Borrowing from Science: Philip Mirowski on Contemporary Neoliberalism

holy science

The historian of thought Philip Mirowski has published a very interesting piece entitled The Thirteen Commandments of Neoliberalism. The first and most important point to comment on is the following:

It is noteworthy that [Mont Pelerin Society] members began to explore the portrayal of the market as an evolutionary phenomenon long before biology displaced physics as the premier science in the modern world-picture.  If the market was just an elaborate information processor, so too was the gene in its ecological niche. Poor, unwitting animals turn out to maximize everything under the sun just like neoclassical economic agents, and cognitive science “neuroeconomics” models treat neurons as market participants. “Biopower” is deployed to render nature and our bodies more responsive to market signals. Because of this early commitment, neoliberalism was able to make appreciable inroads into such areas as “evolutionary psychology,” network sociology, ecology, animal ethology, linguistics, cybernetics, and even science studies. Neoliberalism has therefore expanded to become a comprehensive worldview, and has not been just a doctrine solely confined to economists.

This is an enormously important point. Many Post-Keynesians and other aspiring “new economic thinkers” have fooled themselves into believing that all economics has to do is mimic the scientific method more accurately than the neoclassical economists have done to produce results. The problem, however, is that this method itself has become infested with ideas that originated in economics. Nor is this a new phenomenon; Herbert Spencer’s “Social Darwinist” ideas predated the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin (theories I have no doubt was inspired by the laissez-faire theories popular at that time) and these theories themselves soon got caught up in the eugenics movements of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

The problem has always been the same: social sciences require legitimacy and for that they turn to the authority of the hard sciences; while the hard sciences, being by nature atomistic and largely unable to create meaningful narratives, require structures in which to contextualise their operation for which they often turn to the social sciences. In reality, of course, such authority is completely arbitrary and “Science” in this regard is merely the modern zealot’s stand in for “Religion”. The narratives generated too are fairly arbitrary; usually being subject to whatever metaphorical grid is fashionable at the time (energy physics; computer science; evolutionary genetics etc.). What we have is a two-tiered academic culture in which both tiers lean on one another and rely on one another for their continued existence — and authority.

This two-way street is the prime determinate of the generation of meaning in our contemporary secular societies. It governs the way most people think; it inhabits the language they use; it dictates the metaphors — largely dead metaphors — that they deploy; and it even governs the morality which they believe to guide their actions. As I have written elsewhere: to penetrate it is largely to understand the Zeitgeist.

What Mirowski is pointing to is, as I have pointed out elsewhere before, part of a far broader cultural shift that goes right back to the beginning of the Enlightenment itself when a certain discourse — that of Enlightenment — sought to squash and silence its critics; many of whom had provided the basis on which Enlightenment stood. Neoclassical economics is only a particular manifestation of this tendency — a tendency that has long grown sick and decrepit — but what Mirowski calls “Neoliberalism” is almost certainly a more general strain. That is why, as Mirowski says, Neoliberalism feeds on new changes in the various sciences, rapidly pumping and dumping scientific metaphors to suit its purposes.

This ties in with another important point Mirowski makes: namely, that what he refers to as Neoliberalism affects how people view themselves. Before I engage with this I should clean up Mirowski’s statement somewhat in order to make it more accurate. What this discourse does is not so much change the way people in general conceive of themselves, rather it changes the way elites conceptualise both themselves and other people. This is an important distinction because what Mirowski calls Neoliberalism is a highly artificial construct that is rejected by the majority of the population as vulgar, reductive and offensive. It really is only the cultural elites — from politicians to scientists — that fall for this stuff, as it gives them the power they innately desire.

I have two minor bones to pick with Mirowski on this. First of all, he seems to think that the labour theory of value was somehow more homely than the “human capital” theory that Neoliberalism soon became enamored with. He writes:

Neoliberalism thoroughly revises what it means to be a human person. Classical liberalism identified “labor” as the critical original human infusion that both created and justified private property. Foucault correctly identifies the concept of “human capital” as the signal neoliberal departure that undermines centuries of political thought that parlayed humanism into stories of natural rights. Not only does neoliberalism deconstruct any special status for human labor, but it lays waste to older distinctions between production and consumption rooted in the labor theory of value, and reduces the human being to an arbitrary bundle of “investments,” skill sets, temporary alliances (family, sex, race), and fungible body parts. “Government of the self ” becomes the taproot of all social order, even though the identity of the self evanesces under the pressure of continual prosthetic tinkering; this is one possible way to understand the concept of “biopower.” Under this regime, the individual displays no necessary continuity from one “decision” to the next. The manager of You becomes the new ghost in the machine.

Here I totally disagree with Mirowski. What he is referring to as “Neoliberalism” is simply the latest incarnation of the Enlightenment project. The labour theory of value was just another earlier manifestation of this same project. The only reason the metaphor has changed is that people in modern post-industrial societies no longer resemble labourers. Frankly, this is probably a positive development. Whatever one thinks of the Dilbert character at the office terminal, it is surely better than the coal-blackened industrial labourer who dies at 36.

My second minor bone to pick with Mirowski is that he has — and this is not characteristic of his work generally — missed the key source in this regard. It is not Michel Foucault, as he seems to think, but rather the American cultural historian Christopher Lasch. In his seminal book The Minimal Self — one that was largely overshadowed by the success of the inferior The Culture of Narcissism — Lasch examines how the elites’ view of itself today is largely shaped through psychological categories. It is these that become sort of quasi-ethical precepts for how one should live one’s life. Thus it is probably in the language of contemporary evolutionary psychology and its popular manifestations in workplace and family counseling that we should try and catch where what Mirowski calls “Neoliberalism” tries most directly to shape the Self.

All in all, however, Mirwoski’s piece is well worth a read and it is certainly headed in the right direction. Too many heterodox economists think that all we need to do is increase the proximity between hard science mumbo-jumbo and social science mumbo-jumbo in order to produce a solid analytical structure with which to organise our societies. Nothing could be further from the truth and it is to Mirowski’s great credit that he appears to realise this.


About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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