Saturday, June 18, 2016

Neoliberalism as a "thought collective"

This paper from August 2014 by Philip Mirowski gives a helpful overview of the history of the economics and philosophy of neoliberalism, The Political Movement that Dared not Speak its own Name: The Neoliberal Thought Collective Under Erasure Institute for New Economic Thinking.

The concept of the "thought collective" was one elaborated by Ludwik Fleck (1896–1961), who, according to Wojciech Sady, "developed the first system of the historical philosophy and sociology of science." (Ludwik Fleck Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2016):

A thought collective is defined by Fleck as a community of persons mutually exchanging ideas or maintaining intellectual interaction ... Members of that collective not only adopt certain ways of perceiving and thinking, but they also continually transform it—and this transformation does occur not so much “in their heads” as in their interpersonal space. It is easy to observe this phenomenon in everyday life. When a group of people speak about something important, they start to speak about things which would not cross their minds if they were alone and which they would not tell if they were in another group of people. There arises a thought style characteristic for that group. There also arises a certain collective mood which straightens up the ties among the group members and inclines them to act in a certain way.

Some collectives last shortly—even only as long as an individual conversation lasts. When social forces connecting people operate for a long time, there arise thought collectives lasting for many generations. They take forms of religious movements, folk traditions, art or science. Long-lasting collectives create social institutions which enable and regulate the method by which next generations are added to a given collective: educational systems and social rituals accompanying the admission of new members. [italics in original]
He uses that concept to define concentric circles of neoliberal thought and to address the accusation sometimes made by critics that "neoliberalism" is a meaningless concept or a nonexistent phenomenon.

Mirowski quotes this summary of the major tenets of neoliberalism from Ben Fink. I've changed the format to show the numbered items separately; italics in original:

  1. “Free” markets do not occur naturally. They must be actively constructed through political organizing.
  2. “The market” is an information processor, and the most efficient one possible — more efficient than any government or any single human ever could be.
  3. Market society is, and therefore should be, the natural and inexorable state of humankind.
  4. The political goal of neoliberals is not to destroy the state, but to take control of it, and to redefine its structure and function, in order to create and maintain the market-friendly culture.
  5. There is no contradiction between public/politics/citizenship and private/ market/entrepreneur-and-consumerism - because the latter does and should eclipse the former.
  6. The most important virtue - more important than justice, or anything else - is freedom, defined “negatively” as “freedom to choose”, and most importantly, defined as the freedom of corporations to act as they please.
  7. Capital has a natural right to flow freely across national boundaries - labor, not so much.
  8. Inequality - of resources, income, wealth, and even political rights - is a good thing; it prompts productivity, because people envy the rich and emulate them; people who complain about inequality are either sore losers or old fogies, who need to get hip to the way things work nowadays.
  9. Corporations can do no wrong - by definition.
  10. The market, engineered and promoted by neoliberal experts, can always provide solutions to problems seemingly caused by the market in the first place: there’s always “an app for that.”
  11. There is no difference between is and should be: “free” markets both should be (normatively) and are (positively) most the efficient economic system, and the most just way of doing politics, and the most empirically true description of human behavior, and the most ethical and moral way to live - which in turn explains, and justifies, why their versions of “free” markets should be, and as neoliberals build more and more power, increasingly are, universal.
Mirowski emphasizes that neoliberalism is not simply an economic theory. It also includes broad assumptions about society, politics, democracy, the role of the state, and even utopian anthropological assumptions. A characteristic of neoliberalism, he asserts in opposition to David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005):

From the 1940s onwards, the distinguishing characteristic of neoliberal doctrines and practice is that they embrace this prospect of retasking the strong state to impose their vision of a society properly open to the dominance of the market, again, as they conceive it. The fact that neoliberals from Friedrich Hayek to James Buchanan to Richard Posner to Walter Rüstow (who invented the term Vitalpolitik which Foucault translated as “biopolitics”) to Jacques Rueff, not to mention a plethora of figures after 1970, all explicitly proposed policies to strengthen the state, seems to elude almost anyone approaching the MPS from the outside. Friedman’s own trademark proposals, like putting the money supply on autopilot, or replacing public schools with vouchers, required an extremely strong state to enforce them. While neoliberal think tanks are busy riling up the groundlings with debt clocks and boogeyman statistics of ratios of government expenditure to GDP, neoliberal politicians organize to extravagantly increase incarceration and policing of those whom they deem unfit for the marketplace; expand both state and corporate power to exercise surveillance and manipulation of subject populations while dismantling judicial recourse to resist such encroachments; wildly introduce new property rights (like intellectual property) to cement into place their extensions of market valuations to situations where they were absent; strengthen international sanctions such as the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to circumvent and neutralize national social legislation they dislike; bail out and subsidize private banking systems at the cost of many multiples of existing national income; define corporations as legal persons in order to facilitate the buying of elections; and so on. ...

The demonization of the state relative to the corporation was the epitome of the short-term tactic; the usurpation of power to the extent of reregulation (not deregulation) and extension of state power both at home and abroad were the long-term goals. No matter what Grover Norquist might rabbit on about, no Neoliberal in government has ever actually shrunk the size of the state, much less drowned it in a bathtub. That was merely red meat for the groundlings. While in power, neoliberals may have subcontracted out parts of government, but that rarely makes a dent in bureaucracy. The coercive power of government inexorably grows. [my emphasis]
Thus, the twisted neoliberal project of privatized prisons could be seen as a reduction of government. But it also constitutes an extension of the state's coercive police power. (It also seriously erodes the rule of law.)

Mirowski broadly sketches difference between neoliberalism, classical liberal political theory, conservatism, classical economics, libertarianism and orthodox neoclassical economics. For instance, he writes:

The Chicago School was established in the immediate postwar era as a complement to the Mont Pelèrin Society, and was dedicated to the reconciliation of the nascent neoliberal ideas with a rather simplistic form of neoclassical economics.4 This reconciliation was never entirely successful, and was resisted at other major centers of postwar neoclassical theory, such as MIT and the Cowles Commission. Indeed, there is a murky catchphrase that refers to this unresolved tension, claiming there is a ‘freshwater’ vs. a ‘saltwater’ branch of neoclassical orthodoxy. This supposed reference to geography misses the historical dynamic, which was closer to starting as backwater economics, and eventually becoming economic Dasani. Interestingly, the Chicago drive to reconciliation was also resisted within the Neoliberal Thought Collective as well, with Hayek, the Austrian School, and the Ordoliberals all rejecting the legitimacy of neoclassical economic theory as an appropriate framework within which to understand how the market worked. ... Yet, because Milton Friedman had become the mouthpiece for the neoliberal program in this era in the public sphere, understandably, thenceforth laypersons tended to infer that orthodox neoclassical economics and something like neoliberal politics were really the same thing.
Bruce Caldwell in his Encyclopædia Britannica article on F.A.Hayek (Friedrich August von Hayek, 1899-1992) describes the Mont Pelèrin Society (MPS) mentioned in that last passage:

At the end of World War II, Hayek began work on a theoretical psychology book based on an essay he had written during his student days in Vienna. In 1947 he organized a meeting of 39 scholars from 10 countries at Mont Pèlerin, on Lake Geneva in the Swiss Alps. This was the beginning of the Mont Pèlerin Society, an organization dedicated to articulating the principles that would lead to the establishment and preservation of free societies. Von Mises, Robbins, and Machlup were among the original attendees, as were Milton Friedman, Frank Knight, George Stigler, Aaron Director, Michael Polanyi, and the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper. Hayek had been instrumental in bringing Popper from New Zealand to LSE at war’s end, and he had also secured a publisher for Popper’s book The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). Popper and Hayek would remain lifelong friends.
Mirowski describes the Mont Pèlerin Society as "the central node of initial organization of the neoliberal thought collective."

The Michael Polanyi (1891–1976)) mentioned there should not be confused with Karl Polanyi (1886-1964).

Mirowski describes the larger network of institutions and personal networks that grew up around the core MPS doctrines:

The joint membership in MPS and those departments is another way we can trace the neoliberals. One then might regard specific academic departments where the neoliberals came to dominate before 1980 (University of Chicago Economics, the LSE [London School of Economics], L’Institut Universitaire des Hautes Etudes Internationales at Geneva, St. Andrews in Scotland, Freiburg, the Virginia School, George Mason University) as the next outer layer of neoliberal infrastructure, an emergent public face of the thought collective—although one rarely publicly acknowledging its links to the MPS. Another shell of infrastructure was fashioned as the special-purpose foundations for the education and promotion of neoliberal doctrines; in its early days, these included entities such as the Volker Fund, the Earhart Foundation, the Relm Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, and the Foundation for Economic Education. The Coors and Koch family foundations were critical players in the United States. The Intercollegiate Society of Individualists [ISI] served as a recruitment center for bright young things to be scouted and groomed for the movement in the US; other countries had similar ‘educational’ foundations. These institutions were often set up as philanthropic or charitable units, if only to protect their tax status and seeming lack of bias.11 ... The next shell of the collective would consist of general-purpose “think tanks” (Institute for Economic Affairs, American Enterprise Institute, Schweizerisches Institut für Auslandforschung [Swiss Institute of International Studies], the Hoover Institution at Stanford) and satellite organizations such as the Federalist Society that sheltered neoliberals in the legal profession. [my emphasis]
And he describes a key difference when it comes to defining the proper limits of state intervention in society between neoliberalism and the classic Jefferson-Franklin-Madison-Locke liberalism:

Far from trying to preserve society against the unintended consequences of the operations of markets, as democratic liberalism sought to do, neoliberal doctrine instead set out actively to dismantle those aspects of society which might resist the purported inexorable logic of the catallaxy, and to reshape it in the market’s image. For neoliberals, freedom and the market would be treated as identical. Their rallying cry was to remove the foundation of liberty from natural rights or tradition, and reposition it upon an entirely novel theory concerning what a market was, or should be. They could not acknowledge individual natural rights, because they sought to tutor the masses to become the agent the market would be most likely to deem to succeed. The market no longer gave you what you wanted; you had to capitulate to what the Market wanted. [my emphasis]

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