Quiet failures

About the project

Margaret Thatcher Meets With Ronald Reagan In London In 1978Why do some policy failures lead to dramatic changes in economic theory and practice, while others are ignored or forgotten?

We don’t have to look back very far in time in order to find an example of a failure that turned out to be less politically salient than we might have expected. The 2008 global financial crisis began as a massive, highly public failure for contemporary neoliberal theory and practice. Yet a decade on, what is most striking is how little the very evident failures of neoliberalism have translated into meaningful changes. 

This project seeks to make sense of such “quiet failures” by looking back at the late 1970s and early 1980s, a moment in time that is often seen as a resounding success for neoliberal theory and practice—when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan swept into power and turned their back on decades of Keynesian orthodoxy with a series of dramatic and ruthless policies that put Friedman and Hayek’s ideas into practice. Monetarism, supply side economics and the rational expectations revolution turned economic theory and policy upside down. Or did they?

I’m join a growing chorus of scholars who have begun to question the tidiness of this particular historical narrative. My attention is on the little-discussed but incontestable failure of early efforts to put these three economic theories into practice.

To recapture the logic and significance of these unfailures, we need to shift our attention away from the politics of big “I” ideas—like Neoliberalism and Keynesianism—and focus instead on the more mundane practices and devices that key policymakers in the United States and United Kingdom used to try to transform their economies in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By doing so, we will begin to appreciate how fraught and contested the early days of neoliberalism were, and to recognize the complex politics of quiet economic failures both then and now.

Recent work on failure

This project is still very much a work in progress, and I have only just begun to publish some of my earliest findings, although I have published a blog post outlining some of my main arguments.

“Recovering the Mundane Practices of Economic Time,” Finance and Society. Vol. 4, No. 2, 2018, pp. 181-187. [Read]

I have also written on other kinds of failures in the past:

“Governing Development Failure,” Little Development Devices/Humanitarian Goods, Limn Issue 9, November 2017.

“When Crises are Failures: Contested Metrics in International Finance and Development,” International Political Sociology, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2016, pp. 39-55. [Read]

Governing Failure: Provisional Expertise and the Transformation of Global Development Finance. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

You can also find a popular synopsis of my earlier work on failure on the I-PEEL website.