Neoliberal Cognitive Dissonance

07/17/2013 02:15 EDT | Updated 09/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Why does neoliberal ideology remain strong - if not stronger - after 2008's Great Recession that still affects us today, when it seems obvious that economic policies based on it caused that crisis? We live in a sort of cognitive dissonance, says Philip Mirowski in his very last book, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown.

This cognitive dissonance can be seen particularly in economists - scholars, politicians, media commentators. Why do they - and those who relay their ideas - maintain faith in the neoliberal ideology? That is the question Philip Mirowski develops in this important and fascinating book. And the economist and historian of ideas knows how to narrate a story, as was obvious from his earlier book More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature's Economics (Cambridge University Press, 1989), in which he explained how classical physics had influenced, if not founded, neoclassic economic thought's epistemology. Said epistemology is the discipline's dominant theory, taught as the one and only way to the truth in most university departments, which merges with, and often bases, the neoliberal ideology.

Neoliberal ideology and neoclassic economics' mutual influence is seen throughout Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste. If his book is first of all a virulent critique of the orthodox economists' incompetence to foresee the crisis and of their capacity to rid themselves of said incompetence, it relies mostly on the demonstration that neoliberal ideology has infiltrated all layers of public discourse but also private and political conduct. Liberal ideology's strength - promoted by what the author labels the "Neoliberal Thought Collective" - is to have allowed orthodox economists to ensure their continuous hegemony as the only source of truth, in spite of the crisis: "Economists fiddle with their models, Rome (and Athens) burns, and the Neoliberal Thought Collective just grows stronger" (p. 243). This quote sets the essay's tone: sometimes humorous, mostly scathing, and always critical.

The demonstration is one of a historian of thought: meticulously documenting the neoliberal ideas' development and propagation, P. Mirowski shows to which point this ideology, particularly carried by mainstream economists and the media, survived the crisis, despite growing evidence of its role in said crisis' development. The thesis' core is strong: the great economic crisis we are experiencing since 2008 is an epistemological phenomenon (p. 344). Ideas now take precedence over the facts, because neoliberalism theorizes all spheres of our lives: "Neoliberalism has consequently become a scale-free Theory of Everything: something as small as a gene or as large as a nation-state is equally engaged in entrepreneurial strategic pursuit of advantage, since the 'individual' is no longer a privileged ontological platform" (p. 59).

To obtain this formidably paradoxical result, neoliberalism had to organize its propagation strategy in two levels - a strategy that is not simply propaganda but brings itself, instead, to a set of procedures based on market analysis (p. 227) - a "double truth" doctrine. On one hand, an "exoteric" version addressing the masses, and, on the other, an "esoteric" version of its truth addressing the political elite (p. 68). The two versions' conjunction allowed the emergence of an everyday neoliberalism (chapter 3) and the enslavement of neoclassical economic thought to neoliberal ideals, particularly in universities (chapter 4).

Fundamentally, the neoliberal doctrine had to be internalized ("everyday neoliberalism") in order to be so strong and to survive: "The tenacity of neoliberal doctrines that might have otherwise been refuted at every turn since 2008 has to be rooted in the extent to which a kind of 'folk' or 'everyday' neoliberalism has sunk so deeply into the cultural unconscious that even a few rude shocks can't begin to bring it to the surface long enough to provoke discomfort" (p.89).

This book presents not only a critique of neoliberalism and its roots - carried, notably, amongst the elite and the "populace" by the Mont Pèlerin Society, founded in 1944 by the main thinkers of this ideology, and by the hundred neoliberal "think tanks" which emerged from it - but also a critique of the left-wing protest movements' intellectual poverty (think about the Occupy movement) against the power neoliberalism represents. An ideology founded as the only source of truth, by the neoclassical economics, will Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste.

The book is a fundamentally and profoundly fruitful one, helping the reader to grasp a better understanding of both the actual financial crisis and the multifaceted neoliberal discourse. Being an historian of economic thought, Philip Mirowski carefully documents the numerous neoliberalism variants and boils them down to central ideas - his synthetic presentation of the thirteen fundamental neoliberal theses is masterly elaborated (p. 53-67) - which gives us a better understanding of this hegemonic political thought's formidable strength. The book may be a bit too technical for the general public, but should definitely be mandatory reading for any journalist, commentator or analyst. It is without any doubt one of the most important political economy essays to be published in the last few years and definitely will enlighten us on the actual financial crisis' ideological, epistemological, and political roots.

Translated by Sarah Labarre

Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, by Philip Mirowski (Verso Books, 2013, 467 p., ISBN 978-1-78168-079-7, 34,95$).