Review: A Brief History of Neoliberaism

Review: A Brief History of Neoliberaism

A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is one thing to maintain, for example, that my health-care status is my personal choice and responsibility, but quite another when the only way I can satisfy my needs in the market is through paying exorbitant premiums to inefficient, gargantuan, highly bureaucratized but also highly profitable insurance companies.


Neoliberalism is a term that is often thrown about; and yet, like socialism and capitalism, I often feel that I do not quite know what it means. Its common definition—the preference for free trade and free markets—did not seem to distinguish it from capitalism itself, as I understood the term, which made me wonder why neoliberalism was so controversial and hated.

Harvey’s book goes a long way in answering this question. The best way to understand neoliberalism may be historical. After the end of the Second World War, governments were dominated by Keynesian policies—that is, the use of taxation and spending (if necessary, deficit-spending) to control boom and bust cycles. But in the 1970s the Keynesian consensus broke down as a result of stagflation: low growth combined with high inflation. The failure of Keynesian policies to get the economy out of its rut led, eventually, to the embrace of quite a different governing philosophy: neoliberalism.

This has many intellectual components. Neoliberals are—at least in theory—opposed to fiscal policies as a way of fighting economic ups and downs. (In practice, this means that governments must adopt austerity measures in order to keep their budgets balanced in an economic downturn.) In fact, neoliberals are quite generally anti-government, at least in their rhetoric. They favor privatization, deregulation, low taxes, and low tariffs. The central idea is simple and, on its face, compelling. Prices communicate market information far better than a government can manage; individuals understand their own needs better than the government; and the profit motive is the great driver of general prosperity.

Yet what (ostensibly) began as a great liberation of sovereign individuals and all of their creative genius became, instead, an economic transfer from the poor to the rich. The evidence, by now, is clear that neoliberalization did not jump-start the economy. Growth has never recovered its pre-1970s levels; and economists now admit that they simply do not know how to make an economy grow. But as growth slowed, and wages stagnated for most mere mortals, the rich, richer, and richest made off with ever-increasing slices of the economic pie. Inequality reached such stark levels not seen since the 1920s. Harvey contends that this was not a mere byproduct of the economic philosophy, but one of its primary goals.

If the rhetoric of neoliberalism were, indeed, true—if the government was merely “getting out of the way,” and letting the market do its magic—then claims of nefarious intent would perhaps be unfounded. But as Harvey points out, the neoliberal state is no mere bystander. On the contrary, state power is quite necessary to the operation of neoliberal policies.

Most obviously, if property rights and contracts are sacrosanct, then there must be enforcement—violent if necessary—of those rights. In practice, this also means that there is a double standard between debtors and lenders. In a neoliberal state, the debtor has all the responsibility not to take out a loan that they cannot pay back; and there is very little protection if they do take such a loan. Meanwhile, there is no similar responsibility on behalf of the lender not to lend irresponsibly (as the 2008 financial crash proved); and if the lender does so, the state sanctions any draconian measures necessary to extract repayment.

The state also actively subsidizes the wealthy, both directly and indirectly. It directly subsidizes companies through (among other things) bailouts. The mortgage tax deduction is essentially a handout to the rich—as well as a spur to high-end housing construction. It puts up legal impediments to labor organizations and strikes.

And the indirect subsidies are many. If a community is devasted by a free trade deal, the state deals with the social fallout (often through mass incarceration, in the US). If the housing market leaves many homeless, then the state steps in to enforce eviction notices and provide homeless shelters. If medical insurance is out of reach to many, then the state provides public healthcare and emergency rooms. And this is only to speak domestically. Harvey documents many cases when the IMF and World Bank pressured developing countries to adopt neoliberal policies, and then demanded repayment of loans even if it meant impoverishing their populations.

In sum, the neoliberal state is not a mere onlooker, enforcing class-neutral rights and ensuring a fair game is played without cheating. On the contrary, the neoliberal state serves to provide welfare to the rich while enforcing brutal ‘capitalism’ on the poor.

Yet Harvey is not only valuable in his catalogue of neoliberal hypocrisies. Many of the most interesting parts of this book, I found, were Harvey’s reflections on how neoliberalism has transformed the culture. His contention is that the 1960s era emphasis on personal liberty has led to a kind of atomization of society. As more and more people are convinced that the government is evil or at least useless, people seek different forms of community. This can take many forms: religiousness, political populism (which Harvey predicts), or, for the progressively minded, NGOs. Indeed, one can see the rise in NGO activity as a kind of tacit defeat by the left, as they have yielded the possibility of democratic, governmental action, and instead turned to privately owned organizations run by elites.

More broadly, the embrace of a radically individualist philosophy makes political organization difficult. How can you politically unite people behind the idea that the government is the problem? Few forces have been able to transcend this limitation, most notably nationalism—giving birth to neoliberalism’s ugly cousin, neoconservatism. Other collective bonds—such as race, gender, or sexuality—do not have the widespread pull of nationalism, which Harvey believes gives the left a chronic disadvantage.

Harvey’s solution to this (unsurprisingly, given that he is a Marxist) is to make class, once again, a basis of political mobilization. It is only when workers collectively reform the society that the rich can be defeated. Unfortunately, the two economic crises that have transpired since this book was published have yet to make that happen. Nevertheless, I think this is a valuable and incisive book about one of our era’s most distinctive features.



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Don Bigote: Chapter 1

Don Bigote: Chapter 1

Don and Dan Build a Shelter

In a little town in Alabama—where exactly I won’t tell you, since my dad says the internet is full of creeps—there lives a man who wears a grey smoking jacket on hot summer days, who has a loaded antique revolver on his hip at all times, and who keeps an arthritic greyhound out back. This guy is my neighbor, Don Bigote, who everyone calls “Colonel.”

Despite his nickname, I doubt he ever was in the army. I think he got it from his habit of wearing a gun all the time (though God knows he isn’t the only person to do that around here). Or maybe it’s the stiff, sort of soldierly way he walks and moves around, like he’s a windup doll made of wood. In any case, it’s clear that the guy was never a soldier, since he’s so skinny and light—basically a skeleton with some skin stretched over it—that a bumblebee’s sigh could sweep him away.

This gauntness, combined with his enormous height, makes him look like a human streetlamp.

But I forgot to mention Don Bigote’s most striking feature: his enormous white mustache. I don’t know how he maintains that thing, since his hair is thin, and the top of his head is totally bald; but the mustache sits proudly and nobly, completely covering his mouth, sneaking up towards his ears, shivering in the wind, perfectly brushed, trimmed, and sculpted. It is a work of art.

Don Bigote isn’t working now. Nobody’s quite sure what he did before he retired. My dad thinks he was a schoolteacher, since “All teachers are useless hippies! And besides how else could he have such a good pension? The good-for-nothing, stealing from the government!”

Most people agree that Bigote’s a bit off. He doesn’t seem to have any friends or family. His social life is confined to his greyhound. The two of them make quite a pair during their walks through the neighborhood. The poor whelp is almost as stiff, skinny, boney, and haggard as Don Bigote himself. The old girl walks slowly, limping slightly, with her head bent down, not pausing to sniff at anything, while Bigote marches forward to an invisible drumbeat.

You get the picture. Well, Don Bigote has been our neighbor for a long time now; and aside from a few neighborly interactions, and aside from the usual commonplace hellos and all that, and aside from the occasional jokes about his weirdness, we haven’t had much to do with him. Not yet, anyway.

Lately I’ve had much more important things to worry about.

I just graduated high school, which is a big deal. That’s something you only do once. You can graduate college multiple times, and you can get married to many different people—consecutively or simultaneously (depending on where you live)—and you can have as many kids are your sexual potency permits and your wife’s (or wive’s) fertility allows, and you can exclude as many of those kids from your will as your heart desires, and you can even die over and over again if someone is kind enough to bring you back to life with a defibrillator—but graduating high school is a one-off thing. So I’m savoring the experience.

To get particular, this savoring involves a lot of drinking and as many girls as I can convince to be a part of the celebrations. I have carefully budgeted, planned, and I have convened counsels, secret and solemn, with friends and acquaintances, and I have run careful reconnaissance missions, sent invitations, bought supplies—beer and condoms, mostly—to ensure that this savoring goes on without any interruption for as long as possible. So far so good.

Last night was no exception. I won’t go into details, but I had a proper debauch. I’ll just say that this morning I woke up on Jimmy’s couch next to someone, needing badly to pee and vomit (not in that order), with a terrible headache and a slight burning sensation in my loins that I hope is just from friction. After taking care of business, I do what I always do: throw on my clothes and sneak out, leaving everything for Jimmy to clean up.

Well, as I’m walking home, bleary-eyed, head pounding, body aching, blinking in the bright day, pausing occasionally to spit up a little into the bushes, this infamous Don Bigote—who, I should make clear now before I forget, is the entire subject of this story, and the entire reason I’m writing in the first place, so pay attention—this infamous Don Bigote, as I was saying, with his mustache twinkling in the sunlight (he must’ve drank something recently, since it looks moist), walks over from his front porch to his fence and starts talking to me.

“Hello, good sir,” he says.

“Ugh,” I reply.

“Fine day, is it not?”

“Yug.”

“Yes, there is a northerly breeze, and the sun’s rays are dripping full down like a waterfall from heaven.”

“Gargle.”

He opens the gate of his fence and approaches closer. I can hardly keep my eyes open, and judging from the sounds my stomach is making, I don’t have long to get to a bathroom (we ate spicy burritos before the party).

“May I ask, sir,” he says, “if I have the honor of talking to the first-born son of Mr. and Mrs. Chopin?”

“Yurgle,” I answer.

“And is this first-born son bestowed with the appellation, ‘Daniel’?”

“That’s me,” I say. “Dan Chopin.” Stomach clock still ticking.

“Ah, what a pleasure,” he says, and stretches out his hand. I do likewise and he very formally and firmly shakes my appendage until he’s good and satisfied.

“And am I correct in the knowledge, recently acquired, that this very same son, Dan Chopin, is recently graduated from high school?”

“Mmmm.” Stomach can’t take much more of this.

“And is this same aforementioned son, the honorable Dan Chopin, currently in want of gainful employment?”

“Uuhhhhhuuuhh!” I scream. “Dude, just send me a letter!” And I run into the house and make it just in time (well, close enough).

I shower, nap, get up, shave, apply deodorant under my armpits and my legpit, and then I go again to the bathroom just to make sure my system is totally vacant, and then—cleaned up, spruced up, and emptied out—I go downstairs to enjoy the good and wholesome cooking of my wonderful mother, who is already busy in the kitchen, as my acute nose informs me.

“You got a letter,” she says as I walk in. “It’s on the table.”

“Oh yeah? What’s for dinner.”

“Chicken. You got a letter. It’s on the table.”

“Oh yeah? What kind of chicken?”

“Roast, with rosemary. The letter is there on the table.”

“And what’s on the side?”

“Potatoes and greenbeans. The letter’s right there on the table.”

“Oh yummy, potatoes and greenbeans!” I say, as I sit down at the table and absently open the letter, thinking it’s just the usual bullshit about college. But then I pause. It’s written in script, and the writing is all squiggly and fancy-like. I need to squint to read it, since who writes in script? It goes like this:

My dear Daniel, 

I hope this letter finds you in good health and fine spirits. I am sorry to have caught you at an inopportune moment earlier today, my sincere apologies.

I am writing you today to introduce a certain proposal into your hands. Recently I have been doing a great deal in my house, and it struck me that I badly require assistance, seeing as I am old and increasingly in need of haste due to events beyond my control.

My proposal is this. I wish to contract your services, for a few hours each week, to help me around the house. For your services, I will give you a suitable monetary reward, the exact amount being negotiable but certainly substantial.

If you wish to accept this offer, or if you are merely intrigued and wish to learn more, please come over any time tomorrow and we will discuss it further. If, however, you cannot or do not wish to accept this offer, be assured that I understand and respect your decision, and no further action need be taken on your part.

 Yours faithfully,

 Don Bigote

What a wackjob. Who writes like this? Well, what should I do? I’ve got so many parties coming up, I don’t think I have any spare time…. tonight at Jimmy’s again, then Thursday I’m with Jessica, then Friday we’re going to the old factory… But then again, if I work during the day, maybe it won’t be a problem. And some extra money could really help with the debauching…

“Hey mom,” I say.

“Not for another five minutes,” she says, stirring something.

“No, it’s not about dinner. But thanks for letter me know.”

“What, then?”

“This letter, it’s from the Colonel. He wants me to work for him.”

“That’s nice, dear.”

“Says he’ll pay.”

“Very nice.”

“What do you think?”

“Well, it sounds terribly nice.”

“Should I do it?”

“I think it would be a nice thing, Danny.”

* * *

Next day at noon, I knock on his door.

In three seconds Don Bigote opens it. He’s dressed the usual way: pistol on hip, grey smoking jacket, mustache looking as sharp as a razor blade.

“My dear Chopin, come in,” he says, gesturing stiffly.

“Yo,” I say. “What’s up?”

“I am so pleased you came.”

We walk to his kitchen. On the way I get a glimpse of his house. It’s a total mess. Magazines, books, and papers are strewn everywhere. It’s a weird assortment of stuff, too—the National Review, ¡Adios America! by Ann Coulter, a book of Latin grammar, a history of the Spanish Reconquista, and several books with the Twin Towers on the cover. Equally random are the pictures on the walls—Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, the Confederate flag, a map of Europe, a glossy photograph of a castle, and an old oil portrait of someone with a big chin who looks historical and important. And the whole place smells like cigars and sawdust.

When we get to his kitchen—chipped plates, dirty dishes, and greasy glasses in the sink, and pots and pans and cutlery strewn everywhere—a radio is playing:

“Nowadays, you can’t say you’re against immigration or the media immediately calls you a racist. Like, am I a racist if I don’t like Mexicans? It’s a conspiracy! The left is trying to open the floodgates, my fellow Americans, and they’re already in control of all the television, all the…”

Don Bigote turns off the radio. Then he pulls out a chair for me at the kitchen table, and walks over to the cabinet to get something. In front of me is a Bible (in the King James translation), and a book called Vaccines and Autism: Behind the Liberal Conspiracy to Poison our Kids.

“I understand,” he says, as he rummages through his shelves, “that nowadays it is illegal for people of your age to partake of alcoholic drinks. Government tyranny!” He pulls down a bottle of bourbon from the shelves. “Those ungodly communists!” He pours me a drink, and pours himself one.

“To freedom!” he says, and we clink glasses. The bourbon burns.

“Onward to business, then,” he says, crossing one leg over the other, sitting straight up as if someone stuck a stick up his ass. “Chopin, before I begin, I need your most solemn promise of confidentiality. What I am about to tell you is very sensitive information, and if you were to tell anybody, maybe even your parents, then things could get very bad for me.”

“No worries, dude. I’m no snitch.”

“Excellent. Well, to begin, surely you are aware, Chopin (not to put too fine a point on it), that the world is in crisis. This much is clear to everybody. Immigrants are pouring in and turning the streets into chaos, Muslim terrorist are sneaking into countries and killing untold numbers of innocents, and the media and the government are doing nothing to stop it.”

“You sound like my dad.”

“Yes, all this is generally known and rightly complained of. But it has lately come to my attention—how exactly, I can’t tell you, just know that it was the process of many years of painstaking research on the internet, searching through countless forums and chatrooms, as well as a huge effort of radio listening and book reading—it has come to my attention that the trouble goes far, far, far deeper than you think.”

“Oh yeah?” I say, and polish off the bourbon.

“You see, all of these events are connected. The Muslims, the Mexican immigrants, the Media, the Government—they aren’t separate phenomena, but are working in a close alliance. And they have been for a long time, Chopin. Now, I don’t want to scare you, but what if I told you that everything from the Twin Towers attack, to global warming, to vaccinations, to multiculturalism, to abortion, to evolution, to feminism—all of these, Chopin, are part of a carefully planned and perfectly executed conspiracy.”

“Is it alright with you if I have another glass?” I say, as I walk over to the bourbon bottle.

“Yes, yes, of course.”

“So, like, why?”

“Why?”

“Yeah, what’s the point of this conspiracy, then?”

“Chopin, don’t be naïve!” he says. “The purpose is as clear as crystal: to end Western Civilization as we know it.”

“Mmmhmm,” I say, mid gulp, mulling it over. “Are you sure about this, dude? Sounds pretty crazy to me. Like, isn’t the government busy killing the terrorists over there? And, like, why would feminists want to blow up the World Trade Center?”

“I know it may seem hard to believe,” he says. “But that’s just the brilliance of it—that’s why nobody but me has figured out the truth.”

“Well, alright. Then shouldn’t we stop it? Or like tell the police?”

“Chopin, Chopin, I wish we could. But I’m afraid the conspiracy goes far too deep. I mean, look at this.”

He pulls out a twenty dollar bill from his pocket.

“Just watch.”

He starts folding it very carefully, like its origami or something. When he’s finished the bottom is triangular and its been folded lengthwise in half.

“See?” he says, handing it to me.

I can see two parts of the White House with trees on the end.

“Can you believe it?”

“Well, I’ve honestly seen better. My friend can make a swan.”

“The Twin Towers!” he says.

I look again. I guess it does sort of look like two buildings on fire, if you squint.

“The twenty dollar bill has had this design since 1928. You know what that means? They have been planning this since before the World Trade Center existed! And at the highest levels of government!”

His eyes were wide with terror, and his mustache seems to be squirming around on his upper lip like a small animal.

“Wow, that’s pretty crazy,” I say. “Some real illuminati shit. So, like, when’s the last time you went to a doctor?”

“You can’t trust doctors either, Chopin. I’m afraid they are some of the most fiendish conspirators of all.”

“I see, I see. Wow, dude, seems pretty hopeless. So what do you want me to do?”

“At this point, Chopin, I think that there is no hope of preventing their success. Civilization will collapse entirely, in about five years if my calculations are correct. Thus, I have taken it upon myself to begin storing up knowledge for the dark times to come. If I cannot prevent this disaster, at least I can make it easier for future generations to rebuild civilization and regain what was lost. This is what I need you for.”

“Yeah, go on.”

“You see, I am building a shelter beneath this house, a shelter deep underground, where I will store up all of the knowledge, the literature, music, architecture, painting, poetry, all of the science and philosophy, and of course all of our theology and religion, where it will be safe, I hope, when society begins to fall apart. I can’t build it alone, so that’s why I wanted to hire you, as an assistant.”

“So, like, how much are we talking here?”

“Is this a monetary question?”

“Yeah. Cashwise, how much?”

“Well, since I expect money will lose its value in a few years, I am willing to be very generous. How about $50 an hour?”

“I’LL DO IT!” I say. “Let’s start right away!”

* * *

“Okay,” he says, “let me see here. How long did you say the basement is?”

“25 feet and 3 inches.”

“And tell me the width once more?”

“20 feet 8 inches and a quarter.”

“Hmmm. This means, according to my calculations, that we need about sixteen hundred cinderblocks, eight bags of cement (I have the mixer machine already out back), at least half a ton of gravel, and several hundred feet of plastic tubing.”

“Why tubes?”

“My dear Chopin,” Bigote says. “The atmosphere on the surface will be unbreathable. We need to install an atmosphere purification system, to remove toxins and radiation, so we can survive long enough for the earth’s ecosystem to re-balance itself. Trust me, I’ve read several blogs about this.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“Why, do you think I’d be so heartless as to leave you to fend for yourself during this cataclysm? The thought of it!”

“And my parents?”

“Well, uh, you see Chopin, space is very limited.”

“Ok, I hope you’re a good cook, then, if I won’t have my mom with me.”

“Have no fear about that. I have been practicing the ancient and noble arts of French and Italian cooking, so that I can teach the survivors how to make poulet cordon bleu and spaghetti—two vital elements of Western culture.”

“Alright, well then, just don’t light the place on fire.”

“No more time for small talk, Chopin. We must attend to business. Let us away to the pick up truck, to purchase these supplies and start construction.”

“Ok, but I’m driving.”

Bigote’s truck is a true piece of shit and leaves a trail of black fumes behind it as it coughs its way to the department store. The whole interior smells like gasoline and burning brake fluid, which pours in through the ventilators, and the seats aren’t even comfortable.

“I bought it used,” he explains. “No paperwork, paid in cash. For the past seventeen years, you see, I have been doing my best to live off the grid. No bank account, no government records, no paperwork, no signatures, nothing. I live invisibly.”

“But isn’t your name on your mailbox?”

“An alias, my good Chopin, an alias. My true name is not Don Bigote.”

“What is it, then?”

“Here we are!” he says, as the Home Depot pops into view.

We jump out, and I pick up one of those big metal trolleys for serious home improvement shopping. Bigote leads the way, his giant legs crawling like a giant spider over the flat parking lot, his mustache fluttering heroically in the wind. He looks ridiculous and I feel embarrassed, but money is money.

We walk through the sliding automatic doors and into the big, spacey interior, that always reminds me of an airport hanger.

“First, I suppose we should get the concrete,” Bigote says, staring down at his list through wire-framed glasses.

“Welcome to Home Depot,” someone says. “Can I help you?”

“Yes, do you—”

Don Bigote looks up at the assistant and freezes. I look at the assistant, too, and recognize him immediately. He’s my classmate Juan López, from Venezuela, a short, dark-haired boy with a nose piercing. Quite good at lacrosse.

“No, sorry, I’m not in need of anything, just browsing, thank you very much…”

Don Bigote turns and bolts down the nearest aisle.

“Yo Juan, you coming tonight?” I say.

“Dunno yet dude.”

“Ok, well see ya around.”

I follow Bigote.

When I find him, he’s leaning against the tires, pale and panting.

“Dude, what’s wrong?”

“Don’t you see!” he sputters. “They’re here! The Mexicans!”

“Who, Juan? He’s not Mexican, dude.”

“That’s what they want you to believe!”

“Who? His parents?”

“Oh, this is bad, Chopin, very bad. If they see what materials I’m buying, they will get suspicious and investigate, and my scheme will be ruined. No, it’s too risky, too risky.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s fine, dude. Juan’s cool, mostly. He did hit a guy in gym class in April. Got suspended.”

“Damn them to hell!” he says, pounding his fist into his palm. “Clever bastards! I will not be defeated so easily!”

And with this, he pulls his revolver out of his holster and starts dashing towards the front door.

What the fuck are you doing?!” I scream, and run after him.

He gets to the end of the aisle, stops, and aims straight at Juan.

“See you in Hell, communists!”

“Wait, wait, wait!” I yell, and tackle him from behind just as the shot rings out.

The bullet goes wild and hits the roof. Meanwhile the two of us slam into a shelf full of electric drills, which comes tumbling down. And then, like in all the movies, the domino effect: one shelf hits another shelf hits another, until the entire store is collapsing. Babies are crying, men and women are running for the exits, the alarm is sounding, red lights and a siren, the sprinkler too, everything is going totally nuts, and the string quartet is still bravely playing.

Finally the last shelf tumbles down, and the place is deathly still. The two of us slowly get to our feet.

What do we do? What do we do? Shit, shit, shit, Bigote will get arrested, and then who will pay me? And what if they arrest me to? Think, think, think.

Wait!

“Freeeee stuff!” I yell. “Get it quick, get it now! Before the cops come!”

The store explodes again, as every customer begins frantically looting, ripping open the cash machines, filling up their arms with everything they can carry, running this way and that, in every direction, and still the string quartet doesn’t stop.

“Now’s our chance! We’ve got to go!” I say to Bigote, and yank him towards the exit.

“But the shelter!”

“No time, dumbass! Let’s get our asses in drive, and skedaddle!”

And we run out into the parking lot, jump into the car, and zoom into the sunset.

(Continued in Chapter 2.)