Post-Neoliberalism in the Americas

June 18, 2009

Historians are likely to mark the end of the era of market fundamentalism at the moment in 2008 when the breakdown of the poorly regulated American financial system wreaked havoc upon economies from Iceland to East Asia and many places in between. Yet confidence in the capacity of untrammelled markets to provide for the public good had begun to unravel soon after the turn of the century.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Latin America, which as a laboratory for neoliberalism since the international debt crisis of the early 1980s had suffered marked increases of inequality alongside persistently stagnant growth rates. Beginning with Hugo Chavez's first victory at the polls in Venezuela in 1998, a succession of progressive governments came to power across the region, pledging to rethink basic tenets of the prevailing model for economic organisation.

Latin America's "Left turns" reflected popular disenchantment with the performance of neoliberalism and a longing to resuscitate the principle that governments have a central role to play in ensuring social justice. As the Keynesian and redistributive orientations of the Obama Administration become increasingly apparent, it is perhaps safe to say that a process that began to unfold in Latin America has trickled upward, reaching the very core of capitalism in the Western hemisphere.

As Laura Macdonald and Arne Ruckert point out in the introductory chapter to their provocative edited volume, which will appeal primarily to academic audiences but also to the informed reader concerned with the leftward shift across much of the hemisphere, many core ingredients of the neoliberal recipe continue to be accepted even as its overall menu has increasingly been called into question.

As they emphasise, "post-neoliberalism" did not entail a wholesale rejection of all that came before. Latin American governments maintained a commitment to low inflation rates, balanced budgets, free-floating exchange rates and even, for the most part, to attracting foreign direct investment. Nor did they restore protectionist barriers that had fallen with the region-wide shift toward liberalised trade. But they did begin to experiment with innovative approaches to social policy and modest initiatives to boost employment. Long-overdue land reforms came back on to the agenda, as well, and in several countries the nationalisation of industry re-emerged as part of governments' policy repertoire. Even in cases such as Chile, where macroeconomic policies still adhered almost religiously to neoliberal orthodoxy, progressive governments experimented with fresh approaches to poverty alleviation and social inclusion.

Defenders of neoliberalism will find scant echo of their views in this book. While not all of the contributors would characterise the market-oriented reforms of the 1990s as "naked barbarism", to cite the term deployed by Jeffrey R. Webber in his chapter on Bolivia, there is throughout the collection an unconcealed distaste for policy packages portrayed as efforts to impose a regressive agenda over the resistance of popular forces. That the neoliberals might have done some meaningful good along the way - taming runaway inflation, for example - is a message that is common in the economics and policymaking literature on the topic, but that has little resonance among the non-economist academics who took part in this publication.

Perhaps the most innovative feature of the collection is its geographic reach, encompassing Canada and the US as well as Latin America, and combining comparative thematic chapters with country case studies of Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia and Colombia. Even though the rationale for selecting each of the cases is not as explicit as one might like, and the thematic focus of the individual chapters varies more than would be ideal, as a whole the book coheres well.

One conclusion that stands out is that, at the time of the volume's preparation, neoliberalism remained hegemonic throughout North America - that is, in Mexico as well as in Canada and the US - whereas it was largely being eclipsed in the Southern portion of the hemisphere. This point, which the editors acknowledge at the very end of the book, suggests that the project that gave rise to this volume was in some sense ahead of its time: it was only towards the end of 2008, with the cascading crisis and the beginning of the Obama era as a backdrop, that North American countries joined the broader trend towards post-neoliberalism. The degree to which the paths of North and South America will converge during the years ahead is among the questions brought to the fore by this volume and by these unstable times.

Post-Neoliberalism in the Americas.

Edited by Laura Macdonald and Arne Ruckert. Palgrave Macmillan, 312pp, £55.00. ISBN 9780230202078. Published 15 January 2009

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