REVIEW: ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’ by David Harvey

David Harvey is a leading geographer, sociologist and academic best known for his scathing criticism of capitalism and postmodernity. Having first come across his work in course reading, I was taken with his arguments in The Condition of Postmodernity and was subsequently recommended his work, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005). I was not disappointed.

The book is a true broadside against both the fundamental economic and moral arguments which underpin neoliberalism. With a mountain of references, Harvey meticulously takes apart the history of the doctrine, showing the devastation it wreaked on Latin America and south-east Asia, as well as, to a lesser extent, New York, Sweden and the UK. He pulls no punches in placing the blame as much with the IMF and US Treasury as world governments and financiers. In doing so, he also uncovers the sinister links between think tanks, central banks, governments, big capital and financial institutions. As such, this book makes for a genuinely harrowing read, as we learn quite how much liberties and democracy have been eroded in the name of liberty and democracy.

This is a broad book, covering a wide span of history and various themes. There is a whole chapter dedicated to the neoliberalization of China, which proves to be deeply interesting despite being the most data and jargon-heavy in the book. He touches on the idea of debt and capital flow as being a new form of colonialism/imperialism and even points out how universalism can sometimes be detrimental to poorer nations. Whilst I usually hold the ideal of universalism as sacred and am often sceptical of cries of imperialism, the examples Harvey uses as being demonstrative of this are practically irrefutable.

One of the main things that sets this book apart from others on the subject is that Harvey refuses to see neoliberalism as a ‘failed utopian project’, to quote Stiglitz, but instead the naked restoration, or creation, of class power. It is Harvey’s Marxist perspective which allows him to take to pieces the currents behind neo-classical economics and postmodernity and show them to be just this.

All in all, this is a wonderful book, and definitely worth a read. If I had to picky and make some critiques, I would say that Harvey is very keen to lay a broad swathe of social evils at the door of neoliberalism, but in reality it is difficult to show that these are a result of the ideology, loosely connected or, indeed, a driving force behind it. Also, by the time you finish the book you are burning with desire to act to change the world, but Harvey does not really offer concrete alternatives, instead opting to be modest, declaring he is only one academic and that it is time for a dialogue between the two great camps of the left to create an alternative vision of the world. Whilst this may be true, the left is often accused of being very able to criticise but not able to offer a valid replacement, and it would be nice to see something more assertive.

Nonetheless, this is a fantastic work which is very easy-to-read and well backed-up with data and sources. It is a comprehensive destruction of the idea that neoliberalism offers us the optimum of freedom and choice, and instead shows how it has left us impoverished, sometimes literally, and atomised from one another. In Harvey’s words, ‘There is a far more noble set of freedoms than those offered by neoliberalism’, and this book is a perfect starting point to begin their forging.

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The Condition of the Left in England

'A grotesque mixture of Enlightenment Liberalism, One-Nation Conservatism and Socialism.' Skeptic and linguaphile.

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