In his A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey lays out the two primary ways that neoliberalism has been understood in the academic and popular press: “We can, therefore, interpret neoliberalism either as a utopian project to realize a theoretical design for the reorganization of international capitalism or as a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore power of economic elites … The evidence suggests, moreover, that when neoliberal principles clash with the need to restore or sustain elite power, then the principles are either abandoned or become so twisted as to be unrecognizable” (Harvey 19).

Harvey’s suggestion that academics have over-emphasized idealized versions of neoliberalism (as a suite of libertarian principles embodied by Hayek, Mises, Friedmand, and the Mont Pelerin Society) explains the unevenness of neoliberalism throughout the globe as well as why neoliberals everywhere do not demand the elimination of all state intervention in the economy, and why some neoliberals have also been proponents of authoritarianism and anti-democratic principles.  Some state intervention, ultimately, has been necessary to maintain markets and property rights, foundations for capitalist expansion.

Neoliberalism might also be understood as an umbrella term that captures different responses to similar crises of profitability that occurred globally during the 1970s to various regimes of state-backed capitalism and large welfare provisions (‘embedded liberalism’) that were put in place in the post-war period: the failure of Keynesianism (USA); the stagnation of social democracy (Germany, UK); the crisis of postcolonial autarky (India, South Africa, Egypt); the limits to state-led planning (China, USSR); the balance of payments crisis in the third world (Mexico); the paradoxical success of developmental states which produced a stronger capitalist class now attempting to undo the fetters of developmentalism (Korea, Taiwan). 

So the set of policies that were implemented between the 1970s and 1990s to the long crisis in profitability would necessarily take different shapes in different national economies: monetarism and an attack on the welfare state (Anglo-American economies); IMF-enforced structural adjustment (Latin American and African economies); state-manipulated market economies (China); newly formed capitalist class networks (East Asian economies); protracted attacks on labor unions (formal social democracies); shock therapy (former Soviet economies). 

There was a convergence around a set of policies: a move toward greater liberalization of financial markets; privatization of national industry; elimination of regulation while guaranteeing property rights; deindustrialization and relocation of important manufacturing; flexibilization of labor through casualization and just-in-time production; evisceration of the state-sponsored social provision; attacks on labor unions.  All of these were necessary parts of the restructuring of capitalism to attempt to recover profitability primarily by weakening the bargaining power of labor and unions, or in the classical Marxist terms of the rise in the “organic composition of capital.”  Regrettably, most academics conclude that this signals the working class has lost its world-historic role, even though labor has renewed its militancy in a number of neoliberal zones (India, China, Egypt, Greece, Brazil, Argentina).

Other concepts crucial to literary studies also tend to converge and become reorganized in their historical connectedness to shifts in the economic structure of global capitalism: postcolonialism now appears as attempts by the indigenous capitalist class to gain a greater share of the national profits as much as a hangover from colonial organizations of the economy; postmodernism appears as a result of a specific logic of “late capitalism” which prioritized the individual over other forms of solidarity; transnationalism tends less to be voluntary flows of cosmopolitan peoples than the ruthless battering of national boundaries by global capitalism; and the “politics of identity” seem to appear as a residue of a more robust solidarity. 

Works Cited

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