David Harvey: A Brief History of Neoliberalism
David Harvey’s book attempts to contextualize and explain the ideology and practical work of neoliberalism as an attempt by the capitalist class to wrest wealth back from the working classes. The latter had, in the industrialized First World, fought hard and won several important concessions from capital, which, taken together, can be called a “social democratic consensus.” While labour’s victories were more extensive in Europe than in the United States, the period from the end of the 1940s through the middle of the 1970s saw the emergence of a collaboration between labour, capitalists, and an interventionist state that created more extensive welfare, health care, and other social provisions while overseeing an unprecedented rise in living standards even among the industrial working class.
After the end of the 1970s, when the First World shuddered in the wake of oil shocks, over-accumulation, and stagflation, new political forces took advantage of the situation and, rather than pressing for more complete state control over the economy, tore up the “social democratic consensus” and instituted a campaign to redistribute wealth and power back to the capitalist class. Since that time, wages for workers and the petty bourgeoisie have stagnated while the very wealthiest have become fabulously wealthy, and this process has only intensified over time. Starting with some imperialist experiments in Chile (after the CIA engineered the leftist president Salvador Allende’s downfall), the United States and its allies restructured their economies around a policy of enriching the capitalist class at the expense of all others and intensifying their neocolonial exploitation of the Third World through IMF policies, “soft” power, and near constant military interventions.
A Brief History of Neoliberalism makes the above argument, in a nutshell, over the course of two hundred pages or so. He also dedicates chapters to the post-Mao degradation of China into an increasingly capitalist country and a proposed solution, more on which later. There are numerous illustrations, graphs, and charts to make his point, along with copious footnotes annoyingly squirreled away in the back of the book because popular readers are apparently terrified of them. His prose is lucid and direct, the book accessible, and its conclusions, in many ways, well-made. Though Harvey published the book before the financial crisis and the current, seemingly permanent, reduction of the workforce and austerity in wealthy countries, his description of the neoliberal consensus is still apt:
“Thirty years of neoliberal freedoms have…not only restored power to a narrowly defined capitalist class. They have also produced immense concentrations of corporate power in energy, the media, pharmaceuticals, transportation, and retailing…The freedom of the market that [U.S. president George W.] Bush proclaims as the high point of human aspiration turns out to be nothing more than the convenient means to spread corporate monopoly power and Coca Cola everywhere.”¹
One hardly needs to read a contemporary work like Harvey’s for such insights. One of the major problems with Harvey’s text is that it mistakes neoliberalism for the enemy when capitalism itself, whether in “social democratic” or neoliberal forms, is the basis of all of the ills he sees. Lenin scooped Harvey on many of his findings almost a century ago in his Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. For instance, Lenin writes:
“Finance capital, concentrated in a few hands and exercising a virtual monopoly, exacts enormous and ever-increasing profits…strengthens the domination of the financial oligarchy and levis tribute upon the whole of society for the benefit of the monopolists.”²
Though there are certain features of neoliberalism as a manifestation of capitalist statecraft, most notably its authoritarian hostility to even bourgeois parliamentary democracy, that are unique, it is not uniquely imperialist. Social democratic politics in the First World are also inevitably paid for with profits extracted from the imperial exterior or Third World. The difference is that discontent with the status quo is far sharper in imperialist countries under neoliberalism because the state uses nationalism and more overt coercion to control proletarian dissent, preferring sticks where Keynesians preferred carrots. Neoconservative politics, which were in vogue in America when Harvey published the book but have since waned in favour of an isolationist and populist rightism (i.e. the Tea Party and so-called “libertarians”) are here explained as the right-wing response to the dissolution of social cohesion under neoliberalism. That is fine as far as it goes, but Harvey makes the bizarre mistake of calling for the Left to develop its own morality discourse, when that probably represents a retreat in favour of the right.³
As usual with this kind of text, when the author jumps the gap between historical analysis as proposals for action, the book founders. Harvey’s solution is purely an appeal to return to social democracy and “popular rule,” or a “purer” form of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. He wants to break neoliberal ideology’s grip on ideas like “freedom,” shattering its associations with pure, unregulated finance capitalism and the degradations with which it is associated. I doubt that simply reestablishing the old regime is going to work. His plan is all about laying out “alternatives,” constructive a left discourse around “alternative” notions of human rights and freedom. He does not address the fundamental untenability of capitalism in general, the revolutionary idea that the working class–most of which is outside the First World–must liberate itself by force of arms. It’s a short chapter and a highly speculative one, but it need not have been. The legacy of Marxism is full of far more concrete and viable solutions to the problems of capitalism. Those solutions start with the end of capitalism and the construction of a socialist state which will unite the death of capitalism with the birth of a new horizon in human history, the establishment of communism. While I would recommend Harvey’s book as an often trenchant protest against the inhumanity of our current situation, I reject his proposed remedies outright. One might as well try to cure cancer with ibuprofen.
As Mao writes:
“Revolutions and revolutionary wars are inevitable in class society, and without them it is impossible to accomplish any leap in social development and to overthrow the reactionary ruling classes and therefore impossible for the people to win political power.”⁴
Without wresting political power away from the bourgeoisie, the proletariat will be condemned to suffer exploitation.
1. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2004), 38.
2. Vladimir I. Lenin, Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm
3. Roland Boer, “For an unethical and unmoral politics,” http://stalinsmoustache.org/2012/06/13/for-an-unethical-and-unmoral-politics/
4. Mao Zedong, “On Contradiction,” Selected Works, Vol. 1, 344.