Thursday, July 8, 2010

"A Brief History of Neoliberalism", Chapter 4

Harvey emphasizes the "universal tendency [of neoliberalism] to increase social inequality and to expose the least fortunate elements in society ... to the chill winds of austerity and the dull fate of increasing marginalization" [118]. This tendency is no accident. Recall that he interprets neoliberalization as a redistributive process: the rich, through force of arms, political maneuvering and the construction of mass consent, gut social infrastructure and break or co-opt organized labour and social movements in order to line their own pockets and cement their class power. Chapter 4 describes the geo-historical particulars of this process over the past few decades. Neoliberalization has had far from universal consequences on the world stage. Harvey enumerates local conditions, geo-political and other particular factors to sketch an explanation of why some countries have fared better than others, and why at particular times. Nonetheless, he suggests that neoliberalism, which touts itself as the only cure for sick economies, is neither a panacea, nor, but for the very small minority of the ultra-rich, anything resembling a medicine.

The proof that neoliberalism is about class power and not about economic efficiency and abundance is in the numbers. Harvey underscores that the true economic success stories of the 80s and early 90s belonged not to countries implementing neoliberal policies, but more mixed economies like Germany and Japan, which followed corporatist or at least more traditonal/integrated models of employment and social spending. Such models "did not, however, facilitate the restoration of class power" [89]. Those pushing the neoliberal agenda had therefore to discipline these economies and bring them full stop into the neoliberal fold. Harvey enumerates the components of their project: the "turn to more open financialization" (i.e. speculative capital) [90], "the increasing geographical mobility of capital" (outsourcing, etc) [92], persuasion, cajoling and coercion of many "developing countries" by the "Wall Street-IMF-Treasury complex" dominating the Clinton years (recall the fate of post-Apartheid South Africa) [92], and finally, the "ever more powerful ideological influence" exerted by "the global diffusion of the new monetarist and neoliberal economic orthodoxy" [93]. These factors came together to form the so-called "Washington Consensus" of the mid-90s, cementing the view that neoliberalism is the only answer to what ails the world's economies.

So here we are in 2010 in the midst of a protracted global economic crisis. Neoliberalism has continued to wreak havoc on the environment and punish the most marginalized. South American countries, having had more than enough neoliberalism (it was there that neoliberalization was first pulled off, by open violence), experiment with different economic models. Insurrectionary anti-capitalist situations are blooming in Greece, Nepal and India.

The question becomes: why, given all this mass unrest and the repeated failure of neoliberal policies to provide a stable and healthy economy, are we swallowing the neoliberal pill the G20 has offered us? Naomi Klein has pointed out in The Shock Doctrine that neoliberalism is an ideology, in the sense that it seals itself off hermetically by employing the fallacy of "the exception that proves the rule". Refuting instances, for example massive unemployment and social unrest resulting from neoliberalization, are chalked up to not enough neoliberalization. Even when austerity measures provoke widespread revolt, the neoliberal line is to continue to insist that the market is distorted by state intervention, or, more baldly, to claim that the people losing their jobs and social programs are personally responsible, and in any case simply ignorant of the benefits that will come. The argument that neoliberal policies are necessary to foster "a good business climate", so ubiquitous as to seem a tautology, is similarly ideological [117]. Given that neoliberalization consistently produces mass social unrest, it is unclear how it is able to claim that it is best suited to attract investors.

In Canada, where the G20 was recently hosted, the situation does not appear to be so bad. Nonetheless, we feel the effects of the global meltdown and are told that cutting public infrastructure will somehow get us back on our feet. The Toronto police ever so politely reminded us with rubber bullets, sound cannons, kettling, illegal searches, detentions, and even made-up laws that it is very naughty of us to show our disagreement. Heartbreakingly, over seventy percent of Canadians feel the police response was justified, and almost no one has even bothered to look into how the G20 mandate affects them. But this is only consistent with what Harvey is saying: "It has been part of the genius of neoliberal theory to provide a benevolent mask full of wonderful-sounding words like freedom, liberty, choice, and rights, to hide the grim realities of the restoration or reconstitution of naked class power, locally as well as transnationally, but most particularly in the main financial centres of global capitalism" [119].

1 comment:

Clarissa said...

This is a great review. Beautifully written.