Is Neoliberalism Biting Its Own Tail? From the Economics of Ignorance to Post-Truth Politics

In our infinite ignorance, we are all equal.
—Karl Popper
 

In a recent column in Dissent, the historian Daniel T. Rodgers takes issue with how the word “neoliberalism” has become “a linguistic omnivore” in present-day scholarship. Deeming its success “a measure of its substantive hollowness,” he untangles its various meanings (“market fundamentalism,” “commodification of the self,” “finance capitalism,” and so on) and appeals for a return to a descriptive language closer to social reality. I argue the contrary here. Neoliberalism owes its success to its distinct ideological shape, which functions thanks to, not in spite of, its paradoxes and contradictions. Although the original agenda of neoliberalism has been revised many times over, its scope and reach have steadily increased. Its commonly overlooked scientific dynamism, sponsored by private individuals and foundations, relayed by think tanks, and embedded in a growing, yet problematic “marketplace of ideas,” remains at the very heart of the neoliberal project today.

The Modernist Science of Neoliberalism

Rejecting the characterization of neoliberalism as primarily an economic philosophy, William Davies argues it is “a sociological one, namely that we live under conditions of modernity, where the fabric of human existence is constantly being remade.” I contend here that this modernist character of neoliberalism reflects the twin pillars of its intellectual tradition: the philosophy of science and the sociology of knowledge. Both were directly inspired by the breakthroughs in relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and non-Euclidian geometry, which together had unshackled the foundational axioms of mathematics and physics from any “realist,” “naturalist,” or “a priori” image of the world. Taking stock of this shifting epistemological ground, the philosopher Karl Popper proclaimed in 1935 that science did not “rest upon solid bedrock.” In fact, “the bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp.”1 Popper belonged to an important cohort of philosophers of science that contributed to the inception of neoliberalism. Michael Polanyi, Ludwig von Mises, Alfred Schutz, Felix Kaufmann, Louis Rougier, and Friedrich Hayek were all immersed in the unsteady scientific world and volatile political situations of Weimar Berlin and Red Vienna, where the thrust for modernism in art and science alike was inseparable from the disintegration of the political and social world of the nineteenth century.


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During the Great Depression, these early neoliberals, along with the American publicist Walter Lippman, rejected the then common interpretation that the hitherto most severe crisis of the capitalist economy proved liberalism’s failure once and for all. Instead, these men saw a Grundlagenkrise, a crisis in the science and method of liberalism. They strove to modernize the theoretical and ideological justification for the market economy with ideas adapted from the “new scientific spirit” of the early twentieth century.2 As a result, they discarded the belief that a liberal order corresponded to a natural state of mankind, or, alternatively, that it rested on rational a priori tenets.

As a solution, early neoliberals admitted to the conventional nature of liberal principles, which, far from disqualifying them, made them consonant with the emerging paradigms of the natural sciences. Rather than being peripheral to the scientific enterprise, human experience and decisions now occupied center stage in efforts to account for the merit of ideas and theories. Their epistemology was socialized, that is, it understood truth to be the result of spontaneous, yet ordered intersubjective processes. These operations could be embedded in face-to-face interactions, as occurred in academic communities, or in anonymized and disembodied markets, as in production and consumption. Conceding this social nature of knowledge, however, dented its claim to universality and authority because objectivity and legitimacy thus depended on traditions of learning, the character of institutions, and the decisions of their stakeholders.

Manufacturing Ideology: The Neoliberal Sociology of Knowledge

At the end of World War II, liberalism was clearly on the back foot. Worse still, the idea that planning represented the logical output of science and reason applied to social affairs had been vindicated by the success of the war economy and the model of the Soviet Union. Against the Keynesian or socialist promise of a managed economy based on centralized macroeconomic data, neoliberals pinned the superiority of a liberal order to its epistemic properties regarding the acquisition, circulation, and validation of knowledge at the micro level, and to the impossibility of planning its progress. They did so against a view that had become predominant in the 1930s: that knowledge and science, being the products of society, had, in turn, to serve social needs.

Neoliberals understood scientific truth, social knowledge, and individual psychology to be in a state of opacity in which the clarity of fixed and neutral laws coexisted simultaneously with the dispersed, tacit, and uncertain nature of knowledge. Their resulting economics of ignorance thus promised to deliver a restrained politics in which markets were treated as heuristic devices existing beyond the authority of expertise. Whether in scientific research, economic production, or political debates, competition presented the only truthful “discovery procedure” compared to traditional expertise, which was beset by myopic special interests.

Touring the United States after the success of his Road to Serfdom (1944), Hayek lamented:

All the “blue-prints” of a future order of society from which the popularizers, including, I am afraid, not only the press and the radio, but also the school and the church, largely derive their inspiration, come from the joint efforts of the advocates of a planned society. There are no similar concerted efforts, there are not even the facilities for any such collaboration among the [advocates of a free society].3

Hayek acknowledged that the media, the school, and the church occupied crucial positions in the cognitive training of the masses. The personnel of these institutions represented a vast class of mediating intellectuals— “secondhand dealers in ideas”—who condensed and relayed a systematic worldview to their audience. Since the masses rarely elevated themselves from opinion to truth by using the scientific method, top–down propaganda would be key to the success of a liberal renaissance.

Beyond rewriting theory, what was needed was the creation of a hegemonic environment in which neoliberal ideas would be adopted not by conviction but merely by habit and familiarity. Whereas Hayek’s first objective was to build up a neoliberal avant-garde, the second was to refashion the cognitive world of individuals and disseminate the ethos of neoliberalism through a new language of freedom, flexibility, choice, and opportunity. The first task became that of the Mont Pelerin Society, founded in 1947, which mainly brought together scientists and academics and was devoted to formulating a coherent philosophical vision. The second task was to be tackled through dedicated organizations modeled on the societies and clubs that had done so much for the propagation of socialism: think-tanks.

This two-pronged strategy lay at the core of the capacity of neoliberalism to create mutually reinforcing, yet often contradictory layers of discourse, resulting in numerous instances of what Philip Mirowski calls “double truths.”4 If this epistemic ambivalence between a scientific research program and the ideological account of its superiority paved the way for the long-term success of neoliberalism, it also set the stage for the dethroning of science, public expertise, and truth in our present time.

The Ruse of Ignorance?

Early neoliberals had been sceptical of the use of scientific knowledge to directly reform society. Change, Popper proposed, could only be achieved piecemeal, through a series of mediations and vulgarizations, whose effects would remain uncertain. Later neoliberals in the vein of Milton Friedman believed otherwise. The works of James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, George Stigler, and Gary Becker, all card-carrying Mont Pelerin Society members, displayed a positivist creed in the capacity of economic science to give an account of the real world. They believed economic knowledge to be directly useful for shaping public policy, while their research mirrored the search for precision and predictability that the previous generation of neoliberals had rejected as “scientistic” or “hubristic.”

The epistemological mobility of neoliberalism, initially considered its main asset, did much to erode its founding principles once its ideological war machine superseded the limited project of demarcating a social science for its knowledge economy. The conventional and intersubjective bases of truth and objectivity had removed any sure footing on which to stop the rampant relativism and instrumentalism that came with the spread of competitive markets.

The rapid increase of think tanks saw theories and arguments serve as items for distribution and consumption, items whose validity and heuristic power could be properly judged solely by their success on the marketplace. Their constant criticism of public expertise, chiefly through their posturing as independent centers of expert research, have actively produced post-truth trends. This was what Naomi Oreskes calls the “merchandization of doubt.” With meticulous canvassing on the marketplace of ideas, any scientific theory could thus become “just a theory.” The prestige of science itself, which had been insulated in earlier times, now risks being washed away altogether, abandoning the earlier neoliberal ambition of a carefully managed relationship between science, ignorance, and opinion.

In The Death of Expertise (2017), Tom Nichols writes that a willful hostility toward established knowledge has emerged on both sides of the political spectrum, one in which every opinion on any matter is as good as every other. In a curious ruse of history, the neoliberals’ own economics of ignorance has given rise to forms of tribal epistemology in which information asymmetry and distrust of traditional information sources have propelled new forms of bigotry, lies, and so-called fake news. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that neoliberalism’s biting its own tail implies its impending death. On the contrary, the current state of epistemic confusion has degraded the idea of a common, objective, and universal knowledge even further, thereby reinforcing the influence of commercial dealers of ideas on the global intellectual marketplace: Neoliberalism never thrives better than in times of crisis.

Martin Beddeleem is a postdoctoral researcher at Aarhus University


  1. Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1935), trans. by author with Julius Freed and Lan Freed (1959; London: Routledge Classics, 2000), 94. ↩︎
  2. Gaston Bachelard, The New Scientific Spirit (1934), trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984). ↩︎
  3. Friedrich Hayek, “The Prospects of Freedom” (1946), Friedrich A. von Hayek papers, Box 61, Hoover Institution Archives. The last word in this quote was “liberals,” which he used in the European sense of the term, meaning the very opposite of interventionist liberals in the United States. ↩︎
  4. Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste (London: Verso, 2013), 68–83. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Martin Beddeleem, “Is Neoliberalism Biting Its Own Tail? From the Economics of Ignorance to Post-Truth Politics,” History of Knowledge, May 14, 2019, https://historyofknowledge.net/2019/05/14/is-neoliberalism-biting-its-own-tail/.