Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"A Brief history of Neoliberalism", Chapter 2

Neoliberalization being in the most general terms a re-distribution of wealth from the poor to the very rich, Harvey asks in Chapter 2 how exactly such a blatantly unjust process could have been pulled off. The answer is fairly simple when looking at countries like Chile and Argentina: labour leaders, community organizers, socialist politicians, etc, were jailed, tortured and assassinated by police and military. Demonstrators and strikers were beaten, killed, and terrorized. Social wealth and infrastructure were sold off, in short, under truncheon blows and at gunpoint.

But what about the United States and Britain, where neoliberalism "had to be accomplished by democratic means"[39]? Harvey argues that the success of neoliberalism (i.e. from the point of view of the rich) was prepared in these countries by a construction of consent; this implied gaining hegemony over, mobilizing and manipulating what Gramsci calls "common sense", defined not as that which is sensible, but merely as "the sense held in common" [Ibid.]. Cultural and traditional beliefs, values and fears were employed, in short, to "mask other realities" - namely, the brute economic facts of post-Fordist capital accumulation and the dismantling of social institutions to further line the pockets of the wealthy [Ibid.]. Neoliberalism employed ideological tools especially where existing social mores, traditions and institutions posed barriers to neoliberalization by brute force alone.

This is not to say that Reagan and Thatcher failed to use bribery, threat and an increasingly militarized police to great effect. Rather, it is to point out that existing values were also manipulated in such a way as to render the great majority of the American and English populations blind and complicit to the looting of their own hard-earned social infrastructures. Take for instance the ideal of personal freedoms, which, many Americans flatter themselves has long been a hallmark of their country. As Harvey points out, "Any political movement that holds individual freedoms to be sacrosanct is vulnerable to incorporation into the neoliberal fold" [41]. This is because at the level of personal property rights and freedoms, neoliberalism delivers (that is, to the rich and to a certain strata of corrupt labour); moreover, through its media it aggressively drives home the point that there are no other personal freedoms worthy of the name.

The real coup pulled off by neoliberalism with respect to "common sense", however, was to separate the ideal of personal freedoms, i.e. property freedoms, from that of social justice (whereas, for instance in May 68 in France as well as other left-libertarian crests of history, these formed an ideological knot). The ideology of personal freedoms, divorced from social justice, naturally became a bulwark against state intervention in the economy. Note that corporations are considered persons; therefore the personal freedoms of, to take a contemporary example, BP, serve as a legal and ideological barrier to the idea that the company owes anything to anyone for what it has extracted, and the resultant environmental costs. The success of neoliberalism in organizing "common sense" in this way accounts for the ubiquitous and totally bizarre images of poor Americans marching in the streets for their right to not be able to afford cancer treatments. It also accounts for the dominant perception that property destruction by militants (and cops disguised as militants) at the Toronto G20 convergence was violence par excellence, whereas beatings, unlawful detentions and sexual assaults by police officers against peaceful protesters were largely ignored by mainstream media and roundly praised by all levels of Canada's (increasingly neoliberal) government.

As regards what might be called the North American scene, two points especially are noteworthy here: so-called "postmodernism" and Reagan's organization of a Christian conservative "moral majority" to back the GOP. The first, which comprises a kind of cynical-radical chic, Harvey devastatingly critiques in his The Condition of Postmodernity (required reading for anyone dabbling in the often polluted waters of continental theory). Postmodernism as Harvey reads it is an ideology of personal property rights and the "freedom" to pursue petty, amoral pleasures (Coke or Pepsi? Gay porn or straight? You see?? You're free!!!). This hedonistic ideology has hamstrung or at least significantly confused a substantial section of what would otherwise be the radical youth; therefore neoliberalism has proven "more than a little compatible" with it [50]. The flipside of postmodernism is, of course, the organization of the Christian Right. By grafting "family values" onto an economic programme destructive of the very roots of healthy family life among the poor, Reagan ensured the support of those who would have had the most to gain from his deposal. (It should of course also be underscored that the Democrats, who would otherwise represent a cultural and social counter-pressure to the GOP, have long since been compromised to the core. Chances of election under neoliberalism are slim to nil barring deals with the corporate devil, as it were.)

The story in Britain was much the same - strike breaking, bait-and switch maneuvering, selling off bits and pieces of the social safety net - but it's notable that Thatcher's approval was in the dumps prior to the Falklands/Malvinas war. Reagan and other neoliberal leaders were not slow in taking Thatcher's cue; when things look bad for the neoliberal state, organize a war against a country which can hardly defend itself, and be sure to mobilize as much fear and national pride as possible. This is a model we have inherited, with terrible consequences.

Harvey is sure to underscore the failure of the Left to beat the neoliberals at their game in terms of the "common sense" factor. They lacked an adequate response, but also a positive programme. This underscores that the educational and, dare I say it, propagandistic wing of the new social movements has its work cut out for it. But what about Obama, and his audacity of hope? Can't he be called on to save us? Here is what Harvey has to say: "[The genius of Reagan and Thatcher] was to create a legacy and a tradition that tangled subsequent politicians in a web of constraints from which they could not easily escape. Those who followed, like Clinton and Blair [and, evidently, Obama], could do little more than continue the good work of neoliberalization, whether they liked it or not" [63].

1 comment:

Shabnam said...

I just cannot help but remember the 1979 lectures of Foucault of biopoliitcs. He is also tracing a genealogy of neoliberal state. Can someone here illuminate me on the critique of post-modern and the theoretical connections with Foucault?