Friday, June 25, 2010

A Preface to Reading "A Brief History of Neoliberalism"

One of the central difficulties late capitalism, Fredric Jameson writes in his Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), is cognitively mapping its systematic features. Late capitalism-- what we now typically call neoliberalism-- is, he argues, defined by the compression of time to the point of ahistoricism (although this feature of capitalism was already grasped by Marx in his critique of the Robinson Crusoe stories of classical economists), and the suppression of distance and the saturation of space. This metaphor of 'mapping' itself, however, is paradoxical, because it does not mean that we have recourse to maps to trace this geography, but the very activity of mapping politics in time and space requires grasping the specific reconfigurations of the relationships between history, geography, and political economy in late capitalism.

Jameson's argument, was directed against the anti-systematizing tendencies of the North American reception of postmodernism, the proponents of which often refused to render accounts of politics, culture, and the like, in a systematic totality. His claim-- relevant then as much as now-- is that the variety cultural expressions in late capitalism can only be understood historically as a totality, that accounting for a large set of particular variations is not incompatible with an analysis of the global configurations of political economy.

Nevertheless, these configurations of political economy remained difficult to map, although the totality of their relations are typically now referred to as neoliberalism, a concept that encompasses the aforementioned compression of time-space, the conservative counterrevolution that captured state power in various metropoles in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the postmodernization (if I can be permitted such a term) of culture. Even this brief description itself betrays the difficulty I'm trying to get at; it is as if each feature of neoliberalism suggests a number of exceptions, throwing us back on the problem of particularity and totality: how is it possible to conceptualize neoliberalism as both a set of particular, concrete variations through the history of the past 30 years and across geographical space, and as an increasingly global, and globalized, totality?

Starting next week, Matt and I will be re-reading one of most clear and concise responses to the preceding questions, David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005). There are two reasons why this book remains, for me, a constant reference point as I slowly work out the relationships between philosophy, political economy, and praxis.

First, Harvey's arguments and expressions are clear. His terminological choices reflect his conceptual commitments, and cast a critical eye on 'common sense' phrases. Where so many have been inclined to fight over the extent of deregulation or privatization, or whether they are desirable, which locks the debate into a specific neoliberal conceptual field, Harvey re-politicizes the terms. So, for instance, talking about the role of the state in neoliberal theory, he argues that its partisans aren't against the state in toto, they are against a particular kind of state. They don't mind if the state engages in deficit spending for military action, of if it preserves the integrity of money or private property, nor if the state forces open new markets:
if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary (2).
What is this state action? What is so commonly referred to as privatization or deregulation becomes, in Harvey's terms, a use of state power to accomplish political-economical goals.

This kind of analysis is possible because Harvey does not just analyze neoliberalism as a form of reorganizing  and compressing time-space through capitalism (which is a worth contribution alone), he also, second, argues that this form of capitalism is a way to redistribute wealth upwards; that is, Harvey argues that neoliberalism is a political project to reinforce elite class power, through both structural and ideological means. The force of his argument, I think, is the result of his reference to class analysis...

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. We're only at the 'Preface,' which introduces the reader to neoliberlism and its history. Therefore, I would like to invite our readers to take their copy down from the shelf and read along, and comment, over the next few weeks as we analyze A Brief History of Neoliberalism chapter by chapter, as we discover the continued relevance of Marxist analysis in the so-called era after neoliberalism.

Next week: Chapters 1-3.

Update: I'm usually on top of these things, but I forgot to mention that Matt reviewed Harvey's Spaces of Global Capitalism" back in April.

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