Monday, July 25, 2016

Neoliberalism Is a Political Project

Eleven years ago, David Harvey published A Brief History of Neoliberalism, now one of the most cited books on the subject. The years since have seen new economic and financial crises, but also of new waves of resistance, which themselves often target “neoliberalism” in their critique of contemporary society.

Cornel West speaks of the Black Lives Matter movement as “an indictment of neoliberal power”; the late Hugo Chávez called neoliberalism a “path to hell”; and labor leaders are increasingly using the term to describe the larger environment in which workplace struggles occur. The mainstream press has also picked up the term, if only to argue that neoliberalism doesn’t actually exist.

But what, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about neoliberalism? Is it a useful target for socialists? And how has it changed since its genesis in the late twentieth century?

Bjarke Skærlund Risager, a PhD fellow at the Department of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Aarhus University, sat down with David Harvey to discuss the political nature of neoliberalism, how it has transformed modes of resistance, and why the Left still needs to be serious about ending capitalism.

Neoliberalism is a widely used term today. However, it is often unclear what people refer to when they use it. In its most systematic usage it might refer to a theory, a set of ideas, a political strategy, or a historical period. Could you begin by explaining how you understand neoliberalism?

I’ve always treated neoliberalism as a political project carried out by the corporate capitalist class as they felt intensely threatened both politically and economically towards the end of the 1960s into the 1970s. They desperately wanted to launch a political project that would curb the power of labor.

In many respects the project was a counterrevolutionary project. It would nip in the bud what, at that time, were revolutionary movements in much of the developing world — Mozambique, Angola, China etc. — but also a rising tide of communist influences in countries like Italy and France and, to a lesser degree, the threat of a revival of that in Spain.

Even in the United States, trade unions had produced a Democratic Congress that was quite radical in its intent. In the early 1970s they, along with other social movements, forced a slew of reforms and reformist initiatives which were anti-corporate: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, consumer protections, and a whole set of things around empowering labor even more than it had been empowered before.

So in that situation there was, in effect, a global threat to the power of the corporate capitalist class and therefore the question was, “What to do?”. The ruling class wasn’t omniscient but they recognized that there were a number of fronts on which they had to struggle: the ideological front, the political front, and above all they had to struggle to curb the power of labor by whatever means possible. Out of this there emerged a political project which I would call neoliberalism.

Can you talk a bit about the ideological and political fronts and the attacks on labor?

The ideological front amounted to following the advice of a guy named Lewis Powell. He wrote a memo saying that things had gone too far, that capital needed a collective project. The memo helped mobilize the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.

Ideas were also important to the ideological front. The judgement at that time was that universities were impossible to organize because the student movement was too strong and the faculty too liberal-minded, so they set up all of these think tanks like the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Ohlin Foundation. These think tanks brought in the ideas of Freidrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and supply-side economics.

The idea was to have these think tanks do serious research and some of them did — for instance, the National Bureau of Economic Research was a privately funded institution that did extremely good and thorough research. This research would then be published independently and it would influence the press and bit by bit it would surround and infiltrate the universities.

This process took a long time. I think now we’ve reached a point where you don’t need something like the Heritage Foundation anymore. Universities have pretty much been taken over by the neoliberal projects surrounding them.

With respect to labor, the challenge was to make domestic labor competitive with global labor. One way was to open up immigration. In the 1960s, for example, Germans were importing Turkish labor, the French Maghrebian labor, the British colonial labor. But this created a great deal of dissatisfaction and unrest.

Instead they chose the other way — to take capital to where the low-wage labor forces were. But for globalization to work you had to reduce tariffs and empower finance capital, because finance capital is the most mobile form of capital. So finance capital and things like floating currencies became critical to curbing labor.

At the same time, ideological projects to privatize and deregulate created unemployment. So, unemployment at home and offshoring taking the jobs abroad, and a third component: technological change, deindustrialization through automation and robotization. That was the strategy to squash labor.

It was an ideological assault but also an economic assault. To me this is what neoliberalism was about: it was that political project, and I think the bourgeoisie or the corporate capitalist class put it into motion bit by bit.

I don’t think they started out by reading Hayek or anything, I think they just intuitively said, “We gotta crush labor, how do we do it?” And they found that there was a legitimizing theory out there, which would support that.

by David Harvey, Jacobin |  Read more:
Image: Direitos Urbanos