Wednesday, June 29, 2016

What is neoliberalism?

In The Political Movement that Dared not Speak its own Name: The Neoliberal Thought Collective Under Erasure Philip Mirowski explores the intellectual history of "neoliberalism". Mirowski claims that despite assertions by other historians to the contrary, there really is such a thing as neoliberalism. Mirowski argues that while not strictly speaking a conspiracy, neoliberal thinkers, following Leo Strauss's concept of the noble lie, have a considerable interest in not publicizing key concepts of their political ideology; thus, unless a scholar is willing to look deeply into the subject, neoliberalism is easy to miss. Although he does not delve very deeply into neoliberal ideology (which like all ideologies has a degree of fuzziness) he does reproduce Ben Fink's summary of the ideological content (reformatted from the original; all emphasis original):

  1. "Free" markets do not occur naturally. They must be actively constructed through political organizing.
  2. “The market” is an information processor, and the most efficient one possible — more efficient than any government or any single human ever could be.
  3. Market society is, and therefore should be, the natural and inexorable state of humankind.
  4. The political goal of neoliberals is not to destroy the state, but to take control of it, and to redefine its structure and function, in order to create and maintain the market-friendly culture.
  5. There is no contradiction between public/politics/citizenship and private/market/entrepreneur-and-consumerism — because the latter does and should eclipse the former.
  6. The most important virtue — more important than justice, or anything else — is freedom, defined "negatively" as "freedom to choose", and most importantly, defined as the freedom of corporations to act as they
  7. Capital has a natural right to flow freely across national boundaries — labor, not so much.
  8. Inequality — of resources, income, wealth, and even political rights — is a good thing; it prompts productivity, because people envy the rich and emulate them; people who complain about inequality are either sore losers or old fogies, who need to get hip to the way things work nowadays.
  9. Corporations can do no wrong — by definition.
  10. The market, engineered and promoted by neoliberal experts, can always provide solutions to problems seemingly caused by the market in the first place: there’s always "an app for that."
  11. There is no difference between is and should be: "free" markets both should be (normatively) and are (positively) most the [sic] efficient economic system, and the most just way of doing politics, and the most empirically true description of human behavior, and the most ethical and moral way to live — which in turn explains, and justifies, why their versions of "free" markets should be, and as neoliberals build more and more power, increasingly are, universal.

To this summary I would add: Democracy is bad. Elsewhere, Mirowski writes,
The neoliberals believed that the market always knew better than any human being; but humans would never voluntarily capitulate to that truth. People would resist utter abjection to the demands of the market; they would never completely dissolve into undifferentiated ‘human capital’; they would flinch at the idea that the political franchise needed to be restricted rather than broadened; they would be revolted that the condition of being ‘free to choose’ only meant forgetting any political rights and giving up all pretense of being able to take charge of their own course through life.
Neoliberalism, the highest good n'est ce pas?, can never be democratically palatable. Hence, the neoliberals must actively undermine the democratic republic at its most fundamental level — a project on which they have made significant progress.


  1. A good companion to Mirowski is James Galbraith's "The Predator State."

    1. I agree! Thanks for the recommendation.


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