Neil Davidson, What Was Neoliberalism? Studies in the Most Recent Phase of Capitalism, 1973-2008

Review by Dave Featherstone

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Haymarket, Chicago. 2023, 270 pp., £18.99 (p/b), ISBN 10 9781642899152

The first chapter of What Was Neoliberalism? closes with the line: ‘And soon everything we’ve known will just be swept away.’(Davidson, p. 66). Taken from Bruce Springsteen’s Independence Day, Neil Davidson uses it to demonstrate the cataclysmic impact of neoliberalism. The quotation also indicates the remarkable range of intellectual and cultural references that inform his account of the emergence and reconfiguring of neoliberalism in the period from 1973 to 2008. Published in the wake of Neil’s untimely death in 2020, What Was Neoliberalism? offers an insightful account of the emergence, consolidation and tensions which constitute what he refers to as ‘the most recent phase of capitalism’. The book sets out to give an overview of these developments, locating them in a broader argument about the trajectories of capitalism. This review outlines some of the key contributions of the book and then considers some of the broader issues the book raises, particularly in relation to thinking about Scottish labour history during this period, given the focus of this journal.

Firstly, Davidson brings his powerful historical (materialist) imagination to understandings of neoliberalism. Thus, chapter one, which engages with ‘false intellectual antecedents’ of neoliberalism, exonerates Adam Smith from responsibility for this pernicious set of political and economic dogmas. Drawing on his extensive knowledge of the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ and histories of early modern Scotland, Davidson savages tendentious readings of Smith’s work to support neoliberal tenets.

In particular, he demonstrates how little common ground there is between his own arguments and the intellectual positions adopted by the ideologues of the Adam Smith Institute. He also clearly savours the irony of Thatcher’s frustration that her neoliberal ‘revolution’ failed to win ‘hearts and minds in Scotland’, despite in her words, wryly cited here by Davidson being the ‘home of the very same Scottish Enlightenment which produced Adam Smith' (p. 18).

His historical imagination also helpfully positions neoliberalism in relation to the compromises and limits of post-war social democracy. While the neoliberal rupture is primarily associated with Thatcher and Reagan, Davidson’s account helpfully signals the important role of Denis Healey and James Callaghan in shaping proto-neoliberal reforms in Britain in the mid to late 1970s, an episode which Stuart Hall characterised as 'a squalid and disorganising interlude’ (Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, London, Verso, 1988, p. 123).

This engagement also has important political implications as it highlights the investment of the right of the Labour Party in neoliberal principles and ideas, and helps to position figures such as Blair and Starmer as part of a broader tradition in Labour rather than as an aberration. It also confirms important continuities in terms of the intricate relations between the state and the emergence and consolidation of neoliberalism in the UK and beyond.

A second key contribution the book makes is to re-assert the importance of the state to practices of neoliberalism, rather than to see the state and neoliberal practices as antithetical. Davidson is certainly not the only scholar to have made such arguments, but his account draws out the significant implications of this position. Thus, he argues that:

in some respects, states under neoliberalism have accrued even more power to themselves than they did during the Keynesian era. The measures of nationalisation and state control in response to the present crisis are, therefore, not a return to state interventionism, since it has never ceased. (p. 147)

Again, this analysis has important resonances, and is useful in countering accounts which mis-characterised Boris Johnson’s discourses of ‘levelling-up’ as a break with neoliberal ideas and conventions.

Thirdly, a key contribution of Davidson’s account is in the extent to which he positions thinking about crisis as integral to neoliberalism, rather than positioning specific crisis moments as a periodic rupture. Thus he argues that:

All phases of capitalist development have hitherto both begun with the crisis of the previous phase, which usually continued as the system was restructured and the conditions for a new round of accumulation were prepared, and ended with their own crisis, requiring a new period of restructuring. (p. 8).

Further, he helpfully positions such crises, not as abstracted moments but rather as:

historical event, the trajectories of which are determined by – among other factors – levels of working-class organisation and resistance, the availability and strength of countervailing tendencies to that of the rate of profit to fall, and the capacity and ability of states to intervene.

This is a necessary move to ensure that key events such as the 2008 economic and political crisis are positioned in relation to ongoing crisis tendencies of capitalism, rather than as a rupture within a broadly functioning system.

In this respect, Davidson’s account brings his characteristic intellectual rigour and political commitment to understandings of neoliberalism, yielding important insights and directions for left thinking and strategy. In the remainder of this review, I raise questions relating to how recent work on aspects of neoliberalism’s fateful encounter with Scottish labour might help to both nuance this reading in ways which offer possibilities for future work and discussion in this area.

Firstly, like a number of authors on the left such as Erik Swyngedouw, Davidson positions the broad political movements of ‘1968’ as not oppositional to, but part of the broader trajectory and ascendancy of neoliberalism. Thus, Davidson contends that

identity and autonomy, championed at first on the left, were soon co-opted by the neoliberal right. Liberating individualism was transformed into exploitable atomization, creative self-expression replaced by a depoliticized, desocialising consumerism that enabled the rise of a new oligarchy. (p. 139)

Further, he argues that the ‘most enduring political legacy of the New Left is not to be found in political movements, but in the radical right’s institution-smashing insurgency.’

Whilst some 1968ers clearly moved towards the right, in my view his argument fails to do justice to the multiple trajectories and concerns of these forms of political organising. Davidson’s characterisation arguably ignores the significance of working-class articulations of new left politics, such as the Fife Socialist League, the importance of which has been usefully highlighted by writers such as Madeline Davis (‘‘Among the Ordinary People’: New Left Involvement in Working-class Political Mobilisation 1956-1968’, History Workshop Journal 86, 2018, pps. 133-159).  

Davidson’s account also misses some of the specificity of feminist and anti-racist contributions to these movements and how they intersected and reconfigured aspects of labour organising. Thus, while Davidson suggests that 'attacks on social democracy by the 1960s generation’ ‘as statist, or even ‘totalitarian’ – now seem hysterical’, his account downplays the reasons for critique of some of the limits of the welfare state which emerge as central to key figures on the left of the ‘women’s movement’ in this period (p.45). Sheila Rowbotham’s memoirs of her political involvement in the 1960s and 1970s emphasise the extent to which critiques of the gendered (and racialised) character of the welfare state went along with important demands for equality, et cetera, in collective rather than individualising directions (Rowbotham, Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties, London, Verso, 2019 and Daring to Hope: My Life in the 1970s, London, Verso, 2021). Further, they marked out very different political concerns to those which have been hegemonised in forms of ‘neoliberal feminism’, as critiqued by contemporary feminist scholars in terms of Scotland and Wales (Diarmaid Kelliher, Making Cultures of Solidarity: London and the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, Routledge, London, 2021; Mabli Sirion Jones, ‘A Progressive Veneer: Neoliberal Feminism in Wales’ in The Welsh Way: Essays on Neoliberalism and Devolution, Parthian, Cardigan, 2023, pp. 27-42) .

Secondly, the broad approach to this period that Davidson takes in related terms downplays aspects of the resistances that marked the emergence of neoliberalism. He does engage with the importance of the labour movement, such as the intensity of trade union organising and mobilisation in the early 1970s, but diminishes the ways resistance to neoliberalism was linked to some of the struggles for gender and racial equality, and those around sexuality which were particularly significant in this era (Jenny Morrison and Ewan Gibbs, ‘Feminist institutionalism and women’s political leadership in devolution era Scotland’, British Politics 18, 2023, pp. 384-400). Thus, he draws on Christopher Harvie’s argument that ‘unions and workers reacted with anger, bewilderment, and latterly fatalism’, noting that in 'some cases’ the ‘fatalism' to which Harvie refers had set in even before the decisive contest of the Miners’ Strike’ (p. 77). While this speaks to certain experiences in this juncture, recent work on Scottish labour history, however, makes such an assessment problematic.

Andy Clark’s fine book on the factory occupations led by working-class women at Plessey in Bathgate, Lovable Bra in Cumbernauld and Lee Jeans in Greenock in the early 1980s emphasises the extent to which women in the Central Belt of Scotland were at the forefront of militant opposition to factory closures. Arguably, these occupations built on earlier struggles, such as strikes for equal pay in the late 1970s and the six-week strike at Laird Portch in East Kilbride, as well as the famed UCS work-in. Clark argues for the importance of understanding ‘women’s lived experiences of closure and working-class activism against accelerated industrialisation’ (Andy Clark, Fighting Deindustrialisation: Scottish Women’s Factory Occupations, 1981-82, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2022, p. 215), but a sense of such agency and resistance is largely missing from the way Davidson theorises opposition to neoliberalism. These issues also relate to longer-standing concerns around how to engage with and theorise working-class agency and politics. Esther Breitenbach, for example, argued back in the early 1980s that the ‘common equation of ‘militance’ with all-out strikes in pursuit of wage claims may exclude action by women workers which is ‘militant’ in a different way (Esther Breitenbach, Women Workers in Scotland: A Study of Women’s Employment and Trade Unionism, Glasgow, Pressgang, 1982, pps. 53-54).

Thirdly, while the book does position the emergence of neoliberalism in Britain and US in a broader international context, the terms on which trade unionists in places like Scotland engaged with such international dimensions of neoliberal politics and strategies are largely absent here. Developing a more considered assessment of these engagements is important for thinking about what possibilities for current resistances might be developed through engaging with these recent histories on the left. Thus, in a speech supporting a motion of solidarity on Chile at the annual congress of the Scottish Trades Union Congress in 1977, the then Scottish secretary of the rail union ASLEF and chair of Glasgow District Trades Council, Johnnie Walker warned that it was ‘very important as trade unionists all over Britain to recognise as supporters of  democracy that we learn from the lessons of what happened in Chile because it could happen here.’

Walker continued:

It wasn’t an accident when military exercises took place in London with tanks on London Airport. We cannot forget the mercenaries volunteering for Angola, they were in the main former officers and soldiers of the British Army, and our British soldiers are now becoming highly trained in crowd suppression in Northern Ireland, and it is in that setting it has to be examined. (Johnnie Walker in Scottish Trades Union Congress Annual Report, 1977, p. 52).  

Expansive geographies of solidarity and connection invoked by Walker emphasise the importance of engaging with the terms on which transnational solidarities were shaped in the period of the emergence of neoliberalism, particularly given Chile’s pivotal role. Further, they also suggest the ways in which trade unionists linked the emergence of neoliberalism to broader anti-colonial politics and solidarities, demanding attention to the forms of international resistance to neoliberal political and economic agendas in this period.

The consequences of neoliberalism, both for understandings of the current political conjuncture and for left political strategy and organising continue to be immense. It is a testament to the ongoing importance and force of Neil Davidson’s intellectual work, scholarship and commitment that this book provides significant resources for engaging with these challenges and is sure to stimulate wide political interest and discussion.

Dave Featherstone is Professor of Political Geography at the University of Glasgow and author of Solidarity: Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism (Zed, 2012).