Sunday, January 24, 2010

Review: A Brief History of Neoliberalism

[David Harvey. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.]

Though it limits its vision in some conventional ways, this book is an excellent introduction to and summary of many of the key features of neoliberalism, a shift in social relations that has swept the globe since the 1970s. It is organized much as you might expect for a book with such a goal. It examines the theory underlying neoliberalism, moves on to looking at how neoliberal changes were instituted in different places, how they function in practice (and how that differs significantly from the theory), and the particular ways that they can change state relations. There is a more focused look at the neoliberal shift in China. Then there is an assessment of the actual impacts of neoliberalism as well as some brief attention to struggles against it in the past and opportunities for struggle in the future.

Perhaps the most important accomplishment of this book is its thorough demonstration of the utter disconnect between the legitimizing rhetoric of neoliberalism and its actual consequences. Neoliberal disciples wax rhapsodic about freedom, and about the unmatched capacity of unfettered markets to meet human needs. Harvey demonstrates, in contrast, that the actual consequences of social relations organized in neoliberal ways are misery and want for many. Even rates of that oh so capitalist measure, economic productivity, are poor overall under neoliberalism -- often high in a few places at any given moment, but consistently low globally. The most consistent outcome of neoliberalism -- so consistent that Harvey concludes it must be neoliberalism's actual point -- is the reconstitution of capitalist ruling-class power (measured principally through concentration of wealth, with predictable political consequences) or its constitution de novo in some places.

Now, just before I read this, I finished another book by Harvey, which I may or may not get around to reviewing. This other book is a far ranging exploration of geographical theory that was somewhat beyond me but that I found a wee bit mindblowing and plenty challenging, that was materialist yet engaged with theory far beyond marxism, and that felt like it could, perhaps, end up giving me some very useful-to-me inputs into my own thinking about things (though I'm not sure yet). Because of that, I was a bit surprised that A Brief History of Neoliberalism set its boundaries in some fairly conventionally marxist ways. I mean, it isn't hidebound about it, but it is clear that this is a book that is meant to explore one particular topic using existing, well-worn tools, rather than something that takes the tools apart to see if they really are best for the job.

This shows up in lots of ways -- insert your favourite limitation of standard academic marxist analysis here -- but there were two ways in which I particularly noticed.

The first was the book's uneven engagement with the idea of freedom. Towards the end of the book it tackles the question with a certain amount of sophistication, and a recognition that the neoliberal understanding of "freedom" is far from the only one, but earlier on the book is very dismissive of freedom as a focus of struggle in ways that do little or nothing to explore what it can actually mean. This is connected with some very brief, dismissive analysis about a number of the social movements that arose in the 1960s which included freedom among their goals. It even goes so far as to assert that freedom and social justice are inherently incompatible, sometimes tempering that by saying they "seem to be" but at other times just saying it blankly. Now, it is clear from later in the book that Harvey doesn't actually mean this, exactly -- he's not some old marxist crank yearning for the days when women and people of colour knew their place while industrial wage earners lead the proletariat -- but I think there is far, far more to be said about freedom, about class, and about the movements of the '60s and '70s, and it is potentially politically dangerous not to say that stuff because of how readers might take up what is said. I suspect even if Harvey did explore all of that stuff in some depth, I would disagree with some of what he said, but it is the easily misunderstandable shorthand that I object to the most.

The other concern has to do with unarticulated assumptions about what exactly a book looking at the history of neoliberalism should talk about. That is, this is primarily a book about the elements of social relations that get reified as "the economy" and "the state." Which are important. They may even be central when neoliberalism is your focus. But are they everything? Really? It just seems like a huge mistake to try and talk about as all-encompassing a shift in social relations as neoliberalism and then to limit what you talk about so narrowly. I can't point to any sources that do it in ways that completely satisfy me, but I've seen a small number of things that talk about neoliberal shifts in relations of white supremacy and patriarchal relations -- enough to convince me that changes have happened in these areas that can legitimately be understood as neoliberal in nature. Which isn't to say that Harvey completely ignores race and gender, but they enter the analysis more in the form of occasional attention to racialized and gendered consequences of neoliberalism rather than as social relations completely integral to state relations and relations of production.

I think there are lots of political reasons why it is important to take a broader view, but one reason is that the political economy approach assumes that the causal energy moves in one direction and one direction only -- that, sure, there might be differences in how patriarchy is experienced because of neoliberalism, but neoliberalism happened because of changes in relations of production, right? Well, maybe, but I don't feel like I've ever read anything that demonstrates that. Yes, the crisis in accumulation in the early '70s was important, but was it everything? What about analysis that builds on the sorts of ideas in the book reviewed here and talks about the role of shifting relations of reproduction and how that exists in constant dynamic tension with production? What about Sunera Thobani's analysis around the instability of white supremacy in the '50s and '60s, the role of official state multiculturalism in Canada in stabilizing white supremacy in new forms, and the connection between multiculturalism and new approaches to immigration resulting from the demands of accumulation in the '70s? Is it possible that the impulse to stabilize global relations of white supremacy after the success of decolonization struggles in the '50s and '60s played an important role in shaping the overall condition now known as "neoliberalism"? I have no idea, but it seems to me to be the sort of thing that requires investigation.

So. Very predictable reservations on my part, I suppose. And certainly no reason not to read the book. Even if it is only part of the story, it is a very important story in understanding where we are at today and what we need to be doing. It doesn't do everything, but no book ever does, and the things that it does do are important. So read it.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks. Useful summary.