The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neo-Liberal Thought Collective
Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe (eds)
HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2009
Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan
'Neo-liberalism' is a concept both intriguing and infuriating. A common understanding suggests that the economic downturn of the 1970s fatally wounded the basic precepts of Keynesian political economy, creating the opportunity for a return to market liberalism, which duly arrived with the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
But 'neo-liberalism' always implies so much more than this. It has become a term of abuse in the hands of the anti-globalisation movement, led by populists such as Michael Moore and Naomi Klein. For others it implies something mildly conspiratorial, linking free market economists, politicians, imperialists, capital and moral conservatives. Marxist academics have often used the word lazily to describe virtually any political, cultural or geographic novelty of the last thirty years. And now, in the wake of a financial crisis that appears strangely to have discredited neo-liberalism without weakening it, we find ourselves still struggling to define the system. Too often, the left has been so quick to oppose this amorphous entity that it has not taken the time to consider exactly what it is rejecting.
The Road from Mont Pelerin and Invisible Hands offer a crucial service in this regard, by inviting us to understand neo-liberalism in terms of its origins, early protagonists, networks of intellectual coordination and animating political anxieties. As such, they constitute a fascinating case study of the genealogy and actualisation of a philosophy that, while always unwieldy and internally disputed, successfully coordinated economists, philosophers, business leaders, church leaders and finally politicians in a concerted effort to overturn liberal social democracy. Of all the crude representations of neo-liberalism that these books successfully demolish, the conspiracy theorist's depiction of it as a policy programme cooked up in smoke-filled rooms is never entirely dispatched.
Learning from the left
In the context of the current economic crisis, some on the left will review this history in the hope of identifying the ingredients of their own intellectual and political counter-revolution. But the strategies and techniques of early neo-liberals were themselves a legacy of the left. Dieter Plehwe suggests that the Fabian Society provided an inspiration for the bridging of theory and practice that right-wing think tanks sought to bring about. Philip Mirowski, an outstanding analyst of economic thought (also known to a British audience as one of the chief contributors to Adam Curtis's BBC documentary, The Trap) goes further, depicting Friedrich Hayek as a quasi-Leninist, whose pursuit of fundamental political change was oblivious to questions of democratic legitimacy.
Neo-liberalism, Mirowski argues, is a constructivist creed, whose elements of faith need to be brought into existence by political agents and institutions. If society, academia and state deny the validity of the free market philosophy, then each must be strategically and patiently worked on, until their perspective has been altered. Amongst the more sinister stories contained in Invisible Hands is of how conservative-leaning corporations, such as General Electric and Lockheed Martin, set about 're-educating' their own workforce from the 1950s onwards, to discredit the unions and New Deal liberals.
But there was an additional, technical sense in which the neo-liberal pioneers inhabited the terrain of the left. Timothy Mitchell's essay in The Road from Mont Pelerin refers to a claim he has made elsewhere, that the concept of 'the...