This post has two purposes. First of all, I wanted to alert everyone to a wonderful new online Anthropology journal called Anthropology of This Century which “publishes reviews of recent works in anthropology and related disciplines, as well as occasional feature articles.” This is as close as I’ve seen to an anthropology focused New York Review of Books (or perhaps I should say London Review of Books, as AOTC is edited by Charles Stafford at LSE).
Ortner’s article starts with a quote from Marshall Sahlins: “Whatever happened to ‘Late Capitalism’? It became neo-liberalism.” Some of our readers may not remember the phrase “Late Capitalism” which gained popularity after Ernst Mandel’s book of that name came out in the late seventies. David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity owes a lot to Mandel. Ortner doesn’t dispute Sahlins, but suggests that there are some reasons why we might want to use a new word:
I want to make it clear that the economy known as “late capitalism” in the 80s and 90s was not really much more benign than the economy we now call “neoliberalism.” Either/both emerged from the dual turn from Fordism and Keynesianism, that is, from the metaphoric social contracts that had protected industrial labor as well as the citizenry in general from the worst excesses of capitalism. But in the 80s and 90s, accounts of late capitalism were closely tied up with “globalization,” and while globalization was certainly understood to have its down sides (labor outsourcing, unemployment, and deindustrialization at the sending end; extreme labor exploitation at the receiving end, etc.), there was also a fairly influential set of arguments about the ways in which other aspects of globalization (flows of technology, information, media, etc.) could be seen as positive and liberating (see especially Appadurai 1990). Globalization remains real and indeed as multi-layered and multi-valent as ever (see Hannerz 1996; Inda and Rosaldo 2002; Tsing 2005). But neoliberalism is now embedded in a different, and more consistently dark, set of stories, to which we now turn.
I’m not a huge fan of Klein’s work, but I really like Harvey’s and I find his brief definition of neoliberalism quite satisfying:
Harvey offers a clear definition of neoliberalism as a system of “accumulation by dispossession,” which has four main pillars: 1) the “privatization and commodification” of public goods; 2) “financialization,” in which any kind of good (or bad) can be turned into an instrument of economic speculation; 3) the “management and manipulation of crises” (as above); and 4) “state redistribution,” in which the state becomes an agent of the upward redistribution of wealth…
At the same time, using a new word has its downsides. For one thing, the phrase neoliberalism lets good-old-fashioned “liberalism” off the hook too easily. It also obscures some of the continuities that exist across various changes in the Capitalist system. A great book to read criticizing some of the excess fear/adulation over globalization is Doug Henwood’s After the New Economy, usefully discussed in this long Crooked Timber post by Kieran Healy. But I still think that Harvey is on to something in identifying neoliberalism as a political agenda which defines the current time, and I particularly like how he shows that neoliberalism is not purely a US-based conspiracy but something that has emerged simultaneously, if somewhat differently, in countries like China. Ortner ads further complexity to the story by drawing on recent ethnographic works on the subject.
I don’t have so much to say about the second article, except that I recommend also listening to Craig Jeffery’s CHIASMOS talk on his book Timepass: Youth, Class and The Politics of Waiting in India which is the subject of Chris Fuller’s review. (And if you don’t subscribe to the CHIASMOS podcast you should!)