Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"A Brief History of Neoliberalism," Chapter 6

Chapter Six puts neoliberalism "on trial," and the central question is whether the implementation of neoliberalism has done what its ideological proponents claim it does: protect individual freedom and increase his or her free choice.

Not to spoil the fun, but we already know. We've lived through the financial crisis and everything that's followed. But this does not render Harvey's analysis in Chapter Six redundant or obsolete. It documents many of the warning signs, and provides markers for making sense of what seems to be yet another reinforcement of class power, at least concerning the weak reforms proposed in the United States. [1]

But more importantly, Harvey provides a analytical toolkit to evaluate whether or not neoliberalism continues by different means, for he argues that neoliberalism is much more pragmatic than ideological. While its ideological proponents might bluster about mistakes they might have made (Writing this reminds me of a line from David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas: "Where there's bluster, there's duplicity"), much of--if not all-- the financial and institutional infrastructure is still in place. Even if, before the crash, neoliberalism had failed to stimulate worldwide growth [2], and even if "all global indicators on health levels, life expectancy, infant mortality, and the like show losses rather than gains in well-being since the 1960s" (p. 154), several tenets of neoliberalism seem unshakable.

Which leaves us with the class power thesis: neoliberalism proved appealing because it provides a system for re-entrenching class power domestically and redistributing wealth from the global south to the global north's financial centers. I don't think it's a stretch to argue that two of the crucial analytical indicators of the retreat of neoliberalism would be the reversal of these trends. There are two other indicators that I think we should watch (that is, on which we should focus in out critiques).  

First, accumulation by dispossession. Harvey renovates what Marx called "primitive accumulation," because dispossession is an ongoing, rather than completed, process. The concept includes (among other things) privatization and commodification, financialization, closure of commons, transfer of state or public property rights to private property rights, and "a raft of techniques such as the extraction of rents from patents and intellectual property rights [sometimes stolen from the general intellect of indigenous or  might we say 'underprivatized' populations --D.Z.S.]  and the diminution or erasure of various forms of common property rights (such as state pensions, paid vacations, and access to education and health care) won through a generation or more of class struggle" (pp. 159-160).

Second, the prevalence of NGOs in overexploited regions. Often NGOs fill the void left by a collapse in public services in the face of political or environmental crisis. And while they can fulfill basic needs, they do not provide a long term solution to crisis (that is, if they aren't part of fomenting a crisis as a front group for particular interested parties-- think US involvement in Venezuela). Because NGOs are not accountable to local populations and often negotiate directly with state or class power, they cannot or do not step out of the neoliberal framework, but rather reinforce it (p.177). It might be worth quoting what I wrote in a review, loosely speaking, of Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood:
Non-governmental Organizations are not neutral. This is a difficult point to get across. First, it probably has to do with the neutral sounding name, when many of these groups could properly be called, in the case of Haiti, Ideological Counter-state Apparatuses. Hallward shows how the operation of NGOs allows 'rich countries a morally respectable way of subcontracting the sovereignty of the nations they exploit' (179). While some of these groups do respectable work with the poor and exploited, the problem remains that their primary responsibility is to the sources of their funding, which means that they function according to a mandate set not by the people of Haiti, but to rich donors outside of the country. Instead of directly giving foreign aid to the government, where it has the possibility of being utilized according to a plan (here health, there jobs, there education), these tasks are privatized, fragmented, and often rely on elite contacts for local distribution, which reproduces class inequality.
Let's not forget that some of the same people who are out re-establishing class power are the same that sit on the boards of some NGOs. Which reminds me of a problem that I have about Harvey's use of 'upper class' or 'elite' to designate class power. While I admit that 'bourgeoisie' sounds dusty and Victorian, these other terms seem to be too available for capture within non-Marxist, parliamentarian, and/or wrongheaded right-wing critiques of 'power' or, might we say, class power. The question is, how can we designate the ruling class of the contemporary order, in a way that describes it concisely and accurately?

These trends can only be reversed by movements that can establish alternate forms of social organization, that can move from local resistance to broader democratic governance (and I don't mean that in a parliamentarian sense). As difficult or abstract as such projects sound, fighting the global resources of capitalism demands/requires movements that can establish-- or organize?-- "freedom of speech and expression, of education and economic security, rights to organize unions, and the like" as primary freedoms, while making  "property rights and the profit rate derivative" (p. 182).

Matt's going to finish our reading of A Brief History of Neoliberalism this week by discussing 'Freedom's Prospect.'


[1] I've previously discussed some of the proposed strong reforms here.

[2] The numbers: "Aggregate global growth rates stood at 3.5 per cent or so in the 1960s and even during the troubled 1970s fell to only 2.4 per cent. But the subsequent growth rates of 1.4 per cent and 1.1 percent for the 1980s and 1990s (and a rate that barely touches 1 per cent for 2000) indicate that neoliberalization has broadly failed to stimulate worldwide growth" even with the deficit spending of the United States and China (p. 154).

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