Yes but how to pneumatically bolt pistol the skulls of a recalcitrant American populace so that the free market can proceed with its requisite bloodletting?
That being a slightly more figurative version of the question—forever worried over by neoliberals as they try to engineer a fully market-oriented society—that Philip Mirowski attempts to answer in his article, “Neoliberalism: The Movement That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” which appears in the spring 2018 volume of the quarterly journal American Affairs.
As Mirowski shows, there’s been a constant tension between what he terms the “Neoliberal Thought Collective’s” belief in the market as an “information processor more powerful and more efficacious than any human being was or could ever be” and the public’s natural and basic resistance to the highly unpalatable idea that, in a society wholly ordered as such, humans are fundamentally classifiable as mere subjects in a defined and well-managed process. So they’re told.
Or rather, not told. Because that is the whole point. The very illiberalness at the core of the neoliberal project—its recasting of ‘freedom’ to mean, as Mirowski notes, “the freedom to acquiesce to the imperatives of the market”—forecloses on any real discussion of its true aims to the masses it means to atomize and sort into useful instruments of various market economies. Its actual agenda is one that must be constantly sublimated and abstracted out of the public consciousness: “The elusiveness of neoliberalism,” Mirowski writes, “ultimately stems from denials that neoliberals themselves have made about their efforts.”
In a lot of ways, reading Mirowski’s essay calls to mind The Maury Povich Show. In particular, the show’s singularly degenerative contribution to U.S. popular culture: the paternity reveal.
Even casual viewers of Maury will recall—I’m sure—the segment’s unmistakable production aesthetic: the frenetically spliced footage of the Possibly Father, shot from about five or six slightly different angles, standing by himself in the pitch black backstage area, next to a lone ladder or a bunch of set boxes. Maybe he’s outside of the studio leaning against a wall, ice-grilling the camera that zooms woozily in and out on his face. Unfailingly there is the delivery of his impassioned and often angerlaced monologue of his absolutely non-filial relation to the child.
In the Mirowski essay, the neoliberal emerges as a similar Maury-esque figure, one preoccupied with repudiating in name what they’ve doubtless helped conceive. As Mirowski writes, “While we can fairly well identify the roster of who should be acknowledged as a part of the [neoliberal] movement…we are confronted with the fact that, in public, they themselves roundly deny the existence of any such well-defined thought collective, and stridently resist the label of neoliberalism.”
The label of neoliberalism here being like the dribbling toddler, gnawing on a nubby teething ring in the studio’s green room and looking blankly and sort of sad-eyed into the camera that feeds the video out onto the TV monitor on the stage over Maury’s left shoulder. See Cory Booker backstage with his arms folded across his chest, fervently wagging his head as the control room rolls a montage of the toddler throwing tantrums in a Bain Capital onesie. A dramatic celluloid burn effect to a stankfaced Kamala Harris, backlit underneath a tall studio light, reacting in total disavowal to a side-by-side comparison shot of her next to one of the toddler, its arms outstretched, gleefully receiving a new toy from Steve Mnuchin. Joe Biden, filmed close-up in slow shutter speed, brooding through a chainlink fence, glowering into the camera. Biden in total disbelief as Maury unseals the manila folder containing his role call votes in the U.S. senate.
But while the pack of leading 2020 Democratic hopefuls certainly offers a useful set of examples regarding the habit of neoliberalism’s most abiding practitioners to deny its existence, Mirowski stresses how this disconnect between doctrine and identity is anything but a recent development. It must be understood, rather, as a permanent feature of the “Neoliberal Thought Collective,” one which has been evident since the movement’s ideological inception, which he locates over half a century ago at the Mont Pèlerin Society’s inaugural convention in Switzerland in 1947. Moreover, Mirowski’s primary aim is to show how, despite the apparent referentlessness of the concept, its seeming non-status, something very recognizably like neoliberalism has become deeply entrenched in daily American political and cultural life. A predominance which—given the predictably hard sell of its antidemocratic and coercive, dehumanizing logic—is all the more slick and impressive.
What accounts for this sleight, for Mirowski, is the Thought Collective’s prescribed nostrum to sequester personas; the private, which would in effect always be working to tinker policy so that the interests of business are not overtly threatened and can ultimately be made to advance apace, and the public, a persona with endless feel-good bromides to buoy the spirits of the masses while their material conditions worsen, encourage complacency, and distract from the structural task at hand. To highlight the point, Mirowski quotes from a 1973 private correspondence between Milton Friedman—a ‘classical liberal’ and free market acolyte—and conservative Pat Buchanan: “We are talking at cross-purposes,” Friedman writes, “because of what I regard as the important necessity of keeping clearly separate the long-run ideal goal and the tactical steps that may be appropriate in moving toward it.” Forty-three years later, during the 2016 presidential campaign, that macro-strategy’s exigency to the neoliberal project is still just as evident. Described in extremely Friedman-esque terms by Hillary Clinton in a famously leaked speech to top banking executives, she explained the neoliberal position: “If everybody’s watching, you know, all of the backroom discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So you need both a public and a private position…You just have to sort of figure out how to—getting back to that word, ‘balance’— how to balance the public and the private efforts that are necessary to be successful, politically.”
The implication is obvious enough: the more politicized a society, the greater the threat to the operation of laissez-faire liberalism. Paraphrasing Will Davies, Mirowski provides a concise description of how—maybe to the surprise of many Leftists—neoliberalism avoids the disruptive forces of the former: “[Neoliberalism] depend[s] upon a strong state to pursue the disenchantment of politics by means of economics.” The suggestion here of a muscular state actually abetting neoliberal doctrine and policy should raise some eyebrows, since a climate of unfettered free enterprise (it is basically accepted prima facie) generally entails a bloodless state that is institutionally incapable of intervening in today’s financialized economy.
However, it is precisely this discrete mobilization and repurposing of the state—that while carried out in concert the co-project of inuring the general public to the idea of its inefficacy—which Mirowski argues conforms exactly to the duplicitous nature of the Neoliberal Thought Collective. For Mirowski, the ability to replace public schools with vouchers, fill the prisons with inmates, conduct surveillance on citizens, arrange investor-state dispute settlement schemes in international trade agreements, bail out the banks, and pass Citizens United, all attest to—and require—”an extremely strong state.”
Mirowski’s claim is provocative and compelling, and he’s not the only one making it. Citing many of the same examples (policing the working class, bailing out large firms, and opening up overseas markets through military action), William Mitchel and Thomas Fazi also argue in their article, Make The Left Great Again, that neoliberal economic policy “require[s] the presence of a strong state.” It seems, though, somewhat questionable—at least strategically—for the Left to talk about the state today in these terms: weak/strong. These are, after all, pretty ideologically loaded descriptors, and for any Leftist to offer an account of the contemporary state as ‘extremely strong,’ without appending a serious qualification to that portrayal, seems very disingenuous.
Far worse, described as such, it seems readymade for the Right—a group that wants nothing more than to shrink government—to exploit in their argumentation. If in a capitalist society a strong state that can genuinely defend the public’s interest against free enterprise’s endless glut-drive, but is being framed as actually enabling it, then it’s unclear how that distortion furthers anyone’s agenda except the libertarians who actually do want to remove government from the lives of U.S. citizens.
Provided the decisive and outsized role that private equity plays in all of the aforementioned examples of the ‘strong’ state (from private firms running charter schools to privatized arbitration under ISDS in international trade agreements), then perhaps the more apt descriptor of the contemporary state is—quite simply—”bought.” And if a way forward out of neoliberalism in part involves a repoliticization of the public in order to properly recognize—and popularly contest—the current misuse of the state’s regulatory apparatuses, it would seem a considerably more galvanizing indictment of the system that its leaders have simply commodified and sold off the state at the expense of the working class, rather than argue that they have discretely made it ‘stronger.’