Bargains at MFI

A couple of weeks ago I noticed, via Draw Breath, that there are plans afoot for a Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago, and that this has drawn criticism from some quarters, not least because of Friedman’s instrumental role in the establishment of the Pinochet regime in Chile, among other disasters.

He is a central character in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, whose central thesis I didn’t find too convincing, in that I sensed Friedman’s role -and that of his ‘Chicago Boys’ and others- in enforced capitalist disasters was overstated. Rather than constituting the inspiration behind radical free-market policies in Chile, Russia under Yeltsin and now in Iraq, which is the impression lent by the book, I think it’s more realistic to see them as something approaching expert legitimators.

Where you have large institutions, state or non-state, in a new-found and unprecedented position of power, it’s reasonable to expect that they will try to incorporate people who can help articulate how this power is to be exercised. But the point is not that, at this moment of unprecedented power, the institution is in an inert condition in which it can be influenced in any number of directions. Rather, it will only be influenced in terms of the interests of the people who exercise control over the institution in the first place. In the case of the Chicago-influenced projects Klein describes, I’m inclined to think that the people controlling the institutions concerned would already have been well disposed toward, say, the main points of Capitalism and Freedom, even if they hadn’t been exposed to them. As this piece on the Institute by Marshall Sahlins notes: ‘Not long before he was assassinated in Washington by Pinochet’s agents, Orlando Letelier, ambassador of the deposed Salvador Allende government, wrote that the Chicago Boys “convinced the generals that they were prepared to supplement the brutality which the military possessed, with the intellectual assets it lacked.”‘

Put differently, if we start from the assumption that the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, then it scarcely matters that it was disciples of the Chicago School in particular who, in the cases of Chile, Russia, Iraq and so on, gave an appearance of scientific rationality and disinterested endeavour to a set of actions which, from another vantage point, can be clearly seen as class war .

Sez Marx, in the German Ideology:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. For instance, in an age and in a country where royal power, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie are contending for mastery and where, therefore, mastery is shared, the doctrine of the separation of powers proves to be the dominant idea and is expressed as an “eternal law.”

For Marx, the matter is pretty clear: what appears as ‘eternal law’ is but an expression of the ideas of the ruling class. So if the ‘the role of markets in allocating goods and services’ appears as ‘essential’ in the founding proposal for the Milton Friedman Institute, it is because this is an ‘ideal expression of the dominant material relationships’. That is, of course prospective wealthy funders of the institute will view ‘markets’ as ‘essential’ to the allocation of goods and services, since they’re the principal beneficiaries of public policy enacted on this basis! According to this report, the ‘top 10% have 85% to 90% of stock, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and over 75% of non-home real estate. Since financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets, we can say that just 10% of the people own the United States of America.’

Back to the Sahlins piece. He denounces the idea of having a Milton Friedman Institute, because, among other things, it would be ‘the vanguard of an intellectual coup d’état in the academy of the same nature as the one the Chicago Boys helped pull off in Latin America’. Yet that imagines that the état in the academy, and the ideas produced therein, somehow exists at a remove from the dominant material relationships. This is a dubious proposition, to say the least. To give an indication of what the function of universities is for the ruling class, consider this letter, lobbying the Department of Defense for an increase in basic research funding for Defense Science and Technology Programs (S&T).

The organization sending the letter, the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, comprises ‘organizations from industry and academia, advocating increased federal support for research in the physical sciences and engineering’. Among these organizations, you have the Association of American Universities (members list here), as well as publicly traded companies such as Google, IBM, Intel, and Proctor and Gamble (recall, in considering in whose interests this task force might be operating, what I was saying earlier about how the ‘top 10% have 85% to 90% of stock, bonds, trust funds, and business equity’).

What it proposes is ‘significant increases’ to the FY2009 budget for these S&T programs, since these are ‘critical to meeting our future national security needs’. The signatories to the letter are the CEOs of Boeing, Intel, Batelle, Goodrich, American Defense Systems, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Orbital Sciences Corporation.

Sahlins is strongly critical of the Milton Friedman Institute because ‘it would not be intellectual diversity but academic perversity because it fundamentally subverts the disinterested pursuit and dissemination of knowledge for which universities were founded’ and ‘If we allow the university to be outsourced to extra-academic, partisan interests, it will become a money-based political economy of truth values.’

Yet most large US universities, as per the example above, already enter into alliances with huge corporations in pursuit of federal funding, in pursuit of projects which are clearly in extra-academic, partisan interests (unless you are inclined to argue, for instance, that ‘tomorrow’s warfighter having the technologies to face new dangers’ is an academic, non-partisan interest).

Most universities in their present state do not embody some sort of oasis of independent thought and disinterested knowledge: their pursuit of knowledge in many areas is conducted along lines that already coincide with ruling class interests (which have little to do with ‘markets’, by the way, as the lobbying for federal funding indicates) anyway. A Milton Friedman Institute isn’t going to make a whole pile of difference.

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3 Responses to “Bargains at MFI”


  1. 1 Donagh August 19, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    Brilliant. It seems Sahlins is imagining that within the ruling classes there is still a battle to be fought around which ideas should be allowed to dominate and he abhors the notion that the one that does reflects the material interests of that class as a whole. In fact he seems to be resisting seeing anything in terms of material interests.

    It is typical of the ‘liberal’, a branch of the ruling class so roundly castigated by Marx, that they would rather espouse dewy-eyed ideals, such as the one cited about the academy, rather than face the reality that whether they like it or not they are the beneficiaries of a system that if they were to be more realistic they’d find morally repugnant.

  2. 2 EWI August 19, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    A Milton Friedman Institute isn’t going to make a whole pile of difference.

    I disagree entirely. Those who likewise claimed that the US federal structure would survive the ultrapartisanship and fundamentalisms of the Bush years are very quiet after eight years of deliberate inaction where gutting couldn’t be carried out, and wholesale filling of civil service jobs by shining examples of the GOP base who had no particular qualification, and who will be impossible to dislodge.

    Imagine, for instance, if SPIRe in UCD were an ideologically-rightwing (rather than ostensibly disinterested in partisanship) home where young, budding homegrown Irish wingnuts without any particular academic qualities could start to shimmy up the ladder to ‘respectability’ and appearances in the media as ‘experts’.

  3. 3 Hugh Green August 20, 2008 at 8:53 am

    But EWI, whatever the changes to the federal structure, to say that the MFI will make some significant difference means at the very least that the wealthy would not find some other outlet to produce studies that by amazing coincidence demonstrate that tax cuts for the wealthy are good, everything should be privatised, and so on. But the possibilities in this domain -given the extent to which universities are dominated by business interests anyway- are endless.

    OK, so MFI@Chicago has a certain name-brand cachet to it, but unlike certain other institutions of a particularly pronounced ideological inclination, it probably would demand some sort of intellectual rigour of its alumni: the ability to do hard sums and so forth. Not that that would necessarily make it a good thing, but I don’t think your hypothetical comparison with SPIRe holds here. And anyway, the Department of Economics at the University of Chicago is already an ideologically-rightwing home for the study of economics, and has been for quite some time. We’re not talking about some radical new direction being taken here.


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