Book Review: A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey

Neoliberalism is the intensification of the influence and dominance of capital; it seeks to transfer power in the workplace from the forces of labour to the holders of capital, trying to strengthen, and restore the power of economic elites. As David Harvey notes: neoliberalism and the neoliberal state have been able to reverse the various political and economic gains made under welfare state policies and institutions. Progressively, the neoliberal regimes will erode institutions of political democracy since “the freedom of the masses would be restricted in favour of the freedom of the few“. Nicos Poulantzas believed that neoliberals do not support the return to laissez-faire capitalism, since the state continues to play a major role in the reproduction of capital. What they want to achieve is the collapse of welfare state which was the most important people’s victory in the 20th century.

The first historical instance of this “revolution from above“, according to Harvey, is Pinochet’s Chile. The infamous general overthrew Salvador Allende’s socialist Chilean government in a coup d’état in 1973 with CIA involvement and US government officials’ support. As Henry Kissinger remarked: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.” The coup was followed by a massive neoliberalism of the state. Chilean economy was deregulated and privatized including the breakdown of state-controlled pension systems, state industries, and state banks. Even though Inflation was reduced and GDP growth spiked, massive inequalities emerged.

Noam Chomsky supports that the crucial principle of neoliberalism is the undermining mechanisms of social solidarity, mutual support and popular engagement in determining policy. As aforementioned, in the 1970s, welfare state, an achievement of the working class in the post war world, was becoming the target of economic elites, who were trying to re-establish the conditions of capital accumulation and to restore their power. According to Harvey, this revolution from above required a change in the political culture and social landscape that would spawn a widespread support for the new political project. Individual rights, property rights, a culture of individualism and consumerism arose first in Thatcher’s UK. Thatcher success in the, as Harvey notes “construction of consent“, turned her aphorism “there is no society, only individuals” into a reality.

His book is one of the best efforts for unmasking the rhetoric of neoliberalism and trying to spawn criticism against this barbarism. Harvey hopes that social movements will form a “broad-based oppositional program” that would gain political support and move society toward a social and economic change.