Although for some reason I still subscribe to the thing, I’ve mostly stopped reading The Economist. If you read a good daily newspaper or three—I know, so old-fashioned—who needs all that attitude?
I was reminded of why I don’t read the thing by reading a post from one “W.W.,” responding to the great Yglesias-Henwood debate, as excellently amended by Henry Farrell. It includes this remarkable observation:
[F]rom my point of view the problem with jobs programmes, as compared to textbook monetary policy, is not that they increase the power of labour relative to capital. It’s that they do little to sustainably increase demand for labour. And nothing reduces the power of labour relative to capital more than low demand for labour.
This reminds me of the current undergraduate habit of arguing through feelings, not evidence. Why does W.W. hold this opinion? We don’t know, but presumably we should trust him, because he writes for a very important magazine that calls itself a newspaper.
Earlier in his lighter-than-air post, W.W. doubts there’s such a thing as a “neoliberal.” I’ve long had mixed feelings about the word. But insofar as it has a definition, it means something like an intensified form of capitalism that came into prominence throughout the world in the wake of the Reagan–Thatcher–Volcker counterrevolution with the undoing of the previous Keynesian–social democratic regime. Aside from the fact that the U.S. was never much of a social democracy, my reservation about the word is that it is a weak synonym for capitalism. The undoing of buffers against the harshness of the labor market is significant, but we’re basically talking about a system where 80–90% of the population in the richer countries lives has minimal savings and so essentially from one paycheck to the the next. In more social democratic regimes, this discipline is somewhat muted. But in many, if not most, richer countries, these buffers have been weakened.
But W.W.’s definitional confusion is a mere scenic overview on the way to this conclusion:
Liberal and social-democratic political theory both are marked by a peculiar hopeful naivete about the possibility of one day arriving at some sort of ideal self-equilibrating politico-economic system. But it’s never going to happen. Until the heat of all creation is spread evenly over the whole cold void, everything always will be unbalanced. Here in the hot human world, it’s certain that sooner or later someone will invent or say something that will make comrades enemies and enemies friends. All we can do is our best for now. If sound technocratic, monetary policy (or neoliberalism, whatever that comes to) is the best we can do for now, it doesn’t matter that it generates no long-run self-sustaining political constituency. Nothing does. So, for now, we should try to sustain it.
You’re going to die, but that’s no reason to stop eating.
My god. Who said anything about an ideology leading to some kind of self-sustaining institutionalization. Farrell’s point is that good politics (or bad politics, for that matter) requires some sort of “organized collective action.” There’s nothing automatic about it. Left neoliberals—by which Farrell et al mean the likes of Yglesias, who seem to want a somewhat more humane social order, but are rather confused about how to get there—seem to think that all we need is a better set of technocrats to take us there. Wall Street and the Fortune 500 have a very well organized and impressively sustainable set of institutions—among them The Economist.
Apparently W.W. doesn’t see himself as part of that machinery. But isn’t that hegemony for you? When you’re a comfortable cog, it all looks natural to you. Which, I suppose, is why he ends his post with a metaphor out of nature, not society.