What is Institutional Economics?

From William Dugger’s Underground Economics: A Decade of Institutionalist Dissent:

Institutionalism serves as the methodological conscience to the unrealistic neoclassicism that now dominates economics departments in U.S universities. Realism is the touchstone of institutionalism. Institutionalists may differ over many particulars, but on this we agree: economics should be realistic; it should deal with the real world, the world as we find it, not the world we must assume in order to build determinate models. This does not mean that institutionalists wish to be atheorectical. Institutionalism is not opposed to theory. Instead, the quest for realism means that institutionalism starts with history, with human economic experience. It is from experience, not a priori first principles, that institutionalists try to theorize, and we criticize those who take shortcuts that avoid the messy details of the human experience (p. xvii).
Little room for real disagreement was allowed within the neoclassical hegemony. So most economics departments in U.S universities became dread-fully dull places… When academic security is found in dullness, and when consensus is mistaken for scientific truth, disagreement and dissent are pushed below the surface of correct inquiry. And I suppose this is why institutionalism is usually kept in the underground. We [institutionalists] make too much of a fuss about realism, and a real world is a messy and, at times, unpleasant place. Digging into such things is considered decidedly unprofessional, particularity if the digger borrows tools from her sister social sciences, for them the digger has broken one of the strongest taboos in neoclassicism. He or she has become a sociologist!” (p. xviii)

— Dugger, William M. 1991. Underground Economics: A Decade of Institutionalist Dissent. London: M.E. Sharpe.

institutionalism institutional theory

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B&B: Economists’ blindness to racism // We are all fast-food workers // For abolition of work // Arms purchase // Tests for profit // The financialized imagination // Gendered economics

This time, especially worth reading and sharing pieces:

> Racism is a system that manifests in norms, institutions, and policies. Economists who want to challenge it must abandon neoclassical assumptions and recognize the role of history, power, and institutions in shaping behavior — by Joelle Gamble

> Acquisitions of military style-weapons by local law enforcement agencies in the US increased over the past 10 years has exacerbated lethal use of force against black communities.  Olugbenga Ajilore explains how the US turned its police into an army

> Surveillance, speed, stress, and understaffing are the features of the neoliberal labor market. A powerful story of women-led Walmart strike, walkout, and struggle for workers’ rights — an excerpt from Annelise Orleck’s “We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now”: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages (2018)

> “Investment” has become “a useful term to describe the transformation of ever more aspects of life into commodities and the orientation of our social imaginations towards individualized risk management and speculation” — Max Haiven tackles the monsters of the financialized imagination

> The work ideology has ruled our lives for centuries, and it does so today more than ever. But a new generation of “post-work” thinkers insists there is an alternative. Andy Beckett reflects on the radical idea to shatter an intense working culture, recalling Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality (1973), Bernard Lefkowitz’s Breaktime: Living Without Work in a Nine to Five World (1979) and Bob Black’s The Abolition of Work (1985), and reading Benjamin Hunnicutt’s Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream (2013), David Frayne’s The Refusal of Work: Rethinking Post-Work Theory and Practice (2015), Joanna Biggs’ All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work (2015), James Livingston’s No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea (2016), Ryan Avent’s The Wealth of Humans: Work and its Absence in the 21st Century (2016), Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (2017), and David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs (2018).

> The corporate history of personality tests: they have always been bound up in politics, business, and management. Kira Lussier on how corporations convinced us personality tests are fun and how that made Cambridge Analytica possible.

> Do research topics in development economics studied by men and women differ? Yes. Does this male-dominated discipline express less interest in topics that women are more likely to be studying? Yes. Seema Jayachandran and Jamie Daubenspeck present findings on and call for change and more diversity in the economics profession.

Refusal to work - No more work

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The Probable Implications of the Coronavirus Crisis — Bruno Latour, James Galbraith, Mike Davis

> Bruno Latour: “The [COVID-19] health crisis prepares, induces, incites us to prepare for climate change… What allows the two crises to occur in succession is the sudden and painful realization that the classical definition of society – humans among themselves – makes no sense. The state of society depends at every moment on the associations between many actors, most of whom do not have human forms… Once the entire network of which it is only one link is taken into account, the same virus does not act in the same way in Taiwan, Singapore, New York, or Paris. The pandemic is no more a “natural” phenomenon than the famines of the past or the current climate crisis…  What is more worrying is that we do not see how that state would prepare the move from the one crisis to the next.” // Recommended read: Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Latour 2018)

> James Galbraith: “Will we recognize, in time, the need to mobilize all our resources, to socialize our health system and keep the supply chains open until the virus can be contained? Will we realize that when this is done, life will not be what it was before, and that a vast reorganization of economy and society will be necessary? Or will the neoliberal ideologues in control succeed in squelching that debate—which they are trying to do, at this writing, by focusing on bailouts and stimulus in the belief that somehow the bubbles now bursting can be reinflated in a few months? Will we remain mired in illusions of growth, with or without equity and inclusion? Or will we now and finally displace those illusions, with a new wave that understands the nature of precarity capitalism.” These Galbraith’s remarks conclude his interesting review of Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia by Albena Azmanova (2020)

> Mike Davis: “The current pandemic expands the argument: capitalist globalization now appears to be biologically unsustainable in the absence of a truly international public health infrastructure. But such an infrastructure will never exist until peoples’ movements break the power of Big Pharma and for-profit health care… Since the Occupy days, progressives have successfully put the struggle against income and wealth inequality on page one, a great achievement. But now socialists must take the next step and, with the health care and pharmaceutical industries as immediate targets, advocate social ownership and the democratization of economic power.” // Recommended read: Planet of Slums (Davis 2005)

US-POLITICS-POLICE-JUSTICE-RACISM

Photo by Frederic J. Brown / AFP

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The Feature of an Intellectual

F. Scott Fitzgerald:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the “impossible,” come true. Life was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort, or to what proportion could be mustered of both. It seemed a romantic business to be a successful literary man—you were not ever going to be as famous as a movie star but what note you had was probably longer-lived; you were never going to have the power of a man of strong political or religious convictions but you were certainly more independent. Of course within the practice of your trade you were forever unsatisfied—but I, for one, would not have chosen any other.” (“The Crack-Up”, 1936)

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. 2009. “The Crack-Up.” Pp. 69-84 in The Crack-Up, edited by Edmund Wilson. New Directions. (pp. 69-70).

F. Scott Fitzgerald The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function

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Great academic opportunities: 13 calls for papers, 8 PhD fellowships, 6 summer schools, 4 jobs, 2 postdocs

Dear ES/PE community member, I very much hope this post finds you well during this turbulent times. See below a list of great academic opportunities:call for papers 13 calls for papers for online and off-line conferences (some are partially funded) and special issues, 8 PhD fellowships, 6 summer schools, 4 job openings, and 2 post-doc positions in various areas of economic sociology, political economy, and related fields, with May 31 — June 30 deadlines. Share this post with your colleagues and students. Good luck!

Calls for Papers:

> CfP: “Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought“, the 24th ESHET Conference, University of National and World Economy (Sofia, Bulgaria) 24-26 September, 2020. DL: May 31

> CfP: “Survival Pending Revolution: Historical Materialism in a Pandemic Age“, the 17th Historical Materialism Conference, SOAS London (UK), 12-15 November 2020. DL: June 1

> CfP: “Dwelling in the Intersections of State, Markets and Big Data” workshop, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (India), September 24-26, 2020. DL: June 7

> CfP: “Why private property? How does the ecological crisis challenge contemporary theories of property?” conference, Nuffield College, Oxford University (UK) , 5-6 November, 2020. Keynoters: Simon Caney, Catherine Colliot-Thélène, Catherine Larrère, and Stuart White. The organisers hope to be able to cover travel and accommodation costs. DL: June 9

> CfP: “Designing Futures of Money and FinTech” online workshop, July 7-8, 2020. No fee. DL: June 11

> CfP: “International and Comparative Political Economy”, an workshop for early career researchers, Cologne Center for Comparative Politics (Germany), November 26-27, 2020. It has four topical panels: 1) Inequality (keynoter & discussant: Charlotte Cavaille), 2) Political Economy of Gender (Frances Rosenbluth), 3) Governance and Power in the Digital Economy (Anke Hassel), 4) Trade and Migration (Stefanie Walter). Accommodation and travel expenses will be covered. DL: June 15 

> CfP: “Repugnant Behaviours“, World Interdisciplinary Network for Institutional Research workshop, University of Montpellier (France), 24-25 February 2021. DL: June 15

> CfP: The 12th Critical Finance Studies (online) conference, 27-28 August, 2020.  Keynoters: Gargi Bhattacharyya, Annie McClanahan. DL: June 15

> CfP: The 3rd Toronto Fintech Conference, Scotiabank Centre, Toronto (Canada), November 5-6, 2020. Scholars of management, innovation, organization theory, sociology, and public policy are invited. Will be given five travel grants for the top PhD student papers and several prizes for the best papers. DL: June 15

CfP: “Zero Credit: Countering the Dreams of Techno-Finance”, a special issue of TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies. DL: June 15

> CfP:  “A Post-COVID 19 Global-local Agenda for a Socio-ecological Transformation of Europe“, the 26th Annual (online) Conference on Alternative Economic Policy in Europe. No fee. DL: June 20

> CfP: “Elites and the Critique of Elites from the 19th to the 21st Centuries” workshop and Archiv für Sozialgeschichte‘s volume, Friedrich Ebert Foundation – Berlin (Germany), 29-30 October 2020.  DL: June 1

> CfP: “Good governance versus Corruption – Interdisciplinary Discussions“, an Inaugural conference of the European Institute for Socioeconomics, the European Academy of Otzenhausen (Nonnweiler, Germany), September 11-12, 2020. DL: June 30

Postdoctoral Positions: 

> Post-doctoral position  in Economic Ethics, Department of Philosophy, University of Gothenburg (Sweden). DL: June 1

> Post-doctoral Scholars in Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Management of Intellectual Assets, Department of Economy and Society, University of Gothenburg (Sweden). DL: June 8

PhD Fellowships:

> PhD Programme in Comparative Analysis of Institutions Economics and Law, University of Turin (Italy). DL: June 4

> Doctoral Research Fellow in Comparative Political Economy, the Cologne Center for Comparative Politics at the University of Cologne (Germany). DL: June 5

> PhD Vacancy for Research on Basic Income, the Centre for Sociological Research at KU Leuven University (Belgium). DL: June 8

> PhD Fellowships in Social and Legal Aspects of Globalisation, University of Urbino Carlo Bo (Italy). DL: June 11

> PhD in Economic Sociology — How multi-level micro-work networks elucidate the social and economic dimensions of artificial intelligence, the University of Paris-Saclay (France). DL: June 15

> Doctoral student in Economic History with a focus on Marketization, Lund University (Sweden). DL: June 18

> Doctoral Research Position in Social Inequality and Social Policy, the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. DL: June 21

>  PhD studentship in “Management insights for tackling grand challenges: the case of climate-related financial risks in the financial investment industry“, Organisation and HRM  group, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick (UK). DL: June 30

Job openings:

> Assistant Professor in Economic Philosophy, The Ethics Institute, Utrecht University (The Netherlands). DL: June 10

> Assistant Professor in Economic Sociology & Sociology of Work and Organizations, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice (Italy). DL: June 11

> Assistant Professor in Economic History, University of Groningen (The Netherlands). DL: June 14

> Executive Director, Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), The Netherlands. DL: June 23

Summer Schools:

> CfA: “Anti-Monopoly and Regulated Industries“, an online summer academy organized by The Law and Political Economy Project, 8-week program with leading scholars, June-August 2020 (on Tuesdays, 6:00–7:30 pm). No fee. DL: June 1

> CfA: “Introduction to Post Keynesian Economics and Political Economy” online summer school organized by the Greenwich Political Economy Research Centre, June 23-26, 2020. No participation fee. DL: June 10

> CfA: “Repoliticising Capitalism: Contradictions, Critique and Alternatives” summer school, Roskilde University (Denmark), 27 July -7 August 2020. DL: June 15

> CfA: “Pensions, Social Services and Welfare: What future in the age of financialization?“, the 14th EAEPE  (online) Summer School, 13– 15 July, 2020. No fee. DL: June 15

> CfA: “American Political Economy“, an online Summer School organized by Paul Pierson, Kathleen Thelen, Jacob Hacker, and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez on August 10-13, 2020. DL: June 19

> CfA: “Mainstream Economics: Sold Out?“, The (online) Summer Academy by the Network for Pluralist Economics Germany and Protestant Academy of Thuringia, 10-16 August, 2020. No fee. DL: June 24

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How Did Corporations Spread CSR from the US to the Rest of the World?

by Rami Kaplan & Daniel Kinderman*

Why do firms adopt Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices? How does CSR spread across the globe? Our paper “The Business-Led Globalization of CSR” provides surprising answers to these most fundamental questions, based on the comparative historical study of the world’s earliest non-U.S. countries where CSR has become a diffused, institutionalized practice: Venezuela and Britain.

Why do firms adopt CSR?
CSR is widely recognized as a “nonmarket strategy” that addresses challenges in the firm’s sociopolitical environment. We expand this notion by distinguishing between reactive CSR strategies, in which the individual firm conforms to external expectations of it to become socially responsible (e.g., as transmitted through activists’ attacks or certification schemes), and proactive CSR strategies that shape the external environment. With the latter, as we show, corporations try to gain control over social change based on collective adoptions of selected CSR practices.
Thus, we show that, in the mid-1960s Venezuela, hundreds of corporations confronted existential threats to corporate capitalism by collectively adopting community development practices. CSR practices were instrumentalized to undercut communist insurgency, check governmental intervention in the economy, and improve the public image of the business community.
Similarly, in the late-1970s Britain, corporations engaged in urban development and unemployment mitigation because they were facing social unrest, political radicalization, and labor militancy. With the rise of the Thatcher administration, the threat turned into an opportunity. Following lobbying by a group of multinationals led by Shell, the Thatcher government integrated CSR into its revamped, neoliberal employment policy. It was in the context of this neoliberal revolution that Business in the Community (BITC) and modern British CSR emerged.

spread of corporate social responsibilityHow does CSR spread globally?
While scholars tend to assume that CSR diffusion is driven by isomorphic pressure exerted by the institutional environment of firms, we advance an alternative view of the global diffusion of CSR. We understand CSR adoption as originating from “channels of diffusion” that transmit the aforementioned inter-firm proactive CSR strategies from one country to the other.
These channels are composed of business elites and experts who function as “exporters” and “importers” of the strategy. The importers learn from the exporters about the utility of the strategy and about how to implement it. The channels are driven by the interests of the actors composing them. For example, the solicitation and instruction of American oil multinationals acting as exporters was highly instrumental for the adoption of CSR by the Venezuelan business community. Similarly, among multiple other channels of diffusion that we trace, IBM UK was the pioneer organizer of inter-firm collective action on CSR in Britain. In both cases, the source country of CSR (of modern CSR, that is) was the U.S.
Notably, in both Venezuela and Britain, the exporters-importers established CSR-specialized national business associations (NCSRAs)—the Venezuelan Dividendo and the British BITC—to organize the diffusion of CSR practices throughout the importing country. Remarkably, Dividendo and BITC were world pioneering embodiments of what would become a world-spanning institution (by 2010, NCSRAs existed in 72 countries). This suggests the likely importance of our channels of diffusion theory to the understanding of how CSR has entered many other countries and become a global phenomenon.
More generally, our paper implies a grand perspective on the global rise of CSR, as a business-led process originating from the U.S. whereby global corporate capitalism as a whole has strategically reshaped itself and its environment so as to bolster and extend corporate hegemony in our societies.

Reference:
— Kaplan, Rami and Daniel Kinderman. 2020. “The Business-Led Globalization of CSR: Channels of Diffusion From the United States Into Venezuela and Britain, 1962-1981.Business & Society 59(3): 439-488.
——————-
* Rami Kaplan (Tel Aviv University) is an organizational and economic sociologist studying CSR and sustainable development. Daniel Kinderman (University of Delaware) specializes in comparative political economy and CSR, with a focus on Europe. This post was originally published on Business & Society blog on April 28, 2020. The emphases added by the editor.

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Great academic opportunities: 16 calls for papers, 4 postdocs, 3 jobs, 3 PhD fellowships, a summer school, a research project

Dear ES/PE community member, I very much hope this post finds you well during this turbulent period of the global health and socio-economic crisis. As we’re trying to pull ourselves together and get along, see below a list of great academic call for papersopportunities: 16 calls for papers for online and off-line conferences (some are partially funded) and special issues, 4 post-doc positions, 3 job openings, 3 PhD fellowships, a research project and a summer school — in various areas of economic sociology, political economy, and related fields, with April 30 — May 18  deadlines. Share this post with your colleagues and students. Stay safe and be solidary. Good luck!

Calls for Papers:

> CfP: “Categories, Transformations and Exchanges“, the ESA RN09 Economic Sociology Midterm Conference, University of Warsaw (Poland), September 7-9, 2020. Keynoter: Nina Bandelj. A few travel grants for PhD students and early stage postdocs will be offered. DL: April 30

> CfP: “The Evolution of Capitalist Structures: Uncertainty, Inequality, and Climate Crisis“. the 32nd European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy Conference, ONLINE event, 2-4 September, 2020.  Keynoters: Genevieve leBaron, Robert Skidelsky. There are several special and topical sessions. DL: April 30

> CfP: “Politics and Ideologies of Work“, the 5th Social Boundaries of Work conference, University of Warsaw (Poland), October 28-29, 2020. Keynoters: Ursula Huws, Ruth Milkman, David Ost. DL: April 30

> CfP: “It’s the (bio)economy, stupid! The future of growth and the promise of the bioeconomy” workshop,  Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena (Germany), 7th – 8th October 2020. DL: April 30

> CfP: “Understanding Gender in Wealth Inequality“, ECSR Network Workshop, Humboldt-Universität Berlin (Germany), 1-2 October, 2020. Keynoters:  Sofie Waltl, Céline Bessière. DL: April 30

> CfP: The 6th Annual Conference of the International Corporate Governance Society,  the Strome College of Business at Old Dominion University (Norfolk, VA, USA),  November 13-15, 2020. Keynoter: Nell Minow. DL: May 1

> CfP “Returning Realism to Economics“, Association for Evolutionary Economics conference at ASSA 2021 Annual Meeting (Chicago, USA), 3-5 January, 2021. DL: May 4

> CfP: “Stratification and Intergroup Inequality” Association for Social Economics conference at ASSA 2021 Annual Meeting (Chicago, USA), 3-5 January, 2021. DL: May 6

> CfP: “Postcolonial Perspectives on Protest and Reform in the Global Political Economy” workshop, Kassel (Germany), September 15 – 17, 2020. DL: May 8

> CfP: “Exploring Blockchain and the Cultural Sector” conference, University of Manchester (UK), 16 October 2020. Keynoter: Marcus O’Dair; no fee; meals will be provided. Bursaries for coverage of travel costs will be hopefully granted. DL: May 8

> CfP: “Cracking Financialisation: Housing, Crisis, Struggles and Rights“, a Special Issue of Housing Studies edited by Ozlem Celik. DL: May 11

> CfP: “Responding to Crisis“, an online Economic History Workshop, July 27-31, 2020. DL: May 15

> CfP: ““While There Is A Soul In Prison, I Am Not Free”: The History of Solidarity in Social and Economic Justice”, Indiana State University (Indiana, USA), November 13-14, 2020. DL: May 15

> CfP: “The World Transformed: The Contributions of Heterodox Economics Globally”, the 22nd Conference of the Association for Heterodox Economics, ONLINE event,  3-5 July, 2020. Keynoters: Dora Barrancos, Chantal Naidoo, Julia Steinberger, Ndongo Samba Sylla. DL: May 15

CfP: “Empirical Approaches in Platform Governance Research“, an online workshop by Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet & Society, June 17, 2020. DL: May 15 

> CfP: “Developmentalism and the Developmental State“, a special issue of Istanbul University Journal of Sociology edited by Bai Gao & Emrah Yıldız. DL: September 30

Postdoctoral Positions: 

> Postdoctoral researcher for “Polarization and its discontents: does rising economic inequality undermine the foundations of liberal societies?” project, The School of Social Sciences at the Goethe University Frankfurt. DL: April 30

> Postdoctoral Researcher in Sociology or Economics, Department of Management, ETH Zurich.  The aim of the project is to find out under what conditions Technical Vocational Education and Training in low- and middle-income countries can contribute to improving the youth labour market situation. DL: May 6

> Two postdocs on “Coronavirus Bond, an Ethnographic Inquiry” project, as a part of “The Hau of Finance: Impact Investing and the Globalization of Social and Environmental Sustainability” research, University of Bologna (Italy). DL: May 7

> A postdoctoral research fellow to work on a project  “Management insights for tackling grand challenges: the case of climate-related financial risks in the financial investment industry” within the Organisation and HRM group at Warwick Business School (UK). DL: May 15 

PhD Fellowships:

> Five  funded PhD positions to be part of “Polycentric Carbon Pricing Governance: Cooperation, Contestation and Connectivity” research project, University of Leuven (Belgium). DL: April 30

> Two funded PhD candidates for the research project “The Making of Havana’s Property Market: Homeownership, Tourism Property & Transnational Investment“, the Division of Geography & Tourism, KU Leuven (Belgium). DL: May 4

> PhD Position “Social Inequalities, Child Development and Longitudinal Research“, Department of Sociology,  Trinity College Dublin (Ireland). DL: May 15.

Summer School:

> CfA: “Economics & Sociology“, PhD workshop, University of Lille (France), October 12-13, 2020. Work languages: French and English. DL: May 18

Research Project:

> Comparative Study of Legal-Economic Responses to COVID-19, an international research project by Association for Promotion of Political Economy and Law, Institute for New Economic Thinking Young Scholar Initiative, and International University College of Turin. DL: April 30 

Job openings:

> Teaching Fellow in International Business, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford (UK). Researchers interested in comparative political economy are invited to apply. DL: May 14

> Lecturer in Political Economy of Development, Department of Development Studies, SOAS, London (UK). DL: May 17

> Research Analyst & Project Coordinator, The Brookings Institution (Washington, DC, USA). The applicant will assist a project designed to develop policies and practices to contribute to a neighborhood’s culture of health and economic mobility.

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“Herd Immunity” is Epidemiological Neoliberalism

by Isabel Frey*

While most European countries are imposing lockdowns to stop the spread of the coronavirus, a few countries are opting for a different strategy: herd immunity. Instead of testing as many people as possible and implementing measures to increase social distancing, they want to purposefully let the virus spread among people who are at low risk, so that a large part of the population becomes immune. This approach was first proposed by UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson, who refused to implement social distancing measures until a few days ago. While the UK and then the Netherlands has officially distanced itself from this strategy, Sweden continues to hold on to this approach, despite harsh criticism by the WHO. However, the point of this article is to unravel the underlying paradigm of this strategy, not to make an argument about its effectiveness.
These countries argue that building herd immunity is the only long-term strategy for dealing with the virus, since the epidemic can no longer be contained and could always resurge again. Instead of putting the entire country under lockdown, only at-risk populations should be put into quarantine while the epidemic keeps spreading. However, countless epidemiologists and virologists have criticized the strategy for being risky, unscientific and likely to result in a high death toll. A recently published report by the Imperial College London, which led to the change in UK government policy, estimated the strategy to result in 250,000 deaths in the UK. Since it is not possible to effectively isolate at-risk populations, especially when the virus keeps spreading, the health care system is likely to become overwhelmed and at risk of completely collapsing.

Epidemiological Neoliberalism

Why would a country like the UK even consider such a risky strategy, and why are other countries still following this approach? The reason is neoliberalism. Since the 1980s, we have been governed by the political paradigm of neoliberalism, which has replaced state-led social policy with privatization and deregulation of the market. Its belief in the inherent justice of the market has led to a political rationale, which literally puts profit before people. And it has colonized peoples’ minds by making them believe it is their fault if they are poor, precarious or unemployed.
The irony of neoliberalism is that it creates the illusion of social mobility, while reinforcing and even deepening social inequality. It assumes that if anyone can “make it” in a free market, it must be peoples’ own fault if they are poor. But this belief is not only wrong, it is also violent. Neoliberalism has resulted in the rich getting richer, and the poor suffering more from disenfranchisement, precariousness and dependency. What might seem like laissez-faire policy, is a refined and complex system of automated structural violence against the weak, which also shatters any possibilities of resistance.
Herd immunity is epidemiological neoliberalism. Much like the unconditional belief in the free market, herd immunity relies on the assumption that an epidemic is best overcome by leaving it unregulated. But just like neoliberalism, it results in violence against the weak and the poor: elderly and disabled people, homeless people, refugees and people with severe health conditions – many of whom are likely to also have a lower socio-economic status because of the correlation between poverty and illness. These are the people, who are at the highest risk of dying from COVID-19 – especially if the healthcare system is overwhelmed and doctors have to perform triage.

Crumbling Welfare States

It is no coincidence that it was the UK and the Netherlands, two of the most neoliberal countries in Europe, which advocated for this approach. These countries have spent the past decades implementing policies that privilege economic over social interests, and systematically defunded healthcare, education and housing. Opting against economically-harmful lockdown measures fits perfectly into their political rationale. Sweden, however, is a more puzzling case: it is a country which is internationally Numbers of critical care beds per 100,000 inhabitantsacclaimed for its good social policy and generous welfare state. But even an archetypical social democracy like Sweden has not been immune to neoliberal policy. Like most European countries, its welfare state has systematically been dismantled in the past decades.
The biggest challenge of the corona-epidemic is “flattening the curve”, so that the capacities for critical and intensive care are not overwhelmed. But these three countries already have such low capacities for critical care, that they wouldn’t suffice even with strict lockdown measures. The UK and the Netherlands only have about half the capacity of Italy of critical care beds per capita. And Sweden, the supposedly best welfare state in Europe, has even less than half.
If these countries wanted to prevent their capacities from being overwhelmed, they would have had to act a long time ago. But that ship has already sailed. Enforcing strict lockdown measures would not only put the economy under strain, but would also expose the crumbling health system from decades of neoliberal policy. Opting for herd immunity allows governments to blame the failure of the health system on the virus, rather than on bad governance. Just like individual poor people can be blamed for not trying hard enough, individual sick people can be blamed for not following quarantine measures. It doesn’t matter whether its nature, fate, or one’s own fault – as long as it’s not the government which is held accountable for peoples’ deaths.
Herd immunity is not just bad science or bad policy. It is biological warfare. Many people will die because of it, and governments won’t take responsibility for it. But this strategy did not appear from nowhere. It is a logical continuation of the political rationale that has governed the world for the past decades, taken to an extreme as a laissez-faire Social Darwinism. Because people who trust in an unregulated market will also trust in an unregulated epidemic – even if it kills.
———————
* Isabel Frey is a Vienna-based artist and social justice activist, with a background in medical anthropology and sociology. She specialize in Yiddish revolutionary songs, reviving the tradition of left-wing Jewish activism by connecting it to contemporary political issues. This article was originally published on her blog The Quarantimes on March 19, 2020. The emphases added by the editor.

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The Probable Implications of the Coronavirus Crisis — Mariana Mazzucato, Eva Illouz, Alain Badiou

> Mariana Mazzucato: “Capitalism is facing at least three major crises. A pandemic-induced health crisis has rapidly ignited an economic crisis with yet unknown consequences for financial stability, and all of this is playing out against the backdrop of a climate crisis that cannot be addressed by “business as usual.”… We desperately need entrepreneurial states that will invest more in innovation – from artificial intelligence to public health to renewables. But as this crisis reminds us, we also need states that know how to negotiate, so that the benefits of public investment return to the public. A killer virus has exposed major weaknesses within Western capitalist economies. Now that governments are on a war footing, we have an opportunity to fix the system. If we don’t, we will stand no chance against the third major crisis – an increasingly uninhabitable planet – and all the smaller crises that will come with it in the years and decades ahead.” // Recommended read: The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (Mazzucato 2018)

> Eva Illouz: “The bluff of neo-liberalism must be called out. The era in which each economic actor need worry only about filling his or her pockets with gold must end… The public interest must return to the center of public policy. And corporations must contribute to this public good, if they want the market to even remain a frame for human activities… They will have to contribute to research, to emergency preparedness, and to massive hiring drives, once the crisis passes… Capitalists have taken for granted resources provided by the state – education, health, physical infrastructure – without acknowledging that the resources they were squandering from the state could, in a situation like this, ultimately be responsible for withholding them from the world which makes the economy possible. This must stop. For the economy to have meaning, it needs a world.” // Recommended read: Manufacturing Happy Citizens: How the Science and Industry of Happiness Control our Lives (Cabanas and Illouz 2019) 

> Alain Badiou: “Despite the existence of some trans-national authorities, it is clear that it is local bourgeois states that are on the frontline. We touch here on a major contradiction of the contemporary world. The economy, including the process of mass production of manufactured objects, comes under the aegis of the world market – we know that the simple assembly of a mobile phone mobilises work and resources, including mineral ones, in at least seven different states. And yet political powers remain essentially national in kind. And the rivalry between imperialisms, old (Europe and US) and new (China, Japan…) excludes any process leading to a capitalist world state. The epidemic is also a moment when the contradiction between economics and politics becomes flagrant.” // Recommended read: The  Rebirth  of  History:  Times  of  Riots  and  Uprisings (Badiou 2012)

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Photo by William Daniels, National Geographic

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Isaac Asimov on the thrill of learning and the peril of ignorance

While the Coronavirus pandemic and its probable consequences have caused many to recall the great Isaac Asimov‘s science fiction stories, his two beautiful and shrewd quotes which are no less relevant to our times sprang to my mind: 

[What’s exciting is] the actual process of broadening yourself, of knowing there’s now a little extra facet of the universe you know about and can think about and can understand. It seems to me that when it’s time to die, there would be a certain pleasure in thinking that you had utilized your life well, learned as much as you could, gathered in as much as possible of the universe, and enjoyed it. There’s only this one universe and only this one lifetime to try to grasp it… What a tragedy just to pass through and get nothing out of it.” (p. 266)
People think of education as something that they can finish. And what’s more, when they finish, it’s a rite of passage. What’s wrong with it is you have everybody looking forward to no longer learning, and you make them ashamed afterward of going back to learning. There is no reason, if you enjoy learning,  why you should stop at a given age. […] I’d like to think that people who were given the chance at learning facts, at broadening their knowledge of the universe, wouldn’t seek so avidly after mysticism. I wonder how many people go for these mystical, nonsensical things simply because they must go for something.” (Moyers 1989: 269)

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’… Now we have a new slogan on the part of the obstructionists: “Don’t trust the experts!”… We have a new buzzword, too, for anyone who admires competence, knowledge, learning and skill, and who wishes to spread it around. People like that are called “elitists”… What shall we do about it? We might begin by asking ourselves whether ignorance is so wonderful after all, and whether it makes sense to denounce “elitism”… I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.” (Asimov 1980).

— Moyers, Bill. 1989. A World of Ideas: Conversations with Thoughtful Men and Women about American Life Today and the Ideas Shaping our Future. Doubleday. (This volume transcribes a series of provocative interviews with great thinkers most of which were never seen on television before: Barbara Tuchman, Chinua Achebe, Peter Berger, Martha Nussbaum, Peter Drucker, Noam Chomsky, John Lukacs, and more).
— Asimov, Isaak. 1980. “A Cult of Ignorance.Newsweek, January 21, p. 19.

Isaac Asimov

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The Probable Implications of the Coronavirus Crisis — Costas Lapavitsas, Katharina Pistor, David Runciman

> Costas Lapavitsas: “This Crisis has exposed the absurdities of Neoliberalism. That doesn’t mean it’ll destroy it… The nation-state has always been at the heart of neoliberal capitalism, guaranteeing the class rule of the dominant corporate and financial bloc through selective interventions at critical moments. Moreover, [now] these interventions were accompanied by strongly authoritarian measures… This authoritarianism is fully in line with the dominant neoliberal ideology of the last four decades. State fiat is combined with the fragmentation of society as people are shut in their own homes and huge stress is placed on the “individual responsibility” to maintain social distancing… The colossal power of the state and its ability to intervene in both economy and society could result, for instance, in a more authoritarian form of controlled capitalism in which the interests of the corporate and financial elite would be paramount… The character of its interventions give no reason to think that there will be a transformation at the top of the political and social hierarchy resulting in policies that favor the interests of working people.” // Recommended read: Profiting Without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All (Lapavitsas 2013)

> Katharina Pistor: “We urgently need debt relief – especially for households at the lower end of the income and wealth spectrum… It’s often said that the public health of the majority is determined by the most vulnerable in society. The same logic applies to a healthy political and economic system: its stability depends on how it treats its weakest members. Hedging our bets on an economic system that has neglected these truths and instead prioritised wealth creation at the top has put us all at risk. There is still a small window to rectify these past wrongs, by urgently granting debt relief to the households worst affected by coronavirus.” // Recommended read: The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality (Pistor 2019)

> David Runciman: “This is not the suspension of politics. It is the stripping away of one layer of political life to reveal something more raw underneath… National governments really matter, and it really matters which one you happen to find yourself under. Though the pandemic is a global phenomenon, and is being experienced similarly in many different places, the impact of the disease is greatly shaped by decisions taken by local governments… At the end of it all we may get to see who was right and what was wrong. But for now, we are at the mercy of our national leaders. That is something else Hobbes warned about: there is no avoiding the element of arbitrariness at the heart of all politics. It is the arbitrariness of individual political judgment. Under a lockdown, democracies reveal what they have in common with other political regimes: here too politics is ultimately about power and order.” // Recommended read: How Democracy Ends (Runciman 2018)

coronavirus politics neoliberalism

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Coronavirus and the Economy

Existential risk dinosaur

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Bruno Latour on Uncertainty and Knowledge

The world is not a solid continent of facts sprinkled by a few lakes of uncertainties, but a vast ocean of uncertainties speckled by a few islands of calibrated and stabilized forms. Do we really know that little? We know even less. Paradoxically, this ‘astronomical’ ignorance explains a lot of things.” (Latour 2005: 245)

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press.

Quote Bruno Latour on Uncertainty and Knowledge

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The Probable Implications of the Coronavirus Crisis — David Harvey, William Davies, Ivan Krastev

> David Harvey: “Forty years of neoliberalism… had left the public totally exposed and ill-prepared to face a public health crisis of this sort… In many parts of the supposed “civilized” world, local governments and state authorities, which invariably form the front line of defense in public health and safety emergencies of this kind, had been starved of funding thanks to a policy of austerity designed to fund tax cuts and subsidies to the corporations and the rich… Much of the cutting-edge model of contemporary capitalist consumerism is inoperable under present conditions… The spiral form of endless capital accumulation is collapsing inward from one part of the world to every other… Workforces in most parts of the world have long been socialized to behave as good neoliberal subjects (which means blaming themselves or God if anything goes wrong but never daring to suggest capitalism might be the problem). But even good neoliberal subjects can see that there is something wrong with the way this pandemic is being responded to.”  // Recommended read: Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Harvey 2015)

> William Davies: “The global financial crisis of 2008 failed to provoke a fundamental shift in policy orthodoxy.  In fact, after the initial burst of public spending that rescued the banks, the free-market Thatcherite worldview became even more dominant… It will take years or decades for the significance of 2020 to be fully understood. But we can be sure that, as an authentically global crisis, it is also a global turning point. There is a great deal of emotional, physical and financial pain in the immediate future. But a crisis of this scale will never be truly resolved until many of the fundamentals of our social and economic life have been remade.” // Recommended read: The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being (Davies 2016)

> Ivan Krastev: The coronavirus crisis will cause a strengthening of the big government, nationalism and anti-globalization, professionalism and expertise, big data authoritarianism, crisis management capacities, and intergenerational conflict. // Recommended read: The Light that Failed: Why the West is Losing the Fight for Democracy (Krastev and Holmes 2020)

deserted coronavirus new york

Deserted Manhattan, New York, March 27, 2020 (by John Eckstein @jfeckstein)

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The Probable Implications of the Coronavirus Crisis — Adam Tooze, Judith Butler, Radhika Desai

> Radhika Desai: “The present pandemic is certain to be different not because it is more lethal than previous ones (it is not), nor because it is causing havoc in financial markets (as most crises of neoliberal era have), but because it is exposing the weaknesses, distortions and imbalances of the productive apparatus that neoliberalism has shaped over four decades. Neoliberalism was supposed to reinvigorate capitalism, restore the ‘animal spirits’ allegedly dampened hitherto by the ‘dead hand of the state’. However, it never did that.”  // Recommended read: Geopolitical Economy: After US Hegemony, Globalization and Empire (Desai 2013)

> Adam Tooze: “It is once [we] have overcome that political, intellectual and existential hurdle… that economics enters back in. And it does so with a vengeance. […] The big idea of the 1990s that “the economy” will serve as a regulating superego of our politics is a busted flush. Given the experience of the past dozen years we should now never tire of asking: which economic constraints are real and which imagined?” // Recommended read: Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (Tooze 2018)

> Judith Butler: “The virus alone does not discriminate, but we humans surely do, formed and animated as we are by the interlocking  powers of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and capitalism.  It seems likely that we will come to see in the next year a painful scenario in which some human creatures assert their rights to live at the expense of others, re-inscribing the spurious distinction between grievable and ungrievable lives, that is, those who should be protected against death at all costs and those whose lives are considered not worth safeguarding against illness and death.” // Recommended read: The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political (Butler 2020)

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A person with a walker crosses a deserted Times Square, New York. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

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