“A Brief History of Neoliberalism,” David Harvey

Caspar Henderson
12 October 2005


Buy now: UK, US, Worldwide

“A Brief History of Neoliberalism”
by David Harvey
Oxford | September 2005 | ISBN 0199283265

People use the word “neo-liberal” a lot, but what does it really mean? What are its origins and consequences? Are there plausible alternatives, and if so what are they? And why does George W. Bush bang on about “liberty” so much?

If you want to sharpen your thinking and understanding of these questions then I strongly recommend David Harvey’s new book. Even if you disagree with parts of this readable Brief History, your assumptions and analysis will be well tested, and your arguments improved.

Harvey’s diagnosis may seem extreme to some. I don’t think I’m simplifying too far to say that his position is that neo-liberalism allows a tiny super-rich transnational class and its supporters to control most of the world with lamentable consequences for pretty much everyone else (not to mention the enviornment on which our future depends). But he is a subtle thinker who backs his arguments with plausible, judiciously chosen evidence. And his emphasis on the importance of culture, for example, will be acceptable to thoughtful people across the political spectrum, from followers of Antonio Gramsci to the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Harvey traces the intellectual roots of neo-liberal thought to the Austrian political philosopher Friedrich von Hayek (author of The Consititution of Liberty). It is, Harvey says, a form of utopianism the dangers of which were first identified by Hayek’s contemporary Karl Polyani back in 1944:

“The idea of freedom ‘…degenerates into a mere advocacy of free enterprise’, which means ‘the fullness of freedom for those whose income leisure and security need no enhancing, and a mere pittance of liberty for the people, who may in vain attempt to make use of their democratic rights to gain shelter from the power of the owners of property’. But if, as is always the case, ‘no society is possible in which power and compulsion are absent, nor a world in which force has no function’, then the only way this liberal utopian vision could be sustained is by force, violence and authoritarianism. Liberal or neo-liberal utopianism is doomed, in Polyani’s view to be frustrated by authoritarianism, or even outright fascism”.

In 2004, I commissioned twelve responses by influential thinkers to David Held’s major essay, “Globalisation: the dangers and the answers”. Some of these were published from June to September on openDemocracy, and all will appear in a new printed volume from Polity this month. I wish I’d had Harvey’s book with me then, and am glad to have it now, as crises – perceived or otherwise – in Brazil, China, the United States and elsewhere suggest we’re in for interesting times.

About the author: David Harvey is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He formerly held professorial positions at Oxford University and the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The New Imperialism and The Condition of Postmodernity.

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