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’.