Neoliberalism, Flexibility, and Postmodernism: Reflections on the work of David Harvey (2022)

Reading together David Harvey’s two books A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005, hereafter cited B) and his earlier The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, Blackwell, 1992, hereafter cited C) allows one a singular attempt to think both the shift from Fordist-Keynesian embedded liberalism to neoliberalism and that from modernism to postmodernism as one from rigidity to flexibility. Indeed, Harvey provides insights into the very ontological and metaphysical grounds of this shift as constituted by a profound transformation in the experience of space and time.

While an exemplary scholarship runs through both texts at the levels of history, political economy, and cultural studies among others, Harvey unfortunately repeats at times the very neoconservatism he critiques in his readings of philosophy, within which what he calls ‘postmodernism’ has gone ‘too far,’ citing real or potential Nazi sympathies in Nietzsche, Heidegger, or in the ‘deconstructionism’ of Derrida, along with Deleuze and Guattari’s imagined championing of actual schizophrenia in responding to capitalism. Harvey follows Terry Eagleton’s critique of Lyotard in which ‘there can be no difference between truth, authority, and rhetorical seductiveness; he who has the smoothest tongue or the raciest story has the power,’ (B 198) suggesting that the latter, like Foucault, “accepts the potential open qualities of ordinary conversations in which rules can bend and shift so as ‘to encourage the greatest flexibility of utterance,’” (C 47 emphasis added) and that this flexibility works to cement a complicity with the aestheticization seen in the charismatic politics of Thatcher and Reagan. And perhaps nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in Trump, who himself recently flaunted his ‘flexibility’ on immigration issues.

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There is a serious sense within which flexibility allows one to resolve irreconcilable differences and contradictions in one’s discourse, lets one say everything and nothing; in neoliberalism, this can be especially read in what Harvey calls the ‘unholy alliance’ between libertarian free-market individualism and the authoritarianism of neoconservatism. Still, does Harvey not risk closing himself off to philosophies of time and space which might allow him to not only theorize the metaphysics and ontology of this transition into flexibility more thoroughly, but perhaps offer a way through its aporias? Let us defer and delay this question for now. The import of his reading, as I take it, suggests the reverse: that any post-whatever theory not deny itself the practice of meta-theory “which can grasp the political-economic processes (money flows, international divisions of labour, financial markets, and the like) that are becoming ever more universalizing in their depth, intensity, reach and power over daily life.” (B 117) A contamination that operates from both sides regardless.

What is neoliberalism? Harvey defines it as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free market, and free trade.” (B 2) In other words, the freedoms of the individual are guaranteed by the freedoms of the market. As he cites Treanor, “neoliberalism values market exchange as ‘an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide to all human action, and substituting for all previously held beliefs’.” (B 3) But this utopian rhetoric camouflages a more sinister political purpose; the reconstruction of the power of economic elites and the reestablishment of the conditions for capital accumulation. For Duménil and Lévy, he writes, “neoliberalization was from the very beginning a project to achieve the restoration of class power.” (B 16) Between these two dimensions of neoliberalism, the utopian and the political, the latter has dominated. When the libertarian and individualistic principles of neoliberalism clash with the restoration of class power, Harvey writes, “then the principles are either abandoned or become so twisted as to become unrecognizable.” (B 19) Neoliberalism will side with a good business climate and the integrity of the financial system at the expense of collective rights, the quality of life, the well-being of the population, or the capacity of the environment to restore itself. On this last point, the era of neoliberalism does not just coincidentally coincide with that of the sixth mass extinction of plant and animal species and climate change; its commitment to the financialization of everything overflows even the demand for an inhabitable earth.

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The sea change in both cultural and political economic practices since 1972 or 1973, he writes, is bound up in new ways within which we experience space and time. Harvey thus posits “some kind of necessary relation between the rise of postmodernist cultural forms, the emergence of more flexible modes of capital accumulation, and a new round of ‘time-space compression’ in the organization of capitalism.” (C vii) Harvey understands the transition from the rigidities of Fordist-Keynesian embedded liberalism to neoliberal flexibility as one between ‘regimes of accumulation’ and the related modes of social and political regulation. A regime of accumulation, as understood by the ‘regulation school,’ “describes the stabilization over a long period of the allocation of the net product between consumption and accumulation; it implies some correspondence between the transformation of both the conditions of production and the conditions of reproduction of wage earners.” (C 121) A mode of regulation, whether at the social or political level, might be understood as the materialization of a regime of accumulation, the interiorization of its rules in norms, habits, laws, and so on, ensuring the unity and coherency of the regime. The shift from modernism to postmodernism, as with that from Fordism/Keynesianism to neoliberalism, is thus coextensive with one from rigidity to flexibility.

As Harvey explains, the postwar boom from 1945 to 1973 can be understood as structured in a Fordist-Keynesian model of labour control practices. A highly unionized workforce, he writes, entailed acertain rigidity in labour markets, allocation and contracts, particularly resistant to pressures of de-skilling in the workplace. However, this rigidity made it difficult for Fordism-Keynesianism to contain the contradictions of capitalism. The recession of 1973 thus entailed processes of experimental economic and political restructuring that would give way to an entirely new regime of accumulation. As he puts it, “the more flexible notion of capital emphasizes the new, the fleeting, the ephemeral, the fugitive, and the contingent in modern life, rather than the more solid values implanted under Fordism.” (C 171) Any form of social solidarity that would hinder market flexibility had to be dismantled, “in favour of individualism, private property, personal responsibility, and family values,” (B 23) hence Thatcher’s famous claim that there is no society, there are only individuals. This increase of flexibility, Harvey adds, has led to a total restructuring of labour towards sub-contracting, temporary and self-employment. Workers can now expect several periods of de- and re-skilling in their lifetimes. (C 230) What would become called flexible specialization in labour processes and ‘flexi-time arrangements’ would be attractive to individual labourers excluded from union protection, and could easily be integrated into neoliberal rhetoric. (B 53) “‘Flexibility’ becomes the watchword with respect to labour markets. It is hard to argue that increased flexibility is all bad, particularly in the face of highly restrictive and sclerotic union practices.” (B 75) There are, of course, positive aspects to this. As Harvey cites Marx,

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even the ‘variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer’ demanded by modern industry, holds the potential to replace the fragmented worker ‘by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers’ (Capital, 1:458). (C 109)

Flexible employment arrangements can indeed be sometimes mutually beneficial, he adds. However, its effects on the whole concerning insurance coverage, pension rights, wage levels, and job security are by no means positive. (C 151)

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At the level of financial markets, the explosion of new and complex financial instruments, including the entire credit industry, can be read in this shift towards flexible accumulation. (C 194) The penchant of postmodern flexibility for the fleeting and transitory has manifested itself into one for immaterial money and fictitious capital. Above all, he adds, flexible accumulation has witnessed the emergence of “greatly intensified rates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation.” (C 147) Indeed, Harvey suggests, capitalism has become ever more organized “through dispersal, geographical mobility, flexible responses in labour markets, labour processes, and consumer markets, all accompanied by heavy doses of institutional, product, and technological innovation.” (C 159)

On the social and cultural level, flexible accumulation has been mirrored in quickly-changing consumption patterns with respect to fashion, and at the aesthetic level shifted from the stability of Fordism to an aesthetic celebrating difference, ephemerality, spectacle, and fashion. (C 156) As Harvey asks, then, is postmodernism as much of a radical break with modernism as it seems? Is it simply a revolt against high modernism’s relative comfort with dominant power structures, its “subterranean celebration of corporate bureaucratic power and rationality?” (C 36) Does it offer revolutionary and emancipatory potential with respect to its attentiveness to racial and sexual minorities? Or does it thoroughly integrate with neoconservative politics and the logic of late capitalism? Postmodernism, as Harvey suggests, is simply the social and cultural manifestation of the financialization of everything; the market’s power over the entirety of cultural production. Harvey thus draws from Daniel Bell in noting the institutionalization of creative impulses in what the latter calls ‘the cultural mass’ “the millions of people working in broadcast media, films, theatre, universities, publishing houses, advertising and communications industries, etc.” (C 60) The turn to pop culture and ephemeral fashion has in fact come to embody the “mindless hedonism of capitalist consumerism.” (C 60) The political implications of postmodernism thus fall on the one hand into incoherence, he suggests, or on the other seek a “shameless accommodation with the market [that] puts it firmly in the tracks of an entrepreneurial culture that is the hallmark of reactionary neoconservatism.” (C 116)

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Neoconservatism and authoritarianism are thus the seemingly contradictory aspects through which neoliberalism pursues its mission to consolidate class power through the provision of a good business climate. Labour and the environment will thus always be commodities submitted to this imperative; Wall Street will always win out over main street, and a good business climate will win out over collective rights. In the early 1970’s, Harvey writes, the belief in individual freedom could come together with questions of social justice against an overly intrusive state and its role in unjust wars, consumerism, overly powerful corporations, and traditional values concerning sexuality and reproductive rights. However, Harvey writes, “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.” (B 42) Indeed, he adds elsewhere, “the evident insecurities of flexible accumulation create a climate conducive to authoritarianism of the Thatcher-Reagan type.” (C 167) Neoconservatism, he adds, is entirely consistent with neoliberalism on the questions of class power, its suspicion of democracy as a threat to individual rights and liberties, and its emphasis on market freedoms. (B 81) Neoliberalism thus manages to secure the power of the elite through courting the white working class to vote against its own interests via questions of cultural nationalism, moral values, racism, homophobia, and antifeminism, evangelical Christianity, and pro-life positions. “The problem was not capitalism and the neoliberalization of culture, but the ‘liberals’ who had used excessive state power to provide for special groups (blacks, women, environmentalists, etc.)” (B 50) And it is no coincidence today that Trump professes his love for uneducated voters since these can be easily rallied around radically xenophobic positions concerning immigration, only to then flaunt his ‘flexibility’ when attacked on the latter.

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FAQs

Is david Harvey a postmodernist? ›

In fact, although he calls for a reconstructed version of Marxism and Enlightenment values, Harvey is quintessentially postmodern in his superficial, fragmented, and rhetorical remarks on politics (see the last chapter of the book).

What is David Harvey's theory? ›

He shows that the landscape of capitalism, including UGD, is a product of twin processes of capitalist accumulation and pro-business policies of the state, although popular struggles which seek to use space and place in their own interests play a limited role.

How does david Harvey define Postmodernity? ›

David Harvey begins his preface to The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry in the Origins of Cultural Change with the observation that his initial response to "postmodernism" was to try to wait it out, "hoping that it would disappear under the weight of its own incoherence or simply lose its allure as a fashionable ...

What is postmodernism a response to? ›

Postmodernism can be seen as a reaction against the ideas and values of modernism, as well as a description of the period that followed modernism's dominance in cultural theory and practice in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century.

What is a post modern world? ›

postmodernism, also spelled post-modernism, in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.

How did Harvey explain the right to the city in terms of the processes of urbanization? ›

According to Harvey: “The Right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.

What does David Harvey means by accumulation by dispossession? ›

Accumulation by dispossession is a concept presented by the Marxist geographer David Harvey. It defines neoliberal capitalist policies that result in a centralization of wealth and power in the hands of a few by dispossessing the public and private entities of their wealth or land.

Is Harvey a Marxist? ›

David Harvey is a university professor and a geographer who describes himself as a Marxist.

What's the difference between modernity and postmodernity? ›

“Modern” and “post-modern” were terms that were developed in the 20th century. “Modern” is the term that describes the period from the 1890s to 1945, and “post-modern” refers to the period after the Second World War, mainly after 1968.

What do you mean by modernity? ›

modernity, the self-definition of a generation about its own technological innovation, governance, and socioeconomics. To participate in modernity was to conceive of one's society as engaging in organizational and knowledge advances that make one's immediate predecessors appear antiquated or, at least, surpassed.

Are we past post modern? ›

While the modern movement lasted 50 years, we have been in Postmodernism for at least 46 years. Most of the postmodern thinkers have passed away, and the "star system" architects are at retirement age. So far, we have not seen thoughts or ideas that announce a change, neither in architecture nor in culture.

What is the main goal of postmodernism? ›

As a philosophy, postmodernism rejects concepts of rationality, objectivity, and universal truth. Instead, it emphasizes the diversity of human experience and multiplicity of perspectives.

What is the impact of postmodernism? ›

Postmodernism affects views and lifestyles, which in turn affects the young adult's performance of roles and his interactions within all his different social systems. A strong attachment to family and home, as well as the importance of roles as sons/daughters were found.

What is a simple definition of postmodernism? ›

A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality.

What are the 5 characteristics of postmodernism? ›

5 Characteristics of Postmodern Literature
  • Embrace of randomness. Postmodern works reject the idea of absolute meaning and instead embrace randomness and disorder. ...
  • Playfulness. ...
  • Fragmentation. ...
  • Metafiction. ...
  • Intertextuality.
Jun 7, 2021

What is an example of postmodernism? ›

Postmodern movies aim to subvert highly-regarded expectations, which can be in the form of blending genres or messing with the narrative nature of a film. For example, Pulp Fiction is a Postmodern film for the way it tells the story out of the ordinary, upending our expectations of film structure.

Who is the father of postmodernism? ›

FOLLOWING the great American modernist poets of the first decades of the 20th century -- Pound, Eliot, Williams -- Charles Olson is the father of the "postmodernists" of the second half of the century, bridging Pound & Co. to such major poets as Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley.

When did David Harvey write the right to the city? ›

Though this description was written in 1872, it applies directly to contemporary urban development in much of Asia—Delhi, Seoul, Mumbai—as well as gentrification in New York. A process of displacement and what I call 'accumulation by dispossession' lie at the core of urbanization under capitalism.

Why the right to the city is important? ›

The Right to the City implies responsibilities on all spheres of government and citizens to exercise, claim, defend and promote equitable governance and the social function of all human settlements within a human rights habitat.

What is the meaning of right to city? ›

Right to the City means that the State cannot deny any public service of facility to the unauthorized colonies in the City.

What does the concept of accumulation by dispossession help us understand? ›

Accumulation by dispossession is a concept that shows us that the overaccumulation of capital needs a spatial-fix in places where there is a lack of capital. In the process it can destroy communities of indigenous people.

What do you mean by accumulation in sociology? ›

In conclusion, we define accumulation as a process of amassing one or more objects, whether desirable or undesirable, within or across domains of interest.

What is the spatial fix? ›

The “spatial fix” (in the sense of geographical expansion to resolve problems of overaccumulation) is in part achieved through fixing investments spatially, embedding them in the land, to create an entirely new landscape (of airports and of cities, for example) for capital accumulation.

What is capitalism according to Marxism? ›

Capitalism: A socio-economic system based especially on private ownership of the means of production and the exploitation of the labor force.

What is Marx law of value? ›

In modern Marxism, the law of value is often equated with "market economy", but that was not Marx's own idea. Rather, it limits, regulates and constrains the trade in products. Simply put, the socially necessary labour requirements set limits for the movements of product prices.

How old is David Harvey? ›

What is theory of postmodernism? ›

Postmodernism relies on critical theory, which considers the effects of ideology, society, and history on culture. Postmodernism and critical theory commonly criticize universalist ideas of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, language, and social progress.

What is the difference between postmodernism and postmodernity? ›

Postmodernity is a condition or a state of being associated with changes to institutions and creations (Giddens, 1990) and with social and political results and innovations, globally but especially in the West since the 1950s, whereas postmodernism is an aesthetic, literary, political or social philosophy, the " ...

What are the common characteristics between modernism and postmodernism? ›

Comparison of Modernism and Postmodernism
ModernismPostmodernism
Unreliable narratorIronic narrator
Rejection of realismAmbivalence towards realism
Literature is self-containedLiterature is open and intertextual
High-brow genresMixing of high- and low-brow genres
7 more rows
Jul 5, 2022

What are the 4 key characteristics of modernity? ›

The four key characteristics of modernity are the rise of science and rational thought, individualism, industrialisation, and urbanisation. However, there are other characteristics such as the increased role of the state as well.

What is the impact of modernity to culture? ›

Modern cultural change is part of cultural modernization and modernization. Culture impacts modernization in three ways: (1) positive effect such as science & technology knowledge; (2) negative effect such as feudalism; (3) neutral effects such as languages and arts etc.

What is the impact of modernity on the self? ›

The self-awareness brought on by modernity allows individuals to develop a complex sense of self that constructs personal identity. With individual choice, the traditional roles lost their hold, requiring individuals to define themselves in ways that society had always done for them.

When did postmodernism start and end? ›

Postmodernism is one of the most controversial movements in art and design history. Over two decades, from about 1970 to 1990, Postmodernism shattered established ideas about art and design, bringing a new self-awareness about style itself.

When did postmodernism end the nation? ›

Some art historians believe the Post-Modern era ended at the beginning of the 21st Century and refer to the following period as Post Post-Modern.

What's the difference between modernity and postmodernity? ›

“Modern” and “post-modern” were terms that were developed in the 20th century. “Modern” is the term that describes the period from the 1890s to 1945, and “post-modern” refers to the period after the Second World War, mainly after 1968.

Are we past post modern? ›

While the modern movement lasted 50 years, we have been in Postmodernism for at least 46 years. Most of the postmodern thinkers have passed away, and the "star system" architects are at retirement age. So far, we have not seen thoughts or ideas that announce a change, neither in architecture nor in culture.

What do you mean by modernity? ›

modernity, the self-definition of a generation about its own technological innovation, governance, and socioeconomics. To participate in modernity was to conceive of one's society as engaging in organizational and knowledge advances that make one's immediate predecessors appear antiquated or, at least, surpassed.

What is an example of postmodernism? ›

Postmodern movies aim to subvert highly-regarded expectations, which can be in the form of blending genres or messing with the narrative nature of a film. For example, Pulp Fiction is a Postmodern film for the way it tells the story out of the ordinary, upending our expectations of film structure.

What is theory of postmodernism? ›

Postmodernism relies on critical theory, which considers the effects of ideology, society, and history on culture. Postmodernism and critical theory commonly criticize universalist ideas of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, language, and social progress.

What does postmodernism mean in simple terms? ›

Postmodernism is a movement that focuses on the reality of the individual, denies statements that claim to be true for all people and is often expressed in a pared-down style in arts, literature and culture. An example of a thought of postmodernism is the idea that not all people would see stealing as negative.

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