I said that Mirowski was important – the man clearly knows his stuff (see the 41 page bibliography at the back of his book). It’s just that he’s undisciplined in the presentation of his arguments and assumes too easily that his readers will understand the esoteric references to theoretical disputes in economics.
Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste rates almost as many serious reviews as Thomas Piketty’s blockbuster - Capital in the Twenty First Century to which the London Review of Books devoted last month a quite excellent review whose opening section must qualify as one of the clearest expositions of the disputes about economic value.
Useful reviews of the Mirowski book can be found in The Times Higher Education Supplement; Jacobin Magazine; and Logos Journal. One of the most balanced of the reviews is this one
Overall, therefore, this book may be tough going for many, but it also rewards the reading. The looseness of structure combined with the sense in which each element depends on the others means that the reader shouldn’t worry too much if they didn’t get it the first time. I certainly do not expect this to be everyone’s cup of tea: the way Mirowski approaches neoliberalism through a combination of polemical investigation into institutional and organisational connections between finance, government, and economics, as well as his tendency to give mostly ideological and psychological explanations for political phenomena, sometimes comes uncomfortably close to ‘conspiracy thinking’. I think Mirowski mostly stays just on the right side of that fine line, but then I am already an opponent of neoclassical economics – those who are more ambivalent about it will perhaps find this work too much.
For the politically more radical but less economically knowledgeable layperson, there is a wealth of insight to be gained here in the inner workings and thinking of some of the major players of the Western neoliberal order, especially in the United States, but you’ll have to earn it with hard work. There are some fascinating moments in the book where Mirowski contrasts the reality of the crisis with the utter refusal on the part of the economics discipline to view it as imaginable before the fact (we were supposed to be in ‘the Great Moderation’) or of any theoretical significance after the fact (in striking interviews with Chicago school economists).
On the other hand, he sometimes overdoes the pervasive power of neoliberal thought: when he sees social networks as inherently neoliberal, or sees protest movements such as Occupy as hopelessly co-opted by neoliberal ways of thinking from the start, it seems a bit too much in the style of grandpa telling the kids to get off his lawn. Neoliberalism isn’t, and cannot be, all-powerful – even if the opposition has to date indeed been ineffectual.
For the purposes of economic thought, the takeaway from this book should be that “the relationship between the immunity of finance and the imperviousness of change in economic ideas has been direct” (357).
For the political left, the central message is that the strategy of neoliberalism to a crisis – any crisis – can be summed up as “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”, all of which “can only be imposed in those special moments of ‘emergency’ by a strong state” (357-358). These lessons, combined with Mirowski’s vision of neoliberalism as contrasted with merely ‘small government, free market’ thinking, are important to learn.
Mirowski has been fairly caustic about Wikipedia – and perhaps this is why his entry there is so brief and uninformative. I managed to find this overview and interview
Certainly the book has encouraged me to pull off the shelves some so far unread items such as the Penguin History of Economics; The Romantic Economist; and Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics; the User’s Guide