I promised a post on Phil Mirowski’s latest book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, and now I have to deliver. Mirowski flames like no other author on contemporary economics, and his books are fun to read if you are not the object of his invective. That said, this is a major disappointment.
Mirowski’s thesis is that there is an intellectual cabal at the center of modern history, a Neoliberal Thought Collective centered on the Mont Pellerin Society. These conspirators have built a vast network of ideological foggery, with the Pellerinistas at the center and various academic programs, think tanks, publications and so on making up the outer layers. They engage in willful dissimulation, strategic obfuscation and lots of other nefarious latinates to overrun the feeble cognitive and political defenses of the rest of us. Neoclassical economics has largely joined neoliberalism at the hip, especially since the 1980s, so it has been taken along for the ride. This in turn explains why economic orthodoxy has emerged unscathed from a crisis which ought to have ravaged it.
I am no defender of what Mirowski describes as the neoliberal cabal, but I found his screed to be almost uniformly unenlightening. This is a shame, because he has hit the mark often enough in the past.
Above all, I think his idealist interpretation of history is wildly off the mark. Forgive me if I point out that I appear just once in his footnotes (more than I expected) and that his reference is not only completely misleading but revealingly so. The citation is to my 2011 post “It’s the Political Economy, Stupid!”. Mirowski seems to think that it is about disagreements within economics and expresses a naive view that, in the absence of material interests, it is in the nature of science to produce unanimity. But take a look. The point back then, and certainly the same point today, is that the dominance of orthodox economic policies is not attributable to the outcome of some intellectual battle of wits, but to the fact that the same individuals and interests that were in control of the political economy pre-2008 are in control today. And so the message that Mirowski missed is exactly the one that fingers the central flaw in his analysis: the intellectual maneuvers of neoliberal academics is interesting but second- or third-order at best in explaining why events have transpired as they have. The category of power is all but absent in Mirowski’s ostensibly hyper-radical account.
Dig deeper and it gets worse. Mirowski has always had a tendency to substitute purple descriptors for systematic argument, but now the problem is way, way out of control. Just look at his section near the end on neoliberal responses to climate change. Neoliberals, he says, think that markets are the solution to everything, and this is why they favor baroque systems for trading carbon permits. They know that this will have no impact on atmospheric carbon concentrations and this is fine with them, all in line with their secret agenda. Um, I am on record here as being strongly opposed to the use of offset markets to undermine carbon policy, but (1) we do have a market economy and absolutely need to have stiff prices for carbon to get traction, and (2) the gutting of carbon markets is essentially about political economy, the power that business interests have to exempt themselves from meaningful control.
Ah, but the next stage of the neoliberal playbook, according to Mirowski, is to propose a radical “solution” whose purpose is simply to provide a giant profit opportunity. In the case of climate change, that’s the role of geoengineering: it’s a neoliberal ruse to crank out more money for the corporations. But wait: where is the market for geoengineering? Isn’t this a quintessential state initiative? Do you really think that governments intend to sit back and let private firms tinker with the planet on their own? And where do the profits come from, if not from government budgets? How could there ever be a private market in deflecting sunlight or other public goods/bads? And now get ready for this one: Mirowski says that the inner, inner, really inner core of neoliberalism is the idea that human knowledge is helpless in the face of the complexity of nature and society, while markets are wise and trustworthy. Grant him this if you want, but then ask, How can the crusade for geoengineering be an expression of the futility of human knowledge to manage the mysteries of nature?
Well, now I’m the one who sounds shrill. And a lot of my hostility comes from disappointment. I thought that about 60-70% of Machine Dreams was pretty damn good. You get maybe a tenth of that this time around.