Sunday, September 8, 2013

Does Economism = Fundamentalism?

In an earlier post:
--I discussed why Philip Mirowski, in his important book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (Verso, 2013), dismissed the label “fundamentalism” as applying to economism (or neoliberalism as he prefers to call it). I decided that dismissal requires a bit more inquiry.

First off, what is “fundamentalism”? I decided to consult the two ends of the intellectual spectrum, the OED and Wikipedia, but found that the OED had no such entry. Wikipedia offers the basic definition that fundamentalism, in religion, refers to unwavering adherence to core basic doctrines and implies a rejection of modernist approaches.
Just why does Mirowski dismiss “fundamentalism” as a descriptor for economism/neoliberalism? Here is what he says: “[Critics on the left should] resist simple-minded characterizations of the neoliberal approach …as some evangelical ‘market fundamentalism.’… it…debases comprehension to conflate [neoliberalism with] ‘fundamentalism’—a sneer unfortunately becoming commonplace on the left. It seems very neat and tidy to assert that neoliberals operate in a modus operandi on a par with religious fundamentalists… Counterpoising morally confused evangelicals with the reality-based community may seem tempting to some; but it dulls serious thought. …Neoliberalism does not impart a dose of that Old Time Religion. Not only is there no ur-text of neoliberalism; the neoliberals have not themselves opted to retreat into obscurantism… Instead they have developed an intricately linked set of overlapping propositions over time….”

 I take it from this that the reasons for Mirowski’s objection to the label “fundamentalist” are that it seems to him:

·         Sneering and pejorative

·         Simple-minded, failing to take the true intellectual rigor of economism into account

·         Suggestive of an obscurantist approach that requires the literal interpretation of some single holy text
Let’s work down this list. First off, if you believe as I do that economism poses a serious threat to the future of humankind across the globe, then it’s hard for anything you call it not to be pejorative. The real question is whether it combines its pejorative connotation with some descriptive power, or whether it’s nothing but mindless name-calling.

As to whether there is something descriptively useful about “fundamentalism,” we should note that unwavering adherence to fundamental core principles requires neither that one believes that these principles are all written down in some Divinely inspired text, nor that one has gone about deriving and stating those principles in a mindless, unthinking manner.

I would propose that at least one important distinction between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist approaches to religion is that the former create the most limited sphere possible for the further exercise of human reason, once the fundamental principles have been laid down and agreed to.  Stating it somewhat crudely, a non-fundamentalist religion envisions a God that created a world that contains (among other entities) humans with brains. It is part of this God’s plan that humans will use those brains, and this religion calls upon people to try to use their brains for the good of the world. A fundamentalist religion instead stresses that God has a plan, and that we had better all turn off our brains and forget any heretical ideas that we can out-think God, or for that matter, even fully figure out what God is up to. Our role is not to think for ourselves but fully and meekly to accept what religion tells us are the rules.

Now, as previous posts have illustrated:
--I can’t read Mirowski in any other way except portraying economism as much more closely resembling the second sort of beast. So I’d argue that calling it a form of “fundamentalism” is descriptively powerful. If such a label causes people on the left to dismiss economism is not a serious threat, then that simply shows how befuddled these folks are, since anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with economism realizes full well what a powerful foe it is. If it wasn’t we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

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