Market Uber Alles
— Kim D. Hunter
Knocking the Hustle
Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics
By Lester K. Spence
Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books, revised edition 2016, xxv +164 pages. $19 paperback.
EXPLORING NEOLIBERALISM FROM commercial Hip Hop to education policy, Lester K. Spence has penned a short yet fairly comprehensive work on how the ethos of the marketplace has permeated and damaged the nation in general and the Black community in particular. In fewer than 200 pages, Knocking the Hustle leverages everything from rap meister Jay Z’s lyrics to a recent Chicago Teachers Union strike to compare and contrast the effects of greed versus the alternative vision of collective action for communities.
In between, Spence takes a hard look at Black culture, particularly at how the “prosperity gospel” influences megachurches with significant numbers of Black congregants.
An associate professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Spence has been “battling respectability since 1969” as he puts it on his website (www.lesterspence.com). With any luck, this book will spark controversy and serious contemplation because it takes a hard look at the Black church and President Barack Obama, two African-American icons and institutions.
While Spence also takes issue with scholar and activist Cornel West’s romanticizing Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, clearly his main targets are African-American elites who advocate Black community advancement through knuckling under to the market and consumerism, forces at the heart of the nihilism decried by those same leaders.
The book comprises five untitled chapters and a sixth, “Solutions,” which posits the necessity of “a solution set that is more about combating the type of long term institutional violence that doesn’t necessarily have a Trayvon Martin or a Freddie Gray at the center. The types of violence that instead might have Freddie Gray at the center not at the moment of his murder, but at the moment he was found to have lead poisoning.” (146)
Spence’s theme is laid out at the beginning:
“The hustle. The concept of the hustler' has changed somewhat over the past thirty years or so. Whereas in the late sixties and early seventies the hustler was someone who consistently sought to get over, the person who sought to do as little work as possible in order to make ends meet…the hustler is now someone who consistently works.” (2)
Under the neoliberal regime, Spence is telling us, the “hustler” is practically universal now, whether it’s someone selling incense or gloves on the subway, bottled water or loose cigarettes at the bus stop, or the junior faculty member — himself — desperately writing at 1:30 am, working to exhaustion and one random event away from facing financial disaster.
Despite what appears to be a rush job, the book’s relevance has only increased since the unanticipated election of a protofascist with the rationalization of “he’s a businessman.” Trump voters cosigned his racism and misogyny, but the sizable minority of voters who supported him also clearly opted to run the nation as though it were a business (one of the core GOP values to which Trump at least pays lip service.)
Of course nation-states, educational, medical and judicial systems and the like are not for-profit enterprises that produce widgets. They are highly complex entities ostensibly created to serve the most complex entities on the planet, us.
Survival on the Edge
Spence begins the book with his personal experience of how many of us are just a mishap or two away from desperate straits. Even as a tenure-track professor at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University with a family saving money and living within their means, two car accidents (which could have been two illnesses or an accident and an illness) pushed his family into a serious financial bind. They survived by making sacrifices, using their ingenuity and relying on a community of people who had resources to spare. (xvii-xviii)
As Spence rightly points out, had he been a single parent working a low wage job with no way to get to work, he and his kids would probably have wound up in a homeless shelter. The first car accident resulted from fatigue because he was working late on his next publication, adhering to the “publish or perish” mantra that tenure track professors live by. Spence cites his need to finish just “one more paragraph” no matter his fatigue as an example of the hustle he knocks in the title.
Another source of inspiration for the book is a line from Jay Z, (who, with a net worth of more than $600 million, is one of wealthiest hip hop artist in the nation):
“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.
Watch me take care of my business, damn!” (2)
As inhuman as it is, the couplet above, minus the “damn,” could well express the attitude of many megachurches toward entrepreneurship and “success:” it’s all about the hustle. The attitude of many megachurch leaders is that, if you haven’t “made it,” it’s because you haven’t hustled enough: it’s your fault and no one else’s.
Car accidents, illnesses, lack of education or resources, abuse or bigotry of any kind, these are just “tests of faith.” If your faith and your hustle are working, you’re going to make it, by definition.
Of course a less fatalistic, less romanticized view of reality would also take reality itself into account. The New Deal, flawed as it was, acknowledged that workers and their families were not the masters of their individual fates (to paraphrase the poem “Invictus”) but the victims of massive economic crimes in which they had no hand. No such acknowledgement appears forthcoming from the market-driven cohorts of the neoliberal set even — or perhaps, especially — in the wake of the Great Recession.
Besides musical and cultural references Spence primarily addresses the effect of neoliberal market ideology on the Black community through education policy and the rightwing “prosperity gospel” of influential megachurches. He cites church involvement when times were especially bad in Detroit when both GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy. (Spence hails from the nearby Black suburb of Inkster and his father is a retired auto worker).
While it’s no surprise that church leaders didn’t even discuss what the workers were owed for decades of making major stockholders wealthier, the tack at least one of the churches took is still a bit shocking. Spence shows how a key megachurch in Detroit brought three sparkling white Cadillac escalades on stage during a service aimed at reviving the auto companies through prayer.
The massive, expensive vehicles were present not just to praise the auto companies (a facet of the “trickle down” economic view) but to show examples of what congregants should aspire to.
The roots of the so-called prosperity gospel go back decades to the likes of Daddy Grace (who did inspire a great R&B song), Reverend Ike (who invoked Ayn Rand), and Oral Roberts. His theology blossomed into “Word of Faith Ministries,” a racially integrated, rightwing, homophobic, bootstrap theology with emphasis on tithing as a path to wealth.
The worst/best example of the tithing scheme is the notorious Creflo Dollar who blatantly fundraised for a $65 million personal jet to help him “spread God’s word.”
Obama’s education and social policies also come under attack in chapter 4, with “Race to the Top” and “My Brother’s Keeper” respectively. Spence cites the classic early 20th century ideological debate between Booker T. Washington, who advocated Black education only to the extent it would allow recently freed Blacks to get “back to the farm,” and W.E.B. Dubois who advocated liberal arts education and said he always had his back to the farm.
These two poles of thought, education as employment training versus education as a tool for critical thinking, are still broadly in play today. But with the neoliberal emphasis on the market, the sense of uplift generally associated with education has been reduced to strictly economic terms.
With freedom ultimately defined as the ability to operate “unfettered” in the market (something reserved mostly for the one percent) employment, not critical thinking, is the end goal of education. Such a strategy is all the more tempting for communities of color coping with white racism and its economic discontents.
So when Roland Fryer, a brilliant, Black Harvard-educated economist, appears on Stephen Colbert’s program with a program to pay African American students for good grades, the question of how this changes the goals and values of education never comes up. Neither does anyone ask, why not bribe all students? Is it more effective, cost-wise and generally, to pay individual students or to pay to improve conditions, resources, teachers’ salaries, etc?
Although Spence sees that both this plan and voucher queen Betsy DeVos’ “Schools of Choice” are market rather than education-driven, he doesn’t note that, ironically, these two market incentive plans are unlikely to be scaled up to serve all students. Problems with “customer service” will be dealt with by the “invisible hand” of the market place, a hand that somehow only rewards those at the top.
Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” mentoring effort is cited for embracing language that stops just short of openly blaming the victims and survivors of white racist society for their plight. The need for mentoring of young Black and Brown men is never contextualized with the infamous School to Prison Pipeline, record numbers of people who can’t find jobs and who come from schools that don’t teach students how to read or count, let alone think critically.
All this leads directly into the Obama “Race to the Top” (RTT) education incentive policy, which was more rewarding and less punitive than George W. Bush’s devastating No Child Left Behind. But each was just as focused on standardized test results as the be-all end-all measure for educational efficacy.
Both the Obama and Bush policies also took aim at teachers and their unions, blaming them for failing to magically raise student test scores as both Presidents worked hand in hand with forces seeking the destruction of public education (such as the Broad Foundation and its graduates, erstwhile DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Robert Bobb).
The resistance to the neoliberal education model by the bad asses in the Chicago Teachers Union is cited by Spence as a good example in his chapter on “Solutions.” The story of their decision to strike against the regressive policies of Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Obama’s first term Chief of Staff), is inspiring and shows the type of risk that has to be taken in this increasingly Orwellian period (per Chicago and Detroit’s closing schools to “improve” education).
While many African-American teachers and families were involved in the Chicago Teachers strike, the other three examples of resistance come more directly from the Black community. Two of those include the Baltimore resistance to Mayor Martin O’Malley’s attempt to build a prison for juveniles only, and Chokwe Lumumba’s People’s Assembly victory in Jackson, Mississippi.
The former was led by a coalition of the Baltimore Algebra Project (an offshoot of the brainchild of former SNCC activist Bob Moses) and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. The latter was led by the late Chokwe Lumumba, a radical Black Detroit attorney who successfully defended radicals and Black activists and had been president of the Republic of New Africa.
While the People’s Assembly saw Lumumba’s rise from Jackson City Council to mayor as central, the strategy involved electing council allies and direct, grassroots involvement in education, jobs, police issues and the like.
The Baltimore resistance and People’s Assembly both assume solutions lay with the people themselves, not to correct any supposed “pathology” or “poverty mentality,” but to change the systems under which they struggle.
The importance of the Black Lives Matter movement cannot and need not be detailed here. What it holds in common with the other two movements is attacking a system that forces people like the murdered Eric Garner to “hustle,” in his case, illegally resell loose cigarettes. The activity led to a confrontation with a racist cop that killed him.
The book feels like it was rushed to print. It contains an incorrect name for Michigan’s Governor, Detroit’s old nickname and other technical errors. The footnotes, running parallel with the text, at times take up the entire page which suggests, at least to me, that they are more than footnotes.
I hope these issues can be corrected in subsequent printings, which this work deserves. Realizing how the system in general and the inhumanity of the market in particular undergird and connect so many tragedies, from Mississippi to New York and beyond, is Spence’s goal. It is largely accomplished in this short, dense volume.
May-June 2017, ATC 188