Democracy Against Capitalism: Introduction to New Series

My original plan was to do a series on Wolfgang Streeck’s book, How Will Capitalism End?, but it’s really distressing, so I took a break and read a couple of novels, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers about the 70s art scene in New York and the Red Brigades in Italy, and then Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives, both of which were engaging and the second was funny, at least to me. It ran out suddenly, as books will do when read on an e-reader, and I didn’t want to go back to Streeck so I took a look at some books I had acquired but not read. That’s how I stumbled into Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism by Ellen Meiksins Wood.

Usually I seek out books because they seem to fall into place in my neoliberalism project. Not this one. A couple of years ago my sister told me that Verso was having a sale on ebooks, all you want for a pound each. So I browsed the catalog and picked out several, including a volume of works by Rosa Luxemburg, and based solely on the title, picked up Wood’s book. When I started it, I had no idea what it was about, or who Wood was. It turns out she’s a major Marxist scholar with wide interests in history and economics. Here’s an appreciation by Vivek Chibber published in Jacobin at Wood’s death in 2016 at the age of 74. This article discusses her main ideas, many of which are addressed in this book.

I’ve read several pieces lately on the question of the compatibility of capitalism and democracy. This one by Eric Levitz is a level-headed view of the main lines of lefty worries, and will help inform the discussion I hope to generate. This one from the Economist is conservative but also worried. As I have said several times during this project, the left has no real theory for criticizing capitalism. That means left-liberal focus has been on criticizing the forms of our democracy. That’s certainly a reasonable program, but it’s limited. A better idea is to allow a formal criticism of capitalism, especially neoliberal capitalism. Critique of capitalism has been the main contribution of Marxism from the beginning.

The 200th anniversary of Marx’ death was May 5, and it brought out the crazy. I won’t cite any more of that than appears in this post, but for fun just search for Karl Marx Birthday, and take your pick. People talk about believing in Marx like it was a religion. We don’t talk about believing in Kant, though, or Camus. We don’t believe or disbelieve in philosophers, we read them and argue with them, and use them to form ideas about our lives and our society. We can and should do the same with Marx. As we go through this book, I’ll point out some of his ideas we can find in Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Veblen’s The Theory of Business Enterprise, Foucault, and the books I’ve discussed on Bourdieu and Critical Theory, as well as economic texts and papers.

Wood starts from the proposition that criticizing capitalism went out of intellectual fashion in the second half of the 20th Century. This alone should make it obvious why I like this book. Regular readers will recall my recurring use of the term Capitalist Celebration which I got from C. Wright Mills to describe the same idea.

‘Post-Marxism’ has given way to the cult of postmodernism, with its principles of contingency, fragmentation and heterogeneity, its hostility to any notion of totality, system, structure, process and ‘grand narratives’. [From the Introduction. I’m reading on a Kindle and don’t have page cites; Kindle location 89.]

Here’s how Wood describes her project for this book:

… I propose to start from the premise that the critique of capitalism is urgently needed, that historical materialism still provides the best foundation on which to construct it, and that the critical element in Marxism lies above all in its insistence on the historical specificity of capitalism – with the emphasis on both the specificity of its systemic logic and on its historicity. In other words, historical materialism approaches capitalism in a way exactly antithetical to the current fashions: the systemic unity of capitalism instead of just post-modern fragments, but also historicity – and hence the possibility of supersession – instead of capitalist inevitability and the end of History [Kindle location 111.]

We saw this historical approach in both Arendt and in Polanyi. Foucault takes a historical approach as well, visible in several books including Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, and apparently in Security, Territory and Population, though I didn’t get to finish that book. I can’t say what Wood thinks, but I’d guess she isn’t a fan of Foucault or Derrida. I’ll try to figure that out as we go along.

I’m certainly glad I stumbled into this book at this time. It fits my project of trying to understand the origins of neoliberalism and it’s current domination of economic discourse, and I hope it will serve as an entry point for understanding current Marxist thought as well.

37 replies
  1. seedeevee says:

    The rise of unquestioned capitalism in the West has been in tandem with the deaths of religion and the usual concept of usury being bad for society. If it wasn’t for the replacement religion of National Security in the US we would have had a better chance at destroying the neo-liberals long ago.

    • bmaz says:

      Your entire comment is vague horse manure. Stop trolling this blog. And let nobody respond to your blarney.

      • Trip says:

        JFC, religion has been used as a tool for tyranny and authoritarianism for centuries (is being used now for same), where there are the worthy and unworthy. And someone arguing that usury is great should be happy with the current concept of overwhelming debt crushing the lower classes.

        Trump supporters border on a collective class of tremendously mentally ill in delusion. Correction, perhaps they have crossed that border.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          More wars have been fought over religion than any other reason.  Even more, if you consider the extreme American version of capitalism as a religion.

          To your historical point, medieval bishops were tax collectors and counselors to kings and popes.  Their view of the needs of their flock was philosophical and practical.

          Philosophically, the needs of the flock would be met, but only in another world. Practically, they shared the herdsman’s need to protect his flock and to maximize his harvest of wool and meat.  The needs of the flock in this world were irrelevant. Indeed, pursuing them would be heretical.  That is capitalism’s perspective as well.

          Capitalism American style is largely unregulated.  Its aspiration is to remain unbridled and allowed to run free over any field or garden, over any villager or gardener who would interrupt its run.

          Its aim is to extract the most resources at the least cost over the shortest time, and to insist that all of society should adopt and subsidize those aims, regardless of the damage that causes, none of which it should be held liable for.  In its unregulated form, it is fast killing the host that enables its existence.

          • Trip says:

            There is a new component today, I would argue. And it is that those at the top seem to harbor sadistic pleasure in harm. Those types have always existed. But they seem to encompass a larger number of those in power today. Greed, rewards and ever more potent power and control is not enough, there’s an element of joy in the damage, rather than it being a mere consequence of the other drivers.

            • earlofhuntingdon says:

              I think that’s true.  The prime example in the US today is Trump.  But he is an expression of a movement.

              Earlier examples include Enron, of course.  More recent ones are drugs company executives, who increased prices on already profitable drugs ten and a hundred times – because they could.  A direct instance of greed leading to death and sickness.

          • Trip says:

            I meant to post this earlier, the great Jimmy Cliff:

            Well, they tell me of a pie up in the sky

            Waiting for me when I die

            But between the day you’re born and when you die

            They never seem to hear even your cry

            So as sure as the sun will shine

            I’m gonna get my share now, what’s mine

            And then the harder they come

            The harder they fall, one and all

            Ooh, the harder they come

            The harder they fall, one and all


  2. Webstir says:

    Hi Ed,

    First time commenting on your posts, but I certainly read and enjoy them. To tell the truth, you and JM Greer are philosophical bright spots in my day when you post. I’m posting simply to point out a recent article I came across that opened  my eyes to that amorphous word neoliberal, here:

    As you state in your bio: The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

    As does the book review I linked to. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it.

    Haven’t read the book yet but it’s on my short list.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Thanks for that link. The book looks interesting. The reviewer says it traces neoliberalism back further than Mirowski does in Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste. The discussion of the EU as a neoliberal project is excellent. Let us know what you think of the book.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Geographer David Harvey, Cambridge sociologist Goran Therborn, anthropologist David Graeber, and, famously, Naomi Klein delve into neoliberalism’s history.  A thorough treatment that rivals Mirowski’s is Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands.

        I’m looking forward to reading Slobodian’s book and his collaboration with Mirowski and Plehwe, not to mention the next installment in your series.  Thanks, Ed.

  3. Desider says:

    In the hopes of reining you in to the justifiable,
    1) yes, Marxism unlike Camus & Kant became a religion of billions over 65 years, including China & the Soviet Union, of course, along with a major philosophical/”religious”/military influence in SE Asia & Latin America, arguably peaking & culminating in the Killing Fields of Cambodia, but clinging on as it lost steam over the subsequent 2 decades (with hangovers persisting in the 25 years since – even today, you’ve got Kim Jong Un & Nicolas Maduro using Marxism to promote their little bastions of people’s tyranny). Marx’s fault? partially.

    2) frequently through history, societies embrace certain ideas & movements as eternal truths, only to see them shattered. In 1910 we thought we’d largely ended European wars. In the 1870s, we thought we could simply look closer via microscope or telescope to solve all problems. In the post-Wall period we thought we’d tamed military threats, only to find microsized terrorism and cyberwar consuming much of our democracy & peacetime bonus.

    3) nevertheless, since the meltdown in 2007 and the global winners-v-losers disgruntlement exposed by Brexit 2 years ago, the “inevitability of capitalism” has been thoroughly doused, though in the throwing-baby-out-with-bathwater fashion, many intelligent, thinking people ignore that capitalism indeed has pulled billions out of poverty – ironically or not, often far from the most successful countries, as a little bit of trickled down wealth makes a much bigger difference to the superpoor in the 3rd world than it does to those scrimping by in a wealthy community.

    4) while there’s always been vulture capitalism (which sometimes is both bug & feature), I see our current problems as akin to global warming – economic excesses abhorred or unnoticed at a local or national level level become intolerable and disastrous as hits global scale – there’s suddenly no release valve. Take monopoly theory, which used to hold that monopolies are undesirable, but now effective monopolies like Amazon’s or Uber’s or Facebook’s are both *super* undesirable and the *most attractive* type of business model. The triumvirate of Amazon/Soros/Citibank proposing to step in and fix health care is beyond Elon Musk’s chutzpah with SpaceX or Hyperloop – and both awesome and scary as hell as they rather convincingly offer to fix government’s relative incompetence and our political system’s drawn-out knife fight, but one that supposes a very unacceptable intrusion of private corporations into private citizens’ privacy. Efficiencies of scale meet massive factory surveillance & control. Indeed, Cambridge Analytica makes “Don’t Be Evil” ring hollow – our massive tech companies are just our less dastardly looking robber barons. But dial services back to pre-cloud/pre-iPhone days of 10 years ago, and the public will scream bloody murder.

    So the “inevitability” of capitalism simply means it’s not leaving home anytime soon, but it’s a bit of Frankenstein and Einstein both. Jesus indeed has returned, and he’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder – how do we limit him to his best behavior before he burns down the house or invites his drug-running buddies to move into the basement? And how this ties in with neoliberalism – well, that’s your side of the street – I just object to how it’s often wielded as a dangerous, fickle and unrigorously defined weapon.

      • Desider says:

        What do you mean “us”? It was directed at Ed, with whom I thought it’s okay to disagree* with vis-a-vis his long dissertations on neoliberalism as long as I don’t fill my comments with “vague horse manure”. But then maybe that’s how you picture what I wrote.

        *and so as not to be an ass, I usually raise whatever points max once in a series, if at all. Anyway, plenty of places I can post without being scolded by the refs.

    • Avattoir says:

      Yeah well AFAIC there’s actually not much to choose between the message in the comment by the more overt troll that bmaz shot at above, and the more unleavened way you’ve put it here.

      The name/word “Marx” has been invoked by a lot of countries that either aimed at or turned out to be dictatorships, oligarchies and fragile populist democracies. Certainly it’s been invoked routinely over the history of NK over my entire adult life, and in Venezuela since well before the late Chavez first came to power.

      But even just those 2 examples show what is IMO the basic error involved in equating invocations of Marx with actual or mythological founders of major world religions. The way Marx is used in NK is different from how it was used in the USSR (Indeed, it meant various different things in the USSR from one regime to the next, even within particular regimes: its use was continually in transformation under Stalin, as he clearly believed it had to be, given his views of what was necessary to enforce & retrench his power.), since over the 3 generations of Kim it’s increasingly been subjugated to the Kims’ personality cult (that is, over time increasingly difficult to distinguish from its history under Stalin in the USSR.). It’s got quite a distinct history in South America more broadly and in particular with Chávez’ embrace of the NAME used in conjunction with the even more popular Bolivar, such that from early on Chávez in particular was able to work supposedly ‘Marx’-originating approaches into the domestic and regional economic policy vacuum left by Bolivar, producing some new thing as “the Bolivar Revolution” and “Bolivarism” (mixing the Bolivarian goal of native self-determination in an entirely foreign bowl containing ideas about currency, markets, debt, budgeting, foreign trade accounting, economics, financing and such, MOST of which was only CLAIMED to have come from Marx, while actually coming from ideas bandied about in the early days of the USSR few of which achieved even an audition.

      There is some very limited argument, I think, to the effect that Paul’s invention Christianity aimed at personal accountability, salvation and other such related rot (I don’t think much of that, especially given how readily that ever early Christianity became weaponized by the Roman Empire within but a few centuries of little education and primitive if any communication technologies, which history suggests it was if anything most effective for subversion.), which, if one chooses (wrongly, IMO) to erect Christian faith in contradiction with the ‘message of Marx’ (harder to maintain the deeper one goes). The problem is, it just doesn’t hold up, EXCEPT in the context of many many historical incidents of it being used to subvert pre-existing belief regimes.

      Marx, really, is Marx & Engels, and what those 2 came up with, very much in the context of the collapse of pre-Louis XV hereditary regimes based on supposed special status with a “One God” and prior to the massive rearrangement of European power from the great year of Revolution, 1849, to all the various ramshackle empires that were cobbled together only to be ripped up mostly to pieces in WWI, was something classically popular throughout the Enlightenment: trying to make sense of stuff thru taxonomy. They didn’t prescribe or proscribe: they took a shot at explaining. And it just so happened that they came along at just the moment when anti-hereditary political movements were on the rise.

      IMO the ‘real’ enemies of religion have  been the scientific method (which Marx-Engels analysis isn’t, despite that many tried to make it seem so), broad education of the general population, suffrage, and the great technological leaps over Industrial Revolution to between the 2 World Wars: electricity for light and heat, historically unmatched systems for effective distribution of potable water and for moving and treating sewage, the internal combustion engine being used in broadly available transport by train and on roadways, a much broader common understanding then ever before among people who grew and raised food about how to grow and raise and how to get their products to market, and factory based mass production of things.


      Crikey, even modern Marxian academics no longer accept anything left by Marx or Engels as ‘precepts’ for understanding economies, so thoroughly have their taxonomies been reworked.

      • Desider says:

        “The name/word “Marx” has been invoked by a lot of countries…” – to some extent valid, but Naipaul also noted this in “Among the Believers” about Islam, that any criticism of Islam in how practiced was knocked down as “this is an imperfect version of what Mohammed said”, so that unless the prophet himself came back, no critique could take place.

        I recall the Greens in Germany embracing Marxism rather heartily, and Che was of course a saint in the Church of Marx, even if Marx himself might not approve, and then there were various doctrinaire Communist systems invoking Marxism even as they differed among themselves quite a bit. And yes, I’d agree science and progress and other bigger factors have shrunk Christianity et al, not Marxism.

        And I don’t even question that some of Marx’s formulations might be valid & useful in dealing with the new types of corporate states (nor do I expect them to be 100%) – I just found starting off this series mocking people who noticed a religious type adherence to Marxism – not that Marx was creating his own Church of Scientology – and suggesting that capitalism was expanding unquestioned were both pretty dubious premises. If that’s “unleavened”, guilty.

  4. sophist75 says:

    You might want to check out Axel Honneth’s “The Idea of Socialism”, which is a sequel to his more detailed analysis of the idea of social freedom in “Freedom’s Right”.

  5. Alan says:

    We don’t believe or disbelieve in philosophers, we read them and argue with them, and use them to form ideas about our lives and our society. We can and should do the same with Marx.

    I agree. It’s a conversation. The only way you can understand 20th C. philosophers is to understand them in the context of the critical conversations they are having with their collegaues and earlier philosophers.

    But then you quote Wood:

    Post-Marxism’ has given way to the cult of postmodernism, with its principles of contingency, fragmentation and heterogeneity, its hostility to any notion of totality, system, structure, process and ‘grand narratives’….In other words, historical materialism approaches capitalism in a way exactly antithetical to the current fashions: the systemic unity of capitalism instead of just post-modern fragments, but also historicity – and hence the possibility of supersession – instead of capitalist inevitability and the end of History

    This strikes me as a very superficial dismissal (essentially name calling) of critiques of Marxist thinking by subsequent sociologists, historians and philosophers.  You suspect that she doesn’t like Foucault. No doubt although I could not find any direct references by her to his work. She appears to save her wrath for Weber in her book.

    Security, Territory and Population, though I didn’t get to finish that book.

    The lectures in this book and especially the following set of lectures, The Birth of Biopolitics, set out Foucault’s account of liberalism and neoliberalisms and it is in these texts that Foucault breaks most decisively and critically with Marxism.

    For discussion see: Foucault, Weber and Neoliberal Governmentality

    • Ed Walker says:

      I was struck by that myself. I found a glancing negative reference to Foucault and Derrida, but it wasn’t quite enough to cite. The idea that Foucault was ahistorical and fragmented is nonsense. It makes you wonder if she ever read past Althusser.

      As I get farther into the book, I see that she is mostly engaged with other Marxists, and I wonder if they live in a bubble inhabited only by themselves. I agree the critics have a lot to offer, starting with less cant and less barbarous language.

      I read one discussion of Marx near his birthday this year to the effect that his lasting contribution was his use of history to understand the changes from the past to the future. Wood’s book is designed to return Marxism to that focus, which sounds like a good idea.

      I’d like to read both the last two books by Foucault. I read Birth of Biopolitics several years ago; but it was the first time I read him and I don’t think I really understood a good bit of the book. Right now, I need ebooks because I can’t handle the tiny print in the paperbacks and that’s a problem.


      • Alan says:

        I should probably read STP and BB again. I found them both surprisingly easy to read but there’s a lot of complex ideas that are probably very easy to miss. I have found it very useful to read the original works along with some of the better secondary commentators and critics. I have found essays and interviews by Colin Gordon, Thomas Lemke, Terry Flew, amongst others very useful.

        There was a good Columbia University series of seminars dedicated to each of the volumes of Foucault’s published lectures that were blogged here Aside from the audio/video of the seminars themselves, which feature a stellar list of academics, there are good associated resources to each set of lectures. (Also check out their more recent series on Uprising: Modalities of Revolt.)

        Thomas Lemke has a good review of The Birth of Biopolitics here (opens PDF). A translation of Lemke’s book is forthcoming from Verso: A Critique of Political Reason: Foucault’s Analysis of Modern Governmentality. I haven’t read it yet (like you I used the Verso sale at the end of the year to download a bunch of ebooks cheaply but now have too many to read) but this is also supposed to be a good read on neoliberalism from a Foucauldian perspective: The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Perhaps one reason why American economics has so harshly dismissed economic history and the sociology of economics – Mirowski’s specialties – deriding them as suitable only for those who could not hack the math. As with the Catholic Church, history implies origins, how before led to after, and potentially different present day outcomes.

        Similar arguments were made for why much of the American academy dismissed sociology and geography.  For years, their study has been dismissed as touchy-feely and inadequately quantitative, suitable for study not by hoi poloi, but only by those at elite schools, where their parameters – and the choices they deem possible – could be more tightly controlled.

        • Alan says:

          Yes. It’s not that they don’t have a history of sorts. Open up any economics textbook and you’ll find a disciplinary origin myth. This myth involves lots of crap about Smith, Marx et al. that would have any serious intellectual historian rolling on the floor with laughter but they get away with it because their collegaues, students, journalists, politicians and–embarrasingly–many academics have no idea what political economists wrote and argued over because none of them read the original texts. They just take it on trust that also those Nobel prize-winning economists are bullshitters. (It seems entirely appropriate that the Nobel in economics is not a real.)

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I second webstir’s recommendation at 12.43 am of Mason’s, The Market Police, in the Boston Review.  Mason reviews Quinn Slobodian’s, Globalists: The End of Empire and Birth of Neoliberalism.  A short cv of his from Wellesley is hereCrooked Timber provides another review of Globalists here.

    Slobodian’s main point is that neoliberalism is inherently anti-democratic – and pro-wealth elite.  It wants to protect the wealth elite – technically, the anonymous economy – from democratic harm.

    The impetus for it originates, in part, in a reaction to the post-WWII drive toward social projects, such as the UK’s NHS, and the US’s earlier Social Security and later Medicare.  An earlier impetus was the reaction to three events that followed WWI: The chaos resulting from the war, the hiring by governments of large numbers of professionals and social scientists, and the replacement of aristocratic and monarchical elements in society by the wealth elite and executives of the corporations they controlled.

    Neoliberalism accomplished its goals through myth making and rule making.  Myth making through, for example, creating the perspective that the market is a “natural force” working to its own Darwinian-like unassailable rules.

    According to this myth, the economy cannot be improved, but can be harmed, by political intervention.  Government attempts to influence, restrain or hold accountable the largest economic actors are always and everywhere bad.  The catechism has been repeated so often as to seem true.

    Myth making is intended to remove the economy from direct political influence.  That leaves the wealth elite to set its own priorities, unfettered by government and the different priorities and costs, such as accountability for environmental damage, it might impose.

    Rule making is shorthand for creating international economic institutions that remove and protect the economy from two things:  The awareness that those extra-democratic institutions exist and that they limit national political choices, and any attempt by people, through government, to impose choices and costs those institutions oppose.

    Institutions include, for example, the EU, in certain respects, the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and the would be TPP.  Policy exclusions include Congress’s barring the government from negotiating drug prices with private sector actors in a period of rapid and damaging price escalation.

    The neoliberal thought collective or NTC, in Mirowski’s coinage, has been globally successful.  The issue is how long ti will last and what, if anything, will cause its demise.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Agreed. Wood makes similar points from a somewhat different starting place: the separation of politics from the economy.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      I think Slobodian says pretty much the same thing: the problem comes from the false separation of politics and economics. 

      Economics is inherently about political, not mathematical choices.  Politics is inherently about making economic choices among competing social concerns.  One’s philosophy drives one’s choices, as it often does in the law.  (See, today’s S.Ct. decision about Ohio’s voter suppression law.)  Choice is then explained afterwards, as if it were not a choice, but an inescapable conclusion divorced from politics, philosophy or the law.

      The American-imposed separation between politics and economics is one reason it was so disorientating to learn that the standard English phrase is not economics or economic science, but political economy.  For a hundred years, the most popular undergraduate degree at Oxford for aspiring politicians and intellectuals, barring the classics, was not the law, but PPE – politics, philosophy and economics.

      • Alan says:

        I agree. Smith, Marx, Ricardo, et al. are all part of a tradition of political economy in which economics isn’t separated from social institutions, social relationships, history, politics, and ethics. With the marginal revolution around 1870 we end up with all this richness being dropped for the pretense of natural science.

        Regarding PPE at Oxford, yes, but that course has been a disater for the UK. It’s become a means by which the elite ‘public school’ (i.e. elite private schools like Eton) crowd, on both the Left and the Right, prepare themselves for government.  It’s created a monoculture. For discussion see: PPE: the Oxford degree that runs Britain. It’s the way the British elite reproduce themselves.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Indeed.  Monoculture, whether in maize or undergraduate degrees, is a vulnerability.

          The dominance of PPE has not lessened.  The majority of ministers are still from private secondary schools and Oxbridge, and many of those from Oxford chose PPE.

  7. Alan says:

    According to this myth, the economy cannot be improved, but can be harmed, by political intervention.  Government attempts to influence, restrain or hold accountable the largest economic actors are always and everywhere bad.

    It is a myth. Adam Smith understood the market to exist within a framework of institutions (i.e. it wasn’t a natural thing). Government intervention was not inherently bad, in fact he cites numerous instances where regulation is good, in some cases essential to avoid systemic failure (e.g. banking), but it often turns out to be bad because of government capture by mercantile and other elites (think British East India Company, the original evil global corporation). In the 20th C. we have very different responses to the threats poses by  the market, rising inequality and the risk of totalitarianism. None of them involve 19th C. laissez faire. All believe in state intervention but of different kinds: Ordoliberalism (German) is different from Neoliberalism (American and British, although these are not themselves the same) which are all different from Keynesianism (which some would argue itself comes in different varieties, none of which are Keynes). This is one of the critical things to appreciate about neoliberalism (I’m thinking of British and American varieties): it involves heavy state intervention along with a reconceptualization of the role of state (and personshood). One of the great ironies of Thatcher’s critique of the “Nanny State” is that she was the biggest, nastiest nanny of all. British socialism of the 1960s and 1970s is anemic by comparison. The irony of the post WWII fears of Hayek et al. of the creeping totalitarianism supposedly posed by NHS, social security, etc. (maybe not entirely misplaced) is that neoliberalism itself turned out to be a deeply totalitarian ideology. Neoliberalis are people who believe in state planning to avoid the perils of socialist state planning! They should have paid attention to Smith who wrote in Moral Sentiments about the man of system

    apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it.

    Hayek actually quotes this somewhere but then ignores it, at least as it applies to himself, as if Smith’s advice doesn’t apply across the political spectrum.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Yep, neoliberals recognize that state planning and policies are essential to create the market and its blind, ruthless enforcement of private property rights, forsaking the competing and conflicting rights of others.

    At the same time, they deride state planning, deeming it inherently unreliable, but laud private sector planning, even when done by the same people, from the same schools, with the same tools.

    I would say neoliberals want government planning planned by the private sector, with private sector priorities not only paramount, but the only ones possible.  That’s largely what they’ve achieved in the US and may achieve in the UK.

    • Alan says:

      Their plan is to recreate everything as a market (this includes politics, law, …). All social relationships that aren’t market-type relationships are deemed illegitimate (hence my accustaion of totalitarianism). When you look at privatization in the UK it’s been mostly one long disaster (which isn’t to say some of the nationalized industries that existed pre-Thatcher weren’t themselves disaters of state planning). They’ve often ended up creating pseudo-competitive markets, or state-supported private companies (corporate socialism!), and of course many of these have had monopoly-like characteristics. There have been lots of dramatic failures. They have also attempted to impose market-type relationships on institutions that were not formerly treated as markets using audits to create pseudo-competition e.g. in NHS, higher education, etc. This grand plan to make everything a market and to reduce humanity to competitive compitition between individual enterpreneurs (entrepeneurs of the self as Foucault calls them) is as stupid as the most stupid of Baldrick’s cunning plans on Black Adder. It involves a fundamental misunderstanding of the inherently social nature of human existence.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        It would involve misunderstanding only if neoliberals were pursuing inclusive goals.  They are not.  They are engaged in a grand project of manipulation to geld the vast majority of people of political, economic and social agency.

        They want the resources of the majority and their government to pursue exclusively the goals of the elite, much to the detriment of the many.  Obtaining such goals would be difficult if neoliberals admitted them.

        They cannot yet impose their priorities at the point of a gun as they did in Chile and the Southern Cone.  Hence, the elaborate misdirection, using, for example, economics to persuade people that elite choices are not choices, but the workings of the unassailable, unimprovable, infallible market.

  9. Wes says:

    As a recovering capitalist, I’ve come to look at my problem as an alcoholic would his. Competition starts out looking like a benevolent force, making success enticing to those who can see how to cut waste. In the end though, it turns rapacious creditor, laying waste not only to human effort and tangible resources, but human dreams as well. Capitalism addicts become insensitive to the reality that competition is perpetual, mutually assured destruction.
    To develop a criticism, I’d do as business school professors suggest, create an ecosystem model of how capitalism consumes resources. Seems likely such a model would expose competition for what it really is. 
    Look, we had to breathe immortal corporations into being to shoulder the burden of capitalism. Human beings were found too unreliable. 

  10. lefty665 says:

    Hi Ed, Thanks for your ongoing explorations. They provide context and an intellectual framework for the world we experience around us.

    On a simpler level we are not served well when our political parties are the offspring of capitalists and neo liberals as they are now. Mixed capitalism harnessing the energy of capitalists and moderating their excesses to prevent them from killing the rest of us (and themselves) through regulation by the public sector we elect ceases to work when neoliberals are in control.


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