Is neoliberalism Weberian? An interview with Nicholas Gane

9780230242036Like a sociological detective of ideas, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick Nicholas Gane (2012, 2014 a, b) has been following the traces of social scientific thought in neoliberalism. The initial clue was given by Michel Foucault who in his Birth of Biopolitics argued that Max Weber’s work not only influenced critical theorists such as Adorno and Horkheimer but also one of the main branches within neoliberal thinking, German ordoliberalism. While Gane’s research ended up finding Foucault’s Weber-Ordoliberals connections rather thin, the investigation took him to an even more worrying result, namely, Weber’s influence on the work of Ludwig von Mises and his followers in Vienna, including the über neoliberal Friedrich Hayek. In this interview carried out at Warwick early June, Gane talks about his recent inquiry and its consequences.

Q1. Let’s me start with a contextual question. I can imagine that your recent articles are part of a book project. Could you tell us about the context and aim of this project?

A1. [9.41 mins.] 

Q2. As someone trained as a sociologist, I find some of your findings somehow scary. It is as if by following the traces behind neoliberalism you end up finding a mirror reflecting yourself. Neoliberalism is not only an intellectual monster made by crazy economists, but can also be seen, although indirectly, as the outcome of the work of one of the most influential and respected sociologists, Max Weber. But perhaps I am exaggerating. How important would you say is Weber’s influence on neoliberal thought? Or, to say it differently, how Weberian is neoliberalism?

A2. [5.59 mins.]  

Q3. Mises and his followers were not only busy thinking of a new kind of economics but an integrated social science, or what Mises called praxeology. I find it interesting that this kind of intellectual project is not that far from what Talcott Parsons tried his in Structure of Social Action from 1937. It is as if the consolidation of that strong disciplinary division that characterized the social sciences post World War II was preceded by a moment of ambitious attempts to develop a synthetic discipline. What can we learn from this integrating moment?

A3. [6.57 mins.]  

Q4.a Both Mises and Parsons were using Weber to make an integrated social science that started from a strong notion of the social actor. But, as you just said, Mises’s argument with Weber is that Mises’s actor is always an ‘economizing’ agent…

A4a. [0.59 mins.]  

Q4b. But then Hayek made some changes. In his later work, Hayek moved towards a position that departs from Mises’s. In Hayek’s approach, innovation and creativity, more than from human rationality and choice, come from the market itself. And the market, as P. Mirowksi has explained, started to be understood as a distributed knowledge producing mechanism that cannot be beaten by any human mind or organized planning. Have you found any sociological traces in Hayek’s conception of the market? And, if not, where does this distributed view of the market come from?

A4b. [6.08 mins.]  

Q4c.Would you say therefore that this movement, from a conception based on a very strong notion of individual rationality to a market as a distributed mechanism, is Hayek’s own addition?

A4c. [2..03 mins.] 

Q5. You have just mentioned another very interesting character, Alfred Schütz. As you’ve pointed out, Schütz was an active member of Mises’s group in Vienna and also participated in the first Mont Pelerin meeting. This, I believe is also quite puzzling. As is well known, Schütz’s work became a core step in the huge influence of phenomenology in social theory in the second half of the XX century. But, he is normally known as a scholar who tried to integrate Weber and Husserl, but not as a combination of Weber, Husserl and Mises or more generally as a member of the Austrian School. How much Austrian thinking can you find in Schütz’s sociology? And, would you say that -via Schütz- the Austrian School was not only influenced by sociology but it has also influenced sociology? I am thinking for instance of the work of people like Giddens, Garfinkel or Habermas…

A5. [4.23 mins.]  

Q6. This is a peculiar moment to be a social theorist. Today, it is not enough anymore to spend time reading those theorists that inspire you, but it is also necessary to closely study controversial figures that have shaped the contemporary neo-liberal world, such as Hayek or Mises. Foucault surely paved the way by seriously engaging with the work of people like Gary Becker or Theodor Schultz, which continues today by (just to mention those previously interviewed in this blog) the work of people like P. Mirowski, T. Mitchell and G. Eyal. But, I suppose, there are different ways of approaching these controversial figures. For instance, Mirowski is not only critical of Hayek’s theories but also pays a great deal of attention to the political strategies behind the Mont Pelerin Society. Others, inspired by recent developments in STS, such as Eyal and Mitchell, prefer following the flows of ideas and policies rather than a direct confrontation. What would your approach or method be? How do you engage with the neoliberal theorists you are studying?

A6. [5.00 mins.] 

 

Interview by José Ossandón

References

Gane, N. (2014a) ‘Sociology and Neoliberalism: A Missing History’, ​Sociology​, online first.

Gane, N. (2014b) ‘The Emergence of Neoliberalism: Thinking Through and Beyond Michel Foucault’s Lectures on Biopolitics’, Theory, Culture and Society, 31 (4): 3-27.

Gane, N. (2012a) ‘The Governmentalities of Neoliberalism: Panopticism, Post-Panopticism and Beyond’, Sociological Review, 60 (4): 611-34.

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