Book Notes: Cornel Ban’s Ruling Ideas

What a great book, my friends. I can’t recommend strongly enough because it’s rare that a book on economic history is written in such a clear, jargon-free style that a non-specialist can understand and enjoy.

Ruling Ideas: How Global Neoliberalism Goes Local traces the development of neoliberalism in two countries that were ruled by authoritarian regimes in the twentieth century, Spain and Romania. These countries achieved democracy after their authoritarian regimes couldn’t be sustained any more and both neoliberalized. This happened at different times, obviously, and different forms of neoliberalism were implemented.

I found absolutely fascinating the discussion of how, in spite of the autarchy, Franco put no limits on how freely different economic ideas were debated. By the mid-1960, pretty much everything that Marx and Engels ever wrote got published in Spain, let alone the anti-Keynesian stuff of the nascent neoliberal theory. And contrary to a widespread opinion, the technocrats were developmentalist, not neoliberal.

Franco himself was, of course, not neoliberal. But he did nothing to prevent these ideas from becoming very popular among establishment economists either. In Romania things were different. The ideological control was real and hardcore. As a result, when neoliberalism finally came (as it did everywhere), adapting it to local needs and specifics was a lot harder for Romanians than for Spaniards.

There’s a lot more fascinating stuff like this. The most important takeaway is that neoliberalism is extremely flexible. Extremely! Got it? This means that we don’t have to live with the ugly, nasty version of it that’s been shaping up since 2008. It has gigantically good parts, and we can keep those while throwing away the garbage ones, such as the incessant woke screeching of Twitter and Nike. (This isn’t in Ban’s book. It’s my attempt to improve upon his analysis).

In short, great book. Reads like a detective novel. Not overburdened with footnotes, and most importantly, the author blissfully keeps value judgments and political manifestos to himself.

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