Monday, May 12, 2014

Tackling the Crisis: A Review of Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste

Making sense of the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath is a daunting task. While there have been a number of popular press attempts like Michael Lewis’ The Big Short or the documentary Inside Job, the latter of which took painstaking details to paint a picture of the connections and players involved in the crisis, Philip Mirowski asks in his recent book Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown why the aftermath of the 2008 crisis did not spur some broad based legitimation crisis in the dominant channels and organs of the world’s economic and intellectual elite. Mirowski’s answer is well reasoned but also somewhat depressing: economic intellectuals take for granted the scientific elements of economic theory, and, reading deductively, understand the crisis as expressing not some retroactive judgment of economics as a discipline but instead as expressing a sort of intrinsic unpredictability with which those interested in markets and economics will just have to live.

The book proceeds to make four arguments that are of vital interest to rhetoricians and those studying the intersection between argumentation and social theory. 1) Demands for “consensus” reinforce orthodoxy within economic thought, 2) Economics departments and economics faculty suffer from a feedback loop problem wherein the economic incentives from coming to conclusions that will sound good to private sector employers in the financial sector pollute academic conclusions, 3) “Everyday neoliberalism” is sustained through quotidian vectors of representations and encounter that naturalize economic decisions as proceeding from some godlike mantra as opposed to effects of human action, and 4) Public interventions by public intellectuals in the area of economics like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman were counterproductive insofar as they reproduced the notion that there were a limited number of “sides” to the debate over the crash while also suggesting a minor economic corrective rather than a wholesale philosophical corrective was needed to explain not only the crash but also the failure of those who helped cause it to reflect on their role.

I was very taken by Mirowski’s argument regarding “everyday neoliberalism,” because while it is, in some ways painfully obvious, he does lay out some compelling evidence worthy of consideration. For example, phenomena like the Freakonomics series, which tries to explain almost every sector of society in economic terms, induce a certain kind of talking about the economy as something natural. Or, as a friend and I routinely discuss, the rise of advanced statistics movements in sports, emblematized by Moneyball, brings left-progressives over to the side of the market with sexy talk of “market inefficiencies” and opposition to troglodyte scouts and coaches who just can’t understand the links between economics and progress. Another good example Mirowski cites, and one worthy of further study by rhetoricians, is the utter invisibility of any class outside the “middle class” in the vocabularies of news media, pundits, and politicians. Again, another rather obvious point, but stunningly demonstrative: could you go through the roster of leading politicians in the two major American political parties right now and find a dozen references to “the poor” or “impoverished” in their speeches and prepared materials? One wonders if this signals a deep, deep internalization of the market mantra: don’t mention the poor because those who are impoverished are so as a matter of their nature as opposed to their will?

The book’s argument with respect to the drive for consensus as a factor evading substantive engagement with the poverties of economic theory is also powerful. Mirowski is not only a professor of economics but also of the history of philosophy. Hence it comes as little surprise that he makes a claim about the relationship of how knowledge is presumed to work within expert spheres. Specifically, he argues that there is a tendency to assume that “expertism” implies “consensus.” Thus where there is absence of consensus, we do not have expertism as such but instead failed knowledge production wherein all claims are suspect. Reading from the famous Frank Luntz global warming memo which suggested that a consensus on climate science would force legislative action on global warming, Mirowski suggests that this thinking has proven especially pernicious in the case of economics, because while public intellectuals like Paul Krugman lob bombs at central members of what Mirowski calls the “Neoliberal Thought Collective” the work this does is often to assure the public that there is no economic consensus while the existence of a thing called “the market” (in the public view, I mean: Mirowski is very clear that for mainstream neoliberal economists “the market” does not exist, but is something which makes its own way in the world independent of economists) continues unabated. Thus the market continues to do its work even as what “economists” think comes to be represented as presumptively uncertain. If the central task for those concerned with the sustainability of the global system and especially those concerned with the massive inequalities and injustices that exist in the world is to challenge the mantra that “what markets say is reality” then minor repairs and rescue operations only emphasize that while markets do know, humans, even experts, cannot.

If I had to say a couple things critical of the book, they would be that Mirowski insufficiently theorizes the history of “expertism” as a concept in American public life and also that he struggles to locate the argument of the later Michel Foucault found in The Birth of Biopolitics, which Mirowski cites extensively. Regarding expertism, Mirowski assumes that the distance between the deliberating public and the realm of experts is one made by the confusion and misinformation circulated in public disputes about the economy. This is, as far as it goes, correct. But Mirowski could do more to highlight how politicians and pundits navigate the constitutive distance between “economics” and something like a fluid conception of “the public” (thought of as a discursive figure as opposed to a demographic) by pointing to how the existence of things as they are ratifies them retroactively as expressions of a general economic will. That is, simply by being, things are as “the market” says they are, which bakes in a certain level of presumption about the status quo. Mirowski seems, in many parts of the book, to understand this, which makes it all the more puzzling that he insists on reading the Foucault of The Birth of Biopolitics as descriptive rather than prescriptive: he insists that “Foucault…declines to allow that agents are somehow bamboozled by power/knowledge, since the market is posited to exist in a privileged epistemological space with special position in the regime of truth.” (p. 100). In fact, the Foucault of these later lectures provides one of the best possible answers to the classical dispute about false consciousness that has dogged progressives, because he argues that the market comes to function as if it were the only site of knowledge to explain the characteristics of a vast set of “non-economic” sectors i.e. cultural, familial, etc. Nothing in Foucault says it has to be this way, only that it is.

Overall, this book was very helpful for pushing one to think about the aftermath of the political crisis. It’s also very accessible: Mirowski has taken pains to write in a manner accessible to more than just theory-minded academics.  And for the more academically inclined he makes a host of interesting points, like his ability to connect the influence of Carl Schmitt to the Chicago School of economics. I would recommend it to anyone interested in neoliberalism, the 2008 financial crisis, social theory, or the rhetoric of science/rhetoric of inquiry.

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