Concluding Reflections on The End of the Free Market

(This concludes a review of Ian Bremmer, The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations? (Portfolio, 2010); here are parts 1, 2, 3, and 4. The entire review appears here.)

One often hopes that a highly successful nonfiction book owes its popularity to its original insights or compelling research. Ian Bremmer’s The End of the Free Market has both, but I fear its popularity owes more to its complacent “stay the course” message for globalizing elites than to its author’s deep understanding of the world economy. After discussing all the cunning ways “state capitalists” are improving their position in the world, Bremmer advises the United States to double down on “free trade” and “defense” policies that have already brought enormous debt and dislocation to its population. It’s music to the ears of blue dogs and Rubinites who are at the center of political gravity in the Obama Administration’s economic team and the austerity bandwagon in Europe. But it strains credulity to think that these ideas will bring real economic security to a country facing a tsunami of outsourcing.

Bremmer’s blinkered prescriptions are a natural outgrowth of a bien-pensant Washington Consensus worldview of the relationship between government and business. I looked in vain to see a reference in Bremmer to Charles Lindblom’s Politics and Markets, another ambitious work that aimed to explain “fundamental politico-economic mechanisms.” One of Lindblom’s great contributions to the political science literature is the concept of “circularity,” or the creation of values and volitions by those who are supposed to respond to and satisfy extant desires and preferences. As Ian Ayres and Bruce Ackerman describe the problem,

A liberal democratic regime accepts the legitimacy of market-generated differences in wealth provided that they survive the critical scrutiny of democratic citizens. But critical scrutiny by the political system requires it to function relatively autonomously from the economic system – otherwise politics merely becomes a means by which big money praises itself.

Even in 1977 (one year after Buckley v. Valeo), Lindblom could observe the “disproportionate participation of businessmen in electoral politics,” which generated a large “corporate advantage in manipulation of volitions” (210, 213). A book like Bremmer’s, concerned about the “war between states and corporations,” should have done more to observe what happens when capital—and finance capital in particular—wins that war. Failing to fully explore that side of the equation leaves the book fundamentally unbalanced. But it’s a necessary aporia, for filling it would demonstrate the untenability of the neoliberal policies promoted in the book’s conclusion. A fairer reckoning would teach a different lesson: not to induce the state capitalists to copy a chimerically “free market” America, but to learn from the best of their interventions and avoid the rest.

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