The scandal of the word “class”

Partagez —> /

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 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
neoliberated 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

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 going on to promulgate 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,” 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 uniform 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

“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

“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 emancipationandthe
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? The substance of belief, or better, the
sources of shared conviction, emerges as the ultimate political question.

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 Seilli?res, 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 affirms ? with scandalous good sense ? the intensifying need and
desire for that new tongue.