Lester K. Spence's 'Knocking The Hustle' diagnoses the neoliberal nightmare
By Brandon Soderberg
Feb 03, 2016 | 11:16 AM
No other book out right now so expertly describes what it's like to live and work in the United States as Lester K. Spence's "Knocking The Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics." A cogent rundown of the ways this country has been crippled by its embrace of neoliberalism, the book lays out its devastating impact on the African-American community. Neoliberalism, as described by Spence, a professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University, is "the general idea that society works best when the people and institutions within it are shaped to work according to market principles." Even more succinctly, it's the bonkers belief that everything and everybody everywhere should operate as if they were a business.
"Knocking The Hustle" condenses big ideas into clear concise paragraphs and Spence's diagnostic tone makes the slow rumble of neoliberalism all the more nefarious. Here's one such line early on: "As Federal and State governments reduce local governments' ability to collect tax revenue, cities themselves are forced to become more 'competitive' by remaking themselves for the purposes of capital." The neoliberal turn has also turned us all into "hustlers"—a word Spence points out was once used as a pejorative and is now high praise. Everybody's a hustler really just means everybody is working all the time, turning themselves into "human capital," monetizing as many parts of their lives as possible for ultimately not all that much dough or even comfort. Other examples of neoliberalism cited by Spence include the rhetoric of contemporary hip-hop (he riffs on 'Hustle Hard' by Ace Hood throughout), those Creflo Dollar types and their millions-fueled mega-churches, and the increased obsession with charter schools and the good P.R. behind them even though they have been proven to be no more effective than the public schools they claim to counter. And Spence has some fun with a Jay Z line ("I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man") pointing out that this is Jay Z essentially declaring himself a hulking piece of human capital. Hova, one with the neoliberal machine as an aspirational hero to many, is horrifying if you think about it hard enough.
We're all victims of this, Spence observes, but its effects on the African-American community, beginning in the '70s, has been especially pernicious. The most chilling example of this is the African-American churches that preach a "prosperity gospel" which sets out to negate a so-called "poverty mindset." It is people's fault, not the system's fault, that some of them are poor. Dicey logic for sure—if whole swaths of people are poor, how is that not the system's fault?—but one that also, Spence observes, empathetically, feeds everyone's natural sense of self-worth. "It fits the common desires we all have for some degree of control over our circumstances," he writes.
Spence holds off on offering up solutions for quite a while, though this is not a flaw of the book at all, but rather something that speaks to Spence's desire to battle the idea of singular "prophetic vision" popular among black intellectuals (specifically Cornel West) and evidences Spence's radical consistency. He sees the answer to the problems somewhat abstractly, in political organizing's potential which has created change in the past and can still make changes, and specifically by citing Baltimore-based groups Leaders Of a Beautiful Struggle, The Algebra Project, and nationally, the Black Lives Matter movement.
In particular, Spence praises Black Lives Matter for its ability to reject respectability politics. At first, respectability politics may not seem to have very much to do with neoliberalism. Spence argues otherwise, insisting the argument that equality can be achieved only by looking and acting respectable is, at its core, a neoliberal attitude. Respectability politics proclaim that by buying into the system, you receive the privilege of being treated well by the system when indeed, it should be a right that the system treat you fairly. And then there's a virtuosic conclusion that discusses how Martin Luther King Jr. was just one part of a larger civil rights movement and how, by focusing on King the individual and not the hundreds that also helped to organize, say, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, we buy into neoliberal attitudes about individuals' importance over the group. It's inspired and parallels the book's introductory deep dive in which Spence details a series of setbacks in his life (a car accident, stress of his job, etc.) that he was able to transcend thanks to access he has that many others in this country—especially other African-Americans, he mindfully points out—do not. A system of friends, family, and colleagues assisted Spence.
The specifics of living in Baltimore seem to have solidified Spence's thinking. Throughout, he employs Baltimore-specific examples: Whether it's kids selling water at red lights in the city or a church in Baltimore County that preaches the prosperity gospel, these are locally oriented examples in a city, dominated by Democrats, with major significant black representation, that prove we are nonetheless bound by neoliberal toxicity. Other examples came to my mind while reading: Kevin Plank's Under Armour cult about to be built over at Port Covington which is already presumed to be a great success because Plank has lots of money and talks a good talk and local government is in love with private developers; the outrageous tax breaks we give to Hollywood so directors can come and shoot here (usually with Baltimore as a stand-in for Washington, D.C., mind you); and even Station North's art scene, which embraces the branding lingo of neoliberalism by referring to artists as "creatives."
"Knocking The Hustle" won't radically change the way you think, but the idea that books radically change people's minds is itself a kind of individual-pimping, neoliberal myth. Instead, great books—and "Knocking The Hustle" is a great book—clarify and further articulate what people are already thinking and feeling and artfully tap into the zeitgeist.