Tuesday, August 27, 2013

fixing old markets with new markets the origins and practice of neoliberalism...,

nakedcapitalism | NT: Your new book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, is not the first work you have produced that discusses Neoliberalism. In the Postscript to the book you edited entitled “The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective” you state that:
[O]ur own guiding heuristic has been that Neoliberalism has not existed in the past as a settled or fixed state, but is better understood as a transnational movement requiring time and substantial effort in order to attain the modicum of coherence and power it has achieved today. It was not a conspiracy; rather, it was an intricately structured long-term philosophical and political project, or in our terminology, a “thought collective”.
Given this context, could you explain what the salient features of Neoliberalism are? In particular it would be helpful if you explained about why “traditional” approaches to intellectual history are inadequate for understanding Neoliberalism.

PM: Standard history of economics has been mired in the primacy of the individual author/intellectual for quite some time now. There, one tends to become attached to some particular intellectual hero, reads everything they wrote, and hence seeks to channel ‘their’ ideas to a general audience. Maybe one consults a few of their allies or opponents to add a dash of ‘context’. This, perhaps inadvertently, has resulted in deep misunderstanding of how economics has developed over the last century or more.

Ideas generally don’t incubate like that. Traditions in the history and sociology of science [my current disciplinary home] have developed a number of methods and devices in order to highlight the elaborate social character of intellectual disciplines, and display the complex trajectories of validation of knowledge. The landmarks there are many, but the one I lean upon in Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste is the concept of a ‘thought collective’ that dates back to the work of Ludwik Fleck.*
Whatever one thinks of the specifics, that framework has permitted me to write a history of Neoliberalism which comes to terms with some of its more slippery aspects. In the first instance, it nurtures appreciation for the fact that Neoliberalism is both a set of philosophical doctrines – and not, as some would have it, a narrow few abstract propositions in economics—and a flexible ongoing political project. The doctrines and the details of the project change through time, as do the roster of protagonists, but still maintain a coherence and stability that justifies treating the movement as an historical collective. Next, it insists that Neoliberalism cannot be reduced to the writings of the few standout neoliberals that readers of this blog may have heard of – Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, Gary Becker – primarily because their individual tenets conflict, some with each other, and some with some other less famous comrades. Fleck points us towards the fact that thought collectives are held together, in part, by formal social structures; in the case of the Neoliberals, it started out as the Mont Pèlerin Society [MPS] in 1947, but by the 1980s it was extended to a connected ring of think tanks around the world, from the Institute for Economic Affairs to the American Enterprise Institute to Heritage and Cato to the Atlas Foundation and beyond. As early as 1956, the Volker Fund maintained a list of 1,841 affiliated individuals; the corresponding number easily exceeds the tens of thousands today. Clearly the thought collective harbors strong impressions of who is in and who is out.

Perhaps more importantly, the ‘thought collective’ approach has helped me grapple with one of the most nettlesome aspects of Neoliberalism: How can one write an intellectual history of a bunch of anti-intellectual intellectuals? Some readers may have encountered Hayek’s sneers about those whom he dubs ‘second-hand dealers in ideas’; but that is just symptomatic of a more general stance towards knowledge which sets the Neoliberals apart from almost every other thought collective in recent history. As I explain in Chapter 2, the MPS became a society of ‘rationalists’ who ended up promoting ignorance as a virtue for the larger population. Others have also documented this straddle in their think tank perimeter, such as Tom Medvetz in his Think Tanks in America. It seems we are not in Kansas anymore (apologies to Tom Frank).

Thus, to write a history of Neoliberalism in the current crisis, Fleck counsels one must connect their various epistemic attitudes to the content of their doctrines. In the case of modern Neoliberalism, this has been made manifest in their shared conviction that The Market knows more than any human being, however wise or well-schooled. Planning is doomed; socialism is a pipe dream. The political project of Neoliberalism is not laissez-faire; rather, it is to use state power to get the populace to prostrate themselves before the only dependable source of Truth and Wisdom in human civilization—viz., something they call “The Market”. The more discombobulated the average citizen can be rendered, the quicker they will get with the program