On David Harvey’s Neoliberalism (‘with Chinese Characteristics’)

The is the third part of my lecture text on why foreign scholars as yet do not understand China’s socialist market economy. This part focuses on David Harvey’s influential yet deeply flawed book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005).

The reaction to state monopoly capitalism was – as indicated already on a few occasions – the rise of neoliberalism at the end of the 1970s and its aggressive promotion in 1980s and 1990s. It may be defined as a ‘theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade’ (Harvey 2005, 2). I have taken this definition from David Harvey, since his work is the main focus of this section. The elaboration on this definition sounds very much like a reiteration of Adam Smith (1776 [2000]) as interpreted through the neoclassical economists (Alfred Marshall, William Stanley Jevons, and Leon Walras): minimal state presence, except for guaranteeing the basic institutional environment for a capitalist market economy, the inherent value of ‘self-interest’ and so the primacy of the private individual, with the addition that any state with too many possessions should ‘privatise’ them. In fact, for Harvey the process of privatisation is enough to designate a government’s project as neoliberal.

A Brief History traces the way this liberalism was rediscovered as neoliberalism (Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman and others) and applied with gusto first in the UK and the United States under Thatcher and Reagan, two of the places where Western liberalism itself first arose (Losurdo 2011). In the 1980s and 1990s it was copied by like-minded countries and forced on others not so like-minded, through the standard mechanisms of United States colonial power play – known as ‘regime change’. Of course, states enacting neoliberal policies are bound to be quite ‘interventionist’, as Harvey notes, as were the international bodies such as the IMF and World Bank, which were tasked with the authoritarian imposition of such policies on less-than-willing countries.

All this is reasonably well-known, although Harvey is keen to emphasise the regular crises generated by neoliberal policies. The book was published before the major Atlantic crisis of 2008, so he was unable to realise that the crises were not merely due to internal causes, but also external ones. I mean here the cumulative effect of China’s Reform and Opening Up, which was beginning to have a global effect by the 1990s. Countries following the neoliberal agenda could not help being affected by the Chinese return to being a global power of some weight. This point, of course, brings us to Harvey’s most wayward chapter, ‘Neoliberalism with Chinese Characteristics’ (2005, 120-51).

Before I engage with this chapter, we need to pause for a moment to identify some problems that have already arisen. The key problem is that Harvey refuses to countenance both Marx’s theory of labour value and the falling rate of profit in capitalist enterprises. He has been criticised for such omissions (Harvey 2017; Roberts and Harvey 2018; Das 2017), although I do not need to engage with such debates here. More significant is the ramification: what is the cause for the move to neoliberalism? For Harvey, it is nothing more than the result of the political will of the capitalist ruling class (Harvey 2005, 19; see also here). It is a voluntary act by the ruling capitalist class that makes such decisions in order to respond to economic challenges and threats from anti-capitalist opposition. Not only is this approach focused on relations of production and determined by political rather than economic factors, but I am reminded of Marx and Engels’s criticism of Bakunin. At one point, Marx observes: ‘Willpower [Der Wille], not economic conditions, is the basis of his social revolution’ (Marx 1875 [1973], 633; 1875 [1989], 518).[1]

To be sure, Harvey likes to call his approach ‘uneven geographic development’, along with the invocation of multiple, complex and interwoven factors in the capitalist market relations. But he is unable to provide an adequate Marxist reason for the turn to neoliberalism and away from state monopoly capitalism (which he calls ‘embedded liberalism’). By contrast, had Harvey deployed the falling rate of profit (from Marx), he may have been able to account for the turn to neoliberalism. The earlier tendencies towards state monopoly capitalism  – popular in the context of two World Wars with states becoming active players in social and economic life through widespread militarisation, capitalist welfare states, and a spate of nationalisations of banks, railways and public utilities – had run to its limit in terms of the ability to extract more profit. A response was needed from the Western liberal tradition: the state had to retreat so as to enable ‘private’ capital to seek new fields to generate profit. Already I have invoked another possible reason in light of the previous section: the tension between bourgeois state control of the capitalist economy and its retreat to enable private capital to come into its own for a while.

With this point in mind we come to the China chapter. Harvey espies a neoliberal turn with the Reform and Opening Up, launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Why? The only answer I can find in Harvey’s work is that it was due to the political will of the CPC, which decided for some unaccountable reason to move to private enterprises alongside state enterprises. I have said enough on the inadequacy of such a voluntarist approach and have more criticisms to make, but let us pause for a moment to see how Harvey unfolds his hypothesis. To begin with, he explicitly connects the Reform and Opening Up with the neoliberal turn elsewhere in the world, although he is careful to point out that it may also have been due to issues internal to China (he does not elaborate).

Harvey is perfectly willing to admit that the result has been stunning, with one of the fastest periods of economic growth in human history, the lifting of hundreds of millions out of poverty, and China’s re-emergence as a major international power. He also notes problems that arose, such as socio-economic inequality, exacerbation of city-country differences, environmental pollution, and labour unrest (his information is limited to the period up to the early 2000s). And he notes that the government has been adept at dealing with new problems that arose. However, Harvey is committed to the idea that this is neoliberal capitalism.

Apart from the fact that Harvey neither cites any reputable Chinese language material on the topic, nor engages in careful study of what Deng Xiaoping actually said and did (apart from some decontextualized ‘sound bites’), the key problem here is that he assumes that a market economy is the same as a capitalist market economy. This may seem like a simple point, but it is fraught with implications. It is also – and unfortunately – quite common among Western economists, social scientists and philosophers – Marxists included. But it is wrong, since a market economy is not by definition a capitalist market economy. I will return to this issue later, save to point out here the multiplicity of different types of market economy is supported by Marx’s own work in Capital, historical investigation, and Chinese research. It is perfectly feasible to have a socialist market economy, which unleashes the forces of production and which is not a capitalist market economy. But Harvey is unable to make this point.

David Harvey has been profoundly influential through his lectures – worldwide – on Marx’s Capital. His method in such talks is simple yet profound: he offers a careful reading, an exegesis, of a few pages of Capital, which he invites the audience to study once again. But the problem of influence is twofold: while Harvey may have encouraged a good number to study Capital once again, this very same influence has encouraged the perpetuation of a number of profound mistakes.

Bibliography

Das, Raju. 2017. ‘ David Harvey’s Theory of Uneven Geographical Development: A Marxist Critique’. Capital and Class 41 (3):511-36.

Harvey, David. 2007. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2017. Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason.

Losurdo, Domenico. 2011. Liberalism: A Counter-History. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London: Verso.

Marx, Karl. 1875 [1973]. ‘Konspekt von Bakunins Buch “Staatlichkeit und Anarchie”‘. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 18, 597-642. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1875 [1989]. ‘Notes on Bakunin’s Book Statehood and Anarchy‘. In Marx Engels Collected Works, Vol. 24, 485-526. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1845-1846 [1973]. ‘Die deutsche Ideologie. Kritik der neuesten deutschen Philosophie in ihren Repräsentanten Feuerbach, B. Bauer und Stirner und des deutschen Sozialismus in seinen verschiedenen Propheten’. In Marx Engels Werke, Vol. 3, 9-530. Berlin: Dietz.

———. 1845-1846 [1976]. ‘The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets’. In Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 5, 19-539. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Roberts, Michael, and David Harvey. 2018. Marx’s Law of Value: A Debate between David Harvey and Michael Roberts. In The Next Recession. thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/marxs-law-of-value-a-debate-between-david-harvey-and-michaelroberts.

Smith, Adam. 1776 [2000]. The Wealth of Nations. London: Modern Library.

[1] See also the earlier observation on Max Stirner. who was – write Marx and Engels – committed ‘to mere change of will [eine bloße Veränderung des Willens]’ (1845-1846 [1973], 317; 1845-1846 [1976], 335). This is nothing more than the ‘domination of arbitrariness [Herrschaft der Willkür]’ (1845-1846 [1973], 317; 1845-1846 [1976], 335).

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