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Ideas, Interests and Neoliberalism

by Matthew Ryan on February 1, 2015

As a focal point for political economy, Progress in Political Economy (PPE) has been facilitating an ongoing discussion around ‘neoliberalism’. To take two key posts, Martijn Konings’ Hoodwinked by Hayek plays as a counterpoint to Damien Cahill’s More and Lots of It: Neoliberal Resilience in the Face of Crisis. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is the subject of Konings’ review, Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, which stands in apparent opposition to Cahill.

At first glance, Mirowski’s ideational approach and Cahill’s historical materialism seem fundamentally at odds. Indeed, Mirowski’s energetic contrariness sometimes creates the impression that he disagrees with everyone, and Cahill is openly dubious of Mirowski’s ‘double truth’ hypothesis. Perhaps ambitiously, my aim here is to attempt a kind of synthesis between the ideational confusion highlighted by Mirowski’s ideas-centered approach and the empirical focus of Cahill. From this methodological cross-fertilisation, I suggest that a deeper understanding of neoliberalism’s continued hegemony can be developed.

Neoliberal hegemony is not (yet) so complete that a prospective prime minister or president can openly state “my government will play an active role in the economy, ensuring that wealth is redistributed upwards, directly increasing inequality, and actively undermining the interests of the vast majority of you all” and still hope to be elected. That would be a world in which material interests totally dominate. No. There is still a significant role to be played by ideas, in particular ideas which work to create a ‘false consensus’ around neoliberal governance.

781000274But the disjuncture between neoliberal ideas and actually existing neoliberalism means that an exclusive focus on ideas fails to accurately characterise policy and, so, criticisms fall short. This is the thrust of Cahill’s book, The End of Laissez-Faire? On the Durability of Embedded Neoliberalism, in the vein of Dean Baker and James Galbraith before him.

And, so, when one scholar cries “ideas are singularly important” and another challenges “ideas are useless, we must consider material interests”, I feel like banging their heads together (in more ways than one). Not only is such a dichotomised debate unhelpful in the larger struggle against neoliberalism but perhaps the most important space for us to locate our discussion is that intersection between ideas and material interests.

We must start from a methodological foundation that emphasises the importance of both ideas and interests. Let us explore an example in Mirowski’s idea of a ‘Schmittian double-truth’. Mirowski argues that the Neoliberal Thought Collective has a discourse divided into esoteric and exoteric doctrines. For Mirowski, the exoteric doctrine is the well-known narrative of the mythical properties of the free market, used to regale the masses. Within the esoteric doctrine more complex stories of market creation and the tensions between neoliberalism and democracy are shared within a small closed elite.

It is through this division of intellectual and political labour that ideational contradiction can be not only maintained but also concealed. Claims of conspiracy levelled at this theory, I think, are slightly overblown. The contradiction does not (usually) sit within a single person, or even institution. Rather there is a multi-layered ‘Russian doll’, inside-of-which different levels hold closer to either the esoteric or exoteric line. Mirowski’s argument is not that there is a universal conspiracy among all neoliberals to say one thing and do another but rather that there are clear institutional links between the ‘layers’ of the doll, which justify conceptualising those distinct doctrines as part of the same movement.

But it is not the ideational significance of these institutional links that I am focusing on here. Indeed, Mirowski’s approach does a much more comprehensive job of ideational archaeology than I can do here. The interesting point is how this ‘double truth’ doctrine can be seen to intersect with Cahill’s ’embedded neoliberalism’.

Cahill, developing on the work of Neil Brenner, Nik Theodore, Jamie Peck and Adam Tickell, emphasises the disjuncture between neoliberal theory (which encapsulates the esotetic and the exoteric) and the practice of ‘actually existing neoliberalism’. For those readers who are not already familiar with this conceptualisation, the key assertion is that ‘actually existing neolberalism’ is defined by state interventionism in the economy in the favour of capital, actively creating and recreating markets, rather than conforming to the values of free markets and small states.

MirowskiLiterature linked to the latter emphasis largely treats neoliberal theory as a homogenous doctrine, with the departure originating in the process of translating ideas into effective policy. While this process is undoubtedly where much variation is created, the disjuncture of theory and practice has deeper roots. Contradiction can be traced right back to the way Hayek treats the market as both ontologically spontaneous and essentially constructed, as Mirowski notes in Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste.

Yes, the process of embedding neoliberalisations in distinct political economies creates variation. Selective application of market logics—enforcing them in some areas, whilst suppressing them in others—follows the interests of capital, which adds a layer of material pragmatism to actually existing neoliberalism. The relationship between neoliberalism, crisis, and institutional change is a hugely complex one. All I am suggesting here is that neoliberal disjuncture has its roots in the ideational—a disjuncture which is then further compounded in practice. There is no pure, homogenous, universal neoliberal theory. The shifting, amorphous, ephemeral and contradictory currents of thought which emanate from the Neoliberal Thought Collective were always going to create an uneven neoliberal landscape. The real question is this: cui bono—who benefits?

Matthew Ryan
Matthew Ryan holds postgraduate degrees in Political Economy, and in Economic and Social History, from the University of Sydney and the University of Cambridge respectively. His research has focused on neoliberalism and its manifestations in Australian fiscal policy, as well as contributed to debates around ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’. Most recently Matthew’s research has considered the origins of coal mining in colonial Australia, looking to inform contemporary debates regarding the historical roots of global ecological crises, and probe alternative futures.

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