Friday, September 6, 2013

Mirowski on Economism and Religion

[This is one of several posts discussing Philip Mirowski’s plausible and well-referenced Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (Verso, 2013). Mirowski uses the term ‘neoliberalism’ for what I call ‘economism’; for purposes of this blog I have relabeled his ideas accordingly.]
Philip Mirowski accuses the left in America of seriously underestimating and misunderstanding economism. With that in mind he especially objects to one term sometimes used for economism, “market fundamentalism.” He sees in this term a desire to dismiss advocates of economism as the equivalent of ignorant Bible-thumpers.

I’d suggest that this concern causes Mirowski to put on blinders regarding the major issues I addressed in The Golden Calf. He fails to see the possibility that economism is a quasi-religious ideology, both because it may derive historically from important religious traditions, and also because logically, it resembles religious forms of thought. Indeed, Mirowski offers a number of points that support the account of economism that I previously offered.

Mirowski insists that understanding economism means that one has to stop imagining that by a “market” one means simply a mechanism for physically supplying goods for trade. Following Friedrich Hayek, Mirowski argues that for economism, a market is more properly seen as a supercomputer of sorts that’s the most excellent information processing system ever seen.  (Just how that works has to be discussed in another post.) All that’s important to know about anything is its market price, which exactly determines its value; and the market is an infallible instrument for determining a commodity’s proper price from one minute to the next.
The way economism devotees see the market, it simply cannot fail. While some economists are willing to talk about “market failures,” there really can be no such thing. Even when the market really seems to have made a mess of things, as happened with the Great Recession of 2008, that’s not the market’s problem—it’s our problem for imagining that we could somehow put our puny human intelligence up against the all-powerful and all-knowing Market. In actuality, whatever happened in 2008 and after was simply the market expressing its superior wisdom and working itself out. It would have done it faster if we’d not tried to get in there and mess with the gears; and so a huge agenda for economism is to control the state apparatus to prevent silly people from doing that in the future and getting in the market’s way.

One recurring feature of economism-think is that you seldom hear talk of “markets”; rather you more generally hear people say “the Market.” Somebody doing sensible economics might well agree that there are markets; which in turn would mean that markets might have local characteristics, and one of them might work slightly differently from another. But that won’t do for economism. Here is how Mirowski describes this image: “The market itself is never chaotic, because it exists outside of time. The market must be generic and unwavering, because if it were completely embedded in historical time (like society, like nature), then it could in principle be just as clueless about the true telos [purpose] of human striving as any deluded human being; in short, it could get things wrong.” (p. 335)
Think about this image for a minute. What Mirowski has described, and attributed to the underlying theory of economism, is an entity that is eternal, omnipresent, and omniscient, and in all these ways not only far beyond human powers, but also outside the grasp of paltry human intellect. In other words—God.

Mirowski proceeds to explain how economism steadfastly opposes efforts to control the market such as might arise from scientific concerns about climate change. One of the things that the left doesn’t get about economism, Mirowski insists, is that it has nothing to do with a conservative yearning for some past; it is instead deeply in love with the idea of the world as constantly evolving. Precisely because the world is constantly evolving, even the best science will always be trying to catch up; science can never be sure of understanding the world in all its complexity. The only instrument that possesses that ideal state of knowledge is the Market. But what follows from that is that the Market can never be wrong; so if we keep on polluting the atmosphere with CO2, and sea levels rise, and the climate goes all to heck, and vast areas of cropland turn into deserts, then it would still not be the case that anything bad happened. All of this (according to economism) was simply the Market working out all the kinks in the system. Whatever happened in the end, if the Market did it, was the best possible thing that could have happened; and if not, it was only because the Market didn’t really do it, but because mere humans messed up the market and tried to wrest control.
Now, what sort of ideology is this? Logically speaking, it seems to resemble nothing more than a religious belief in a Divine plan for the world, which God knows perfectly and exactly down to the last detail but which is opaque to mere mortals. So no human can ever say that anything bad ever happened; whatever happened was God’s will and it’s heresy to gripe about it.

Historically, such an image of God was something like that favored by the two religious traditions that I argue formed the roots of today’s economism—Calvinism and 19th-century English evangelicalism. Mirowski notes, “The doctrine of special dispensation for the Elect is one very powerful source of ongoing attractions of [economism], viz., the feeling of having surrendered to the wisdom of the market by coming to know something that most of the nattering crowd can’t possibly glimpse: freedom itself must be as unequally distributed as the riches of the marketplace.” (86) He says elsewhere: “People should be encouraged to envy and emulate the rich. Demands for equality are merely the sour grapes of the losers… ‘Social justice’ is blind, because it remains forever cut off from the Wisdom of the Market.” (63) If economism has become popular in American society, Mirowski ignores the possibility that this may be to some extent due to its powerful resonance with Calvinist and later Puritan doctrines, which he describes here quite accurately.
In short, as Mirowski develops his understanding of economism, and accuses most of economism’s critics on the left of failing to take the trouble to understand as well, he reinforces almost all the points that I tried to offer in The Golden Calf about economism’s religious roots and religious character as a system of thought.

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