Book Note: A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey

by Dan Miller.
A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey (Oxford University Press, 2005)

A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey (Oxford University Press, 2005)

The roots of the anti-establishment mood that was so visible this year in the US presidential primaries and the Brexit vote in the UK are no doubt many and complex. But a key element is surely the rise of a political economy that allows a tiny international elite to garner unimaginable wealth and wield inordinate political power while the middle and working classes of the developed nations stagnate economically and writhe in political impotence. David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism, a slender but dense volume, provides an explanation for that situation. Harvey’s main point is that the current global dominance of neoliberalism—a set of policies that includes free trade, low taxes, lax business regulation, reduced government services, and hostility to labor unions—was not the inevitable result of economic logic but was instead the product of a deliberate campaign by wealthy and powerful individuals to secure their class interests.

The mix of policies that came to be known as neoliberalism were first implemented in the third world: by military diktat in Chile and by financial diktat in Mexico (and once again by military diktat in Iraq after the US invasion). Later they were introduced into the rich western democracies by popular politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Reagan and Thatcher persuaded millions of voters to embrace neoliberal policies that were contrary to their economist interests by identifying them with “freedom”: from excessive taxation, from interfering government bureaucrats, from greedy and corrupt labor unions, and from welfare programs that were turning people from free and self-sufficient citizens into indolent wards of the state. Even Communist China adopted aspects of neoliberalism, turning the entire country into a Dickensian workhouse for the benefit of the party elite which incongruously continued to mouth the egalitarian pieties of Mao while economic inequality soared. The end result is the global economic system we see around us which channels ever more of the world’s wealth into ever fewer hands and leaves most people feeling confused and powerless.

This book, which was published in 2005, sounds eerily prophetic. It notes that financial transactions which used to allocate capital to productive enterprises have increasingly become disconnected from the “real economy” or, more properly, financial speculation has become the real economy. Harvey’s narrative also explains why the bankers and financiers who created the recent global fiscal crisis were bailed out with no legal consequences (and big bonuses into the bargain!) while millions of ordinary people lost their jobs and their homes. The thoroughly debunked urban legend that the catastrophe was the fault of the US government forcing banks to offer mortgages to poor people also fits nicely into Harvey’s notion that the elites are masters of propaganda through their control of the media and well-funded “think tanks” that spew out neoliberal orthodoxy. The recent upsurge in anti-establishment populism in Europe and America suggests that the neoliberal narrative is wearing thin as it becomes increasingly hard to hide the fact that it is a huge con game, another development that Harvey’s book anticipated.

There is much food for thought but there are also some obvious weaknesses in the author’s argument. Two stand out. Harvey notes that the rise of neoliberalism began in the 1970s when the welfare state began to experience high inflation and high unemployment; however his discussion of what went wrong with the welfare state is theoretically vague and lacking in detail, especially in comparison to his incisive critique of neoliberalism. Without a proper explanation of the economic problems of the 1970s, it’s hard to know whether to agree with him when he claims that neoliberalism was the wrong solution to those problems. Even more importantly, Harvey’s narrative does not give sufficient weight to the benefits gained by billions of people in the third world who were lifted out of abject poverty by the neoliberal economic reforms he condemns. China’s embrace of aspects of neoliberalism in particular has made a huge material difference in the lives of many ordinary people, not just party elites. That does not mean that neoliberalism has not spawned huge problems there such as environmental degradation, crony capitalism, and a debt overhang that could yet bring the Chinese economy, and possibly the global economy, crashing down. Still, Harvey’s argument would carry more weight if he acknowledged the benefits as well as the limitations of neoliberalism.

Despite those weaknesses, this is a book worth reading and pondering. It calls for a new way of defining “freedom” and “rights” that does not privilege market relations or individual profits over the interests of the community. And it makes clear that, however misguided some of the proposals put forward by the current crop of populist leaders and movements may be, their complaints are very real.


Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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Nation and Kingdom: A Christian Reflection on the Fourth of July

by Ron Wells.

American flag with the text "My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing."This is written on July 3, 2016

I was raised in a patriotic American home. My immigrant parents, especially my Dad, were very grateful for the opportunity to come to America to achieve a better life for themselves and especially a better future for their children. They became naturalized American citizens as soon as was permissible. They voted in every election, even minor local ones, because their civic duty required it. My Dad put out the flag, a fairly large one, on every possible occasion to do so. The Fourth of July was a big deal in my home. When it came time for me to go to college, information came to our mailbox about ROTC. My Dad reckoned that since I would be drafted sometime, why not go as an officer? He later told me that he wasn’t sure on which day he was proudest of me – the day I graduated from college in cap and gown or the next day when in my uniform I was commissioned an officer in the US Army.

I was raised in a Christian home. I was baptized a few months after my birth, and as the liturgy says, I was marked as Christ’s own forever. In later years, when there would be baptisms in our church, my Dad occasionally would playfully comment on the way home that my brother and I were “marked men.” I have never known a day of life in which I was not aware of being part of God’s kingdom. Of course I’ve had doubts in college and beyond, but those doubts were worked out within the household of faith. In my working life I tried hard, in the contingent circumstances of academic life, to be a faithful person. So it was natural that one of my books would be titled “History Through the Eyes of Faith.” Praying the petition in the Lord’s Prayer – thy Kingdom come – was a sincere hope and expectation of what it might be like when the shalom of God came among us, both now and in the future, that is, after the trumpet blows.

Yes, American and Christian went together.

Yet, what my upbringing did not prepare me for was the ways in which being a patriotic American and a serious Christian might come into conflict. What my parents believed in, as did patriots before and after them, are the ideals for which American stands; what our iconic lady shows forth at the front door of our country, Liberty.

In 1831, at the Park Street Church on the Boston Common, a young seminarian named Samuel Smith combined with the church’s famed organist, Lowell Mason, to give words and a re-worked melody to a song that many still believe should be the national anthem, and largely functioned as such before the current less-singable song was adopted a century after “America” was first sung.

My country, ’tis of thee,

Sweet land of liberty,

Of thee I sing;

Land where my fathers died,

Land of the pilgrims’ pride,

From ev’ry mountainside

Let freedom ring.

That song was later featured in one of the greatest speeches in American history, the 1963 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King – “I have a Dream” – in which he celebrated that ideal but found it wanting as applied to African Americans. It was with a sense of urgency that he called for freedom to ring from every mountainside, including mountains he named in whose shadows the reality of racist discrimination and exclusion were still being practiced.

For me, just graduating from college in that year of 1963, there was a growing recognition that my Christian values were precisely those, like Dr. King’s, that should be employed to give critique to the ways in which the American values were not being lived up to.

As I read authors like Reinhold Niebuhr and William Stringfellow, I came to see that I had to choose where my first loyalty lay – in the nation or in the kingdom. The Kingdom of God is, on earth, an international body, where my first loyalty and friendship is to those who name the Name, in whatever nation, tribe or tongue they may be found. Solidarity must be with them, in the first place, not the members of my birth nation, the USA. Further, the resources to critique my nation comes from the Bible and the traditions of Christian thinking developed by this international fraternity over two thousand years. It was hard to say it – when I first did – that I am a Christian first and an American second. That was not what I was raised to think in my patriotic home.

But that is not the end of the story. I later came to see that there was no need – as a trans-national Christian – to give up entirely on loving my birth nation. It is a contingent love, as said above, but a real love. I still agree with my Dad that “this is a greatest country on earth,” in which a nation of immigrants has made the greatest economic and political success story in world history. I am very proud of my military service in my country’s name. But, one admits that America is flawed in many ways, and has not lived up to the ideals of liberty we all hold dear. It is precisely as a Christian and as an American that I can ask the nation to live up to what Christianity calls all of us to be, especially as it bears on treating all people with the dignity, respect and justice that God intends for all.

In a recent book by the controversial author, Jim Wallis, he refers to “America’s Original Sin.” He sees racism at the beginning and in the fabric of American life. As he points out, Americans nearly exterminated the aboriginal race and then enslaved another. That is very serious, and cruelly ironic, for a nation that believes itself to be – and proclaims to the world – the “sweet land of liberty.”

I still love July Fourth, both for the nostalgia of my growing up years and especially for the ideals we sing about in church and public places: “America” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” never fail to stir deep emotions of gratitude for what America has allowed for people like me and my family. But the day also gives me pause because, as a Christian, I am bound to recall that there are many for whom the promise of America life was, and is, not fulfilled. When one looks at our realities from a Kingdom perspective – how God meant it to be before sin made everything go so terribly wrong – one sees what needs to be done both for America to live up to its own proclaimed ideals and for Christians to follow in the way of the cross.

Ronald A. Wells is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Calvin College, Michigan. He is now mostly retired in Tennessee, and lives in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, where he has part-time position directing the Symposium on Faith and the Liberal Arts at Maryville College. He is a layman in the Episcopal Church, and is a member of the Church of the Ascension in Knoxville.

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The Author’s Corner: John Fea with Kristin Kobes Du Mez

by Kristin Du Mez.

In the wake of recent news coverage of Christian colleges and the mishandling of sexual assault cases, questions are being raised about connections between Christianity, patriarchy, and the abuse of women. Katharine Bushnell asked precisely these questions a century ago. I think her ideas can resonate powerfully today.

John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah College, recently interviewed Calvin history professor Kristin Du Mez about her recent book, A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism. Here’s an excerpt from the interview on his blog:

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A New Gospel for Women?

KKD: To understand Christianity and feminism we need to look to the past (long before the 1970s), but we need to do so without depicting either Christianity or feminism as static constructs, or with the simplistic purpose of addressing a contemporary agenda (i.e. trying to prove that Christianity and feminism are—or are not—compatible). A New Gospel for Women doesn’t simply tell the story of a remarkably influential and wrongly forgotten Christian woman, but it also examines the factors that contributed to her historical neglect—and both of these aspects are essential to gaining a better understanding of Christianity and feminism today.

JF: Why do we need to read A New Gospel for Women?  

KKD: Bushnell became a theologian in response to her activism. She was a social purity reformer, or in modern parlance, a Christian anti-trafficking activist. She was compelled by her faith not only to “rescue” and “reform” prostitutes, but also to advocate for laws and practices that protected the rights of “fallen women” (a term she rejected, by the way, unlike the majority of her Victorian counterparts). She first worked in the lumber camps of northern Wisconsin and Michigan, and then she turned her attention to the British empire. There she worked on behalf of Indian women who suffered egregious abuses in British military brothels (and later on behalf of women trafficked in Hong Kong, Singapore, and on the West Coast of America). Over the course of her career, however, she was increasingly disturbed to find Christian men opposing her at every turn. This happened so frequently that she concluded that something within Christian theology itself must be to blame. It wasn’t simply that a few men were being bad Christians, but rather that Christian theology itself engendered the abuse of women. …

Read the full interview on John Fea’s blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home >>

Kristin Du Mez is associate professor of history at Calvin and teaches courses in recent America, US social and cultural history, and Gender Studies. Her book A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism was recently published with Oxford University Press. Follow her on Twitter @kkdumez.

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