On this week’s episode of the Governance Podcast, our Director Prof. Mark Pennington interviews Prof. Will Davies from Goldsmiths, University of London. This episode is titled “How Neo-Liberal are Contemporary Modes of Governance?”

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The Guest

Prof. Will Davies is a Professor in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is also the Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Centre. His work focuses on the history of ideas and how expert knowledge shapes politics and society today. Prof Davies’ particular academic interests are in neoliberalism, the science of happiness, distrust in experts and the present crisis of liberalism.

Transcript

Mark Pennington

Welcome to the Governance Podcast hosted by the Centre for the Study of Governance and Society here at King’s College, University of London. My name is Mark Pennington, and I’m the Director of the Centre.

One of the most widely discussed topics in the field of governance and political economy in recent years concerns the impact of what are often called neoliberal ideas. Much of that debate is focused on the extent to which many of these ideas broadly associated with the promotion of markets, which rose to prominence in the late 1970s, and through the 1980s have continued to be influential in the post financial crisis era, and now in a COVID and CO and post COVID era, which has witnessed massive government interventions in economic life.

We’re very pleased to have with us today someone who’s written extensively and authoritatively on the topic of neoliberalism, Professor Will Davies. He’s based in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Goldsmiths, University of London. Among many other works, he’s the author of the 2016 book, The limits of Neoliberalism, and most recently, as a new special issue of the journal Theory, Culture and Society on the topic post-neoliberalism?

So welcome. Well, it’s very good to have you with us today. I wonder whether we could start off by talking about this new special issue of Theory, Culture and Society, which you’ve put out together with Nicholas Gane? What was the motivation for putting this volume together?

Will Davies

Yeah, thanks. And thanks for having me on the podcast. It actually began as is the way with the speed of academic publishing in a pre COVID world, and actually, the pieces would be fairly clear on that, I think, I mean, it’s, many of the pieces are, were written, I guess, over the course of sort of 2018 19, that kind of time. And the the initial motivation was that at that particular historical moment of, I guess, 2016 was it was a big year for people asking what was happening to globalisation, what was happening to neoliberalism, what was happening to the liberal elites that had become the target of these so-called populist revolts in the form of both the Brexit referendum, but also, obviously, the election of Donald Trump. Of course, there were also various so-called populist movements on both the left and the right that had been emerging across Europe in particular, from roughly a year 2012-13, that sort of time onwards with SYRIZA and Podemo. On the left, Salvini, the AfD on the right, these sorts of parties. And I think there was a sense that many people shared particularly when Brexit came along, and Trump that this was the revolt against some sense of neoliberalism, some idea of neoliberalism, certainly against globalisation, and after all people like Farage and Trump spoke very explicitly about how they were taking aim at the what Trump had called the globalists or the global elite and these sorts of things. People like Steve Bannon were also kind of fervently against these elites. And initially, this looked like it was a crisis for neoliberalism. Nick Gane and I, Nick is at work in the sociology department there. And the editors of Theory, Cultura Society, Mike Featherstone, and others wanted to at least kind of set out to explore what this all meant.

And we set about finding many interesting writers on topics of nationalism and its relationship to neoliberalism outright, but also some people who’ve done some of the most interesting recent historical work on neoliberalism, such as Melinda Cooper, Quinn Slobodian. And I think as the the issue came together, and also as more slightly more nuanced perspectives on these populist uprisings started to emerge, it became we sort of rode back from the idea that that these revolts were, were strictly posts in the illiberal, because clearly, as many people have pointed out, including Quinn Slobodian, but also others like Philip Moravsky, and people like Michelle Fair and others, that maybe this isn’t necessarily a kind of post near the blog, but is perhaps say, as William Calisson and Zachary Manfredis’ volume, Mutant Neoliberalism has it, is a kind of mutation in the in a gene that can be traced all the way back to the 1920s. And at various times the new liberal thought collective as Moravsky calls it has actually indulged in forms of nationalism, forms of racism, forms of efforts to defend patriarchal norms and this sort of thing. So therefore, that suggests that perhaps the appearance of figures like Viktor Orban, or whoever it might be, or the Brexit party, or these things aren’t necessarily kind of diametrically opposed to neoliberalism, but have quite a complicated history or genealogy that in some senses overlaps with aspects of neoliberalism. I think clearly, they are opposed to what you might call a third way, Cosmopolitan, 1990s vision of neoliberalism. But there are other traditions that perhaps they are more entangled with.

Mark Pennington

Okay, that’s great. So, I mean, I think this really raises an interesting question, that certainly struck me from reading the volume. And it is a question that’s quite long standing, which is really to just say, is there, and has there ever been, an essence of neoliberalism? I mean, if you look at I know, some of the papers in the volume refer to Foucault’s lectures on the birth of biopolitics, which have been very influential in the way that people categorise neoliberalism. I mean, he identifies the audio liberal strand associated with a number of continental thinkers. He identifies as Chicago economic string, but also refers to that overlap with that which he refers to as a narco liberalism. He identifies Hayek as a thinker who is somewhere in between these two different strands.

You then also have, although he doesn’t talk about them, specifically, public choice theorists, who were very much influenced, influenced by a rational actor, neoclassical economic model of man, but applied to politics. But you have that in very sharp contrast, I would say to the Hayekians, who reject the idea of economics as a useful model of, of human action. So when you have all of these contradictory traditions, they’re not completely contradictory. They do overlap in certain areas. To what extent can we say there is an essence of neoliberalism? 

Will Davies

Yeah, I think I mean, as someone who has a background in sociology, and has also written quite a lot about Foucault and been influenced by Foucault. I’m nervous of talking about essences, because that implies that there’s something kind of metaphysical going on, or some sort of ontology that has a kind of some sort of, in a sort of kernel of truth or, or a logic that is transcendent in some way. And I certainly would not suggest that. I think that we know as a matter of historical fact that many of the figures that you’ve just referred to were co travellers within what Philip Moravsky called the neoliberal thought collective and for Moravsky it was a network that Hayek was crucially involved in founding the Mont Pelerin Society in the 1940s. And that attracted philosophers, lawyers, economists from all over the world, from Freiburg, the only liberal school that you refer to the Chicago School of Neoclassical Economics, people like Milton Friedman and and others as well. And it also would have appealed to Austrian economists such as Hayek, obviously, Hayek, he was the founder but there were other figures who, Hayek’s philosophical buddies such as Michael Polanyi. And these sorts of people, Karl Popper, were also part of this as well, not often seen as neoliberals as such, but they weren’t they were part of it. So we can we can do a kind of genealogy of of the thinkers, which many people have done Moravsky but also globalists, which is a history of what he calls the Geneva School, which is particularly figures like Vilhelm Ripka, who was an early day liberal, but also figures who were interested in the construction of, of multilateral institutions that ultimately became realised Slobodian argues in the WTO in the 1990s.

So there’s a lot of work that’s been done on that. And there’s other other very good histories Nancy McLain on on the public choice school. Melinda Cooper’s superb family values on some of the kind of campaigning that these figures did around issues of the family and the dismantling of the welfare state from the 1960s onwards. What I suppose, I, in my own work would say, and this is in the limits of neoliberalism in my book that you refer to the beginning, is that neoliberalism, one thing which many of these thinkers share is in some sense an economic view of the state now, not necessarily the public choice view of the state, which is to say it’s a kind of rather reductionist neoclassical idea that bureaucrats and lawyers and, and representatives, legislators and representatives adjust as a sort of self interested as anyone else and this sort of thing, Patrick Buchanan and others, but that the state, the state can be understood, rationalised and criticised according to some kind of economic logic. 

Now, in the case of, of Hayek and Hayek, clearly is, you know this better than I, but Hayek clearly had a had a very strong understanding of what the state’s view was, but that it was a view that the state’s ultimately, its purpose was to, was to be found within the castle axiom of the of the free market in some sense. So, there isn’t the same liberal sense of a separate domain of politics in which there are these sort of rights and freedoms and so on, which are in a sort of separate ontological domain from the political in the way that there would be for someone like John Stuart Mill and these sorts of figures for whom the political and economic belong in very different spaces. I mean, Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, that economic freedom and political freedom are the same thing, and Milton Friedman and others bear this out. So the state is a type of economic actor, although it isn’t an exceptional economic actor, because it has particular exceptional capacities and purposes and so on. It’s not simply like a firm in the way that you know, some quite reductionist sort of economistic views might suggest. 

The second thing which I would say is that the state has a particular function in the upholding of competition of one kind or another. Now, the definition of competition is very varied in the tradition of neoliberal thought. Of course, there are order liberal views of competition, which are quite sort of formalistic and strictly anti monopolistic, and so on. And then there are Chicago views of competition, which are much more sympathetic to, to competition.

And then there are views of a competitive nurse that I talk about in my book, which is more about trying to kind of, so the kind of cultural and political seeds of a dynamic and enterprising society and economy which are, which is something that someone like Michael Porter, I examined the thing, you know, this the work of these sort of business strategies, but that for me, competition becomes a central constitutional principle of economy and society, and which the state has a central purpose in upholding I mean, Hayek argues in the Road to Serfdom that you can either plan against competition, which is what any type of totalitarian or social democratic or Keynesian project does, or you can plan for competition, which is what a neoliberal state does, and this creates the kind of, you know, logic of Thatcherism in a way that there are, there is an alternative. But there’s basically only two options, which is, because there is an alternative, but there’s quasi socialist options. And then there are pro competition options. And I think it’s that sort of that kind of logic, which I think you can see, it’s there in the work of Ludwig von Mises, back in the 1920s, as well, which is that you either have a system in which the central goals of society are established by some kind of imposed consensus, but by the state possibly involving violence, possibly involving something quite totalitarian, or you have a system in which the values and the preferences and the tastes of society are in some sense of, sort of competition with each other. And there’s, it’s a brutal logic, but it’s also quite difficult to argue it. And that’s why partly how the force of public intellectuals such as Milton Friedman was so powerfully felt from the 1960s onwards was simply say, Well, how are you going to agree on a common cognitive goal for society, other than via some kind of competitive logic?

Mark Pennington

That’s yeah, I think that’s a very fair characterization. Actually, I think that’s excellent. I’m just thinking about, you know, the way we think about the state and how it relates to neoliberalism, but also actually to other ideas. How can we think about it? I mean, you mentioned Foucault there. If you think about Foucault’s understanding of the state. I mean, in my view, as I see, what he’s saying is that the state, like anything else, has no essence. The state is really just a site at which various discourses sort of either cohere with each other or contradict each other. And that seems to me very relevant to thinking about how we understand what has happened over the last 40 or 50 years. And what’s happening now, in terms of thinking of the state as being a sort of amalgam of different discursive influences. So if we were to think about neoliberalism, what would you say have been the most influential of these different strands? How have they interacted with each other? And how did they actually form? Maybe hybrids with non neoliberal discourses? 

Will Davies

Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, so I mean, this also relates a little bit to my my contribution to the Theory, Culture, Society volume, which is called the revenge of sovereignty on government, which is about sort of, I guess, the last six, seven years of  what’s happened within within to neoliberal states, which I argue is partly an elimination of a kind of economistic rationale in favour of a more sovereigntist rationale, I mean, so for Foucault, I mean, Foucault argues, I mean, he gave two years of lectures on liberalism and neoliberalism, 77 to 78 and 78 to 79. And in the first set, just publishers Security, Territory, Population, he developed this notion of government, which is became hugely influential in particularly in in British sociology in the 1990s, via the work of people like Nichola Rose, Thomas Osborne, Andrew Berry, these sorts of figures, and that what I think people found so interesting and exciting about that was that effectively what Foucault was opening the door to which which rose and others really then ran with was this a vision of, of state power that actually sort of dissenters the state, in some sense, but actually, the way society is governed is much more about sort of, this coincided instantly with a whole literature around governance by people like Rhodes and others in the 90s. Christopher Hurd on new public management, and he sort of figures that there was this sudden kind of sense that actually maybe the state was not as, as Hobbes had said, is kind of a central repository of some kind of absolutist overwhelming power upon which civil society is then we’re through by which civil society is then founded and made possible, but actually, perhaps the power that is most important to what we think of as politics and the state is actually dispersed through society by some forms of public private partnership, fire alliances between centralised bureaucrats and decentralised social scientists, professionals, expert, medics, psychiatrist that actually what Foucault called governmentality is this kind of dispersal of, of discursive and calculative logics that have no centre, they don’t sort of emanate outwards from the state, in the sense of as the way from a sort of strict from a rather traditional vision of state sovereignty as sort of founded by Hobbes, but then really kind of also adopted by, say, Max Weber, with his famous definition of the modern state as having a monopoly on legitimate use of violence. But that actually governmentality is it sort of scattered and dispersed and it has no, if you go and try and find the sub essence of it, the central you won’t find it, it sort of flows in all directions. And I suppose this captured something quite light, whether this I’m not saying that. I mean, Foucault, as you mentioned, didn’t, didn’t write or speak about the Virginia School of Public Choice explicitly, but certainly, I think that what Foucault’s that, in some ways, American neoliberalism, which is fervently anti metaphysical, if you read people like Milton Friedman, but also, one of the schools that I is I discussed in my book, the law and economics School of, of Richard Posner.

Gary Becker, to some extent, Stigler was was sort of at sort of adjacent to them what they were particularly concerned with, and I think this is a tradition that comes from American pragmatism actually, which isn’t necessarily on the on the right or the left, but which is trying to strip politics of its of its metaphysics, trying to turn politics back into a rather present mundane question of who benefits, you’ve pursued this, this course of action? What are the costs? What are the benefits? This is a very sort of mundane, rather sort of, you know, commonsensical approach to both politics and law, which is, well, you say this law is good, but what are the effects? You know, like, who’s actually benefiting from it? Maybe it’s not a good law, because maybe we can’t kind of prove that it actually does anyone any good. This is the kind of rather sort of, I suppose deceptively simple logic of the Chicago School and the law and economics movement, and also public choice school, which is, because after all, it, it can be, you know, you can you can you can use it to dismantle potentially quite important laws as well. But it’s sort of, it’s a rather anti metaphysical view. Now, you could say that, that the governmentality school and the focus on governance, which really took off in the 90s came about at a time when states appeared to have sort of rather sort of given away their sovereignty you know, that they’ve given it away to the global market, you know, sort of era of, you know, this was a time when your great Alan Green famously said it doesn’t matter who’s the American president anymore because ultimately market forces rule the world, you know, that, that ultimately, you know, politics is just sort of for show. And actually, real power has now been sort of completely handed over to the sort of sublime force of, of the global economy in some way. And the rest is just, you know, tinkering with governance mechanisms, trying to align incentives of public servants and teachers and doctors and sort of everything becomes rather mechanistic and empiricists in some way. I think about what happened in 2008. And this is why my paper picks up a sudden rediscovery that the state had never given away that much sovereignty at all. Because actually, what the state had to do in 2008, was to draw on the fact that it is able to borrow and spend and take emergency decisions on a scale that nothing else is not, you know, Jeff Bezos can’t do that, you know, the global economy in some kind of diffuse sense, can’t take those sorts of decisions. So that’s what people like Gordon Brown, and what you know, the fingers around, George W. Bush were doing over the autumn of 2008. And on through 2009, was a demonstration that actually sovereignty resided with the state, that the state is capable of doing exceptional things that no other actor in the economy is capable of doing. But I think the interesting thing, and this is where I think, you know, one of the most interesting books on this kind of question of sovereignty and the economy, which I was very influenced by, is Joseph Burgess’ The Ascendancy of Finance. His argument is that actually states have always implicitly shared their sovereignty with financial markets since the since the 17th century, since the birth of central banking and the birth of, of financial markets, as we now understand them, and the birth of national debt as we now understand them, but there is a sudden explosion of sovereigntist discourses from 2008 onwards.

Now, in terms of going back to your original question, so rather than a long answer to the question, but I mean, you after that moment, this is when people went back to read the auto liberals go went back to read Hayek as well, and realise that actually, you know, there was quite a strong concern with sovereignty and some of these neoliberal texts, maybe not in the American neoliberals, who, as I say, have us a rather more kind of pragmatist. empiricist approach to power. But actually, the question of decision, the question of exception, the question of sovereignty is there in oil, and Ripka, and particularly in the German near liberals, some of whom actually were quite influenced by Carl Schmitt as Quinn Slobodian’s history shows. So I think that there is a sort of a different view of what neoliberalism means after 2008, and what it looked like between sort of roughly sort of, you know, the early 1980s, and 2008.

Mark Pennington

But if we follow up on that, so if we think before we just let’s come on to the, like the post financial crisis period in a moment, but if we just pursue this line, that sort of governmentality line, I guess what I’m driving at, and this goes to the idea about what is neoliberalism is if you take this view that, you know, there isn’t a sovereign centre that’s generating these power systems, it’s all coming from below. Neoliberalism however, we understand it was not the only set of discursive practices, or ideas that was circulating through, for example, the 1990s. So if you mean, if you read it anyway, you are familiar with, say Mark Beaver’s work on democratic governance. I mean, he’s a freak codium to all intents and purposes, and he argues that communitarian discourse is net discourses about networks were very influential in that period that couldn’t necessarily easily be described as neoliberal. So what you end up with actually are hybrid discourses, which have got strands of neoliberalism, but strands of something else. And so I guess my question is, then, how do we evaluate what’s actually happening when we’re, what we’re really talking about is this hybrid discursive realm. I guess it’s fair to say, sometimes there are hegemonic influences that some are more influential than others. But is that what people mean by neoliberalism that it was more influential than these other discourses? 

Will Davies

Well, I think partly what they mean by neoliberalism, as far as the 90s is concerned, is the death of socialism. I mean, that’s the I mean, obviously, you know, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, was the sort of confirmation or the lack of an alternative in some sense, and, and also the death of a project which, of course, cannot go away altogether. And in some ways, it comes back with the whole problem of climate change, but a project of a political mandating of goals that usurps the logic of the market and of course, you know, in Hayek’s analysis, this is the Road to Serfdom. Is this claim that it’s possible to sort of come up with a higher form of knowledge than that which is generated by the process then. 

And in that sense, there’s a sort of an acceptance that the market will decide things and the market can know things that states can’t any longer seek to Trump in some way. And that, of course, the Bay Area where that after that argument is made, it becomes most kind of powerful is in relation to finance and financial markets. And the sense that actually, you know, that greater and greater and greater liquidity translates into lower risk. And the argument that that, of course, is precisely what was then proved wrong in 2008. But the way that argument works is a neoliberal one, which is that the more actors there are in the market, the more knowledge there will be within the financial markets, and therefore the prices will become more and more kind of truthful in some way. I mean, Foucault says that, ultimately, what happens with neoliberalism actually says this about liberalism from Smith onwards, but but I think becomes more acute neoliberalism is that the market becomes a zone of truth of who go argues that the price signal is not simply something concerning welfare and sort of efficiency and the kinds of things that economists think markets are about, but actually the price system. It attains a kind of constitutional function of generating facts and revealing truths about things. And I think that in a very hegemonic way, I hear your point about these, these other discourses being fed in and of course, you know, Blair, and Clintonism, there are all sorts of things going on. There was, you know, Robert Putnam and Social Capital and there were other notions of I mean, there were other right wing discourses that had to do with sort of dependency and other sorts of things that also were fed in. And yes, communitarian ideas, people Etzioni, and these sorts of figures were, were in the mix. 

So I completely hear, hear what you’re saying. And, of course, you know, the, the argument is constantly used against the very idea of neoliberalism is oh, you know, you call Tony Blair, a neoliberal, but actually, the state grew during that time, which it’s not that difficult to deal with that as an argument, actually, because there’s plenty of I think the idea of a left neoliberalism makes perfect sense. And, you know, Foucault was quite quick on this to show that, that people like Russia and others in the 1960s, were arguing for sort of intervention as welfare states, but intervention as welfare states, aimed towards boosting employability and competitiveness and flexibility of people’s kind of relationships to their own skills and their own careers and this sort of thing, which is a distinctive near liberal approach to weapons day. So I think I think you’re right, I think there were lots of other and the other thing, which I think also needs to be mentioned, which I’ve sort of alluded to, in relation to, to people, you know, I mentioned Christopher Hood’s work on new public management, you know, managerialism. Really, what what in the UK anyway, from the late 80s onwards, you could say that, that just if that’s spent the the early 80s, fighting inflation and the trade unions, once those battles were sort of, more or less won by the late 1980s, Thatcherism and then subsequently major and Blairism becomes a project of public service reform as much as anything else in terms of things like you get the birth of Ofsted in education, you get the our beloved Research Excellence Framework curled exercise was was was at a similar time, you know, sort of, and sort of what Mike Power from from LSE, calls the audit society, this kind of explosion of audit, so and the explosion of regulators, you know, Ofsted, I mean, that’s much later but you know, this, these various regulators that the way society will function is by taking the state out in a fairly neoliberal fashion, but only certain kinds of state Meanwhile, a different version of the state this this version, which is you say might be it might be this work is concerned with is this, this rise of governance. And that is a vision of technocracy but of a sort of, I guess, you could say a sort of post socialist or kind of non socialist vision of technocracy. It’s not a technocracy that someone Langa would have recognised. It’s a technocracy that oversees the conditions of competition and is involved in kind of providing people with scores a lot of the time, is provided you know, Ofsted goes around deciding which school is outstanding, which one is excellent, which one is good, the ref decide whether our papers are four star or three star, two star something. So you get this kind of birth of it of a sort of referee technocrat limited disciplinary regime if you could ratio but it’s disciplined by competition. Because Foucault’s notion of discipline, in discipline, a punishment is a normalising disciplinary power, which is trying to teach people to become average, basically. So it’s about trying to show people how to, you know, use a knife and fork in the correct fashion, or to walk and stand in line. Whereas this is a form of disciplinary power in which we’re constantly trying to outdo the person who’s doing better than us effectively. And that has a kind of economic logic, but it also has a kind of ethical and political dimension to it that many few codium scholars have been interested in. 

Mark Pennington

So do you see, you know, what we have at the moment mean, lots of people are going on almost incessantly, it seems to me about the importance of big data, artificial intelligence, all of these sorts of things, are those these see those as part of the same process of this sort of monitoring type regime where you have these various classifications that have been monitored? Where people compare each other through things like big data techniques? 

Will Davies

Yeah, I mean, the the really interesting thing about this is, I think, you know, if big data is really curious, because big data is very unlike a conventional audit, in of the sort that saved Mike Power is what has worked on over the years, because audits conventionally are a little bit like, well, they’re tests they have, they tend to involve the publication of criteria. So we know with, you know, the ref has all of these endless documents about what counts as internationally important, and all these kinds of things that you know, what different scores mean, and so on. So there is a very important emphasis within liberal and neoliberal governance placed upon the idea of transparency, which is about so we’ve got these categories. And we’ve got these criteria, and therefore you know how you’re going to end up in these different categories, because we’re also making these criteria known to you. Now, of course, I’m assuming that the rep is a curious one, because after they decide everything, they then pretty much pulp all of the evidence. So it’s not, there aren’t very many ways of going back and finding out why your paper was was given them up, but it was or anything like that, but nevertheless, there is some kind of form of procedural regularity, big data, does not have these kind of a priori kind of commiseration devices, because effectively the the epistemology of big data is collect everything you can and then try to spot patterns within the data. 

So it’s not an effort to go out and collect data according to a particular method, which is also how, you know, the social sciences tend to work or market research. And these are things which we’ve got these types, and we’re going to find out who goes in which one, instead, it’s an attempt to sweep as much data as you can, and then algorithmically. In some sense, the cat classifications are emergent from the data rather than the data being collected in order to fit the classifications. Now that has very different kinds of political implications. It’s closer to what Mrs. What Dillers refers to in his, in his critique of Foucault as not a society of discipline, but a society of control. And if discipline is normalising that is, it kind of puts people into it sort of brings people into categories and gets them to behave according to types. Control, is it kind of constant or nudging, if you like, which is you know, a bit like sort of behavioural economics sense of nudging, constant steering constant, kind of assessing and it’s very much focused on real time. And the interesting thing to me about big data is that the precedent for big data epistemology is the one precisely that Hayek found in the catallaxy of the market. And this is and has been celebrated by those who have in the past have held up financial markets as the kind of height of as the height of transparency and the height of reason, because in a way, what you know, the price signal of a financial market is doing is providing this constant update on how things are right this moment, they are, you know, what some people call kind of nowcasting as opposed to kind of future cut off forecasting devices. And in a way, you know, the promise of big data is to be able to put decision makers in touch with everything as they are at the moment in some way that is a kind of a sort of hyper sensory device, rather than a hyper rationalising device. And that, I think, owes more to the hierarchy and critique of social science as he developed in the 1930s, you know, of scientism, in social science than it does to the traditions of audit and social science themselves. 

Mark Pennington

Wouldn’t that depend both on how people actually conceptualise what big data is about because, I mean, one of the key points is that prices are different, prices are not the same as statistics. It strikes me that there are a lot of people who speak about the data, equate data or statistics with the kind of thing that prices do. And that’s precisely one of the things that Hayek would have denied on the grounds that there’s an awful lot of tacit information that people have that actually cannot be expressed in a statistical form. So, I mean, my take on that would be, you know, people in a market economy can use the data in different sorts of ways. But if you’re taking the Hayekian view, it cannot be a replacement for what prices do. Because prices are not statistics. 

Will Davies

No, but I mean, if you say, depends what kind of data we’re talking about of course, but I think there’s an important epistemological distinction between, let’s say, a theory lead data collection process, which I think is what someone that Hayek was opposed to, because it was a kind of Platonism. Effectively, it’s like, an elevation of ideas above, above experience and sensations,

which is what most social sciences are. So you know, if you were a sociologist of stratification, you have these different types of, of where people are in terms of their professional classes, and so on. And then on the basis of that you design your survey instrument in order to decide what to put where to put it in. So it’s sort of theory leads, research, design, and then kind of determines methodology and in some sense, influences data. Whereas what I think is really interesting at the moment, and Mike Savage, his book, new book on inequality is really good on this is the effectively what a lot what we mean by Big Data is sweeping up quantitative evidence that happens to have been accumulated by default, not by design, and Savage is that one of the great examples of this savage would be Thomas Piketty, because what Pickety does, where his his work on inequality comes from over 100 years, is going into kind of archives in the way that historians habitually have done and finding it in sort of tax records. So it’s not about trying to kind of use devices that have been built in order to find information about inequality, it’s trying to kind of inductively sort the pieces together on the basis of the data lying around. Now, this then means that the question of the completeness of data is no longer one about validity of theory, but about extent of surveillance. So the quality of big data, or the sort of the validity of big data, in some sense comes down to the sort of the reach of one’s platform. 

Now, if you’re Amazon, and you’ve got Alexa in people’s houses, the data starts to become far closer to high exhibition of price than to say, you know, dirt kinds of vision of statistics, because Alexa is listening to people the entire time, whether they like it or not, and it’s not just listening to what they say, it’s listening to their tone of voice, it’s trying to find out different forms of emotional distress that people might be under, it is trying to piece that together with what they do on the internet equally, you know, Facebook is tracking people, whether or not they’re using Facebook, but that’s the way their API’s work is that, you know, you can be on other websites, but Facebook is tracking it. So effectively, what these companies are in the job of, in my view, is effectively trying to build platforms that, maybe they’ll never have as much reach as the global market, which ultimately has a kind of epistemic authority that no single human can ever match for. But nevertheless, if you build a platform that has that much reach, you are beginning to break into a kind of epistemic territory that the Hayek belongs to the market, rather than to the kind of rather rather more kind of, I guess, you know, theory led epistemology that we traditionally associate with social science. So in that sense, I think Big Data is potentially a kind of, you know, could bridge between a Hayekian worldview, and the worldview of those that Hayek was trying to oppose?

Mark Pennington

That’s really interesting. Really, really interesting, thank you very much for that. I wonder if we could go on just in the final part of the conversation to think about, you know, where is neoliberalism going? Or where is the current sort of policy environment going as you see it? I mean, in your own piece, in this volume, you talk about a sort of anti neoliberal trend, which is this sort of attempt to repatriate supply chains, arguments, which sound quite protectionist in many ways, which are sort of against the logic of the global market. Could you say a little bit more about that and how influential you think that trend is, certainly in the context of perhaps Brexit or some of the other events that are happening in Europe relative to other sorts of trends that might push in a different direction? 

Will Davies

Yeah, I mean, it’s, you know, that we keep being kind of blindsided by developments in the Bible history is, is sort of so kind of alive at the moment is you can beat you can get things wrong, and I’m sure I’ve got a few things wrong and in bits and pieces I’ve written over recent years. And as I mentioned, this special issue was put together before COVID. We then wrote an introduction which tried to reflect on the kind of consequences of COVID. In particular, you know, that COVID, there are a couple of pre-2020 dimensions of political economy that seem to be exacerbated. One is the kind of re bordering of the world, you know, the sort of deepening of kind of national

differences and boundaries. And the second is the ongoing rise of the platform economy of one kind or another. I mean, these are kind of fairly obvious consequences of what’s happened over the last two years, 18 months. So I think in terms of this sort of repatriation is re nationalisation, I mean, clearly. I mean, populism offered populist rhetoric. And the appeal of populism, clearly in an electoral sense, was partly a kind of a desire to reject the metropolis that is the elites, the central banks, and this sort of thing. And clearly, some of that rhetoric has now become normalised within well, certainly in the UK, I mean, whether Johnson is actually serious about sort of levelling up and this sort of thing, and but nevertheless, the sort of cultural aspect of Brexit and science seems to become a kind of a sort of mainstream part of British politics, the fact that Labour has to go to such lengths to try to convince people that it is on the side of the military, I mean, partly a legacy of the Corbyn leadership, but nevertheless, there is a sense that the cultural has become obviously more important over the last five years. I think that, you know, some of the interesting things to watch are, obviously, what central banks do about inflation. I mean, this is a huge one, because if neoliberalism, by the probably the most conventional histories of neoliberalism, not with neoliberal thought, but of neoliberal policy, see it as beginning with the monetarist assault on inflation in the late 1970s, and the early 1980s. And that’s seen as being the kind of, you know, the transition from Keynesian or the out of the crisis Keynesianism into near liberalism was these punitively high interest rates in the late 70s, early 80s, which also created very, very high unemployment. 

Now, we know there are curious signs that are not being repeated, because after all, we currently see inflation rising at the moment in the UK, just rates are not going up, we see tightening of labour markets. I mean, Andrew Bailey has said that if we did see wage lead inflation, then he would put interest rates up. But often they speak much more hawkish Lee than they actually behave at the moment. So they seem to kind of send out these sort of signals to the market, they’re not doing much about them. Jerome Powell in the United States, in the summer of 2020, said, he would now be prepared to accept some kind of comment of how he put it, but sort of medium term inflation, he sees that as being a something that he would accept, again, this is a complete defiance of sort of Friedman, economics and so on. And I think that that has to possibly be seen in the United States against the backdrop of a possible collapse of the Republic, really, you know, I mean, what happened in January of this year with the storming of the Capitol, I think there has to be that there seems to be a recognition that unless there can be some kind of greater sharing of prosperity, which might involve some some some tightening of labour markets, wage inflation, and so on, that actually some serious kind of there might be a very, very serious political fallout at that, in that sense there is that it’s the kind of end of neoliberalism, there’s a terrific blog post on the New Left Review blog post by the French economist, Cedric Durand, called 1979. In reverse, which basically makes this kind of argument I’m currently making, actually, it’s probably sort of been very influenced by that particular piece, but it’s, it’s kind of look at how some key tenets of neoliberalism have been abandoned. Meanwhile, of course, there is, you know, the fact that Brexit is sort of kind of, more or less out of the way at the moment and Biden is in power means that the English speaking world is no longer quite so alarmed by by the sort of drift towards the, the power of the far right. But, you know, certain nationalist, xenophobic, anti refugee Islamophobic, but also anti green forces on the right have not they haven’t disappeared, I mean, these things are, you know, what, Farage, his next move in the UK is many people are thinking, you know, it could turn into a referendum on net zero. But equally you know, there are very complicated political forces all over Europe at the moment and Trump is currently favourite to be the next United States president so yeah, I mean, the kind of the political turbulence of the last few years, we took our eye off it in relation to COVID. And it’s so respectful but, you know, some of these aspects of the kind of post neoliberal question have not gone away.

Mark Pennington

I mean, just thinking about the question of nationalism, which I think is very important here.

Liberalism, not just neoliberalism, but sort of liberalism, as a sort of philosophical perspective has always had this sort of interesting tension with nationalism, in the sense that, you know, nations seem to be, in some sense, anti individualistic. But on the other hand, many liberal movements have been influenced by ideas about national self determination, or self governance, or these kinds of ideas, which you can think about in the context of Brexit, or some of the other movements that are operative in Europe. And I guess it takes us back in time to, you know, the question I started off with about whether there’s an essence of neoliberalism or not, or and how useful it is to, to use those kinds of terms. So I read the piece where she was trying to make the argument that some of the things that are going on in Hungary are a kind of mutation of neoliberalism. But that, that struck me as being I find that argument implausible in the sense that we also have the nationalism of the Scottish National Party, but we wouldn’t necessarily say that that is neoliberal. So unless you’re very precise about how the sort of concepts are mapped onto each other.

Will Davies

I mean, I think so that, you know, again, it’s a question about different genealogies of neoliberalism. And as I said earlier, I don’t believe there’s an essence of neoliberalism. I think what they’re, I mean, directly gave us paper talks about all bands of government as being Ordo nationalist. Yeah. And the Ordo is a kind of as a sort of reference toward a reference to the order liberalism of the Freiburg school, and the order they brought the audit liberals, you know, it’s easy to sort of, I think, part of what what the histories of neoliberalism have done really well, with Slobodian, Melinda Cooper, Wendy Brown and others have done very usefully is to to show how ambivalence certain aspects of the new liberal intellectual trajectory where if we, if we’re willing to say that there wasn’t neoliberal, intellectual trajectory, I think it’s, I think it’s a more reasonable thing to say then that there is an essence because, after all, the first generation Chicago School via the Audi liberals, I mean, they saw themselves as allies, they saw themselves as sort of outcasts from a kind of Keynesian corporatist socialist establishment and they saw themselves as being the kind of fringe that needed to save liberty and I mean, this was self conscious. I don’t think it’s too much of a reach to say that they had a common project.

But I think it’s worth you know, one of the things what’s interesting and you know, is that the many of the order levels the other person who vana bone fells work is really good on on auto liberals, which shows quite morally conservative, they were, you know, not like, I mean, Milton Friedman was a libertarian and a relativist, frankly, you know, he was he was, he thought live and let live, you know, if you want to go to war, that’s fine. But you should be paid properly for, you know, this sort of sense of kind of like, you know, that the market is really good, because it doesn’t ever force anyone to tell what was important or didn’t want to do that kind of thing.

And whereas the the auto liberals have Ripka, in particular UPCA and all he can burn and others very strong sense of patriarchal norms of the property owning family, as being the has been the basis for what I come up with is all it comes down, maybe it’s been a bone folds kind of own term, but of what they called Deep Proletarianization, that the threat facing Europe in the 1930s and 40s. Was that a mass society that people become part of this kind of mob, you know, sort of that they join trade unions that they get behind strong leaders, and they become part of this mass, and the way to fight that was not actually the individual or the consumer, or, I mean, obviously, it’s the market. But the crucial sort of addition to the market as Facha herself also is the family and that the family had to have strong gender roles, property owning, patriarchal and Christian as well, I mean, that there’s a sort of strong Christian dimension to this. Now, you know, unfortunately, that also often went together with some quite strong racial hierarchies. I mean, this is what Slobodian book reveals in quite shocking details of how you know and Melinda Cooper’s contribution to our volume and standing theory customers 90 edition, which is about Murray Rothbard, the American libertarian who had very racist ideas about who was capable of living an independent property owning lifestyle, you know, that, you know, yes, liberal liberal individualism, but not for everybody you know that some people have the kind of biological makeup that allows them to become strong, property owning decision makers, who can act in a kind of, you know, rational, independent fashion in a market society, but not everybody. And I think that, you know, again, Nancy McLean’s work on public choice reveals some very ugly racial dimensions to some of the kind of early concerns of people like Buchanan. Now, you know, somebody might say, well, eugenics was accepted across the political spectrum in those days and so on. So it’s not that they were sort of uniquely racist. But nevertheless, you could argue that there is an aspect to their arguments, which drew in important ways on ideas of what was natural that I think is what is worth hanging onto is the record so that they themselves were kind of essentialist about certain things. 

Mark Pennington

I think that’s, that’s a fair point about, about the order liberals, the kind of communitarian or conservative aspects, there’s a moralism there. I think that’s a fair point. I also think you’re right about some rough ideas, or some of the people associated with him. And it’s actually been responsible for a kind of schism in the libertarian movement in the United States because of those associations. I don’t think and I hope you don’t mind me saying this, like I don’t live in Maclean’s portrayal of Buchanan is accurate at all. I mean, lots of people have actually on earth now I noticed him explicitly saying that he didn’t want educational vouchers to be used in a way that would allow for racial segregation. In fact, he wrote to the Institute of Economic Affairs, saying, if you’re advocating vouchers in the UK, be aware of the fact that they’ve been manipulated by some people in America to push for segregation. I mean, Buchanan wasn’t egalitarian. He believed in 100% inheritance tax. So he wanted most things to be left to the market, because he felt it was more in his view democratic than politics. But I don’t think it’s, I think she’s wrong to characterise him as having racist overtones.

 

Will Davies

Okay. Yeah. No, I’m glad you did say that. Because it’s, you know, it’s important to, to offer the other side, I know, that book was extremely controversial. I mean, I think that you know, what, I mean, Slobodian is a more recent work, it’s not in this volume. But he, you know, he’s, I think he’s currently working on on this, but he has this this article, if anyone Google’s high ex bastards, I think it’s called, but which is about particular figures on the American libertarian rights, who basically dropped all of what looked like sort of almost the sort of quasi social democratic aspect of it, which is, you know, we need to kind of pay for roads and pay for roads, you know, a basic social safety net and the stuff that’s in the road serfdom and actually looks quite left wing by some standards.

But, you know, there’s a sort of, there’s a, there’s a set of descendants, who have grasped very heavily onto Ludwig von Mises, at the Mises Institute in Alabama, and these sorts of places, who have basically sort of tried to ally a extreme kind of a narco capitalist respect for the markets with a kind of eugenicist and nationalist idea of the how the market will what kinds of hierarchies will should not have its will or should, but somewhere between the two will emerge. Once you have a properly competitive, properly enterprising economy, then these more kind of eugenicist hierarchies will emerge. And, and this is partly I think, if I don’t mean to kind of quintard should just speak as a word, but I think it’s partly an attempt to sort of grasp, kind of, you know, you know, was Trump purely an aberration and, and a sort of a sort of disruption against the market? Or could we see Trump also actually as sort of something that has emerged from within the American right, which is actually not necessarily at the the kind of enemy of neoliberalism, but a kind of Splinter movement, that along with sort of Charles Murray and concepts of, of intelligence, science and this sort of thing has turned heavily towards notions of, of biology, of nature of race, have sort of nationalist notions of of difference. And has tried to kind of marry all of that in ways that others needed would have nothing to do with that be very clear, but has tried to marry a lot of that stuff to some kind of argument for sort of, you know, red blooded, free market capitalism. 

Mark Pennington

If you’re looking for a good example of that, I would point to Hans Hermann Hoppy, who was very influenced by Murray Rothbard. And he has explicitly got, I would say, a sort of racist reading of, of a certain kind of libertarianism. So I’m not sure whether Quinn’s nobody has looked at him specifically. But if you’re looking for someone who fits the description of what you put forward, it would be him. But interestingly, he was a, his PhD supervisor was Habermas. So there are interesting connections there. I don’t believe Habermas would endorse those kinds of views. But if you’re actually looking at the genealogy of these people’s ideas, it’d be interesting to try to understand how someone like Hoppy, he’s influenced by, on the one hand, the Rothbardian, a Rothbardian interpretation of Austrian economics and Habermass in ethics at the same time. He’s a very interesting character. 

Will Davies

I mean, the one thing which was if I may just add one more kind of detail from the theory, cultural society collection, I mean, there’s a couple of papers in that one by Harrison Smith and Roger Barrows on Urbex, which is a kind of near reactionary, software project. And another paper by Alan Finlayson. On the alt right, and some of the kind of rhetoric of outright communities online. And I think what the relevance of these to what we’re talking about is that what what these, these, these, these, this sort of, it’s almost like a splinter from the splinter movement in a way because it’s sort of it’s a politics of pure access as as harrismith and Roger Barrows paper explores. It’s a politics of such a radical libertarianism that it wants to sort of effectively abandon territory altogether in some way, bit like the sort of seasteading and the kind of Peter Thiel stuff. But equally, you know, what Alan, Phyllis, in his paper shows is the sort of this hatred of what is perceived to be a politically correct, liberal elite. And I think that what those movements suggests is that the neoliberalism of if we call it that, if you have sort of the 1990s Third Way, sort of left a kind of a legacy of, or whether you call it neoliberalism, whether you call it kind of governance, governmentality, and so on, but it sort of created this kind of professional managerial class of technocrats of the people running all of these kind of, you know, regulators, central banks, Ofsted or whatever. 

The world seemed to now be run by these sort of over-educated, liberal metropolitan types who seem to have all of this power, they weren’t elected, they didn’t seem to respect the markets, who the hell were they? Oh, they will probably all know each other. And they’re all voting for these kinds of centrist liberal parties. And justice in some ways, Brexit was a kind of rebellion against that class, whether real or imagined, equally, I think what Phyllis and Smith and Baross paper is about is about a sort of really kind of a radical rejection of, of everything that the government and the state seem to have become us initially in the name of some vision of globalisation and so on. But ultimately, this has become another form of big state socialism. And, you know, this idea that actually, you know, all of these central bankers are probably sort of, and some of it verges into forms of racism and anti semitism and so on. But conspiracy theory, it this is the more radical end and this this is this is the end, which doesn’t have, you know, an institute in Alabama and a think tank in Washington, DC, this is the, this is the stuff that goes on, it goes on online, but arguably is quite powerful when it comes to, you know, the early career of some political career, some like Donald Trump.

Mark Pennington

Okay, well, that’s, that’s great. So I want to just finish off by saying, you know, what’s next for you? What are you going to be working on next?

Will Davies

Well, what am I doing? I mean, I’m quite into inheritance at the moment. So I’ve been kind of doing this work for a while trying to think through different notions of inheritance both in an economic ecological end and and existential sense of which of course, I mean, Pickett is work and, and others has done a lot to highlight how important inheritance has become within contemporary capitalism. So that’s something which I’m, I’m trying to kind of develop into a larger project. I’ve done some initial work on it, but that’s something I want to explore. Because it’s a concept that I think particularly thanks to Piketty people now are really very aware of, of the sort of, you know, people studying the super rich are looking at things like family offices and, and these sorts of things that manage wealth. Brooke Harrington’s work on wealth management is fascinating. But I think that that’s something which I’m trying to sort of look a little bit more into at the moment.

Mark Pennington

Okay, well, that’s great. And I look forward to reading about that in due course. So thank you very much. 

Will Davies

Well, thanks very much for having me.