David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism: A Pre-Review

As I said, I’m enjoying David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism, but there are some gaffes in the book that bother me and prevent me from taking it entirely seriously.

For instance, Harvey states that Spain was on the brink of rejecting the neo-liberal way of development when the Socialists won overwhelmingly at the polls in 1982. This is absolutely untrue. The Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party never even considered, at any point whatsoever, the possibility of departing as much as half a millimeter from the neo-liberal path. I’ve been researching this very issue for months and there isn’t an iota of evidence suggesting that Spain was likely to leave the neo-liberal fold.

Harvey also says that after the fall of the USSR,

The countries of Eastern Europe and the CIS have registered some of the largest increases ever… in social inequality.

This is a statement that cannot possibly be supported by any data because there are no reliable records from the USSR attesting to the degrees of social inequality. I lived in the USSR and witnessed its collapse. I insist that there was no increase in inequality. It seemed to many that there were because inequality started to be shown on TV. Of course, I have no proof for this opinion, just like nobody has any proof to the contrary, which is why I won’t be putting this personal belief into any scholarly book.

To counterbalance the negative impression left by these gaffes, I will offer you a very interesting quote from Harvey on how the movement of ’68 was co-opted by neo-liberalism:

For almost everyone involved in the movement of ’68, the intrusive state was the enemy and it had to be reformed. And on that, the neoliberals could easily agree. But capitalist corporations, business, and the market system were also seen as primary enemies requiring redress if not revolutionary transformation: hence the threat to capitalist class power. By capturing ideals of individual freedom and turning them against the interventionist and regulatory practices of the state, capitalist class interests could hope to protect and even restore their position. Neoliberalism was well suited to this ideological task. But it had to be backed up by a practical strategy that emphasized the liberty of consumer choice, not only with respect to particular products but also with respect to lifestyles, modes of expression, and a wide range of cultural practices.

I lived in Ithaca, NY for a year and witnessed first-hand how joyously and successfully former hippies embraced the culture of consumerism. Harvey is definitely on to something here.

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