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Book Review

Critiquing the hegemonic discourse of modern neo-liberalism

Ahmad Musa

Contending Liberalism in World Politics: Ideology and Power by James L. Richardson. Pub: Lynne Rienner, Boulder CO, USA, 2001. Pp: 237. Hbk: $49.50 / Pbk: $19.50.

The neo-liberal order in world politics, characterised by theories of free market economics, negative liberties, rolled-back states and so on, has been mainly critiqued by neo-left-wing commentators such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their classic book Empire. This new book, by Jim Richardson, formerly a specialist in strategic and security studies, seeks to critique neo-liberalism from within the liberal tradition, and in the language of normative international relations and political theory.

Richardson considers that neo-liberalism "enhances inequalities, perpetuates human deprivation and offers a scaled-down version of liberalism and democracy" (p. 2.); his object in this volume is to consider the possibility of reviving more radical and less elitist forms of liberalism similar to those which prevailed in the first decades after the Second World War and which were rooted in critiques of the initially ‘laissez-faire’ trends of nineteenth-century liberalism.

The first part of the book consists, therefore, of a potted history of liberal thought, in which he presents a schematic account of key disputes which have been central to the evolution of the liberal tradition, in particular the dispute between radical and elitist strands. His emphasis is on highlighting the variegated nature of liberalism and to argue that within liberalism there are strands more attuned to questions of social justice, equality and ‘strong democracy’ than contemporary neo-liberalism.

He explains his intention in this section of the book to be to counter "ahistorical visions" of contemporary liberals. By this he means the habit of many contemporary politicians, particularly but not only American, to present normative preferences and choices as principled imperatives and matters of necessity.

Another element of this ahistorical vision is that of universalism, the easy assumption that the version of liberalism, and the processes of social change, that supposedly prevailed in Western countries, can be repeated, in their entirety, in other countries.

This assumption of a "one policy fits all" version of liberalism has had calamitous effects when applied to development schemes in non-Western countries. It has resulted, Richardson points out, in massive economic and social polarization, within Western countries, within non-Western societies, and on a larger, global scale. He compares the effects of the current neo-liberal programme with the sort of social tensions that shattered the fragile interwar peace. He further argues that, in their ignorance of history, the neo-liberal prophets fail to learn the lessons of the past. The result of this has been that "the development strategy so confidently propounded for two decades amounted to a gigantic gamble... one that had little chance of success" (p. 122).

Richardson then goes on to offer scathing criticisms of both contemporary liberal international relations theory and social science in general, both of which he thinks suffer from a "normative deficit" and which consequently help to buttress the cultural power of "hard" liberalism (p. 191): it is imperative instead to bring normative analysis into the foreground.

Particularly useful is his examination of the role of the disciplinary power of economics (which he calls "the secular religion" on p. 166) in legitimising neo-liberalism in public discourse and arguing that it is the only way to proceed. He notes that "there remains a sense of a lack of alternatives to neo-liberalism" (p. 182), but in his final chapter he does examine some possible alternatives. He dismisses the ‘third way’ as being too close to neo-liberalism, and advocates instead a return to a more inclusive, more rounded "social liberalism" which "insists that liberal freedoms and rights extend to all, not just the advantaged" (p. 205). Articulating a viable alternative to the pervasive neo-liberal discourse constitutes one of the most important, perhaps the most important, challenges facing scholars of world politics as we enter a new millennium.

The overall result is a forceful and convincing assault on the bastions of this modern orthodoxy. He provides a humane and cogent critique of what he calls the "liberalism of the strong", as well as highlighting the ideological diversity of liberalism and attempting to rescue it from the one-dimensional reading that is all to often ascribed to it in contemporary theoretical and policy discourse. The result is that this book provides an excellent and fascinating introduction to liberalism and the ideology of the contemporary world order, and as such should make enlightening reading for those interested in questions of present and future global order.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 23

Dhu al-Qa'dah 29, 14232003-02-01

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