How Neoliberalism has survived the financial meltdown (a short review)

It might be considered ironic, but it was the cover that made me pay attention and buy this book. Fortunately its 400-odd pages were a romp of a text that I kept wanting to come back to even when I had more urgent things to do. Philip Mirowski’s quirky analysis of our current fix deserves to be widely read. in the Times Higher Education Supplement, Christopher Phelps even suggests that “should neoliberalism ever be transcended, this work will be one of the resources that made it possible”.

I have spent much of the last ten years reading scholarly work written from a more-or-less explicitly left-wing position (quite a compelling stance if one’s studies take one into the miseries that pass for normal for so many), so I’m used to the thought that the world has indeed turned upside down during my adult life. Neoliberalism, first as ideology and now as intellectual straightjacket or outright system, has eroded social bonds, accelerated unsustainability and thinned out human ingenuity just when we appear to need them most.

Academics and other commentators write plenty and often eloquently about this stuff, but somehow Mirowski’s forensic examination of the aftermath of the financial crisis which erupted in 2007 wasn’t just arresting and illuminating, it made sense of how all this madness can have taken place and how it still flourishes. It also made a helpful distinction between neoclassical economic thought and neoliberalism. The latter, as he outlines, has a deep and wide conviction in the infallibility of the markets. To sustain that belief, it operates in a permanent state of exception (with plenty of references to Carl Schmitt) where governments (Europe!) blatantly disregard democratic principles should it be necessary in order to fix the infallible markets.

Mirowski’s analysis is that the problem we face is a problem of the organisation and production of knowledge or, perhaps more accurately, of ignorance.

Some reviewers note that he skates perilously close to conspiracy theories. Indeed he credits entities such as the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) (of which I had never heard previously and had to look up online) and the Neoliberal Thought Collective (NTC) with surprising powers.

Yet as someone expert in both economics and in the history and philosophy of science, Mirowski  is able to take the reader not only through what is really rotten about the conduct of economic and political elites but also how coherent its rottenness and peddling of misinformation actually has been, and how successful in entrenching, not eroding, their power. Particularly where he compares the financial sector’s smoke and mirrors exercises with similar processes in climate science, the picture he paints of overtly manipulated knowledge gains considerable credibility.

It’s not a cheerful book. Perhaps more disturbing even than the portrayal of the elites responsible for the mess is Mirowski’s diagnosis of the problem’s depth – we are all neoliberals now, fragmented selves who have “to somehow manage to be simultaneously subject, object, and spectator. … at once the business, the raw material, the product, the clientele, and the customer of [our] own life” (p. 108).

Economic insult has peculiar effects on such selves. No wonder so many are indignant. Indeed Mirowski invokes groups such as the Tea Party, Golden Dawn and the True Finns (p. 11), as some of the reasons why our situation needs better analysis. But above all, he notes that the left-wing counterparts of these groups haven’t been that sober or less stupid about the financial meltdown either. I think this book might help a little. Just a little. And it’s a great read.

Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, by Philip Mirowski, Verso, 2013.

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