Saturday, September 7, 2013

Mirowski: What, Exactly, Is Economism?

[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.]
When approaching economism, one of the things I had trouble with was both the myriad terms different authors used to describe what appeared to be the same set of ideas—economism, market fundamentalism, market populism, and most prominently, neoliberalism—and the relative lack of detail with which various authors defined their pet terms. In the end, I offered in The Golden Calf a 5-part definition, adapted from the work of Des Gasper, a scholar in the ethics of international development from The Hague.

One of the strengths of Mirowski’s work is a detailed 13-point description of economism (which, as noted, he calls neoliberalism). According to Mirowski, belief in economism entails all of these things:

  1. The good society must be constructed by political action; it will not come about naturally
  2. The market (though often simply left undefined, in the writings of economism advocates) is fundamentally a super information processor
  3. For public consumption, we must treat a market society (in which the market defines all human goals and purposes) as the natural and inexorable state of humankind (privately, economism’s intellectual elite can admit that it’s not all that natural, hence proposition #1)
  4. The goal of economism is reshaping the state, not destroying it, so that a strong state can do economism’s bidding and suppress any threats (in keeping with #1)
  5. Economism must promulgate a market theory of “democracy” to hide the fundamentally undemocratic nature of economism being imposed by a strong state—that is, economism must preach that under the state we are never really free, but we are only optimally free as participants in the marketplace (which by the way is part of the reason economism carries on always about the “free” market while hardly ever defining just what that means)
  6. We must radically reconceptualize the “self” as infinitely malleable and as not really existing, in keeping with the “self” that is the ideal participant in market society
  7. As with #5, freedom must be conceived solely in market terms: “no market can ever be coercive” (p. 61)
  8. Capital has a natural right to flow across national boundaries
  9. Inequality of resources and political power must be accepted as the “necessary functional characteristic of [economism’s] ideal market system” (p. 63)
  10. Corporations can do no wrong
  11. All solutions to problems caused by the market are to be found in the (reengineered) market
  12. Increased incarceration is an essential part of economism program [this is probably the least well defended and explained of Mirowski’s assertions]
  13. Economism has attempted to construct a moral order that flows naturally from its economic theories, but this remains a work in progress, since economism fundamentally is unable explicitly to address the realm of the transcendental

A number of things follow from this analysis. One thing that stands out is that while politically, advocates of economism often make common ground with libertarians, the two belief systems actually are quite different. In particular, libertarians are opposed to anything stronger than a “night watchman” state and are hence opposed to government regulations. According to Mirowski, economism long ago parted company with this creed and realized (attribute #1) that the ideal market of its dreams would never spontaneously come into being, and could only be created and fostered by state action, including regulations that were explicitly pro-wealth and pro-corporation.
In The Golden Calf, I cited sociologist Margaret R. Somers’ work, particularly her suggestion that economism must be seen as having three different facets:

·         An ideology or political narrative

·         An organized and well-funded political movement that advances that narrative

·         A set of technical recommendations as to how to solve policy problems
Somers agrees with Mirowski (and with me) that one of the most prominent features of economism, and a feature that those of us who wish to oppose it must call out at every opportunity, is its double-talk—the way that economism often tries to have it both ways and proclaim two mutually inconsistent “truths” at the same time (on which for example see the recent post, According to Mirowski, economism is one thing only, which he calls the “neoliberal thought collective,” referred to so often in his book that he abbreviates it as “NTC.” In a later post I’ll say more about Mirowski’s characterization of this thought collective as inherently double-talking and why, for devoted believers in economism, that’s not any sort of problem. For now, let me simply note that had Mirowski adopted something like Somers’ breakdown, it might be clearer where the double-talk comes from--if, for example, the political movement or the technical problem-solving aspect of economism calls for one thing and the fundamental belief system calls for the opposite.

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