Philip Mirowski’s latest, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, has been getting quite a bit of play since publication. Antipode has published a review symposium and Mirowski himself has participated in an exchange at the FDL Book Salon and been interviewed by the New Books Network, Estudios de la Economía, and by Nathan Tankus for Naked Capitalism.
Here’s an excerpt from the interview conducted by Tankus:
NT: Given this context, what are the salient features of Neoliberalism that have generally been preserved over time? What are the origins of the Neoliberal Thought Collective and how has it changed?
PM:The origins were surprisingly transnational, given the mistaken widespread impression that Neoliberalism is predominantly an American fascination. It began with some tentative meetings of the Colloque Walter Lippmann in Paris in the 1930s, and became consolidated with the Mont Pèlerin Society in the 1940s. I try and demonstrate in the book that it has grown ever more cosmopolitan over time, although my own deficiencies in foreign languages and non-Western history thwarts my realization of that ambition. Throughout the decades, the thought collective has maintained a productive tension between its American-flavored Chicago wing and its continental Austrian/Ordo tendency.
Although some on the left have suggested that the thought collective displays no substantial continuity across time and space, in the book I attempt to summarize some of its more enduring attributes. One telltale complex encompasses some of the things Michel Foucault first drew our attention to, such as the image of ideal human life as becoming the ultimate entrepreneur of your own flexible self, but one where the putative Self as captain of your own fate deliquesces into a moral and intellectual vacuum. This explains why Neoliberals are so contemptuous of Isaiah Berlin’s ‘positive freedom’, since there can be no enduring Self that demands fealty: you need to be an infinitely pliable entity in order to adequately respond to the demands of the marketplace. Various technologies like Facebook serve to teach the masses how to maintain the outward appearances of this empty self.
Because the book is focused on the crisis, I devote far more effort to enumerating and summarizing the Neoliberal approach to political economy. It starts from the premise (contrary to their public PR) that they reject classical liberalism, because they don’t believe in a traditional circumscribed sphere for the state separate from that of The Market. Instead they are constructivists, redefining and building a strong state to institute and maintain the kinds of markets they think will not come about on their own. For the collective, the most propitious time to make such bold interventions is during a crisis, when they are mobilized to define ‘exceptions’ to previous rules. Their prescription for apparent market failures is always more new-fangled markets. Hence, as they have often explicitly written, they are not ‘conservatives’ in any meaningful sense of the term. They often vent their distrust of democratic structures, hoping to reconcile them with their interventions by portraying voting itself as a kind of hobbled marketplace. Democracy therefore needs to be contained and neutralized by a strong state.
For Neoliberals, The Market is the only ultimate arbiter of Truth. Their problem is that most people still resist this fundamental tenet, because they persist in believing in quaint notions of justice, including the notion that rewards should be proportionate to effort, or else hoping sustenance be apportioned according to basic needs. Because The Market is smarter than anyone, the poor need to capitulate to whatever The Market currently bequeaths them. The rich, of course, have no problem with their lot. This unequal distribution of wealth is a necessary structural feature of capitalism. Market discipline should also extend to corporations; the Neoliberals have long proselytized for the extension of market-like incentives within corporate boundaries. Outsourcing and outsized CEO recompense are direct corollaries. Gargantuan firms are not a serious problem, since they merely are a reflection of fleeting market success; antitrust should be jettisoned, and there is no long-term problem of Too Big to Fail.
The Neoliberals have changed over time primarily by sloughing off progressively more of their classical liberal heritage. It began with Chicago rejecting the very idea of corporate power as a problem for capitalism in the 1950s; it continued with rejection of the prior Austrian tendency to distrust the destabilizing potential of the finance sector. (Gold bugs and 100% money cranks no longer get much respect from the Neoliberals.) They have abandoned all classical liberal aspirations to improve the lot of the working classes through education; rather, they now seek to undermine all public education by subjecting every credentialing process to the marketplace of ideas. They dismiss the classical liberal suspicions concerning intellectual property, since inventing new property rights is an effective way to defeat their opponents. Finally, the thought collective has managed to string along their useful fellow-travelers, the true libertarians, without once admitting that they share little more in common than some vain posturing over freedom.