Harvey on neoliberal freedom

[Parts of this post were incorporated into an essay published at Rhizomes.]

A slab of draft words from the thing I’m working on. Comments welcome/encouraged. This needs to be cut, as it’s too long, is supposed to be only a transitional section, and is kinda boring. But the last is Harvey’s fault, not mine. Heh.

David Harvey (2005) has recently attempted to produce such a theory. Harvey analyzes the transformations of economic institutions and processes that have occurred over the last thirty-plus years: the activist role played by nonstate international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the upwards concentration of wealth and income, the decline of real wages worldwide, the huge increase in the quantity and volatility of capital flows, and the achieved “hegemony of finance capital.” These transformations, and others, have enacted new and disruptive economic configurations whose norms are “[d]eregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision” and which constitute the de facto mode of international governmentality. Though Harvey is primarily concerned with describing these molar-level mechanisms and operations, he is nonetheless attuned to neoliberalism’s specific ontological claim:

“Neoliberalism is in the first instance 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” (2).

For Harvey, the novelty of neoliberalism lies in the materials it draws from its substratum. Very specific kinds of freedom and entrepreneurialism are primary among these and are what it alternately fosters and enforces. Neoliberalism’s emphasis on these types of freedom and entrepreneurialism has had two main effects, what Harvey names “the restoration of class power” and “accumulation by dispossession.” These effects, however, are also causes and are in mutual presupposition with the freedom-entrepreneurial causes/effects, and so they will all have to be considered as they work together and on each other. The problem with Harvey’s theory, I hope to show, is that it fails to recognize the substratum it borrows from as a stratum in its own right and so can only see it as passive, reactive, a mere derivative of the neoliberal stratum.

Freedom as the formal condition for market exchange relations, as Karl Marx (1973) wrote in the 1850s, belies a whole series of compulsions — the division of labor, the money form, socialization, etc. Marx emphasized that freedom does not “by any means stand still in the simple form” (248); it is always altered by change in its underlying compulsions. Freedom is always historical. For Harvey (2005), neoliberalism’s historical transformation institutes a freedom marked primarily by negativity and individualism. Harvey follows Karl Polanyi, for whom negative freedoms include “the freedom to exploit one’s fellows” and “the freedom to profit” (36) and, left unchecked, will lead to social dissolution:

“[T]he drive towards market freedoms and the commodification of everything can all too easily run amok and produce social incoherence. The destruction of forms of social solidarity and even, as Thatcher suggested, of the very idea of society itself, leaves a gaping hole in the social order. It then becomes particularly difficult to combat anomie and control the resultant anti-social behaviors such as criminality, pornography, or the virtual enslavement of others. The reduction of ‘freedom’ to ‘freedom of enterprise’ unleashes all those ‘negative freedoms’ that Polanyi saw as inextricably tied in with the positive freedoms” (80-1).

Like Polanyi, Harvey insists that capital’s intrinsic slant toward negative freedom and “social incoherence” can be restrained by a regime of external management and planning. In a word, the state. Not only can such a regime control negative freedoms, but it can in fact produce positives: “Juridical and actual freedom can be made wider and more general that ever before; regulation and control can achieve freedom not only for the few, but for all,” as Harvey quotes Polanyi approvingly (37). Under neoliberalism, however, negative freedoms have been unleashed by a noninterventionist state and unrestrained capital while positive freedoms have been all but erased.

Concomitant with the proliferation of negative freedoms is a shift to strictly individual freedoms. These are partially created through and for the mechanisms of consumerism: “Neoliberalization require[s] both politically and economically the construction of a neoliberal market-based populist culture of differentiated consumerism and individual libertarianism” (42). Harvey, however, sees individual freedom not just as an expression of marketing-created consumerist desire but also as the subjective condition of those who have been stripped of their organizational representatives by two-plus decades of union busting and repression of dissident and activist groups: “Independent trade unions or other social movements…, which acquired considerable power under embedded liberalism, have to be disciplined, if not destroyed, and this in the name of the sacrosanct individual liberty of the isolated labourer.”

Neoliberal subjectivity, in Harvey’s view, is now similar to Marx’s free laborer at the dawn of capitalism: unencumbered by organizational affiliation, divorced from a specific social cohesiveness, and enslaved to consumerism. The “restoration of class power” should have sufficient ground to proceed. But it’s not enough. Neoliberalism also requires a subjectivity that is productive. More than previous types of capitalism, it is not to content to rely on the formal compulsion of mass labor. As I indicated earlier, following Lemke (2001), neoliberalism also devises “techniques for leading and controlling individuals.” (201). Specifically, leading them to become producers. It attempts this with a kind of generalized entrepreneurialism that acts both as measure and as an ethos that permeates the whole of society, the whole of life. Harvey is clear on the former concern:

“Individual success or failure are interpreted in terms of entrepreneurial virtues or personal failings (such as not investing significantly enough in one’s own human capital through education) rather than being attributed to any systemic property (such as the class exclusions usually attributed to capitalism)” (65).

Harvey is, however, mostly reticent about the subjective aspects of entrepreneurialism. Since any theory of neoliberalism must take these into account, I will offer my own description of them, however briefly and unsubtly, before returning to Harvey.

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6 thoughts on “Harvey on neoliberal freedom

  1. Hi, thanks for this draft which helps me to get to grips with how Harvey’s approach to neoliberalism differs from the Foucault-based one that Lemke and Wendy Brown build their analyses on. I suppose the main difference is that in the Foucauldian account there is a focus on techniques of the self, which is the area that Harvey’s account seems weak on -as you point to.

    I wasn’t sure about what ‘substratum’ and ‘strata’ were referring to, which might be because I haven’t read Harvey’s book. I know you prefigured that you’d expand on this later but could you explain this some more?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Michael. Yeah, Harvey is weak on the more subjective aspects. This isn’t, I don’t think, just an oversight or theoretical choice. It’s a problem with his whole approach: he sees capital as unproblematically imposing its axioms on subjects. Any resistance he sees is secondary. This, actually, is part of what I’m trying to get at with the stratum stuff, which is going to precede this section on Harvey (which I’ve also extensively reworked) and borrows from D&G’s discussion of strata. Not sure how much I can say because I’m still trying to work through it. But I’ll be sure to post whatever I come up with.

    Thanks again for your comment. And by the way, I’ve found your posts about neolib, Brown, Lemke, and the like very helpful and illuminating, even though I’m not familiar with the literature you are using. It seems like we are working in much the same mode.

  3. i don’t know why, but this post just came up in my feed read as if you just published it. didn’t realize it was a post from 2008! ooops. *bracing for the spam blocker again*

  4. The spam blocker on my email is hard(ass) too, as I’m just finding these comments. Yeah, that Brown. I’ve got a few posts on Brown, under the category “Brown” mostly, but Michael has quite a few and with more depth than I do. Check out his site.

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