Few topics raise the ire of leftist academics more than neoliberalism. Advocating property rights, free markets, and free trade, neoliberalism exploits the self interest that drives capitalist economic growth, which in turn contributes to political and individual freedoms. Conflated with democracy and egalitarianism, for its supporters at its very worst, neoliberalism provides the tide that lifts all boats. David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism disputes such arguments instead arguing that neoliberalism redistributes wealth rather than creating it, reasserts elite class power rather than leveling economic hierarchies, and undermines democracy by establishing technocratic business friendly non-elected institutions such as the Federal Reserve.
Tracing neoliberalism’s development from its nascent beginnings in the late 1960s accelerating in the 1970s exploding in the 1980s under Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and America’s Ronald Reagan, Harvey examines its growth and pervasive spread. Deregulation and free markets dominated economic discourse though Thatcher’s attempt at implementing neoliberalist ideals proved less successful in Britain due to social and economic factors than Reagan’s US. Though the US and many European countries in the aftermath of WWII and Breton Woods engaged in more Keynesian and interventionist “embedded liberalisms’, by the late 1960s weaknesses emerged. Even worse, by the 1970s many countries experienced serious economic downturns, in the US stagflation. "Embedded liberalism’s" decline, Harvey argues contributed to a diminishment in the political power of labor groups and “parties of the left”.(12) Within the US, the adoption of neoliberal principles reasserted business and upper class interests, reduced the efficacy of democratic institutions while increasing those of unelected arms of the government, and redistributed wealth to the upper 10%.
A Brief History also explores the international implications of neoliberalism. Questioning the positives of globalization, Harvey suggests institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and WTO force developing nations to adopt policies that place their economies at risk, often resulting in bailouts by “Western” nations that then acquire assets well below market value. Moreover, though presented in universalist fashion, neoliberalism features “uneven development”. Exploring several examples from Mexico to Argentina to Sweden to China, Harvey illustrates that local political conditions and social expectations affect the extent and the nature of neoliberalism when implemented. Furthermore, Harvey’s work refutes neoliberalism’s innate tendency toward “democracy” supplying examples of neoliberal economies under authoritarian (China) or dictatorial rule (Chile).
As for neoliberalism’s vaunted “capital accumulation”, Harvey argues “its actual record turns out to be nothing short of dismal.” (154) Rather than creating new capital, Harvey claims elites enrich themselves through “accumulation by dispossession.” (160). Accordingly, “accumulation by dispossession” occurs in one of four ways through 1) privatization and commodification 2) Financialization 3) the management and manipulation of crisis and 4) state redistributions.(160-4). Labor, women, and indigenous groups find their labor commodified, as state and institutional powers recede “alternative social forms” provide support to these groups. However, such “alternative social forms” range from community organizations to narco-drug traffickers. In American politics, Harvey points to the growth of the right wing evangelical movement as an example. In regards to hopes that NGO’s might successfully intervene, Harvey dismisses them as “privatized” and “elitist”, unable to understand that their “universalist” principles fail to take into account critical political and socio-economic factors of those they claim to represent.
Living under neoliberalism forces “citizens” to accept or submit to that bundle of rights necessary for capital accumulation.” (181) Neoliberalism lures peoples in by promising property rights along with its attractive derivatives such as freedom of speech and thought. However, as Harvey points out this is a limited view, “But we do much as beggars live off the crumbs form the rich man’s table.”(181) Accepting neoliberalism means living under a “regime of endless capital accumulation and economic growth no matter what the social, ecological, or political consequences.”(181)
Ultimately, Harvey views neoliberalism as a destructive class reinforcing undemocratic economic system that promises far more than it delivers. Degrading the environment, undermining democracy, creating widespread economic inequality, while reasserting dominant class interests, neoliberalism serves as blueprint for economic demise rather than triumphancy. Tellingly, many of the cautionary notes struck by Harvey in A Brief History have recently come to fruition.