Neoliberalism, Flexibility, and Postmodernism: Reflections on the work of David Harvey

Reading together David Harvey’s two books A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005, hereafter cited B) and his earlier The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, Blackwell, 1992, hereafter cited C) allows one a singular attempt to think both the shift from Fordist-Keynesian embedded liberalism to neoliberalism and that from modernism to postmodernism as one from rigidity to flexibility. Indeed, Harvey provides insights into the very ontological and metaphysical grounds of this shift as constituted by a profound transformation in the experience of space and time.

While an exemplary scholarship runs through both texts at the levels of history, political economy, and cultural studies among others, Harvey unfortunately repeats at times the very neoconservatism he critiques in his readings of philosophy, within which what he calls ‘postmodernism’ has gone ‘too far,’ citing real or potential Nazi sympathies in Nietzsche, Heidegger, or in the ‘deconstructionism’ of Derrida, along with Deleuze and Guattari’s imagined championing of actual schizophrenia in responding to capitalism. Harvey follows Terry Eagleton’s critique of Lyotard in which ‘there can be no difference between truth, authority, and rhetorical seductiveness; he who has the smoothest tongue or the raciest story has the power,’ (B 198) suggesting that the latter, like Foucault, “accepts the potential open qualities of ordinary conversations in which rules can bend and shift so as ‘to encourage the greatest flexibility of utterance,’” (C 47 emphasis added) and that this flexibility works to cement a complicity with the aestheticization seen in the charismatic politics of Thatcher and Reagan. And perhaps nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in Trump, who himself recently flaunted his ‘flexibility’ on immigration issues.

There is a serious sense within which flexibility allows one to resolve irreconcilable differences and contradictions in one’s discourse, lets one say everything and nothing; in neoliberalism, this can be especially read in what Harvey calls the ‘unholy alliance’ between libertarian free-market individualism and the authoritarianism of neoconservatism. Still, does Harvey not risk closing himself off to philosophies of time and space which might allow him to not only theorize the metaphysics and ontology of this transition into flexibility more thoroughly, but perhaps offer a way through its aporias? Let us defer and delay this question for now. The import of his reading, as I take it, suggests the reverse: that any post-whatever theory not deny itself the practice of meta-theory “which can grasp the political-economic processes (money flows, international divisions of labour, financial markets, and the like) that are becoming ever more universalizing in their depth, intensity, reach and power over daily life.” (B 117) A contamination that operates from both sides regardless.

What is neoliberalism? Harvey defines it 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 market, and free trade.” (B 2) In other words, the freedoms of the individual are guaranteed by the freedoms of the market. As he cites Treanor, “neoliberalism values market exchange as ‘an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide to all human action, and substituting for all previously held beliefs’.” (B 3) But this utopian rhetoric camouflages a more sinister political purpose; the reconstruction of the power of economic elites and the reestablishment of the conditions for capital accumulation. For Duménil and Lévy, he writes, “neoliberalization was from the very beginning a project to achieve the restoration of class power.” (B 16) Between these two dimensions of neoliberalism, the utopian and the political, the latter has dominated. When the libertarian and individualistic principles of neoliberalism clash with the restoration of class power, Harvey writes, “then the principles are either abandoned or become so twisted as to become unrecognizable.” (B 19) Neoliberalism will side with a good business climate and the integrity of the financial system at the expense of collective rights, the quality of life, the well-being of the population, or the capacity of the environment to restore itself. On this last point, the era of neoliberalism does not just coincidentally coincide with that of the sixth mass extinction of plant and animal species and climate change; its commitment to the financialization of everything overflows even the demand for an inhabitable earth.

The sea change in both cultural and political economic practices since 1972 or 1973, he writes, is bound up in new ways within which we experience space and time. Harvey thus posits “some kind of necessary relation between the rise of postmodernist cultural forms, the emergence of more flexible modes of capital accumulation, and a new round of ‘time-space compression’ in the organization of capitalism.” (C vii) Harvey understands the transition from the rigidities of Fordist-Keynesian embedded liberalism to neoliberal flexibility as one between ‘regimes of accumulation’ and the related modes of social and political regulation. A regime of accumulation, as understood by the ‘regulation school,’ “describes the stabilization over a long period of the allocation of the net product between consumption and accumulation; it implies some correspondence between the transformation of both the conditions of production and the conditions of reproduction of wage earners.” (C 121) A mode of regulation, whether at the social or political level, might be understood as the materialization of a regime of accumulation, the interiorization of its rules in norms, habits, laws, and so on, ensuring the unity and coherency of the regime. The shift from modernism to postmodernism, as with that from Fordism/Keynesianism to neoliberalism, is thus coextensive with one from rigidity to flexibility.

As Harvey explains, the postwar boom from 1945 to 1973 can be understood as structured in a Fordist-Keynesian model of labour control practices. A highly unionized workforce, he writes, entailed acertain rigidity in labour markets, allocation and contracts, particularly resistant to pressures of de-skilling in the workplace. However, this rigidity made it difficult for Fordism-Keynesianism to contain the contradictions of capitalism. The recession of 1973 thus entailed processes of experimental economic and political restructuring that would give way to an entirely new regime of accumulation. As he puts it, “the more flexible notion of capital emphasizes the new, the fleeting, the ephemeral, the fugitive, and the contingent in modern life, rather than the more solid values implanted under Fordism.” (C 171) Any form of social solidarity that would hinder market flexibility had to be dismantled, “in favour of individualism, private property, personal responsibility, and family values,” (B 23) hence Thatcher’s famous claim that there is no society, there are only individuals. This increase of flexibility, Harvey adds, has led to a total restructuring of labour towards sub-contracting, temporary and self-employment. Workers can now expect several periods of de- and re-skilling in their lifetimes. (C 230) What would become called flexible specialization in labour processes and ‘flexi-time arrangements’ would be attractive to individual labourers excluded from union protection, and could easily be integrated into neoliberal rhetoric. (B 53) “‘Flexibility’ becomes the watchword with respect to labour markets. It is hard to argue that increased flexibility is all bad, particularly in the face of highly restrictive and sclerotic union practices.” (B 75) There are, of course, positive aspects to this. As Harvey cites Marx,

even the ‘variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer’ demanded by modern industry, holds the potential to replace the fragmented worker ‘by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers’ (Capital, 1:458). (C 109)

Flexible employment arrangements can indeed be sometimes mutually beneficial, he adds. However, its effects on the whole concerning insurance coverage, pension rights, wage levels, and job security are by no means positive. (C 151)

At the level of financial markets, the explosion of new and complex financial instruments, including the entire credit industry, can be read in this shift towards flexible accumulation. (C 194) The penchant of postmodern flexibility for the fleeting and transitory has manifested itself into one for immaterial money and fictitious capital. Above all, he adds, flexible accumulation has witnessed the emergence of “greatly intensified rates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation.” (C 147) Indeed, Harvey suggests, capitalism has become ever more organized “through dispersal, geographical mobility, flexible responses in labour markets, labour processes, and consumer markets, all accompanied by heavy doses of institutional, product, and technological innovation.” (C 159)

On the social and cultural level, flexible accumulation has been mirrored in quickly-changing consumption patterns with respect to fashion, and at the aesthetic level shifted from the stability of Fordism to an aesthetic celebrating difference, ephemerality, spectacle, and fashion. (C 156) As Harvey asks, then, is postmodernism as much of a radical break with modernism as it seems? Is it simply a revolt against high modernism’s relative comfort with dominant power structures, its “subterranean celebration of corporate bureaucratic power and rationality?” (C 36) Does it offer revolutionary and emancipatory potential with respect to its attentiveness to racial and sexual minorities? Or does it thoroughly integrate with neoconservative politics and the logic of late capitalism? Postmodernism, as Harvey suggests, is simply the social and cultural manifestation of the financialization of everything; the market’s power over the entirety of cultural production. Harvey thus draws from Daniel Bell in noting the institutionalization of creative impulses in what the latter calls ‘the cultural mass’ “the millions of people working in broadcast media, films, theatre, universities, publishing houses, advertising and communications industries, etc.” (C 60) The turn to pop culture and ephemeral fashion has in fact come to embody the “mindless hedonism of capitalist consumerism.” (C 60) The political implications of postmodernism thus fall on the one hand into incoherence, he suggests, or on the other seek a “shameless accommodation with the market [that] puts it firmly in the tracks of an entrepreneurial culture that is the hallmark of reactionary neoconservatism.” (C 116)

Neoconservatism and authoritarianism are thus the seemingly contradictory aspects through which neoliberalism pursues its mission to consolidate class power through the provision of a good business climate. Labour and the environment will thus always be commodities submitted to this imperative; Wall Street will always win out over main street, and a good business climate will win out over collective rights. In the early 1970’s, Harvey writes, the belief in individual freedom could come together with questions of social justice against an overly intrusive state and its role in unjust wars, consumerism, overly powerful corporations, and traditional values concerning sexuality and reproductive rights. However, Harvey writes, “by capturing ideals of individual freedom and turning them against the interventionist and regulatory practices of the state, capitalist class interests could hope to protect and even restore their position.” (B 42) Indeed, he adds elsewhere, “the evident insecurities of flexible accumulation create a climate conducive to authoritarianism of the Thatcher-Reagan type.” (C 167) Neoconservatism, he adds, is entirely consistent with neoliberalism on the questions of class power, its suspicion of democracy as a threat to individual rights and liberties, and its emphasis on market freedoms. (B 81) Neoliberalism thus manages to secure the power of the elite through courting the white working class to vote against its own interests via questions of cultural nationalism, moral values, racism, homophobia, and antifeminism, evangelical Christianity, and pro-life positions. “The problem was not capitalism and the neoliberalization of culture, but the ‘liberals’ who had used excessive state power to provide for special groups (blacks, women, environmentalists, etc.)” (B 50) And it is no coincidence today that Trump professes his love for uneducated voters since these can be easily rallied around radically xenophobic positions concerning immigration, only to then flaunt his ‘flexibility’ when attacked on the latter.