Review – Mirowski and Plehwe, eds. “The Road from Mont Pelerin”

Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, eds. “The Road From Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective” (2015) – I was into talking about neoliberalism before it was cool/overused! I remember going around campus with my copy of Harvey’s “A Brief History of Neoliberalism,” with its severe black and red cover, and a wide-eyed Marlboro girl looking at me asking, “are you, like, really conservative??” That would’ve been circa 2006, so don’t at me with this defensive shit about using trendy buzzwords.

If I remember right, Mirowski has some kind of arcane beef with David Harvey over the definition of neoliberalism, something to do with Harvey’s overreliance on figures like Friedman and Hayek, the kind of thing intellectual historians use to trip up their more materialist rivals. Either way, except in the finicky academic sense, the essays in this book more or less fit into and expand the paradigm Harvey and others have laid out for what neoliberalism is: efforts to use state power to instantiate market models of governance broadly in society. If it’s overused, well, that’s because neoliberalism the concept has been overused, all over the place. Don’t hate the player (or in this case… sportswriter?), hate the game, etc.

As edited collections go, the essays here vary in quality. A lot of them do a “social history of ideas” thing, which I am generally in favor of but which often comes off a little boring- this scholar knew that scholar who knew this funder, etc. It gets more interesting when it gets into changes in ideas- to me, the most interesting is how the original “classical liberals” were often in favor of using government power to break up monopolies, including some of the early Mont Pelerin Society (the ur-think tank that launched neoliberalism as a conscious project) folks. Watching Hayek, Aaron Director, and other more politicized neoliberals work their way around that — purely coincidentally as they were getting more and more funding from angry right-wing American plutocrats — is certainly worth observing. The social history of ideas method works best when it’s paired to an understanding of power, and the history of neoliberalism, which is more a theory of governance than anything, stands to benefit from it substantially.

I’m not great at reviewing edited collections because they kind of break up my concentration. So I’ll just relate what it made me think about the history of liberalism more broadly. It’s my belief that there is a set of parameters that unifies liberalism across the modern period. I don’t think those things are an emphasis on liberty and individualism, etc. I think what defines liberalism is its relationship to the cycles of revolution and counterrevolution that characterize modern history- liberalism seeks means to establish a harmonic system that channels the energies of revolution and reaction into support for the system itself. This is why the concept of liberal-conservativism (figures like Tocqueville) make sense- I see “conservative” as most useful a term to describe the same relationship liberalism has with the revolution dynamic, but leaning towards the reactionary end. So “classical liberalism” and progressivism and Keynesian liberalism and neoliberalism and “social liberalism” all deserve to be called liberalism, despite their differences, and none is a more legitimate claimant to the title than the others. All of them attempt to negotiate the strains of modernity — of Arno Mayer’s “Furies” — in a way that avoids a decision in favor of either revolution or counterrevolution (though they are often forced by circumstances to weigh in favor of one or the other, generally the latter) through directing their energies into some sort of system that is supposed to be balanced… anyway, that’s Peter’s Unified Theory of Liberalism, for whatever it’s worth. Feel free to ask questions/tell me someone already came up with this/poke holes! It’s not as though people haven’t! ****

Review – Mirowski and Plehwe, eds. “The Road from Mont Pelerin”

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