The Great Neoliberal Burden Shift (Part I) – How Corporate America Offset Liability Onto the Public

This episode was produced by Citations Needed, in collaboration with Workday Magazine.

“Choose the product best suited for baby,” Nestlé urged in a 1970s baby formula ad. “What size is your carbon footprint?” wondered oil giant BP in 2003. “Texting, music listening put distracted pedestrians at risk,” USA Today announced in 2012.

These headlines and ad copy all offer a glimpse into a longstanding strategy among corporations: place the burdens of safety, health, and wellbeing on individuals, in order to deflect responsibility and regulation. Whether in the areas of transportation, climate, or nutrition and food safety, individuals, namely “consumers,” are increasingly expected to assume full responsibility for their own wellbeing, and are blamed, shamed, and punished–or worse, made ill or injured–when they can’t live up to these unrealistic expectations.

Sure, everyone must bear some level of personal responsibility in matters of health and safety, obviously. But corporations from Chrysler to Nestlé, in concert with a compliant US media, have taken advantage of this truism to place a disproportionate level of obligation onto the people who work in their warehouses and buy their products. At the same time, they’ve been able to fend off even the most minor of structural changes–say, using less plastic or healthier ingredients–with often dangerous, even deadly, consequences.

This is Part I of a two-part series on what we’re calling “The Great Neoliberal Burden Shift,” a process in which corporations deflect blame onto the relatively powerless. On this episode, we examine how corporations have shifted the burdens of liability onto “consumers” and other individuals, examining how the auto, fossil-fuel, and food and beverage industries have orchestrated media campaigns to frame the people they harm, whether directly or indirectly, as responsible for their own misfortunes.

Our guest is journalist Jessie Singer.

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