Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Review of A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey (Oxford University Press, 2005)

A brief review to go with a brief history. I read this book a couple of weeks ago on my trip to London. David Harvey, one of the world’s leading social scientists, details the dominant political ideology shaping a number of Western countries, with its tentacles ever more influencing the political and economic relations of just about all countries as they become bound up in the global markets and global forms of economic governance such as the IMF and World Bank. At its heart, neoliberalism promotes the logic of the free market; that the state is inherently inefficient and ineffective and that services (such as health care, education and social services) are best delivered through the market and so should therefore be deregulated and privatized. Harvey explains:

‘Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practice. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if necessary, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture.’

Harvey does an admirable job of explaining the logic of neoliberalism and in detailing a history of how its ideas have come to prominence in a number of countries. Whilst Harvey demonstrates the ways in which neoliberalism has unfolded in a variety of ways in a selection of countries, the story would have benefited from a more systematic analysis of the varieties of neoliberalism working across and within countries. Indeed, a scalar analysis from the local to the global would have been a useful addition to the text. That said, for anyone wanting a good overview of neoliberalism, this is a very useful introductory text. It also predicted the present global financial crash and explains why it was an inevitable outcome of free market financial capitalism, sustained by a political economic ideology that prioritized the interests of the market and corporations at all costs. From an Irish perspective, anyone trying to understand why the Irish economy collapsed and why the banks and the bond holders have been prioritized over citizens this book provides a compelling starting point to an explanation.

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