Neoliberalism Redux

In a moment of madness, I decided to read Philip Mirowski’s postface to his sprawling volume, The Road from Mont Pèlerin, purporting to “define” neoliberalism. Quite apart from its almost laughable incoherence (e.g.: the exemplar par excellence of neoliberalism is—wait for it—Wikipedia!), it flatly contradicts Monbiot, Harvey (explicitly, in fact), Wendy Brown, and just about every other attempt to define the term. His solution is not to define it at all, but simply to depict it as a “thought collective” under whose umbrella utterly incompatible “thoughts” could fight it out, with no guiding principle established in advance or produced as an outcome. By his own definition, anything at all could count as neoliberalism—the very notion he tries to dispel.

The trick to all this is to say that a given idea counts as neoliberal if and when it is “cashed out” politically in ways found disagreeable. That is when “the truth” of an underlying coherence comes out. But this is totally circular; it presumes what it aims to prove.

He conveniently denies that there is any doctrinal continuity to neoliberalism, so if it is a thought collective, it’s one that resembles an academic professional association more than a theoretical school or even discipline (he compares it to STS, but a more apt choice might be MLA). In place of actual ideological continuity or commonality, we get a genealogy, the main lesson of which is simply that a cluster of neoliberal schools (French, German, Austrian, American) sent forth emissaries who became involved in a host of domains that do not follow a neoliberal path and who evolved and gave rise to others for whom the lessons of their predecessors form a small part of entirely different projects and orientations.

After stridently denying that there could be a Ten Commandments of neoliberalism, he adduces just such a list. But he fails to note that several of the key postulates are mutually exclusive or incompatible, which is why in practice nothing resembling a consistent application of them can be discerned. And within pro-market economics, a robust controversy has raged for a century over several of these tenets. Nobels have been awarded to economists taught by neoliberals for proving them wrong.

The closest Mirowski comes to identifying a genuine ideological through line is when he claims that neoliberalism is finally an epistemic attitude. But here things are rather inverted: actual neoliberals share this attitude with others precisely because it typifies a distinct historical moment, of which neoliberal ideology is one restricted product. I like to thin of it in Luhmannian terms; others prefer Baudrillard, or Deleuze, or someone else. But the fact is that some neoliberal thinkers, such as Hayek, were already drawing on systems theory and cybernetics (as those existed at the time), which also gave rise to psychoanalysis, structuralism and lots of other traditions. That does not make all of them neoliberal; it makes historical neoliberal creatures of their time.

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