on 15 September 2013
This is an utterly infuriating and ultimately self-defeating book. I was determined to finish it, but eventually had to concede defeat half way through the penultimate chapter, `The Shock of the New', which was, to me, merely a `Shock', and incomprehensibly opaque to the intelligent lay person. Although there are a few moments of lucid writing, the effort involved in simply wading through the English is almost not worth it. I resent any professor, however brilliant, requiring a well-educated person to read their tome alongside a dictionary, especially when the text is littered with smart-alec, high-falutin', rapid-fire, smug American academic slang. Actually, I can pinpoint the exact word where I finally gave up the unequal struggle: `donnybrook' on page 278, which apparently means a brawl, and which was an appropriate point of departure.
If this is the best that the American academic left can do to counter the all-pervasiveness of Neoliberalism, then the world is finished, perhaps almost literally. Along his lumpen way, Mirowski dumps on pretty well everyone in the field who has a decent command of proper English and has made a reasonable attempt at a critique - Naomi Klein is dismissed in a phrase, Thomas Frank in a few paragraphs, presumably because they don't do mathematics. He must have developed piles from sitting on the fence over Stitglitz' position. The majority of the book consists of microscopic nit-picking about theoretical models which Mirowski himself seems to think are largely useless because they illuminate nothing, and cannot be used to predict anything other than retrospectively the principles of Neoliberalism. When they don't fulfil their universe masters' preconceptions, there is an infinity of futile pseudo-mathematics that will keep these charlatans in the arithmetic equivalent of the snake-oil business until doomsday. They are the economic equivalents of the management consultants, and deserve about as much trust. Miroswki is too embroiled himself in this silliness to stand aside and declare what shouldn't take 300 pages (though in fairness he goes much further than any other economist I have read): that a significant proportion of academic economists are mendacious peddlers of greed and as furious riders of the revolving door as any of the other inhabitants of the world of Neoliberalism. Using Mirowski's concept of the Russian Doll of Neoliberalism should place most of the so-called `Nobel' prize winners in economics (not an original Nobel prize, funded by a bank, no less, and established only in the late 1960s) as another component of both a small and large doll, given that not far off 40% of the recipients of the prize are card-carrying Neoliberal Chicago economists (Mirowski does acknowledge this). The prize clearly is valueless except as a pseudo-imprimatur for peddling more right-wing nonsense as incontestable `science'. It should be abolished forthwith: actually this simple move would probably do more to prick the inflated bubble of Neoliberalism than anything.
Mirowski doesn't seem to understand that Neoliberalism means almost nothing to the public. I know this, because I have asked countless medical students who I teach; they don't know the word, never mind understand its concepts. The few who do commonly regard it as a nasty name that jealous lefties call people who have made mountains of cash. The left-leaning economists would do well to put their considerable intellects together to coin a set of terms to replace `Neoliberalism' that could sequentially be abandoned in favour of the next one, much as the politically correct have dealt with the wearing out of race terms that all become tarnished at some stage.
The subtitle: 'How neoliberalism survived the financial meltdown' is of course not the same as why it survived, though we could have reasonably expected a few of Prof Mirowski's verbose diversions to cover the topic. The result is a book rather similar to Colin Crouch's `The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism' though Crouch's language is elegant and comprehensible. Neither, however, tell us convincingly why they believe Neoliberalism emerged from the 2008 crisis largely unchanged and in most respects more resilient than ever. Mirowski skirts around cognitive dissonance, but that's about as far as he gets. Fundamentally a true critique of the crisis, and more importantly an idea of a way forward, requires philosophers of politics, sociologists and psychologists to get stuck into the problem. Crouch should be able to delve farther than he does in the last few pages of his books, where he appeals to creative tension between state, market, corporation and civil society, which I'm afraid sounds like the tired stuff we'd expect from a Professor of Governance. I don't know whether Mirowski discusses any redress in the last bit of his book, and I probably wouldn't understand it if he did. Regardless, I don't think any amount of discussion of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis or the Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium model is going to give us the tiniest clue how to emerge from this mess in any kind of alternative way.
My personal cynical view is that there is no solution, and that human nature in general doesn't want one. Neoliberalism opened up multiple vistas of human greed and selfishness, and elevated them first to acceptability, and latterly, during the 2008 crisis, to moral and financial unassailability (intermittently sane Neoliberals such as Julian Le Grand at least concede as much, though I haven't read anything post-2008 by him). The toxicity of Neoliberalism has been cemented not, I would say, by Mirowski's Russian Doll, but its even more pernicious bedfellow, Neoconservatism, both at their most pervasive and to many persuasive in two of the most demonstrably unequal countries in the world, the UK and the USA. Neoconservatism isn't even mentioned by Crouch or Mirowski, which is strange, as its precepts are much easier to appreciate, don't require any mathematics at all, and may explain why regimes that effortlessly combine prying and nannying authoritarianism with populist moralism and relativism may be able to divert their citizens' attention from the real hazards of Neoliberalism. Frank, in particular, has much of value to say about the phenomenon.
This valiant but unsuccessful book demonstrates that Neoliberal economic pseudo-science cannot be countered by yet more pseudo-science, which constrains its academic antagonists to the politeness of scientific discourse rather than the more comprehensible rough-and-tumble of political discussion. The economists who have not been wholly taken in by the Neoliberal market in economists (including, creditably, of course, Mirowski himself) should let go a bit and work with the social scientists of inequality to attempt to bypass this sterile impasse. The latter, I think, have made a markedly greater impact than the economists; but their own science now needs translating into politics. How, though, other than by invoking ultimate Neoliberalism to encourage takeover of the UK by Scandinavians?