“We can’t be content with running alternative coffee shops while leaving the global financial system to our opponents”

I recently attended a two-day conference on neoliberalism, partly organised by my friend and intellectual collaborator, Nick Gane, from York’s sociology department. Nick’s been working on neoliberalism for the past couple of years and my own research into British social science during the early twentieth century now takes in the early entanglement between the two. The conference featured a number of really fascinating talks and panels, in particular the keynote address from Jamie Peck, Will Davies‘ talk on the return of the “social” in neoliberal thought, and the panel on neoliberalism and higher education. Neoliberalism raises most academics’ temperature  and, as a consequence, the conference was an often thought-provoking event. It certainly led me to reflect on neoliberalism and not all of those thoughts are ones that might be considered positive or fitting entirely with the leftist narrative on neoliberalism.


The first thing that seemed obvious to me from the conference was this: it’s quite obvious why the neoliberals have won and are continuing to win. The conference was pretty big for a single focused event: there were around 150 people there and it was genuinely interdisciplinary, with people from geography, history, sociology, social policy, and English departments, to name just a few. My thoughts are therefore a slightly impressionistic reflection on the academy as a whole, rather than something aimed at any one field. But that is in itself important. As recent a number of recent books by people like Daniel Stedman JonesAngus Burgin, and Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe have shown, neoliberalism is something that goes back much further than 1979. That’s important because it’s a crucial part of understanding how neoliberalism has been so successful. By 1979 neoliberalism was a fully-formed project that had been put together by people like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman in places like the Mont Pelerin Society over the course of almost 30 years (though the ideas date back further than that). The project has taken people on the left by surprise, and left them in shock, since then because they’ve often seen as it as new and emerging thing rather than something that developed out of their sight and was fully matured and ready to go when its leading lights saw their moment in the late 70s and early 80s.


The fact lefties and other opponents of neoliberalism didn’t see it coming is also important. Why? To cut a long story short, and with some key exceptions, like Chicago economics, Hayek and others developed neoliberalism outside the academy. They largely gave up on universities because they saw them as a lefty, planning lost cause that had captured the attentions of government. Instead, the neoliberals set up their own organisations — particularly think tanks with quite bland names — that developed their quietly developed their programme. The neoliberals worked at promoting that programme to people who might be in a position to one day put it into practice and it established a whole network that eventually got to shape the world as we know it now.


The important thing about that process is that Hayek and co were learning a lesson from their opponents. The people we now call neoliberals effectively lost the original argument, which was about what to do in response to the Great Depression. Keynes and his allies won that but, long term, the neoliberals won out. They won because the neoliberals believed they had lost in the 1930s because key figures in government had been captured by university intellectuals, who, as a mass, had been converted to planning and socialism. Hayek and co didn’t think they could break but they thought there was a lesson to be learned: if the problem is that the people pulling the levers of power are enchanted by a group pushing a particular ideology, the answer was to think long-term and get that group to fall in love with them instead.


I was thinking about this throughout the conference at York for all kinds of reasons. But one reason stuck out: the complete failure of most of those present to understand the nature of the problem that confronts them and the kinds of solutions that are required to break the hold neoliberalism has on the political classes. That criticism has a number of aspects. One is that I don’t think most academic critics of neoliberalism appreciate neoliberalism’s long historical gestation or understand how it got to be so dominant. Another, however, is that the kinds of things they talk about as alternatives to neoliberalism are, quite frankly, a joke. One thing that kept on coming up was “Occupy”. I’m no fan of Occupy, not because I don’t think resistance (whatever that might actually mean) to neoliberalism is a bad thing but because I have no idea what alternative it’s offering. Occupy fans talk a good game: it’s all about self-organising, etc but that doesn’t offer an alternative vision of the world that is (a) sufficiently different from the language around neoliberalism and (b) a programme that is actually going to make things happen. The academics buying into Occupy and everything round it are largely promoting a hazy, ill-defined, right-on bundle of ideas that are a form of libertarianism combined with the bits of lit-crit cultural theory relativism that people call socialism but aren’t really, in that it’s identity politics.


The fact of the matter is that lots of academics feel helpless and powerless in the face of neoliberalism because they are helpless and powerless. Neoliberals have cut them out of the loop and most of them are left flailing, blabbering on about “subjectivity”, as if somehow that’s going to change anything. This point was hit right on the head by Jamie Peck when he argued that part of the problem was that opponents of neoliberalism had surrendered the areas where power is actually exercised in favour of places where naval gazing can take place without anyone else looking. As he put it, “we can’t content ourselves with running alternative coffee shops, while leaving the global financial system to our opponents.” I agree completely with that sentiment. What’s needed is a genuine alternative programme that articulates how power will be used to achieve particular aims in definite areas. I have ideas about this. In particular, I think it’s well worth going back to the groups Hayek thought he was learning lessons from because they seem to provide a working model of how to do business. In fact, I’m of the opinion that those groups actually have mountains of ideas that the left and academia more generally would do well to look at again (spoiler alert: I’m working on a book proposal to this effect at the moment…). In short, though, what opponents of neoliberalism need to do is learn a lesson they probably haven’t thought they need to learn from a group they think of as free-market anti-state ideologues: have a definite set of goals, engage with powerful people, think long-term (that is, have a plan that’s ready to go when the moment is right), and get properly organised.


[nb: this was written in one sitting and hasn’t been proof read — that’s my excuse anyway…]


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