Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire: Exxon, Neoliberalism, and the Climate Crisis


After investigations by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times showed ExxonMobil’s own scientists recognized the risks of burning fossil fuels in the 1980s., the company faced harsh criticism even from some shareholders as well as possible legal action. Yet remarkably even in the face of these revelations Exxon continues to fund climate science denial. Recent recipients include such stalwart denialists as the American Enterprise Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)

My initial reaction to this story was the famous Upton Sinclair line: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” But there is much more than simple greed in Exxon’s actions.

Understanding the broader context of Exxon’s malfeasance is one clue to a more complete recognition of the harm it has inflicted. Exxon’s early climate science denialism took place within an emerging neoliberal rejection of the New Deal and post World War II capitalism.

Among other changes, emergent neoliberal capitalism altered earlier notions of corporate responsibility and not only restored but deepened and extended faith in the market. As always, Milton Friedman provided the baldest defense of this position: “The businessmen believe that they are defending free en­terprise when they declaim that business is not concerned ‘merely’ with profit but also with promoting desirable ‘social’ ends; that business has a ‘social conscience’ and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing em­ployment, eliminating discrimination, avoid­ing pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of re­formers. In fact they are–or would be if they or anyone else took them seriously–preach­ing pure and unadulterated socialism. Busi­nessmen who talk this way are unwitting pup­pets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.”

Friedman himself reflects and helped develop a view of the market that goes beyond even Adam Smith. Smith saw markets as instruments for the allocation of physical goods. Neoliberals up the ante. Markets are viewed as perfect self-organizing systems and ideal information processors, able to solve an indefinite range of social problems.

As one neoliberal advocate puts it, “markets are superb mechanisms for the delivery of information, as they capture a huge array of information and make it available in a single price … Even unknown unknowns are quickly revealed in market prices.”

What conventional moralists might regard as lies are perfectly okay. They represent the interest of one market participant and are fully balanced by other interests in the marketplace of ideas. Furthermore, as both Johns Hopkins political theorist William Connolly and Notre Dame historian of economics Philip Mirowski point out, modern neoliberalism differs from its classical predecessor in acknowledging that markets do not emerge spontaneously. They must be imposed. Toward this end, neoliberals develop an exoteric version of their worldview for public consumption while articulating an esoteric version among themselves.

That markets can serve as information processors in certain domains and time frames does not establish their universal validity. Markets are not the only self-organizing systems in our universe, and, as Connolly puts it, economic markets are “more fragile, interdependent, and volatile than their most fervent supporters imagine.” Their evolution can just as easily lead to system threatening crashes as to a higher rationality. Models based on this ideal failed to anticipate even the possibility of a market crash, let alone its timing.

I will provide a more complete discussion of the harms of neoliberalism and some possible progressive responses in my next column.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age" (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2016

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