Neoliberalism as radical political economy

118In the intellectual world I grew up in and to a large extent still inhabit, the phrase ‘political economy’ is often just another way of saying ‘Marxism’. I’m not sure if it’s ‘ironic’ that this tradition of work has come to be so focussed on the conceptual object ‘dubbed’ neoliberalism, which is theorised as the real world realization of ideas emanating from the post-WW2 revival of ‘political economy’ of a different sort. The status of neoliberal ideas as variants of political economy is often overlooked, primarily because of the investments in simple state/market dualisms that shape critical conceptualizations of neoliberalization.

One of the founding figures of contemporary political economy is James Buchanan, who died last week. Buchanan is one of the unsung heroes/villains of neoliberalism, if there is such a thing – above all through helping to invent public choice theory, a framework for applying certain sorts of economic ideas to the analysis of state actors, bureaucracies, and other organisations. More broadly, Buchanan illustrates the degree to which ideas about the rule of law, constitutionalism, rule-following, and the like provide a positive theory of the state and the public realm rather than simply a straightforward preference for the market over the state (like other thinkers associated with the canon of neoliberal ideas, perhaps with the exception of Richard Posner, Buchanan took the financial crisis of the last five years as largely confirming his own views). Buchanan is as good a place as any to start the task of understanding how states and markets have been reconfigured around new models of public value, rather than by a straightforward shift simply from good public values to bad private ones. Stephen Collier has elaborated on Buchanan’s importance as a ‘minor’ figure in the genealogy of neoliberal practice, in ways which suggest a need to rethink the conventional framework for the critical analysis of neoliberalism more generally.

Buchanan is famous for the line about thinking about ‘politics without romance‘, which rapidly devolved into a deeply cynical view of public actors as rent-seeking parasites. It’s interesting to read the appreciations of Buchanan in places like the FT, The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Bloomberg News, The Daily Telegraph over the last week – you can glean a sense of how public choice theory supports a certain sort of right-wing insurgent self-image, speaking in the name of democratic choice (as revealed preference) against the usurping inclinations of elites. It reminded me of the argument made by John Dryzek some time ago now, in which he argued that public choice theory did indeed share some important affinities with Frankfurt School-style critical theory.

Appreciating Buchanan’s work is important not least because, whisper it, belonging as it does to a tradition of thought that is embedded in particular understandings of democracy, it does address difficult issues of collective action, institutional design, and accountability that conventional left social theory struggles with, oscillating as it does between proto-anarchistic suspicion of ‘the state’ and nostalgia for stale social democratic settlements of the public good. Disentangling and differentiating accounts of ‘rationality’ might be an imperative to rethinking the democratic potentials of emergent forms of contemporary public action – and being able to tell the different in the political valence between Buchanan, say, and Mancur Olson, or Kenneth Arrow, or Amartya Sen, or Jon Elster, or Elinor Ostrom, seems an important task along this road (the differences turn on the degree to which theories are able to account for the rationalities of co-operation as something more than merely aggregation or secondary). Not all styles of rational choice theory are equally pathological, perhaps.

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