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Day 14: Calling out Contradiction: Neoliberalism

As I discussed in this post earlier this month, pointing out contradiction in someone’s position as a means to convert them to your view doesn’t work.  Most people recognize that holding contradictory positions is not a good thing, but few seem to think that such a charge demands of them that they change their minds or their ways.  It isn’t even that they defend themselves and try to show that they don’t maintain contradictory views.  They just aren’t moved by the charge.  So pointing out contradictions, as enjoyable as it is, is probably not the best approach for changing people’s minds.

But what happens when an entire position is based on a contradiction and thrives as contradiction?  Philip Mirowski argues that this is the case with neoliberalism in Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste.  Mirowski argues that the cornerstone of neoliberalism is the independence of the market–the market is the source of truth (it knows what we want) and of freedom so no interventions can be made to regulate industry.  Such interventions would prevent it from giving us the truth.  Another cornerstone (can there be two cornerstones?) of neoliberalism–which completely contradicts the first (this building will not stand)–is that a strong state is required to prop up the market and make it work.  But if it is propped up, that intervention would seem to destroy its capacity to give us the truth.  The market must be both independent and supported by government policies that serve the market.  Nothing can be done and only those who know how to really make it work should be able to tell us what governments should do (we call those people economists).  We can’t intervene; only they can intervene.  The market is sui generis truth generator; the market needs the carefully orchestrated machinations of the experts.

Mirowski argues that this situation is fostered by sowing general confusion and ignorance.  It does not seem to make sense that the neoliberals can want government intervention.  Aren’t conservatives against big government?  Fostering such confusion makes it difficult to resist.  No person on the street is happy that the banks were bailed out except those who profited.  But Democrats are saying, well, I thought government could be useful in intervening in the market and Republicans are saying, I thought we thought business should be supported and they have been forced themselves into contradictions.

Just to clarify, the way the defenders of neoliberalism traffic in contradiction is not  the same thing as the way that dialectical thinkers like Hegel, Marx or Badiou do, as different as they might be.  Those thinkers could be said to be addressing social, ontological or systemic contradictions: contradictions in the way things are.  These contradictions can either be resolved or become the sites for revolution and disruption.  In some senses, conversion could be like that–a disruption at the site of a true and real contradiction.  But neoliberalism is not actually contradictory–neoliberalism wants the state to serve capital.  But it operates historically in a political world where those who support government intervention are not on the side of capital, and those who are on the side of capital do not support government intervention.  So it needs to speak contradictorily to find a way for the aspiring white worker who wants to save money to start his (and yes, I think it’s gendered) own small business to think he must support the bank bailout to thrive or to think criticisms against the bank bailout should be directed at Democrats who always have the government intervening.

In these circumstances, I think calling out contradictions and showing the way they work can be effective.  Not because it is going to change the peddlers of the contradiction, but because it shows the ways the contradiction operates to defeat detractors.  This can also be applied to personal relationships.  While you might not convert someone to your perspective just by calling out their contradictions, when a person resorts to contradictions to defend their inconsistent and self-serving actions, when they say the same thing is good when it serves their ends and bad when it serves someone else’s, calling out the contradiction points to their failure to have a justification where they think they do.  Calling out the contradiction is then pointing to the underlying self-serving nature of their position.  Just like calling out the contradiction in neoliberalism.

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