Saturday, July 17, 2010

"A Brief History of Neoliberalism", Chapter 7

Having cornered the ideological market via naked repression and the subtler re-organization of what Gramsci calls "common sense" (i.e. "the sense held in common"), neoliberalism has on the one hand effectively foreclosed mainstream debate "as to which of several divergent concepts of freedom might be appropriate to our times" [183-184]. Under neoliberalism, freedom is simply market freedom, and rights boil down to individual property rights; even FDR's Keynesian policies and wishy-washy "Obamanomics" sound like communist extremism given neoliberalism's ideological ambiance. On the other hand, through its history of accumulation by dispossession, social corrosion and natural despoliation, neoliberalism itself accounts for "the emergence of diverse oppositional cultures that from both within and without the market system either explicitly or tacitly reject the market ethic and the practices neoliberalism imposes" [185]. Harvey argues in Chapter 7 that although there are signs of growing discontent within policy circles as regards the performance of much-touted neoliberal solutions, true change has to come from "outside the frames of reference defined by this class power and market ethics while staying soberly anchored in the realities of our time and place" [188]. To leap over our shadow in this way is possible in any case because the neoliberal organization of consent has its limits as well as its unintended consequences, and because "these realities [of our time and place] point to the possibility of a major crisis within the heartland of the neoliberal order itself" [Ibid.].

Neoliberalism is rife with economic and political contradictions. These can be contained through locally damaging but globally manageable financial crises, but only at the cost of practices departing significantly from neoliberal theory [Ibid.]. This suggests that despite its continuing hegemony in the ideological arena, neoliberalism is "in trouble if if not actually dead as a viable theoretical guide to ensuring the future of capital accumulation" [Ibid.]. Moreover, the contradictions of neoliberalism cannot rule out an Argentina-2001-type situation even in US, which would have catastrophic consequences for local as well as global capitalism [189]. This is of course a doomsday scenario, but as Harvey argues (and backs up with a painstaking reconstruction and expansion of Marx in his stellar The Limits to Capital), "there is a limit to which this system can progress" [190].

That there's a limit means not only that it is increasingly difficult for American capital to be realized (in Marx's precise sense), but that in simple terms, it's running out of frontier. Rosa Luxemburg (in The Accumulation of Capital) famously argued that capitalism needs a non-capitalist outside to survive (for example: a crisis of over-accumulation in the centers of global capitalism can be mitigated by forcing open "primitive" or "under-developed" foreign markets through economic pressure or open imperialism). This theoretical insight has been critiqued, refined and expanded by subsequent theorists, but at bottom it means that capitalism survives via periodic cycles of primitive accumulation or, as Harvey prefers to term it, "accumulation by dispossession". At the most general level, a look at recent history appears to bear this insight out. What we are witnessing now in the US, especially as regards the housing bubble and the ruination of vast swaths of the population through consumer debt, is a truly cannibalistic form of capitalism: American capital, effectively, is visiting accumulation by dispossession on American citizens.

An unworkable, cannibalistic neoliberal order will either fall on account of its own contradictions, in particular the class struggle it perpetuates and exacerbates, or it will consolidate its class rule by more and more open neoconservative authoritarianism (neoconservatism being a natural rather than monstrous or unaccountable offspring of neoliberalism). As Harvey states, "regimes of accumulation rarely if ever dissolve peacefully" [189]. Neoliberalism will not go gentle into that good night for the very reason that it is about class power, and not about economic efficiency and material abundance for the many. We can expect that the struggles surrounding the G20 coordinated austerity plan and so on will only sharpen as things develop. We can also expect increasingly open class warfare on the part of the rich to the extent that their economic "solutions" reveal themselves for what they are: accumulation by dispossession visited on the general public, with a view to further enriching the upper class. If class warfare on the part of the dispossessed is also inevitable, to the extent that this category embraces an increasingly large portion of the general population, the field is ripening for insurrection and - this is our hope in any case - for revolution.

This opens the question of the particular characteristics, direction(s) and prospects of the emergent resistance to the neoliberal order. If the recent G20 convergence in Toronto has taught us anything, it's that parliamentary politicians and the traditional organized or "official" Left continue to play the same game as their neoliberal masters. A Black Bloc of a few hundred smashing corporate storefronts caused a mass moral panic among a Left that could not even conceive of the moral rightness of property damage against the order that it professes to oppose. The official Left did the conservative government and mainstream media's job admirably in quickly denouncing militant comrades as terrorists, criminals, or agents-provocateurs. This is an exemplary case of what Lukacs long ago identified as the fetishization of legalism; apparently the mainstream Canadian Left is incapable of imaging cases where tactics may be illegal, but also morally right and pragmatically called for. Evidently, it has not even done the necessary prerequisite work of untangling the questions of legality, morality, and tactical soundness.

Harvey himself speculates on the shape of the resistance to come, taking shots at Hardt-and-Negri style abstractions as well as principled narrowly-focused local activism. There must be a global analysis to guide the resistance, but he allows that an expanded account of the local will continue to be a vital point of leverage in future struggles. Essentially, demands, agendas and tactics must be locally tailored and appropriate, but they must also be revolutionary - and this, precisely, entails a view to unity and an emergent form of activist organization. Neoliberalism's self-serving, empty and formally negative rights discourse must also be opposed by a more robust and positive vision of human rights, namely in terms of a right to economic security and prosperity.

The main lesson to take away from Harvey, in any case, is the following: "if it looks like class struggle and acts like class war then we have to name it unashamedly for what it is. The mass of the population has either to resign itself to the historical and geographical trajectory defined by overwhelming and ever-increasing upper-class power, or respond to it in class terms" [202]. In practical terms this means a subject-position cleansed of a neoliberal "common sense" that would have over seventy percent of Canadian citizens cheerfully condoning the repressive actions of a police force hired to ensure that dispossession of public assets could go unimpeded. As regards the general content of this subject-position, the Industrial Workers of the World put it best perhaps, in the preamble to their constitution: "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common."

1 comment:

santi said...

What were the X and Y axis labels in your graphic.