Excerpts of an interview with Philip Mirowski by Alice Creischer & Andreas Siekmann for the Potosí Principle Archive
The Potosí Principle Archive tries to archive, or rather to pursue further questions and ideas that arose during the Potosí Project ten years ago. The Potosí Project (curated by Alice Creischer, Max Jorge Hinderer, and Andreas Siekmann) was a project about colonial paintings from Potosí and the Alti Plano region in Bolivia. These paintings were complemented by works of contemporary artists from Bolivia, Argentina, China, and Europe. It was shown at Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía), and the House of the Cultures of the World, Berlin (Haus der Kulturen der Welt), 2010, and subsequently, in 2011, at the National Museum of Art (Museo Nacional de Arte) and the Museo Nacional de Etnografía y Folklore in La Paz. Over the course of the project and its ongoing discussions, four central questions came up which structured the exhibition: questions about the continuity of primitive accumulation, about human rights and hegemony, about the function of art to stabilize power, and about the world upside down. The archive continues to ask these questions, even after ten years – taking into account the blind spots and open debate that characterizes the project both at that time and in the present.
The interview with Philip Mirowski is part of a revision of the primitive accumulation chapter, and a plea to rethink that term in the age of the post-crisis capitalism, especially as its character changes through digital technology. It is digital technology that connects these topics to the work of Andreas Siekmann, presented here in the exhibition. Therefore, we thought that it might be useful to include excerpts of the much longer original interview as background information.
Berlin • December 2017
Andreas Siekmann: One reason for us to invite you was your attempt to survey how neoliberalism survived the crisis. We think that this chameleon has an extensive history which might lead us to how colonialism has functioned – and is still functioning – as a kind of principle.
Alice Creischer: Our first question was about extractivism – where we see a continuity from Potosí to open mining in South America and all over the world. Do you see some kind of historical development from a resource economy to the market economy to designed markets – a trend that you wrote about in your last book?
Philip Mirowski: Well, remember I’m coming at this as a historian of economics, the idea that value came from the earth was the earliest substance notion of economics, even before economics, you know, a self-conscious economics. You can see that vision in somebody like David Ricardo. Then there’s this shift into Marxism, when it was still materialist but everything was human-centered and has to do with labor. But it’s still very important that there is this kind of fixed labor because then that’s the only way that you can define exploitation. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to. Marx is very clear on this. That’s still a substance theory of value, where value is limited by commodity in some way. Then we get this energy development in neoclassical economic theory, and that totally negates the previous version. It’s energy that creates value instead. Energy is projected into the mind. What happens is that they essentially negate or get rid of all of these physical aspects. So there can’t be any form of extraction in neoclassical economic theory. There is no extraction because there is no physical grounding for this energy. It’s all in the mind, it’s what we think that’s important and so on … see that’s the problem. I understand that Marxists still want to talk about extraction, and still want to talk exploitation, and so on, but their whole vision once we moved into this energy sphere was negated, I mean in the sense that it couldn’t be said, there’s no discussion of exploitation or extraction in neoclassical economics, not really. And of course, you might say: “Well, that’s the point!”
PM: But they had the cultural metaphor and the rest of it behind them, that’s the way they could reconstruct what the economy was. And then we’re still not done, now we get through to the middle of the 20th century and it happens again, and not consciously at first except with the neoliberals. This is one reason why they’re so powerful. They realize that they can shift their whole political stance away from neoclassical economics. I know people say: “Well, what about Milton Friedman?” – and we can talk about that, but it’s actually a red herring. They shift the whole thrust of their narrative away from the energy story and into the realm of information.
AS: In your book Never Let a Crisis go to Waste,01 you describe the role of neoliberal thought collectives in enabling the continuation of neoliberal policies after the crisis.
PM: Well, I have strong opinions on the role of think tanks, they are the intermediaries in the sort of big picture of what we believe, and I think it’s interesting that (in a weird way) the ordo-liberals actually have had somewhat of a better understanding of how to organize that. If we want to know how the cultural context came to absorb their ideas – it is central to the history that Hayek was setting Anthony Fischer up to start the IEA, and then Atlas, as a coordinating think tank. They keep talking about a spontaneous order which is complete bullshit compared to what they do. What they do is realize an elaborate organization – thinking through the implications of their own thinking. These think tanks don’t just want more people thinking around thinking, they want a journalist section, an astroturfing section, … You see what I mean? That’s how they translate “big ideas” into the local context, make it more attractive and maybe alter it, to speak about the circumstances of the political situation. This is one reason why they’re successful and why the left isn’t. The think tanks of the left are not really coordinated. The left has no internal story as to why they should be having this kind of failure, and the good reasons for it. They’re still telling these stories: “Oh Occupy was so wonderful, it was this upwelling from all.” They can’t believe that they should be organizing ideas and actions in a more integrated structure because that’s conspiracy theory or whatever. The left is caught in this trap because the neoliberals have set them up for it.
AS: In her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), Naomi Klein described quite well how the enforcement of economic transformations in the 1990s followed the model of South American dictatorships.
PM: Yeah, I understand why that book became popular, but I think that is just one small part of the story. What Naomi Klein misses out is that there really is a kind of confidence in how neoliberals think they have an explanation. And in fact, when other people are giving similar kinds of explanations they recognize them as allies. Which has always fascinated me, this level of epistemic coordination.
AC: Because they take the “market as an information processor” as the epistemic paradigm?
PM: No, because then you’re not understanding the movement at all, you’re not understanding how they recognize one another. Even though they do idolize the market in some sense, they are venturing out into all sorts of areas of human life needing just an application of market logic in their hymn book: The market does know more than I do. But they think that they can make things function better in that world of market logic by involving – my favorite example – things like science.
AC: You mentioned the experiment by Dan Gode and Shyam Sunder – a market experiment with students and random number generators which came to the same results. So, essentially, what people think and do doesn’t matter to the outcome. This captures the essential anti-humanist stance of modern economics. You mentioned a set of rules about how bidders and offerers were pushed out of market participation and about the imposition of budget constraints. Are these conditions those of austerity and exclusion?
PM: That’s too big a jump. You need to know more of the background of what that experiment was supposed to show. And it comes directly from a neoliberal background, there’s this MPS member called Vernon Smith who was very important for the rise of experimental economics in the US. He had something he called the “Hayek hypothesis.” He said that the way neoclassicism works is that people have to make rational choices. That’s how we will come to equilibrium, hopefully: through experiments that people don’t need to know anything about. All they will need to know is just to trade according to a certain set of rules. The market will show them the way in a sense, and it will get us to this equilibrium.
But it didn’t stop there, and that’s where the experiment becomes important. They said that the structure of the market is what causes it to come to equilibrium by itself. So let’s get rid of all human thought, let’s zero it out, let’s just have it all become algorithms with random numbers, and let them just spit out bids and offers randomly, and then we’ll figure out whether we get to equilibrium or not. They found out that, roughly-speaking, all it takes is that there be some of these rules which organize the bidding and the offering. Notice – not organize the people, just organize how the buying and the selling happen. And this I think leads to the newer book where I argue that this is where market design comes from. It doesn’t matter what people think anymore, economists say that as long as you let us design these markets we can produce any outcome that you want. But what it means is exactly what neoliberals believe. They believe that people are really lousy cognizers. This is how they recognize each other, this is why they don’t care about fake news either, because people can’t reason their way out of a box, and so what are you worried about? Noise just helps.
I think that there’s no generic market to be created, and in fact, this is how these guys sell their stuff. They say, “No, I won’t create a market for the stuff at your boutique, I’m going to make a special boutique market for you.” Among other things it means: How are people even allowed to participate? Who gets to define what the commodity is and the forms that it takes in this particular process? So in defining the market they’re defining the commodities. One of the earliest examples of this was the market for phones. It’s not really about the phones, is it? It’s about selling people all sorts of stuff that they would get on the internet, how to sell the spectrum, and then change the rules to build a market according to what the patron wants. And when that happens, all those original political objectives are forgotten. See, is that anti-materialist? I don’t see a problem here.
AC: There was the Fordist fairy-tale of the market satisfying the needs of consumers. It had a popular catchphrase “the consumer is king.” This was the joker – I’ve always thought – for the classical neoliberal understanding of the market as a condition of democracy. But even the “market as information processor” was somehow claiming to work as a solution for all problems – for example, climate change.
PM: No, see that’s neoclassical not neoliberal. The standard neoliberal vision of the market is orthogonal to the neoclassical view. In the last chapter of Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste, I talked about the climate as a perfect example, because such think tank organizations have a much broader conception of what a politics of climate change would be than the left does. They don’t have one policy they have a set of at least three policies, probably more, which are to attack different areas of opposition, but also to work in different time-frames, so that, in a sense, they pre-emptively occupy the space of possibility. Let’s make this concrete by looking at the foundation of climate change units within American think tanks. The first element is the obvious one – denial. But do you think people in think tanks really believe that? I would say no, they don’t, they understand that it is just the short-term political solution – to create a fog that creates time to produce policies like carbon trading and permit trading. Permit trading has failed, there’s a huge amount of literature on this, basically that it doesn’t reduce any carbon emissions at all. I think they do know that because even carbon trading is just a holding pattern in the medium term, it’s not their solution. Now what is their solution? It is a bright shining future of science fiction called “geoengineering.” Many of these think tanks have separate sorts of units; a denial unit, a carbon trading unit, and a geoengineering one. That’s the whole point – it’s that they occupy the entire space, and the left gets suckered in.
AS: So in all of their scenarios, technology remains the solution?
PM: Well, let’s be careful about that, if they are not technological determinists at all, why do they want geoengineering? It’s because it’s a privatized solution to a problem that was set up by capitalism in the first place. That’s why they like it, it’s not that they believe it is inevitable. What makes them so gung-ho about geoengineering is that private companies will in fact own the means to alter the climate and that, in their view, is the real solution. In their vision, markets and entrepreneurs will provide solutions, but they won’t do it right away, and that’s why you have to accept the denialism for now. You’ve got to create space for these entrepreneurs – which includes a certain science – which at present is being resisted by all kinds of scientists. So for that what you need is to change the universities, to bring up a more neoliberal type of scientist who will then come to see this as a positive development. This takes time.
Think about it this way, there’s fast neoliberalism which is politically useful in the moment, then there’s mid-range stuff, and then there’s slow neoliberalism which is what they really believe, but can’t happen right away. You could take any number of controversies in modern life and you’ll see that they operate in the same way in all of them; from pharmaceuticals, to neoliberal medicine, and genome engineering.
AC: What you are describing is an almighty scenario for the new thought collectives …
PM: Well it’s a political pattern of how they make this stuff become actual in the world …
AS: But I think there are contradictions in it, the tendency to monopolization and entrepreneurial cannibalism, for example – the monopoly on seeds where Bayer takes over Monsanto.
PM: Okay, I hear you, on this, there’s a paper in the Mont Pèlerin volume that’s very pertinent to this, it’s by Rob Van Horn.02 Early on, the neoliberals thought, “well, classical liberals seem to be against monopoly, so we should be too.” Van Horn identifies the exact time in the Chicago scene where they decide that monopoly is no problem at all. That there should just be thousands of entrepreneurs that, like lemmings, throw themselves at the monopoly, and maybe one of them will sink it. So, having a huge monopoly like Amazon or Google is not a bad thing at all, which is one of the reasons why all of the Silicon Valley dudes love this stuff. But there should just be all kinds of people taking risks, entrepreneurs who will sort of run at the monopoly. Most of them will die, and that’s the way it is. Maybe one of them will hit the jackpot, and destroy the monopoly, and that’s good too.
AC: But this vision – no matter if the image is exaggerated – refers to an unprecedented historical break. Throughout history, the economy needed a social contract between slaves and masters, between the ones who do the work, and the ones who depend on it. Hegel described this contradiction very well, as a dialectic relation. In the Hegelian version, in fact, the masters had the aporia of being superfluous, because they didn’t realize themselves through labor. But now – through technology – in the hand of the masters – the idea is that there could be an economy which doesn’t need the slaves anymore.
PM: Well, I hear you, because I think this market design stuff gets close to that. It’s not all the way there in the sense that they are brought back to earth by having to define the commodity, define who even gets through the door to bid or offer. It sneaks back in through all these things that they want to control. But this way of thinking is much more amenable to automatic trading than any other story that’s ever been told about the economy, I don’t think that’s an accident. I’m inclined to think that there’s a strong anti-humanist bent to modern economics. But maybe it’s just getting rid of the person in a perverse way. You are just the data, we don’t care about you. You can be totally dispersed into a hundred thousand categories so that your name doesn’t matter anymore. Well they just don’t need it anymore, and I think it’s anti-humanist too, in its attitude towards people’s epistemic capacities. This hostility is aimed at people thinking that they can make sense of their lives. They honestly don’t believe in that.
01 Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (New York: Verso, 2013)
02 Rob Van Horn, “Reinventing Monopoly and the Role of Corporations: The Roots of Chicago Law and Economics.” In The Road from Mont Pèlerin, edited by Mirowski Philip & Plehwe Dieter, Harvard University Press, 2009.