Blazing the Neoliberal Trail: Tim Weaver’s Response to Jonathan Davies

In this post Tim Weaver responds to Jonathan Davies’ review of his recent book ‘Blazing the Neoliberal Trail’.

I would like thank Jonathan for his stimulating reactions to my book and the opportunity of offering this response. I will focus primarily to two key points he raises. The first concerns the question of periodization. As Jonathan rightly points out, I suggest that the 1970s was the “pivotal decade”—to borrow Judith Stein’s phrase—for the shift to neoliberalism. However, Jonathan notes that “the break with the post-war order was implicit in the emerging political and economic zeitgeist of 1960s for both left and right.” He is right to argue that neoliberal ideas were beginning to take root in the 1960s and that business mobilization occurred in the U.K. and the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, as elites were forced to consider alternatives to the Keynesian regime of capital accumulation.

That said, my aim in the book—as Jonathan anticipates in his review—was to locate the period at which neoliberal ideas became politically consequential, that is when they became reflected in institutionally and ideologically durable ways. There were examples of experiments with neoliberal policymaking in the 1960s and the book might have been strengthened by illuminating of the connective tissue that links the proto-neoliberal efforts of the 1960s with those that came later as Jonathan suggests. That said, these neoliberal experiments, often proved abortive as leaders of both main parties in both countries became ultimately unwilling to jettison Keynesian approaches to economic policy until well into the 1970s, which drew sharp rebuke from neoliberals. Examples include Nixon’s wage and price controls and Heath’s retreat from proto-neoliberal macroeconomic policy in 1972 when unemployment hit one million—it was not yet a “price worth paying.” Heath’s famous U-turn illustrates the degree to which neoliberal remedies were perceived to be politically untenable by British elites into the 1970s, even on the right. Anecdotally, it is worth noting that Richard Nixon averred in 1971 that “I am a Keynesian in economics” and that Keith Joseph maintained that he was only “converted to conservatism” in 1974. Moreover, in the U.S., redistributive urban spending and all manner of urban programs accelerated markedly during the Johnson administration, with federal aid to cities reaching its apotheosis in the late 1970s, all developments I would characterize as at odds with the neoliberal turn that would follow.

The second major point that Jonathan raises concerns my characterization of the state. He points out correctly that my book draws a distinction between the capitalist class and state actors, who I suggest enjoy a degree of autonomy from societal interests. As such, my analysis allows that the state within the capitalist system may not necessarily operate as “the capitalist state.” By contrast, Jonathan maintains that it may be more fruitful to think about the state as an inherent part of the capitalist system. While this issue regrettably does not receive detailed treatment in the book, my position is that the state under capitalism does indeed act disproportionately in the capitalist interest. However, despite this bias, there is nevertheless space for state actors—operating from their own ideological convictions, or from pressure from anti-capitalist groups (such as trade unions)— to pursue policies that are contrary to the interests of capital. Moreover, I view the state itself as a multifaceted set of institutions that operate in a variety of domains to advance different interests, some of which might not be characterized as capitalist. This is especially evident with respect to the American state, with its multiple, overlapping nodes of authority and cross-cutting purposes. To give an example, in the 1980s, the same “state” was issuing social security checks to the elderly and food stamps to the poor while attacking the air traffic controllers, slashing urban spending, and using monetarism to squeeze the life out of the economy. These contradictory positions risk elision by the “capitalist state” characterization. The theoretical orientation I have followed demands that researchers spell out the processes by which certain policies become adopted and institutionalized rather than assuming that they are necessary a reflection of capitalist imperatives.

On a related note, it is important to consider that even within the capitalist class there is likely to be disagreement about the most effective mode of capital accumulation, especially during periods of uncertainly such as that which emerged in the 1970s (or, for Jonathan, in the 1960s). Hence, even if one were to grant that the state operates throughout the post-war period as an integral part of the capitalist system, the shift from a Keynesian capitalist state to a neoliberal is one that requires examination and explanation. Given the uncertainly among capitalists about how to deal with falling rates of capital accumulation, material explanations of why the neoliberal variety of capitalism took hold fall short. As Mark Blyth has shown a complete account requires an ideational dimension.

My position on the state and the role of ideas brings us finally to the question of whether my analysis might be compatible Marxist analysis. I am not certain. I maintain that politically consequential ideas can emerge independently of material interests. I am leery of accounts that reduce ideology to its function of reflecting materially derived imperatives, though it very often works in this way.  Thus, to the extent that political development can be propelled by ideas that are, or become, unmoored from capital, my account is compatible with Marxist analysis. But would this move not be antithetical to the materialist foundation on which Marxism rests? I hope in future projects to probe this question far more deeply and may enlist Jonathan’s help as I do!

Dr. Timothy Weaver is Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of Louisville.

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