Saturday, September 7, 2013

Mirowski: Why Economism Spreads Ignorance and Doubt

[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.]
Both in The Golden Calf and in this blog I have stressed economism’s internal contradictions. Not too surprising for somebody trained in philosophy, I have treated this aspect of economism as a major weakness, one that can be exploited by those seeking to oppose its hegemony in American policy circles today.

Mirowski stresses this feature of economism also, referring to it as the “double truth doctrine.” However, Mirowski offers a deep analysis of where this comes from, and why, in a sense, economism is immune to any objections people like me might launch against it on this score.
We start with what Mirowski (here following Freidrich Hayek) believes to be the most important central feature of economism-think, which he accuses the left today of really missing the boat on: that the market, much more than being a vehicle for the physical transfer of goods, is a super information processing system. Going back to my own terms, in which economism functions logically as a quasi-religious ideology, we have the idea of an omniscient God who has laid out a plan for the history of the universe, in exquisite detail, but only God and never mere mortals can comprehend this plan. Just substitute “market” for “God” and you have economism.

It follows from this view that there can be no such thing as a “market failure”—something even Hayek in his sensible moments was able to contemplate. Whatever the market says must be right. If the market appears to be producing a disaster, it must be our problem of limited perceptions and understanding that make it seem as a disaster; if we only had the God’s-eye (or market’s-eye) view of the matter, we’d see that all is really happening for the best, and the only way it could have. Think the Black Death sweeping Europe and killing off a third of the population, and all the religious of the day could do was go to church and pray, and say that God must have done all this for excellent reasons.
The next thing that follows logically is that we humans must become much more humble about thinking we know anything at all. The market knows all, but being of such limited information-processing capability compared to the market, that phenomenal supercomputer, we don’t know diddly. The people who have to come in for special opprobrium in the economism world, whom must be publicly derided and sneered at at every opportunity, are the intellectuals and the scientists, those people who dare to assert that they know things independently of what the market decrees. (Presumably, according to economism diehards, the law of gravity would cease to function, if ever the market decided in its infinite wisdom that gravity was inefficient.)

So now we come to the danger point. The know-nothing populace is OK with the teachings of economism,, and are happy to buy into the propaganda that intellectuals and scientists are just a bunch of elitists trying to snooker the really-wise Average Joe on the street for their own suspect agendas, so long as everything is going along swimmingly and we all have jobs and cash in our pockets. But when the stuff hits the fan, as it did with a vengeance in 2008, then the natives get restless, and start to call for answers and (worse), programs that might fix things. The unruly populace at times like this must first be mollified and ultimately distracted from interfering with economism’s pro-market and pro-corporation policies.
Mirowski believes that economism has, over its roughly four decades of dominance, perfected a strategy for accomplishing this distraction and mollifying, and it’s called agnotology (you can look it up in Wikipedia). Agnotology is the study of ignorance, when that ignorance is deliberately created as a political tactic. The term was coined following analyses of how the tobacco lobby reacted to the initial scientific claims that smoking causes cancer. The tobacco folks figured out pretty quickly that they were going to lose if they ever claimed that they could prove that smoking did not cause cancer and was safe. So they brilliantly realized that they could accomplish all their political goals, at least in the short run (and giving them enough time to plan a longer term strategy) if all they did was spread doubt about whether smoking causes cancer. They hired on a few like-minded scientists (however marginal these people were within the legitimate scientific community) to study all the findings and proclaim, “Oh, it’s not really certain, all the data aren’t in yet,” and so on—a strategy that worked so well that the forces of economism followed it exactly later with climate change.

The media (assuming they needed any urging and were not simply captive to the economism program to start with based on which huge corporations own the media outlets) aided the campaign mightily with their so-called “fairness doctrine,” meaning that if you quoted a real scientist saying real facts about the dangers of smoking, you then had to give equal time to a fringe, wacko scientist spreading the message of doubt. Being told by the media that doubt was every bit the intellectual equal of facts, the public naturally became befuddled, lost interest, and went back to watching football or “reality” shows. Economism mission accomplished.
Now we come to the key point--is all this merely an exercise in cynicism? If so, then economism contains at its core a critical intellectual weakness. At some level its devotees have to know they don’t really believe what they are saying. But Mirowski shows how economism dodges this bullet (maybe the single most important message in his book). Recall that the overriding take-home message for economism is that we humans can’t know much of anything and have to be subservient to the omniscient market. If that’s so, then of course scientists know nothing either, and when economism befogs the public debate with ignorance and doubt, all it really does is teach us the important lesson about how little we know and how we have no choice but to trust the market. So the believer in economism can promulgate all the ignorance and doubt he wishes and feel righteous about doing so.

This finally shrinks the scope of the “double truth doctrine,” since there is no contradiction in the everyday economism devotee spreading doubt and ignorance. The only people subject to “double truth” are the inner circle of intellectuals like Hayek himself back in the 1940s and 1950s—who claimed on the one hand that only the market could know, and on the other hand that he knew that only the market could know. People like Hayek then presumably become economism’s equivalent of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. These few high priests know that their doctrine is riven though with illogic, but suck it up and accept the heavy burden of knowing that and keeping it secret from the masses. It’s all done out of love for the common people, ignorant asses that they are.

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