupt hegemonic discourses and evoke the possibility of their demise. Taken together, these case studies offer three major lessons for scholars and activists. First, the project suggests that powerful discourses—like neoliberalism—are comprised of necessary tensions, and that scholars can identify those tensions and that activists can exploit them. Second, the dissertation teaches scholars and activists that existing discourses and previous antagonisms enable people to challenge powerful discourses. Thus, scholars and activists learn that antagonisms are disruptive when they participate in legible frames of reference. Third, the cases suggest that the more multi-modal and frequent the antagonistic engagement, the more forceful the disruption. This project then, recommends that scholars study multi-modal recurrence and that activists strive for multi-modal consistency.