How many neo-liberals does it take to change a light bulb?

Nora Connolly 

Image © CharlesJshapr

We are all neo-liberals now. You might not like it but an insidious political metamorphosis has taken place, those in denial akin to the misfortunate frog unaware that it’s getting boiled out of existence. We are shedding our social democrat identity for an ugly neo-liberal form and the political implications for this are profound. Recently, I wondered why the economic meltdown of 2008 hadn’t undermined the neo-liberal project, a prescient query. Answers now provided by Professor Philip Mirowski in his recently published `Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (Verso 2013)`. His thesis a pessimistic one, although it provides the Left with a much needed counter narrative to reconceptualise their collective notion of markets.  

I have yet to read Mirowski`s book though he recently spoke with Laurie Taylor about the text. This is a complicated thesis and cannot possibly be understood by listening to a fleeting discussion. There is a detailed lecture available given by Professor Mirowski where he explores some of the themes outlined in the text. And as you will deduce, it’s a challenging and complicated issue. But Mirowski is pointing something out that requires consideration, discussion and analysis. As a preamble his interview with Laurie Taylor provides an excellent introduction. Taylor is a brilliant interviewer, educator and broadcaster, and his contribution to the discussion enhanced my understanding of the issue. In saying this, more time should have been allocated, though much was gleaned from the short conversation.

Taylor began the discussion by asking Mirowski for a neo-liberal definition. We discover those identifying themselves under this banner are not conservatives nor are they believers in laissez faire. They also happen to be big supporters of a strong state – a vital prerequisite in the placing or imposition of markets on society. This sounds a little like Andrew Gamble`s `The Free Economy and the Strong State` a conceptual notion used to define the political project of Thatcherism. The market argues Mirowski is viewed by neo-liberals as an “information processor” greater than any human, which makes socialism a doomed agenda. This is because the market knows more than mere mortals can ever know. So when markets get it badly wrong, as they evidently did in 2008, the neo-liberals are not discouraged, far from it. Instead they have utilised this economic disaster as an opportunity to foist more virulent market solutions on society as a remedy. So the 2008 economic meltdown we are told, resulted in a bank bail-out but the solution was shaped around market based proposals, the de jure nationalisation of the banking system avoided.

The discussion focused on the issue of global warming. Mirowski pointing out that rather than the state directly intervening and stopping companies pumping too much carbon into the atmosphere, we instead find less effective market based solutions co-opted. These in the form of a “market place of permits” which are less effective than a governmental regulator role, they happen to be popular with finance, “various markets are introduced to fix various problems but all it does is spreads out the problem”.

This neo-liberal hegemony has had a long gestation period and is closely linked to Friedman, Popper and Hayek. The significance of the Mont Pelerin meeting in Switzerland in 1947 is the critical starting point for the neo-liberal revolution. Indeed, as McQuaig and Brooks illustrate it launched the intellectual attack on Keynesianism. The location for this meeting provides an interesting metaphor, as an intellectual mountain had to be climbed to persuade the public, given the lack of support for anti-statist solutions in 1947. As McQuaig and Brooks explain the “key to this goal was to enlist the best minds-such as had come together at the Swiss retreat – for a marathon twenty-year effort concerned not so much with what would be immediately practicable, but with the beliefs which must regain ascendancy”. The myriad of influential and powerful think-tanks spawned as a result of this meeting are identified by Mirowski. An analogy with a Russian Doll used to explain the multilayer’s involved in describing the origins of neo-liberalism. The first layer is the Mont Pelerin meeting followed by the think tanks and a right wing tabloid media promoting the ideas of the neo-liberal cause. Taylor`s suggestion that this “all sounds a tiny bit conspiratorial” is soundly dealt with by Mirowski, who gives a devastating discourse on the “collective movement of thoughts”.

The discussion then centred around issue linked to Michel Foucault, the notion of the “entrepreneurial self” which yet again places the market in a pivotal position. This perhaps helps explain why unemployed people sometimes blame themselves; when structural adjustments in the economy lead to unemployment, transforming an economic failure into a personal deficiency. Taylor wondered if perhaps this individual notion of fault, could possibly explain the lack of opposition to the neo-liberal agenda. Mirowski gave some credence to this notion whilst pointing out that it also involves those in society with no interest in politics. For these people the neo-liberal agenda is accepted through a process of osmosis. Mirowski provides the example of how Facebook “trains young people to be neo-liberal agents”.

The discussion ended and Taylor turned to Robert Skidelsky who had participated in the first part of the programme, he was asked for his opinion. Skidelsky hasn’t read the recent publication yet, his reply based on what he had heard. The crisis in 2008 he argued was not of sufficient severity to warrant an ideological shift, “it has not been big enough but there will be more and in that there is hope.” It would have been interesting to hear what Mirowski thought of this comment but the programme ended. For those who would like an answer to the question cited in the title of this piece (both provided by Laurie Taylor). Then the answer is “None – but you know – the bulb must really want to change”. Think about it, after all thinking is allowed.

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