U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Great Persuasion and Ideas in History

As a momentary sidebar to our Kenneth Burke Week, I wanted briefly to introduce a passage from a bracing review of Angus Burgin’s 2012 Merle Curti Award-winning history The Great Persuasion which just appeared in the most recent issue of the New Left Review. (My thanks to Jeremy Kessler for drawing my attention to it.) The review is by Joshua Rahtz, and his primary critiques of Burgin’s work are that Burgin’s method of doing intellectual history is both idealist and mechanical, and that his focus on ideas leads him into a political and geographical parochialism.

My interest in sharing this passage, though, is not to discuss the merits or demerits of Burgin’s work, which has deservedly received great praise for its dextrous reassembly of the intricate dynamics of the Mont Pèlerin Society and the transnational development of intellectual arguments on behalf of free markets after the calamity of the Great Depression. Rather, I want to open a space to discuss the broader implications of Rahtz’s critique of this kind of intellectual history.

To be polemical, is the kind of political whitewashing and the attraction to “great personalities” of which Rahtz accuses Burgin a built-in tendency for idealist intellectual history? More after the jump.

Burgin makes much of ‘the role of ideas in history’, but his method often appears less philological than simply idealist. In his account, economists transmit their wholly conscious intent in a language whose meaning is self- evident, designed to produce—and in this story, successfully producing—the exact desired effect. In this way, Burgin renders ideas as inert quantities, their varying expression across time and space the result of the degree of their dilution. The necessary adjunct to this theory of historical causality is the determining force of great personalities, administering the doses. Rather than qualitatively distinct, their ideas are determined by the ratio of two ingredients: state and market. It is striking that an intellectual history of economics should have produced this mechanical schema, the kind for which economic history itself is usually censured. What is absent is any assessment of ideas as accurate representations of reality—in this case, of the actual dynamics of the world capitalist economy.

Burgin’s claim that neo-liberals only achieved policy influence in the US involves an extraordinary edulcoration of the group’s politics. He simply fails to mention the earlier role of Mont Pèlerin Society member Alfred Müller-Armack in Nazi Germany. An NSDAP member and author of the Nazi pamphlet Staatsidee und Wirtschaftsordnung im neuen Reich (1933), Müller-Armack became an adviser to Ludwig Erhard and an official in the Ministry of Economics during the post-war period. Nor does Burgin mention that [Louis] Rougier, organizer of the Lippmann colloquium, was funded by the industrialist Marcel Bourgeois, a backer of Jacques Doriot’s fascist Parti Populaire Français. The aporia is so great that Burgin at one point describes the neo-liberals as ‘vocal anti-fascists’. Where The Great Persuasion broaches the topic of the Chicago economists in Chile, it is largely to commend Friedman’s sensitivity in not accepting an honorary degree from Pinochet. There is no mention here of the open subversion of Allende, freely admitted by the Chicago-trained economists, nor of Friedman’s 1982 talk of the ‘Chilean miracle’ as both economic and political. Nor does Burgin discuss Hayek’s well-documented friendliness with the Pinochet government, and his role in securing the 1981 regional Mont Pèlerin Society meeting in Viña del Mar––a deliberate provocation, since this was the city from which the coup d’état against Allende originated––thereby undermining his leitmotif of an apolitical Hayek overtaken by the crusading Friedman, as well as any ambiguity in the political commitments of both.

Burgin’s framework has the advantage of simplicity, and is useful in understanding the basic textures of the Mont Pèlerin Society group. But simplicity becomes distortion when entire continents drop off the map. After accounting for Friedman’s ascent to the presidency of the Society, the promise of a transnational history of ideas is largely abandoned. A reader of The Great Persuasion could hardly be blamed for thinking Wilhelm Röpke’s political influence had been confined to American conservatism, mainly as a touchstone for William F. Buckley’s National Review, though he was mentor and adviser to the Chancellor of the Bonn Republic. Burgin’s failure to mention either the IMF or the World Bank in this history of neo-liberalism, as potential instruments of international capital and of American economic diplomacy, is another outcome of its restricted view. This parochial conceptualization allows him at one point to refer to Jeffrey Sachs, shock doctor of Eastern Europe, as an economist ‘on the left’.

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Just a quick thought, Andy, as I’ve neither read the review nor Burgin’s book, though it’s been on my to-read list forever. While I’m obviously sympathetic to the claim that one needs to attend to the politics of these characters — and particularly the affinities between their economic neoliberalism and their earlier fascism and later neo-fasicsm (I would go beyond the mere happenstance of individual biography and stress the affinities more at the level of the ideas/ideologies); indeed, I’ve written about all this — I think the section of the review you’re citing here (or perhaps your gloss on it) is conflating three different things: a) a focus on ideas as causal factors in history (idealism); b) a focus on intellectuals as discrete personalities or actors in history (great man theory of history); c) elision of the politics of these ideas and intellectuals.

    I think one could reasonably hold onto a and b without at all believing in c; indeed, one might think that a and b require a rejection of c.

  2. Corey,
    I do think the conflation you’re seeing is indeed Rahtz’s point (although maybe others will differ in their readings). I think his logic is that (and again setting aside whether his critique of Burgin is accurate) so much emphasis on the power of ideas in history requires a great man theory of history simply in order to measure up to the stature of the ideas. If one is going to hold to an assumption that some ideas can be transmitted, as he says, with “wholly conscious intent in a language whose meaning is self- evident,” then it becomes very difficult to imagine anyone but “great personalities” doing the transmitting.

    Furthermore, I think he’s saying that these commitments make it difficult for the intellectual historian to see these great men and their ideas as, essentially, tools of other kinds of interests–political or economic. With such an emphasis on the power of ideas in history, intellectuals are always the smooth operators, never the subordinates. Although he makes a great deal of the particular kind of politics that is elided in Burgin’s account, I think that overemphasis of intellectuals’ independence and control over their ideas is Rahtz’s more general point.

    • Of course (and I should have said), I agree with you that the correlation between these three points is questionable, but I do think that’s what Rahtz is arguing.

    • “I think his logic is that…so much emphasis on the power of ideas in history requires a great man theory of history simply in order to measure up to the stature of the ideas. If one is going to hold to an assumption that some ideas can be transmitted, as he says, with ‘wholly conscious intent in a language whose meaning is self- evident,’ then it becomes very difficult to imagine anyone but ‘great personalities’ doing the transmitting.”

      Do you think that’s the logic? You’d know better since I haven’t read the review, but if it is, it makes very little sense.

      As an empirical matter, it’s totally false. Think of Michael Walzer’s Revolution of the Saints or the entire cottage industry of Skinnerian Cambridge School: the whole point is that you have army after army of these forgotten anonymous pamphleteers, many from the lower rungs of society, self-consciously using language and ideas in a particular way in order to achieve particular ends that they intentionally seek.

      But even as a logical claim it makes no sense. The point is that you’re trying to explain the power of ideas. But why must you invoke the *stature* of an intellectual in order to explain the *power* of his ideas? It could simply be the accumulated *mass* of a group of organic intellectuals that explains the *power* of their ideas. Or it could be the particular location of the intellectual — high or low — that enables him to refract certain ideas in a particular way. There’s lots of potential explanations for the power of an intellectual or group of intellectuals’ ideas, many of them having to do with the particular stature of one man.

      • One thought, Corey: I don’t think the claim is that idealism entails great-man history, which is obviously false for the reasons you lay out. In context, I think Rahtz is suggesting that the conjunction of great-man-history and idealism does a particular kind of methodological and political work by sidestepping the “lots of potential explanations for the power of an intellectual or group of intellectuals’ ideas.” Or to put it in your algebra, a+b = c. I suspect that Rahtz is taking aim at statements like this:

        “For better or for worse, we now live in an era in which economists have become our most influential philosophers, and when decisions made or advised by economistic technocrats have broad and palpable influence on the practice of our everyday lives. No figure is more representative of this development than Milton Friedman.”

  3. Andy, thanks for the post.

    The following is somewhat of a side point, but I think it’s germane to the overarching topic of how we grapple with/account for/conceptualize agency in constructing historical narrative.

    One thing I really appreciated about how Burgin handled this problem was where he handled this problem — not just in the introduction, where he gives an overview of his approach (p. 7), but at the most pivotal juncture of his book, when the narrative shifts (indeed, when neoliberal thinking shifts, in Burgin’s telling) from a Hayekian to a Friedmanian mode. On p. 155-156, Burgin offers a brief for his focus on Friedman, including a meditation on the “failure” of previous historians to historicize Friedman’s “rise to public prominence.” Burgin writes:

    This failure is in part a reflection of the academic abandonment of the history of economic thought, which has been marginalized by economics departments focused wholly on the development of contemporary analytics, ignored by historians of science who maintain a restrictive understanding of the parameters of their field, and bypassed by historians wary of the relationship between abstract academic debate and processes of social and political change. The hybrid nature of Friedman’s career poses a further discouragement to research, because he blurred the lines between popular politics, forays into political philosophy, and work in technical economics that can prove difficult for nonspecialists to comprehend…. (p. 155)

    But the flip side of “why hasn’t anyone dealt adequately with Friedman?” is the question “why should I focus so much on what Friedman thought/said/did?”

    Here’s Burgin’s answer, which I think he does flesh out fairly well in the pages that follow:

    For better or for worse, we now live in an era in which economists have become our most influential philosophers, and when decisions made or advised by economistic technocrats have broad and palpable influence on the practice of our everyday lives. No figure is more representative of this development than Milton Friedman..

    An understanding of Friedman’s life and work requires an engagement with precisely the hybrid aspects of his career that have deterred scholar in the past, because the unique nature of his contribution is most apparent in those instances when his role as an economist, a political philosopher, and a popular polemicist were entwined. And an examination of the intersection of Friedman’s various roles is particularly revealing of the manner in which institutional structure can affect the careers of influential individuals and thereby contribute subtly, but decisively, to changes in the public policy arena. (pp. 155-156)

    There’s a tension here (and in the pages that follow) between Friedman as “great man” and Friedman as “great example.” I think for Burgin the relationship between abstract academic debate and historical change is a personal relationship — that is, historical change happens when persons act on their own/others’ ideas. So part of Burgin’s task is to establish the reach of Friedman’s ideas, not just in terms of their reach into “corridors of power,” but also the many ways and places where Friedman’s voice specifically gained a hearing among various groups and at various levels of discourse. And then of course the flip side of that is showing how structural/institutional arrangements informed Friedman’s thinking and shaped how and where he was able to broadcast those ideas.

    I think Burgin manages this tension fairly well — well enough that his argument has provided a very welcome anchor for a claim I’m trying to make.

    But what I appreciate most about Burgin’s explanation of the problem of how and why to talk about Friedman is, as I said, its location within his argument — smack dab in the middle of his book. I think this offers us some hope or at least some options in terms of how to manage the constant (and mostly invisible) toggling between historical narrative and historical theory — not that the former doesn’t always already embody the latter, and not that the latter can’t be a precipitate of the former, rather than a prerequisite of it. Sometimes, right in the middle of one’s argument, it can be helpful, if not necessary, to step back and “go meta” for a moment.

    Burgin chooses to wait until this part of his argument, this late in his argument, to address the problems that come from a tight focus on this one individual for the remainder of the book. It’s an interesting choice, and one that I need to understand better in terms of how it works within Burgin’s argument — but the choice itself is a heartening (or frightening!) reminder that, wherever else we situate agency within our narratives, we have some agency over them. The author may be dead; the historian is still kicking.

  4. I’m always suspicious of criticisms about a historical work’s scope. As scholars we all make choices about what to include and what to omit from our work. Sometimes those choices are imposed on us by our linguistic limitations (does Burgin speak Spanish and German?) or availability of sources (is it possible to satisfactorily tackle the Pinochet angle without a trip to Chile?).

    I’m also not sure Rahtz’s criticisms would have enhanced Burgin’s argument about the transatlantic intellectual origins and development of free market thinking through the lens of the Mont Pelerin Society. Burgin’s story is transatlantic, not international (even if it had international implications). I think Rahtz’s is within his rights to find Burgin’s book unsatisfying because it fails to look at the global implications of free market thinking. I also think Burgin is within his to say, “Good idea, but that’s not the purpose of my project”.

    Aside: I am sympathetic to Rahtz’s criticisms about US intellectual history’s myopic focus on America and Western Europe at the expense of the rest of the world. I think Andy is right that these non-Western stories tend to get ignored because they often involve unknown or little known figures whose ideas are not readily known to US audiences. The significance of William James, for example, is self-evident to most American scholars whereas Lu Xun (despite his massive international readership) needs explanation.

    • To be fair, Matthew, Rahtz’s criticism, as quoted by Andy, is this: “Burgin’s claim that neo-liberals only achieved policy influence in the US involves an extraordinary edulcoration of the group’s politics.”

      Set aside that “edulcoration” (someone clearly has been supping at Perry Anderson’s table). If Rahtz is accurate about Burgin’s book, then Burgin is making an empirical claim about the limits of the neoliberals’ influence, that it only took hold in the US. If that’s the case, then it’s totally fair game to mention all the instances throughout the world where the neoliberals also took hold. And to claim that you’re only ignoring those instances by hiving off a good deal of the neoliberals’ political agenda. In saying that, you’re not imposing an agenda on a book that is foreign to its author’s intentions; you’re not asking an author to simply write a different book from the one he wanted to write. You’re pointing out a flaw in the author’s argument. Two different things.

  5. I don’t have access to the New Left review (paywalled). I am wondering what passage(s) or points in Burgin’s argument the reviewer is drawing upon to identify “Burgin’s claim that neo-liberals only achieved policy influence in the US.” It’s been a few months since I’ve read Burgin’s book, and can’t re-read it now for this discussion (the methodology passaged I quoted above was dog-eared, underlined, starred and bookmarked, so that was easy to find!) — but I can’t recall that such a claim was stated or even implied.

    I realize this is straying a bit far from the original query posed by the post, which is more about (possible) general tendencies of “idealist intellectual history.” But maybe this is a corollary point: are there general tendencies of reviews that find fault with idealist general history?

    • I meant to write “…reviews that find fault with idealist intellectual history.” Not sure what “general” is doing there. Clearly, another cup of coffee is in order.

  6. “What is absent is any assessment of ideas as accurate representations of reality—in this case, of the actual dynamics of the world capitalist economy.”

    Glad that Rahtz has independent access to “reality” so that he can gauge whether ideas are accurate representations of it; his ideas, I imagine, are transparent reflections of reality. Ideas, themselves, are, of course, not real. The critique of “idealist history” brings us right back to the problem of materialism in the study of intellectual history. Rahtz asks us to ideas as the servants of material interests, and is, therefore, more mechanical and reductionist than Burgin, who I don’t think is suggesting that ideas have a logic of their own, a la Hegel. Rather, Burgin is asking us to densely contextualize ideas in relationship to the development of a school of thought. The contexts Burgin finds significant for unpacking those ideas are not the contexts that Rahtz will even readily identify as contexts, apparently.

  7. Corey,
    Thanks for your reply. I completely agree with you that the claim that a great man theory of history is embedded in or intrinsically adjoined to an argument on behalf of the power of ideas in history is tremendously suspect, but I think the flaw may be in the way that Rahtz is uncareful about delimiting his claim. Although it is possible that the limits are indeed there in intent, but not firmed up in the execution. At least I do not see Rahtz trying to make a narrow claim.

    These are the three key sentences I’m drawing from:
    In his account, economists transmit their wholly conscious intent in a language whose meaning is self- evident, designed to produce—and in this story, successfully producing—the exact desired effect. In this way, Burgin renders ideas as inert quantities, their varying expression across time and space the result of the degree of their dilution. The necessary adjunct to this theory of historical causality is the determining force of great personalities, administering the doses.
    I suppose we could read the first sentence as saying that he is merely talking about a specific kind of idealist IH, one that presumes the intactness of ideas as units as they move around the world. One can easily imagine an idealist IH that does not make this assumption, so perhaps that is the sticking point. But I think the effectiveness of the ideas–which you rightly point out has little to do with the stature of their articulator–is not so much the issue here as the intactness or, as Rahtz says, the “inert[ness]” of this category of ideas.

    At any rate, I read the next two sentences as drawing out what are necessary conclusion if one holds to the original assumption about the intactness of ideas. First, that the internal form or logic of an idea never changes, just its relative emphasis or repackaging with other ideas. Ideas are Democritean atoms–they can form various compounds or can have different concentrations within various mediums, but they can’t be split. Second, that the intactness of these ideas as they move around depends on the power of their initial articulation, and therefore the power of their initial articulator. The anonymous pamphleteers you mention would probably not be considered candidates for expressing intact ideas across time and space, although that is itself arguable. But I don’t know how else to read the line about the “necessary adjunct” of this kind of idealist IH. I think that Rahtz is saying that this level of intactness requires named and powerful “personalities” standing behind the idea to maintain its intactness.

    Of course, the brevity of Rahtz’s description of Burgin’s (putative) brand of idealism may mean that I’m injecting a set of commitments that Rahtz in fact is not accusing Burgin of (or what Burgin is in fact doing!). With this kind of chain of characterizations and glosses, the fault and confusion may well be mine. But focusing on those three sentences, I have trouble finding an alternative way of reading what Rahtz says Burgin is doing.

    • Andy, I posted this as a comment to Corey’s above, but it may remain relevant down here. Apologies for gumming up the works:

      One thought, Corey: I don’t think the claim is that idealism entails great-man history, which is obviously false for the reasons you lay out. In context, I think Rahtz is suggesting that the conjunction of great-man-history and idealism does a particular kind of methodological and political work by sidestepping the “lots of potential explanations for the power of an intellectual or group of intellectuals’ ideas.” Or to put it in your algebra, a+b = c.

      I suspect that Rahtz is taking aim at statements like this:

      “For better or for worse, we now live in an era in which economists have become our most influential philosophers, and when decisions made or advised by economistic technocrats have broad and palpable influence on the practice of our everyday lives. No figure is more representative of this development than Milton Friedman.”

  8. I’ve had a chance to read Rahtz’s review now (thanks to the kind soul who emailed me a .pdf). The statement that Burgin “claim[s] that neo-liberals only achieved policy influence in the US” isn’t supported within the review, and I don’t think there’s support for it in Burgin’s book either.

    I haven’t quite sorted out yet how this reading — basically, “Burgin doesn’t discuss this specific aspect of X, therefore he claims that X doesn’t exist” — fits (or doesn’t?) with the larger characterization of ideas as “representations” (adequate or inadequate) of “reality,” rather than themselves being part of “reality.” The reviewer says, “Real historical changes disappear in [Burgin’s] narrow-gauge focus on professional rivalries within the Society” — as if those professional rivalries and their outcome had no bearing on whose ideas did or did not gain a wider hearing within and beyond the conventional corridors of power. Idealism indeed.

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