Phil Mirowski is an historian of science and philosopher of economic thought at the University of Notre Dame. He has extensively written about economic and scientific knowledge, neoliberalism, and the current financial crisis, among other topics. He visited Cambridge last June to speak at the ECONPUBLIC workshop “Economic reason: intellectuals and think tanks in the late twenty century”, and I took this opportunity to interview him. Our conversation took place on June 27 in the backyard of the hotel where Mirowski was staying in the outskirts of Cambridge. The interview touches upon many topics of possible interest for readers (and listeners) of this blog, including the particular conception of markets in neoliberal economics, Hayek, anti public intellectuals, and a harsh criticism to the performativity thesis in finance studies. Many thanks to Tiago Mata and José Ossandón for helpful suggestions in preparing this interview.
Part I. Neoclassical economics, physics envy and the status of economic knowledge
Q1. From your books ‘More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics and Nature’s Economics’ and ‘Natural Images in Economic Thought’ one gets the impression that you think economists are not the most imaginative intellectuals, and that they’ve misappropriated metaphors and tools from physics. In your own words: “neoclassical economic theory is a shameless imitation of psychics”, that puts ‘utility’ in place of ‘energy’. More specifically, you argue that borrowing bits of rational mechanics and energy physics lies at the base of neoclassical microeconomics. If this is true, what are the implications for economic knowledge? Do you think economists have anything useful to say about knowledge and value?
A1. [8.48 mins.]
“Much of the attempt to change modern economics became a war between different natural science metaphors; of people trying to appropriate notions of complexity, of competition theory, or theories of evolution”
“Neoliberals think that the market is a perfect information processor and that markets are the ultimate verification of truth”.
Q2. How have economists reacted to your fundamental critique that, as a science, economics is “rotten to the core”?
A2. [2.17 mins.]
“There is no history of economics in the economics departments. Economists don’t learn history anymore”
Part II. Neoliberalism as thought collective
Q3. Your work has helped us to understand the rise of neoclassical economics by unveiling the complex interplay of patrons, purpose-built institutions, and ideas that lie behind neoliberalism as a “thought collective”. Despite being rooted originally in the Mont Pèlerin Society (195-1980), neoliberalism after the 1980s became a multicentre movement of think tanks and organizations spreading ideas from different sectors, or so you claim in The Road from Mont Pelerin. According to the account you develop there, neoliberalism is not a particular type of political elite, nor something generated exclusively in think tanks, nor a particular type of academic economics, nor a type of knowledge inscribed in certain market devices. Rather, you claim that it is an inter-organizational network that connects all these levels at once. This strikes me as convincing, but it raises some methodological concerns. What exactly do you mean by ‘a collective’?
“Neoliberal think tanks have a much more sophisticated understanding of the sociology of knowledge than the left has. They are not only worried about spreading neoliberal ideas, but also about casting doubt on controversial topics, such as global warming. They deny certain realities, and seek to produce confusion about others. They also have PR unities that engage in dirty tricks campaigns, producing false discussions and astroturf movements”.
Part III. Agnotology, the rise of anti-intellectuals, and the neoliberal response to the financial crisis
Q4. In your last book, you argue that neoliberalism has bread a new sort of ‘anti-intellectual intellectual’ who denies their own intellectual status in order to manipulate market behaviour. These ‘anti-intellectual intellectuals’ are responsible for spreading agnotology – i.e. the production of public ignorance or confusion – in order to gain time and find new market solutions – e.g. campaigns of denial aimed at global warming, tobacco-cancer, bank-failure, etc. Is it fair to say, then, that neoliberalism is – at least in part – the production of public ignorance?
A4. [2.44 mins.]
“Neoliberalism is a doctrine about knowledge, and yet neoliberals are not embarrassed about creating ignorance. We have to understand that this is consistent with their theory. They don’t think that people know very much anyway, and they also believe in the market place of ideas, so they believe that it is perfectly legitimate to hire intellectuals to spin nonsense to confuse people. If is a market phenomenon, the market will then purge itself”.
Q5. What about the interesting relationship between think tanks and academia? Think tanks somehow depend on academic authority. They need the reputation of knowledge from academia, on the one hand, and they also need attention from the media and political parties, as Thomas Medvetz argues.
A5. [1.30 mins.]
“Under neoliberal pressure the university has been totally transformed. There was a time when people might have wanted some sort of university legitimacy, but that is becoming less and less important since universities are becoming more like think tanks, places for hiring intellectuals. The university doesn’t produce experts today; it produces research programmes for those who want to pay for it, which is exactly what neoliberals want”.
Q6. The triumph of anti-intellectual intellectuals, as you suggest, somehow implies the failure of public intellectuals, or the triumph of new technologies of persuasion – PR, Marketing, Surveys – over knowledge. What, in your view, is the difference between the type of intellectuals that originally belonged to the Mont Pèlerin society and neoliberal intellectuals (e.g. activists, lobbyist, professionals) today?
A6. [2.24 mins.]
“The neoliberals don’t believe anymore in the small state and all of that: they believe in a strong state”.
Q6.b In the aftermath of the financial crisis many predicted the demise of neoliberalism or at least the end of unfettered financial capitalism. Five years after the crisis, however, with the world still trapped in programmes of economic austerity, the neoliberal thought collective doesn’t seem to be very affected. Indeed, it seems more resilient than ever. In your last book you mention three ways in which neoliberals respond to crises: denialism, construction of new markets, and setting entrepreneurs to the rescue. Was this neoliberal formula applied to the 2008 events, in your view?
A6.b [5.32 mins.]
Part IV. Hayek, markets and performativity
Q7. In recent lectures, you have suggested that neoliberalism is not exactly neo-classical but Hayekian. In Hayek’s world, the scale of economics is not choice and utility-maximizing individuals but rather markets, where markets would be distributed knowledge producing mechanisms that do perform better than bureaucracies, not because they are efficient, but because theyinnovate, disrupt, and change all the time. This is puzzling as it places us – social scientists – in a funny position. Traditionally: economic sociologists and anthropologists would stay at the neo-classical level (questioning for instance: the idea of isolated maximizing individuals) but now the discussion seems to be moving to the nature of the market itself. What implications does this have for social scientists who study markets?
A7. [7.53 mins.]
Q8. Your co-authored chapter in the book Do Economists make markets? mounts a harsh criticism of the performativity program that has dominated recent economic sociology and finance studies. This criticism will be salient to readers of this blog, many of whom are interested in using performativity to study the role of economic knowledge in current economies and societies. Six years after Do Economists make markets? and 15 years after Callon’s The Laws of the Markets, could you tell us what you still find problematic in the performativity approach to economic knowledge and what, if anything, you would salvage from it?
A8. [5.50 mins.]
“The effect of the performativity idea on that literature is to have sociologists repeating and recapitulating economists own stories and never challenging their accounts. They never compare what they say they do with what they really do”.
“The uncritical approach of my colleagues in the social studies of finance is partly explained by the fact that they are located in business schools”.
Part V. Capitalism, democracy and facebook
Q9. One of the greatest agnotological achievements of neoliberalism has been reducing neoliberalism to an economic theory that says only free markets can improve the efficiency of society. You mention three neoliberal commandments. 1.) Good markets must be constructed; they won’t happen naturally. 2) The primary neoliberal objective is to redefine the state, not to foster its destruction. 3) The problems generated by market solutions can only ever be solved by new, apparently improved market solutions. These 3 commandments suggest that neoliberalism and democracy are not fully compatible. Is there any way of reconciling both projects, in your view? What sort of future do you envision for democracy and capitalism?
A9. [4.07 mins.]
Q10. As an historian of economic thought, you have emphasised the impact of ideas and knowledge in human affairs. My question is related to society: how do you integrate in your historical frame the social responses to ideas, e.g. the impact of social movements on ideas, both in legitimating and contesting them. I’m thinking here for instance about the cases of Chile and Argentina. One could argue that neoliberal ideas penetrated differently in these countries for many institutional, political and intellectual reasons, but in Argentina it didn’t work especially well because neoliberalism was somehow incompatible with Peronism; it was incapable of disarming the social tissue. How do you understand the link between society and economic ideas, and the reactions to those ideas?
A10. [6.39 mins.]
“Facebook teaches you how to be a neoliberal agent. You learn to be an entrepreneur of yourself”.