Neoliberalism—ideas AND political project

Posted: 26 July 2016 in Uncategorized
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Back in 2013 (and in a series of other posts), I have argued that neoliberalism (including so-called “left neoliberalism,” as espoused by Hillary Clinton and her new runnning-mate Tim Kaine) is not a unified period or stage of capitalism but, rather, a project to remake the world. Therefore, what we’re living through now is

a neoliberal order in crisis that simply cannot be grasped or contained by mainstream political and economic thought, which has only ever involved an incomplete and always-contested attempt to remake the world, and which represents the contradictory fusion of economic and non-economic processes and events.

As I see it, neoliberalism is both a set of ideas that can be traced back through the history of capitalism and a particular project to transform the world (on behalf of corporate bosses) that coalesced in the 1970s.

So, David Harvey [ht: ja], in a recent interview, unnecessarily separates the ideas from the project.

Since the publication of A Brief History of Neoliberalism in 2005 a lot of ink has been spilled on the concept. There seem to be two main camps: scholars who are most interested in the intellectual history of neoliberalism and people whose concern lies with “actually existing neoliberalism.” Where do you fit?

There’s a tendency in the social sciences, which I tend to resist, to seek a single-bullet theory of something. So there’s a wing of people who say that, well, neoliberalism is an ideology and so they write an idealist history of it.

A version of this is Foucault’s governmentality argument that sees neoliberalizing tendencies already present in the eighteenth century. But if you just treat neoliberalism as an idea or a set of limited practices of governmentality, you will find plenty of precursors.

What’s missing here is the way in which the capitalist class orchestrated its efforts during the 1970s and early 1980s. I think it would be fair to say that at that time — in the English-speaking world anyway — the corporate capitalist class became pretty unified.

The fact is, neoliberalism is both: it’s a set of ideas and a political project. Neoliberal ideas about self-governing individuals and a self-organizing economic system have been articulated since the beginning of capitalism. They present a discourse about individuals and an economic system that, according to neoclassical economists and others, needs to be understood and obeyed. We do need to understand that intellectual history because, while such ideas are not always predominant or hegemonic, they exist such that they can be mobilized in particular periods. And that’s exactly what neoliberalism as a political project did, and not for the first time, in the mid-1970s.

It’s not one or another but both, as they coalesced in a particular conjuncture, that we need to understand. Harvey is, I think, missing that connection.

But, in my view, Harvey is correct when, toward the end of the interview, he is asked about the distinction between neoliberalism and capitalism.

Do you think we talk too much about neoliberalism and too little about capitalism? When is it appropriate to use one or the other term, and what are the risks involved in conflating them?

Many liberals say that neoliberalism has gone too far in terms of income inequality, that all this privatization has gone too far, that there are a lot of common goods that we have to take care of, such as the environment.

There are also a variety of ways of talking about capitalism, such as the sharing economy, which turns out to be highly capitalized and highly exploitative.

There’s the notion of ethical capitalism, which turns out to simply be about being reasonably honest instead of stealing. So there is the possibility in some people’s minds of some sort of reform of the neoliberal order into some other form of capitalism.

I think it’s possible that you can make a better capitalism than that which currently exists. But not by much.

The fundamental problems are actually so deep right now that there is no way that we are going to go anywhere without a very strong anticapitalist movement. So I would want to put things in anticapitalist terms rather than putting them in anti-neoliberal terms.

And I think the danger is, when I listen to people talking about anti-neoliberalism, that there is no sense that capitalism is itself, in whatever form, a problem.

The fact is, capitalism has been governed by many different (incomplete and contested) projects over the past three centuries or so. Sometimes, it has been more private and oriented around free markets (as it has been with neoliberalism); at other times, more public or state oriented and focused on regulated markets (as it was under the Depression-era New Deals and during the immediate postwar period).

However, in both cases, the goal has been to extract surplus-value from workers, within and across countries. While criticisms of neoliberalism tend to emphasize the problems created by individualism and free markets, they forget about or overlook the problems—at both the micro and macro levels—associated with class exploitation.

Once we direct our focus to those problems, concerning the conditions and consequences of appropriating and distributing the surplus, the issue is not what kind of better capitalism we can put in place, but what alternatives to capitalism can be imagined and created.

  1. Luis Pérez says:

    There is no such thing as capitalism; only division of labor and capital accumulation since the start of human activity on this earth.

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