Summary and commentary on David Harvey's "A Brief History Of Neoliberalism"
“ concessions to public sector unions.... confronted public sector unions”
You use the term public sector unions when you mean, or should have meant, unions in general. I’m not sure why you’re doing this.
Thatcher's on the cover, but only mentioned once here; were her policies (and Britain's situation at the time more generally) not a focus of Harvey's?
I normally find Scott's reviews quite helpful, but this one is...off. I don't know how to say it w/o risking offense, but I don't think you have the conceptual background to write this review.
To other readers, I'd recommend https://www.dissentmagazine.org/wp-content/files_mf/1390342754d3Thompson1.pdf as a critical review of this book, that ends up making some of the same objections Scott does — especially about the predictions Harvey made that didn't come to pass — but with much more specific, detailed, and nuanced descriptions of what Harvey thinks neoliberalism is, its relationship to state and nonstate actors, where his orthodox Marxism blinds him to trends in contemporary fusion politics, and where this book sits in the arc of his academic career.
"Also, I wonder if any movement could survive this level of critique. Some progressives formed anti-inequality think tanks after the Great Recession? Guess progressivism is a sham astroturf movement that merely used the Great Recession as an excuse to push their class war agenda!"
This seems like a weird take; it's just not symmetrical. Business owners acting to further their class interests is bad (according to pretty much everyone, hence why they pretend to have other justifications); normal workers acting in the same way is good.
>Furthermore, if US interest rates rise (as at some point they must) then what happened to Mexico after the Volcker interest rate increase in 1979 starts to loom as a real problem.
The reason Mexico ran into trouble, as he points out in the book a few paragraphs up in your review, is that their debt was denominated in dollars. Fortunately, so is ours, but we also make dollars, so we can't possibly run into that specific issue.
Good Lord it's always fun to see how many levels of indirection these discussions generate.
Scott takes exception to the argument of the author. Reader 1 take exception Scott's argument. Reader 2 disagrees with Reader 1... Reader n disagrees with Reader n - 1. Plus all the permutations of those that agree with multiple prior arguments.
Things get very meta in a hurry. I don't always have a dog in these fights, but they sure are entertaining.
"Around 1970, something went wrong."
This is semimythology. The richer the region within the U.S. you look at, the less growth there was between 1930 and 1970. The 1930s-early 1970s was mostly a process of poor regions catching up with the rich, not faster growth in the richest regions, which is what matters. There was rising inequality starting around 1980, though, but I don't think that's inherently wrong.
"workforces were so heavily unionized that companies were nervous about any changes that might upset employees."
Unionization was around 25% in the early 1970s, that means if you were a worker, there was a 75% chance you were not part of a union.
"but it kept starting and expanding programs like Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security"
Government transfer payments did rise very swiftly as a percentage of GDP between 1950 and 1975, but they have continued to rise since, though at a slower pace. It's certainly possible to go further in expanding them, but there is a limit - Vermont voters rejected a universal healthcare proposal in 2014.
"Starting a new business was considered some bizarre act of alchemy, like discovering a new form of matter; normal people worked for the same giant company their whole life and got a nice gold watch as a reward when they retired."
This wasn't true; new business formation went to all-time lows in the 2010s, and was much higher earlier:
"normal people worked for the same giant company their whole life and got a nice gold watch as a reward when they retired"
Large firm employment as a percentage of total employment is at a record high. This description much more closely matches the world of today than the world of the early 1970s:
The review was interesting, but I think largely misses the actual arguments of the book. Harvey does come across as pretty preachy (especially towards the end of the book if I remember correctly) but a lot of the larger points stand well. The argument is basically that the idea of free trade and markets would lead to better human outcomes was used by certain people to make a ton of money, probably at the expense of other people.
Harvey looks at the free markets / free trade idea over time and shows how it is a basic power politics bait and switch. The "neoliberal" groups talked big about free markets, but then did a lot of things that look exactly like the opposite of free markets. The playbook was basically to come in, create a market, and then manipulate it for profit. All while saying it is in the service of human freedom.
His suggestions for improvements to the system never struck me as particularly useful, but the overall framework has served me well when trying to understand economic and political news.
This was a keystone reading for one of my favorite professors in school, and a pretty useful book to understand late 20th century history. I ended up writing a paper for the class called "A Brief History of Neoliberalism in Turkey" which used Harvey's framework to look at the changes in labor and business power there.
As an economist this is an excellent review that captures much of the frustration I have reading the neoliberalism literature.
Maybe "[dramatic adverb] [dramatic verb]" instead of "[dramatic adverb] [dramatic adjective]"?
Re: The moralism about left-wing terrorism in the 70's that often comes up around these conversations and in the link you give to Status 451. I'll admit the terrorist acts are not a good look for the left, and it does show pathologies in the left of the time, just like contemporary right-wing terrorism shows pathologies in the right wing of today, but using Wikipedia's numbers I count 62 deaths from terrorism in the 70's- from all sources. If these figures are right your annual probability of being killed by a left-wing terrorist was about one in 34 million. Even if the real figure was 10x that, it doesn't matter very much, although yes, I grant it was a symptom of deeper sickness. [And yes I acknowledge that people could use this same argument to defend the contemporary right against incrimination for their terrorism].
Might I suggest putting up a small notice at the top stating that this is *not* a book review contest entry. I assumed it was at first, and so did many other readers.
I'm not an economic historian, but I second those commentators who say that this doesn't read like you're trying to have a sympathetic, though probing, conversation with this book. I can't exactly say you're wrong, because of my lack of knowledge about economic history, but by the very standards you've encouraged in this community- charity, steelmanning etc.- this review reads... suspiciously.
Book Review: A Brief History Of Neoliberalism
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T J Elliott1 min ago
It's tough to steel oneself to read a very long review like this one when it starts so unpromisingly with the following mistakes:
"The post-WWII-but-pre-1970 economic world - the world of “embedded liberalism” - was a pleasant place."
For whom? I worked on a loading dock in 1970 and pleasant was not the vibe. But okay with that cherry picking
"There were corporations, but they didn't do anything garish like compete with each other."
Ford didn't compete against GM didn't compete against Chrysler? Bendix didn't compete? General Foods? Okay. It seemed they were competing but not something I can easily refute. But...
"....workforces were so heavily unionized that companies were nervous about any changes that might upset employees"
Most sources agree that union membership peaked around 1954 at somewhere between 33 and 36% of the workforce. Would that constitute as "heavily" even then? In 1970, 42% of the workers in Michigan were unionized but only 14% in Florida and Texas. California and New York were at 33 and 31% respectively. How is that heavily unionized?
I found these statistics in 5 minutes. A review that tries to make a point without laying the foundation of the proper facts is not worth reading
I'd be interested in a history of non-Western humanism.
Garrett Jones might say that it is indeed sensible to trust many western NGOs above the governments of third world countries, in part due to "accountability" frequently incentivizing worse behavior.
This is a weirdly negative review. Even with that I would say that the book is correct. From 1945-1980 or so most everybody did well, in the US and Europe, and from then on things start to fall apart, slowly at first and then in acceleration. That’s the empirical fact. It might have been some other reason, ie not neo liberalism but because that’s something you would expect after 30-40 years of growth, or because after the year 1980 you would expect wages to stagnate, but it’s likely that neo liberalism and globalisation are the main reason.
First, I'd echo what a few other commentators noted and say that this seems to be one of your weaker reviews - I think one of your strengths is that you are a generous and thorough reader of texts and I don't feel like this review was either comprehensive or charitable at all to Harvey's arguments. Lots of block quotes that I would say are by no means the totality of Harvey's arguments with short paragraphs refuting them or simply saying they are unconvincing.
I would say most importantly, you kind of fail to address what neoliberalism is to Harvey and to many theorists who use the term. As Thompson puts it in his review of the same book, "Neoliberalism is the intensification of the influence and dominance of capital; it is the elevation of capitalism, as a mode of production, into an ethic, a set of political imperatives, and a cultural logic."
And I really can't see what aspects of this you are refuting or even attempting to refute. Is your point that neoliberalism is good, or that history didn't happen as Harvey says it did?
To the first "thesis", I would not say the perpetual endurance or goodness of "embedded liberalism", a key piece of which is what Harvey terms Fordism elsewhere, is necessary to any critique of neoliberalism. I also don't think Harvey would agree with that at all - as an orthodox Marxist, I'm pretty sure he sees inherent contradictions in all ways in which capitalism operates. That economic growth stagnated, prices rose, supplies fell, at the end of a period of Fordism is, essentially, neither here nor there for a critique of neoliberalism.
To the second "thesis", I think a more cogent reframing would be that certain actors and entities worked for and succeeded in changing the political-economic system to reassert their class power, ushering in an era that emphasized the eminence of the market over the state. Whether the intent on the part of certain individuals was to benefit the population is immaterial to this thesis. Those funding them did not like, as you put it, an "anti-business environment".
Third "thesis", the idea behind critiques of structural adjustment, which is really what this is, is that lenders impose conditions tied to further loans and/or bailouts under the guise of general economic prescriptions that actually serve the interests of those lenders and the wealthy nations in which they originate. For instance, requirements to lower tariffs and open economies up to foreign investments which could benefit (certain) US firms and harm (certain) local firms. Requirements to cut safety nets and social systems etc. You seem to focus on one New York example and, I don't think, really get at the point Harvey is making. It isn't that NYC was some paradise before, it was that it was democratically accountable and had strong worker protections, and that financial elites remade it in a non-democratic way, weakening worker protections and, critically, commodifying culture/identity. I think this is one key point of Harvey and other scholars of neoliberalism that you don't address at all. Neoliberalism is, in essence, commodification of everything, including culture, which is a non-negligible part of what Harvey was getting at in that passage on New York. It also seems like you essentially ignore the beginning of that passage, which has Harvey's explanation of why New York was in debt in the first place - decreased federal funding.
And yes, a critique of human rights and a critique of NGOs are completely in line with far left and Marxist lines of thought - in that they both reinforce the supremacy of the individual as a unit/agent, are dictated by global elites, and supplant what should be state functions. The rise of NGOs would be considered by many to be a key part of neoliberal logic - replacing functions of the state and the democratic accountability embodied therein with either market mechanisms or an often-donor funded project with little to no accountability.
Just my editorial/marketing $0.02, it might be better for the subscriber to break these posts up into smaller chunks. For people who are killing time between calls or procrastinating at work, they are a little too long to really engage with.
Am I the only person here unfamiliar with the term "embedded liberalism?" I guess it just means FDR style liberalism?
>I’m not super sure what Harvey means by saying that the Bush tax cuts are antithetical to true free market ideology. But apparently he thinks this is true, and a sign that the government is trying to provoke a global financial crisis in order to “finally rid itself of any obligation whatsoever to provide for the welfare of its citizens”.
I think what he's saying is that the Bush administration, faced with a choice between helping people affected by the Great Recession ("sustaining capitalism") and helping out wealthy corporations ("securing the power of the ruling class"), decided to go with tax cuts for the rich. It seems odd to describe social welfare programs as "sustaining capitalism," but makes sense if you believe capitalism is unsustainable without a safety net.
And while it sounds conspiratorial to say "the government is trying to provoke a financial crisis to remove its obligation to provide for its citizens," the non-conspiracy version is the Republican "starve the beast" strategy. Economy is bad -> cut taxes in the name of stimulating the economy -> now that you don't have enough money to balance the budget, cut social programs.
"Embedded liberalism was great and completely sustainable."
David Harvey is a Marxist, so this is a misrepresentation bordering on completely laughable Scott.
I don't feel like I learned anything after reading the review. It's hard to tell if it's because book was so bad or because review strawmanned it too much.
I graduated from law school in June 1975. I had arranged a job with a"wall street" law firm. I moved to NYC and took the bar exam in July. I started to work in August 1975. The first thing I worked on was the legal consequences of a municipal bankruptcy. In 1979, I was working in midtown when the dollar went into free fall and gold shot up to $800/oz. I saw people lined up down 47th street to sell rings and jewelry.
I was raised as a Democrat. the law firm I went to work for had a very prominent Democrat on its mast head. My mother was a fund raiser for Jimmy Carter. And I voted for the male child of a female canid. By 1980, based on my experience living and working in NYC at a fairly high level and in contact with events of public consequence, I revised my political opinions and voted for Ronald Reagan. Je ne regrette rien.
Man, if ever there were an illustration of the tendency to use "neoliberal" to mean "everything the author doesn't like," it's:
"...a flood of tracts and books, with Nozick’s Anarchy State and Utopia perhaps the most widely read and appreciated, emerged espousing neoliberal values."
Whatever you may think about Anarchy, State, and Utopia, or about Nozick in general, "neoliberal" is not a reasonable descriptor.
Thank you, Scott. I thought the review was fair. There are many popular criticisms of Neoliberalism -- the problem is they tend to lack substance.
Sometimes it feels like 90% of published thought is argued poorly and from a strange and wrong set of common assumptions.
It would be a breath of fresh air to read pieces starting from the premise that unions are inefficient and bad for everyone, which then builds new interesting ideas on top.
Instead there's a long war to be fought with unsystematic thinkers bombarding us with fashionable ideas across all media sources.
Save us Scott.
I'm a long time SSC/ACT reader, and have always appreciated the rigor and clarity of the reviews on here, but this one's got me questioning whether I was just wasn't reading closely enough in the past.
"Harvey’s picture of an idyllic New York getting hit with a financial crisis for no reason"
After quoting Harvey saying:
"Capitalist restructuring and deindustrialization had for several years been eroding the economic base of the city, and rapid suburbanization had left much of the central city impoverished. The result was explosive social unrest on the part of marginalized populations during the 1960s, defining what came to be known as ‘the urban crisis’ (similar problems emerged in many US cities). The expansion of public employment and public provision—facilitated in part by generous federal funding—was seen as the solution. But, faced with fiscal difficulties, President Nixon simply declared the urban crisis over in the early 1970s."
Scott's gloss is clearly meant to be a kind of sarcastic hyperbole, but its so so so far removed from what Harvey's actually saying as to be a gross mischaracterization. I've done my share of hatereading in the past, and realized later how going in with that lens deeply distorted my reading to the point of blunt misreading. This whole review is *glowing* with that vibe.
I've hoped for a long time that Scott would review this book. I didn't expect him to *agree* with it - or even like it - but this leaves me bummed out.
I'll add in another note about that Status 451 blog you link to and speak very highly of. In it the author claims:
"Sustained political violence is dependent on the willing cooperation of admirers and accomplices. The Left has these. The Right does not."
After a decade in which right-wing terrorist against killed at least 63 people in the US alone (ironically, 1 more than was killed in the decade of the 70's according to Wikipedia's numbers), this is a disgraceful claim. I suppose they might quibble about the meaning of "sustained", but it simply reads like right-wing apologism.
We don't have to speculate about the possibility of a sustained rightwing campaign of violence in the 2010's and 2020's because there already has been one. The left's body count during the same period is minuscule. What the left did, it did 50 years ago or it did recently, but most likely didn't kill anyone. That's the underlying truth that the status 451 article article isn't acknowledging. At present, the left simply isn't as violent, in statistical terms, as the right. Certainly if we measure violence by body count it is not even close.
"Institutions are organizations the Left controls that operate for the benefit of the Left’s people. The Right doesn’t really have these. As an example, there are occasional hard right lawyers, but so far as I know there is no such thing as the Reactionary Lawyers’ Guild."
A majority of supreme court justices were selected in part for their involvement in the Federalist society, FFS. The federalist society is further to the right than the national lawyer's guild is to the left by world standards, and probably by American standards to. The fact that the federalist society hasn't been, to my knowledge, implicated in past terrorism doesn't change that. If the author wants to play the equivalent of the game I see on the left sometimes "it doesn't count as left-wing unless I like it", but for the right instead, fine, but that's not serious analysis. The right, including the Trumpist right, has plenty of institutions. Relative to the percentage of the population who would support the right if everyone voted, it has a very nice swathe of institutions indeed.
"Some of this could actually be constructive for campus civility. For instance, I’ve long argued that if a Righty speaker is disrupted on a college campus, then campus Righties should *disrupt every single Lefty speaker for the remainder of the school year.*"
I'll note that what this is proposing is A) escalation and B) escalation not necessarily against the people directly responsible for the first attack (it says "every single lefty speaker").
The 451 blog post is hack work. Interesting hack work in part, with valuable statistics and anecdotes, and well written, but ultimately right-wing apologia. I simply don't think you'd uncritically link to a similar blogpost on the left *nor would I expect you to*.
I've defended this blog in the past from the accusation of being a rightwing hub, and I took one of the virtues of this blog to be an attempt to rise above the fray- a genuine effort at analysis that isn't left or right, but is effortful. Praising something like this, I find disappointing.
Weird. I first learned about the Bretton Woods system from a practice SAT test, where it was nestled as a footnote, and now it's being discussed as one of the the most important economic things ever in the past century. Is this 🦋 the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon?
I feel like this would be a good pairing with Marc Levinson's <em>An Extraordinary Time</em> and Matt Stoller's <em>Goliath</em>. Levinson is basically talking about the same economic period and transition as Harvey, but with much more of an international comparison focus and less Conflict Theory. Stoller is all about the history of antitrust policy and efforts, and he'd probably argue that the 1950s and 1960s were a golden age of new business startups and commerce that was ruined by what came after the 1970s.
It sounds like Harvey (when discussing the NYC financial crisis) does that thing that <em>Jacobin</em> does as well, where they have to elide the causality of why some crisis occurred because it creates dissonance with their ideological priors. So they talk about NYC getting hit with a financial crisis, but not about how the city was brought to the point of vulnerability in a financial crisis by hefty city-level taxes, high social spending (nostalgically referred to as NYC's equivalent of "Red Vienna"), aggressive unions, rising crime, and businesses deciding they didn't want to deal with that stuff anymore and following people out to the suburbs and South.
It almost seems like a law of the universe in my experience that when a pernicious trend (declining union membership, social trust, rising Gini coefficients, etc.) is attributed to neoliberalism by a prominent academic (Turchin, Krugman, Applebaum, Putman, looking at you), a quick examination of the numbers will show that the trend clearly predated neoliberalism.
"[dramatic adverb] [dramatic adjective]" should be "[dramatic adverb] [dramatic verb]", no?
(first time I've ever caught an SSC/ACT typo! This is exciting!)
Scott, from where do you get your story of how embedded liberalism met its demise? The Milton Friedman take is essentially that the phillips curve broke down because we had a supply shock (rather than wages driving inflation) hence stagflation. I’m not especially familiar with that timeframe, so I’d love to hear where the stuff about Medicare and Unions and the like originates.
Anyone who writes like this is probably not interested in finding the truth. To use vocabulary like that is to ignore that there are tradeoffs to any economic decision making. The fact that taxpayers have a lessoned bill and bondholders (that’s your 401k or pension, unless you have absolutely 0 plan for retirement) are made whole is irrelevant to the author. Either the author doesn’t understand how these tradeoffs work, or he doesn't care to acknowledge that there are tradeoffs in the first place. Given that he sounds like a Marxist, I’ll take #2–he doesn’t want to acknowledge the tradeoffs because the decision, let’s say, to “slash” benefits is purely morally wrong within a Marxist moral framework. It doesn’t explicitly advantage the working class vis-à-vis the bourgeoisie, therefore, it’s bad. No matter that the case could easily be made that this is in the long-run interests of everyone.
"nowadays economists (including the most left-leaning ones) are telling the government it should be less concerned about debt, not more."
Clearly you haven't read John Cochrane's blog (see e.g https://johnhcochrane.blogspot.com/2020/09/debt-matters.html) who is a well-known economist; certainly economists are not as a whole saying the government should be less concerned about debt. You're also missing the part of the picture which is that US debt is now being bought in large amounts by the Federal Reserve in what amounts to money printing to finance spending.
I think you are being too harsh on the debt prediction; after all there *was* an incident last year when a member of congress suggested defaulting on US debt to China ("nobody protested foreigners having too much debt").
Yeesh. I lived through the 70s and remember it well. None of this makes the slightest sense. The sea change in political and social mythology that came at the end of that decade was, from my ground-level view, driven from the bottom up. No politician started it, no secret cabal, no vast shadowy conspiracy of Rothschilds and Wall Street financiers. Half the politicians were taken by surprise and their fortunes went up in flames.
People were just freaking sick of brutal inflation and economic stagnation, the endless lecturing from academics and politicians about accepting a steadily diminishing quality of private life in the name of the greater good, or because of some vague universal limitations only they could truly understand (because we were all too stupid to get it), and being assured too many times that the chocolate ration was being raised to 20g/week.
People flung it all away and decided to give the statist do-gooders the boot, give untrammeled private greed and The Invisible Hand a try not because they were good students of Mieses or something, but simply because they were sick of the endless malaise and being lectured to, and some politicians (obviously particularly Reagan and Thatcher) were smart enough to see that nascent wave and ride it to victory.
The message I think people heard from people like Reagan was this: "Collective action is a dead end. It hasn't had a new idea in decades. Maybe your dad was a loyal FDR New Dealer, heck I was too, but it isn't the 30s any more and those ideas are played out, exhausted, not working. But listen: I believe in *you*, all you individuals. I think *you* have new ideas, that you can imagine new and better ways to run your private lives, and I bet if we just got all the dead weight of the collective organizations off your back -- the government, the big unions, the big banks, the big networks, the lawyers from one of the massive alphabet-soup agencies -- all the operations of 10,000 people run by people a thousand miles away from you -- if we can get them to back off, why, you'll come up with better ideas that will prove we don't need to accept a steadily declining quality of life, turn the heat down and wear a sweater."
I think people generally understood that was at least a little naive, perhaps a litle delusional, and they doubted it was so simple. But my God it was a breath of fresh air, to have the President saying "Hey, I trust *you* and you and you, all you regular schmoes, just as much or even more as the usual brainy aristocrats, and I think if you're let more alone to do whatever you think is best, we'll be just fine." People thought, what the hell, let's give it a try. And you can't overestimate the attraction of a politician saying "I trust the American people" and actually meaning it.
There was a great Doonesbury cartoon of the day I remember, in which Reagan is giving some statement or other to the press, and they ask a pointed question, and he replies as if he's addressing the public directly and Rick Redfern says "Hey no fair! He's going over our heads to the people...!" And it kind of felt that way, that Reagan was "going over the heads" of everyone who had been telling us how to think and act and breathe for 25 years, and tickled our fancies to think of ourseves as *being* over the heads of all the smart guys.
I think that's about it, that's all there was to it, from my bug's eye point of view. The rest just follows from the huge semi-emotional wave that crested at the time. The fact that it worked out OK, that the 80s were a boom decade -- who knows why *that* happened? Maybe Reagan was smarter than he looked, maybe there was brilliant tactical leadership further down, maybe it was all just dumb luck, maybe there were blind massive economic and social (or demographic) forces at work that would've made it work out had Mickey Mouse been President.
"I am not sure what Harvey means here about how under (non-neo) liberal practices lenders take the losses. In the 1960s, would bankers have loaned to Mexico and then, when Mexico couldn’t pay it back, just said “okay, whatever, keep the extra”?"
This why different interest rates exist. Riskier loans pay higher interest because of the greater chance of default. If everyone is forced to pay loans back regardless of ability to pay, the system makes no sense. Which is why imf forcing African countries to privatize their resources and impoverish citizenry through austerity measures to service a debt that was made 50 years ago and direct deposited into a dictators bank account and has been paid back many times over but thanks to the miracle of compounding interest is larger than ever- gives neoliberalism a bad name. Highly recommend Debt by david graeber, gripping account of money and debt through history.
Aside from the many economic crises of the 1970s, there were also lots of structural factors that made pre-1970s liberalism unsustainable:
1. A declining unionization rate. Fewer people in unions means strikes, union security agreements, and the like, which benefit the unionized labor aristocracy at the expense of everyone else, become less popular.
2. An aging population. It's a lot easier to have generous welfare benefits when you have lots of working young people supporting a few elderly, than when the largest demographic group in your population is old people who need Social Security and Medicare.
3. The rise of the developing world, especially China. It's a lot harder to have ultra-high tax rates, ultra-high blue colar wages, and onerous regulations when companies can take their manufacturing elsewhere.
4. The failure of the communist countries to create any semblance of prosperity, which damaged the credibility of left-wing economic arguments.
Strange... I 'remember' the Winter of Discontent (UK) as being earlier in the decade, and I lived through it. My suspicion is that many books like this take the bones of an idea and then hang bits of cherry picked history on it.
Pausing the review just to say this:
"Guess progressivism is a sham astroturf movement that merely used the Great Recession as an excuse to push their class war agenda!"
You clearly don't know enough libertarians if you haven't encountered people who literally claim this.
A few stray remarks from someone who was there at the time.
Any ideology under pressure will tend to lash out at its opponents, often by presenting a very biased and exaggerated account of the past, or of alternative presents that may be proposed. You have to be over 60, I should think, to have any real memory of what life was like in the period 1945-75, and, taking advantage of this, neoliberals have developed over the decades an entire counter-history of the time. To the challenge "that's wrong!" about an assertion they will say something like "I suppose you think that period was a paradise then!" which effectively shuts down any further discussion. Of course it wasn't paradise, and there was no overarching ideology to be discredited anyway. There was just a realisation, by governments of all political persuasions, that there could be no return to the poverty and depression of the 1930s. The analogy I normally employ is that of driving a car: it helps to know where you want to go, where you are, to keep your eyes on the road and hold the steering wheel. That's pretty much all that the economic policies of different countries had in common. Increasingly from the 1970s, the car was under the control of those who thought you should close your eyes, take your hands off the wheel and fight with the other passengers about where the car was going to go.
The fact that this second group won out, increasingly since the 1970s, is primarily a matter of chance. I'd just mention three things. One was the inter-generational conflict after 1968, which was more significant than is often thought, but which, under more benign economic conditions, would have played out very differently, and indeed probably cemented the postwar consensus in place. The second was the political, but also economic, effects of the Vietnam war, including the US moving off the gold standard in 1972, which affected the whole world. The third was the toxic mix of inflation and deflation that followed the massive increase in oil prices after the 1973 Middle East War. This produced unemployment, for the first time since 1945, and trades union militancy as peoples' standards of living were hit. You'll see firstly that none of these things had anything to do with the economic policies of the 50s and 60s - all were extraneous shocks. You'll also see that there's some playing fast and loose with dates, as is usual in arguments of this sort, since the 70s were very different.
The British case is especially interesting (I was there). For a start, the rise of Thatcher was essentially an accident. The Tories went down to a humiliating defeat in 1974, and in the machiavellian manoeuvring that followed, Thatcher was put forward as a stalking horse to defeat the moderates; But the arithmetic was wrong, and she came out top, essentially as a protest vote. This was bizarre, since her politics were very much a minority in the party, and they were, indeed, a more radical version of those that had led to defeat in 1974. She could also easily have lost the 1979 election. Had the then Labour PM, Callaghan, called an election in October 1978 he might well have won, or at least ensured a Tory minority government. As it was, there was a particularly bad winter in 1978 (the famous "Winter of Discontent") and the Tories just scraped into power the following year. Although the media made a terrible fuss, the idea that Britain underwent some kind of ideological sea-change at that point is absolutely wrong. Indeed, the first few years of Thatcher were so catastrophic that it was only the fact that the Labour Party split into two and the halves fought each other that saved the Tories from being wiped out in the next election. The attempt to construct a narrative of inevitability around all this is quite dishonest: had it not been for some extraordinary luck, and some suicidal decisions by the Labour party, neoliberalism would have been dead by 1985. And what happened in Britain, remember, influenced greatly what happened elsewhere.
I'm really surprised that there are negative comments about this review. Before I was half way through I was thinking "This is what the book review contestants should compare themselves to (and aspire to). Interesting, thoughtful and thought-provoking - I'm not sure what else people could want.
A couple of personal nitpicks,though. I was disappointed that even with a picture of the Iron Lady on the 'front page' and it starting off with (in the second sentence) talk of the 'global economy', almost the entire review was about one country - America. In fact from talking about the global economy to the first mention of 'the government', it is not even specified which country is being talked about. I know Scott is American and so is the majority of the readership but I always find this irritating (it happens in a lot of the essays here). The Iron Lady was conspicuous by her absence and I was expecting a lot more of Milton Friedman - as the supposed guru behind Reagan and Thatcher.
However, I'm now going to read the review again - I really thought it was that good.
Oh, and if it doesn't say "Your Book Review" at the beginning, isn't it obviously by Scott?
There seems to be a pretty big hole in both the review (and the book ?) and these discussions about the material conditions behind the 1970s :
- US oil production reached a peak in 1971.
- While demand kept growing (causing some supply difficulties even in 1970).
- So US crude imports more than doubled between 1970 and 1973 (and before 1973, import quotas were in place).
- In April 1971, practically for the first time since WW2, the American trade balance was in the red.
- 4 months later Nixon ends the Bretton Woods gold standard : the convertibility between gold and dollars, leading to a strong devaluation of the dollar.
- At the same time OPEC quickly sensed the wind turning, and feeling powerful for the first time, threatened an embargo in January 1971. Western companies caved in to this price increase, only the first one of a long series of concessions... (And OPEC partially *have* to do it, as the dollars they are getting for the oil become devalued compared to gold, important in the Islmai hawala ! Not to mention that they're just following supply and demand, at least until the (semi-) embargo itself.)
- Oil companies got nationalized all over the world : Algeria, Venezuela, Iraq, Lybia...
- A transfer of shares from Western companies to Arab Gulf countries in their oil companies (like Aramco, which extractions doubled between 1970 and 1973 !) was negotiated.
- Speculative : about the "Christmas Eve Massacre" itself : according to the ex-minister of the Saudi oil, the Shah of Iran had told him that Kissinger wanted a higher price so that the Western oil companies could finance big new oil projects, now primarily offshore.- Between 1973 and 1974 the natural decline of American extractions was almost double the reduction of oil mandated by OPEC's political decisions.
- 1970 to 1973 was a transition from the oil market being ruled by demand to being governed by supply.
Source : *Oil, Power, and War: A Dark History* by Matthieu Auzanneau
Love the last sentence: "Overall it looks like Harvey was wrong about all of his specific beliefs, but right that increasingly many people would agree with him. This is probably a metaphor for life."
Also, nice dramaturgical twist in the first part of the review.
A supplementary fun fact, for those who enjoy political science:
It was not only Reagan/Thatcher who initiated the "neoliberal" change. Equally important was the Labour party in New Zealand. The main actor bringing about this internal ideological change in Labour was the finance minister Roger Douglas (his policies were later dubbed "Rogernomics").
Similar ideological changes took place within the Scandinavian social democratic parties, and the German social democratic party under Schroeder. The Social Democrats have often been in the driver's seat with regard to these allegedly "neoliberal" changes: enhance competition, do outsorcing of publicly financed services, introduce purchase-provider splits and so on. Arguably, such policies supplement older Social Democratic tropes such as ensure wage moderation in unions, and fiscal discipline (you don't mess with "our" public finances); so the degree of ideological shift should not be exaggerated.
The Conservatives have sometimes been more reluctant to embrace so-called neoliberalism than Social Democrats, in countries where Conservative parties are split between an old-fashioned conservative faction emphasising culture, tradition and gradualism; versus a liberal faction emphasising individual freedoms and never-argue-with-the market.
You got the same change in British Labour as well, under Tony Blair; however this change within Labour only happened in the aftermath of Thatcher, and may thus be regarded more as a consequence of her regime, than as a homegrown change within the party (as in New Zealand, the Scandinavian countries and Germany). Perhaps for this reason, the ideological shift/slight re-orientation within Social Democracy has not been sustained in British Labour (but things may be in the process of changing there again).
Be that as it may, who can ever forget Margaret Thatcher's reply when a journalist asked what was her main achievement: "New Labour".
Oh, also, Scott quotes two paragraphs about neoconservatism as the next stage and then concludes "As far as I can tell, neoconservatism reached its apex during the Bush administration, and since then everyone has backed away from it. It was not an inevitable next phase of capitalism"
But a lot of the aspects of neoconservatism Harvey describes did survive and got amplified by the Trump administration, right? (Of course, others didn't, and also I think different people were involved, so nobody calls it neoconservatism.)
I was a child during the 70s and vaguely remember the queues at petrol stations (gas stations in American) and of course, there always seemed to be a strike going on - I think I spent nearly as much time with the electricity off and the old reliable kerosene lamp going as I did with the electric lights on! The craziest one probably was the bank strike which nearly created an entire new economic system in the country https://hbr.org/2010/11/the-irish-banking-crisis-a-par (we had one preceding this in 1966 and one afterwards in 1976, but the 1970 one was the most notable).
But Ireland always lagged behind everyone else, so the really bad times didn't hit until the 80s, and the 80s were *bad*. While Britain started to recover under Thatcherism and the "loadsamoney" effects of that towards bringing a lot of working-class people up into the middle-class, we were still relying on the usual solution to Irish problems, namely, everyone emigrated to the countries that were doing better such as Britain, the USA, Canada and Australia. We being so heavily dependent on American investment for employment does explain why, if the American economy caught cold in the 70s, we ended up with the flu in the 80s.
“narcissistic exploration of self, sexuality, and identity” (does he mean gay people?)"
Not outstandingly so, *everyone* in the 70s (well, at least in the USA and maybe parts of Europe) was going for Sexual Liberation. If you ever see TV shows and movies from the time, it's very obvious (and you can perhaps also see why 70s feminism took off in response to the attitude towards women). All kinds of psychological and pseudo-psychological regimes and therapies were very popular, this article mentions just four (and I do remember hearing about est): https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2010-nov-15-la-he-psychology-fads-20101115-story.html
The Enneagram, Carlos Castaneda, Erich von Daniken and all the Ancient Astronauts and Advanced Ancient Civilisations stuff - this was a rich field to plough all through the 70s. It was the culmination of the 60s attitudes, where in the new decade the new generation was now starting to be in charge and all the changes were going to be made permanent and everyone was going to be rich, free, and enlightened through exploration of one's own unique identity, throwing off the shackles of the past, and using scientifically (ahem) based techniques of psychoanalysis melded with ancient native wisdom to restructure your personality the way you wanted it to be. This was going to be the decade of automation meaning the four-day work week and hence a lot of leisure (and money) to spend on self-improvement and narcissism; after all, having to gaze deeply and for a long while into the depths of one's psyche to find out where your parents and society had fucked you up, and stifled your talents and gifts, so that you could then apply the remedies of whatever guru caught your fancy, encouraged this kind of navel-gazing.
I don't think Harvey's take on this history of human rights as a concept is actually correct, at least not when applied to US foreign policy. The high-water mark there was probably under Carter in the late 70s, where it was taken seriously enough to lump a bunch of authoritarian regimes that were on our side of the Cold War with the communists. In 1980, we got Reagan, who was more concerned with ending communism, and rightly so.
I get confused by the seeing neoliberalism described as Regan-Thatcherism, and Scott calling himself a neoliberal, and Scott saying he voted for Elizabeth Warren in the primary. Is there a conflict here? Is Warren a neoliberal? Is modern neoliberalism not all that similar to what it used to mean in the days of Reganism? Are there just no neoliberal candidates to vote for so Warren becomes the next closest? Maybe the vote is purely on social politics considerations and despite economics?
And in general, what do modern neoliberals believe? The basic premise from the wikipedia article on it makes me think more of the Tea Party. Yet I don't think that seems to reflect things well (r/neoliberal is fervently in favor of Joe Biden, for example and he was kinda the original opposition to the Tea Party). The description Scott quoted years ago of "free markets are great at making wealth, but bad at distributing it" resonates with me but not, I think, with Regan. Do neoliberals these days believe in single-payer healthcare? UBI? Increasing corporate taxes in the US? Social safety nets? Breaking up Big Tech? The EU? I have little idea.
Neoconservativism has not backed away or gone away, unless the wars on Libya, Syria, Yemen, etc., the coups in Ukraine, Bolivia and Honduras didn't happen. Hell, look at the howls of outrage from the national security establishment when Trump made noises about leaving Syria, a country that has never harmed us in any way and in which we have no real interest.
Just that now, the wars are justified not by "the war on terror" but by some self-serving and hypocritical human rights talk.
This is a good source of the year the broke the US: https://wtfhappenedin1971.com/
Serious question, why waste time reading books by hacks like this when there are so many good books to read? I got about half way through your review before I lost all respect for David Harvey as an objective observer.
>the neoliberal drive towards the construction of asymmetric market freedoms but makes the anti-democratic tendencies of neoliberalism explicit through a turn into authoritarian, hierarchical, and even militaristic means of maintaining law and order.
Not sure why you say this hasn't happened when police militarization is at an all time high, all over the world (not just in the US) civilian protests are crushed by militarized police, and less than 12 months ago the President of the United States WAS literally screaming about LAW AND ORDER.
I read this part as particularly prescient and was very surprised when you said "nope, nothing like this has happened"
For the record, it was made completely clear that this wasn't a book review contest entry. Scott calls it "Your Book Review" whenever it's a contest entry, and just "Book Review" - like he always has! - when it's a regular post. Plus there's a 6ish-line disclaimer atop every contest entry.
It's amusing to me that people are calling for more clear signposting. It's not that hard to tell. It's obviously understandable if you got confused, but I think asking Scott to therefore preface posts on his blog with "no, this wasn't written by someone else" instead of just checking twice when reading the title, especially knowing there's currently a contest going on, (which is what I do) is a bit unnecessary?
Leftist critique of "human rights" is not "unique and original" with Harvey's book, goes back at least to the eighties; by the nineties there was already a pro-rights backlash and an anti-rights backbacklash. If there's any consensus it's that human rights aren't liberation and aren't going to further the kind of structural change Leftists think necessary--at best. I can see why in the context of USA politics conversations human rights looks like a "Left" thing, but this seems more because of recent culture wars politicization of human rights rather than because progressives think they're the biggest deal around.
In response to some of the comments about this review being unusually uncharitable, I feel compelled to point out that it wouldn't be much of a book review if Scott just went "here's what the book says, I don't think the arguments it makes are all that good, here's how I would support the same position."
Also, I don't think he has the necessary mental gears to steelman the economic-left's case, which is the very reason he keeps trying to engage with their literature (and keeps picking the wrong books, it seems to me). Holding this kind of review to the standards of a blog post is probably unfair.
I'm reminded of his review of MacIntyre's After Virtue, which basically just says "I don't get it", and was followed by some posts that engaged with the commenters' attempts to explain and/or steelman the book's position. Similarly, this one could really use a "highlights from comments" follow-up.
It was Marx himself who originally characterized 'human rights' as a bourgeois concern, which of course gave cover for the lack of concern for human rights typical of real-world Marxist governments. Harvey seems to be keeping as much of the party line as possible while also trying not to sound like a monster.
I liked this review. I think you did a good job, and it was enjoyable reading. Normally I wouldn't comment just for that, but when only angry people comment I imagine it can be disheartening.
Good & interesting review 👍
It was a pretty weird experience reading some of the quotes from the book, honestly. He speaks negatively about "artistic freedom and artistic license", "opening up of the cultural field to all manner of diverse cosmopolitan currents", "the exploration of self, sexuality, and identity" (what's so narcissistic about that?), human rights, individualism, "civil society as a centre of opposition, if not an alternative, to the state", etc. All of those seem unambiguously good to me! Harvey and I have fundamentally different worldviews, I guess. Maybe the book elaborates in more detail why he thinks those are bad (beyond calling them neoliberal/imperialist/a weapon in a class struggle/other content-free verbiage); for the most part, the review gives the impression that he just takes their badness for granted.
In particular: to my mind, liberalism means living your life how you see fit, and democracy is for coming together to solve collective problems that require unselfish coordination. But it seems like Harvey (and many other leftist theorists) wants democratic decision-making to impact every facet of my life, which seems like a transparently awful idea to me. Whatever happened to live and let live?
"The government is a blob of power that gets captured by different groups at different times and directed willy-nilly to one purpose or another; just because it does not perfectly follow a specific philosophy without deviation for fifty years doesn’t make that philosophy inherently fraudulent."
I think that this is strawmanning what I found to be one of Harvey's strongest points: that neoliberalism hasn't just occasionally failed to live up to its own Laissez-faire principles, but that it has consistently and predictably ignored those principles whenever they conflicted with the interests of capital.
What makes this criticism more salient towards neoliberalism than say conservatism or socialism, is that than most conservatives and socialists already understand there ideologies to be political ones. If you attacked a socialist with "you'll just do anything you need to to help the working class and redistribute wealth" they would probably respond with "duh".
Neoliberals truly invsisioned themselves as unmoored by the messy reality of partisanship and instead viewed their free market beliefs as ends unto themselves. Proving --as I think Harvy does quite compellingly -- that philosophical convictions have never gone so far as to let there be any real consequences for the wealthy (especially in regards to the financial industry) makes it hard to take these claims at face value. It reminds me of the famous Alan Greenspan bit where after every bank failure he would give unconditional bailouts and then say "This is a fluke and we will never have to do this again". Understanding the actions of people like Greenspan as "they were just really convinced about the efficiency of markets" makes no sense given any of the decisions they made in practice
Its worth noting that I read ABHoNL in an international development class (not a notably left area of academia), which is a field that at this point broadly accepts most of Harviess claims on this matter. No one really takes laissez fair economists at face value anymore and no one really thinks it's worth analysing the deregulation of the past 40 years as a philosophical movement that went a bit to far.
What is very amusing to me about this kind of Pinker VS Harvey dialogue you see in rationalist circles where people are arguing that free markets are either AMAZINGLY RATIONAL FREEDOM DELIVERY MECHANISMS or irrational but valuable things which need persistent and systemic intervention is not really reflecting any serious disagreement within academia (or even politics) at this point. Most people think the latter outside of very certain econ departments which are rapidly being marginalized.
I agree with the observation that leftist critique of "human rights" is not "unique and original" with Harvey's book. Being left wing is basically about collective ownership and decision-making; as the old clause IV of the Labour Party phrased it,
"To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service".
There's nothing in there about human rights, which are often presented as the rights of an individual. A left-wing critique of sexism or racism or anti-LGBT would focus more on the collective struggle of the group against oppression rather than the rights of the individual.
Please note that I'm not advocating either position here; I'm just trying to explain the different approaches (as I understand them).
Part of the success of Blair's "New Labour" project, coming after Thatcher, was to ally traditional Labour voters with progress in civil rights, while rewriting clause 4 to remove the bits about collective ownership. In this way he formed an alliance between left-wingers and liberals. My impression that a similar shift happened in the USA. Progressives were unable to gain much in the economic sphere, while those who focussed on civil rights made more headway.
Since we're talking about that time period and forgetfulness, it's fascinating to me that until recently we had seemingly completely forgotten about the "Hong-Kong" flu of 1968 and 1969, which killed 1-4 million people worldwide (2-8 scaled to current population, COVID is at 3 million so far), and 33k-100k in the US alone (53k-160k scaled to current population, COVID is at 600k so far).
Everyone was predicting a financial crisis in 2008 - Adam Tooze lays it all out in great detail in his book Crashed. It's just that everyone was predicting a crisis caused by US bonds, not one caused by mortgages.
> As far as I can tell, neoconservatism reached its apex during the Bush administration, and since then everyone has backed away from it.
I don't know, the notion of domestic applications military power seems spot on. Not just the law and order rhetoric from Trump and other Republicans, but note how the US Capital is still host to thousands of troops. Democrats are also still crowing about the need for new laws to combat domestic threats, despite little evidence that such threats exist or that new laws are even needed to combat such threats.
I'm sympathetic to the notion that power corrupts, and that at one point, perhaps unions had too much power and neoliberalism was a response to abuses of power. The pendulum has almost certainly swung too far the other way though, and economic and political elites have been abusing their power for quite some time now.
If you want a stronger argument, I think you'd find Krugman's book 'The Conscience of a Liberal' much better. Ignore the title - it's actually a relatively dense book on US political economy dating back to around 1900. I think you would find it interesting for a few reasons:
1) Krugman was formerly much more neoliberal leaning (and of course is a top economist), so he's not blind to its advantages.
2) There's some statistical focus to sort through plausible narratives.
3) His school of thought is apparently influential in the current administration, so it could shed light on the current political dynamics even if you don't ultimately find it compelling.
I'd also consider his short essay "The Instability of Moderation".
I somehow thought this was an entry in the book review competition and not something SA wrote himself, and throughout the whole post kept thinking "this guy writes a lot like Scott, is he consciously aping the style in order to increase his chances of winning" and "this guy is pretty good I may have to think about voting for this one" haha
You really need to look at the pre war period to evaluate liberalism’s economic performance. Friedman, Sowell and Hayek argue/d at length that Keynesianism’s track record is appalling in comparison, especially when looking at inflation levels in the 70s and the causes of the Great Depression.
Also, consider the track record of similar liberal economies vs statist ones. Britain vs France, Estonia/Lithuania vs Portugal/Greece, US vs EU. Britain is a good example of the failure of Keynesianism - it was called the sick man of Europe until Thatcher came to power and they joined the EEC.
Because of horrific social-democratic economical policies that led to inflation and constant currency devaluations due to excessive wage increases and persistent budget deficits, Sweden had no - NO - real wage growth for 20 years in the period 1975 to 1995. Only "neoliberal" reforms finally made the economy functional again after a completely home-grown economic crisis pushed interest rates to 500% (!!). Since then, the economy has been consistently fine, even managing Great Recession very well, and real wages have risen dramatically while public debt has decreased massively. Even the Covid crisis only dented it.
Graphics link: https://tino.us/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/link-real-wages-in-sweden-1960-2013-4-739x556.png
I kind of agree with another person who said this review was a bit "off". I think I know something which felt wrong to me: that Scott isn't fairly characterizing the book in the passages he cites.
Let's look at Scott's summary of Harvey on the NYC situation:
"So Harvey’s picture of an idyllic New York getting hit with a financial crisis for no reason, being betrayed by greedy bankers, and then turning gritty and mean doesn’t really seem to check out."
A little above:
"Also, I think at least some of those pages are false: Wikipedia says that “the city [had] gained notoriety for high rates of crime and other social disorders” by 1970, five years before any of this happened. Also, here’s some more of the relevant article:"
But the passage of the book which Scott excerpt **starts off** with the "urban crisis" in NYC in the 1960s. Nowhere does it say that NYC was "idyllic" before the 1970s. The argument in the book is that the federal govt. (under Nixon) stopped federal aid by prematurely declaring the crisis over in 1970, and then (under Ford) refused aid in the negotiations in 1975. The federal govt. may have good reasons for its actions (though Harvey suggests that Ford's decision was driven by ideological advice), but the picture I get is very different from what Scott says.
Note: I have not read the book, nor do I have deep knowledge of any of the economics involved.