read this book, if you’ve not read better books

David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism is a pretty decent survey, if you’re a slightly naive People and Planet-ish student just dipping a toe into the idea that perhaps, maybe, something is wrong with society. But then, I suspect that this was precisely the audience he had in mind.

That sounds sarcastic, because it is. There is a very good chapter on the rise of organised lobbying in the 1970s, specifically the emergence of a corporate lobby that had a common political direction and ideology rather than just being a ragbag of interest groups. That’s worth having.

On the other hand, Harvey argues that the financialisation of the economy in the 1980s meant that the “flow of tribute into the United States” hugely increased. He does this with a chart showing the flow of interest, rents, and dividends into and out of the US (I think this is the gloss on the flow of funds data in the paper he is quoting). But the chart contradicts the text – although both data series rise dramatically in the 1980s, that is beside the point, as the “tribute” seems to be the net balance of the two, the surplus of returns from US investments in the wider world over returns on the wider world’s investment in the US. (What US economists used to call “dark matter” – defensive, much?)

Eyeballing the chart, it struck me that this actually seemed to fall in the 80s, although the total of both went way up, but what the argument really needed was a line on the chart showing the net series explicitly. And there is a chart like that, much further on in the book, in the conclusions, where Harvey is arguing that the flow of “tribute” is approaching zero or going negative. Looking at that one, the gap between the profitability of US investments abroad and that of everyone else’s investments in the US was actually narrowing in the 80s, although the volume of investments churning between the two parties was going up hugely. Then, in the 90s, the gap opened dramatically, before shrinking close to zero in the early 2000s.

This is important; Harvey’s account is about imperialism, but the chart (when he stops monkeying with it) fits a different story, one about finance capitalism. Rather than getting more effective, whether you think that means it was a more vicious form of feudal extraction on behalf of the empire or whether you think it means it was a more efficient means of allocating investments, it just got bigger, churning more money in and out of the US and taking its transaction fees in the process.

Also, I’m not sure if it makes any sense to talk about the ratio of tribute collected to…largesse? is that the word? paid out. The point about tribute, or largesse, is precisely that it’s unrequited, an act of pseudo-religious and pseudo-familial duty on one hand, an act of gracious whim on the other. If there is anything that cannot be reduced to a mere market transaction without destroying it, tribute is it, as much as love. (I mean, if you could buy kingship like so many pounds of potatoes, you could buy it from anybody, and then where would we be?) The idea of a return on invested capital calculation with regard to tribute is a category mistake.

Other things I disagreed with – I don’t think Harvey’s take on China is particularly interesting or useful. Even in 2007, it was already pretty clear that Chinese workers were not passive and were not cases for development aid, but could probably teach the rest of us a lesson about mass-group incidents. Macro-economically, he doesn’t really discuss the dollar-RMB rate and Chinese agency in pursuing a strategy of export-led industrialisation.

He apparently still believed in 2007 that the development of Western electronics and information/communications technology was stunted by the military-industrial complex and that the Japanese 5th Generation Computer Systems project was going to catch up and overtake, etc. (It didn’t, but it did cause LISP.) This is an interesting point, as David Graeber seems to believe it as well, and as far as I know, it is traceable to one specific essay written in the very early 1980s, which has apparently been rattling about US Marxist circles ever since. I know this because I’ve read it, but I can’t find the damn thing at the moment.

I disagree with his gloss of neoconservatism. Basically, he argues that neoconservatism is John Redwood-style Toryism – using nationalism (in Redwood’s case and in his words, Euroscepticism) as a source of morality and mobilisation in the value-free neoliberal desert. This implies that the neocons care about the liberal element in neoliberalism. I dispute this; Dick Cheney, famously, was not a great advocate of sound finance, and neocons have never been especially interested in free trade, civil liberties, or limited government. I would argue that it is a specifically anti-liberal political project, and one that is quite willing to get its big government on in the service of its foreign policy and its wider notions of national greatness, unity, etc.

And I’ve already had at the moral economy of hyperlocalism here. Also, there is a really astonishingly creepy take on hating NGOs in which he accuses them of only wanting to abolish child prostitution in order to create jobs in other NGOs. (Yes. Really.)

So you might think there’s nothing in there I agree with.

But there’s plenty. There’s a good discussion of the way the post-Bretton Woods financial architecture keeps having huge crises, and the way that each crisis seems to end up with an enormous government bailout and a gaggle of structural-adjustment programmes. This is of course Harvey’s original Big Idea.

In fact, there’s enough to build a better book. There could be more, much more on the lobbying stuff. Another book I finally got around to reading recently was Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt, about the tobacco industry and its pet non-scientist scientists, and I really want a book that basically applies Merchants to Harvey’s first chapter. I rather suspect that quite a bit of tobacco money went into economics. A good title would be The War Against You. In general, A History could have more on individuals. If the ideas were the disease, the people were the carriers. And, y’know, the system has a face and a name, and all that.

But Harvey’s Marxism is a source of weakness here; he spends a lot of time justifying the very idea of writing the history of an idea, on the doctrine that causality runs only from the material base to the ideological superstructure. Similarly, he spends a lot of time bashing “identity politics” and then carefully providing fan-service to each identity group he could think of at the ends of his sentences, and of course it was pretty bad for the disabled and women (although, as I keep mansplaining, they should stop whining because it’ll be delivered after the revolution)…see what I mean?

And, oddly, there’s less than you might think on wages and on inequality, although I don’t think some of the key econometric papers were out yet when he was writing A History.

So, it’s adequate, but no more. And I’d really like The War Against You.

11 Comments on "read this book, if you’ve not read better books"


  1. That article about the 5th generation project (which I admit I didn’t finish out of irritation) is pretty bizarre. Lisp (with, and I think this is Verity Stob’s joke) its key features of recursion and condescension has been around since 1957, I don’t think I have ever seen a suggestion that Lisp benefited from the 5th generation project. Maybe indirectly, because the 5th generation project spooked the British government into the Alvey programme http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvey which like all such things was used by academics to do what they wanted to do anyway by suitable redefinition. I imagine Lisp may have cropped up in them as well as Prolog.
    There is a book to be written on the 5th Generation Project and why it failed, though I suspect the answer is actually rather banal. I have come across a few papers but no book. Maybe there is / are some in Japanese. [Just as books on Mintel are only in French].
    There is another book to be written on what became of all the allegedly promising KBS / Expert Systems systems – I have a couple of contemporary books full of examples. Lots of the systems seemed to be related to improving manufacturing and the answer is probably ‘we gave up and got the Chinese to do it instead’.
    Mentioning that Lisp was subsequently used by Autodesk is, I think, a big warning sign, It is technically true that it was used as its scripting language, but I don’t think that has much to do with the price of cyber-fish. If you wanted to rate things by the number of lines of Lisp written, wouldn’t that be EMACS macros anyway?

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  2. Good god that article by Dvorak is terrible, but then isn’t that generally the case. Basically on the stuff I know he’s bizarrely wrong, and I have no confidence that knows anything about the Japanese AI project.

    And Prolog, or derivatives, are widely used in everything from computer games, expert systems (yes, they’re out there – and in some domains pretty successful) to washing machine controllers. While the Japanese AI project may have failed on its own merits (but then don’t most large research projects), I suspect there were a huge number of spin offs that were beneficial to Japanese industry generally. Washing machine controllers and robotics being the most obvious examples – I am sure there are others.

    LISP is an astonishingly powerful language, that is beyond most programmers (most programmers are barely sentient, so not that surprising). It failed because it is harder to learn, and the tools were too expensive/poorly promoted. And a derivative (Clojure) is doing pretty well, thank you. Its also the second oldest computer language, so connecting it to the 5th generation project is a tad bizarre.

    Prolog is a very specialized language. Dvorak’s argument in that piece is simply demonstrating his own ignorance (is SQL a failure because nobody is using it to develop client/server code. Or when the web industry inevitably move away from relational data stores).

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    1. The history of IT outside the anglophone world tends to be overlooked through not being in English, I am slightly dubious that the 5th Generation project had any particular spin offs but I could well be wrong.
      Don’t forget, of course, that Erlang is essentially parallel Prolog without the bit the proved to be hard to parallelise (backtracking).

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      1. Not true. It was initially implemented in Prolog for reasons I don’t pretend to understand, but its a fairly standard functional language now.

        There’s a lot of AI in many consumer products. Its easy to forget that much of the world’s IT is embedded in machinery, rather than the WIMP (or tablet/phones) we’re used to working with. I know nothing about the project, but the Japanese are very strong in areas that relate to AI areas that are similar. This suggests to me that spin offs happened, even if they were not the expected ones.

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        1. I am probably overstating the case, the syntax and some library functions are similar – you have probably read this
          http://www.scribd.com/doc/3405806/Erlang-History

          It would be interesting to know what impact the 5th generation project had on these things. Somewhere I worked we had a saying that an AI system was anything cleverer than the salesman selling it.

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          1. Well AI is largely a salesman’s concept. If you divide AI into two its a lot easier to think about it. There’s the really clever algorithms (loosely defined – this would also include neural nets, genetic algorithms, embodied systems, etc) that solve difficult real world problems. That’s been pretty successful, despite some well publicized blind alleys.

            Then there’s the project to create HAL. That has been a total failure, albeit one which has hugely increased our knowledge of what we don’t know.


  3. Incidentally I was unimpressed by the Right Nation, which seemed to belong to the genre of foreign correspondents trying to understand the US from Washington, the media and the occasional bit of travel (well they were journalists for the Economist). Even the basic premise is wrong – the US population actually isn’t that economically conservative, as Pew polling has shown consistently for years.

    Read Winner Take All Politics by Hacker & Pierson (reviewed here by crooked timber) if you want to understand how the US got to its current predicament.

    Understanding the US socially, culturally and politically would take a small library. Though starting from the premise “follow the money”, assuming that corruption explains most things until proven otherwise, will get you most of the way. The only other point to note is that the USA elite has the propaganda machine that the USSR dreamed of. And it works – which just goes to show private enterprise really is better at these things.

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