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Brian Holmes, The Scandal of the Word “Class”

The Scandal of the Word “Class”:

A Review of David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford UP,
2005)

David Harvey's new book has four faces on its cover: Reagan, Thatcher,
Pinochet and Deng Xiaoping. It makes one self-evident, yet strangely
scandalous assertion: the rise of neoliberal economics since the late 1970s
— or more precisely, since the bankruptcy of New York City and the
dictatorship in Chile — is the centerpiece of a deliberate project to
restore upper-class power. True to its title, the book presents a concise
but extremely well-documented economic history of the last three decades,
encompassing not only the usual G-7 countries but the entire world, with a
particular emphasis on the US and capitalist China.


It identifies
structural trends of neoliberal governance that, as the book nears
conclusion, serve equally to explicate the present crisis, both of the
global economy and of interstate relations. And finally it asks the
political question of how resurgent upper-class power can successfully be
opposed. Here is where the most benefit could be gained by examining the
aura of scandal that surrounds its central thesis.But first let us consider in detail how this history unfolds. It is well
known that Chicago-school economists, trained by Milton Friedman, applied
the latter's free-market utopia to Chile after the consolidation of power
by Pinochet in 1975. “Freedom” was therefore a key word in the economic
management propounded by the dictator.

Harvey begins not with that story,
but instead with four orders issued on September 19, 2003 by Paul Bremer,
head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in “liberated” Iraq. The orders
included “the full privatization of public enterprises, full ownership
rights by foreign firms of Iraqi businesses, full repatriation of foreign
profits... the opening of Iraq's banks to foreign control, national
treatment for foreign companies and... the elimination of nearly all trade
barriers” (p. 6).


Only oil was exempted from these orders, presumably
because of its status as a strategic (i.e. military) resource. In addition,
a flat tax, long promoted by Republicans in the US, was imposed. Harvey
sees these economic parameters as exemplary of a neoliberal state, defined
as “a state apparatus whose fundamental mission [is] to facilitate
conditions for profitable capital accumulation on the part of both domestic
and foreign capital.”

The freedoms embodied by that particular kind of
state “reflect the interests of private property owners, businesses,
multinational corporations, and financial capital” (p. 8).


After drawing a striking parallel between the restructuring of the Iraqi
and Chilean economies, he goes on to recount the sequence, relatively
familiar from his previous books, whereby the postwar social compromise
between capital and labor, instituted internationally by the 1944 Bretton
Woods fixed exchange-rate system and by tariff barriers and capital
controls negotiated within the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade,
gradually collapsed in the early 1970s after delivering two decades of
sustained high growth. The central argument in this opening chapter is an
account of the dramatic increase in the income of the upper 1% of the
population of the most developed countries from the mid-1980s onward. By
the end of the century, in the US case, that upper one-hundredth of
American society commanded a full 15% of the national wealth — up from less
than 8% at the close of WWII, and now very close to the level of 16% that
had obtained before the war. On the same page Harvey offers another figure:
“the ratio of the median compensation of workers to the salaries of CEOs
increased from just over 30 to 1 in 1970 to nearly 500 to 1 by 2000” (p.
16). And he points to similar concentrations of wealth in Britain, Russia,
China and Mexico, as well as to the widening of the global income gap
between the top fifth of the world's population in the richest countries
and the bottom fifth in the poorest, which has gaped dramatically from 30
to 1 in 1960 to 74 to 1 in 1997. Over the same period, aggregate global
growth rates fell from 3.5% for the decade of the 1960s to just 1.1% for
the 1990s.

These statistics support the assertion that neoliberalism is
less “a utopian project to realize a theoretical design for the
reorganization of international capitalism” than it is “a political project
to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the
power of economic elites” (p. 19). In other words, despite all its
purported advantages in terms of lower taxes, renewed growth, liberty from
bureaucratic constraint, expanded job opportunities and consumer choices
for the common man, free-market theory serves in practice to mask the
recapture of state power by the rich.


The usefulness of history in an amnesiac society is simply to remember what
happened in our lifetimes. Take the prolonged economic downturn of the
1970s, when worldwide competition intensified, resource prices rose, global
demand fell, output stagnated, inflation climbed sharply, and the US was
faced with the uncontrollability of its own corporations, which parked
their global profits in offshore “eurodollar” markets rather than taking
them home where they would be taxed. Under the Keynesian logic of domestic
economic management, which traditionally sought to ensure full employment
and effective consumer demand for manufactured goods, the crisis could only
be treated by lowering interest rates and expanding welfare entitlements
and public-works investments.

But the result of those policies was an
inflationary wage-price spiral, which combined with persistent low growth
rather than alleviating it. The resulting paradox of “stagflation” was
finally countered in October 1979 by the so-called “Volcker shock.”


Paul Volcker, chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank under Carter, raised
interest rates dramatically, reaching a nominal rate of 20% by July 1981.
One major result was to make the new, fully liquid and negotiable US
Treasury bonds an irresistible destination for investments that poured in
from around the globe, thus re-establishing the central position of the US
in world finance and permitting the unprecedented deficit-spending, or
military Keynesianism, of the Reagan era.

But Harvey doesn't even mention
that here — because the key effect in terms of the restoration of
upper-class power was to precipitate a sharp recession that broke the
wage-price spiral and weakened the bargaining position of trade unions, as
workers were laid off and business after business failed. Reagan, who fully
approved of Volcker's approach, would pursue this attack on labor after his
accession to the presidency in 1980, notably by defeating the air-traffic
controllers' strike in 1981, then by promulgating the sweeping tax cuts and
broad deregulation of industry and finance for which he and Thatcher are
renowned. “Tax breaks on investment effectively subsidized the movement of
capital away from the unionized north-east and midwest and into the
non-union and weakly regulated south and west” of the United States, notes
Harvey (p. 26). The top personal tax rate fell from 70 to 28 percent. But
the Volcker shock had even more important consequences in the realm of
international relations.


The originality of David Harvey's books is the way he is able to trace the
dynamics of capital flows across time and across the geographical scales,
from the intimate to the urban, regional, national, continental and world
levels. Here he recalls how the OPEC price hike of 1973 placed huge amounts
of capital in the hands of the oil-producing states; and he refers to Peter
Gowan's account of the way the Saudis were forced by threat of invasion to
continue pricing their oil sales exclusively in dollars, and to recycle
these petrodollars through New York investment banks. Low US interest rates
in the mid-1970s meant that this capital had to be placed elsewhere, and
the solution was to lend it to the governments of developing countries.


“This required the liberalization of international credit and financial
markets, and the US government began actively to promote and support this
strategy globally during the 1970s” (pp. 28-9). The loans, however, were
also designated in US dollars, with the result that any rise in the US
interest rate could easily force debtor countries into default. This is
exactly what happened to Mexico in 1982–84, in the wake of the Volcker
shock — and it was at this point that economic crisis became the primary
tool of neoliberal restructuring. Harvey makes this analysis:


“The Reagan administration, which had seriously thought of withdrawing
support for the IMF in its first year in office, found a way to put
together the powers of the US Treasury and the IMF to resolve the
difficulty by rolling over the debt, but did so in return for neoliberal
reforms. This treatment became standard after what Stiglitz refers to as a
'purge' of all Keynesian influences from the IMF in 1982. The IMF and the
World Bank thereafter became centres for the propagation and enforcement of
'free market fundamentalism' and neoliberal orthodoxy. In return for debt
rescheduling, indebted countries were required to implement institutional
reforms, such as cuts in welfare expenditures, more flexible labour market
laws, and privatization. Thus was 'structural adjustment' invented” (p. 29).


It is crucial for the overarching thesis of the book that the reader should
remark how institutions controlled by the American state (as is the case of
the IMF) act to further the interests of private banks directing enormous
capital flows for the exclusive profit of a few. The fact is that the US
overcame its stagnating industrial growth by becoming the pivot — and
policeman — of global finance. At this point Harvey identifies a key
difference between classic liberal theory and actual neoliberal practice:
“under the former, lenders take the losses that arise from bad investment
decisions, while under the latter the borrowers are forced by state and
international powers to take on board the costs of debt repayment no matter
what the consequences for the livelihood and well-being of the local
population” (p. 29).


If one were to summarize A Brief History of Neoliberalism on a world map
rather than a sheet of paper, by inscribing names and dates on the places
mentioned and then using arrows to retrace capital flows, the result would
be a dynamic picture of many of the hidden tensions that animate
contemporary geopolitics. Yet these capital flows, and the corresponding
transformations in daily life, are not just results of primary changes
originating in the US and Britain. Another strong thesis of the book is
that “the general progress of neoliberalization has... been increasingly
impelled through mechanisms of uneven geographical development” (p. 87). On
the one hand, specific states, regions and cities are upheld as successful
models for capital accumulation, resulting in government programs that
strive to make populations everywhere behave like, say, Japanese, North
Italians, or Singaporeans, or to make our productive environments resemble
Ireland, Silicon Valley or Hyderabad (with the next fashionable role model
likely to be authoritarian China). On the other hand, and far more
effectively, each new crisis — and these have become increasingly frequent
since the mid-1970s — represents a chance for monopoly concentration,
foreign takeover of assets, and structural adjustment, as exemplified by
the case of the so-called “Asian crisis” that also wreaked its havoc on
Russia and Brazil in 1997–98. Harvey lists four main factors to explain the
rising turbulence: the financialization of everything (i.e. the conversion
of ownership rights into titles that can be traded instantaneously, along
with all their derivatives, on electronic marketplaces); the increasing
mobility of capital thanks to international agreements, culminating in the
founding of the WTO in 1995; the pressure to enact neoliberal reforms
exercised by the “Wall Street-IMF-Treasury complex”; and the spread of the
new monetarist and neoliberal orthodoxy in university economics departments
the world over, eliminating the former Keynesian paradigm. These give rise
to a world system where capital accumulation proceeds, not despite, but
because of the uneven geographic fluctuations of continuous crisis.


Incisive studies of the transformations in Mexico, Argentina, South Korea
and Sweden illustrate the vicissitudes of the “Washington Consensus” that
wove these four main threads together into a dominant pattern by the early
1990s, as Clinton and then Blair consolidated the neoliberal paradigm from
a center-left position (which, to be sure, no longer has anything
recognizably “left” about it).

One of the advantages of a geographic
treatment of history is to avoid lumping everything together into a single
global picture: “The degree to which neoliberalism has become integral to
common-sense understandings among the populace at large has varied greatly
depending on the strength of belief in the power of social solidarities and
the importance of traditions of collective social responsibility and
provision” (p. 116). Implementation of the upper-class agenda varied
consequently. Thus one can speak of a “circumscribed” neoliberalism in the
Swedish case, or note the failure of French elites to reach the income gaps
attained in most other developed countries.

Crucially, Harvey draws
attention to the interplay of local capitalist classes and external forces:
“It sometimes seems as if the IMF merely takes the responsibility for doing
what some internal class forces want to do anyway” (p. 117). A phrase which
in my view applies perfectly to the recent crisis in Argentina, among
others. The key to understanding the dynamics of the world system is
therefore to pierce the imbroglios surrounding the ways that national and
transnational elites collude to take advantage, not only of industrial or
financial booms, but also of the periodic busts that inevitably offer a
chance for the big fish to swallow the assets of the smaller ones, while
destroying the common people's means of livelihood.

This type of collusion
is central to the process that Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession.”
The thing we are asked to conceive, therefore, is the way that uneven
geographic development knits itself together into the dynamics of
far-reaching crisis. The geopolitical Gordian knot that appears so clearly
at the end of the book (particularly if you have also read The New
Imperialism
) is the one that intertwines the ever-expanding debt of the
United States, the industrial boom of China and the coveted oil reserves of
the Middle East.

It would be interesting to hear an informed opinion on the
chapter dealing with China's economic and social history, since 1978 when
Deng Xiaoping began the privatization of state enterprises and agricultural
collectives, and the opening of coastal cities to foreign capital. What's
compelling for the ordinary reader is the way Harvey recounts a series of
isolated experiments that gradually fit together into a coherent pattern of
practice (indeed, all his historical accounts adopt this empirical
approach). The Communist Party is credited with managing “to construct a
form of state-manipulated market economy that delivered spectacular
economic growth (averaging close to 10 percent a year) and rising standards
of living for a significant portion of the population for more than twenty
years.” At the same time, the Party is hardly spared critique: “It almost
certainly embraced economic reforms in order to amass wealth and upgrade
its technological capacities so as to be better able to manage internal
dissent, to better defend itself against external aggression, and to
project its power outwards onto its immediate geopolitical sphere of
interest” (p. 112). The authoritarianism of Deng and the successive
leadership is repeatedly stressed.

But it is China's overwhelming growth
that takes your breath away: 114 million migrant workers who have left the
countryside for the city; a rate of urbanization of around 15% a year;
foreign direct investment at 40% of GDP in 2002; automobile production of
250,000 a month in 2004 (mostly for internal consumption, and with
ecological consequences one would rather not imagine...). A phrase from a
New York Times report sums it up: “In 2003 China took '30 per cent of the
world's coal production, 36 per cent of the world's steel and 55 per cent
of the world's cement” (p. 139). One imagines endless highways,
skyscrapers, shopping malls, airports.

China is now the world's second
largest oil importer after the US, with its hungry eye on all the world's
reserves. This phenomenal growth stems from a pattern of strategically
privatizing, profit-driven management, which broadly corresponds to that of
the neoliberal state. “But in one respect the Chinese Depart glaringly from
the neoliberal template,” Harvey writes. And he continues:


“China has massive labor surpluses, and if it is to achieve social and
political stability it must either absorb or violently repress that
surplus. It can do the former only by debt-financing infrastructural and
fixed-capital formation projects on a massive scale (fixed-capital
investment increased by 25 per cent in 2003)... But all of this requires
that the Chinese state depart from neoliberal orthodoxy and act like a
Keynesian state. This requires that it maintain capital and exchange rate
controls. These are inconsistent with the global rules of the IMF, the WTO,
and the US Treasury.... The enforcement of capital flow controls is
becoming increasingly difficult as Chinese yuan seep across a highly porous
border via Hong Kong and Taiwan into the global economy. It is worthwhile
recalling that one of the conditions that broke up the whole Keynesian
post-war Bretton Woods system as the formation of a eurodollar market as US
dollars escaped the discipline of its own monetary authorities. The Chinese
are already well on their way to replicating that problem, and their
Keynesianism is correspondingly threatened” (p. 141).


What plainly worries Harvey are the possibly violent consequences of a
crisis affecting the US-China relation. For the two continent-sized
countries are now the double engine of world productivity: as the one
constantly struggles to consume what the other struggles to produce,
domestic peace in both comes to depend on the continuity of what looks like
a mad race to nowhere. Harvey, like Giovanni Arrighi and his collaborators,
thinks that a major hegemonic shake-up — i.e. the displacement of the US
from its now-fragile position as linchpin of the world economy — may well
be in the offing. But he does not see any way this could occur peacefully:


“A peculiar symbiosis emerges, in which China, along with Japan, Taiwan,
and other Asian central banks, fund the US debt so that the US can
conveniently consume their surplus output. But this renders the US
vulnerable to the whims of Asian central bankers. Conversely, Chinese
economic dynamism is held hostage to US fiscal and monetary policy. The US
is also currently behaving in a Keynesian fashion — running up enormous
federal deficits and consumer debt while insisting that everyone else must
obey neoliberal rules. This is not a sustainable position, and there are
now many influential voices in the US suggesting that it is steering right
into the hurricane of a major financial crisis. For China, this would
entail switching from a politics of labour absorption to a politics of
overt repression. Whether or not such a tactic can succeed, as it did in
Tiananmen Square in 1989, will depend crucially upon the balance of class
forces and how the Communist Party positions itself in relation to those
forces” (p. 142).


Every contemporary conflict can be assessed within this wider panorama. Is
the oil-grabbing Iraq occupation the opening gambit in a long-term struggle
that will violently oppose the two seemingly inseparable trading partners
over the control of the world's key strategic resource? This was the
question Harvey asked in The New Imperialism. But the current book, having
demonstrated with greater precision the extent to which the neoliberal
model of economic management has become the ruling paradigm across the
earth, tends rather to focus on the balance of class forces that will be
decisive in the resolution of a major crisis. It is here that the political
question of the foundations of the neoliberal consensus becomes crucially
important to the citizens of the purportedly democratic nations, who still
may have some chance to swing the balance of majority opinion towards a
rejection of the worst kinds of decisions (like those taken systematically
by the Bush administration). For the paradoxical and sobering truth (I have
to say this directly to Americans) is not only that we elected those who
have brought the country to the present impasse, but more pertinently, that
no one among the so-called “Left” or “progressives,” and least of all among
the Democrats, has been able to come up with an alternative that can unseat
the neoliberal model. Clinton, in this respect, merely upped the ante of
the speculative boom, thereby ushering in the disastrous crisis-management
of Bush, after the stock-market crash of mid-2000 and the events of
September 2001. The citizens of practically every other developed country
can make a similar self-critique, even if, with the partial exception of
Britain, their governments did not face such tests and do not bear such
direct responsibility. So one crucial question is, where have we gone wrong
on the Left, since the mid-1970s when the neoliberal option first emerged,
then the early 1980s when it already began to take on its definitive
political configuration? And more importantly, what sort of
counter-hegemony could safely steer the world beyond the looming likelihood
of a violently imperial slicing of the Gordian knot, on a scale tragically
greater than that of the current disaster in Iraq?


These are the problems that challenge the reader of A Brief History of
Neoliberalism
to overcome sheer fascination with such an intricate account
of the road to capital bondage in the name of individual freedom. Indeed,
this book of exacting historical detail is also a sustained invitation to
consider the different meanings of the word freedom, which, as Harvey
points out with a quote from Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation, can
be “the freedom to exploit one's fellows, or the freedom to make inordinate
gains without commensurate service to the community, the freedom to keep
technological inventions from being used for public benefit, or the freedom
to profit from public calamities secretly engineered for private advantage”
(p. 36). By retracing the way that the very premises of nineteenth century
liberal capitalism led to the disasters of the two World Wars, Polanyi
sought to make the reader consider all the complex economic and
institutional balances that would be needed to insure the justice and
equity of “freedom in a complex society” (which is the title of the last
chapter of The Great Transformation). Harvey's book has similar ambitions.
So let's restate the major political questions that it raises. Why did
neoliberal theory gain such a hold over the “common sense” of broad
majorities? How did it then evolve into an electorally effective
neoconservativism? What has halted the formation of a counter-hegemony? Why
does the seemingly self-evident thesis of a resurgence of upper-class power
have so little political currency in today's debates?


Like Boltanski and Chiapello in France (whom however he does not cite),
Harvey develops the theme of a growing split, from the late sixties onward,
between the traditional working-class concern for social justice and the
New Left concern for individual emancipation and “full recognition and
expression of particular identities” (the split between what the French
sociologists call “critique sociale” and “critique artiste”). With a sense
for the complexity of the issues, he remarks that “neoliberalism did not
create these distinctions, but it could easily exploit, if not foment,
them.” And he goes on to say that “Neoliberalization required both
politically and economically the construction of a neoliberal market-based
populist culture of differentiated consumerism and individual
libertarianism” (p. 42). Various kinds of extremely interesting evidence
are then adduced to suggest that corporate foundations and think tanks —
via works such as Nozick's Anarchy State and Utopia — made deliberate
attempts at the inculcation of market-oriented variations on
counter-cultural values. Harvey's strongest gesture in the direction of
cultural critique comes during his account of the bankruptcy of New York
City — which he characterizes as a departure point for the entire process
of neoliberalization. Faced with a fiscal crisis, “a powerful cabal of
investment bankers (led by Walter Wriston of Citibank) refused to roll over
the debt and pushed the city into technical bankruptcy” (p. 45). What
followed was an assertion of upper-class power over a city that had
engaged, from the bankers' viewpoint, in excessive provision of public
services and excessive concessions to unions. To prove the deliberate
nature of this disciplinary project, Harvey quotes then-president Ford's
Treasury Secretary, William Simon, who maintained that the terms of any
bail-out should be “so punitive, the overall experience so painful, that no
city, no political subdivision would ever be tempted to go down that road
again” (p. 46). But what would the new road look like? All those involved
in cultural production should pay close critical attention to the way
Harvey depicts the restructuring of New York City by the bankers:


“The creation of a 'good business climate' was a priority. This meant using
public resources to build appropriate infrastructures for business
(particularly in telecommunications) coupled with subsidies and tax
incentives for capitalist enterprises. Corporate welfare substituted for
people welfare. The city's elite institutions were mobilized to sell the
image of the city as a cultural centre and tourist destination (inventing
the famous logo 'I Love New York'). The ruling elites moved, often
fractiously, to support the opening up of the cultural field to all manner
of diverse cosmopolitan currents. The narcissistic exploration of self,
sexuality, and identity became the leitmotif of bourgeois urban culture.


Artistic freedom and artistic license, promoted by the city's powerful
cultural institutions, led, in effect, to the neoliberalization of culture.
'Delirious New York' (to use Rem Koolhaas's memorable phrase) erased the
collective memory of democratic New York. The city's elites acceded, though
not without a struggle, to the demand for lifestyle diversification
(including those attached to sexual preference and gender) and increasing
consumer niche choices (in areas such as cultural production). New York
became the epicentre of postmodern intellectual and cultural production....
Working-class and immigrant New York was thrust back into the shadows, to
be ravaged by racism and a crack cocaine epidemic of epic proportions in
the 1980s that left many young people either dead, incarcerated, or
homeless, only to be bludgeoned again by the AIDS epidemic that carried
over into the 1990s” (p. 47).


Did the currency of the word “class” fall at the very moment when a
commodified culture began to rise on the postmodern communications markets?
What's being sketched out in the passage above is a specific urban history
of the way that cultural production was subordinated to financialization,
in a process that ultimately leads to emergence of what Saskia Sassen calls
the “global cities.” But to what extent can the debilitation of the Left —
or the sundering of “artists' critique” from “social critique” — really be
ascribed to the corporate instrumentalization of earlier counter-cultural
experiments in a Nietzschean transvaluation of values? And to what degree
could such a trend be simply reversed, and a trait drawn through both the
desire for emancipation and the cultural strategies of identity and gender
politics — as Harvey and many other Marxist theorists seems at times to
suggest or wish?


These are complex questions which demand thorough examination and strategic
responses from everyone whose cultural sympathies lie anywhere near the New
Left (and particularly from those who, like myself, do not think that any
simple reversal of history is possible). The problem, as Harvey's further
analysis indicates, is that for the Democratic Party to ever shift the
balance away from the current neoliberal/neoconservative hegemony, and for
it to become credible again as a valid opposition, it would have to expand
its popular base, even while shrugging off the dependency on powerful
financial interests into which it was pushed by the Republican's ability to
easily command huge electoral budgets. Such a transformation, which has
clearly become urgent, would require reinforcement from every direction —
including art and culture. The situation is not so dissimilar in many
European countries. To generate the resolve needed to form cross-class
alliances and to seriously oppose the agenda that now traverses both sides
of the mainstream political spectrum, would middle-class cultural producers
and “symbolic analysts” (to use Robert Reich's phrase) not have to give up
every kind of tacit complicity with the corporate program? But could they
gain the strength to do this by denying key issues that emerged in the
1960s, and attempting instead to reconfigure an address to working classes
that have been so extensively targeted by a reactionary nationalist
rhetoric?


The other major cultural issue that arises from consideration of the ways
that neoliberal theory translates into popular common sense has to do with
the emergence of the neoconservative position, first in the US, but now
with an increasing carry-over into Europe, via the repressive strategies of
figures such as Blair, Sarkozy, etc. Here, Harvey follows Polanyi in
suggesting that neoliberalism — the contemporary form of Polanyi's
“laissez-faire economics” — can only resort to authoritarianism, once its
own reduction of all human relationships to contracts has definitively
undermined the solidarities and reciprocities that make social life viable.
Neoconservativism, he notes, “has reshaped neoliberal practice in two
fundamental respects: first, in its concern for order as an answer to the
chaos of individual interests, and second, in its concern for an
overweening morality as the necessary social glue to keep the body politic
secure in the face of internal and external dangers.... The
neoconservatives therefore emphasize militarization as an answer to the
chaos of individual interests” (p. 82). It goes without saying that they
make an equally strong appeal to religion, to ethnic or even racial
identity and indeed to nationalism (which in most countries, for the time
being, is still distinct from militarization). How can these appeals be
countered? What kinds of beliefs and daily practices — or “structures of
feeling,” as Raymond Williams might have said — can achieve greater
persuasive force than the recourse to traditional values, with all the
emotion and adherence they can so readily evoke? What sort of political
invention would it take to reorient a society which seems to have embarked
on a suicidal path to national, commercial and religious heaven?


Early on in his precise and powerful book, Harvey points out how “common
sense” can be “profoundly misleading, obfuscating or disguising real
problems under cultural prejudices.— He goes on to quote Gramsci's
conclusion that “political questions become 'insoluble' when 'disguised as
cultural ones'” (p. 39). This was already the position he had adopted in
The Condition of Postmodernity, in 1990. His latest study, imbued both with
the urgency of looming crisis and with the renewed strength of the
oppositional movements that have gathered since that time, goes a good deal
further in marshaling the arguments that can convince even the most
reticent reader that what we have seen in the last three decades is
effectively a restoration of upper-class power, which now demands a
concerted response. How can those arguments be translated into what he
calls “good sense” — that is, a reasoned and deeply felt conviction that a
more egalitarian and less drastically exploitative way of organizing social
relations is both possible and necessary? What transformation in the common
language would be required to bring a word like “class” back to the lips of
those who have been so concretely disempowered by the upper classes?


In its Greek etymology, the word “scandal” designates a stumbling block, a
hidden stone on the path before you. Later it came to mean an offense to
religion by the reprehensible behavior of a cleric, before taking on the
modern sense of a revelation causing damage to a private reputation.
Today's secular clerks — who don't call themselves intellectuals anymore,
but often prefer the name of cultural producers — have become ashamed to
use the word “class” in conversation with those who, like them, occupy the
uncertain middle ranks of society, and wish neither to fall into necessity,
nor to be tripped up on a possible path to comfort and ease. But the
disproportionate power of those in the highest ranks now appears as a
radical offense to any belief in a viable future on the shared ground of
this planet. For all the precision and power of its arguments, David
Harvey's book may not yet have invented the complex cultural and affective
languages — or the renewed understandings of Polanyi's notion of “freedom
in a complex society” — that could help entire populations forge broad
alliances against the nakedly clear effects of ruling-class power, in the
world of Halliburton, BP, Fidelity Investments, Elf-Total-Fina, Bill Gates,
Siemens, Baron Seillières, Carlos Slim, Bloomberg's, Union des Banques
Suisses, Telefonica, and all the other proper names that have gradually
found their place on our mental maps. But this succinctly written book
asserts — with scandalous good sense — the intensifying need and desire for
that new tongue.