Reflections on David Harvey: Neoliberalism and The State

For three decades, neoliberalism has dominated the political and economic landscape. Following David Harvey, I contend that neoliberalism depends on the manufacturing of consent to a neoliberal agenda and the use of coercion to enforce that agenda. I further argue that neoliberalism is a corrupted form of democracy which easily lends itself to a rule by powerful elites and reproduces social and economic inequalities. To explore these contentions, I will first place neoliberalism in context. I will then delve into the manufacturing of a consent agenda for neoliberalism and probe how coercion has been used to strong-arm that agenda. Finally, I will analyze neoliberalism’s anti-democratic patterns. This examination is primarily focused on trends in North America with specific references to the neoliberal experiment in Canada.

Locating Neoliberalism
Before the interrogation at the core of this analysis begins, it is helpful to properly locate neoliberalism as a governing paradigm. Neoliberalism is generally seen as having risen in an age in which post-Second World War employment, production and social patterns were declining. Neoliberalism’s characteristics include government with the aims of industry deregulation, a promotion of the primacy of the individual, “strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.”[1] Another important aspect of neoliberalism is the degree of control that governments must have over the population to ensure the free flow and “integrity”[2] of capital and money. “(Neoliberal governments) must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets,” David Harvey tells us in A Brief History of Neoliberalism. The institutionalization of neoliberalism can be closely associated with the ascendency of politicians such as the United Kingdom’s Margaret Thatcher, the United States’ Ronald Reagan, Canada’s Brian Mulroney and, as Harvey claims, China’s Deng Xiaoping[3] in the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s.

The rise of neoliberalism did not occur overnight ─ in fact, it was a long-term project ─ and was not without effort by capital, social institutions and forces within the academy, Harvey explains.[4] “The ‘long march’ of neoliberal ideas through these institutions that (Austrian political philosopher Friedrich von) Hayek had envisaged back in 1947, the organization of think-tanks (with corporate backing and funding), the capture of certain segments of the media, and the conversion of many intellectuals to neoliberal ways of thinking, created a climate of opinion in support of neoliberalism as the exclusive guarantor of freedom.”[5] This is arguably crucial, given the incremental steps consent takes and its ability to overcome any visceral rejection of rapid structural change in society ─ the kind of quick change revolution can bring. Also critical here is the tension between social justice and the struggle for individual liberties that neoliberalism has a tendency to exploit. Neoliberalism’s opposition to the perception of a government acting as a check to capital’s liberty may have ridden into town at just the right time as activists (civil rights, reproductive, sexuality and others)[6] were fighting very real battles against oppressive state actions. Well-funded attempts to conflate these social struggles with capital’s perceived plight speak directly to the manufacturing of consent and the implementation of the neoliberal agenda.

But, where consent fails, coercion may do. It is entirely feasible to claim that late neoliberalism has become increasingly authoritarian. However, individual choice, the guiding force of hyper-liberalism and the extreme measures gone to in order to foster an environment where such individualism (which typically manifests as consumer choice) is the dominant narrative has an element of what Harvey calls “chaos”[7] to it. In response, neoliberalism has in many cases mutated into neoconservativism, which seeks to bring a highly moralized order to that perceived chaos via the state’s coercion apparatuses, most namely the military[8] but also the police and surveillance/intelligence agencies. All of this has been fuelled by the creation of myths that the nation is under attack by threats internal but also ─ and especially ─ external.[9] “Neoconservatism is therefore entirely consistent with the neoliberal agenda of elite governance, mistrust of democracy, and the maintenance of market freedoms. But it veers away from the principles of pure neoliberalism and has reshaped neoliberal practices in two fundamental respects: first, in its concern for order as an answer to the chaos of individual interests, and second, in its concern for an overweening morality as the necessary social glue to keep the body politic secure in the face of external and internal dangers,” Harvey notes.[10]

But to what end is this consent and coercion used? Who are the beneficiaries of this complex creation of myths and fact-ish ideology reproduced in a volume of tsunami proportions? Who wins with the creation and exploitation of fears, based on threats real and perceived, domestic and international? I argue that one manifestation of neoliberalism is the intensification of the concentration of power in the hands of those traditionally allied with capital — specifically, the government Executive and the judiciary. Neoliberals are inherently “suspicious of democracy” and that they “tend to favour governance by experts and elites,” Harvey tells us.[11] The consolidation of power arguably serves two important functions: (1) to reclaim, and then intensify, ruling class interests all while legitimized and emboldened by the ability to enforce the status quo via the military/police and (2) to marginalize the legislature, where public, vigorous debate can be engaged in and witnessed. The context here, of course, is that this is occurring during an era in which security, both internal and external, is a dominant driver of government policy. As Harvey notes, “the neoliberal preference” is to “appeal to judicial and executive rather than parliamentary powers.”[12]

The Executive and judiciary are excellent zones for power to be centralized by the ruling elite. Secretive, authoritarian Executive governance can be conducted behind closed doors in cabinet meetings and through the invocation of time allocation and closure motions during majority governments, for example. The legal system, meanwhile, can be counted on to reinforce the interests of “private property and the profit rate over rights of equality and social justice” due to what Harvey calls “the typical class allegiance of the judiciary.”[13] This takes place despite a formal commitment to the equality of access to justice in the advanced capitalist core of nations ─ which in practice, often actually translates into costly court cases that limit justice to those who can afford it.[14]

Neoliberalism rests upon a foundation of manufactured consent and coercion. Its key focus is to reproduce power and class relations that intensify so-called “free market” relationships and commodify human interactions as mere consumer choices. Neoliberalism is inherently anti-democratic and thrives in environments in which threats, perceived or real ─ foreign or domestic ─ are promoted to manage the chaos hawkish neoliberals see as endemic to a society in which the value of liberty is extolled. Ultimately, neoliberalism shows no signs of abating. Proponents have offered no alternatives, which may indicate that the current structures are working satisfactorily for those who benefit from them. Opponents, to this point, have also been unsuccessful in presenting an alternative to this dominant governing paradigm that has captured the population enough to build a counter-hegemony and alternative paradigm. At this point, it is unclear how long the neoliberal experiment will last but given that it not only survived but has become intensified in the wake of the recent economic crisis, it appears solidly structural with a great deal of power, resources and will backing it.

[1] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2005), 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] Ibid., 40.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 42.

[7] Ibid., 82.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 66.

[12] Ibid., 176.

[13] Ibid., 177.

[14] Ibid., 78.


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