Ron Johnston on David Harvey and neoliberalism

This month’s Annals of the AAG carries a book review essay by Ron Johnston which discusses four recent books by David Harvey on neoliberalism. It might be interesting to read these books against Birth of Biopolitics.

For instance, Harvey defines neoliberalism as:

a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices.

Which is fair enough but note the huge role of the state that is adopted here. The neoliberal response to this role is suspicion:

The neoconservative, neoliberal response to this is to become increasingly authoritarian, at the same time putting more of what was formerly part of the state apparatus, such as the central bank that sets interest rates, outside electoral-political control and into the new elite’s hands (thereby creating a “democratic deficit.”

Following the Conservative party’s long stint in government during the 80s and 90s, which while neoliberal was not programmatically so (Johnston argues Thatcher was too much of a pragmatist to be doctrinaire), the Kinnock/Smith/Blair Labour party adopted neoliberalism in order to become electable. (One would suspect that Harvey would situate Obama in this category as well.)

Johnston doesn’t conclude with any definitive trends from Harvey, although he does cite six reasons why neoliberalism may fail (#4, the US is “free-falling into indebtedness” sounds familiar). But “change” (an overworked word during the presidential campaign), “is accelerating” so who knows?

4 Responses

  1. I am reading Harvey (amongst others) as a counterpoint to the Birth of Biopolitics & have been finding it an interesting contrast, though a background in economics helps to unpack the differences. In some ways an even more revealing contrast is to read Stuart Hall et al’s Policing the Crisis against BOB since they were written in the same period (i.e. without the benefit of hindsight), and Hall’s explicitly Gramscian & critical race analysis provides better insights into neoliberal criminal justice and social policy than emerge from BOB. To be honest, I’ve been disappointed by Foucault’s (lack of) sustained critical analysis of neoliberalism in BOB, but perhaps my expectations were simply too high.

  2. Sarah, thanks for the comment!

    You’re probably right that in Birth of Biopolitics Foucault does not engage in critical neoliberal theory but rather is providing an historical account of the German and American models. So it’s not like Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine which could be read as Part II, When the Neocons Went Abroad (ie applied their theories abroad).

    Doesn’t this also raise the question of whether academics (though Foucault was more than that, playing a significant activist role for example) are the best/only source of critique against neoliberalism? Is it a false binary to say they are often concerned with explaining it rather than dismantling it? (David Harvey says somewhere he has never done any activism and is no good at it, his talents lie in writing.)

    I think actually of artists and bloggers as being activists or critiquers of neoliberalism. People like Trevor Paglen doing work on extraordinary rendition and secret airbases; a cross between documentary/academia/art. Or the Blue Man Group, culture jammers behind the recent “fake” New York Times, which was physically distributed in several cities across the USA. Or Glenn Greenwald, who perhaps more than any other blogger has held our noses to the grindstone of warrantless wiretapping, rendition and torture and who is being credited with forcing Obama to deselect John Brennan from the CIA Director shortlist. (see the Youtube video I posted as an update on my other post.)

    I do think we need to expand our notion of activism here and I’m not arguing that blogging or art is the only kind of activism. I’m actually arguing for an expansive notion of activism beyond just raliies and leafletting, but also beyond just academic books. I think geographers and others have rightly become very interested in activism (including the late Duncan Fuller who was doing great work on it before he sadly died recently). I’d like to see more engagement across party lines here however.

    Sorry for the windy reply!

  3. I suppose it does raise questions about the role of academics vis-a-vis political activism, though I’m still preoccupied with the theoretical questions it raises. On some level I expected BOB to do for neoliberalism what D&P did for prisons, hospitals etc. i.e. to provide a sort of critical diagnosis of the present by way of analysing the past. In fact, BOB seems to lack any of the critical insights provided by genealogy, perhaps because it was written without the benefit of historical hindsight or perhaps because of Foucault’s own political leanings (a combination of the two, I suspect, which is where Michael Behrent’s paper comes in). If BOB is a history then it’s a very different sort of history to Foucault’s previous efforts, because we don’t get a de-naturalization of neoliberalism or a distinction between what neoliberalism purports to do and what it has functionally done (in contrast to the ‘prisons purport to normalise, but they actually create delinquency thus justifying the intensification of discipline’ conclusion in D&P, apologies for the terrible paraphrase). Harvey’s work goes some way towards providing a critical history of neoliberalism (though not a genealogy as Foucault would understand the term), but reading Foucault in relation to Harvey re-opens big questions about class & Marxism in regard to Foucault’s conceptual approach.
    In more direct response to your comment above, I’ve interpreted genealogy as Foucault’s way of altering power relations by explaining something differently, so I think both D&P and ‘A Short History of Neoliberalism’ can be read as both activism & scholarship. I wouldn’t say the same about BOB, though one might plausibly argue that it is rightwing activism.

  4. Rightwing activism? My goodness that seems like an awfully harsh thing to say. Sarah, I have not read the Behrent paper you refer to here, so do please forgive me if I am not picking up the intended context of your comments here. But I do want to defend the flexibility I see Foucault’s historical method here; aren’t you somehow assuming that Foucault’s work is always intended to reveal a contradiction between what an assemblage says it does and what it actually does? Do you see that operation at work, for example, in History of Sexuality? I’m not sure that I do. And I am not sure that I would put such an obligation on Foucault.

    I’d love to see you elaborate a little more on why you think BOB is necessarily an exception to the overall critical/insurgent purpose of Foucault’s investigations. As I see it, and here aligning myself somewhat with Jeremy’s allusion to Naomi Klein (which is a somewhat problematic text in its own right – see Doug Henwood’s review), Foucault’s notion of ‘anarcho-liberalism’ is a rather rich opening for a critical examination of the political economy of the invasion of Iraq, for example. A great deal of formal US government literature in the build up to the invasion and in the early years of the reconstruction lauds the idea that a ‘secure’ Iraq would be best produced thru’ a radical freedom of the market.

    (Its a truism but…) There is, after all, an important distinction between the sort of biopolitical power discussed in BOB, in this sense, and the disciplinary power of D&P. And I think one of the great things about BOB is that it shows just how important (and oppressive) the will to govern thru freedom can be!

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