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How neoliberalism manufactured consent to secure its unlimited power

From David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism

Part 2 - How neoliberalism penetrated ‘common-sense’ understandings

How, then, did neoliberalism negotiate the turn to so comprehensively displace embedded liberalism? In some instances, the answer largely lies in the use of force (either military, as in Chile, or financial, as through the operations of the IMF in Mozambique or the Philippines). Coercion can produce a fatalistic, even abject, acceptance of the idea that there was and is, as Margaret Thatcher kept insisting, ‘no alternative’. The active construction of consent has also varied from place to place.

Furthermore, as numerous oppositional movements attest, consent has often wilted or failed in different places. But we must look beyond these infinitely varied ideological and cultural mechanisms –– no matter how important they are –– to the qualities of everyday experience in order to better identify the material grounding for the construction of consent. And it is at that level –– through the experience of daily life under capitalism in the 1970s –– that we begin to see how neoliberalism penetrated ‘common-sense’ understandings. The effect in many parts of the world has increasingly been to see it as a necessary, even wholly ‘natural’, way for the social order to be regulated.

Any political movement that holds individual freedoms to be sacrosanct is vulnerable to incorporation into the neoliberal fold. The worldwide political upheavals of 1968, for example, were strongly inflected with the desire for greater personal freedoms. This was certainly true for students, such as those animated by the Berkeley ‘free speech’ movement of the 1960s or who took to the streets in Paris, Berlin, and Bangkok and were so mercilessly shot down in Mexico City shortly before the 1968 Olympic Games. They demanded freedom from parental, educational, corporate, bureaucratic, and state constraints. But the ’68 movement also had social justice as a primary political objective.

Values of individual freedom and social justice are not, however, necessarily compatible. Pursuit of social justice presupposes social solidarities and a willingness to submerge individual wants, needs, and desires in the cause of some more general struggle for, say, social equality or environmental justice. The objectives of social justice and individual freedom were uneasily fused in the movement of ’68. The tension was most evident in the fraught relationship between the traditional left (organized labour and political parties espousing social solidarities) and the student movement desirous of individual liberties.

The suspicion and hostility that separated these two fractions in France (e.g. the Communist Party and the student movement) during the events of 1968 is a case in point. While it is not impossible to bridge such differences, it is not hard to see how a wedge might be driven between them. Neoliberal rhetoric, with its foundational emphasis upon individual freedoms, has the power to split off libertarianism, identity politics, multi-culturalism, and eventually narcissistic consumerism from the social forces ranged in pursuit of social justice through the conquest of state power.

It has long proved extremely difficult within the US left, for example, to forge the collective discipline required for political action to achieve social justice without offending the desire of political actors for individual freedom and for full recognition and expression of particular identities. Neoliberalism did not create these distinctions, but it could easily exploit, if not foment, them.

In the early 1970s those seeking individual freedoms and social justice could make common cause in the face of what many saw as a common enemy. Powerful corporations in alliance with an interventionist state were seen to be running the world in individually oppressive and socially unjust ways. The Vietnam War was the most obvious catalyst for discontent, but the destructive activities of corporations and the state in relation to the environment, the push towards mindless consumerism, the failure to address social issues and respond adequately to diversity, as well as intense restrictions on individual possibilities and personal behaviours by state-mandated and ‘traditional’ controls were also widely resented. Civil rights were an issue, and questions of sexuality and of reproductive rights were very much in play. For almost everyone involved in the movement of ’68, the intrusive state was the enemy and it had to be reformed.

And on that, the neoliberals could easily agree. But capitalist corporations, business, and the market system were also seen as primary enemies requiring redress if not revolutionary transformation: hence the threat to capitalist class power. 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. Neoliberalism was well suited to this ideological task. But it had to be backed up by a practical strategy that emphasized the liberty of consumer choice, not only with respect to particular products but also with respect to lifestyles, modes of expression, and a wide range of cultural practices.

Neoliberalization required both politically and economically the construction of a neoliberal market-based populist culture of differentiated consumerism and individual libertarianism. As such it proved more than a little compatible with that cultural impulse called ‘post-modernism’ which had long been lurking in the wings but could now emerge full-blown as both a cultural and an intellectual dominant. This was the challenge that corporations and class elites set out to finesse in the 1980s.

None of this was very clear at the time. Left movements failed to recognize or confront, let alone transcend, the inherent tension between the quest for individual freedoms and social justice. But the intuitive sense of the problem was, I suspect, clear enough to many in the upper class, even to those who had never read Hayek or even heard of neoliberal theory. Let me illustrate this idea by comparing the neoliberal turns in the US and Britain in the troubled years of the 1970s.

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