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Review Essay: Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste, Philip Mirowski

How could it be possible that the contemporary global financial system remains basically unaltered from its state before the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression? And more pointedly, how could the Left have failed so miserably while the Right has grown stronger and more boisterous than ever? In Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste, Philip Mirowski – perhaps the preeminent historian of modern economic thought – offers an answer that comes with a rebuke: The Left must stop dreaming of flowery meadows and rainbow skies and instead acquire knowledge of – and even borrow a few tactics from –the real winner of the financial crisis, that is to say its ultimate enemy: what Mirowski calls the neo-liberal thought collective (NTC).

By “the Left” Mirowski really has in mind those economists of the “legitimate left” who work within the framework of mainstream economics. This includes the likes of Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, who according to Mirowski, believe that contemporary economists possesses all the necessary means for achieving social-democratic outcomes. But Mirowski wonders why, then, mainstream economics has proven so ineffectual in times of “political rough and tumble”.

Mirowski traces the problem back to the 1950s when economic departments slowly began to rid their curriculums of philosophical and historical approaches to economic inquires in favor of mathematical/analytical methodologies. Mainstream economics thus suffers from a pernicious case of myopia that prevents it from considering alternative sources of knowledge when searching for solutions to crisis situations. Mirowski wants to show why neo-liberalism does not have this problem which, in turn, should force the Left to reconsider its stance against heterodox economic thinking.

Neo-liberalism still triumphs, according to Mirowski, because it not only has a playbook for how to strategically deal with big crises, but also possesses a world view that has sunk deep into roots of everyday life. Mirowski traces the origins of the NTC that promulgates this worldview back to the founding of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1946 – a neo-liberal institution pioneered by Frederick Hayek. What started off as an almost laughable, heterodox economic organization in the heyday of Keynesianism evolved into an exceptionally successful “multilevel, mulisector approach to the building of political capacity to incubate, critique and promulgate ideas.”

The story of neo-liberalism’s rise in the early 1980s under the Reagan and Thatcher regimes is well-charted territory. But it is essential to first understand that you have probably never heard of the actual views of the NTC, so argues Mirowski, because its leadership is made up of a hierarchical elite of intellectuals who typically desire to stay out of the public eye.

One of Mirowski’s goals, then, is to demonstrate to a doubting Left that the NTC actually exists and possess a highly stratified and fine-tuned structure. Mirowski takes as his starting point the Mont Pelerin society, whose ideas were taken up by certain academic departments (the University of Chicago, the LSE, ‘Institutut Universitaire des Hautes Etudes internales at Geneva, and more.) well before neo-liberalism’s breakout in the 1980s. Groups such as the Volker Fund, the Earhart Foundation and the Lilly Endowment provided funding for the teaching and promotion of neo-liberal ideas. Early post-war think tanks – the Institute for Economic Affairs, the Hoover Institution at Stanford – also facilitated the production of neo-liberal thought.

Most importantly, in 1981 The Atlas Economic Research foundation was established, which sought to assist neo-liberal think tanks around the globe. More recently, neo-liberals have bought their way into a number of economics departments such as at George Mason University, Clemson, the University of West Virginia, and most notoriously Florida State University – the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation gave the economics department at FSU 1.5 million dollars on condition that it would oversee a staffing board that would approve faculty hires and, among other things, offer a course requiring the writings of Ayn Rand.

Mirowski’s aim is to disclose the underlying worldview of this complex network, which he compares to a Russian nesting doll, to the naïve Left. This can only be accomplished by recognizing that the NTC preaches certain ideas to the masses that, in reality, it does not practice. But does this not all sound like a big conspiracy theory? Mirowski firmly disagrees and does so by providing a number of examples documenting the NTC’s double speak. Perhaps the most compelling is neo-liberalism’s well-known concerns over state regulation, despite its attempt to root the stability of the market in an authoritarian vision of the state and not the citizenry at large. Intervention, from this perspective is really not the issue, but rather who gets to intervene.

By this point, a picture starts to emerge as to why the Left has gotten neo-liberals so wrong. Like the Left, neo-liberals are really interventionist, but are so for entirely illiberal, aristocratic, and authoritarian reasons. They have a robust statist philosophy that knows how to never let a serious crisis go to waste. Mirowski actually goes so far as to suggest that it “is striking the extent to which the neoliberals have repeatedly taken ideas from the Left over the last half twentieth century and twisted them to their own purposes.” Yet the Left is accused by Mirowski of not only being ignorant of this, but of failing to recognize its complicity in the neo-liberal project.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the Left’s acceptance of neoliberalism’s underlying anthropology. Mirowski’s argument is heavily reliant on Foucault’s insight that neoliberalism involves new technologies of the self that reduce human beings to “an arbitrary bundle of “investments,” skill sets, temporary alliances, and fungible body parts.” This, so-called entrepreneurial self involves no continuity from one decision to another; humans are in a constant state of recreation. It is a world where you can “virtually switch gender, assume any set of attributes, and reduce your social life to an arbitrary collection of statistics on a social networking site in a neoliberal playground.” The reason the Occupy Movement failed, according to Mirowski, is that it had succumbed to these technologies of the self. Its fascination with Twitter, Facebook, and other social media proved it was to be a misadventure from the beginning since it worked within the neoliberal matrix.

This is a damning indictment, and Mirowski offers no explicit solution for how the Left at large can overcome this impasse. However, Mirowski does provide an answer of sorts. The Left must jettison its tendency to blame everything on class struggle and also give up romanticizing the Trente Glorieuses that is long dead. It must also reject embracing Twitter and Facebook as means to empower the people since these are neo-liberal incubators for the entrepreneurial self. The only hope for the Left is to establish something like its own Mont Pelerin Society that can confront and overcome the NTC. What Mirowski is calling for is a Neo-Left Thought Collective.[1]

Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste has an undeniable proclivity towards browbeating, but it is really intended to be an inspirational wakeup call for the Left. The book offers some fantastic insights on the current methodological state of economic departments in the academy, as well as neo-liberalism mischievous environmental policies. Unfortunately, many of its arguments about neo-liberalism are more polemically enforced than historically demonstrated. There is, for instance, a conscious effort to downplay the significant differences that exist between rival schools of neo-liberal thought: Hayekian legal theory, the Chicago School and the German-Ordoliberals. Mirowski purposefully sidesteps the recent work of Angus Burgin and Daniel Stedman Jones, both of whom emphasize the long historical evolution and significant diversity of neo-liberalism. Without much of an argument, he simply asserts that neo-liberalism was able to ward offer internal divisions through a unique structure that allowed for a great deal of unity in diversity. One, though, has the hunch that Mirowski had to downplay such differences in the attempt to establish the coherency of the NTC. It is perhaps for this reason that his book seems to offer its readers less of an intellectual history and more of a manifesto.

But it is not just Mirowski’s historical lumping that raises questions. Some of his claims about the intellectual inspirations behind the NTC are either overstated or misleading. One of his biggest arguments is that Carl Schmitt – the so called Crown Jurist of the Third Reich – lurks behind the neo-liberal conviction that the state can bypass democratic processes in the attempt to protect itself during a state of emergency. Under the influence of Schmitt, the NTC embraces a strong conception of the state that, in time of crisis or moments of political exception, allows it to establish the type of markets it deems success worthy. And then comes the kicker: “For Hayek and the neoliberals, the Führer was replaced by the figure of the entrepreneur, the embodiment of the will-to-power for the community.”

It is hard to take such an argument seriously. Foremost, it relies almost exclusively on a few quotations from Hayek – some of which were critical of Schmitt – and tells us nothing of how Schmitt’s ideas actually came to be embraced by neoliberals (Presumably they would have had to absorb his ideas through Hayek unless they were German Ordoliberals or could read German – the Schmitt reception in the U.S. did not really get going until the late 1980s). The case of British neo-liberals is much clearer cut: there is no need to make recourse to Schmitt since many of them, including Thatcher, became obsessed with Michael Oakeshott’s Hobbesian interpretation of the State. More importantly, with all of his emphasis on knowing the enemy, states of exception and his criticisms of the Left’s idealism, one wonders if Mirowski might be a little too indebted himself to the neo-liberal playbook he has outlined – a charge which Mirowski directs at Foucault’s flirtation with neo-liberalism on a number of occasions. For many, the idea of a neo-liberal playbook filled with pleasantries and doublespeak borders on conspiracy theory. Now there does seem to be something almost “They Live” like about the story Mirowski wishes to tell. The irony, however, is that all of the core ideas of the NTC have been available in print for decades, along with a large and critical literature devoted to the histories and economic philosophies of the foundations Mirowski criticizes so extensively.

Why appeal to the Russian doll metaphor in the attempt to explain the concealed philosophy of the NTC, when you can simply encourage the Left to check out their books at the library?

Let me suggest an alternative reason for why neo-liberal ideas might appear so esoteric. Critiques of neo-liberalism echoing Mirowski’s has been around for quite some time. In fact, many of neo-liberalism’s most compelling critics have been conservatives: in the 1950s, Raymond Aron, Bertrand de Jouvenel and Michael Oakeshott all criticized the inherent ideology of neo-liberalism. They, and other similar critics, belonged to a larger post-War conservative network – that also included neo-liberals – which has yet to be parsed out at a transnational level of historical analysis. Part of the blame for this is perhaps due to the general lack of scholarly interest in conservatism by those academics who vigorously have opposed it. September 11th, the Iraq War, Evangelicals and the financial crisis ruptured this scholarly apathy. There is now a concentrated effort by the Left to read conservative literature, to offer courses on conservatism, and to devote studies to the conservative movement – one thinks most recently of Corey Robins’ – The Reactionary Mind. Perhaps if the Left had started doing this years ago, the troublesome issues that Never Let a Serious Crisis raises could have been more vigorously confronted before the neo-liberal deluge.

 

Notes

[1] An example of this might be the “post-autistic economics” movement, which has become a rallying point for heterodox economic practitioners, now numbering over 12,000 via the World Economics Association.

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