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The seemingly unconnected protests of the war in Iraq, resident evictions in Isla Vista, and rising student fees have all been provoked, this weekend’s conference postulates, by an invisible force outside the typical political spectrum.
English professor Carl Gutierrez-Jones asserts that neoliberalism – most often associated with free market economies and little government intervention – was at work behind each of these incidents, and that it also, in part, exacerbates many human rights violations in the world today.
“[Neoliberalism is] a cultural force for individual liberty,” said Gutierrez-Jones, who is also the director for the UCSB American Cultures & Global Contexts Center. “People continue to support policies that are associated with individual liberty and they don’t want to get the government involved. At a certain point we have to ask if this commitment has gone too far.”
In order to discuss the cultural implications of neoliberalism and human rights, Gutierrez-Jones, along with American Cultures & Global Contexts, has organized a conference beginning today called “Human Rights and Neoliberalism: Universal Standards, Local Practices and the Role of Culture.” Tariq Ali, a novelist, historian, sociologist and political activist, will give the free keynote address this afternoon at 4 in Campbell Hall.
The conference, located primarily in 6020 HSSB, is powered by workshops run mostly by UC professors, as well as experts from Cornell University, University of Colorado, University of Colorado at Boulder and Universidad Central de Venezuela. The conference will commence today at 9:30 a.m. and run until 6 p.m. Presentations will continue Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Gutierrez-Jones said he chose Ali to keynote the event because he offers a perspective on the world that comes from outside the U.S., and he has studied many of the issues discussed at the conference in depth.
“He was here for a conference a few years ago and everything he predicted has come to pass,” Gutierrez-Jones said. “He’s got a very good sense of larger international politics.”
Ali was born in Pakistan and moved to England to study at the University of Oxford. In the 1960s, he became an active protestor of the Vietnam War and he helped start the new left movement, a term that describes the widespread left wing political activism that gained significant ground during the time. Ali is also an editor of the journal “New Left Review” and helped found Verso Books in England.
The address he will give this afternoon, called “Rights and Needs: Neo-Liberalism, Democracy, and Military Humanism,” will focus on a modern approach to the interplay between neoliberalism and human rights.
“The disaster in Iraq, the mess in Afghanistan and the human rights rhetoric utilized by pro-war liberals to justify this needs to be analyzed and deconstructed,” Ali said.
In response to the current conflicts in the Middle East, Ali said many Muslims are turning toward political Islam due to lack other options.
“Islam is a diverse and varied religion,” Ali said. “It has many currents within it and just as the Christian Right cannot be taken to represent Christian culture, similarly fundamentalist or literalist Islam does not represent Islam. The rise of political Islam is due to the collapse of other alternatives.”
Gutierrez-Jones said neoliberalism is one of many issues that govern U.S. involvement in other countries, such as Chile and Iraq. He said human rights and citizens’ needs often come second to political or economic issues.
“We’ve got to go in for human rights issues, but our changes don’t measure what people on the ground really want,” Gutierrez-Jones said. “It isn’t human rights at all that is driving us – is it oil?”
Protests are one way for people who are unhappy with political or foreign policy to speak out, Ali said, but politicians who work toward the U.S. majority opinion are important as well.
“Marches are useful because the break the isolation of dissidents in the United States,” Ali said. “The 1,000 who marched [at UCSB] represented tens of thousands who didn’t. A majority of U.S. public opinion is now against the war. Hence the surge that elected the Democrats, but neither Obama nor Hilary can speak for this large constituency. Why?”