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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste - part 2

Reader – while you have been busy this last 24 hours or so, I have been sweating blood on your behalf! A few minutes ago, I reached (with a great sigh of relief) the last page of Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste and its pages will forever bear witness to my reactions and interactions – with savagely pencilled circles and slashes on almost every page.

The subject of this book could not be more important – the process whereby a doctrine (neoliberalism), assumed in 2008 to have been totally discredited, has managed not only to survive but to become the only game in town…

On your behalf I have (carefully) read 358 pages of text; glanced at 52 pages of notes; and noted with interest a 41 page bibliography. And I have also turned up at least a score of fairly long reviews – indeed even one special issue of a journal devoted to the book (available at the hyperlink of the book’s title) which, usefully, contains an author’s reply. The book's (mercifully short) conclusion poses these questions-
·         What were the key causes of the crisis?
·         Have economists of any stripe managed to produce a coherent and plausible narrative of the crisis, at least so far? And what role have heterodox economists played in the dispute?
·         What are the major political weaknesses of the contemporary neoliberal movement?
·         What is the current topography of the Neoliberal Thought Collective?
·         What lessons should the left learn from the neoliberals, and which should they abjure?
·         What would a vital counternarrative to the epistemological commitments of the neoliberals look like?

But the book touches (and briefly at that) only on the second and fourth of these questions – the others he suggests “demand lavishly documented advocacy and lengthy disputations” and maybe an alternative left project.
His book, he concludes with surprising modesty for such a pyrotechnic writer, simply “dispels some commonplace notions that have gotten in the way of such a project”.

He then goes on to a final one-page summary of the 6 reasons whyneoliberals have triumphed in the global economic crisis” -
·         Contrary evidence didn’t dent their world view
·         They “redoubled their efforts to influence and capture the economics profession
·         everyday neoliberalism” which had “taken root in our culture provided a bulwark until The  “Neoliberal Thought Collective”  (NTC) could mount further responses”
·         The NTC developed the black art of “agnotology” (see below) and -
·         coopted protest movements through a combination of top-down takeover and bottom-up commercialisation and privatisation of protest activities and recruitment

and… finally…..wait for it…..
·         The NTC has displayed an identifiable repeating pattern of full-spectrum policy responses to really pervasive crisis which consists of short-run denialism, medium-term imposition of state-sponsored markets and long-term recruitment of entrepreneurs to explore scientific blue-sky projects to transform human relationships to nature”…….

I really am trying to be fair to this guy – but he really does hoist himself with his own petard.
And, dear reader, you should know that I studied economics for 4 years at university – and then attempted to teach the subject to students….
Furthermore, I pride myself on my vocabulary…..but I was stumped by so many words –
Ambagious, apophenia, “all the Finnegan that is needed”; perfervid, quiddity (a favourite); astralobe, scofflaws, epigones, fugleman, lucubrations, bombinate, deliquesce, Nascar, echolalia, echoic, ukase, catallactic, hebetude, cunctuation, coadjurancy, snafus, non-ergodicity, defalcation, hazmot, political donnybrooks

He was, however, kind enough to proffer (at page 226) a definition ofagnotology” (to which an entire section is devoted) - namelythe “focused study of the intentional manufacture of doubt and uncertainty in the general populace for specific political motives”.
And he does also explain a couple of other neologisms – “murketing” and “buycott” (both of which my automatic speller annoyingly tries to correct)
Dissention” at page 243 presumably is “dissension”. You see, Reader, the efforts to which I have gone for you!

I am glad to report that I am not the only reader to be appalled at Mirowski’s style – a year ago an Economist columnist took issue with the book for this reason and sparked off quite a discussion thread
The reader is still entitled to expect something better than the following (from Philip Mirowski's new book "Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste"): Yet the nightmare cast its shroud in the guise of a contagion of a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis. 
That is not just a mixed metaphor; it is meaningless and pretentious at the same time. One would nominate it as the world's worst-written sentence but it is only the opening clause. After a semi-colon, the author drones on for a further 32 words, from which Economist readers should be spared. Just a few pages later, Mr Mirowski produces another monstrosity:The nostrum of "regulation" drags with it a raft of unexamined impediments concerning the nature of markets and governmentality, and a muddle over intentionality, voluntarism, and spontaneity that promulgates the neoliberal creed at the subconscious level.
What happened to the editing process at Verso, which allowed this book to be published? All authors benefit from a trimming of their stylistic excesses. The odd flourish is fine and an attempt at humour in a work of financial analysis is usually welcome. But this does not consist of adding one clause after another, or piling adjective upon adjective.  Such leaden prose weakens any hope that the author might have of persuading the reader to slog through his 467-page attack on neoliberalism. George Orwell's rules of writing (which introduce The Economist's in-house style guide), are always worth repeating
One of the discussants in the subsequent discussion thread suggested four reasons for verbosity:
1) Try selling a one-page book. This despite the fact most of what I have read on economics in recent years, and indeed ever, could comfortably fit - too many books are just one interesting insight smeared over 400 pages ("Black Swan" anyone?).
2) Obscure language can hide deficient or trivial underlying thinking (think academic prose, esp. in the humanities)
3) Author's pseudointellectual wankerdom, and halo effect of "clever" language intended to boost persuasive effect. This is patently counterproductive.
4) Attempted argument by verbosity - while single-sentence phrasing would be just as informative, droning on about it from different angles for twenty hours of reading is intended to be more effective in helping the ideas (or lack thereof) sink in. 

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