Oil, Geopolitics, and Neoliberalism

In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey makes an intriguing argument about why neoliberalism-in-theory did not equate neoliberalism-in-practice (neoliberalization).  For him, the neoliberal turn of late 1970s was, more than anything else, “a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites” (19).  This explains why the reality of neoliberalization looked so different from the ideals of neoliberalism.  As he claims, “the theoretical utopianism of neoliberal argument has … primarily worked as a system of justification and legitimation for whatever needed to be done to achieve” the restoration or creation of an economic elite (19).  Moreover, “when neoliberal principles clash with the need to restore or sustain elite power, the principles are either abandoned or become so twisted as to be unrecognizable” (19).  In short, neoliberalization has not meant the realization of a neoliberal utopia because the economic elites have distorted or discarded neoliberalism to (re)assert their dominance over the lower classes.  Importantly, because neoliberalization was about the restoration of the economic elites, it allowed for the creation of non-Western elites. This, according to Harvey, is further proof that neoliberalism cum neoliberalization was simply an “antidote to threats to the capitalist social order” and “a solution to capitalism’s ills” (19).

On the other hand, James L. Gevin alleges, in his article “American Global Economic Policy and the Civic Order in the Middle East,” that the post-WWII economic order is best understood through the North-South divide.  This divide played out until 2008 in a “three part dialectical process—1944-71, when the global economic system created an environment conducive to economic nationalism in the South; 1971-1980, when the South deployed the power derived from economic nationalism to challenge the system; 1980-2008?, when a reinvigorated system effectively vanquished economic nationalism in the South—through which the present order achieved dominance and the civic order of those states was put to the test” (9).  Between 1944 and 1971, the Bretton Woods doctrine of “embedded liberalism” benefitted the countries of the South.  Embedded liberalism was both national and international in scope: it honored national sovereignty but also allowed countries to participate in the new global order economic order.  From 1971 to 1980, the South challenged the North’s (especially the US’s) hegemony.  The two main events that precipitated the challenge were the “Nixon Shock” of 1971 and the oil shock of 1973-74.  In the third phase, lasting from 1980 until 2008, the North asserted its dominance through neoliberalism.  The onset of neoliberalism brought an end to the Bretton Woods system, and therefore, the South’s ability to effectively challenge the North.  Ultimately, by challenging the North, one could argue that the South actually accelerated its own demise; the oil shock of the seventies pushed the North to adopt neoliberalism.  Some might even say that the South ended the era of transnationalism and inaugurated the era of (Berger’s) globalization.

Finally, in Carbon Democracy, Timothy Mitchell claims that, by looking at the role of oil in the economy and political structures of the Middle East, we can better understand how “carbon energy and modern democratic politics [are] tied intricately together” (5).  One way he shows this is through a discussion of the 1973-74 oil crisis.  In Mitchell’s reading, rather than a simple example of supply and demand that ushered in the era of neoliberalism, the oil crisis created a new discourse about energy that ushered in the era of militarism in the Middle East.

Works Cited

Gelvin, James L. “American Global Economic Policy and the Civic Order in the Middle East.” In Is There a Middle East?: The Evolution of a Geopolitical Concept, edited by Michael E. Bonine, Abbas Amanat, and Michael Ezekiel Gasper, 191-206. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Mitchell, Timothy. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. London: Verso, 2011. 



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