Both radical and mainstream authors now frequently attack ‘neo-liberalism’ and ‘free-market fundamentalism’. But their alternative to these largely mythical creeds would be far, far worse.
Daniel Ben-Ami, Spiked
One of the great puzzles of contemporary political debate is what exactly critics of Western governments mean by the term ‘neo-liberalism’. Typically, the concept is associated with the ideas propagated by a familiar cast of conservative villains, including Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. Behind the scenes, pulling the strings, are said to be the financial powers of Wall Street and the City of London. But this will not do as a definition. It is rarely made clear whether the ultimate object of their attack is a theory, a set of policies, a phase of capitalism, or something else.
The mystery deepens when it comes to David Harvey, one of the most sophisticated exponents of the concept of neo-liberalism. In the current intellectual climate, it would probably come as a surprise to many to learn that the work of a 75-year-old professor of anthropology and self-proclaimed Marxist is so popular. Yet his 2010 YouTube lecture on the crises of capitalism has received over one million hits. Other critics of neo-liberalism also widely cite Harvey’s many books as authorities on the subject.
Fortunately the publication in paperback of Harvey’s latest book, The Enigma of Capital, provides an opportunity to probe the notion of neo-liberalism more closely. If anyone can spell out exactly what it means it should be him. Indeed, by page 10 he does attempt to define the term: ‘My view is that it refers to a class project that coalesced in the 1970s. Masked by a lot of rhetoric about individual freedom, liberty, personal responsibility and the virtues of privatisation, it legitimised draconian policies designed to restore and consolidate capitalist class power.’
But on closer inspection, even this definition is ambiguous. Are the ideas he mentions just superficial ‘rhetoric’ or is the legitimising role of this ideology the defining feature of the neo-liberal project? Or perhaps the draconian policies themselves are the essence of neo-liberalism? The whole of Harvey’s work is imbued with such lack of precision, and sometimes even with blatant inconsistencies.
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