Neoliberalism made us broke. Now it's killing us

What is safety under neoliberalism? From East Palestine, Ohio to Turkey, we get a devastating answer

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published March 8, 2023 10:40AM (EST)

Caution tape closes off an entrance to the beach as Palm Beach County officials announced that all county beaches are closed due to red tide affecting coastal areas on October 4, 2018 in Lake Worth, Florida. (Getty/Joe Raedle)
Caution tape closes off an entrance to the beach as Palm Beach County officials announced that all county beaches are closed due to red tide affecting coastal areas on October 4, 2018 in Lake Worth, Florida. (Getty/Joe Raedle)

Remember the days of Occupy Wall Street? In September of 2011, activists descended on the Wall Street area of Manhattan to protest rising economic inequality and the controlling role that money was playing in politics. The movement spread globally. Before long the phrase "we are the 99 percent" became infamous. 

It was a motto that effectively described the neoliberal caste system. Under neoliberalism, the goal was deregulation, privatization, the cult of the free market and a focus on profit over people. During its debut decades, from the 1980s to the 2010s, neoliberalism's most visible damage was economic and political.

Remember that the Occupy protests were a direct response to the financial crash of 2007-2008, which had been brought on by the massive deregulation of the banking industry. As banks neared insolvency, they were often bailed out, leaving the public to take the brunt of the economic collapse. 

Today, like then, we are witnessing a form of collapse caused by neoliberalism. Collapsed buildings, collapsed bridges, collapsed railways

First neoliberalism made us broke. Now it's killing us. 

Neoliberalism didn't just deregulate the economy and brazenly link economic influence to political power, it also deregulated safety systems, infrastructure and oversight. It didn't just allow banks to make up their own rules; it allowed infrastructure, housing, and transportation businesses to do so as well. And over time the consequences have become more and more devastating.  

What do recent tragedies like a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, an earthquake in Turkey/Syria and a train collision in Greece all have in common? Selfish, morally corrupt idiots who thought that it made sense to put profit over following regulations and norms designed to ensure safety. 

But it's even bigger than that.

A lack of investment in regulatory norms and infrastructure has created other ripple effects that effectively impact everyone, even those in the 1 percent. Consider the recent testimony by the acting head of the FAA to address the software outage that halted flight departures, a near miss between an American Airlines plane and a Delta Air Lines plane on a JFK airport runway, a close call between a FedEx cargo plane and a Southwest plane in Austin, Texas, and more. In those meetings, both the FAA and members of Congress admitted that there were flaws in the safety system, yet there was no sense of accountability and certainly no public commitment to the investment and oversight needed to mitigate these risks. This is on the heels of crashes of Boeing 737 Max jets in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019 killed 346 people. The jets were certified by Boeing as safe despite evidence that they knew about its dangerous automation system.

So, what is safety under neoliberalism? 

Just as the neoliberal banking system argued that regulatory oversight was unnecessary and restrictive, the same deregulatory practices have been seeping into a range of systems for decades.

The central principle of neoliberal safety systems is the idea that norms and regulations can be outsourced and handled at the level of worker "responsibilization." But most importantly, the concept is that rules and regulations are restrictive and unnecessarily bureaucratic. Under neoliberalism, oversight is framed as confining and obstructive. Most importantly, it suggests that norms and regulations impinge on workers' freedom to innovate and develop expertise. It frames rules as limits created by non-experts "detached from the front line."

 If that sounds like nonsense, that's because it is.

These collapses and crashes are not isolated stories. They form part of a larger tapestry of examples where a combination of greed, incompetence, lack of oversight, and absent accountability have all conspired to make us unsafe.

The neoliberal party line may be that deregulating safety systems allows for more workplace "freedom," but we all know that what it really does is offer the corporate elite a better chance of extracting more profit.  

In fact, to the extent that we see any rhetoric within the neoliberal cabal about the need for implementing safety protocols, it is merely discussed in terms of reputational harm and business expense. In fact, you won't see one neoliberal pundit argue that the main reason to ensure safety protocols is to protect human life and avoid the destruction of the planet. 

How safe is work under neoliberalism?

In 2010, there was an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that killed eleven people and seriously injured a number of others. The explosion also caused the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history with an oil spill of roughly 3 million barrels. In the aftermath, the explosion was directly tied to BP's lax safety rules. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board concluded there were "several inadequate or missing regulatory attributes." The explosion caused BP stock to plummet and cost BP more than $60 billion.  

But while BP initially paid a price, in the end, they really faced no consequences.

"The U.S. still outsources drilling safety and spill cleanup to industry, which has proven far more adept at extracting oil than protecting the environment," explains University of Michigan professor David M. Uhlmann.

BP paid reparations and went back to business as usual.

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The BP story isn't isolated. Workplace safety under neoliberalism has become increasingly precarious. Approximately 7 to 9 percent of the U.S. workforce sustains a work-related injury each year. And these numbers used to be worse. In 1970 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was introduced, and since it was established, the number of injuries and deaths has dropped by 60% across the workforce.

Those gains, though, have started to reverse due to the increasing deregulation of workplace safety standards brought on by neoliberal ideology. Employers, in the main, oppose worker protections and resist safety protocols that they deem confining to their business practices. According to the AFL-CIO, "Big Business and many Republicans have launched an aggressive assault on worker protections. They are attempting to shift employers' responsibility to maintain a safe workplace to individual worker behavior, and undermine the core responsibilities of workplace safety agencies."

This all got worse under the Trump administration, which framed workplace safety as a threat to economic prosperity. Trump campaigned on a pro-business, deregulatory agenda. One of his core promises was to cut regulations by 70 percent. The Trump team attacked "job safety rules on beryllium, mine safety examinations and injury reporting, and [cut] agency budgets and staff—and attempted to dismantle the systems for future protections." Most importantly, under Trump OSHA was effectively gutted and its budget slashed, leaving it with approximately $4.37 to protect each worker and one compliance officer per 70,000 workers.

As tempting as it is to blame Trump for this shift, the crisis is global.

In a World Health Organization report on worker safety and health, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, stated that it was "shocking to see so many people literally being killed by their jobs."

How safe are we?

If workers are under threat due to deregulated safety conditions, where does that leave us when we aren't at work?

Well, if you live in a building, you might not be safe.

In June 2021, a condo building in South Florida collapsed killing 97 people. It was later discovered that in 2018 engineers had warned of cracked and degraded concrete support beams in the underground parking garage and other problems that would cost nearly $10 million to fix. But the repairs didn't happen. A year later the Miami Herald reported that design failures, shoddy construction, 40 years of damage and neglect "lined up like dominoes to create the perfect conditions for a deadly chain reaction." 

When we consider this on a grander scale, we can begin to process what happened in Turkey in the wake of the recent earthquake where more than 160,000 buildings collapsed. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's administration has been accused of failing to enforce building regulations. While the collapsed buildings are still being investigated, critics claim that government policies avoided enforcing building regulations, in favor of promoting a construction boom.

"Shocking to see so many people literally being killed by their jobs."

But here's the thing: These collapses and crashes are not isolated stories. They form part of a larger tapestry of examples where a combination of greed, incompetence, lack of oversight, and absent accountability have all conspired to make us unsafe.

This brings us back to Occupy Wall Street. Then the outrage was over a financial crash - but now we have a whole other wave of crashes threatening us. Yet, in contrast with the financial crash, these crashes can seem disparate, disconnected, and distant.

 But they aren't.

The question, then, is whether the communities that suffer from absent oversight and protection — from Palestine, Ohio to Tempi, Greece and from Surfside, Florida to Southern Turkey — will recognize their common cause. Thus far, we see isolated protests, but the type of global movement required to demand change has yet to develop. Until it does, we will find ourselves nostalgic for the days when all neoliberalism did was crash the economy rather than the planes and trains we travel in, the places where we work, and the homes where we live.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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