Translation: The neoliberal economists who never left

This is a translation of an article by Isaac Rosa, originally published in on 21st April.


The neoliberal economists who never left

Let’s imagine a surgeon whose patients die again and again on the operating table; an engineer whose bridges collapse; a train driver whose trains frequently derail. Leaving aside the penal proceedings in each case, there is no doubt that they would not be allowed to go into theatre, plan another project, or go near a train station again.

Why is it different with economists? Why do the intellectual authors of this thing they call a crisis remain in their jobs? And not just in their jobs: but by influencing more than ever the politics of countries and organisations.

There was a moment, around 2008-2009, when it seemed that the neoliberal economic orthodoxy would find itself obliged to say sorry and reconsider its stances. Its main representatives appeared wary, they moved off the stage, they were singled out as the responsible parties by documentaries and reports that furthermore uncovered their lucrative intimacy with financial powers. Whilst world leaders spoke about “refounding capitalism”, the theorists of the free market and deregulation made themselves scarce, allowing other voices, of heterodox and critical economists to be heard.

What happened afterwards? How is it that not only have they kept their jobs and their influence, but that they are reconquering the little ground that they had ceded, expelling critical voices and recovering ideological hegemony?

Let’s turn our gaze back, because we forget where we came from. Part of their victory consists precisely of this: they have managed to obscure the financial origins of the crisis, to get us to take the spotlight off the banking sector, mortgage bubbles and stock market alchemy, so as to place it on States instead. We no longer talk about bankers, brokers, ratings agencies and toxic products. Instead all attention is on States, public spending, the debt, austerity, cutbacks, privatisations, the end of the Welfare State. A diabolical masterstroke. Geniuses.

But if we turn our gaze back and we are able to look above the web that has been spun, we discover that there they are. Them. The same ones who remain there today, and give lessons and set the pace. They were there. They were the ones who gave academic cover for the financial deregulation that took the brakes off the locomotive. It was they who theorized about models that never came true. It was they, the same ones who predicted marvellous futures that gave way to this miserable present. And what is more they did so by dressing up as science what was always ideology.

From their seats of learning, their research centres, their tribunes, their international bodies, their committees of experts, their government advisory panels, their jobs in supervisory organs, their conferences, their international meetings, their books and their sympathetic media, they put lyrics to the music being played by the financial orchestra, governments hummed along and citizens danced because it was the only thing that was being played: grinding and catchy.

They were here too, among us, theorising about the productive model, the bubble that was no such thing, the prices that would never fall, the need for more deregulation, less taxes and less social rights, the benefits of private management of what is public and the privatisation of all that can be privatised.

We already know what happened after, though it now seems that we are forgetting: the financial system went snap, our bubble went boom, the economy went pffff, the Euro went aiiee and everything collapsed. Abyssal holes had to be sealed with billions that came out of our pockets, and here we are today, with much of the private wreckage transferred, socialised, and turned into public wreckage.

It is not that they have come back. They never went away. The same neoliberal economists who derailed us have been those who did a diagnosis of the crisis and prescribed policies to overcome it, and today it is they who lay out the road for the supposed recovery and design the future.

And they do so without ceding even one of the spaces that they dominated, adding even new ones. The same failed experts from yesterday are those who today make up the expert committees that propose reforms to government. The same ratings agencies that we knew to be untrustworthy, are still placing their ratings on countries and firms. The same people who did not see the danger in the financial Russian roulette are those who today do risk assessments of the banking sector.

To say nothing of the main spaces of ideological production: the university and the media. In the first, it is scandalous how the training of new economists and research remain in large part in the hands of the same neoliberals. And if we are talking about media, after those first moments when critical voices received more attention, today the singular discourse has returned, with orthodox and fiercely neoliberal economists filling TV debates for a mass audience (where they get a chalk board so they can give us lessons), opinion pages, news features each time the opinion of an “expert” is required.

Going back to the first paragraph: for how long are we going to allow them to operate on us, to cross their bridges and get onto their trains? How many more times do we have to suffer their ‘accidents’?

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